Desert Island Seafood Stew

Click here and jump to the recipe if you're in that much of a hurry

Not to overwork the usual tired conceit employed by all imagination-starved editors and writers doomed to fill that day’s quota of prose for an impending edition—I don’t, after all, have any real deadlines but the self-imposed kind—but this particular “assignment” has a particular pertinence. My favorite sort of food, the sort I would want to relinquish last in one of those reflexive, and frankly silly if you ask me, thought experiments when forced to admit it, is seafood. I would eschew all avian and mammalian flesh, but please, give me fish any day.

If ever in the unlikely event I were stranded on a desert island, with nought but a pot and decent four-burner range, not to mention a small vegetable plot to supply the ancillary ingredients, and finally some fortuitously provisioned selected alcoholic decoctions, I could go a long way dining on a dish that has a certain universalized ubiquity. I am not a sufficiently well-versed, never mind properly schooled, culinarian as to know the full extent of the global variants, but I’d daresay that nearly every culture advanced enough to have what can accurately be termed a cuisine in any venue that has an oceanic border could be relied upon, without too much scholarly effort, to reveal at least one signature dish, consisting of a soup or broth festooned chiefly with fish of either or both the finny and shelled species, and variously accompanied by a generous, if not only merely a token, array of vegetal tidbits.

One of my favorite parts of the world is in France, and more specifically the southern bit known univerally as Provence—likely among the top ten destinations for a sojourn of whatever length. Not the least among the reasons for my druthers in those climes is the native cuisine. It’s at the basis for the now famous, though by now more establishmentarian than trendy, Mediterranean diet.

This particular stew, which I have termed a “marmite de la mer” naming it, as are so many dishes that are eponymously designated after the cooking utensil in which they are prepared, like the gratin and the paella. These are among a slew of other favorites of mine, which slot easily into this highly digestible, incredibly healthy regimen named after that sea that constitutes the oceanic basin that sits at the heart of the intercontinental ring of enchanted lands (each with its own distinctive and delicious cuisine) ranging from Morocco, and along the northern coast of Africa, to the bits of Asia that reach eastward with a kind of longing for the sea. How many of us regularly stop to consider that Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey are as steeped in brine as any New England state (but Vermont, the land-locked one; don’t ever accept an offer for a “genuine” seafood stew while basking in the beauty of the Green Mountains)? And then following around the eastern rim of the Mediterranean sea to encompass the glory of possibly innumerable modifications of the humble fisherman’s meal at the heart of this recipe of mine, and so many others—and who, after all, would want to choose a “best,” that other imagination-starved conceit of failing editorial sensibilities. Not from Greece, or Italy, never mind France and Spain, and yes, I’ve skipped a host of countries with their own versions of seafood delights, because technically they are on the Adriatic.

This stew of mine is reminiscent, as it says in the notes that follow this recipe, of Italian, more specifically, Ligurian, and French riviera antecedents, with a touch of San Francisco, by virtue of being cousin to the Genoese and Calabrese, who make a stew that is the likely origin of cioppino (of which this marmite of mine is not an exemplum).

I’ve skimped on the vegetables (though carrots, potatoes, and fennel stalks parboiled to tender, for example, before being added, are easy accouterments), and it’s a fish stock, not a tomato. And I’ve used saffron and pastis in the flavoring to make this solidly and unmistakably Provençal, pointing slightly west, while the rest of the dish points east to the Riviera.

Print
Marmite de la Mer (Seafood Stew), with toasts and rouille
Prep Time
1 hrs
Cook Time
45 mins
Total Time
1 hrs 45 mins
 
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: Mediterranean
Servings: 4 people
Calories: 630 kcal
Ingredients
Seafood broth and fish
  • 1 cup carrots : chopped
  • 1 cup fennel : trimmed and decored, chopped : trim the stalks, and core the bulb
  • 1 cup yellow onion : chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic : skinned and chopped
  • 1 quart fish fumet (fish stock) : made from fish frames and heads, available from fish mongers, usually frozen
  • 1 quart filtered water
  • 1 bouquet seafood bouquet garni : rough chopped fresh parsley, tarragon, dill, and a large bay leaf, wrapped in cheesecloth and tied
  • sea salt : to taste
  • fresh ground black pepper : to taste
  • 1 tbsp Tomato Paste : use the double-concentrated sort, usually available in tubes
  • 1 pinch saffron threads : this could be anywhere from 1/4 to 1/2 a teaspoon depending on how loose
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 tbsp pastis : 2+1 tablespoons for different stages of the broth preparation; use any national brand, e.g., Pernod or Ricard
  • 1/2 lb white fleshed fresh non-oily ocean fish, halibut : see fish note
  • 1/2 lb white fleshed fresh non-oily ocean fish, black cod : see fish note
  • 1/2 lb white fleshed fresh non-oily ocean fish, swordfish : see fish note
  • 1/2 lb fresh or previously frozen wild-caught shrimp, shell on : see fish note
  • 1/2 lb fresh or previously frozen, squid : with tentacles if available
  • 3 each plum tomatoes : very ripe, cored and roughly chopped : optionally skinned and seeded
Rouille
  • 3 cloves garlic : roughly chopped
  • 1 pinch sea salt
  • 1/2-1 tbsp harissa seasoning : dry, ground spices
  • 1/2-1 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 yolk large egg : separated, do this ahead of time and set aside in a glass or cup
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil : use a finer grade, as this will be ingested in its natural state as part of the sauce on the toasts
Toasts
  • 1 loaf fresh baked baguette
Instructions
Prepare the toasts
  1. As there are no carbohydrates added to the stew (which is a hint to give you some ideas about adding your favorite, say a pasta like orzo, or a grain, like barley or farro... but these are discussed under options and supplements) I like serving it with a borrowing from one of my favorite soups in the world. Soupe de poissons is a meal in itself (and requires about as much preparation) served in a bowl, and with some ritualistic accompaniments. For this more delicate stew, I suggest serving only the toasts made from fresh baguette, smeared with a generous helping of the rouille.

  2. The preparation is simple and should be done just prior to cooking the stew itself in earnest, between the prep work on the vegetables and beginning to make the mirepoix. Cut off the pointed or rounded end of the baguette (the shape will vary depending on the baker) and then cut at least two slices of about ¾" each for each diner. Cut these on an extreme bias (let's say about 30-40°) to maximize the surface area, creating long ovals.

    The most efficient way to toast these baguette slices is probably in a toaster-oven set to toast both sides at once to the lightest shade of brown. Once all the toasts are done, set them aside in the bowl or on the plate on which you serve them at table beside the stew.

    Also see the suggestions for further research for a brief discussion about serving bread and toast with some of the variants of this dish, as they are prepared and served in Italy and in San Francisco.

Prepare the Broth
  1. Begin with the mirepoix. This is prepared in the same marmite (covered casserole that can be used on the stovetop; one tradition is that it is made of enameled cast iron, which is what I use) in which you will prepare first the broth, and then the finished dish. Not being a fan of additional cleanup, and because the pans I use are quite handsome as well as functional, this can also serve as the serving dish on the table.

    One thing the experienced cook will notice about this mirepoix is that the mix of aromatics has been altered from the classic combination of onions, celery, carrots, and the proportions have been made equal, instead of 2:1:1 of onions to the other two vegetables. I've also added garlic. I've substituted (I prefer to think of it as elevated) fennel as the preferred member of the Apiacaea family (related to the carrot), and more deserving of the designation of aromatic, and most of all being a paradigm of the Mediterranean palette of vegetables, especially well utilized in the cuisine of Italy, just next door to the côte d'azur of France. The characteristic anise top notes of fennel are complemented and enhanced in this recipe with the addition of a shot or two of pastis, the French national drink, and the favorite aperitif in Nice and neighboring Provence.

  2. Start the marmite on medium heat, and add two tablespoons of EVOO. Heat gently until the oil starts to shimmer, and add the onions, fennel, and carrots in any order. Salt and pepper the vegetables and stir occasionally for about a minute. Add the chopped garlic, and stir further.

    Stir occasionally, and adjust the heat, usually downward, so the vegetables are cooking slowly, but not coloring in any way. When they begin to soften, lower the heat to low, and cover the marmite.

    Check the Marmite occasionally, and stir the mirepoix. The mixture should soften slowly, but progressively. Keep it covered while it cooks, in between checking and stirring. When bits of carrot have softened noticeably under pressure from your stirring utensil, raise the heat under the marmite slightly to low-medium. Add the tablespoon of tomato paste and stir thoroughly. Cook an additional minute or two to blend and begin to cook the tomato paste.

  3. Raise the heat to medium high, and after a half-minute or so, add the two tablespoons of pastis, and stir to mix and loosen any bits of fond that may have formed on the bottom of the marmite. Cook for a minute and no more than two, to burn off the alcohol. Add the 1/4 cup of chicken stock, and again, stir to mix and loosen the fond, and keep mixing until the liquid has evaporated so the mixture is thickened, but is not sticking to the pan.

    Add the two pints of fish stock, followed by the two pints of water, and mix thoroughly. Adjust the heat slightly and watch carefully until the liquid just starts to simmer, and lower the heat. Drop the bouquet garni in the heated liquid, and submerge with the stirring utensil until thoroughly soaked and the bouquet floats beneath the surface.

    Cover, and watch carefully to make sure the broth doesn't boil. Stir occasionally. While the broth is simmering and extracting optimal flavor from the mirepoix and bouquet garni, place a large pinch (holding the spice gently between the fingers) of saffron threads in the bowl of a mortar. Crush the threads gently into a coarse powder with the pestle, and set this aside.

  4. After at least 10 minutes, and preferably for no more than 20 minutes, remove the pan from the heat. With a fine sieve placed over a large clean glass or stainless steel bowl, strain the broth into the bowl. Scrape the pan well so all contents are in the sieve. With a large silicone rubber spatula, gently press the mirepoix (having removed and discarded the drenched bouquet garni) to extract more liquid. Be careful not to press the cooked vegetable dregs through the sieve. You want to extract as much liquid as possible, but no solids. Discard the vegetables. Pour the strained broth back into the marmite, and replace on the burner.

  5. Reheat the broth gently. With a large cooking spoon or a small ladle, spoon a small amount of broth into the bowl of the mortar with the crushed saffron and swirl gently so the saffron powder is suspended in the liquid. Pour this mixture carefully back into the marmite of broth as it warms up. Repeat this last step, and you may also use a small silicone rubber spatula to ensure you have scraped all fo the saffron residue into the broth. The mortar and pestle may be set aside to be cleaned for making the rouille while the broth reheats.

