Aioli All Wrong

Jerry:  Are you still master of your domain?

Elaine:  I am queen of the castle! 

Recent events in the kitchen left me head in hands, brow furrowed, my inner voice suggesting not-so-nice nostrums. I had ruined the homemade aioli, and in the process wasted two cups of impossibly expensive olive oil from Italy. And by ruined, I mean I’d created a separated, watery mess of egg yolks, lemon, garlic, and mustard from Dijon, France. A mess by any measure. Ish.

So, you may be asking, why go to the terrible trouble of making homemade aioli when a perfectly acceptable facsimile by Hellmann’s or Best Foods can be procured at every market in America? To that question, I can only reply: Have you ever had homemade aioli? It is to store-bought mayonnaise as Iberian jamon made from pigs that eat acorns under cork trees is to Hormel Black Label. Like so many things, it is the same, but different.

How this culinary disaster, this cocina catastrophe, happened is partially beside the point. Suffice to say that being in too great a rush is a situation with which I am all too familiar. Sensei says: Speed up by slowing down. In layman’s terms, I added the oil too fast, thereby preventing proper molecular emulsification. Turns out, making aioli is a chemistry experiment. Who knew! You can’t just dump the oil into the lemony yolk and mustard mixture; you have to drip it in with patience and practiced intention. Flub this process and you end up with a ruined mess of mayo-not-so-much. And not just a little off — I mean all the way ruined, in the “totally unusable” form of the word. In FEMA terms, an inedible Irma.

So there I stood, rubber spatula in hand, staring ashamed into the unusable, unsavory mess in my KitchenAid. Before I could get around to tossing the whole shebang down the Insinkerator, I decided to check in with the patron saint of home cooks and Francophiles everywhere to try to figure out how I had gone so horribly wrong.

Julia Child to the rescue.

Some time back, I procured a treasured volume of the book Julia and Jacques Cook at Home from Culpepper Books in Tacoma, WA, my former base of operation. Culpepper’s is a splendid little cranny, nooked into brick block between a bank and a very nice Italian joint called Europa Bistro. This bitty gem of a bookstore has an exceptional cookbook section. In addition to JJ@H, I have procured several other cooking books, including my de rigueur copy of Larousse Gastronomique. JJ@H reads as much like a work of fiction as a collection of recipes, with the key literary components of conflict, crisis, and resolution all present.

In the section on making your own mayonnaise, I learned that aioli is a lot like life: It is simple, but not easy. Aioli is important. Its creation is among the most elementary, foundational skills of cooking, but it is also oh-so-easy to screw up.

A frequent construct of the book is for Jacques and Julia to offer different approaches and techniques for the same dish. In her section, Julia not only offers tips on whipping up the perfect aioli, but devotes a lengthy section to its resuscitation if it should break.  DON’T THROW AWAY a separated aioli, she admonishes; it can almost always be resurrected. In fact, learning how to salvage this sauce is a critical kitchen skill on its own, because sooner or later, no matter how skilled one becomes, a moment of inattentiveness will cause you to bungle it. Madame Julia goes so far as to suggest ruining a batch on purpose, so you will know how to repair it when the time comes.  Acquiring this skill, she says, will provide the home cook with a profound sense of accomplishment and mastery. The idea is that fixing something is often more satisfying than creating it perfectly in the first place. It’s like The Nordstrom Way, but in the kitchen instead of women’s shoes.

You can read the full instructions in the manual (RTFM to my engineering friends), but here is the gist: Place a dab of Dijon (the mustard, not the town) in a metal bowl and whisk in a tablespoon of your dreck. As this emulsifies and thickens, keep adding more dreck in minuscule increments, all the while beating it as though your life depended upon it.  Before long, you will have a half a batch rescued, and then you can add the rest faster.

Following the tutelage of my patron saint, I saved the mayo, if not the day. And Julia was right about that mastery thing too. Seldom have I been so proud of myself.

