Archive for January, 2008

Rodents as Food

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

Rodents are a classification of mammal that, on the surface, don’t sound appetizing as a food source.  But, if you think about it, examples of rodentphagia aren’t all that unusual.  I enjoy a bit of rabbit every now and again.  In New Orleans, I used to hear about people eating nutria, though i never had the chance to try any.  Dormice were popular during Roman times and are still eaten in Slovenia today.  My dad’s college roommate used to get weekly deliveries of squirrel brain sandwiches from his family (okay, so that one is a bit odd).

I’ve been reading an almanac of food trivia lately (Schott’s Food & Drink Miscellany), and mention of porcupine (said to taste like suckling pig or fowl) and beaver (said to taste like pork) as food sources got me thinking about how wide-ranging of a habit eating rodents might be.

A brief bit of internet research turned up a very informative article on “Rodents as Food Source” from the Proceedings of the Fourteenth Vertebrate Pest Conference in 1990.  It turns out that rodentphagia is a much more widely spread phenomenon than I had ever imagined.


The History of Carrots

Monday, January 21st, 2008

My sister-in-law’s sister-in-law sent me this link back before Christmas and somehow it got lost in my email until this week, but the information contained within is fascinating: how carrots were transformed through selective breeding from being a small, bitter, black, or yellow root prized mostly for its leaves and flowers to being the large, sweet, orange root from which the leaves and flowers are almost always discarded. And, surprisingly, the orange color that we all associate with a carrot is a fairly recent development: a political machination by the Dutch in the 16th Century, to support the current king, William of the House of Orange.

The history is broken into three parts: pre-200 AD; 200-1800 AD; and 1800 to present. It makes for fascinating, extensive reading—but there’s no reason to try to hammer through the entire history of the carrot in one sitting. I recommend breaking it up into 3-6 chunks and making an effort to flip back to it whenever you have a few minutes to kill.

And, for info on the easiest way to dice carrots, visit

Nine on Nine

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

Last night, I enjoyed perhaps the best meal I’ve eaten in Pittsburgh. I probably shouldn’t be surprised by that, as the restaurant where I was eating, Nine on Nine (corner of Ninth and Penn, downtown), was named Pittsburgh Magazine’s Best Restaurant of 2007.

The restaurant’s format allows diners a chance to sample from each of three menus. Three courses will cost you $45; six will cost $78. Each course is plated in an artistic style, in an arrangement that complements the shape of the platter it is served on. The courses are Amuse bouche, Second, and Third.


King Corn at Harris Theater This Week

Monday, January 14th, 2008

Hey, Pittsburghers! Get out to the Harris Theater (Downtown, 9th and Liberty) this week to see King Corn, a very entertaining & educational film about how corn is grown, subsidized, and used. A couple of recent college graduates set out from New England for Iowa, where they rent one acre of farmland for a lesson of economics, environment, and nutrition in action as they raise corn and track the process from farm to… just about everywhere.

Show times: Mon (today, 1/14)–Wed (1/16): 7:30 PM; Thurs (1/17): 5:30 & 7:30

A Book I’ve Been Reading

Friday, January 11th, 2008

I’m almost done with a book I got for Christmas, The United States of Arugula, by David Kamp, which, in short, is a history of celebrity chefdom in America, beginning with Julia Child, James Beard, and Craig Claiborne (though Craig was only a writer who worked closely with a chef by the name of Pierre Franey who didn’t get a byline in any article for years, despite the fact that he was the force behind the food), and I’ve just gotten to Emeril.  It turns out that Emeril’s big break was creating a special for Commander’s Palace that incorporated lamb.

I’m somewhat surprised by that—for me, lamb is a no-brainer: one of the few meats that really incorporates its own flavor anymore (what with factory-minded agricultural methods robbing most other meats of their identities)—I find a great deal of pleasure in most lamb preparations.  The Brennans (owners of Commander’s Palace) apparently didn’t agree with me on the subject before Emeril changed their minds.

“‘I went to Ella Brennan and said, “Have you ever run lamb here?” and she said, “It’s impossible, it’ll never sell—New Orleanians hate lamb,”‘ Lagasse says.  ‘So I asked her to at least let me try it as a special: rack of lamb with Creole mustard crust, apple mint relish, and rosemary mashed potatoes.  And we sold out the first night.  I ran it again the following week, and it sold out again.  A couple of weeks go by and I’ve got Ella coming to me saying, “You know, Dick [Brennan] and I decide we’re gonna give you the right-hand side of the menu.  Be creative but don’t be out there.”‘” [page 302]

I’m extremely surprised that the dish that gave Emeril his big break was so straightforward.  I mean, when you think about it, apple mint relish isn’t so far flung from mint flavored apple jelly, the classic accompaniment to lamb dishes (one of my favorite Simpsons quotes comes from Grandpa Abe who in one episode says, “Call me mint jelly ’cause I’m on the lam!”); and a mustard crust on lamb rack is one of the most played-out ways that any continental cuisine restaurant serves the damned thing.  Though, I suppose played out in 2007 indicates that it was new and different twenty-odd years ago when Lagasse was the chef at Commander’s.