  6. When the broth reaches a simmer, add the remaining tablespoon of pastis and another ounce of rosé or white wine. Simmer for three or four minutes to boil off the alcohol. Reduce the heat under the marmite to a very low simmer and cover.

Prepare the rouille
  1. While the broth is simmering one last time, just prior to adding the fish and tomatoes, as described in the next section, prepare the rouille. There is a fresh uncooked egg yolk in this emulsion, and it should not stand for too long before being served. If you prefer preparing the rouille ahead of time, be sure immediately to refrigerate it in the bowl in which you will serve it, covered.

    In a clean dry mortar add the chopped garlic cloves and sprinkle with a pinch or two of sea salt. Crush into a smooth paste with the pestle. Add the yolk you set aside, and mix the paste and yolk together with the pestle until they form a uniform emulsion. Add the EVOO about a ½ teaspoonful at a time and mix thoroughly between dollops. As you mix the mixture should thicken more and more into a smooth unctuous sauce that approaches mayonnaise in consistency. Pause and add the harissa and paprika and mix thoroughly and uniformly into the sauce. It should take on a ruddy hue. Depending on the brand and mix of harissa spices, there may be darker individual specks; this is normal. Rouille is the French for "rust" and the hearty sauce is called this for the color. Keep adding oil in small dollops until it reaches a spreadable consistency, short of stiffness.

  2. Scoop the finished sauce into a small serving bowl, scraping up the mortar with a silicone spatula. Set aside the rouille, to be served alongside the stew for diners to spread on individual slices of toast.

Finish the stew – Adding the fish
  1. Take the cover off the simmering broth, if you have not already done so, and turn up the heat slightly to bring it to a more vigorous simmer. Adding the fish, which is done more or less in very short order, will lower the overall temperature significantly and it will take a few minutes once again to reach the simmer.

    First, before the fish, add the chopped tomato, stir, and then allow the broth to return to the simmer.

  2. Add the shrimp to the broth before the other fish. Then add the finny fish chunks in small lots (rather than trying to add all the fish at once). The squid bodies are added last.

  3. Watch the stew from this point fairly carefully. It will taste best if served when the fish are just done. Aside from not allowing the fish to cook in broth that is simmering too vigorously (it should absolutely not be allowed to boil), the other caution is not to allow the fish to cook for too long a period, even if the temperature is kept low. Cooked too long and the fish will at once fall apart, and the shrimp and squid, as well as certain species of fish, will toughen.

    Once the stew has once again achieved the simmer, you can let the fish cook for another three or four minutes. Then remove the pot from the stove and place, covered, on the dining table on a trivet or hot pad. Have a small ladle ready to serve the guests in turn from the bowl.

Recipe Notes

Fish Notes – Fish Fumet / Stock

As far as the high value protein portion of this dish is concerned, your best friend will be either the local fish monger, or the regular counter folks at a larger urban supermarket fish department. Most local sellers will prepare things like fish stock in their own kitchens and pack it and freeze it for sale in standard units, usually pints. You should expect to spend about $7 a pint for this ambrosia.

I used to make my own fumet, when fish mongers and larger fish markets and supermarket fish departments still butchered their own whole fish and could offer trimmings, mainly the heads, tails and whole fish frames to the first person to ask, or for some very nominal amount. But those days are gone, and the only way to get these invaluable fixings is buy several whole fish from these sources, and ask them to pack the trimmings—all the trimmings—separately. It's only fair, as you're paying for them by weight anyway. Making fish fumet is a wholly separate subject, and likely the topic of at least another stand-alone blog essay.

In the meantime, find a retailer that sells fish stock, and stock up. Most likely it's already frozen, and if you love seafood, it isn't a bad idea to keep two or three units in your freezer, ready for defrosting.

In a pinch, there are packaged fish stocks and broths available from a few different brands. The one that I've used with some reliability is Kitchen Basics brand "Seafood Cooking Stock," and it will do in a pinch, especially in this recipe, which calls for diluting the stock at the intermediary cooking stage. The problem with all commercial preparations, pre-packaged for retail shelves, is they are laden with far too much salt, so the sodium level is too high (Kitchen Basics is not too bad, in that 1 cup has 600 mg of sodium, which is about 1/3 the absolutely sane maximum any adult can afford to eat daily. Choices dwindle rapidly however, when you consider that most other fish stock commercial products appear on the shelves as bouillon cubes, and the less said, the better.

In another pinch you can engineer a pretty good substitute playing with bottled (not canned) clam juice, which is what the vernacular styles as the liquid produced by steaming whole clams (and other bivalves) and capturing the brine and steaming liquid. Unfortunately, the steaming liquid is highly salted fresh water, and you're stuck with how to reduce the sodium, without so diluting the flavor that it adds nothing.

The best alternative to retrieving fish trimmings, heads and frames is to save all the shells you remove from your steamed shrimp and lobster dinners, and packing these in freezer bags, freezing them, and breaking out the lot and making a stock from scratch—the flavor is different, but it is genuine and it is seafood. But, as I indicated, this is the subject for a whole dedicated piece on preparing your own fish/shellfish stock.

Find some fish stock at the fish monger's and then proceed with the recipe.

The Fish

The recipe here specifies the fish I used the last time I made it. I don't mean to suggest you go hunting up these particular species of fish. At least one of them, if not all of them, is seasonal and hard to come by.

The chief recommendation I make is that you use mainly non-oily fish. If you use three (or more) varieties, it's possible one of them can be, for example, tuna or salmon. The problem with the non-white, ocean fish that tend to have a higher fat content is that they are very distinctively (and more importantly) strongly flavored. They are certrainly hardy enough, that is, firm-fleshed, not to fall apart even with the minimal cooking time the recipe calls for.

I recommend, if you can find them, fresh (or, at worst, previously frozen) wild-caught ocean species of fish. There are not, as yet, a large number of essentially ocean-based species, but there are some, that are being farmed. Issues of genetic modification aside, I find the fish that are now being exploited for their qualities that make them more easily suitable for farming – species like tilapia – is that they are too bland (and I do make a distinction between delicate and bland) and many of them too chewy, both of these being qualities making them suitable for cuisines that call for fish in highly spiced native dishes, or for battering and deep-fat frying, techniques that call for fish that will withstand the stresses of these kinds of methods of preparation.

Unfortunately, the best fish for this stew are also the most expensive species, being in increasingly short supply, and also harder to fish in open water. Game fish, like halibut and swordfish are always a good choice. But there are other sports fishing targets that are excellent eating and will work nicely, being firm-fleshed. A fish like striped bass is a perfect example.

Certain species, not only dwindling in supply while remaining highly popular, because of their mild flavor and their high adaptability to several methods of cooking – I'm thinking particularly of cod and haddock - are not wholly suitable, at least for esthetic reasons. They cook quickly and then, in a word, disintegrate. One feature of this stew is that the fish bits are cut bite-size and remain whole in the stew, providing a sophisticated quality of toothsomeness to the dish.

Some of the native variants of this stew, the dishes on which, in part, this recipe is based (at least in spirit) like the Ligurian ciuppin traditionally were made from the spiny species of fish that abound in the Mediterranean, and which are less popular because of the innate difficulty of getting at the flesh of the fish. In a manner similar to the Provençal soupe de poissons or, as I've seen it called, soupe de pêcheurs, a lot of otherwise less marketable fish, either for their size or their physiognomy (they are bony and/or spiny), the fish are cooked to tenderness along with the vegetables used to flavor the stew or soup and then the whole mess is forced through a food mill and the bones and spines and other inedibles are discarded. For this more robust kind of dish, less desirable species, usually also cheaper (though in France, the species used for soupe de poissons have also become immoderately costly) and with a coarser texture when the flesh is whole.

Options & Supplements

I made mention of adding some of your favorite pasta or a grain to this stew. It's certainly permissible, and entirely a matter of personal taste.

I do tend to give myself more work than many other people in similar circumstances feel is absolutely necessary. So, with that proviso, I would recommend cooking the pasta (maybe spaghetti, or linguine – probably the thinner types – broken into bits about ½ or ¾ of an inch long), separately, draining and rinsing the pasta (presumably al dente) and then adding it to the finished stew with a stir, just before serving.

I certainly do recommend cooking any grains, and by grains I mean the whole grain varieties that are more and more available these days, like farro or barley or wheatberries ahead of time. I would cook them to chewy doneness, rather than very soft, as this helps retain a nutty flavor and is a nice counterpoint to the more yielding flesh of the fish.

Cooking the grains ahead of time is a logistical necessity, as they generally take longer to cook to a finished state (and even the type that has been "pearlized," that is, parboiled to diminish the cooking time) that make the time to add the grains to the broth particularly tricky given the workflow of the rest of this recipe. Cooking the pasta ahead of time, for me, is an esthetic decision, as the cooking pasta, no matter what, will release starch into the liquid in which it is cooking. This will make the broth cloudy and will change the consistency of it.

Finally, be advised that as there is saffron in this broth, which gives a wonderful distinct flavor note to the broth and renders the fish in this recipe a wonderful golden hue, any starchy additions, like paste or grains, will also be highly colored by the spice. Not a bad thing, but some people might consider this not a good thing, necessarily.

Nutrition Facts
Marmite de la Mer (Seafood Stew), with toasts and rouille
Amount Per Serving
Calories 630 Calories from Fat 153
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 17g 26%
Saturated Fat 3g 15%
Cholesterol 369mg 123%
Sodium 1972mg 82%
Potassium 1383mg 40%
Total Carbohydrates 45g 15%
Dietary Fiber 4g 16%
Sugars 4g
Protein 62g 124%
Vitamin A 114.3%
Vitamin C 18.2%
Calcium 28.2%
Iron 28%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.
some references for further research:

Certainly all of the countries that have a coast on or near the Mediterranean offer many variants of their own versions of seafood stew. These suggestions for further reading online are just a start.