There is a life lesson embedded in there somewhere, but I’ll resist the urge to emulsify you with it, my gentle readers. Suffice to say that while you can save a ruined aioli, you can’t un-grill an overdone steak (a particular bitch if you just took out a second mortgage to pay for that porterhouse, even at today’s low, low interest rates).

So am I the Master of My Domain, the Lord of the Manor? Depends on what time of day you ask. Thanks to a teaspoon of inspiration from Julia Child, though, for this one glorious moment, full of grace, Yes I Am.

Julia Child’s Food Processor Aioli

If you want to be super-authentic and become known as a true kitchen ninja, you can do this with a metal bowl and a hand whisk. I have done it this way, but it makes my wrist sore. 

 

aioli

Ingredients

2 large egg yolks (save the whites for something else; they are always nice to have around)

1.5 tsp. good Dijon mustard (the smooth stuff, not the whole grain)

1 tbsp. lemon juice (from a Meyer lemon, if you have one)

Dash each of salt and pepper

Up to 2 cups good oil (this greatly affects the taste of the dish; for a milder flavor, cut a good EVOO with canola oil).

Pulse the first 4 ingredients in your food processor until they are well combined. With the blade running, slowly (and by slowly, I mean excruciatingly so) drizzle in the oil — one drop at a time to start, then a steady thread, and finally a stream. Augment with minced or roasted garlic and/or finely chopped fresh herbs like parsley, chive, or chervil.

Eat Well.

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The Krummholz Effect

My dad and I were tramping around the area of Dungeness Spit some years ago now, back when he could still tramp around. Dungeness Spit is a 5.5 mile-long comma of sand and driftwood on the top end of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, a spit that curls out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Dad loved this kind of excursion – he always found something interesting, something that few others would take notice of. Along our walk, we encountered some oddly misshapen fir trees, terrifically gnarled and bent over, their branches brushed not haphazardly but in a single direction, as though they had been styled with a brush and half a can of Dapper Dan. Donald Trump had nothing on these comb-overs. 13935d75f6b5b0f242808b0517376fdd

“Ah,” my father said. “Look at that!” He pointed at the contorted conifers. “Great example of the Krummholz Effect!” I had seen such trees before – especially in undeveloped, deserted coastal areas with harsh weather and constant, often howling winds – but I had not previously heard there was a technical term for them, beyond maybe “windblown.” Always the scientist, my dad went on to explain that trees exposed to harsh weather and prevailing winds become severely stunted, with growth only possible on the leeward side. They are typically seen at sub-alpine locations at high altitude, so it was especially interesting for my father to see them at sea level. “It must blow like this here all the time,” he conjectured, our jackets luffing in the gale. I simply nodded. Of course it did.

After a typical lecture on the subject of the Krummholz Effect – how it occurred and under what conditions – my father paused, gazing over the spit and the strait. It was a cold, clear, windy day, and we had great views to the north over the Strait of Juan de Fuca, with Vancouver Island clearly visible in the distance. Dad finally said, “You know, Dr. Moyle used to call me Krummholz.” I was slightly stunned. To my knowledge, my dad had never had a nickname in his life. People either called him John or Mr. Idstrom. To me, he was only Dad – never Pops, or Papa, or Pa-Paw. Not even Father. I didn’t dare call him my old man, even out of earshot. So a nickname? Breaking news to me. He was a not a nickname kinda guy.
Being a tad curious, I inquired as to why Dr. Moyle – a man I had heard him refer to many times as his mentor – called him Krummholz. My dad simply held up his left hand.

I got it.

Two digits of that hand were bulbous and bent, twisted not by a prevailing wind but by alarming encounters with 1) a house fan (middle finger knuckle knocked off) and 2) a pistol (ring finger accidentally shot straight through while grouse hunting). I nodded in understanding and he added nothing further to the conversation. Collars popped and fists jammed in our pockets, we humped it back to the car.

