Foodie Tuesday: Butter and Bread

Photo montage: Peasant BreadYou have noticed, I am sure, that the phrase in English is virtually always given as “Bread and Butter,” but if you’ve been here even once before on a Tuesday, you know quite well that for me, butter—not bread—is the sine qua non of this duo, and indeed, in a multitude of other pairings and combinations. Bread, no matter how delicious, is first and foremost a vehicle for a quantity of excellent butter. I will, like other people, eat bread without butter if it’s superb bread or there is no butter to be had, but if you think I won’t eat butter without bread you are very much mistaken.

Butter is delicious.

It is also emerging, in latter years, from under the cloud of privation-inspired (wartime rationing, the Great Depression, and so on back through the ages) inhibitions that resulted in the invention and embrace of all kinds of butter substitutes and, subsequently, the pedantically reinforced attitude that fat in general, and butter, specifically, represented the earthly form of Pure Evil. Turns out that the less dramatic and more practicable truth is that fats, butter among them, are no more dangerous when eaten by non-allergic people and in reasonable quantities proportionate to their other food intake and not processed in ways that remove it too far from its natural state—fat is digestible, useful, and even healthful. Well, butter my biscuits!

Yes, bread is delicious, too.

The list of breads I love is astoundingly long, beginning with the simplest unleavened kinds and wending its way through worlds of batter-based, raised, kneaded, savory or sweet, dark or light, dense and moistly heavy (say, a chocolate-y black pumpernickel) or ethereally feather-fluffy and flaky (perhaps a vanilla-scented brioche or a just-baked croissant) to the filled, sculpted, decorated concoctions of the most masterful bakers. While I was never a baking genius, I was a dedicated maker of a variety of rather delicious breads during grad school, using the kneading time as my meditation and the choices of style and flavors as my medication, both necessary for the survival classes like Ed-Psych and Statistical Data Analysis for Pedagogical Applications.

My favorites to make tended toward the frivolous dessert-tinged breads, upon which a slathering of butter served, in essence, as icing on the cake. I used that classic baking bible, Bernard Clayton’s Complete Book of Breads, for many of my inspirations, though as I always do, I roamed far and wide in making substitutions to suit my pantry and my mood as I baked. But probably the two recipes I used as my foundational go-to favorites most often were from Mom, for Limpa (light, sweet Swedish-style rye) and Julekake (cardamom scented sweet bread traditionally made with dried and candied fruits and peels). I’ve made Limpa plain, once or twice, to be sure, but I can guarantee I never made Julekake exactly according to recipe, since every single version I’ve seen or eaten elsewhere contains raisins and often, candied cherries, neither of which I like texturally in baked goods. Just not my thing. So I’d either delete some add-ins or make all the measures of fruity/candied ingredients in the recipe be strictly candied peel and citron, which will undoubtedly make lots of people laugh, since very few folk I know dislike raisins, or even those neon red-and-green candied cherries, but citron is notoriously a love-it-or-hate-it ingredient and I gather, is less often admired than reviled.

Go figure.

Much of the time, when I’ve baked from recipes that called for candied peel and fruits, dried fruit pieces, nuts, and that sort of thing, I like most of all to substitute that sort of thing with my preferred varieties of them, whether it’s in breads, cakes, cookies, steamed puddings, or anything else. So you’re more likely to find me making a facsimile of Julekake that contains a combination of citron, juicy candied orange peel and ginger, diced dried apricots, and coarsely chopped dark chocolate. That’s the way I roll knead to do it.

And still. Even though it may be full of candy, I’m going to slather some fresh, cool, lightly salted butter all over that bread before I eat it, if I get the slightest chance. Makes it slide down mighty nicely, if I do say so!

PS—All of that being said, I do greatly enjoy bread’s natural suitability as a superb support and vehicle for lovely fats. Being in Texas, I am glad to indulge my admiration for fine BBQ (and whether it’s meat or not, it ought to be good and greasy) as often as possible, and sometimes even the squishy, soulless processed bread traditionally served with BBQ is perfect with it, a plate you can eat when the rest of the meal is gone. Incredible burnt ends. A hunk of bread to sop up the fat, outside and in. No dishes to wash. Bonus points.Photo: BBQ Fat Happiness

Foodie Tuesday: Sweets, Treats & Healthy Eats

photo

What’s good for my heart might be as much a spiritual question as a nutritional one, even at table. Mmm, BBQ!