About ciuppin the Ligurian fish soup, which sort of combines features of the soupe de poissons discussed in the recipe and the San Francisco seafood stew, invented at the start of the 20th century, with its name derived from the humbler native dish and called cioppino: https://berthamag.us/ciuppin

And while you’re at it, you should check out cioppino, just mentioned, as it’s a cousin to this recipe that I’ve concocted. One major difference is that cioppino is a tomato-based broth (and there’s a nod to this origin in my recipe), whereas this marmite is, obviously, fish based, hence lighter and more delicate. Cioppino also traditionally has a far greater number of shellfish, especially bivalves. These can of course be added optionally, as additions, to the marmite recipe. See here: https://berthamag.us/2gf0pxI

For even deeper research into the whole subject of stews, soups, and other large pot melange main dishes made from seafood, you should check out cacciucco, from Tuscany, which is related to ciuppin (above), combining its milled component to create a thicker base for whole chunks of fish and other ingredients: https://berthamag.us/2gf0pxI

The Italian versions of these seafood stews are served over bread or toast, which is placed in the bowl first, and the soup added. Cioppino, the San Francisco adoption of these dishes, is served with the bread alongside. There is, I understand, a Calabrese version, served over toast which is garnished with fresh garlic (in France, garlic cloves are served with the toasts, and the diner is expected to rub the clove on the sharp edge of the crust to their liking).

Eating On the Left Side of Your Mouth

Plate of pork dumplings
The Pork Dumpling with Kimchi appetizer from Ariana’s Restaurant, Orford, NH

Eating Soft Foods
—for Palliation or Pleasure

Last Saturday, while taking the first bites of my dinner—leftover slices from a delicious salsiccia pizza from Schilling Brewery and Taproom (see “The Short Pour” [the link will open in a new window or tab] The Short Pour)—I heard an ominous loud crack from what dentists designate #5, the premolar, or bicuspid, that sits two teeth back from the first canine, and then, not quite simultaneously, a powerful stupefying blow to my jaw, as if pounded suddenly with a mallet. Digging with my tongue for what I was sure would be a bit of sand, though it felt like I’d bitten down on a boulder, I found nothing but the usual and expected lubricious (and disintegrating) sparse ingredients of what I will point out again was actually a quite tasty thin crust pizza, perfectly and crisply baked in a wood-fired brick oven, and spread, if anything, over-liberally, with a slightly tangy, viscid mozzarella: seemingly nothing to threaten dental work there.

As the ripples of a deep dull pain spread from my teeth to my upper jaw and the TMJ, and I tried to answer the troubled questions of my wife, sitting right next to me. I don’t know what sound, or sounds, of pain and surprise erupted from me, but clearly I had sounded that something was wrong. I can remember thinking instantly: I’ve bitten down on something harder than human dentition is designed for and cracked a tooth. Actually what I thought was briefer, to the point, and spiced with some expletives—which were the more likely substance of whatever utterances I managed to voice.

Nothing in my life has ever caused me more existential angst than problems with my teeth, of which I’ve had a few. Among the more recent, now six years ago, was a similar fatal collision of a tooth, mine, with a foreign object, of a hardness less than diamond, but greater than enamel and dentin (among the internal substances that constitute a tooth’s structure). I was sitting, enjoying the sun on the deck of a favorite local restaurant in Aups, France, near the village in which we have a house, in the afterglow of a delicious lunch. To cap it off, I had an espresso, which, in one of those quirky bits of charm in which small bistros and restaurants express their inventiveness even to the smallest detail, was garnished with a bit of sweet. Usually it’s a demurely wrapped thin lozenge of very fine dark chocolate, and would that it had been. But the young chef has decided to garnish his demitasse servings with a house-marinated cherry, stem removed. What led me, beyond the thin film of unctuous liqueur-based syrup that clung to the cherry’s skin, and the aroma of it, to persuade me that the cherry was pitted I have no idea, save for a brief, but critical, lapse of mindfulness, induced no doubt by the reverie that was settling in because of the lunch. In all events, I bit down on the cherry with no regard for the safety of my teeth or the rest of my mouth, and proceeded to sheer off a thin wedge of tooth, in a rather premonitory way, in retrospect, from the bicuspid on the opposite side of my mouth in the upper quadrant on the left—mirroring my current injury.

Not to mince words, given my predilection for instant existential angst ignited by any trauma, serious or ultimately benign, to my teeth, I freaked out. I spit the errant pit into my hand, along with the shard of tooth, which I wrapped carefully in a tissue (to what end I am not exactly sure, probably some buried recollection of a tidbit of otherwise useless knowledge read in some forgotten news story months or years past, about whole teeth knocked traumatically out of victims’ mouths and somehow, through the miracle of modern dental technique, reinserted and saved). In my case, after a hurried transatlantic call—OK, how many dentists do you know in rural Provence?—to my dentist in Boston, who was just starting his day at the office, and who reassured me, after some rapid clear preliminary tests of the likely damage (heat, cold, air sucked in through pursed lips), all of which proved negative, that it could wait for my return home over six weeks hence. That tooth suffered no particular damage, and now sits perfectly functionally in my upper jaw, where it’s been since it first grew out, with a spiffy cubic zirconia crown covering it, so no one is the wiser.

I wish I could say as much for the latest artifact of my self-induced dental mayhem. Once the thrumming pain died down to a dull pounding, muffled by some ibuprofen, and long after the suspect pizza had been cast into the trash, I gingerly explored the injured tooth with the tip of my tongue. One half was still rock-steady and painless as a really tiny Gibraltar. The other half, on the inside, with the smaller cusp projecting from it, was clearly loose, and very tender, less like a rock than like deadwood.

Without burdening the more squeamish reader with any more details, suffice it to say, that ultimately, after two visits, three days and then a day later, (naturally, this past weekend was a national three-day holiday, and I’ve learned dentists don’t open on Memorial Day) to a very very competent local dentist, the tooth—wholly unsalvageable—is no longer in my head.

In the interim, and for now, as my advised regimen for a couple of days surrounding the extraction, I was and remain forced to consume what the booklet the dentist supplied described (to me hilarious in its earnest specificity) as “nutritious soft foods.” I was handed the booklet three days ago, but I know from past experience that soft food was my essential status quo menu as it has been for almost a week now. For one thing, until the tooth could be salvaged or removed, it was too tender to withstand the pressure of trying to chew into even the most compressible of foods.

As a result I’ve been eating on one side of my mouth for these few days, and will continue to do so until the gum is well on its way to healing. I’ve also, necessarily, reverted to a regimen which is at once childlike and, in the most apposite of qualities, replete with comfort foods. I’ve revisited some dishes I haven’t had in some time, one of them not since my own childhood, and the peculiar combinations of ingredients to which my mother introduced me and I always found not just soothing, but in their bland, nearly tasteless way, quite satisfying. I am fairly certain as well that the nutritional requirement must take a back seat to comfort. There are probably whole books on the subject of how nutritional needs go out the window when the greater need for comfort food comes in the door—and if there aren’t, there should be.

I thought it would make for an interesting topic here on Dinin With A G to review some of the fare that has kept me going through this latest dental ordeal.

Lange Luksch

When I was a boy, and considerably more svelte (in truth I was quite skinny, appallingly so to my mother; in a very healthy way, as science has since proven to be the desired condition, all things considered), I was plied constantly with food, most of which I refused. I wasn’t picky, mind you. I was, as I remain, quite discriminating. I didn’t eat a lot of things on the household menu, because my mother, plainly and frankly, was a lousy cook. That is, she was a lousy cook of anything but the fare she was taught to cook and ate herself as a child, the cuisine of Eastern European Jews. Pot roast? She was a master. However, roast beef or a steak became a grey, tasteless mass in her hands, as if rare meat consumed by humans were corollary to Original Sin. Fresh vegetables took on the colorless pallor only a DelMonte in one of its canning factories at the time could attain. And speaking of soft, whatever integrity a fresh carrot may have had when it started, after passing through my mother’s hands it ended up wilted on the plate and mushy in the mouth.

I took to abstaining unless the vegetables I was served were untouched by heat. I became a connoisseur of all manner of things raw, from carrots and peas, for sure, to such exotica as raw turnip, whose vaguely stinging bite I came to savor. As for cooked dishes, there were only a few, and these from the extensive repertoire of “native” foods my mother did quite well with. Curiously, I was only offered a small sampling of what I came much later in life to appreciate as the true range of her mastery.

Why I wasn’t offered the shtetl delicacies that my father smacked his lips over, I have no idea. To be fair, it’s also possible, that, like a lover who offers a suitor no requital, I’ve made the other the offender, and deny my own role in the spurning. Maybe I was offered gribbenes (the crispy bits of skin and slivers of flesh that remain in the pan after rendering chicken fat into schmaltz—the heady, heavenly textured “butter” of poor Jews, probably worse than butter from a nutritional standpoint, but nobody asked, and nobody told). Maybe I was offered kishke (the closest you’ll get to sausage in a Jewish household; essentially the cow’s scrupulously cleaned intestine, stuffed with bread crumbs and ground meat and offal, and highly spiced). Maybe I said no, maybe off-handedly, like a languid and indifferent Rodolphe to the perpetually spurned Emma Bovary. Maybe it was passionate (“No I won’t!” I was famous, even at the age of five, for declaring in other contexts, as pressure was brought to bear to end my resistance to the will of an adult). I have no recollection whatsoever.

I know I didn’t come to appreciate these delicacies, and many others, until well into adulthood. Yet there was, as I say, a small palette of dishes that somehow I came to appreciate; some of them predictable, as who doesn’t love potato latkes, let’s say? But others were likely more generic and spur of the moment inventions by my mother, hapless in her sense of defeat in her constant effort to fatten me up. “Lange luksch,” she always called me, from about six or seven years on, as I was not only skinny, but slightly taller for my age: “long noodle.” And in that name was the key to my weakness, or at least one of them, when it came to making sure I took in excessive calories.

I have always loved pasta. I especially loved the standard pasta of Jewish cooking, broad egg noodles, which were transformed into a wide range of dishes, including many entrees that were mainly “dairy” in the Jewish taxonomy of Kosher meals: a dish was either fleischig (incorporating any part of a Kosher animal, essentially beef or lamb) or milchig (made of, or derivative of, milk, and verboten to be consumed with anything that contained meat—and dairy included cheese, butter, variously soured versions of cream, in addition to the basic elixirs of milk or cream).

For Americans, especially in those days, pasta dishes were more readily envisioned as sauced with reductions of tomatoes and other vegetables, and bolstered with meat, from meatballs, to ground beef or veal, but whatever—exclusive of pork, of course, the unholiest of non-kosher animal flesh. Vegetables were Kosher-neutral or pareve, and could be eaten in combination with fleischig or milchig ingredients. But vegetable sauces, given the aforementioned deficiencies in my mother’s skill set, were beyond her.

So, what to do with my love of pasta—which I liked so much, I would eat it raw, crunching the bits like crackers, or sucking on a single strand of spaghetti like the world’s thinnest and most elegant of cigarettes—and my fortuitously complementary love of a wide array of dairy products? Easily enough, and with little labor, the answer was, to combine them.