Of course I knew Dr. Moyle, or rather, knew of him. As a newly minted biology major from St. Olaf College with an abiding interest in hunting and fishing, my father’s first real adult job was in Dr. Moyle’s lab. In the mid-1950s, young men who liked to hunt and fish did what they could to sign on with the Department of Conservation’s Division of Fish and Game (as it was called at the time). My dad was lucky: he had a relative in the department who helped him get his foot in the door, banding ducks and performing other grunt work during summer breaks. Degree in hand, he managed to snag a seat at the bench in the lab of one of Minnesota’s first great wildlife biologists, Dr. John B. Moyle.

Dr. Moyle is legendary in Minnesota’s conservation biology circles, but I didn’t need to conduct a Google search to know that. Throughout my young life, my dad would periodically mention him when passing on a lesson about frogs, wildflowers, snakes, bats, or the various sub-aquatic plants one finds in a healthy freshwater marsh, in the way one might footnote a research citation. I never met Dr. Moyle, but he clearly impressed my father and those impressions were passed along, almost genetically, to me.

Although both injuries maimed my father more or less equally, it was the shooting accident that most impressed me as a kid. When he was 19, my father was hunting grouse outside of Remer, MN, where his mother’s cousin Irene and her husband Walt owned a cabin (“The Shack,” as Walt called it) on the shore of Little Thunder Lake. How Dad accomplished the feat of almost blowing off his finger is a complicated story that involves a shotgun, a pistol, and a wing-shot ruffed grouse. The grouse ultimately fared even worse than Dad’s knuckle, which, as I said, was blown pretty much to smithereens but not completely off. The bagged bird was plucked, roasted at high heat, and eaten, rather than preserved for posterity via taxidermy. In hindsight, it would have been cooler to be able to point out to my buddies the bird specifically responsible for my dad’s mangled finger, but c’est la vie. Impressively, after shooting himself, young Krummholz wrapped his mutilated hand in a bandanna and drove to Brainerd, the location of the nearest hospital emergency room. (Those familiar with the movie Fargo, by Minnesota brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, will appreciate the irony of a bloody accidental shooting in the general vicinity of Brainerd.)

As for the nickname, it did not stick. I knew and hunted with many of my father’s coworkers and never heard any of them call him Krummholz, or any other name but John. Perhaps it was because Dr. Moyle’s reference was scientifically half-baked, an observation that did not stand up to scrutiny. Sure, the hand looked like a tree whose gnarly limbs were shaped by relentless, unremitting stress. But even cursory research would have revealed that the contortion was the result of a catastrophic event, not an ongoing experience. I guess the lesson is that if you want a nickname (or a metaphor, for that matter) to stick, a surface observation alone is insufficient. As we know, even a leap of faith requires some modicum of physical evidence, a platform from whence one might make the jump.

The whole story of my dad’s nickname and his gnarled hand came to me the other day when I was driving along California’s Highway 1, hugging the Pacific coast between San Francisco and Santa Cruz, where there are several excellent examples of cypress trees that are Krummholzed all to heck by our persistent and stiff westerlies. The boughs and limbs of the trees up and down that section of highway, particularly just south of Pescadero, are combed over like Donald Trump after a visit to the beauty salon. After being reminded of my dad, I got thinking about Krummholzing – not necessarily as natural effect, but as (surprise!) a psychic metaphor. Eureka! We all live with various injuries, some of them visibly apparent and, like my father’s fingers, the result of accident or incident. More often, we suffer from an invisible disfigurement of the soul, caused by something parallel to the prevailing winds: the constant drip-drip of the bad voices within us. The nearly imperceptible whispers of these voices make us emotionally misshapen; their subsonic, howling mental gales mold us into who we are. They are the unseen Krummholz Effects that somehow manage to twist and bend our lives. Stupid, lazy, incompetent, unworthy, undesired, worthless – stop me any time. It’s these flatulent interior winds that screw us sideways. The problem, of course, is that their effects are never visible to the naked eye until it’s too late – if you’re like me (and I know I am), it takes the equivalent of a psychic colonoscopy to even see we have a problem here, much less to get Houston working on a solution.