I am one of those silly people who don’t think the title’s terms are mutually exclusive. Call me a cockeyed optimist (because, well, I am), but it also happens to follow a certain logic if I tell you that not only do scientists and nutritionists and doctors sometimes concede that what was once thought the epitome of healthful behavior and ingestion is now believed to be quite the opposite, or that things we once considered horrendously dangerous and likely to contribute to the destruction-through-dining of the entire human race might not be quite so terrible after all. Not to mention the recognition that each person’s body type, genetic makeup, chemistry, environment and so forth all make him-her-me unique in the ways we suffer or benefit from our diets.

So I will refrain from posting—on Tuesdays or otherwise—ruminations on what is Always or Never good for anybody. Besides which, as you well know on visiting with me even twice on a Tuesday, even my own two-person family household has vastly different ideas and tastes and preferences when it comes to what we simply like or don’t like to eat and drink. Thankfully, we can work out those differences in many ways, so the reality of our widely divergent food loves has relatively little impact on our love of being together.

This is, among other things, a reason that it’s nice to have something to amuse each member of the party at table, and let each choose his or her own combination of dishes, drinks and delectables. I am well aware that having no children in the family may be seen as a dodge of the most difficult issues in this regard, because as a supposedly responsible adult one might be expected to see that every child present is getting reasonable nutrition at all times, and hopefully, also building practices and habits that will lead to her continued healthy living. But of course one can point to numerous folk who have in various ways had the ability to subvert the rules and live and thrive. And of course, I live with an adult who has managed to do so despite having been raised to eat ‘right’ yet arriving at adulthood with a general dislike of much of what is, was and perhaps ever shall be considered ‘right eating’: he doesn’t like very many vegetables at all, and could probably survive on pizza, mac and cheese, hamburgers and fries, and those with little deviation from their simplest forms, especially preferred without annoying vegetable side dishes or icky sauces. While I enjoy nearly all of the foods he does like, I’ll also eat lots of other things gladly, including the veggies and sauces and many more things he would far rather not.

photo

Cucumber, all by itself, is refreshing; as a simple salad made with rice vinegar, honey, fresh dill and black pepper, it’s also delicious.

Does this in any way make him less intelligent or well-bred or good or admirable? It most certainly does not, any more than it confers sainthood upon me. It may be true that ‘the heart wants what it wants’, but baby, I’d say with ten times the conviction that the gut has powerful reign over our existence—stomach, tastebuds and brain in concert, that is. And I’ll bet you dollars to sugary, fat, wonderful donuts that this alone will not determine who among us lives well, survives long and dies contented. So I eat my vegetables, more often than not, alone even when eating at the same table as my beloved. He will order the same classic meat-and-potatoes food a bit more frequently than I will. We will both worry about our health and weight and shapes from time to time and each of us, occasionally, do some little thing or other to alter them, together or individually.

All I can say for certain is that I hope neither of us will ever lose interest in food and drink altogether or, especially, lose the ability to eat and sip much that we enjoy, because those tastes and those communal activities and shared experiences give us pleasure that is as beneficial to health and happiness as the nutrients themselves can ever begin to be. That makes Foodie Tuesday here a perfect day to celebrate a very special cook, hostess, family member and dear friend, whose birthday is upon us. Happy birthday, Mom Sparks! Your good cooking and your graciousness, both at table and all around, make you a Sweet Treat yourself—and helped to shape, unquestionably, the marvelous man with whom I am privileged to dine nearly every day, no matter what we choose to eat and drink.

photo

‘Green Banana’ Pudding: ripe bananas and avocado blended until smooth with fresh lime juice and zest, honey, butter (of *course* I’m not kidding), almond extract, and a pinch of salt. A few toasted coconut chips on top add just a hint of crunch. Banana-lime happiness in a spoon!