Many were the dinners I had that consisted of a bowl of pasta mixed with butter, which my mother, perhaps desperately, but, as it turned out, unnecessarily would first lace with sugar (add an egg or two, some cinnamon and perhaps another spice or two, and a handful of raisins, and you’ve got the makings of a pudding—kugel in our parlance—which only required a buttered baking dish and an oven). Perhaps it was merely instinctual to add the sugar, an anticipatory step in the construction of the phantom kugel she had in her head.

I would have been, and often was (and have been since, especially when dining alone) quite satisfied with noodles and butter. Though that preference has been transmuted, truth be told, to a more respectably “sophisticated” dish of pasta aglio olio, pasta in a garlic and oil sauce—a dish cannot be simpler and still be considered cooking with finesse than this.

Cottage Cheese
Breakstone’s 2% Milkfat small curd cottage cheese

Kicking her game up a notch, my mother would try other dairy additives. Pasta with various forms of very young, dry small curd cheeses, for example. The most readily available is always cottage cheese. But then, at least in every Jewish delicatessen or any supermarket in the same neighborhood, there was also farmer cheese, which came in huge blocks and is essentially a pressed cottage cheese—a very bland analog to ricotta, that could be sliced or mashed, as well as pot cheese, a coarser variety of cottage cheese, and not too popular in our kitchen, at least when I was sitting at the table.

Pasta with cottage cheese actually could provide quite a number of essential nutrients, including complex carbohydrates, protein, and in itself as a dish almost satisfied my mother’s objective of getting as many calories into my mouth as possible. However, as is known among the practitioners of other great world cuisines, there is a universal lubricant and, well, a sort of culinary emulsifier, and all in forms that are basically cousins to one another that provides the necessary magic. Just as the French use crème fraîche and Mexican cooks use crema, Jewish cooks, as a final master stroke, add a dollop or two (or three) of sour cream—essentially cream which has been treated, by enzymatic action, and the judicious application of cooling and raising to room temperature—a tangy (mistakenly and perpetually designated as “sour”) potion that makes a lowly dish of pasta mixed well with bland curds of cottage cheese suddenly a vessel of a pleasurable melange of textures, subtle flavor blends, and (important to the diner on one side of his mouth) easily chewed and even more readily swallowed.

Sour Cream
Cabot’s Sour Cream (the local brand here on the border of Vermont and New Hampshire)

Sour cream is a not so secret pleasure. With chives and a little salt and ground pepper, plus an optional nugget of sweet butter, it makes a perfectly baked potato into a feast, most of whose calories are in the sour cream—and mostly fat at that, of course; there are low fat and even, mirabile dictu, no-fat versions, but God keep us from these. In significant moderation, the 60 calories or so of a generous portion of real sour cream, even though it’s virtually pure saturated fat, is worth the pleasure, and presents little danger to one’s health. Here’s the best way to make a portion of egg noodles with cottage cheese and cream:

Noodles with Cottage Cheese and Sour Cream

1-1/4 cups of dry noodles, preferably “extra-wide” or broad egg noodles, made from semolina wheat
4 Tablespoons of 2% milkfat small curd cottage cheese
1-2 Tablespoons sour cream

In salted boiling water sufficient to cover, add the egg noodles and cook al dente, usually 7-8 minutes. While the noodles are cooking, put the cottage cheese first, and then the sour cream into the bottom of a soup or cereal bowl.

Drain the noodles well, trying not to overcook. Even toothless, to the diner noodles lose their allure once they lose their integrity. Once drained, toss the noodles immediately into the bowl with the cottage cheese and sour cream, covering them. With a soup spoon, mix everything well, making sure it’s well blended, and the noodles evenly coated with sour cream. The mixture will be exactly the right temperature for consuming immediately. Your choice of fork or spoon.

Dining Out
—Distraction from the Extraction

Both before the procedure, and starting a good two days afterward, when it’s comfortable to chew at least softer foods at least on the other side of my mouth from the injured site, a great pleasure and distraction from my oral memento mori is dining out. Our favorite restaurant, only 20 minutes away on a rolling country road, with views of the Connecticut River, and the undulating countryside opposite on the shores of the Vermont side of the divide, is Ariana’s, located in Orford, NH. Its owner and estimable chef is the amiable, easy-going, and deceptively talented Martin Murphy, whose surname belies a deep interest in the cuisines of several countries and continents. Like as not, and early enough in the day, he will answer the phone to take reservations himself. And reservations are a must in this, the high, season. We were there again last night, a Saturday, and, far from the loneliest, it’s the busiest night in this unprepossessing farmbouse restaurant set amidst the corn fields of Orford. We got one of the last tables available, at the hour urban folks make fun of, 5:30, and glad to have the opportunity.

Real food is available in the sticks, if you know where to look, and you are lucky enough to be close enough to be within driving distance.

So we went there, just two days after my dental disaster, with the tooth still tender, but only to direct pressure, which I had no intention of applying. This meant avoiding my usual favorites, perhaps a filet from the grass fed local beef, raised on a farm just miles away on the same road. Or chicken, or shellfish.

I opted instead, first for an appetizer unique to Ariana’s among the local choices, and representative of the melange of flavors and textures Chef Martin has concocted. It’s pictured above, a snap I remembered to take as I was halfway through it. The pork dumplings are two-bite size purses of the tenderest rice pasta wrapped around local free-range pork ground and just poached to melt-away succulence. They’re served in a a light pork broth, seasoned with lime and chili and punctuated and enlivened with shreds of house-made cabbage kimchi—with an optimal level of tang and spice, without overcoming the savory goodness of the much more subtle main part of the dish. All of this is garnished with shards, as you can see in the photo, of freshly plucked (from the restaurant garden just outside) green onions.

As a second course, I finally had a dish my wife orders virtually every time we visit, she’s so enamored of it. A great lover of spicey food, with zest, and flavor, and made with imagination, as well as, if possible, devoid of animal flesh (when my mouth is up to par, I’ll often indulge in red meat, so we make an interesting and complementary pair of diners), she’s been praising the Vegan Curried Rice since the first time she ordered it. It’s described this way in the menu: “Ginger Jasmine Rice with a Coconut Curry sauce with Peppers, Mushrooms, Onions, Tomatoes and Scallions,” which goes a long way to telling you what’s in it, but does no justice at all to describing how compellingly all these are put together in a single dish, with balance, zest, poise and hanging together from first spoon- or forkful to last. Given the circumstances, I ordered it for myself for the first time.

It deserves all the praise my wife bestows on it. And it went down with nary a problem from any part of my mouth or the rest of me. I myself might have prepared a whole-grain, that is, a “brown” version of the rice or (we speculated as possibly interesting) even another whole grain entirely, like farro or barley… but that’s to quibble, not to mention play chef when nobody asked us. There is another dish on the menu, a Wheat Berry Pilaf, whose presence suggests that two whole grain dishes might be overkill given the otherwise apparently more commonplace preferences of most of the patrons of Ariana’s. The menu—by no means satisfying the soft foods requirement temporarily imposed on me—features duck confit, but at the same time there’s also a shrimp scampi. To balance the curried dish I described, not to mention that Pilaf, there’s also a Penne Bolognese. Given it’s the sticks, it’s a nice way to meet all appetites and palates, from the usual suspects to the vaguely exotic. I doubt very many people leave unsatisfied, and the difficulty of reservations for the four or five months a year the region is unencumbered by the vagaries of winter weather attests to that supposition.

The Basics of Soft Eating

The rest of my regimen during this trying week has, no doubt, a predictable quality to it, especially if one accepts that with the need for comfort, the need for healthy dining loses some part of the argument as to menu choices. There are plenty of soft foods, after all. The list gets shorter, and tighter, with the restriction that it somehow be “nutritious” as well. However, the mere qualifier has, at least legally, a lot of breadth of admissible interpretation. Generally, this means it should be nourishing and, as one dictionary has it, “efficient as food.” So ground chalk is out. However, all but the most fascistic of nutritionists allows for a certain amount of leeway, with the always necessary proviso of “moderation,” in the intake of foods otherwise known to be harmful to excess: the usual culprits being sugars and fats, especially saturated fats.

However, man or woman does not live by whole-grain, multigrain bread alone.

Laughing Cow Swiss Light Cheese
The Famous French brand “La Vache Qui Rie” has long since penetrated even mass markets with an honest product–not great cheese by any means, but real food.

For one, a man or woman can spread a slice of that loaf of wholesome bread—assuming it’s a nice soft pullman version, or has been trimmed of any crunchy, crusty, chewy integument, aka “crust,” which has a tendency to head for tender exposed portions of an abused oral cavity—with a nice soft, very soft, spreadable cheese product. I happen to like “The Laughing Cow,” as it’s called, quite literally, in Anglophone markets, or as “La Vache Qui Rie,” as it’s sold all over France. Check the ingredients. A connoisseur or a dairy farmer will scoff, but out here in the sticks, where it’s not so easy to come by a ripe triple-crème, with a pedigree and integrity, especially at the local supermarket, this is an adequate substitute, especially taking into account the condition of old #5 up there in the upper right quadrant of my personal mouth. Aside from actual cheese, there are small amounts of common food additives, most or all of which are considered to have some nutritional value, and seem to be there mainly as emulsifiers and very mild preservatives—and the simple fact is, I don’t feel guilty eating it in the absence of something better—better nutritionally or better-tasting.

Sufferers sometimes can’t be choosers. And the simple fact is, I like it. For what it’s worth, I hate Velveeta and Kraft slices, which I doubt are actually cheese.

Sabra Hummus
Sabra Supremely Spicy Hummus

Switching gears, or sides of the plate, so to speak, let’s talk about foods that actually, and almost unquestionably, are good for you. Soft and nutritious could be a way of translating that Middle Eastern mainstay, centerpiece of many a mezze plate, star alternative to Lipton Onion Soup Dip at cocktail parties, otherwise known as hummus. A paste, minimally speaking, and usually minimal is best, of pureed chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, garlic, salt and little lemon juice, hummus is delicious itself, if a tad bland (though not tasteless, or it shouldn’t be, especially if you’re not a wuss about the garlic). There are myriad commercial blends and brands—few of them excellent, but even fewer inedible, though the latter exist—and it’s also easy to make, assuming you have tahini on hand, never mind the other less esoteric ingredients. We could make it in a minute in our kitchen back at headquarters—our home base in suburban Philadelphia—but, that’s as distant as my personal dentist. Sabra is a good brand, reliable, and increasingly available. It’s not the best we’ve had, but it’s far from the worst, and, because all major brands now come “flavored” with various condiments, in its “supremely spicy” version it is quite an exciting addition to one’s regimen, even daily. You can ask my wife.

