The Quack-Up

There I was, sitting beneath 26 Edison lights glowing softly over the bar at the Pacific Grill — my friend Gordon Naccarato’s swanky Tacoma restaurant — slurping my second glass of wine, the delicious Townshend T3 blend that Gordon pours there by the glass. Another friend, my mentor Aaron Valimont (then the executive chef at Pacific Grill, now dishing at the Capital Grille in Dallas, Texas), had just joined me after his shift, still wearing his chef jacket, a smear of fresh blood on the sleeve. It was OK, because it was late and any barflies who might have been put off by our appearance had already flown the coop. I bought him a glass, knowing full well that he drank for free, easily deserving it after a 12-hour day.

“So, I had this dream the other night,” I said, as Chef Aaron slurped half his T3 in a gulp. “I had this big bag of cooked lentils in the freezer and I was trying to think of what to do with them, and I had this dream.”

“Oh yeah?” You could tell he was interested.

“I was thinking lentil soup — you know, regular lentil with sausage and some fresh spinach. But then in the dream, it came to me: make it with duck.” I proceeded to outline my plan to roast a spare duck carcass I had in the freezer with a vegetable mirepoix to make a rich stock for the base, then to braise the legs and thighs in red wine . . .

“You dreamt about duck soup?” Aaron interrupted.

“Yeah,” I said. “I made a stock and then braised the legs and thighs until they were falling apart . . .”

Aaron swilled the rest of his T3, which was immediately refilled by Paul, Pacific Grill’s expert bartender. “You dream about food?”

“All the time,” I sighed.

“Yeah,” Aaron said. “I figured. You got it bad.” He gulped some more of the Townshend. Euro jazz pulsed in the background; only a couple of patrons still lingered at their tables over blond-brownie sundaes and Frangelico. “I dream about food, too. All the time. Menus, farmers’ markets, techniques.” He paused for a second and drained the rest of his vino. “Good luck with that.”

Yeah, good luck with that indeed. There is a saying that suggests “moderation in all things,” which is perhaps among the biggest crocks of all time. Life is not only short, but uncertain; there is precious little time for moderation. One is advised strongly to live and live large. As the people of Minneapolis now know, we live in a world where the interstate freeway bridge you are driving across (specifically, I-35 on August 1, 2007) can and will simply fall down, dropping you into the muddy Mississippi below. If you take nothing else from this missive, please make it this: there is not a moment to waste. Ours is a universe of chaos and beauty, with chaos prevailing often enough that it should give us pause.

Humans wishing to hedge their bets are well-advised to live in the present. For those of us who cook, who dream of things like duck and lentil soup, this means getting a few things straight. For me, one of those things is to know what to do with a duck — surely the bird that God had in mind when he invented poultry.

Duck can be tricky. I grew up in a duck-hunting household, where it was not at all unusual for Sunday dinner in January to feature a brace of bluebills. Sad to say, too many of those precious birds ended up overcooked, their splendid carcasses in the trash bin rather than in the stockpot, where they belonged. Today, if I had three quarts of duck stock, deeply rendered and reduced from wild widgeon and gadwall bones, I would hire an armed guard for their protection.

Since I long ago gave up hunting wild duck (not that I wouldn’t accept an invitation in a heartbeat to join your blind), my duck these days is not only purchased but tame. Not that there aren’t some splendid birds to be had out there. Two of my favored purveyors at the Proctor Farmers’ Market (Tacoma, Washington) — Little Eorthe Farm and CalendulaDuck Farm — have gorgeous dead ducks to sell me from time to time, free-ranger Muscovies who lived calm, happy lives in a barnyard. At prices approaching $50 for a single bird, cheap they are not. Nonetheless, I would argue that they are a great value indeed, far exceeding in culinary satisfaction anything one might procure from the freezer section of the local grocer at half the price.

The key with a fifty-dollar bird, of course, is not letting a single ounce go to waste. Here’s how I proceed. First, remove the leg/thigh segments where the thigh joint meets the body. These cuts are generally tough and tendon-y, especially the leg. However, when cooked in the French confit method, immersed in their own fat for half-a-day at 190 degrees, they become a dish so melt-in-your-mouth delicious that words themselves fail. I would have to sing for you in order to fully describe the sensation.

Similarly, remove the wings, reserving them for a stock. Once the bird is fully cut up, carefully carve the breasts off the bone, trimming (and reserving) the deeply fat-layered skin to the edges of the meat. Now you are left with a large carcass, from which you should 378867_2949341021377_1724769795_ntrim all remaining fat/skin from the back. Trim any excess fat from the leg portions as well as the breast, and place it in a pan to melt; this must be reserved, as it is a precious essence. As for the carcass, brown it in the oven and then boil it with a vegetable mirepoix — celery, onion, leek, carrot, garlic — for five hours or so (this results in a house that smells so good, it deserves its own Glade scent).

From a single bird, you now have the following: boneless, skin-on breasts (meal one); Duck fatleg/thigh portions for confit (meal two); a carcass for stock (soup and sauce base); and a batch of precious duck grease for confit and/or the best damn french fries you have ever Duck Friteseaten. Each element results in a dish that is its own special occasion, one that makes life worth living.

While the stars of this show are the boneless breasts (these rival Heidi Klum’s, in my book), the dish I will leave with you is the humble confit, this recipe being one I shanghaied from Thomas Keller’s splendid cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home. Not that this dish differs all that much from any other confit recipe, but I believe in offering credit where credit is due. Keller’s restaurants — like The French Laundry in Napa and Per Se in New   York — are paragons of culinary sophistication, but Ad Hoc approaches cooking with humility; it offers a rustic, approachable take on everyday eating at its very finest. You won’t cook like Keller every night, but if you do so once a week or even once a month, that’s a helluva start.