Foodie Tuesday: Come Away with Me

Travel eating can be a horror, of course, since the challenges of being in unfamiliar territory, changing time zones (and therefore, often, the times when we’re hungry or not), having to figure out the differences in price based on a travel budget and possibly foreign currencies and the simple odds of finding great food in a new or different place can all conspire to put us at risk of eating badly, if at all. I can think of a few classic examples in my own history, to be sure. A trip to a certain little (long gone, God willing) Inn that wanted ever so dearly to be thought quaint and Elizabethan and folkloric springs instantly to mind: a speedy glimpse into the dining room should have warned of danger ahead, had either my sister or I bothered to note that the decor included a plate rail circling the room and bearing an ominously vast collection of cartoonish miniature boxes of cold cereal. What followed, since we failed to notice this flagrant danger signal before we’d ordered and waited quite awhile, was remarkable in its weirdness and memorably awful tasting, a meal in which every single ingredient smacked noticeably of the tin from whence it sprang and the pièce de résistance was a salad thus composed: one wet leaf of iceberg lettuce cupping a hard, slightly greenish canned peach half that in turn cradled one whole pitted black olive. If ever a thing eyed me ominously, it was that thing.

But more often than not, lest you think me incapable of finding out the true culinary delights peculiar to any place I visit, I love travel in large (no pun intended) part because I do find and relish such specialties of places-not-my-home.

In Texas, besides the fine variety of regional treats influenced by the mix of whatever native and immigrant populations rule therein, there is almost always some great Mexican and/or Tex-Mex food to be had, not to mention the whole range of beefy, meaty and BBQ-smoky goodness that reigns in the hearts and stomachs of the locals. So you know full well that when my spousal-person and I get to do any wandering in our current state of dwelling, we tend to hunt for those joints where the area’s avid eaters congregate to eat such good and glorious things.photoA trip to the Boston Early Music Festival is reason to rejoice by virtue all of the fantastic playing and singing we hear there. High art and musical culture are always a thrill. But it’s also an outstanding excuse to indulge in Boston‘s superlative food culture. So, given the chance, you can bet I’ll dash to one of the nearest provisioners of provender to order up a beatific lobster roll as soon as I can manage it. If it is repeated numerous times and also happens to be followed by a number of equally fine regional treats, say, a dainty dish of Boston baked beans swimming in molasses-sticky sauce or some spectacular Italian food at the north end of town, why then, I’m all the happier.photoDriving through Oregon wine country is a sure way to enjoy some spectacular scenery, its vineyards interspersed with small organic farms and fruit and hazelnut orchards, but do you think there’s any chance I would settle for merely viewing such glories and not dining on them too? Think again! Would I go visiting in northern Italy and not fill up on ethereal handmade pasta with wild mushrooms? Never! Cross an inch of Hungarian soil without seeking out a good dose or ten of paprikás or gulyás? Perish the thought! This musing is motivated in part, of course, by the opportunity and intent to spend a bit of this summer engaged in this beloved sport of eating-while-traveling. (Or, admittedly, traveling-while-eating.) But if it also serves to move you to further such adventures, rest assured I will be cheering you on all the way. And if I can find you and join you at the table, I most assuredly will.photo

Cow Punchlines

photoI’ve No Beef with Your Cultural Identity

Being a female or male Croatian

Is no more determined by your location

Than eye-color, height or weight, or sex is

By where you were born in the state of Texas

But I will admit Texan regions do

Determine the skew of your barbecue,

And can also say, since it ain’t no tattle,

That many are mighty fond of cattle.photo

Foodie Tuesday: When in Texas . . .

photo

A menu from the LBJ (US President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s) ranch, from the 1960s.

. . . eat like a Texan.

photo

Well-made biscuits go perfectly with everything, of course.

That’s simply to say that, since we’re on the road with Mom and Dad S and dining out much of the time, the logical thing to do is to eat classic local and regional foods, as well prepared as possible. If you don’t already know the area fully, just ask who’s the nearby iconic source of said goodies, and any folk in town will surely share their opinions and recommendations. We all like to let others in on what’s good, as long as they promise to eventually leave town again for their homes and don’t take up our spaces at the table!

photo

Pull up a chair at Black’s.