Ordinarily we consume it on very crisp crackers. Trader Joe’s makes a very tasty multigrain brown rice cracker that is baked that comes in large bags and is a staple in our house. San-J brown rice crackers are also good, but pricey. There are always tortilla chips, an acceptable alternative especially in the low-salt or unsalted versions. However, given the need for soft things to stick in my mouth, I found it best to dip into the hummus with small squares, perhaps one inch to a side, perhaps a little smaller, that I cut out of slices of that multigrain pullman loaf I mentioned. Eating the hummus makes me feel good about myself, a little better about indulging in that Laughing Cow cheese product, and a lot better about the real bad, really gratifying indulgence that constitutes dessert in this velvety squishy gustatory interregnum forced upon me (I’m talkin’ doughnuts, but I’m not done with the healthy stuff yet).

As long as we’re in the Middle East, let me also put in a word for a regular companion to hummus on that mezze plate, the famous bulgur salad known as Tabbouleh, made with the aforementioned wheat, chopped tomato, garlic, parsley and lemon juice. It’s soft, requires little chewing, can be shoveled in on a 1-inch square of bread, or eaten plain. And there’s no question about being nutritious.

Fage Greek Yogurt
Fage 2% Milkfat Greek Style Yogurt

Back to dairy products for a moment, because I know many of you are wondering, where’s the yogurt? It’s for breakfast, as far as I’m concerned, and I prefer it with granola and fresh fruit, usually berries. However granola, though it’s made of smaller bits, is really not soft so much, especially the kinds I prefer, replete with dried fruits and nuts, and which tends to clump, because it’s often sweetened with honey. I know from experience these are not compatible with tender jaws, and after the extraction the bits and pieces are inadvisable near the still open socket previously occupied by a tooth. Hence I tend to eat the yogurt plain, or simply with berries.

Driscoll's Blueberries
Driscoll’s Organic Blueberries

And the berries I prefer are blueberries, which are available year-round, though their provenance moves from place to place around the globe, usually South America-way in the winter and then closer and closer to home in summer. They do not suffer as much in quality as strawberries do on the east coast, where the only place to buy strawberries that have half a chance of being decent is from local farm stands (or one of those “pick your own” places) in season. Strawberries are not quite here yet in northern New Hampshire, so I’m eating the blueberries I usually do, in a poly bin from the local market. Yogurt and berries, and that’s pretty much the recipe (except remember, always, to wash the berries and drain them, even if they’re organic).

Sin

Entenmann's Chocolate Donut
Entenmann’s Chocolate Frosted Donut—a bonanza of sugars and saturated fats.
It’s commonplace, to the point of demonstrating an utter lack of imagination, to call chocolate “sinful.” But there it is. And with my mouth in its delicate condition, of all the forms of chocolate in solid form that I could imagine eating, while also satisfying the need for extreme levels of comfort, is the most notorious of no-no food items (the real sin may be calling this food), the one indulgence I usually can control myself and refrain from having in the house for all but possibly one or two times a year. I am talking Entenmann’s Rich Frosted Donuts—240 calories each, including a full 50% of your daily recommended value of saturated fat in one compact efficient round delivery system (I feel it’s appropriate to use the same terminology the government does when speaking of tobacco products and nicotine), plus 10% of your daily carbs in no discernible healthy form, negligible fiber—I’m not sure how even a fraction of a gram got in there, as well as virtually no protein (which means the flour they use must be there purely for the bulk, and not good bulk either, and to carry the fat without letting it all melt away in the friolator). All in all, in one word, just plain bad. But man, are they good… And I’m allowed, because I have suffered. It’s all for the chocolate of course, which appears as a thin friable shell—so clearly the donut itself is merely an infrastructure for this skin of wonderfulness, and not, to continue with the theme, even close to good chocolate. Fortunately, what chocolate there is comes from cocoa, and no other part of the cacao bean (who needs cocoa butter when the recipe is already rich with palm oil, and hydrogenated palm oil, and sugar, and corn syrup—only the words “high fructose” keep them from being forced to label the ingredients as simple poison?).

I admit freely to my love of this junk, even at the risk of losing what little shred of reputation for culinary stature that might cling to me. I’m only human. And listen, I’ve just lost something near and dear and very personal, an actual bodily part of me for untold years, since childhood in fact, and which I valued and cherished as I did and do all of its companions, and for which loss comfort foods, including chazerai like Entenmann’s Rich Frosted, only begin to compensate. Check back with me when my gum has healed and I can once again eat like a responsible adult, and a mensch.

Home fries With a Side of Steak and Eggs

Breakfast with steak eggs and home fries
Home fries with sides

There’s nothing harder to cook well than comfort food. And no more difficult way to do it than home cooking. The emphasis is on the qualifier, “well,” as in everything in life. Nevertheless, it’s inherent in the idea of comfort food that execution is not paramount. Indeed, as most comforts reside in that Proustian reflex that is triggered by the first mouthful of whatever (usually) childhood favorite that even approximates the product of the exertions of one’s favorite cook—usually a parent or older relative—during some critical period in one’s upbringing, the chronological limits of which are no doubt to be determined at some future date by a credentialed culinary or food studies specialist with the usual two or three degrees after his or her name—a discipline that didn’t exist as few as 25 years ago, but is a serious thing, so stop giggling. It is immaterial the essential, dare I call it the absolute?, quality of the dish as “cuisine,” bearing all the weight and pretense and pomp of that term. And there’s the problem for me.

I at least make a big show of brooking no compromise, even in the homeliest and simplest of dishes. In practice, of course, what it boils down to is that the real mother of invention is compromise. I say all this just to set the stage for what’s coming. Trust that I know the horror of eating those “mashed potatoes to die for” that “we always had on the holidays” and that actually taste like papier maché that has been oversalted and made from newsprint from which the ink has not been removed, and leaves a faint aftertaste of margarine and milk less than a day from going bad, and yet I acknowledge the perfect seriousness with which we must always regard comfort food, because such is its status in the enchanted mind of everyone you know. Everyone.

I recognize what comfort food is. I recognize the aura of sanctity it bears in the minds of virtually everyone who is free to decide what they eat, when they eat it, and where and how—in effect, every able-bodied adult capable of mashing hard-cooked eggs, along with the most haphazardly minced scallions or chives (likely wilted) and a large dollop of Cain’s or Hellman’s or, even better, cheap store-brand mayonnaise. Add a secret ingredient or two—ah, but, forget it… there are no secrets to be revealed here, there are no Dinin secrets, not about egg salad [disclosure: I have no heirloom recipe, designated, of course, as “the best in the world” handed down by my bubbe, the last of my two forebears of that sex having died two or three years before I was born]—and do not stand between the result and the person, likely in some straitened state of emotional disequilibrium, suffering the neeed for a fix of comfort of the consumable variety, and of course, the absolutely fundamental condition of being hungry, at least as hungry “as the wolf felt.” Between two slices of very fresh sourdough bread.

But, for all that, I honor and respect the mythic status of such a dish in the mind of he or she who craves it, like a former lover who suddenly pops into your head when you’re having intractable problems with the current model, or the urgent need for your favorite alcohol when suddenly it’s the moment you realize everything has turned to shit on a critical project for work and you’ll have to start all over from scratch.

Comfort food takes all the edge off when the stakes are high—or has all the calming of a sedative when you’re too keyed up to relax and too exhausted to think straight. So, of course, it doesn’t matter if it’s made with the platonic compulsion of Escoffier or the scientific precision of Charlie Trotter. Given. It can be made by just as mediocre a cook as your mother in actuality was, and to you it will taste just delicious, and fill your brain with a flood of endorphins.

Nevertheless, I say, why settle for third best when there’s absolutely nothing about the homeliest of foods that demands any less than to reach for excellence?

A lot rides on the skill of the home cook to bring it home with dishes as important as those that comprise the vast menu of comfort foods. Likely few of these soul-satisfying dishes has universal appeal. One man’s mac ‘n’ cheese may leave another woman feeling queasy. There’s no predicting any one person’s favorites.

However, I’d venture to say that no meal provides the potentialities for comfort as well as breakfast—the matutinal repast long positioned, and long derided, as the most important of the day. I won’t enter that debate, not here. And I won’t predict the degree of proximity to unanimity on which daily meal truly fits that bill, but I do know that I love my breakfast. And I know very few people who skip it, however meager. Perhaps there aren’t enough of those types happy with a cup a’ joe and a pop tart in my life, but for that I merely count myself lucky.

I could get easily sidetracked on the vast subject of just exactly which baked goods as well as the breadth of choices from which I have been fortunate to be able to choose satisfy my longing for a good first meal of the day, before venturing to my encounter with the rest of it, and all that it will bring. But I won’t. Not now. Baked goods deserve a whole series of posts and having built the place to put them, I’ll just say, they will come.

Rather I come today to write of the potato, that estimable, yet at the same time lowly if venerated, tuber. And to address particularly the dish that is its quintessential manifestation at the morning meal. I’d even dare to say, to embellish that superlative, that the home fried potato is singularly appropriate upon which to dine only at breakfast. Consider all the cafes, diners and bistros that offer breakfast, not to mention lunch and dinner. It is only on the breakfast menu, including that which is “served all day”—leaving aside the ontological perplexities of such a concept—that one discovers the choice of home fries, assuming they are offered at all. More pointedly, there is the question of what exactly is on offer when the preparation in question is designated with that soubriquet. Before quitting this paragraph I’ll merely note that Barbara Haber, deep in the bowels of her canonical From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals, notes casually, almost en passant, having just described one revered African-American woman cook’s time-honored Christmas breakfast, “‘thin-sliced skillet-fried white potatoes,’ more commonly known as home fries, a comforting dish that can turn up at any meal.”Haber, Barbara (2010-05-08). From Hardtack to Homefries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals (p. 187). Free Press. Kindle Edition. But who are you going to believe, a world-famous librarian and curator of the world’s most comprehensive collection of cookbooks, or me? I get around this conundrum by merely pointing out that it’s an age-old tradition, that of “breakfast for dinner” or any time. And what makes breakfast but home fries?

