Tuesday, August 19, 2008

OOS: Return to Clambake Nation

Above: A rendering of the culinary nations of North America. Modern political borders are shown in white. Note that culinary nation borders are in a constant state of change, and that many of these nations overlap one another. Also note that smaller microstates exist within these greater areas (e.g., The Scrapple Republic of the Greater Philadelphia Metro and the Lebanon Bologna & Peanut Butter Free State of South Central Pennsylvania, to name just two), resulting in a patois of flavors and experiences, even in areas that are firmly within some larger nation. This graphic was originally produced for an article in the New York Times.

Imagine yourself in the rural, rolling hills of northern Lancaster county Pennsylvania. This is an area of traditional, small holding farmers and traditional small towns, and those hills that will give way to the blue ridges of the Appalachians to the west. It is a wholly bucolic place, but it is also a land of great conflict and difference. This is because northern Lancaster county happens to be the confluence of four different nations, each with its own tastes and traditions. From the North and West, Maple Syrup nation, sparsely represented but a real presence, following the rhythm of the seasons as they collect and process their harvest. From the South and West, Chestnut Nation, a mysterious gathering, who do battle with squirrels to collect the bounty of the mighty oak. To the South, stretching from the Chesapeake down the coast, Crabcake nation: a boisterous, welcoming people; well versed in the ways of the scuttling sea bugs, often as willing to eat a softshell on a bun as to go to the trouble of making a crabcake. These people are beer drinkers, boat sailors, friends, and neighbors. And from the east and north, the Clambake Nation. These are our people: our nation, our heritage, our tradition. We gather together to build fires and steam clams, to eat the best sweet corn on the planet, to consume mountains of cole slaw and piles of fresh tomatoes, and to - when it has all been eaten - follow it with a chaser of the butter we soaked our clams in during the meal.

These nations are not fixed, not separated by trenches or walls - no, the national borders are fluid, and as such a Clambaker could live next to a Maple Syrupian, an Chestnutter next to a Crabcaki. There are even some blended families; though for obvious reasons the sea-based nations are more likely to intermarry with one another than with a sylvan nation, and vice versa.

Now, while many of us are born into these nations, in the end nationality is an affiliation of choice. Some choose not to be a member of any one of them, preferring instead to enjoy them as we pick and choose. Some are members of tiny subnations, limited to a town or metro areas. Others gradually switch from one to another as time passes. And still others find themselves orphaned, and so they join a new nation, taking the traditions and tastes of others as their own.

This last way is how Jacob's family came to be proud citizens of the Clambake Nation. It was during the second world war, and due to a chronic health problem, Jacob's grandfather was unable to enlist. He was able to complete his patriotic duty building B-26's in Baltimore, however, and during this time he developed a taste for clams. Why he chose clams and not crabcakes is lost to history (though we suspect that the generous use of butter in clam eating had something to do with it), but no matter how it happened, to this day we annually gather from all points of the country to eat ungodly numbers of bivalves and renew our family ties once more.

Loyal readers know that we feel very strongly about food and fellowship. This is a core belief for both of us. For Jacob, this belief comes from many sources, but the annual gathering that his family refers to simply as "The Bake" is perhaps the primary font from which this passion flows. So today we're sharing a few moments from it with you, because as important as working through Chef Picard's opus is to us, at the end of the day this is how WE do it.

This is Pennsylvania, so we don't mis en place: we fill up our steamer. We start empty, adding a wooden bracket that keeps the food off the bottom of the steamer (and out of the water). Then we add potatoes, right out of the garden this morning:

Clambake: Step 1

And follow that with onions, from a roadside stand nearby:

Clambake, Step 2

Now, cover these sturdy things with a few layers of corn picked this morning:

Clambake, Step 3

Until the steamer is nearly filled:

Clambake, Step 3.5

Then, top it all off with about 12 quarts of clams:

Clambake, Final Step

And spread to even them out:

Clambake Finalization

Now, we add about 12 quarts of water, cover, and take to the firepit, which as been burning for some time now:

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While this is all steaming, we take the opportunity to melt a wee bit (about a gallon) of locally made butter:

A wee bit of butter

And to prepare side dishes (tomatoes, salads, cole slaw, and the like) for the onslaught.

After an hour or so over the fire (about halfway through we add brats to the mix), everything's ready so out they all come:

Coming out of the Bakery

Now we make sure to have the right beverage and "sauce" on hand:

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And then, we assemble our plates from the platters of goodness:

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And that, friends, is all there is to it. When everything turns out well (which everything did this year, and does most years) you end up with an orgy of flavors, freshness, and joy. The buttery goodness of the clams, the sweet pop of the corn, the tomatoes that have more to them than anything you'll find in the store, and a flood of other flavors and foods... and this year, the vegetable soup that starts the day's eating correctly (way to go Constance!).