This trip, such practices mean that we’re enjoying lots of beef, fried foods, Mexican and Tex-Mex delicacies, and pecans. The ‘World’s Largest Pecan’ (a–to my eye–humorously humble sculpture we saw on the courthouse lawn in Seguin) notwithstanding, there are an almost infinite number of exquisite food specialties featuring the nut of the Texas state tree, ranging from the simple and unadorned to mouthwatering pralines and brittle and crunchy chocolates and spiced nuts and intensely rich pecan pies. Pretty much anything one can imagine putting in one’s mouth to eat is considered prime material for putting into the deep fryer first, in this state, so it would be wrong not to feast on chicken fried steak or, yes, chicken fried chicken. The latter, not to be confused with that other magnificent delight fried chicken, is made like its steak cousin: a nice chicken breast pounded into a thin cutlet, coated with a nice breading (usually a thin, seasoned batter), and deep fried until its fragile shell is as daintily crackling-crisp as the sugar crust of a crème brûlée, and then of course devoured with large quantities of fried potatoes or biscuits or bacon-cooked green beans or buttered sweet corn or coleslaw.

photo

Brisket and ribs and *some* of the fixin’s at Black’s.

I could, as you know, go on and on, rhapsodizing endlessly on the variety and virtues of Texas cuisine, but it would leave me fewer subjects for future Tuesday posts. More importantly, it might eclipse what was one of our goals in visiting this part of central Texas, which was to eat some fine Texas barbecue. Beef-centric in the main and not so much defined by sauces as are some other regions’ BBQ specialties, Texas BBQ is more characteristically recognized as being wood-smoked meats, brisket being probably the star of the show followed by various sorts of ribs, pit-smoked turkey and ham and pork roasts, pulled meats and, not least of all, sausages. Like many other regional signature foods, in Texas there are as many signature styles and flavors of sausage as there are barbecue masters and smoker chefs.

photo

All fired up at Smitty’s.

Our aim, specifically, was to visit what is pretty widely acknowledged as the BBQ capital of Texas, the town of Lockhart. It’s kind of a pity that Lockhart became so renowned for BBQ and so defined by it, because (apparently unbeknownst to all of the guidebooks and programs I’ve ever seen about Lockhart, since it’s never been mentioned in my hearing) it’s really a pretty town, with a gorgeous Victorian courthouse in its center surrounded by a charming square full of shops and restored vintage buildings, neighborhoods full of a grand mixture of old-fashioned architectural styles ranging from tin shack to Southern mansion, and groves of beautiful old oaks, soapberry trees and pines undergirded by fine clumps of prickly pear and wild grasses.

photo

A whole mess o’ Texas-style libations.

But barbecue is, for better or worse, Lockhart’s middle name, and since we’ve been staying less than an hour from there it seemed it would be a sacrilege not to test its validity. Though there are in fact additional reputable places in town for eating good barbecue (we have it on local authority), Lockhart is famed primarily for three eateries that are all longtime institutions in town and known each for its own unique style of both food and atmosphere. We had only the one chance to visit on this our first trip to the area, and one day on which we could sensibly do so, so we decided to check two of the three big-name places for the sake of comparison. Smitty’s Market and Kreuz Market both sprang from the same joint’s origins, so we opted to go with the completely unrelated Black’s for our first stop, shared a two-plate assortment of foods there between the four of us, and then wandered over to Smitty’s (something of a coin-toss decision winner between the two ‘cousin’ places) to sample a little of the competition.

I will simply say that this first brief encounter made me a believer in Lockhart rather than a fixed advocate for one or the other place. Each had its marvels and was an emporium of fine BBQ dining in its own way. Both had delicious, moist brisket. Smitty’s prides itself on letting the meat star in the show to the extent that not only would a visitor insisting on sauce be shown the door, there are few other adornments even available. A very short list of drinks, some saltine crackers or plain squashy white bread, plastic knives and spoons and butcher paper wrappings for carrying the meat to table, and if you aren’t feeling quite well fed enough you’ve clearly just ordered too little meat. Both eateries offered delicious house-made sausages, Smitty’s being more peppery than the plain variety we had at Black’s, but both succulent and flavorful. Black’s seems almost dressy by comparison when it comes to dining room atmosphere–Smitty’s is a long, plain, barn-like series of rooms painted floor to ceiling with layers of dense pit smoke that gives it a superb patina of authenticity, but Black’s is classic Texas kitsch, checkered cloth-covered picnic tables lined up cheek by jowl between walls plastered with longhorn and deer-antler trophies, taxidermy and celebrity-visitor portraits.

photo

The fabled Pink Ring of smoked brisket looks mighty purty alongside some peppery house-made sausage, don’t it.