I put it to you that the home fry is a particular concoction, not to be confused with other versions of the fried potato, too often erroneously designated as such when, in truth, what is delivered to your place is some perhaps grand, perhaps desultory dish more precisely designated as hashed potatoes, or hash browns, or grilled (or baked or roasted, but not all the oils of Araby will make a potato stuck in the oven a fried potato, never mind a home fried potato). You might even be served, in the right venue, at the right moment, and likely the right locality, potatoes dauphinoise—and who does not love them for what they are?—but they would not be home fries. You will most likely be served what are called “home fries” by the New York Times current poobah of food (whose claim to fame used to be that he had written a cookbook unselfconsciously entitled How To Cook Everything, while at the same time accepting the crafty nom de cooktop, belying the obvious intent of this self-coronation, of “The Minimalist”). I mean Mark Bittman who, since he courageously and largely for reasons of health (the best reasons in the world) shed significant excess personal avoirdupois and almost, seemingly simultaneously, began reading, apparently for the first time, discovering a world beyond the kitchen, the editorial pages of his employer for so many years, has re-branded himself as a foodie/advocate, and he writes eloquent, reasoned, and deceptively impassioned pleas about how the entire planet or the entirety of mankind (take your pick) should eat sensibly, cost be damned, or we are all doomed.

What Mr. Bittman thinks are home fries are, indeed, telling from the exertions and offerings of most home-style restaurants, diners, and “breakfast all day” eateries, small chunks, cubes and wedges, approximately three-quarters of an inch in any dimension, of red-skinned potatoes, washed, but not skinned (and readily supplied as such, no doubt, by the likes of the empire of food supplies to the commercial food industry, Sysco, in mammoth polyethylene bags, ready to be poured in the desired quantity onto a well-oiled or greased griddle) to be cooked in fat, preferably vegetable oil, on all sides until browned, and then cooked a little further to add the requisite all-American crispiness. Well, I say, “bushwah.” I say, the lazy man’s fried potato, and lacking in some essential qualities for a home fry (or any other fry, most notably a proper pomme frite or what we call in the U.S. a french fry—but once again, what constitutes “proper,” although alluded to further along, is, in the case of the pomme frite, a rather complex subject and tricky undertaking in execution, and so will be taken up in some future post. The chief virtue of the Bittman home fry is that it can sit in the pan, or even out of it, until the diners are ready to consume them so the cook can readily re-heat them, and re-heat them, and re-heat them, again and again and again, without much damage to the consistency with any modicum of attentiveness–until they become rather limp, characterless shadows of their already unremarkable selves.

The home fry as I propose it to you can be, indeed is, a course in itself, and yet is served, likely, best as accompaniment to other components of the meal. In our house, we almost invariably have home fries at breakfast, and, given the predilections of the participants, this usually means eggs, usually scrambled, soft, but dry, and a breakfast meat, from sausage to bacon to steak, if one of us (the meat eater) is feeling particularly atavistic, or hungry to the point of ravenous. The eggs are not a big deal, and even a steak (always grass fed, and usually one of only four or five cuts: strip, filet, hanger, flank, or skirt) requires only to be watched closely as it sears on both sides in a cast iron pan. The steak may be finished entirely on the stovetop, or in a very hot oven, after being seared for a minute or two on each side in the pan before inserting the meat and its cooking vessel directly into the pre-heated oven.

Here’s what’s needed for the home fries.

Howard’s Home Fries

The best potato for this is, in fact, the Russet, of which there are small number of usually available permutations. Provenance is of little regard, Maine or Idaho (or even Florida or California). Just make sure it’s fresh, doesn’t show a clear and unambiguous green hue showing through the skin, has no burgeoning shoots or root buds growing from where the otherwise inconspicuous “eyes” used to be, bears no bruises or dark spots, and shows only the slightest, if any, marks of the spade (deep nicks, divots, gouges, and scars).

Why is the Russet best? Because it is of the mealy (so-called) variety, as opposed to the waxy (which most red and gold skinned potatoes are). Mealy potatoes are called that because the significantly higher starch content renders them of a particular texture when cooked, giving them a “mealy” quality in the mouth. What all this means is that the potato, in fact, is capable of a significantly higher uptake of moisture, in the form of added liquids, such as the various fluids and semi-fluids and fats added to baked or boiled Russet potatoes to make mashed potatoes, a dish for which the species is optimal.

What happens scientifically when the Russet is cooked is this, according to Professor Diane McComber (Iowa State University, retired;J. Agric. Food Chem. 1994, 42: 2433- 2439) “Russet Burbank potatoes were observed to absorb more moisture while less of the moisture in the lower-starch waxy potatoes was absorbed by the swollen starch granules leaving more free moisture. This explains why mealy potatoes are perceived as dry while waxy potatoes are characterized as moist.” The scientific underpinnings of my preference for Russets are amplified by the remarks of Mr. Harold McGee, everyone’s favorite kitchen scientist.

Mealy types (russets, blue and purple varieties, Russian and banana fingerlings) concentrate more dry starch in their cells, so they’re denser than waxy types. When cooked, the cells tend to swell and separate from each other, producing a fine, dry, fluffy texture that works well in fried potatoes and in baked and mashed potatoes, which are moistened with butter or cream. In waxy types (true new potatoes and common U.S. red- and white-skinned varieties), neighboring cells cohere even when cooked, which gives them a solid, dense, moist texture, and them together in intact pieces for gratins, potato cakes, and salads. [McGee, H. (2004). On food and cooking : the science and lore of the kitchen. New York, Scribner. pp.302-303]

The result of these responses is that, via a three-step cooking process, the Russet potato is transformed into the optimal manifestation of the home fried potato as sought, I would venture universally, as a quintessential. This recipe produces a result that has integrity, solidity, and an ensemble of mouth feel experiences, accompanied by complementary layers of flavor that is almost musical, if of a particular American genre of interwoven textures and harmonies. And here’s where the “proper” alluded to above comes in, as the same generic combination of textures—crisp on the outside, soft and tender on the inside—applies to the quintessential pommes frites.

Ingredients

(for 2 servings)

  • 1 large (approximately 1/2 pound) Russet Potato, skin intact, thoroughly rinsed and brushed lightly with a vegetable brush
  • 1 Tablespoon of 100% organic virgin coconut oil; you may substitute butter in the same amount, but if you’re trying to avoid saturated fats, I don’t see the point, unless you have a flavor preference; coconut oil and butter have the same melting and flash points, so the difference is in the flavor, with the coconut oil having the edge of neutrality—but choose your favorite; although highly saturated in fats, coconut oil and butter allegedly each have other components that makes eating them in moderation possibly even salutary
  • 1 Tablespoon of 100% organic canola (or other high flash point vegetable) oil
  • 1/2 small to medium yellow onion
  • coarsely ground black pepper to taste (I like Tellicherry)
  • a pinch of Celtic sea salt, fine ground (a pinch is generally understood to be 1/16 to 1/8 of a teaspoon; it is the amount you can hold comfortably between the tips of your index finger and thumb)
  • 1 stiff-bladed (with an offset) turner, at least six inches long
  • 1 11-12 inch seasoned cast iron skillet
  • 1 Adjustable vegetable mandoline-style slicer (I like the French-made Bron™, worth every penny as it will last forever)
  • 1 Knife-resistant Kevlar™ cutting glove, to fit (this allows you to hold what you’re cutting in your fingers, instead of using clumsy and hard-to-control food safety carriages, all without cutting your personal flesh)
  • 1 small or medium pair of chef’s stainless steel spring-loaded tongs
  • 1 large pan lid or cover sufficient to cover the pan and contents without allowing steam to escape
mandoline, glove and cutting board
Bron™ mandoline and Kevlar™ cutting glove, and a cutting board

With a very sharp bladed 8″ to 10″ chef’s knife cut the potato evenly in half lengthwise. Set aside.

Set up the mandoline slicer over a large wooden chopping board, to catch the slices. Adjust the straight blade of the mandoline to produce slices approximately 1/8-inch (3+ mm) in thickness; slight deviations in measurement are not critical.

First slice the half onion into slices, holding the onion in your gloved hand as you pass it through the cutting edge. Slice the entire onion.

Now (and this will go much more smoothly and rapidly than the onion, so be extra careful, even using the glove), slice one half of the potato entirely, and then the other half.

You will end up with a pile of potato slices covering a smaller pile of onion slices. Make sure any strays have been placed back on the board.

Trader_Joe_96070-organic-virgin-coconut-oil.pngOver a medium burner setting on the stovetop, heat the cast-iron skillet, and right after turning on the burner, drop the coconut oil into the pan, immediately followed with the tablespoon of vegetable oil. Swirl them both around in the pan once the coconut oil liquefies.

When the surface of the oil begins to shimmer, but not smoke, add all the onion and potato slices at once (I usually just slide them off the cutting board into the pan; but whatever method satisfies your own esthetic for operational detail, go for it). Immediately sprinkle the contents of the pan with the pinch of salt and a turn or two (or three) of the pepper mill set to coarse. Using the tongs, mix up the slices evenly, potatoes and onions, well in the pan, and let them sit in the heat to get an initial sear on some of the potato slices.

potatoes and onions in the pan
Potatoes and onions in the pan, tossed and turned for even coating.

When the ingredients have begun to sear, mix them again with the tongs, also turning them, in sections, so all surfaces are coated in oil and some optimal number of slices get exposed to the cooking surface. Sear some more, very lightly.

The onions and potatoes should only be getting very lightly browned. Don’t allow anything to burn, and, using the turner, make sure no ingredients, but especially the potato slices, stick to the bottom of the pan.

After about seven or eight minutes of cooking and turning, begin to gather the slices into a low mound toward the center of the pan. Cover the pan fairly tightly, so no steam escapes. The cover should not be touching any of the ingredients. Lower the heat of the burner to low, or even very low. Using a cast-iron skillet means there will be a signicant amount of retained heat, which will continue to cook the potatoes and onions until the temperature of everything drops.

Low mound of potatoes and onions
Potatoes and onions lightly seared and gathered in a low mound just prior to covering and lowering the heat.

Covering the pan will ensure, among other things, that the moisture escaping from the onions and potatoes will be trapped and will drip off the lid onto the ingredients for a braising effect. Trapping the moisture will also ensure that the starch granules of the potato will be absorbing it, becoming engorged and softening—essentially the body of the potatoes will cook at the temperature of the water vapor, just about that of steam, and so they will cook gently, making them very tender. The surfaces of the potatoes touching the pan surfaces will also begin to brown nicely, but not too much as a result of lowering the cooktop heat.

From time to time, for a period of at least another ten minutes, lift the lid to allow any trapped water to flow back into the pan, and to ensure, inspecting by eye, that nothing is getting overly browned or even blackened—the temperature should be low enough so as to preclude the possibility, but turning everything every so often, will make the cooking more even throughout and help avoid the possibility of over-browning too many surfaces.