Ad Hoc Duck Confit

2-4 duck leg/thigh sections, trimmed of skin and fat to the edge of the meat

4-6 cups rendered duck fat

Herb Salt:

⅛ cup kosher salt

2 tsp. brown sugar

1 bay leaf, broken into pieces

2 tsp. fresh thyme, chopped

⅛ cup Italian parsley, chopped

¼ tsp. whole black peppercorns

Rub each leg/thigh section with one tablespoon of the herb salt and store overnight, flesh-side up and covered in plastic wrap, in the refrigerator. 

Remove from refrigerator, rinse well, and pat dry. Nestle the pieces closely in a baking dish, crowding them without overlapping. Cover completely with duck fat, topping up if necessary with olive oil. Cover with foil or a lid. Cook at 190 degrees for eight to ten hours. Remove and cool. Refrigerate if using soon, or store frozen for up to six months submerged in remaining fat.

To serve, drain and wipe off the fat and fry each portion, skin-side down, until the skin is crispy and golden brown and warmed through.  Served on a bed of cabbage braised in a small amount of champagne or cider vinegar.

This music clip In Too Deep is from my friend Kevin Bowe’s new album Natchez Trace.  It features the screaming fiddle of Scarlett Rivera, who you probably last heard on Dylan’s Desire lp.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_dxrwmWbMU

Eat well.

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When Numbers Get Serious

“Red means run, son, numbers don’t add up to nothin’…

                                                            –Neil Young, from “Powderfinger”

As it happens, I was running the numbers the other day, as I am prone to doing. Maybe you’re not like me, but I am, and when the numbers start running, it’s hard to get them to stop. For example, I once ran the numbers on how high the fines would mount if I wereroy with ball caught and cited every time I played off-leash fetch — which is against the law in local parks — with my beloved Labrador Roy. My annual bill added up to $325,000. Today, that amount is now approaching a cumulative $3 million. That he is worth every penny is beside the point.

The equation that burrowed its way into my brain the other day was equally discouraging.  Regular readers of this blog know that I crossed the half-century barrier some three years ago and am now rapidly reaching an age of three score. I’m no Christian scholar, but if memory serves, we learned in Lutheran confirmation classes that our biblical allotment of years is something like three score and twelve (that’s 72, for those of you keeping score at home).

Simple subtraction results in a number that gets your attention, or at least mine. In my specific case, the calculus proceeded thusly: even if I get more than my biblical allotment, I probably have, at most, 25 years of serious fishing left. I am talking about fishing big, cold waters, wearing waders, and getting in deep enough to produce a shrinkage effect. Given that I might engage in such expeditions three or four times a year (let’s be generous and call it four), I have maybe 100 angling excursions left in my lifetime. Probably fewer.

And that is when I did a big gulp.

When the equations running in your head reach the result above, it’s time to throw out the calculator and joint up the fishing rod. Regardless of age, none of us have any time to waste. Readers will be comforted to note that my efforts in this regard resulted in quite a stellar 2012. My tally for the calendar year was 110 fish caught on a fly, including the first 11 steelhead trout I have ever caught in my life. When I was a boy and we were getting skunked while trolling Rapala lures behind our Lund boat, my dad would exhort me to “fish harder,” which on the surface seems to be not only a joke, but a contradiction in terms of epic proportions. However, this year I finally figured out what he was talking about. I fished harder. On the down side, I burned through a generous share of my remaining allotment. It’s a morbid thought, but it’s undeniably true.

Still, there are opportunities, even when time is short. When faced with his own imminent demise, Warren Zevon had the epiphany that it was essential to “enjoy every sandwich,” and it comes as no surprise that this is a notion with which I am down. Forget sandwiches; I have thousands upon thousands of meals left before me — even more if I go easy on the empty calories. Hallelujah!

Multiple Facebook foodie photos notwithstanding (see my “Food Porn” photo file on my FB page), I have ample, almost unlimited, room to improve the quality of my consumption. The idea, of course, is to eat well without dying from it, for the obvious purpose of living to eat another day.

Currently, I might make a really nice meal a couple-three times a week. Even for a foodie like me, most nights (though it embarrasses me to admit it) we eat the current-day equivalent of sloppy joes and frozen pizza. An intentional effort even two more nights a week stands to double my cumulative culinary output. This takes little more than a few minutes’ thought for the most part — just the time required to make sure that I have the right ingredients on hand and a recipe in mind. In commercial kitchens, they call this “getting your ‘meez’ together,” as in your mise en place. While squeezing in two more fishing adventures a year would be a near impossibility (barring an unlikely relocation to Craig, Montana), two more good meals a week that require little more than a few minutes’ thought seems doable.

The poet Albert Einstein once said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” When the numbers start running in my head like the bulls in Pamplona, this is a couplet I should keep in mind. It might even help with my cooking, and certainly with my peace of mind.

I struggled to come up with a recipe that directly relates to our Topic of the Day, so forgive me if this has a pulled-out-of-the-hat quality to it. For years, I attempted to cook steak in the Florentine style, with unsatisfying results. I figured it was because I was using the wrong kind of cow. That was part of it, but not the whole reason. It took a trip to FlorenceFlorence to set me straight, a practice I highly recommend when you find yourself stuck. Steak Florentine is simply good-quality steak, salt, pepper, and lemon juice, and it is usually served with one of my favorite side dishes, garlicky wilted spinach (again with the lemon). My mistake was in squeezing on the lemon prior to grilling, which resulted in a steak that tasted pretty much like my non-Firenzian efforts.

In Florence, they prepare and serve steak dinners differently. High-quality beef (they will tell you theirs is somehow special and not found anywhere else on earth — yawn) is grilled to medium rare, cut into strips, and served at the table mounded on a platter. Quantity is determined not by steak size, but by the number of individuals who will be eating. The essential lemon is squeezed on the sliced meat at the table, not prior to cooking. This results in a remarkably bright dish with flavors that leap like Carl Lewis off the palate. The acidity of the prominent lemon flavor is a perfect foil for the rich, fatty-flavored beef (apologies to my veggie and vegan friends; I know this grosses you out).  Psychic balance is obtained by eating a reasonable, human-sized portion of meat, as opposed to finishing off that 12-ounce New York strip yourself, not to mention the accompanying spinach side.