I could tell you about the starch and vegetable sides at Black’s, but ‘that ain’t barbecue’ after all, and I could tell you about the desserts there, which looked perfectly dandy, but we didn’t touch those since we still had a stop to make at Smitty’s. I could admit to you that even after we ate small meals at both Black’s and Smitty’s we still had the room and the gumption to stop at a shop on the square and have a scoop each of ice cream, but that might be giving away too much information and setting a bad example at the same time. I will tell you that the drive out and back was through the picturesque central Texas landscape and in the company of loved ones and therefore a very pleasant way to pass a slightly drizzly afternoon at the tail end of the year. And yes, that it’s well worth your while to drive along out to Lockhart, Texas, no matter what the weather when you’re in the mood for some barbecue. I’ll get back to you when I’ve been able to test the other places’ competence in that realm, but after all, it’s worthwhile enough just to know that two of the touted sources of BBQ goodness are all they’re cracked up to be, because when you need some barbecue, well, it’d better be good.

photo

Ice cream is good medicine even when you’ve overeaten during the main meal.

Now, eat up, y’all. There’s a whole new year of good food ahead of you!

photo

Lady Bird Johnson (President Johnson’s First Lady) served up some good Texas food on her campaign-support train trip, introducing more of America to the deliciousness that is Texas cuisine. (Choose the chili, if you want to be like Mr. President.)

 

Foodie Tuesday: Ten Thousand Things I’ll Never Know

photo

Nash your teeth over this! Celery, raw . . .

Okay, you are all very well aware that there are more like ten squillion things I’ll never know, but it doesn’t make for as mellifluous a title, now, does it? Ahem. Confession is all well and good, but I might as well please my inner critic, too.

I am referring, in the title I did choose, to the multitude of cool tricks and fabulous skills I am quite unlikely to learn and/or acquire as a chef in this lifetime. Some of them I could undoubtedly get the hang of, if not exactly master, were I to make a dedicated effort. But I’m such a dilettante by nature and so easily moved to any attractive tangent, that such dedication is a fairly rare commodity in my personal performance toolbox. I certainly admire all of you artistes and culinary technicians who have such an abundance of graces in the kitchen, at the grill, and around any old fire pit you can conjure out of architectural rubble, used tuna tins and flammable leaf-mold. And I’ll leave such things to you.

If I were a serious student I might be able to learn how to poach, candy, spherify, souffle, smoke, sear and pulverize the universe of edible things into perfect submission, but I am instead the kid who sits in the corner and stares alternately out the window and down at my left shoelace until galvanized by the lunch bell, whereupon I am first in the cafeteria line and probably sticking my fork into my food well before I have sat at a table. So my hopes of becoming a great chef are limited at best. Part of the problem is getting practiced and patient enough to merely remember what I just did in preparing a dish to have even the remotest chance of either replicating it at some future date or–if it turns out it’s awful–avoiding said replication, at least by improving those things that were unsatisfactory about it in the event. That makes one of the Ten Thousand Things that ranks very high on my list the ability to prepare and eat the same thing twice.

While I’m all for playing Variations on a Theme and enjoying change and novelty, I’m not entirely free of the rather common human urge to indulge in familiar favorites. That means it’s often wisest not to stray exceedingly far from the few techniques I do know and the moderate batch of ingredients that are well-loved in my cookery adventures, or I’m surely doomed to a perpetual cycle of this battle with my limited memory, always eating whatever random concatenation or ridiculous concoction happened to come out of my latest crash course dans la cuisine.