The next stage of cooking, the third one actually, is ready to commence when the slices of potato noticeably adhere to one another, as a result of the engorged starch granules acting as a kind of glue. Using the turner, assemble the ingredients into a round cake in the middle of the pan, about eight inches in diameter. Press this cake flat gently. It should be even more obvious that the slices of potato are adhering to one another. As you begin to gather the slices into this cake, turn up the heat under the pan to slightly more than medium low.

While this potato “cake” is cooking, you may attend to other components of the meal (scrambling eggs, toasting bread, etc.). Watch the cake in the pan, and be especially mindful of signs of burning. After about five or six minutes after having removed the cover from the pan—and all this while you may, and should, be adjusting the cake, to keep it round, and to make sure “stray” slices are adhering to the main body of it—try turning the entire cake at once to cook it on its other side. In a perfect world, which this is not, there will be no strays or bits falling off, but there is no harm if they do. Simply scrape them onto the cake, onto the sides and the top, and press, so the “glue” of the potato starch makes them adhere. The surface that was on the bottom should be a deep golden brown, with some lighter and darker spots.

Browned potatoes and onions
Home fries almost finished. Seared and browned on one side and turned. The whole mound has become a cake. In another 4 to 5 minutes, it will be done.

Allow to cook for another four or five minutes. The idea is to form a crust, which will provide that mouth-satisfying crispiness or crunch, to blend with each mouthful of the soft, “mealy” interior. The home fry should have some of the texture or mouth feel of a dryer version of mashed potatoes (without all the added calories of butter or cream that are usually added—there are enough fat calories in the oils used to fry the potatoes for this dish). Try turning the cake again. It should hold its integrity and remain whole on the turner this time, turning like a big fat pancake. If both sides are fairly well browned, the heat can be turned to very low, or even off, as the retained heat of the pan will keep the home fries at the right temperature for serving. As you get closer to bringing all the dishes to the table, turn off the heat altogether for sure. There is no reason to cover the pan, as doing so raises the risk of making the home fries, especially their outer “crust” a little soggier than most people prefer.

One potato, as in this recipe, will provide two servings to be divided as you like (slicing the home fries, as a potato cake, down the middle is the simplest and most equitable way of creating the portions). Any leftover home fries (a most uncommon occurrence) can be reheated once, successfully, especially in a hot oven or on the stove top, just long enough to heat it through, and resurrect some of the original crispiness of the surface.

When served and eaten, it really shouldn’t need any corrective seasoning, unless the individual diner’s preference calls for it.

(Very) Short Notice to Subscribers

I have changed the settings for feed notices you receive by email if you are a subscriber. You will no longer receive the full post… You will get a handy 50-word abstract/extract, which I hope will be sufficient to whet your appetite.

Sorry for the initial feed notice that included the whole megillah.

The Short Pour

Schilling Littleton short pour porter DSC0185

We’re in the wilds of Grafton County, which occupies the left-hand side of the mid-section of New Hampshire. As the state tapers severely north of us, only one county separates us from Canada. But Grafton County itself borders entirely on the state of Vermont. In our neck of the woods, the natural division between us is more or less the Connecticut River, traversed by innumerable bridges along its length. The points of juncture charmingly and invariably occur between what are essentially a pair of otherwise nondescript towns—twins divided by the umbilicus of the river. I mean no disrespect by this. They are for the most part simply very small towns populated mainly by the same kind of people who founded them and have always lived there, small landholders, essentially farmers, workers, and small business owners.

The area is neither rich nor poor. Nevertheless there is an air of not so much scraping by, as sustaining one’s place on the earth, not so much struggle as constant labor. Many of the towns have remnants of commercial enterprise to provide and maintain the daily needs of the populace. In our town, in a disconnected string of buildings along the main drag, some with dwellings attached, there’s a discount gasoline station, a combination general store and gasoline station, a dollar store, several produce stands that see business only in the growing season, a John Deere dealership with ranks of tractors of various sizes, but mostly of a diminutive if hefty size, small, yet powerful, dedicated to mowing, a lumber yard, a gun store, an ice cream stand and dairy store owned by the dairy that supplies its stock, a United States post office, a second-hand store. Farther out of town is an automobile repair shop, actually of some repute for the quality of their work. And beyond the stores in the other direction, headed north is a complex of buildings belonging to the administrative affairs of the state, including a courthouse and a small prison facility, as the town is the county seat. As you drive by on warm days, residents of the state assisted care and nursing facilities within the complex sit in their wheel chairs and on benches and watch as the intermittent somehow desultory two-lane traffic goes by in each direction. Prisoners in orange jump suits tend to vegetable beds across the road that supply the small farm stand, built of raw pine, that sees business—sometimes quite a brisk business—during the summer months.

Strung along the highway, in our town and beyond in neighboring villages and hamlets are farms, a number of huge stands of corn meant for silage, but mainly dairy farms, which also sell their meat, modestly promoted on fading signs as honest organic, grass fed beef (along with the occasional pork and lamb) that you can buy year round. Somewhere or other nearby is the abattoir of modest proportions patronized by most of these farmers, who, after the butchery is done, have the usual cuts, as well as ground portions flash frozen, in which condition they sit in solid icy splendor in lockers or freezers. It’s the frozen meat one purchases out of road-side stands and shacks, winter or summer, just off the road on which each farm sits. It is good, honest tasty meat.

The small industry of restaurants that has grown up south of us, mainly catering to the better-heeled natives and winter and summer birds with second homes, that live closer to Hanover, still in Grafton County, yet the southern-most town but one, as much as 40 miles away on the main road that passes through our town as well. Indeed, the road, US 10, hewing to the contours of the river, is known as the Dartmouth College Highway, lest anyone forget the most renowned enterprise in this otherwise fairly remote part of the middle of of one of the three northernmost of the states. Both CNN and Money Magazine, each diligent to the needs and predilections of the still great upper middle class of the nation, deemed Hanover the sixth best place to live in America in 2011. The folks thereabouts can afford the delightful preparations the quiet, unpretentious restaurants, manned by talented chefs, trained in the fleshpots of the big city, and now seeking the quieter pleasures of a still truly rural vanishing bit of U.S. civilization, still accurately and appropriately deemed bucolic.

Where well-heeled residents of the larger cities of New England or the Mid-Atlantic will think nothing of a daring half-hour jaunt along the clogged, haplessly designated “expressways” that take them downtown for a praiseworthy meal, equally well fed patrons take a journey hereabouts that is of equal duration, at worst, for a meal equally good, here in the sticks. Invariably, whatever potentiality there is for invidious comparisons, it is to the disadvantage of the urban experience. Here, there is barely any traffic. What there is, keeps moving along. And the scenery is marvelous, which is to say, there is scenery, as opposed to views of the current architectural modes of the urban milieu.

Heading north from our town for recreation and sustenance produces a somewhat different result, though the rewards and attractions have been steadily improving of late, having degraded for awhile long since, that is, since well before the economic downturn of 2007. Travel Route 10, which eventually joins Route 302 that slowly meanders eastward toward the White Mountains National Park, and it will take you ultimately to towns that are a bit larger, more industrious, more visibly mercantile, more seemingly prosperous. The largest of these, and the most northerly and last of the towns in Grafton County is Littleton, whose founding in the 18th century and history are connected with that of Newburyport, Massachusetts, and which is notable, among a handful of reasons, for its grist mill, built on the banks of the Amonoosuc River, still running through the main village, in 1798. The mill, fallen into disuse long ago, has been restored to its original appearance. Milled product, proudly offered as all natural, with no preservatives, pesticides or insecticides, is still sold, through a Web-only store, and is ground virtually on a per order basis. The mill website lists local restaurants from Littleton to Franconia to Manchester that use their corn, whole wheat and buckwheat meal, mainly for whole grain pancakes.

The mill had a retail store at its original location, but lost their lease for unexplained, though observing the current uses of the same space are easily inferred, reasons.

Given that the space is now occupied by a spiffy new brew pub, constantly being expanded, and with in-house vats, tanks, pumps and the like, one can guess at the financial exigencies that put the property in the hands of an energetic crew of beer lovers and entrepreneurs. They have opened a bar and restaurant under the same brand as the house brews, which they call Schilling. The provenance of the name is unclear, especially as the preponderance of the executive staff, from the Chairman to the CEO, the CFO, as well as several other officers, share the family name of Cozzens. Cozzens or not, the principals and managers all appear to be men. Half of them are bearded.

Patrons are greeted jovially. Originally, starting almost two years ago, the bar and taproom were open for lunch and dinner, serving their small batch (five barrels at a time) brews in various permutations, as well as pizzas from the prominently featured, obviously hand-built brick oven, fired by wood, for pizzas to order, as well as platters of charcuterie, cheese, and various de rigeur Middle Eastern ground legume spreads and dips—hummus and the like.

Since those ambitious beginnings, Schilling seems to have settled into a different routine, opening in mid-afternoon for the first of the week and opening for lunch only on Fridays and the weekend. Originally the beers, ales, and other concoctions were served on premises. They have just begun a program of supplying “select craft beer retailers” in “limited quantities.”

The brews are generally quite good, and it appears that at any one time they offer from ten to a dozen choices, in varying degrees of abv (alcohol by volume). At the moment, the most robust is a Belgian style dark strong brew they call “Thaddeus.” As seems to be the style among craft brewers, all variants have names, unique to the product. Thaddeus is 8.3% abv, and you are advised to “let it warm in your hands to taste its full complexity.” I wouldn’t know. There is also the usual kind of mix of ales, IPAs, Hefeweizen, and lagers. They seem to make an earnest and sincere intent to satisfy all palates.

We had lunch there yesterday. I rarely drink beers and ales, etc., or any yeast-laden beverages as any significant, that is, truly satisfying quantity, would only aggravate an otherwise benign and dormant medical ailment I otherwise manage to keep under control. I don’t particularly like the taste of hops either, so even when I was free to drink as I chose in any reasonable volume, I didn’t deign to drink the brew of choice, it seems, nationally, the ubiquitous IPA. My taste runs to brews that put more emphasis on the malt part of the formula and I do have a preference for darker brews, though porter is the optimum, and I shy away from stout, if not especially disdaining the touchstone of serious imbibers, Guinness Stout. My wife drinks no beer at all, and is no guide or source of a variant point of view.