Beefsteak Florentine and Wilted Spinach

Thick-cut, high-quality steak (6 oz. per person served)

Salt and coarse ground pepper

Lemon

1 large bag or bundle fresh spinach

Olive oil

3 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped

More lemon

Steak Preparation

Prepare a hot grill, either gas or charcoal (the latter is preferred). Keeping the steak whole, season it liberally with salt and pepper. Let it rest an hour at room temperature. Sear on the hot grill until medium rare, three to four minutes per side. Watch them cook — don’t go in and watch the ballgame. Once cooked to desired doneness, remove from the grill and allow to rest on a warm platter for five minutes. Cut into strips against the grain (on the bias, if you are fancy). Squeeze fresh lemon over the cut meat. Serve immediately.

Wilted Spinach Preparation

This dish cooks fast, so if you have your meez together, you can make it while your cooked steak is resting.

Clean and pat dry a good amount of fresh spinach (it is amazing how much spinach cooks down, so use a lot). Sauté chopped garlic in a large non-stick pan with a modest splash of good olive oil for about 3 minutes. Add the spinach and cook until just wilted — maybe two minutes, max. Salt and squeeze on lemon to taste. Serve immediately.

This simple but elegant dish deserves a special wine: a super Tuscan if you have the dough, or perhaps a Barolo or a Barbaresco from the Piedmont region. Regardless, this is the time to go large and red.

Dinner Music

Today’s musical selection could well have been “Powderfinger” by Neil Young, quoted at the top of this missive, but I have chosen instead this selection by the great and underappreciated James McMurtry:

Eat well.

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Mississippi Redux: Happy New Year

Author’s Note:  While I am working up a new essay, I thought I would share an old one from September 2011 that I recently reworked and expanded with the help of Amy Milligan, editor extraordinaire of The Spleen (www.the-spleen.com).  If you live in a cold, gray and/or otherwise miserable part of the world, this one is a taste of summer.  Enjoy. And be sure to click on the outstanding clip of Simone Perrin at the end.  Happy New Year. 

*****************************************************************************

Until I was nearly ten, I lived just blocks away from what I took for granted was the world’s greatest river, the Big Muddy itself, the mighty Mississippi River. We lived on a spacious double lot hedged by honeysuckle and lilac at the intersection of two gravel streets, Sunset Drive and Cartway Road, neither of which really went anywhere. I walked across the street to school and came home for lunches of Spaghetti-O’s and bologna-and-butter sandwiches. In the summer, I played baseball on an actual sandlot, caught flies that made either butter or fire, and captured frogs that I sold to a bait shop for fifty cents a dozen, a princely sum.  In the winter we skated on frozen ponds and hurled balls made of snow. 

Of course, one indulges in such nostalgia and sentiment at one’s own peril.  To be sure, not everything then was rainbows and puppy-dog tails.  I grew up in the mid-sixties, when Kennedys and Kings were killed with alarming regularity, and we were trained in school to expect and deal with nuclear holocaust by hunkering under our wooden desks.

And then there were the summers, filled with tornadoes and thunderstorms that would shake, rattle, and roll a house right down to its foundation. One year, my best friend’s home received a direct hit from not one but two twisters in a single night, an event that haunted me until my father was inspired to purchase a surplus metal army helmet to serve in lieu of a security blanket. 

Still, memory speaks, as it must. For me, for those days, my memories are of a big backyard, bare feet, and a river rolling past.  From before the time when I could remember, my father took me fishing on the Mississippi for smallmouth bass. We fished from shore in a sweet spot just downstream from Elk River, Minnesota, on property owned by family friends, Dave and Judy Goddard. Dave and Judy owned and operated a daylily farm, of all the crazy things. One might ask, where have all the daylilies gone? But for such questions, there are no answers.   

Over the years, I have fished in all kinds of water.  Lakes and ponds, oceans, seas, and Sounds.  I have fished in waters salty and fresh, still and moving.  Any water holding fish that can be caught with a rod and reel is good by me.  But I love a river.  If you watch and listen, if you tune in, a river gives up her secrets, no underwater radar gizmo necessary.  That bend along the undercut bank, that’s where the current has carved a deep cold hole.  A little soft water seam next to a hard current where dirty foam swirls?  That is a fishy version of the all-you-can-eat smorgasbord.  A sloping rocky shoreline can mean a crawfish ecosystem of epic proportions, crawfish being the Snickers bar of the fish diet.  A river tells a story – but you must watch.

At the Goddard farm, we fished a hole where a set of rotted pilings driven into the bottom near the shore hinted at a story that spilled a secret.  Sixty years previous those pilings anchored a dock where steam powered paddle boats would pick up produce grown in the fertile local fields for easy transport downstream to Minneapolis and St. Paul. With paddleboats long replaced by internal combustion vehicles, the pilings no longer served a purpose, but they kept a secret.  There, right against the shore, was a depression in the riverbed deep enough to dock a large boat.  This kind of drop off, especially near shore, is exactly where smallmouth bass like to school.  At the upstream ledge of the drop, the current slows, not only making it easier for the fish to fin against, but depositing food at their doorstep.  At this underwater cafeteria, leeches, minnows, crawfish, worms and aquatic bugs of all sorts drop out of the current, helpless to the carnivorous smallmouth below.  It is the riverine equivalent of a basement barcalounger stocked with an endless supply of Cheetos.  

In those days, there was no such thing as “catch and release,” except for fry deemed too small for the pan. We fished for keeps, our stringer always heaving by evening with a legal limit of beautiful bronze-backed smallmouth, so heavy it was sometimes hard for me to lift. These fish were astoundingly strong and amazingly beautiful; a three-pounder would bend your rod right down to the cork handle. We fished with bait — night crawlers, usually — and when those ran out, we would turn over river rocks and snatch crawfish bare-handed, which the smallmouth seemed to prefer even more. 