Thankfully, I have come to recognize a reliable symptom that tells me I am Krummholzed there and back, and it should come as no surprise to my gentle readers that it involves food. Roasting a whole chicken the same way, with the same side dishes, every Sunday night for months on end? Sure, you may have perfected the crispy skin and the gravy that goes with the mashed potatoes and creamed haricots verts – but talk about boring. One day you look up and find yourself Krummholzed! Don’t get me wrong: I love myself a perfectly roasted whole chicken, and although it requires few real culinary skills, it does take practice and some attentiveness. But if you ask me, sticking with one “signature dish” for too long is a surefire way to ruin the fun of eating.

Sometimes it only takes a small adjustment to cure the Krummholz Blues. The other day, after walking my ancient, creaky Labrador (yes, we have our similarities) on his regular 1.5-mile loop, I realized that I hadn’t really noticed my surroundings for several weeks. Any practitioner of Zen Buddhism – or even the newly popular, religion-stripped practice of California Mindfulness – will tell you that walking a half hour with no notice of your surroundings does not contribute much to your psychic well-being. The next day, I walked the same loop but on the opposite side of the street. Holy cow, did that do the trick! I may as well have been strolling in a foreign country. One house needed a new paint job; another had torn out the front grass and planted a gorgeous flower garden…stuff like that. To call it a revelation would be overstating, but it was nonetheless startling to realize how different things looked from the other side of the street.

So my advice, to you and to myself: Walk on the other side of the street once in a while. Take a different route to work. Forego the blueberry muffin and try the one with kale. And for goodness sake, spatchcock that chicken! Recognize the signs that your psychic limbs are being twisted and that the prevailing breeze is of your own making. Straighten that spine.

Spatchcocked Chicken

If you haven’t spatchcocked a fowl before, now is the time to learn. A spatchcocked bird retains all its bones and ligament (the stuff that keeps it moist and juicy), but makes for quicker cooking and a nice, uniformly crisp skin.
Really, it’s quite easy. Flip a whole chicken on its breast, spine up. Using stout kitchen shears and beginning at the Pope’s nose, make a cut just to one side of the backbone, all the way to the neck. Then do the other side, removing the spine from the bird. Now crack the breastbone with a butcher knife so that the bird lies flat. Voila, you have spatchcocked your first bird!spatchcocked-chicken

Next comes the fun, creative part that keeps you thinking. A spatchcocked bird is perfect for the grill, and any one of a zillion preparations will do once you have that bird flattened out. You can certainly slather it with BBQ sauce, preferably something made at home. Or whip up a marinade with garlic, lemon, olive oil, and fresh rosemary. One of my favorites is to mix up a nice sludge of Moroccan spices like ground cumin, coriander, ginger, cinnamon, allspice, cayenne, clove, salt, and pepper. Add a splash of olive oil and some mashed-up preserved lemon (Thomas Keller’s recipe for preserved lemon in his seminal Ad Hoc at Home book is recommended reading). The mixture should resemble a thick paste. Rub this paste all over both sides of your spatchcocked chicken and put it on a medium-hot grill. I like to start skin-side up to render off a bit of fat first, then finish skin-side down to prevent scorching.

This dish would go nicely with some Israeli couscous, a simple arugula salad, and perhaps a glass or two of California zinfandel.

Eat Well.

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Get What You Need

Since we are soon approaching Thanksgiving, I am bringing back this post about the MOST important food of the day, Mashed Potatoes. Read all about it.

meezenplace

What do you really need?

The question came up this week when my friend Chef Gordon Naccarato posted a question on his award-winning Pacific Grill Blog (http://blog.pacificgrilltacoma.com/)  about sweet potato casserole with marshmallows:  Necessity or abomination? 