Schilling logo separate 122px We discovered Schilling early, well before the now universal application of its rather slick logo, which seems to be some abstracted representation of a sheaved grass, like barley, though it has been rendered into a state of such deep genericism, it’s hard to say what the deeper branding intent was, except to look very slick. Somehow vaguely heraldic, somehow vaguely from the Bauhaus school of typography and iconography that calls for spare minimalist strokes, reminiscent of any number of ‘grotesk’ styled fonts. It’s an odd thing to do, to this antique former ad man, for a craft brewery hidden away in a working class town, 90 minutes from the Canadian frontier, with a population of 6,000 all told spread over 54 square miles. The owners of Schilling are proud of their Littleton roots, and the website, equally as slick as the logo, gives an account written with an almost patriotic fervor about Littleton as, essentially, what the town apparently calls itself, “the main street of the mountains.” Though one must hasten to add, that in Littleton you are not quite in the mountains, not by several thousand feet of elevation.

We’ve liked their way with pizza from the start, though the careful and I’m tempted to say almost meditative approach (and pace) they take to the fulfillment of orders can only heighten one’s anticipation, as well as one’s appetite, and perhaps there is a slightly more favorable impression of the flavor and composition. But, all in all, sarcasm aside, it’s good fresh pizza, made by hand, and with the savory notes possibly only in a wood-burning oven. The ingredients are always as described and super fresh, and applied as toppings at appropriate stages of preparation, some before baking, some as the pie exits the oven.

As for what to quaff, I noticed immediately on the current list of brews a porter, which they call “Kamarade,” presumably as it is allegedly of a Baltic style. I will provide you with their description, which is accurate in the main, and not misleading.

[from the Schilling site] Kamarade (Baltic Porter, Nitro-Poured), 7.8% abv. Inspired by the brewing traditions of Scandinavia and Russia, where porters have a higher ABV than their English counterparts. Ours has a dose of chocolate rye and restrained hopping to produce a malt-centric, lingering finish.

One of the telling parts of the description, aside from the obviously elevated abv, is the specified nitro-poured. Not being familiar with the intricacies and science of brewing—remembering I’m not only a big beer drinker, but I am certainly no beer fanatic, the province of younger men, with bigger beards—I went searching for an adequate, sort of brief explanation of the science, and found the following on the chicagofoodies blog site. It seemed a pretty good take and described the experience I had at the drinking end:

[from the Chicago Foodies site; to explain “nitro pour”] “Beers on nitrogen pour aren’t all that common. Most beers on tap are pressurized by carbon dioxide, which forces the beer out of the keg and through a draft line. With nitrogen systems, a ratio of nitrogen and carbon dioxide around 75/25 is used to pressurize the beer. This requires special equipment that can withstand higher pressure (or just a bit of creative engineering with existing tap systems). When stouts were introduced in Britain, the only way to serve them was by pouring or pumping directly from a cask. Nitrogen pours recreate something of that original experience.

“The nitrogen pour does this in a few ways. Most notably, it creates a creamier mouthfeel to stouts and porters. Nitrogen bubbles are smaller than carbon dioxide bubbles, meaning beers don’t feel as carbonated when served on nitro. Nitrogen is also a large component in the air we breath, so the bubbles in the head don’t feel the need to escape into the air as quickly, producing a thicker head. It’s no surprise that the most common beer experienced on nitro pour is a Guinness.”

http://www.chicagofoodies.com/2012/02/whats-a-nitro-pour-or-why-cant-i-get-a-growler-of-frangelic-porter.html

This helped me understand, and validated, the experience I had with the “Kamarade,” which replicated what I recall of tastes of cask-aged and cask-poured brews in other brew pubs in my past. The net effect is that the carbonation is subdued, refined, civilized, and allows the tastes and flavors of the beverage to be experienced and differentiated without the confusion and distraction of more vigorous activity from larger bubbles of gas in much higher volume. For me, and probably in a very singular way, it’s what diminishes my appreciation for Guinness Stout, which clearly has a preponderance of admirers vs. the number of detractors willing to speak against it. In short, I’m a stout wuss, not able to appreciate the onslaught of powerful—to me, almost primeval—flavors and textures of this stalwart, thick in the mouth, and very flavor-forward beverage. I am supposing, in a very crude thought experiment, that with the kind of titillating and powerful carbonation of a Coca-Cola added to Guinness, the experience would be similar, without the sickening cloying aftertaste of that aggressive assault on the palate. Whatever. I’m content with porter, which stops somewhere short in my mind as a signifier of my manliness, about which I have no doubt, at least with respect to what I sit there, beardless, in the rough-hewn environs of an essentially backwoods tavern—21st century style—however sans the hirsute, plaid-clad, steel-toed boot style called for by the latter-day hipster.

And, to be sure as well as clear, I was very happy with the “Kamarade” on offer at Schilling, save for one thing. Speaking of short, that is, falling short, I had noticed that the current beer list was mainly offered in two serving sizes, not designated otherwise but as a lower-priced portion and a higher-priced, usually indicators of the size of the serving vessel. At the risk of being over-repetitive on a very small and wholly personal detail, as I am not a big beer drinker, I ordered, as I always do in these circumstances, literally a “small” portion, not knowing what else to call it. I am also not sufficiently a frequent imbiber in establishments offering craft brews, and am, hence, unfamiliar with the terms of art. I infer, in the spirit of the hollow marketing manipulations of the language, best embodied in the Italianate and ridiculous drink sizes memorialized by Starbucks where a “small” is transmuted linguistically into a “tall,” a “medium” into a “grande,” etc., a small glass of beer is a “short” pour, which adds a further even more deeply embedded crypto shaming inherent in taproom sensibility—isn’t there an apocryphal legend that in the more roughhouse atmosphere of certain taverns, at least for awhile in certain cultures and counties, that the sport of choice, once all participants, properly bearded, barrel-chested, and beer-bellied were sufficiently lubricated on the warm ale “in good nick” and direct from the cask, was “dwarf tossing?” Pardon the offensive-to-some terminology, but that’s what it was called.

In all events, to be accurate, it seems to me a “short” pour would go in the same glass as an implied “long” pour (though it’s never referred to in this way) only short of the mark as full. It should also be noted that, like the iconic Guinness Stout, the king of nitro-poured craft beers, especially of the dark-hued variety, with far greater barley and malted notes, the hallmark of porter or a stout is a very large head of foam, built up in layers as the expert tapster or barman or maid lets the glass sit under the tap, filling it in increments, in order to maximize its mainly gaseous lighter hued cap of light tan—contrasted handsomely and compellingly with the darker chocolate-hued liquid beneath—to build a foam barrier of optimal depth once a pour is complete. The sign of fullness of the vessel occurs when the foam reaches the top rim of the glass, it no longer subsides.

Naturally, a short pour in any commercial establishment bent on making a profit from the complex, labor-intensive, and delicate ministrations required to produce a fit product for consumption is served in a glass commensurate with the measure they have deemed fit to match the lower price of the smaller portion. As I indicated, all that were shown were two prices. In the case of “Kamarade” these were $3.25 and $6.50. The lower price seemed a fair amount to extract from me, the light drinker, and sufficient to satisfy my taste, my thirst for what I must otherwise and in any event drink in moderation, and would be not the usual waste of money I manage to commit each time I drink in a bar, because, no matter what the usual portion (and it’s usually 12 or 16 ounces of a draft beverage) I never finish the glass. However this “small,” as I ordered it arrived, indeed, in a lilliputian bit of glassware, almost comical in its diminished proportions, and pretty much the size of a glass I have been offered in other establishments when a “taste” (that is a swallow or two) was offered on a complimentary basis, in order to measure the brew against my preferred palate satisfactions. Moreover, there was the exaggerated head, which took up perhaps an inch, perhaps closer to 3/4 of an inch, in a glass that could not measure more than four or four and-a-half inches in total height.

In my astonishment, I remarked to my wife, that I imagined the glass held, at best, four ounces of any liquid. She disagreed but not by much, but there was no scientific way to make even a rough measure to hand so that part of the conversation was dropped, especially as it was irrelevant. I could not see even this generous whistle-wetter as a sufficient quantity to accompany as much of my pizza (to which I will allude, briefly, in a moment) as I was likely to care to consume, that is, a half of it. When the staff member returned, I pointed out that I had not known what to expect in liquid volume as to the size I would be offered, and that I was sure I would want more, and she inquired, blandly, with no sign of being surprised or non-plussed, and with no indication that she saw her role as anything other than in the capacity of server, as opposed, say, to enlightener of the taproom of craft brewers customers still in the dark as to the arcana of their craft and trade. So, “Do you want another,” she asked, “a short pour again [I had been very careful not to allude, again, to anything as “small”], or a full pour?” I allowed that another short one would be sufficient and that was what was delivered. As i never saw the size of the glass used for a “full” pour, I cannot say that the amount I paid for two shorts, $6.50, though the mathematical equivalent of the charge for a single full glass, represented equal value.

Suffice it to say, and I will say it, for added dramatic effect, in a single sentence, which will constitute this entire paragraph, that I was flabbergasted, and remain so, and discovered I had nothing else to think, never mind to say, on the subject.

The pizza I ordered was given the name “Salsiccia,” referring to the slices of Italian sausage that adorned the top in a random pattern, accompanied by carmelized onions, a very thin film of fresh house-made tomato sauce, and copious amounts of mozzarella cheese. It was all very tasty, though the amount of cheese was considerably in excess of my preference, and that the pie was about 10″ in diameter, and I ate half as an adequate lunch.

There is no indication that there is a “short” order of pizza, should one want to exercise restraint on the food side of the bill of fare.

Having warned you, especially the ranks of my equally fastidious consumers of brew-pub food and drink, I would recommend Schilling, should you ever find yourself in Littleton, NH. Given the shortcomings of trying to bottle the more attractive qualities of a nitro-pour, I’d probably avoid the porters and stouts under the Schilling brand, should you stumble into one of that select list of retailers of their craft beers.

Living to eat

D+G_FallSalad-_DSC0120

I’ve been eating my whole life. And I’ve been eating my own cooking for the greater part of that time, as well as feeding and (I’m told) giving pleasure to thousands of guests in the process.

I figured suddenly—I’m a fast study, but a slow learner—it was well nigh time I had a food blog. I already have several other blogs over the years, since 2002, that virtually no one, but the diehards and the most devoted of friends read. I might as well just add another, or at least give myself half a shot at fame, as fortune is out of the question, by writing about something in which most people are actually interested.

Maybe you’ll learn something. Surely I will.

I have a backlog of writing on the subject that I will gather here, to give this meal a little substance right from the start.

I’m just getting started. So stay tuned, and welcome to my virtual table!

Howard Dinin, proprietor, chef, and man-of-all-work