Smallmouth bass are bareknuckle brawlers.  If you are ever in an underwater bar fight, you want a smallmouth as your wingman.  I grew up assuming that all fish were passionate and would jump out of the water repeatedly to try to spit the hook out of their mouth that you had planted with a hard set when your bobber dove. A smallmouth will run and roll and will strip the line off your reel.  Bear down too hard and they will break your line.  Or, they will find a submerged log, wrap you around a sunken limb and snap you off.  If you fish for smallmouth, over time, you learn not to cry when the big one gets away.   

I don’t remember a single day of fishing at the Goddard’s that wasn’t sunny and hot, and when the bite would go off around midday, my father would send me up the bank with a dime to buy two bottles of cold pop from the machine in the Goddard’s farm office – an Orange Crush for me and a black cherry for my own pop. Judy, who called me Peter Johnson (because my middle name is Peter and I am John’s son), of course never took the ten cents. “You keep that dime, Peter Johnson,” she would say. “But don’t tell your dad.” At that time, a dime purchased two packs of baseball bubblegum cards, any one of which might contain a coveted Twin:  Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, or Jim Kaat, but never did. 

Once our limit was attained, usually by late afternoon or early in the evening, we would heave our stringer of fish up the bank and into the Buick and head on home, stopping to leave a couple of nice ones with Dave and Judy. Just down the road from the daylily farm, we pulled over at Parker’s roadside vegetable stand, where we would secure a dozen ears of sweet corn for a dollar — a real splurge. This Minnesota August corn was, I guarantee you, the best damn corn in the world. 

After photographs in the backyard beneath an ancient weeping willow, my father would fillet the fish, expertly carving off boneless slabs of smallmouth meat. My job, until I learned to fillet myself, was to shuck the corn, a task I took on with all the actual relish that Tom Sawyer only pretended to while whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence. If there is any job more satisfying than shucking cobs of sweet corn, I don’t know what it is. I shucked for sheer pleasure, not for speed, peeling off long green leaves one at a time and then silk strands until a nubbly, naked cob was revealed.  Normally insistent on higher levels of efficiency, my Dad let me take my time with this job.  It was 1967 and I was seven years old.  There was no hurry.

We always ate the fish the same day they were caught, and we always cooked them the same way: dipped in an egg wash, dredged in saltine cracker crumbs, and fried in hot oil. The corn I shucked was boiled briefly in salted water, then slathered with butter and sprinkled liberally with salt and pepper. We had tartar sauce that my mother made at home with Miracle Whip and sweet pickle relish. Most Minnesotans are raised with the belief that walleye is the king of all fish, and I will grant that walleye is terrific, as is the noble crappie. But for my money, you can’t beat a smallmouth bass, especially one you caught fresh from the big river.

But everything changes, even rivers. There is a saying that you never visit the same river twice, and in my experience, this has considerable veracity. A number of years ago, as an adult, I went back with rod in hand to the Goddard’s smallmouth hole where I grew up and found that the 10-foot deep-hole that once harbored seemingly limitless schools of smallmouth bass had filled completely with silt. The river has its way. There are no means to stop it and no sense in shedding tears over it. Somewhere downstream, another hole has been carved, and some new kid keeps watch while floating a bobber over an underwater ledge in the hopes that a fish will bite. That’s life, as it has always been.

These days, while I still fish a fair amount, I hardly ever eat the fish I catch. I fish for torpedo-like trout with impossibly small flies and almost always I throw them back, convinced that the catching can continue only if we stop killing so many. But I know a fresh-looking fish when I see it, and sometimes I can’t resist. Smallmouth bass has never been preferred out here in the West, not commercially or for sport, so one must make do in these parts with such species as halibut, salmon, and black cod, not to mention clams, oysters, crab, and mussels.  It’s not so bad, I have to admit. 

As for favored preparation, I haven’t ventured all that far from home. Since moving to salty shores, I have become exceedingly fond of halibut.  Like smallmouth, halibut is white and flaky, with a clean, sweet flavor.  People dress it up with glazes and marinades and fancy salsas, but for me, a simple preparation that allows the flavor of the fish to come through is best.  My favorite halibut dish owes a huge tip of the cap to my father’s smallmouth. I call it Halibut P3, and it goes a little something like this:

Halibut fillets

Japanese panko bread crumbs

Italian flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

Finely grated parmesan cheese

Milk

Mix together the panko, parsley, and parmesan (P3).

Dip the halibut in the milk, then dredge in the P3 mixture. Let it sit awhile. 

In a cast-iron pan, fry the crusted halibut in very hot canola oil until golden brown on the outside and just cooked through on the inside. Be careful not to overcook. Serve with lemon wedges. 

With this, I like to serve a black bean and fresh corn salsa that includes cilantro, diced jalapeño peppers, red bell peppers, sweet onion, garlic, cumin, lime, and canola oil.   Or my Mother’s Minnesota-style potato salad.

This would be great with a nearly frozen bottle of bargain-priced Saint-Véran wine, from the Mâcon region in Burgundy. Best served outdoors at sunset, at the end of a hot day.

And now listen up as chick-i-doodle Simone Perrin yoddles a Hank Williams river song.

 

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This Little P-I-Ggy Goes to Market

In Spain, bacon can cost you $90 per pound. OK, that’s an approximation based on my imperfect conversions of euros to dollars and kilos to pounds, but you get the picture.

Also, it’s not quite fair to call the Spanish meat “bacon” per se, even though it is essentially cured pork. While our American pigs live humiliating lives and die unconscionable deaths, pigs in Spain are treated as royalty, like they deserve. They loll about, free-ranging in pleasant woods, noshing on acorns, truffles, and other sundry delectables. They are not “slopped” nor are they resigned to wallow in their own excrement. Think about that next time you pick up a package of Hormel Black Label at the SuperMegaWalCo Foods.