Today, I was faced with a fair fridge-full of unrelated leftovers that, if I didn’t want them to die of old age, needed to be made into something approximating tastiness that I could at least freeze until we would be home to heat-and-eat them. Combined, there were the makings of a whole simple meal; it only required my ‘repurposing’ everything, if that’s not too odd an application of the term, and the time was decidedly now. Tonight the garbage and recycling bins get put out for morning collection, and if we’re not going to actually eat the stuff, it’s clearly better to cut losses before that cleansing event than after it.

So, since the ingredients presented themselves, I prepped three simple recombined dishes as follows. The main course: a BBQ meatloaf of sorts. Sides couldn’t be simpler than yet another version of my mainstay potato casserole and steamed vegetables, and that’s what we’ll have to feed our hunger and clear out the refrigerator this time. What I’ll do with the leftovers of the leftovers is anybody’s guess. I’m quite sure I won’t remember how they got this way in the first place.

Meatloaf probably sounds a bit better, or at least a little more identifiable, than A Hunk of Barbecue-Sauced Meats Put Together, but either way, it’s the simple truth. This loaf came out very tender, indeed, almost to the point of falling apart, so there’s clearly a spot that I could adjust in the recipe, if there were a recipe. Ah, well. I simply took equal parts of leftover pit ham and roast beef (both thoroughly cooked already, obviously) and a little bit of roasted chicken that I had, too–a little under 3 cups of meat in total, I suppose–and put them all together with about a quarter-to-half a cup of barbecue sauce plus two eggs (raw) in the food processor and chopped them all together into a light minced meat ‘dough’, pressed it into a lightly greased loaf pan, and baked it at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 35 minutes or so. Pretty nice tasting results for so little effort, really. Even better when I will have only to warm it up when it’s time to eat. And when, of course, I will already have forgotten entirely what I did with what ingredients to have made the food.

photo

Whatever you call me, just don’t call me Late for Dinner . . .

The other food is and was equally easy. The potato casserole this time is a mix of a cup of leftover good french fries (chips) plus one raw Russet plus 1/4 cup of queso blanco, all diced into similar small-sized pieces and mixed with a tablespoon of butter, a handful of shredded Parmesan cheese, and sprinklings of ground black pepper and salt and a small pinch of grated nutmeg and microwaved until the queso was just beginning to melt. I cooled this mix and put it in the fridge, and when it’s time to fix it for eating I’ll put it in a heat-proof container and warm it through thoroughly with a half cup or so of heavy cream. That always gives potato casseroles a nice texture somewhere in between baked and mashed potatoes, both of which I think are pretty fine, and helps the cheeses blend into the mix well.

photo

I’m always making a hash of things . . .

The steamed veg is prepared in the way that makes the dish, if you can even call it that, the easiest of all of them. Carrots and celery, cut into 1″ pieces and steamed with a pat of butter in a half cup of chicken broth (vegetarians can obviously substitute veg broth, wine, water or juice) plus a splash of Limoncello–that’s all there is to it. This one will get salted at the table because I don’t want to get any of that metallic hint of mixing salt and booze in cooked food that can sneak through when the dish is so wholly uncomplicated. The carrots and celery should mostly speak for themselves. And they will still taste pretty fresh and sweet, even in a day or two, rather than wilted and antique as they would have been had I not preemptively cooked them today.

Best defense is a good offense, so I’m told, and nowhere do I see it demonstrated as often as in getting food at least par-cooked before its shelf life has ended. A pseudo-science I learned because, among all of the other kitchen cuteness I will probably never know is the refined art of getting everything prepared and eaten exactly when it’s at its peak, never mind not having odd-lot leftovers or not losing time, tears and groceries if we get invited out to dinner after I’ve half-prepared a meal so it sits around extra days waiting for our attentions. Perfection in the kitchen? No, never. But this old dog does know a tiny trick or two, and that has kept us alive reasonably well so far.

photo

Celery, stewed . . . or steamed . . . oh, just hush up and eat your vegetables while they’re hot!