It got me to thinking about Thanksgiving necessities. For example, I’d be delighted with a large stuffed salmon over a turkey, especially accompanied by a largish platter of Penn Cove Selects as an appetizer.  Pecan pie, cherry, or key lime could sub in for punkin and I’d be fine with that.  Stuffing?  Make mine bread, cornbread, oyster…it’s all good to me.  Veggies?  Brussels sprouts are the tradition around my home, but I’m good with lots of options there. Sufferin’ succotash anyone?

If you’re like me (and I know I am), it’s all good.  Still, there is one Thanksgiving dish upon which there can be no discussion, no compromise, no negotiation.  One dish so modest…

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Mr. Jones Goes on a Field Trip

Another oldie but goodie from your intrepid reporter.

meezenplace

Something is happening and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?

–Robert Zimmerman
Hibbing, Minnesota

I was feeling in need of some adventure the other day, so I grabbed my passport and shuffled my wing tips on over to a place I had read about in the business section recently, but had somehow never noticed in my travels. Not that this is place is difficult to miss; it is a non-descript building in a suburban strip mall, in perhaps the most forgettable town I know — Federal Way, Washington. Harry Potter must have loaned his invisibility cloak to this place.  Verily, it disappears from sight.

My field trip destination was a place by the beguiling name of H-Mart — merely typing those six characters makes me suppress a yawn. Still, I had been intrigued by the article I read, which announced that this Korean-owned, New Jersey-headquartered outfit…

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(Im)Morel Eating

Earlier this year, near the end of spring, I found myself browsing one of my favorite haunts: Union Square Green Market, in the dead center of Manhattan. Now that my daughter is fully ensconced in her own Upper East Side apartment (crowded with roommates though it may be) and is a fully fledged member of the dean’s list at her college, my wife and I have more than ample reason to migrate regularly to the Big Apple. While we partake of all manner of sophisticated society when we visit, the Green Market is a welcoming beacon of earthiness at the epicenter of urbanism. Union Square GM

If you are like me (and I know I am), you find farmers’ markets irresistible. My own market in the Proctor District of Tacoma is a weekly delight, but I am also enamored of the San Luis Obispo Thursday Night Market, the Saturday morning market at Cabrillo College in Aptos, and the St. Paul Lowertown Market. You may have yours; these are mine.

My most recent visit to the Union Square Green Market — responsible for launching Danny Meyer’s iconic Union Square Café (which, sadly, will soon be no more) — gave me reason for serious pause and reflection. Among the heirloom carrots, organic micro-greens, free-range pheasant, line-caught bluefish and sundry other yuppie delights were baskets full of morel mushrooms — foraged fungi that fetched (gulp) $150 per pound.

Yikes! I am used to mushrooms being pretty pricey, morels in particular. Just weeks before my New York excursion, I saw them priced at $70 a pound at Seattle’s Pike Place Market. I watched with amusement as a disbelieving tourist thought the purveyor was quoting $17 rather than $70. But $150 a pound? That price got my attention. A decimal seemed out of place.

morels

Experience speaks on this subject. Growing up in south central Minnesota some decades ago, amusements came cheap and were unrelated to the internet or any kind of “social media.” We made our own fun, or so the story goes. One Saturday morning, under clear instructions to get me out of the house, my father took me out to hunt arrowheads. If there is a more pointless activity, I don’t know what it might be. Off we drove to find a nearby freshly plowed field, in the hope that we might find a flinty stone that had been worked to a point with an antler for the purpose of killing something. I had been on such scavenger hunts before without much success, but multiple Hills Brothers coffee cans in our garage — brim-filled with fractured flints collected by my father — gave me hope. “Keep your head down and your eyes peeled” were the only instructions. Since those days, I have found that a direct correlation exists between the degree of guidance required and the spiritual or psychic value of a specific exercise . . . but that is for another time. Suffice to say that “Less is More” almost always holds serve.