The above paragraph notwithstanding, I have nothing against American bacon. In fact, the Hempler family in Bellingham, Washington, cures a righteous pork product. I am proud to have shaken hands with Richard Hempler, whose paws resemble considerable hocks, evincing a lifetime of admirable physical labor.

Still, the Spanish pork product is a wonder to behold – which, at those prices, you have every reason to expect. Consuming Iberian jamon is a lesson in restraint. First, to eat much more than an ounce of this delectable delight would be decadent. It arrives on your small tapas plate shaven as delicately as a Brazilian model, see-through slices measured more in molecules than millimeters. The aroma rises from the table as you hold a paper-thin slice in trembling fingers, first rubbing the fatty bits against your lips, then licking them clean before savoring the delicioso that verily melts in your mouth. Eating my first Iberian jamon, I felt like Snuffles, the biscuit-loving hound dog on Quick Draw McGraw.

If you follow business or even popular media, you are well aware that Spain – along with its PIG-gy cohorts, Portugal, Italy and Greece – gets verily slaughtered in the press these days. These people are, if you believe half of what you read, indolent layabouts, slothful loafers who make the French look like eager beavers in comparison. Still, it’s quite clear that money isn’t everything, as the Black Friday lines at your local Walmart might suggest. Me, I find the Spaniards (not to mention the Portuguese, Italians and Greeks) and their lifestyle perfectly charming. These are a handsome people with beach-ready bodies, who live their lives out and about in a perpetual communal party, rather than aspiring to a life sequestered in McVillas set side-by-side in a former pasture. Their architecture is ingenious, their artists astounding, their seas a comfort. And the food is peerless.

Look. These are people who work for four hours, break at midday for a large and delightful meal, go home, have sex, and take a long nap. Refreshed and reconstituted, they go back to work at four o’clock, snap off at eight, and go have a few glasses of wine and some tapas with friends. They chatter outside in the warm night at cafés until all hours and eventually amble home. They are not concerned about DVR conflicts. This is not a life specific to Spain; it is well-practiced throughout the Mediterranean.

I went to Spain three years ago, and in the course of two weeks fell in love in the most unexpected way. My agenda going in focused on finding the perfect paella, a dish that I always thought I should love, as I adore each ingredient. However, my experience with this signature Spanish dish had always left me with a major case of the “mehs,” the sum being decidedly less than the parts. Certainly in Spain I would find the perfect paella: the essential fusion of saffron, rice, sausage, seafood, and meats that would transcend. To my surprise, this I did not find – not that I didn’t try.

Instead, I found squid baked in its own ink, hake, grilled sardines, pulpo, cuttlefish, pickled peppers, and the most amazing pan-roasted chicken served in a sauce of wine and its own juices that you could ever hope to have pass by your lips. I ate snails and cockles, fidelos and braised boar. I had duck breast in red wine and juniper berries, so full of flavor it nearly made me weep. In San Sebastian, I learned about pintxos, the Basque version of tapas that deserves not just its own column or book but a Nathan Myhrvold-esque multi-volume text. And I drank wine – lots of wine. Some pricey and explosive, but most of it humble, subtle, delicious, and impossibly inexpensive.

Sad to say, much of Spain stays in Spain. The tastes, the flavors, are like the air: it does not travel. The air you breathe there is simply different than it is here. I can get Iberico jamon here in Tacoma at my local Metropolitan Market; however, it is encased in plastic rather than carved from a whole hanging leg. While it is just as expensive, it does not taste the same as it does at a café a couple blocks off Las Ramblas in Barcelona, served with a small glass of tinto. Accuse the Spanish and their fellow PIGs of all manner of economic misdeeds if you wish, but you can’t export their precious essence.

Still, you carry with you what you can. I have not yet managed to convince my employer of the considerable virtues of siesta, but I can recreate a few flavors that take me back to that place. One of my favorites is the sauce romesco, a creation from the Mediterranean fishing Romesco3town of Tarragona, just south of Barcelona. Ideal with the oily fish they catch there (like grilled mackerel or sardines), romesco is unique in that it seems to complement virtually any dish. It is made from roasted red peppers (preferably piquillos), tomatoes, garlic, ground almond, vinegar jerez, and oddly, day-old toasted bread crumbs. Whirl these in a food processor and you have a piquant sauce, layered in flavor and perfectly balanced with sweet, sour, salt, and savory. I serve it with all manner of fish, beef, grilled pork loin, shellfish, pasta and potatoes (patatas bravas in Spain). It is that rarity in twenty-first century cuisine: the all-purpose sauce in a world of culinary specialization. It is Spanish ketchup, albeit one you would never buy but only make yourself, adjusting seasonings to your specific taste.

My predilection for all things Spanish may well have been molded early in life when my darling mother read me the story of Ferdinand the Bull. Rather than butting heads with his fellow bulls that aspired to fight a matador, Ferdinand preferred to sit under his favorite cork tree smelling flowers. What his fellow bulls did not understand, of course, was that bullfights seldom end well for the bull. While it is legitimate to question whether the author of The Story of Ferdinand intentionally foreshadowed today’s tight-panted Wall Street peccadilloes, the tale certainly functions effectively as a current-day cautionary metaphor.

My great-uncle Linnaeus was fond of saying that while you can’t take it with you, you can’t go anywhere without it. Certainly, $90-per-pound jamon is reserved for those who have attained a modicum of prosperity. Still, there is much to be said for finding the shade of your own cork tree. Mine hangs over a quiet sidewalk café in Barcelona’s El Born, a warm Mediterranean breeze blowing in offshore, a cold glass of Albariño and a plate of cuttlefish with romesco to calm my jangling nerves. And that’s no bull.