Foodie Tuesday: It Makes Me Hungry Just Reading about It: Food for Thought

Julia Child. Jeffrey Steingarten. Ruth Reichl. Anthony Bourdain. Jane & Michael Stern. Calvin Trillin. MFK Fisher.colored pencil on black paper

Whether you have a Pavlovian reaction of immediate salivation when you hear any of those names (or get an instant craving for a perfectly prepared Pavlova), or you are filled with horror at the mere mention of them, you probably recognize that these are all persons associated with food, and specifically, with writing about food. For good or ill, they have collectively made a deeper impression on the palate of every would-be foodie in the Western world than any of us can even guess–even those of us that know little of the specifics of these individuals’ writings and gustatory opinions. Because the modern world does hold art criticism with a certain sort of reverence not usually associated with the arts themselves (obviously, those who determine the ostensible value of art must be much smarter and more reliable than those who merely make the stuff), and chases after those things that the most influential critics tell the world it should desire, or reviles that which they tell us we should fear or disdain. And where our tastes go, there go our wallets also. Soon to be followed by every shopkeeper and purveyor of ingredients and/or ideas related to said tastes. It’s the way we’re wired.

What attracts me to any of these, or other food writers, is that when at their best, each of them speaks not only with a truly distinctive and individual voice–but also writes as much about the context of the food as to give me a deeper and more delicious sense of its place within its cultural surrounds, in history, in each writer’s personal history, in the sciences of cookery that led to its development. Every bite we eat is potentially not only a small barrier between us and starvation but also is fraught with danger (want to talk about all of the discoverers of what wasn’t safe for human consumption?), full of potential for making memories that outlive and outlast every scholarly hour any of us ever spent on Serious Pursuits, and able to make or break meaningful relationships. We find, and lose, ourselves in what we eat and when and how and why we eat it, and these writers all carry that weight with such authority and finesse at times that there’s as much heartbreak in the description of a tender stalk of asparagus, as much ethereal joy in the coddling of one little egg, as though one were reading the great philosophers, the kings and queens among novelists. Oh, wait: all of those have also waxed wildly poetic on food from time to time; it’s how they connect with the rest of us too.

That this relationship between the ordinary and extraordinary can so blur at its own boundaries is precisely because food has such life-and-death power over us all and because we seek it, when we can, for its own allure.

So I am thankful, not only on a Foodie Tuesday but whenever I pause for such thought, that there have long been people who loved food enough to prepare and eat it–and to talk about it, study it, and yes, write about it well. Sometimes reading good food writing is almost like the actual eating of it; more often, it makes me desirous of both eating and knowing more of it. My parents and relatives and friends have trained me up in certain ways of cooking and eating, and the larger world offered numerous expansions on the ideals of both. And the great and good among food writers and critics and historians have pushed my horizons further in every direction. When I set out to put food on the table (or just directly into my mouth), it is most often done with a current of those thoughts they have inspired in me running through every move I make and every ingredient I take in hand.

I think, as a result, of how I first knew of various simple elements of cookery: ingredients, techniques, recipes and menus. Then I think of how I might wish to recombine them in the present moment. Who should be present. What is best suited to the occasion. How I wish to assemble it all. And off I go.

Spare ribs were an infrequent but welcome treat when I was growing up–infrequent because Mom’s method was of the boil-then-broil variety, a slow simmering on the cooktop in water or broth followed by oven roasting to finish with a bit of higher heat for caramelizing the glaze. I doubt that I ever requested her recipe for the ribs because I was too daunted by the amounts of time and labor required to want to fuss with any such thing. Ever so much later, here I am making them too, but with enough of a boost from kitchen rocket science to simplify them to a point where even Miss Lazybones is willing to make the (much more modest) effort, knowing that the ribs will turn out tender and juicy no matter what else I do with them.

My process, then, is simpler than the description of it will sound, and the ingredient list is flexible and easy to decide as well. I have (I believe I mentioned before) that dream-machine of lazy cooks, my home sous vide appliance [not a compensated endorsement but yes, I really do like it!]. It’s about the size of a very small microwave oven and even lives on our kitchen counter between uses because I have the luxury of a great expanse of countertop workspace. Sous vide cooking is the method of putting vacuum-sealed packets of food (plus, if desired, seasonings of various kinds) in a temperature-controlled water bath and letting the bath do pretty much all of the work except for final browning or caramelizing. I have a kitchen vacuum sealer, also a fairly pricy but mighty handy appliance as it allows for good freezer-proof packaging of meats and vegetables so they don’t spoil as quickly, and with the food-safe wrappings means that I can even put pre-seasoned packets directly from the freezer into the sous vide machine if I allow enough time for the frozen food to come fully to the correct internal temperature and stay there for the right amount of time.