That day provided no points, but we did happen upon a treasure of another sort. Taking a break from Indian archeology, we happened upon an adjacent stand of once-sturdy American Elm trees, now dying of Dutch Elm disease. In this doomed grove, we happened upon a patch of gigantic morel mushrooms, each of them approximately six inches or more in height. I had no idea what luck had befallen us, but I could tell from my father’s excitement that these were good times. We picked more than our share, perhaps a half grocery bag or more, and headed home, leaving a fair enough number for procreative activities of the fungal sort. Aside from gorging on a heaving platter of morels sliced and sautéed in butter for lunch, I have no recollection of what happened to that mother lode. Today, such a find would fetch a thousand dollars; back then it was just a very good Saturday morning.

So it was something of a personal shock for me to see morel mushrooms, those little nubbins, fetching $150 for a single pound. Certainly morels are tasty, offering up a splendid umami, earthy flavor that mates especially well with butter, spring garlic, a good New York strip steak, and some wild ramps. The fact that it is not possible to commercially cultivate this fungus certainly puts a damper on the supply. And in our free enterprise system, short supply combined with significant demand results in prices that soar to levels unconscionable.

Of course this begs the question: When does morel eating become (im)morel? It is certainly a question worth asking and one that must be asked, especially given the dilemma of how to feed a growing human population, the majority of whom go to bed hungry. Moreover, how does one justify spending $150 a pound for a foodstuff that you can find for yourself for free, if only you will spend some time in the woods?

As a committed food enthusiast, it is a situation I confront with frequency, and one that I realize I contribute to, however unintentionally. Were there not people like me willing to pay an immoral sum for a prized ingredient, the market would not support such outrageous prices. Morels would go back to being the provenance of distracted arrowhead hunters and the mycological cognoscenti. Still, we live in a market economy that insists that costs find the intersection of supply and demand. If few of us are willing to venture into the dying woods in search of fungal treasure, then we get what we get. In this regard, I am not innocent.

Along the same lines, I ventured the other day to my cellar to peruse my wan collection of wines, a mere few dozen bottles I keep for some rainy, special day, hoping they will improve while reclining in their dark and cool resting place. I have a number of bottles from a Vashon Island winery called Andrew Will that are absolute treasures, and a number more that I have hoarded for far into the future, thanks to the sage advice of Tacoma wine merchant Bill Bonnie, who is an enological savant. Engaging in some rapid back-of-napkin algebra, I calculated the value of my stash and was seriously taken aback. I’m not going to quote a number here, but it’s a lot more than I expected, and more than a little embarrassing.

Of course there are those that outdo me in this regard by many multiples, so I don’t feel too bad. My own moral high ground here is but a small mound indeed, so I will resist making value judgments in the hope that I may be given but a warning ticket for my own gustatory trespasses.

While one can find endless examples of over-the-top, im-morel culinary excess, there is, of course, the other side of the coin. Food that is too cheap to be true is exactly that. That Saran-wrapped poulet you got on sale for 79 cents per pound lived a life of utter squalor, not to mention the environmental holocaust it takes to turn a profit from chicken that cheap. Farmed salmon? Fuggitaboutit. And don’t get me started on feedlot beef: an abomination from any angle, whether social, environmental, or culinary.

When it comes to eating, morality is a slippery subject. I get where food writer and social commentator Michael Pollan, is coming from. Eating right (not to mention well) is indeed an Omnivore’s Dilemma, and it’s hard to know where to draw the line between right and wrong. No doubt about it, though — there is a price to be paid. That is, unless you are willing to take a few minutes off from scavenging for arrowheads to see what you can find among the dying elms.

New York Strip Steak in a Morel Green Peppercorn Cream Sauce

Two thick-cut New York strip steaks (the highest quality you can get)
A half-cup of heavy cream
6 small morel mushrooms (sliced)
1 Tbsp. green peppercorns (roughly chopped)
1 small shallot (finely minced)
2 cloves garlic (roughly chopped)
A splash of dry vermouth

Bring the steaks to room temperature and season expertly with salt and pepper.