Note to selves: Eat more clams.

Time, mis to eat: No real mis here. Time over the fire was about an hour; but there was a substantial amount of prep and harvest beforehand.

Blast from the past: A little more about him and her, in case you need context.

Next up: Tomato sauce! (Honest.)

P.S.: Special thanks to the entire Hagy clan for another wonderful, well-worth-the-trip, Clambake. See you in 2009!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Mission: Monster Lobster

Consider the lobster: a primordial creature, scuttling along the bottom of the sea, constantly on the lookout for prey (or other lobsters), the proud carrier of some 100,000 neurons or so, unburdened by anything resembling a brain: essentially a giant, primitive bug.

The lobster, it is safe to say, has no inner life. It moves about, attracted by whatever it is that attracts lobsters, and eventually finds its way into a trap. The trapped lobster is tossed into a hold, transported to your area, and dunked in another tank with a bunch of other lobsters. At the market, some of those lobsters snooze. Some of them "fight." And some just scuttle around. But one of them eventually ends up on the scale, ready to come home with you, just so:

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(Now this recipe is called "Monster Lobster," and in the book Chef Picard uses a 5 lb bruiser for his work. After due consideration we decided to go with a smaller specimen - about 1 1/3 lbs - instead. Neither of us have much experience cooking these little fellows but we have heard that larger lobsters are often rather tough; and beyond that (and more importantly, frankly) 5 lb lobsters do not seem to exist for sale in Northern California. So we compromised. Seeing that (spoiler alert!) we were stuffed after eating this size, we think it was the right decision.)

Back to business. Quare: What goes well with lobster? Butter, or even better, hollandaise! So while our friend the lobster - Valentino Metallica is what we named him - enjoys the confines of a cardboard box inside our fridge, we got to building the sauce. Now: there is some dispute on the proper hollandaise base. Tradition, and Chef Picard, use clarified butter. But Jacques Pepin (in Complete Techniques) uses simply melted butter, which while waterier does produce a sauce (he says) that is more heat tolerant and less likely to break. (Faithful readers will remember that we do have a problem with breaking sauces in our kitchen.) We went with tradition on this one - because we TICP, and because Jacob wanted to make a "proper" hollandaise, and because... well, it is Chef Picard's recipe, not ours, eh?

So first we clarify:

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Over low heat for a bit, until everything is melted, and then we skim to see this:

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It was in focus in real life, we promise. From here, we have a brief pause for a "meez:"

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Again with the focus! Well, it had been a long day, we suppose. Anyway, from this point we take our fabulous new ball whisk and bust on it 'til white meat shows:

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Then, when done, we put it into a vessel and kept it warm.

Now, while Jacob has been furiously working his sauce thang in the hot, hot kitchen, Valentino Metallica has been chilling (as it were) in the cool, cool fridge. He's had quite a life, but now it's about time for him to sacrifice himself for the good of the order. So after a pep talk from our mascot:

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And our dog:

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Into the steamer he went. Being a lobster, he felt nothing; but he did turn a wonderful shade of red after the appropriate time:

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Meanwhile, we had steamed some asparagus. At this point we were ready to take the tomalley from the thorax and mix it up with some of the hollandaise (so we did that). Next we removed the tail meat and filled the tail up with hollandaise and then replaced the meat. Then we drizzled some hollandaise-tomalley over the shell, put some potatoes down along with the rest of the asparagus, and stuck it in the broiler for a moment. Then out it came:

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And then into our bellies.

Now a few words about this meal. Actually, just one: RICH. As if we should be surprised, right? But really: RICH. Whoa. Boy. As we mentioned - what you see plated here was more than enough for the two of us. And we had had a long and busy day and were hungry, so that should tell you something.

Other things: as mentioned, this was Jacob's first time making a hollandaise, and he was very pleased at how it turned out (and how not-difficult it was). Sure, we've made bechamel, we've made aioli, we've made mayonnaise; but there's something intimidating about hollandaise (and that something is called the bain-marie, and the resplendent warnings to closely watch temperature so the egg yolks don't scramble while you're making the sauce) and something very satisfying about making a darn good one. Which this one was. (Sorry, Chef Pepin: we won't be trying your version for awhile, at least.)

The tomalley-hollandaise was... like lobster flavored hollandaise. Neither of us had had tomalley before (Jacob had always heard that people ate it, but never knew anyone who actually did, and Melissa was unfamiliar with it) and we were a little put off by it; but it was quite nice.

The dish on the whole, aside from being RICH (did I mention this was a RICH dish?), was very good. Definitely excellent overall; the asparagus played very well with the lobster and hollandaise; giving an excellent base flavor for the others to take off from.