What I’ve really enjoyed about the book, though, is discovering the pedigree behind some of my most cherished food beliefs: how fresh and local snowballed out of being a mantra for a very small number of knowledgeable individuals into a rallying cry for people across the country; the development from Julia Child helping home cooks across the country discover their inner gourmet to 24/7 food programming on a dedicated cable channel.  Though the USA is admittedly a late arrival on the world gourmet stage, it’s fascinating to see how (and how quickly) we’ve graduated from jello molds with various scary inclusions to rack of lamb with creole mustard, etc.

Kamp’s history of the Untied States’ culinary pedigree is a fascinating read that clued me in to the indirect influences of many great culinary thinkers with whom I hadn’t previously been familiar have had on the way I perceive the world of food and the culinary landscape of America.

The Joy of Stock

Tuesday, January 8th, 2008

No, this hasn’t all of a sudden become a financial page. I’m talking about homemade stocks made by boiling bones and vegetables to extract the flavor and straining through a sieve. Or, in a more nouveau sense, boiling vegetables alone for a much shorter time to extract the flavor and then straining through the sieve. The actual real deal of broths, so much better than what comes in a can or a box (or a cube) from the grocery store.

I save my carcasses in the freezer. One carcass isn’t enough to make a decent pot of stock, I think; might as well save it until I have some more. And then, when I have enough, I’ll often look at them and think, I just don’t have the time to deal with them right now; I’ll do it later.

I finally gave myself a proverbial kick in the pants over the weekend and used my beef and lamb bones to make the tastiest stock de viande I’ve had since…the last time I made my own stock. The truth of the matter is, it’s an easy process: cover bones with cold water, bring to boil, drain and rinse, add vegetables, cover with cold water, bring to boil, let simmer for hours, drain [or conversely, cover vegetables with cold water. Bring to boil, let simmer 45 minutes and drain].

While the stock is simmering, you don’t need to pay any attention to it. You can clean the house, watch tv, go to the store and run some errands, or even sleep! Heck, I did a combination of the above activities while my beef bones were boiling.

The real joy of making your own stock comes after it has cooled, when you pick up the container and you notice that the liquid inside doesn’t flow like water: it has gelled up due to the naturally occurring gelatin in the bones you’ve used. That’s a sign of a well-made stock. For an even more intense flavor (and greater gel effect), reduce your resulting stock until it coats the back of a spoon that you use to stir it (50-75% reduction). Be careful not to scorch the stock while you;re reducing it, or it will get bitter; but properly done over very low heat, you will get glace de viande, or in nouveau terms a beef stock reduction sauce. It is the essence of the hearty beefy flavor,and a small amount drizzled over steak or perogies makes an intense impact on your palate.

So, want the the skinny on making your own stock? Keep reading for semi-exact instructions on what to do. If you want clarification on any of my instructions, don’t hesitate to ask.


Avocado & Smoked Salmon Crostini With Dill & Caper Cream Cheese

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2008

Crostini is a northern Italian appetizer consisting of toasted bread topped with any variety of toppings. This particular crostini is something that I made twice over the holidays but neglected both times to photograph. Let me assure you, though, that they are as easy to prepare as they are succulently delicious.

Avocado & Smoked Salmon Crostini with Dill & Caper Cream Cheese

Slice bread thinly. Ideally, you’ll be using a foccacia loaf; but a baguette will work okay, too. Any way about it, try to size your bread slices to the approximate size of an avocado slice. Arrange the bread on a cookie sheet and toast in the oven for about 8-10 minutes at 375F, but keep an eye on the bread as it approaches the time mark because ovens vary in how they heat things, and if yours is running just a bit hot, that can make a difference in how toasty your bread is—especially if you’ve sliced it very thin. (likewise, if your oven is running cool or your bread is a bit thicker, you may find it takes just a couple of minutes longer).

While the bread is toasting, prepare the cream cheese. Whip 1 (8 oz) block of cream cheese with 1 tablespoon each dill and capers. Add about 1/4 cup sour cream to thin the consistency a bit, if you like. This will make it easier to pipe onto the crostini when they’re finished, but will also make it less likely that your piped topping will hold its exact shape.

When the bread is toasted, remove from the oven and let cool. Top each piece with a slice of avocado and a thin piece of smoked salmon, then pipe a thin line of cream cheese on the top. If you don’t have a pastry bag, put the topping into a plastic bag and snip off one corner of the bag and use it to apply the cream cheese topping. This is really the easiest way to apply the cream cheese; but if you don’t want to use a pastry bag, you could just as easily spread a thin layer onto the toast and then put the avocado and salmon on top of that.

Slice the avocado as close to service as possible so that it doesn’t turn brown. keep cold until service. If desired, finish by putting a caper or three atop each piped topping.