Romesco Sauce

3 roasted red peppers (piquillo, if you can get them)

6 plum tomatoes, halved and seeded

Half of a large sweet onion (Walla Walla or Vidalia)

2 cloves garlic

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

6 two-inch cubes of good toasted bread

¼ cup slivered toasted almonds

2 Tbs. good quality sherry vinegar (Spanish jerez, if you can get it)

1 tsp. sweet paprika

Roast the tomatoes, onion, and garlic in a 350° oven for an hour. Slip off the skins from the tomatoes. Place the roasted vegetables and the remaining ingredients in a food processor and pulse until well ground. The sauce should have the consistency of a heavy paste. Serve warm, cold, or at room temperature with virtually anything.

Eat well.

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Meez Teez

A new Meez en Place is in the final stages of editing prior to posting, but just thought I would provide a little teaser for my loyal readers.  Several weeks ago I got multiple requests for the recipe of a dish I posted on The FaceBook – Pan Roasted Chicken Thighs With Green Peppercorn Vermouth Cream Sauce.  Without the usual falderal of a story, here is said recipe.

chicken with green peppercorn

Pan Roasted Chicken Thighs with Green Peppercorn Vermouth Cream Sauce

1-2 chicken thighs per person depending on size of thighs and eaters appetite (skin on, bone in)

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

1 Tbs minced shallot

1 Tbs brined green peppercorns

Splash of good martini-quality dry vermouth

½ cup cream

Pan-roasting thighs

Pre-heat oven to 375 deg.

Season thighs expertly with salt and pepper.  Heat a large ovenproof pan (cast iron is perfect) to medium high.  Place chicken thighs skin down in the pan and fry until skin is golden brown, 4-5 minutes.  Flip thighs to skin up and place in pre-heated oven for another 15 minutes or until just done and juices run clear and meat is no longer pink at the bone. 

To make the sauce

Remove hot pan from stove and remove thighs to warm platter and tent with foil to keep warm.  Drain excess fat from pan, but leave the brown bits in the bottom.  Heat pan on stovetop to medium high.  Saute garlic and shallots about 1-2 minutes.  Deglaze pan with a generous splash of vermouth.  Reduce by half.  Pour cream into pan and reduce until sauce is thickened. 

Put thighs back in pan to coat completely.  Serve immediately, pouring some extra sauce over each portion. 

You might consider a long-ish walk before or after eating this dish.  I eat these with a simple salad and forgo any starch.  A crisp dry white wine would be great with this, or a lighter fruity red that is low on tannin.  Eat well.

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You Say T’mater, I Say Don’t Wait ’til Later

“Strike,” they say, “whilst the iron is hot.” Or, in this case, pick when the fruit is ripe.

All over this fair country, not to mention most of the Northern Hemisphere, those all-too-few brief weeks we all wait for have arrived. Yes, it’s Tomato Time.

Farmers Market Toms

Of course, you can purchase tomatoes at your local mega-grocery-warehouse store 12 months of the year. That is not to say that those purchased anytime after September 30 or so will bear any resemblance to the real thing. To get a real tomato — one as red inside as it is out, a perfect balance of sweet and acid, juicy and heavy in your hand — this is your window. As in now.

Interestingly, the tomato — like many items in your typical produce section — has been severely compromised in quality over the years. Compromised to the point that it is difficult to get a great-tasting tomato unless you careen off-grid.

Of course, this has resulted from your garden-variety, agri-industrial culinary conspiracy.  For several years now, the only tomato available from most corporate-super-giant-mega-valu grocers (not to mention Walmart) is a gassed-up fruit. That’s right: gassed. These days, with the near-total demise of the independent corner grocer, almost all tomatoes (not to mention most everything else you eat) are procured from exotic far-off lands like Florida and California, where the growing is less farming and more industrial in nature. Tomatoes are picked hard and green so that they can be shipped without damage. Realizing that few among us will actually eat green tomatoes unless they are battered and fried, something has to give. To turn them a palatable red color, the fruits are subjected to ethylene gas, long known and oft used to quicken the ripening process.

For the moment, let’s assume that ethylene gas is totally benign, with zero harmful effects to humans. For the moment.

The only thing that ethylene does for a tomato is to turn it red. A gassed tomato, while appealing to the eye, yields no flavor and a gross, mealy texture. You may wish to spend some three dollars and fifty cents a pound for an inedible mess, but count me out.

Out of season, I satisfy my tomato cravings with something out of a can. For example, Italian canned tomatoes (sold under the San Marzano brand) are delicious and easily a cut above such well-known American brands as Hunt’s. A recent taste test in Cook’s Illustrated gave the gold medal to Muir Glen, which cans an organic tomato.

It figures, though, that canned tomatoes — while a viable and preferred option from a taste standpoint — are not without issue. Tomatoes, being highly acidic, leach bisphenol A (BPA) from the lining of cans at a rate that is significantly higher than other canned products. The toxicity of BPA is still being debated, so if you are one who is uber-careful about chemicals in your system, consider yourself warned. As for me, I eat few commercially canned products anyway, so a little BPA seasoning isn’t a significant worry. I am more concerned about the spare tire forming around my middle, not to mention the growing amount of junk in my trunk.

But back to tomatoes — fresh, ripe, juicy tomatoes. Where I live, this is the time to get them, and the best place is at a farmer’s market or a roadside stand. That is, if you don’t have a garden patch of your own where you can DIY your own produce. Tomatoes would be my number-one crop if I could get them to grow in this cool, damp, maritime climate that I prefer. When I lived on Vashon Island and had a largish patch of productive soil, I devoted half of it to tomatoes. Just before harvesting my first batch for canning purposes (probably 25 pounds of splendid Roma “paste” tomatoes), I noticed some little soft spots on the ends of the fruit. A day later, the vines looked peaked, and three days after that, the entire crop was wiped out.

What the heck? I had never seen anything like it in my life. Turns out tomato blight is a big problem here. You need abundant sunlight and searing heat to effectively grow tomatoes, both of which are in short supply in what passes for summer here.