Heat a cast-iron pan, large enough to hold the steaks without crowding, to medium high. Cook until a nice crust forms on one side and then flip. Remove steaks from pan and place in a 375 degree oven to finish cooking.

In the same cast-iron pan, sauté the garlic and shallots briefly with a pat of butter. Add the sliced morels and sauté for a couple of minutes. Add a healthy splash of the dry vermouth and reduce quickly by half. Add cream and continue to reduce until thickened. Add green peppercorns. Adjust seasonings, salting to taste.

Remove steaks from the oven (preferably at medium rare). Slice on a bias and serve on a platter with the morel cream sauce poured over them.

Eat well.

Clever readers may be able to connect the dots between this wonderfully flawed clip and the story above. Or not…

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Full Steelhead Jacket

This gallery contains 6 photos.

“I’m on!” You stand there in the dank drizzle for hours, having woken up at 5:00 a.m., crawling straight from bed into hopefully impermeable chest waders and heavy fleece. Then you stand in the bow or stern of a pitching … Continue reading

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Haute Dish: Green Bean Casserole

Late last summer, I had my first chance to visit Brooklyn, which might well qualify as the current poster child for upscaling. Yuppies, having been shagged out of even the Lower East Side, have flocked to Brooklyn’s neighborhoods and transformed them. A walk through Park Slope or Williamsburg or Crown Heights, which was once a matter of taking your life into your hands, is now dangerous only in that you have to watch out for Lululemon-encased mommies jogging at midday while pushing their spawn in designer turbo-strollers. Despite that minor annoyance, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park is gorgeous, and is every bit as pleasant as Manhattan’s more famous Olmsted-designed open spaces.
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Such upscaling is not necessarily all a bad thing. Park Slope, Williamsburg, Crown Heights, Flatbush, and a dozen other Brooklyn neighborhoods, once dens of decidedly dark-side dealings, are today as safe as pie – “sanitized for your protection,” as a friend says. And then there is the accompanying transformation of the culinary scene. These days in Manhattan, one must sift through a thousand versions of Bubba Gump Shrimp and Johnny Rockets before stumbling upon an authentic pizza joint. Meanwhile, Brooklyn is emerging as the new culinary capital of New York, boasting near-Michelin quality on a block-by-block basis. A stroll through Park Slope and its well-scrubbed surroundings leaves no doubt that you now need some serious coin if you hope to live there, even in an 800-square-foot third-floor walk-up. Not unlike Chelsea or Greenwich Village, raising a kid in Brooklyn these days is like growing an oak tree in a thimble.

And there’s the rub. I’m no expert, but even an amateur like me knows there are two sides to the gentrification story, one of which never gets told. While Brooklyn looks great and tastes even better, Newton’s third law of motion cannot be avoided: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the case of gentrification, of course – be it in Brooklyn, Barcelona, or Bakersfield – what that means is that poor folks just got their ticket punched for somewhere cheaper. Somewhere else. Somewhere gone. And with them goes a certain authenticity. Sure, Pok Pok is great, but who eats like that every night? Answer: the unbelievably rich.

Pondering the gentrification phenomenon and its culinary implications upon my recent tour, I realized this is a complicated topic. Face it: you can’t swing a dead cat without smacking into a comfort food that has been foodie-fied to its precious and expensive extreme. Exhibit One is the upscaling of dishes like macaroni and cheese. Here is a dish that has seen the full spectrum, from Kraft’s industrialized elbow mac and powdered cheez to featured entrée dishes that incorporate lobster, $30-per-pound cheeses, and artisanal pasta. You can get a gentrified version of mac and cheese at any of the most envelope-pushing establishments. Go for it, Chef Grant Achatz.

Either end of this spectrum draws serious suspicion. Simply put, I am not going to eat a dish that includes what can only be described as pulverized cheese product. Using the term “cheese” in reference to Kraft’s industrialized, boxed concoction ought to be illegal. While there are not many dishes that include lobster that I will not eat with an eager appetite, even pretentious eaters like me realize there is a cucina line in the sand that should and must be drawn.