The water bath cooking method is as old as the hills, really, though in olden times it required much more elaborate and ingenious ways of wrapping the immersible foods and a constant vigilance over the cooking temperature of the water bath that yours truly would never dream of undertaking. Sous vide mechanisms with automated water circulation and temp control can even be home-built by the mad-scientist sort of kitchen enthusiast. Me, I was gifted with a ready-made beauty by my kindly spouse. It cost quite a chunk of change, as you’d imagine, but the payoff for him is worthwhile, I think, when I actually endeavor to make such previously tiresome things as a rack of perfectly fall-off-the-bone baby back ribs.photo

Baby, Come Back to Me Ribs

[Special equipment: a food vacuum-packing machine and a home sous vide setup]

1 Full rack of well-marbled pork ribs

Spice rub

Butter

Barbecue sauce

I slash the rack of ribs in half and vacuum-pack the halves separately so that I can nestle the two together, thus making a small-shoebox-sized batch of meat that can fit comfortably into my sous vide and still be surrounded by water. For prep, I put each spice-rubbed* half-rack into an open vacuum bag with a pat of butter, then seal the packets closed, fit the two together snugly, and keep them in the fridge until start-up time. The evening before Rib Eating Day, I’ll immerse the conjoined twin packs in the sous vide. I use the machine’s handy printed cooking guide to choose and set the temp for a mere hair-above-minimum ‘ideal’ for ribs, and let them slowly melt into juicy morsels overnight. About a half hour before mealtime, I take the now soupy-looking packets out of the water bath, open the bags carefully over a sauce pot and drain all of the extra juices into it for boiling down into a nice quick base for the barbecue sauce, and while that’s heating up, very delicately (as they’re now falling apart) dress the rib racks with some of the prepared barbecue sauce** and put them, in a 9×13″ or larger baking pan, under the broiler to brown them nicely for serving. Watch out for burning! When they look and smell enough like candy that you can’t wait any longer, grab them out of the oven and rush them to the table. Hopefully, everything–and everyone–else has been gathered on or at the table beforehand, so it’s all ready to go. Eat ribs with your hands, and become outlandishly messy. Wear your worst old clothes, because if you’re not all painted elbows-to-eyebrows in barbecue sauce by the end of the meal, you’ve definitely done something wrong. This is barbecue, after all. [If you eat these in summertime y’all can go out and run through the sprinkler afterward to wash up.]

Ribs go down wonderfully with a wide range of goodies. I like a Kansas City or Memphis-style rub and sauce (slightly spicy, sticky and sweet), so mine tend to be as follows:

* Spice rub: salt and black pepper; brown sugar; ground cloves, cinnamon, allspice, ginger, garlic powder and cayenne.

** Barbecue sauce: we love Corky’s (from Memphis, no surprise) regular sauce, so if I have some on hand I may well use it straight out of the bottle, just adding the concentrated meat juices I’ve cooked down. If I’m making my own BBQ sauce, I concoct something in a similar vein, using dark molasses, ketchup, tomato puree, the same spices as in the rub sans sugar, and usually some citrus juice (orange is great) and a splash of whiskey to coat the ribs for browning, and to blend with the meat juices for serving.

Side dishes: at our place, it’s likely you’ll see coleslaw and corn (creamed, on the cob, or cooked kernels of super-sweet corn are all pretty hard to beat); buttery mashed potatoes, fresh peaches and watermelon . . . of course, any good Southern side dishes are pretty perfect with ribs: a mess o’ greens (would that I had the late great Raydell’s delectably classic recipe!), biscuits or soft rolls with butter, grits, beans cooked down almost to disappearance with salt meat. Big ol’ pitchers of sweet tea. Some sweet potato pie or lemon cake to finish. Ohhh, my stomach is growling now. I’d better read me some good foodie scripture right away before I lose my soul. Help me, blessed Calvin Trillin! Save me, saint Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher!colored pencil drawing + text