So instead of growing my own, I lurk at the local farmer’s markets and procure my fix from growers in Yakima. Last week, I got the most splendid juicy beefsteak tomatoes for just $1.49 per pound, and in a couple of weeks, I will buy a batch of Romas for even less. These I will turn into a lightly cooked tomato sauce, with fistfuls of garlic, some sweet onion, and perhaps some mild Anaheim peppers. This mixture will be frozen in plastic bags, because I am too much of a ninny to actually try hot canning. When thawed, some months into the future, it will be a little taste of summer.

There are about a million things you can do with lovely tomatoes (give or take). For example, on a family trip to Cinque Terre and Tuscany last summer, I became obsessed with a salad called Caprese. In classic Italian tradition, this salad is an exercise in perfect simplicity: succulent, sun-ripened tomatoes; torn fresh basil leaves; excellent (not to mention expensive) extra virgin olive oil; miniature spheres of buffalo mozzarella; sea salt and cracked pepper. So simple you can’t even call it cooking — it’s more accurately described as assembly — but it is refreshing and insanely delicious.

Cross over a range of mountains or two from where we were and you will find tomatoes Provençal, another splendid dish that recognizes the star of the show and never steals the scene with a supporting player. This is simply a mixture of breadcrumbs and whatever combination of fresh herbs you have on hand, which is packed into a large halved tomato with the seeds removed, then slow-roasted until soft. Veganism at its best — that is, sans political overtones.

While Italy and France are famous for their tomato preparations, a country that is less recognized for its efforts is Spain. Here in the land of pan con tomate (toasted bread rubbed with ripe tomato), inspired chefs are reenvisioning such dishes as tomato tartare and confit of tomato . . . you know, those old things. You would be surprised how easy some of these dishes are, not to mention how delicious.

This is the time, gentle readers, as summer slips slowly into fall. Before long it will be apples and chanterelles, but for now, it’s ‘mater time. Get thee to the local roadside stand and load up — don’t be shy. I’ll see you there.

Linguine with Fresh Tomato Sauce and Squid

Romas are good for this dish, but virtually any type or color will do. A mixture of red and yellow fruit yields a dish pleasing to both eye and palate. If you aren’t fond of or can’t find squid, shrimp would be an acceptable substitute.

Two lbs. sun-ripened tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and roughly chopped

4 cloves of garlic, chopped

Half a small onion (Walla Walla or Vidalia sweets are best), chopped

One Anaheim pepper, chopped

2/3 cup chopped fennel bulb (optional)

Fresh herbs, such as basil (necessary), oregano, thyme, marjoram (optional)

White wine

1 lb. cleaned squid, body cut into rings, tentacles included whole

To peel and seed the tomatoes, cut a small X into the end of the fruit opposite the stem. Plunge them into boiling water for a couple of minutes, until the skin is splitting and beginning to peel back. Remove and place into a cold water bath. When cool enough to handle, remove the skin, which should now peel off easily. Cut the tomatoes at the equator and carefully scoop out the seeds with a finger. Discard seeds and skins.

Sauté onion, garlic, fennel, and peppers with olive oil in a large sauté pan until softened but not brown, about four to five minutes on medium heat.

Deglaze pan with a shy cup of white wine. Reduce by half.

Add peeled, seeded, chopped tomatoes to the onion and wine mixture and bring to a simmer. Simmer on low until the tomatoes begin to soften. Tear basil leaves (or leave small ones whole) and add to the hot mixture along with chopped herbs. Salt and pepper to taste. If the tomatoes are very sweet, you might be surprised by how much salt is necessary. Add it gradually, so as not to overseason.

Before the tomatoes are completely falling apart, add the squid and cook until it’s just turning white — just a few minutes. Be sure to have the linguine ready before adding the squid to the tomatoes. Do NOT overcook the squid; it will turn rubbery.

Toss tomato/squid sauce with linguine and serve immediately with crusty bread and perhaps some grilled vegetables or a tossed salad.

I would drink any number of wines with this dish: crisp and clean Pinot Grigio, a chilled rosé, or even a lighter red like a Pinot Noir or Beaujolais would work fine.

Now, do me a solid and tell me your best recipe for ripe, in-season tomatoes. Or dish on your favorite farmer’s market or roadside stand. Don’t be shy. Dish!

And eat well.

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Nobody Expects…Little Fishies

Expect the unexpected, that’s what I say. “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition” — not even the Pythons.

Don’t you just love it when some perfect treasure turns up right where you were least expecting it? For example, I was in New York recently on a family spring break to visit absurdly expensive colleges. Unable to sleep, I rose early and went for a walk around our deserted neighborhood on a chilly Chelsea morning.  Chelsea verily throbs with human energy during the day, but early on, like much of the city, it’s as quiet as a bar mouse. I got a hot black coffee at the Chelsea Market and set out on foot.

Just around the corner I discovered the High Line, an elevated, abandoned railroad line now transformed into a suspended park. Pure genius! Equal parts hanging garden and hoisted hiking trail, the High Line is one and a half miles of wildflowers, thickets, grasslands, sunbathing lawns, resting benches, cunning birdhouses, and public art. All this, emerging from a rail line whose original purpose was to ferry animal carcasses and produce to and from the adjacent Meatpacking District. What a delight.

But only in the morning. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, the High Line is packed shoulder-to-shoulder and provides a distinctly different experience. Oh well, timing is everything. The timing you want for the High Line is early on a workday, when you have it to yourself and the temperature is cold enough to see your breath. That will do.

One of my favorite surprise treasures is the urban fishing hole.  Perhaps the best I know of is on the upper Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis. Between the two downtown dams and right across from the ship locks is an island, upon which sits a small power plant whose outflow creates a haven for competitive white-water kayakers. The soft water right next to the power plant outflow supports tremendous numbers of smallmouth bass, who no doubt rest in the calm seam, feasting eagerly on all manner of minnow, leech, and aquatic bug. What the  hey, right downtown. You can angle all day and then stop in for a cocktail at St. Anthony Main, if you don’t smell too fishy. Leave your stringer of smallmouth in the cooler and enjoy a Summit Pale Ale at Pracna.