Not that I am unwilling to push that boundary. The other night, I had a hankering for a simple roast chicken, which I stuffed with mirepoix and scorched in a 500-degree oven to crisp the skin and sear in the juices. But I could not let well enough alone. Upon reflection (and because of boredom), it seemed clear to me that such a dish required Yukon Gold potatoes mashed with cream and mixed with butter-and-garlic-sautéed chanterelle mushrooms. Look, you gotta live a little.

Still, a balance must be struck, whether in the neighborhoods of Brooklyn or your Own Private Kitchen. A recent example, which for me serves as a symbol of culinary balance, was a gentrified version of the Upper Midwest’s classic green bean hot dish (that’s “casserole” to those of you inhabiting states other than Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa, or Wisconsin).
The green bean hot dish I grew up with was a staple at Lutheran church potlucks (believe me, neither “pot” nor “luck” was involved at these gatherings) and at holiday gatherings with my three-dozen cousins, uncles, and aunts. This is a dish that mainly requires a can opener. Open two cans of “French–cut” green beans and one can of cream of mushroom soup. Mix together and top with crispy onions. Cook until hot. Done and done. Blech.

Blech, that is, unless you are open to a little gentrification. The other day, my wife brought home a three-pound package of fresh haricots verts, found on sale at the local market. Never mind that there are but two of us in the household eating green beans at present (our Labrador, Roy, will not touch veggies). The haricots were on serious sale, and our adopted household motto, “Save by spending,” held the day. I was pondering the existential question of what to do with such bounty when lightning struck. Green bean hot dish! I had the gorgeous fresh beans, but my quandary was how to upscale the cream of mushroom binder.
haricot verts
The solution, courtesy of gentrification: I replaced the condensed industrial Campbell’s product with a simple béchamel, augmented with recently procured farmers’ market leeks, garlic, and a handful of chanterelle nuggets (cheap this year due to a bumper crop), which resulted in a dish of humble yet epic proportions. Dang, it was good. OK, the Truth in Recipe Act requires full disclosure: I also added two tablespoons of tiny chunks of Prosciutto di Parma and some lovely shredded Gruyère . . . like it needed to be richer. The result was the culinary equivalent of a $3000-per-month two-bedroom Park Slope brownstone.
brooklyn_brownstones12
Whether you are buying $500 turbo-strollers, $30 lobster mac and cheese entrées, or $200 tickets for front-row seats to a revival of Supertramp, it’s easy to let a surfeit of money get the best of you. The trick is to live sufficiently high on the hog without spending an arm and a leg or selling your soul (to mix a couple of perfectly good metaphors) in the process.

As with life, it takes a little imagination. But it can be done.

Green Bean Hot Dish, Gentrified
1½ pounds fresh green beans (little French haricots verts, if available)
2 Tbs. flour
2 Tbs. butter
1 cup whole milk
2 cloves garlic, minced
One large leek, chopped (use the white and light green parts only)
1 cup chopped mushrooms (use the best type available to you¼ cup grated Gruyère cheese
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
1 tbs. chopped Italian parsley
salt and pepper

Blanch the green beans for two minutes in boiling water. Submerge in ice water to stop cooking. Set aside.

To make the béchamel, sauté the garlic and leeks in butter until softened. Add flour and sauté for three to four minutes. Add milk slowly and whisk until the mixture is thickened. Add the béchamel to the green beans and mushrooms and season expertly with salt and pepper. Place in an oven-proof hot dish. Sprinkle with grated Gruyère cheese. Top with mixture of panko and chopped parsley.

Cook for 45 minutes, covered by tinfoil or casserole top, in an oven pre-heated to 375 degrees.

This would be a great Thanksgiving side. Or, I would serve it any other day with a plainly grilled steak, veal, or pork chops.

Eat well.

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