Tuesday, November 02, 2004

It Must've Been Something I Ate

(Jeffrey Steingarten, Knopf, 2002)

Maybe it was because this was his second collection, but it seemed to lack some of the zing of his first book. That one selected from things he had been writing for a few years, whereas there was only a 2 year gap between the two books, making it harder to get a collection of the same quality. Thats not to say there were not some great pieces, because there were. One of the funniest stories was Brain Storm, where in his normal fashion, he followed up a theory that his obsessiveness about food might be caused by a brain lesion. He finds the authors of the article and has them do elaborate scans of his brain: sure enought, there is a slight shrinkage of his brain away from the skull in one place. Not that Steingarten has a problem with this, he makes a virtue out of being a "passionate eater": "We transmute what animals do into what angels would do if angels ate food, which I don't think they do, at least not in their official capacity... Yes, Doctor, I plead guilty to an obsession with beauty, edible or otherwise." Of course, being Steingarten, he finds the finest restaurant in the district and takes his doctor along: they feast until 2:30 a.m., and he wonders "Would he [the doctor] now admit that his phrase, "excessive interest in fine food" was an oxymoron, a troubling symptom of his own reluctance to wallow in pleasure?"

Oh, and then there was his exploration of the world of trendy salts, some of which go for up to $25 a pound and one (Oshima Island Blue Label Salt) so exclusive you have to be a member of a club in order to get some. He's firmly addicted, with more than a dozen different salts scattered around his bench top and a little hand crafted walnut box in which to carry his salt around with him. It was a little bit sad that science and numerous blind tastings could not find a statistically sound difference in taste between any of the salts, at least when dissolved.

Two nice little stories were, respectively, his investigation into whether MSG really does cause headaches (no, apparently) and his consternation over the rigid rules established by the USA over carrying young unpasteurised cheeses into the country and the near complete disregard by officialdom of anyone breaking the rules.

I find I am getting more and more fascinated with making bread, proper old school bread, even had a long conversation today with someone about whether her mother might possibly make Irish soda bread. Steingarten is even more obsessed: when he goes to Paris, which seems to be frequently, he has a burning need to ruish round all the bread shops collecting a particular style of bread: on the occasion he recounts in the book, it is the baguette. Apparently, in the 1960's mechanisation and the trend to import high-gluten flours meant the disappearance of the traditional baguette in favour of "a tasteless, fluffy, plae and bleached imposter". Proper French flour is soft and creamy, and in the 1990's there was a huge resurgence of interest in using it and traditional methods, even the establishment of an annual competition - which by some "preposterous error", our author found himself judging. Nice that the winner refused to identify himself, saying that he cared only for his customers. Just in case I ever get to Paris (actually, I might well, since that's on the way to Tunisia), the prize was given to M Teixeira of the Aux Delices du Palais, 60 Bvd Brune, 75014 Paris (14th Arrondissement) for his "baguette a l'ancienne". Then there are branded baguettes - where the bakeries use the flour from Minoteries Viron in Chartres and call their baguettes Retrodors.

Then there is the rave about Italian flat breads - including the six foot pizza bianca (ex Antico Forno in Campo de Fiori in Rome) - it is folded onto a small wooden "peel" like an accordian, that peel is then pushed to the back of the oven and somehow the bread is unfolded into the oven. Pane Genzanese seems a little more achievable. This will have to be in a seperate post, as it gets very long.

On a voyage to a completely different part of the world, Mexico, I can have the perfect taco: they come from Tacos el Yaqui, Rosarito Beach, near Tijuana (south end of town, left at the lights just before Rosarito Beach Hotel, and then the first left). Nicely marinated beef cooked over a wood fire seems to be the trick, helped out by appropriate salsa (ranchero and roja).

Ooh, I have to make his hot chocolate: 2.25 cups whole milk, .25 cup bottled still water, .25 cup superfine granulated (castor?) sugar, 100 grammes dark bittersweet chocolate (Scarffen Berger, Valrohona or Lindt) finely sliced using a bread knife and finally .25 cup (28 grammes) cocoa powder - he says Valhrona. Get the water, milk and sugar to the boil, add the chocolate and cocoa, bring to the boil agin - whisking to dissolve the chocolate and to thicken the mixture. Then lower the heat, and finally either use an immersion mixer for 5 minutes or a blender for 30 seconds. Makes 4 cups. Apparently, in another of his blind tests, he found that Valhrona cocoa and Scarffen Berger chocolate produced the best results. In another article, he gleefully notes that eating chocolate (his favourite vegetable product) is good for you, with his scientific tests establishing that the secret chemical ingredient in chocolate is actually... chocolate, because of the "sensual and aesthetic pleasure" it brings.

I'm still to be convinced about caviar and turducken - a chicken stuffed into a duck stuffed into a turkey (with one variant then stuffed into a lamb) - apparently invented by Paul Prudhomme. More interesting was his hunt for dry-aged beef - and by aged, he means for ten weeks or more! Apparently, if its kept at the right sort of temperature, humidity and rate of fresh air, it won't go off - the outside will be a bit green but can be removed - the result is something both very tender and very flavourful. After an extensive telephone survey of US steak houses, he found two that might meet his needs! Peter Luger in Brroklyn and Bern's Steak house in Tampa - a monster of a place that can seat something like 600 people!


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