Note to selves: Why are lobsters so expensive? Is that they must be kept alive and in a controlled environment during transport? Or is it prestige? Or what? Also, if they're so expensive, then why did the lobster fishing version of Deadliest Catch fail to be even slightly interesting? Couldn't they afford writers at these prices?

Time, mis to eat: Well, we didn't have a formal mis this week - except for the hollandaise. So let's say about 75 minutes, including steaming times.

Next Up: Tomato sauce. Using 30 lbs of tomatoes from the farmer's market. Yeah, you heard us.

Blast from the past: Watching a sauce break is like watching a car wreck in slow motion.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Rock on Pork!

In case you were wondering... THIS is how we feel about pork! Rock on, pork!!! Rock out with your trot(ter) out!



We'll see you soon, little piglet... in the KITCHEN.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Mission: Fish & Chips

It's August already, again; it's the height of summer. You can tell because it's typically grey and brisk here in SF - while the rest of the country doubtless bakes, we wear heavy clothes and hats, because... well, I'm not going to say it's cold. No, not compared to other places. Not compared to Montreal, certainly. But it is not short weather. That's for sure.

So what do you do when it gets chilly in the middle of the summer? You turn inward - which for us means you head to the kitchen and start making stuff. That's our big mutual hobby - spending time in the kitchen, collaborating on food, keeping each other company, automatically switching roles from chef de cuisine to sous chef and back. Melissa always says that she was never able to share a kitchen until she started cooking with Jacob. Jacob similarly never allowed "help" when he was making food until he started working with Melissa. Neither of us had much interest in doing so - having encountered many well meaning but clumsy or inattentive or easily flustered "helpers" in the past.

We've been making food together for just under five years now, and at this point we talk very little about the tasks at hand - unless it is a fiendishly complicated recipe (as some of these have been - we're talking about you, lamb shank confit) we are able to split the work wordlessly and talk about other things that strike our fancy, or entertain our (safely isolated and out of the workspace) guests with whatever gabble we can come up with. We have far too good a time in the kitchen. We laugh a lot. We drink a lot. We visit a lot. For that hour or so, we and whoever's watching us (just watching - we don't take help!) are completely in the moment. Which is where you're supposed to be, right?

That actually is the point. Sure, right, you gotta eat. And we wouldn't do this if the food didn't taste good. And yeah, okay, we do like sharing it and seeing that people from all over the world are spending time with us (we do welcome your comments, by the way). But really the reason we keep doing this week on week is because it's a hell of a lot of fun to spend time with friends and family this way; even when things aren't going as well as they should in the kitchen or in their lives or in ours. That's fellowship, and there are few things better to share than that.

You know what else is good to share? Deep fried things. Let's get to cooking, huh?

Mis! En! Place!

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So, this week we're doing fish and chips with two batters: a scotch batter which uses stout (Guinness) and baking powder, and a blond batter that uses a pale ale (Anchor Liberty) and what seems like an outrageous amount of yeast (seriously). The fish, which is wrapped nicely in the paper there, is halibut; as called for directly in the recipe. We started with about 1.75 pounds of it.

So, first we mixed up one batter, and then the other, and then we put them aside for a while:

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These both doubled in size. Yes - that's a LOT of batter. Meanwhile we had peeled and cut the potatoes, and soaked them for an hour. (Chef Picard leaves the reader to their own devices when it comes to making the chips - so we followed the excellent recipe in America's Test Kitchen Best Recipe) Then we put them in for the first fry, and drained them:

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Then, we turned to the fish:

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Which we sliced into strips, and salted them, just so:

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Then we battered two ways. First we tried the blond batter:

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And within moments all we had left was this:

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So much for plating, eh? (Oh, that's the tartar sauce we made in the background. It was good too.) Okay, okay, we did plate. Blonde batter is on the bottom, scotch on the top:

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This was fantastic overall, though the blonde battered fish was the consensus favorite. Its was much lighter than the stout based batter, flakier, and tastier overall. The fish was perfectly cooked with a three minute dunk (that's what quality deep fryers get you, I suppose) and the chips were great as well (thanks, ATK). All in all this was an extremely easy dish, one that allowed us to do some serious visiting with our good friend who came over to help us wolf it down.

Note to selves: Next time we will skip the stout batter and just go with the blonde batter. Sorry, stout: you're better for drinking than you are for making fish batter.

Time, mis to eat: All told, about 90 minutes - half of which was spent waiting for the batter to rise.

Next up: Unclear! We're still kinda in fry heaven right now.

Blast from the past: Fiendishly complicated? Fiendishly good is more like it.