Discovery works the other way as well. One of my favorite upscale restaurants I found in the most unlikely of places, the former cow town of Livingston, Montana. Chatham’s Livingston Bar and Grille is no longer in business, but I was treated to several meals there, meals of uncompromising quality. Only a true food-geek will admit to this, but yes, I have indeed adjusted (to contortionist levels) my travel itinerary to accommodate an overnight at the Murray Hotel and a lengthy meal at the LBG. Although Chatham’s culinary palace is now kaput, there are other worthwhile emporia (2nd Street Bistro, Adagio) in Livingston, and the Murray Hotel is practically worth the stop in and of itself. And then there is the fly-fishing . . . Fine dining inMontana — who’da thunk?

This would not be Meezenplace if I didn’t eventually come around to cooking. Lately I’ve been indulging, when I can, in a new edible epiphany — at least, new to me. This comestible, while exotic (or at least underappreciated) on these shores, is a common treat in the Mediterranean– celebrated there, even. However, when I mention it around here, the reply I get is pretty much, “Meh,” or even more often, “Eww.”

That food? Sardines.

See? I told you. I can see your nose wrinkling up from here. But to paraphrase Franz and Hans, eat them now and believe me later. Sardines are drop-dead delicious.

Of course, I’m not talking about the King Oscar variety, tinned in oil, tomato sauce, or spring water, although in the right hands (usually those attached to Spaniards or Italians), the little canned fishies are tremendous. No, I am talking about silver-bright, sea-fresh mini-torpedoes. Clocking in at 10–12 inches in length, fresh sardines have a lot going for them. For one, they are a sustainable fish, environmentally friendly to the max. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch (www.montereybayaquarium.org) lists Pacific sardines as a “Best Choice,” the highest consumption ranking available (the MBA Seafood Watch is a great science-based source for making eating decisions that don’t ruin the environment).

Second, sardines are healthy. Chock-full of antioxidant omega-3 fat (even more than salmon), sardines are a less invasive alternative to angioplasty. They accomplish this by eating plankton at the top of the food chain, so they absorb little in the way of mercury, PCBs, and other nasties floating in our ocean currents.

Of course, if sardines tasted like mud-hole carp, I wouldn’t care a whit about their sustainability status or their Fountain-of-Youth qualities. But dang, they are delicious. I recently had one of these lovelies as an appetizer at the Tilikum Place Café inSeattle’s Denny Regrade neighborhood. Tilikum’s version was stuffed with a pureed mirepoix of sautéed onion, carrot, and celery, wrapped in prosciutto, and then grilled until crispy. Wow. I have cooked mine at home a couple of different ways: grilled on the Char-Broil after a short marinade in olive oil, lemon, and garlic, or butterflied, then dredged in panko and sautéed. Yum!

Vapor lock of the brain can be the only explanation for not mentioning previously that sardines — in addition to being sustainable, healthy, and tasty — are dirt CHEAP. The other day I procured several nice ones for a dollar per pound. One dollar. Ten dimes. That is about a buck per fish, with two of those being more than I can eat. I can’t think of anything else I buy that’s decent to eat (much less delicious) that is also this cheap — and when you are the kind of penny- pincher I am, that is saying something.

So the question is: Why do you have to hunt high and low to find fresh sardines in this country, even in a place likePuget Sound? The answer shows just how insane we have become when it comes to food. Most of the sardines caught in this country are fed not to humans but to farmed salmon, in the form of processed fish pellets. This is the kind of thing that makes me go all Lewis Black, f-bomb-dropping crazy. You are kidding me, right? Fish pellets? For farmed salmon? This is the fish that has to be injected with orange dye before sale, because in its natural state it is GRAY and people won’t buy it. And we feed those miserable penned “salmon” a food that we should be eating ourselves, fish that are environmentally friendly, healthy, tasty, and DIRT CHEAP. &^^%^&@$&^$@!

How crazy are we? Don’t answer that. We are, after all, the same people that plow up millions upon millions of acres of bountiful prairie to grow corn to feed to beef that can’t actually digest it so they can get fat and . . . aw, don’t get me started.

I wish I had an idea of how to get us to eat like Mediterraneans, with their sardines, anchovies, hake, eels, squid, branzino, and barnacles that you find at every Podunk fish market there. We have, if not the exact stuff, the equivalent of this cheap, splendid survival cuisine. Instead, we sell ourselves designer fish at thirty dollars per pound. I’m not sure who eats half the stuff I see at my fish market, but I doubt I know them.

So, expect the unexpected, right? When going through this life, it is important to keep things open — like your eyes and ears, not to mention your mind. As for me, I like to keep my mouth open as well.

Fried Sardines

This dish is so easy it barely merits a full recipe.  However, it is so tasty, I include it here.

Panko

Salt

Pepper

Milk

Sardines (butterflied)

Lemon

The main challenge here is butterflying the fish.  Sardine bones are soft, so removing the backbone is usually optional, but if you can master this technique, it just proves your knife technique and makes for a more pleasant (e.g. boneless) eating experience.  Sardines typically come whole and not gutted.  To eviscerate, split them from the vent to the head and remove all the guts and gills, which need then to go right outside because they will seriously stink in a couple hours.  Next, carefully work a small, sharp knife from the vent to the tail, along the backbone.  Once you open up the fish, you can lift out the backbone with your fingers fairly easily. Leave the head on or off, whatever.

Season the panko crumbs with salt and pepper.  Dip each butterflied sardine in milk and then coat with the seasoned crumbs.  Fry in hot oil in a non-stick skillet until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes per side.

Squeeze with lemon and serve with a tossed mixed green salad and cold rose wine.

Eat Well.

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