2014 – the year according to my kitchen

Looking back through some of my photos from 2014 offers a fairly thorough rundown of some of the new food-related things I tackled. So, 5PM on NYE (as I write this) seems like a good a time as any to give some thought to what I accomplished this past year, here’s a brief list of the greatest hits:

The Brian Polcyn butchery and charcuterie course I took was probably the biggest food undertaking for me this year. I wish I had taken it 20 years ago, it probably would have changed the course of my life dramatically though I might not have been ready for it then, so who knows.

After the butchery course, I got even deeper into learning about pork this year and feel very confident in my ability to make something delicious out of fresh hams, pork bellies and large shoulders. My carnitas is some of the best I’ve tasted and I can’t wait for another opportunity to make my porchetta-inspired fresh ham.

Other high points from the year were that I received a very nice email from John Thorne. I read Thorne’s Outlaw Cook back when Kelly and I lived in Washington DC (seems like ages ago because it was) and i’ve read everything he’s written since. Thorne is the best food writer we have and just a great, great honest and sincere voice and I was really flattered by his kind words.

I made a few big deal-type dinners this year that went well: a bbq beef brisket for my brother’s birthday, a standing beef rib roast for Thanksgiving II at my mom’s, a fairly (too) elaborate sunday sauce for no particular reason – these were all as tasty as to be expected and I don’t think I would significantly change how I prepared any of them. The Sunday Sauce wasn’t quite worth the effort (I made A LOT of meatballs for this sauce), but it was good nonetheless. I will absolutely make a larger beef brisket next time.

I “invented” a few quick, simple dishes this year that I’ll definitely be making again next year. My garden yielded a never ending crop of kale and chard and mid-summer or so, I started whipping up a steak, kale and sriracha stir fry with small pieces of whatever cheap beef trimmings I could get from one of our area butchers.

Also, one of our neighbors turned me on to grilled raddiccio this year. I would quarter it (leave the stem in so it doesn’t fall apart) marinate it herbs/balsamic/olive oil and grill it with some thinly sliced steak and onions. Truly delicious and makes me wish for summer and fresh produce.

This year also marks the year I stumbled upon the Lusty Lobster’s occaisional “ready-cooked” lobster sales on Facebook. Occasionally, when this great seafood store has an event and steams too many lobsters they put them on sale at the fish counter for really, really cheap. That resulted in multiple rounds of Lobster BLTS as well as a good freezer full of lobster stock which I’ve made a lot of good fish curries from this year.

And then there was my bacon experiment. I bought 12 pounds of duroc pork belly and cured it in two batches (one bourbon, one maple+coffee) with the hopes of giving it out for christmas presents to friends and family. I bought a cold smoker contraption and ended up smoking the belly way too much. The family loves it but it’s too bitter for me and I couldn’t give it as a gift and feel good about it. We’ve used just about all of it up and the scraps/trimmings (useful as lardons, especially when blanched) are just delicious. So I’ll need to try that again and this time not smoke it so long.

A good year of eating I’d say. i learned a lot and learned I have a lot to learn.

Keep The Cooking in Thanksgiving

In the preface to his book of essays, “Mouth Wide Open”, food writer John Thorne writes that our widespread adoption of cooking-as-entertainment is bringing about the death of cooking itself. I just happened to read this as I was putting together our Thanksgiving menu and realized that much like the “Keep Christ in Christmas” message, we probably ought to have something like “Keep the Cooking in Thanksgiving.”

Thorne says before the radio, people learned to sing and play instruments if they wanted to hear music. “Entertainments like Iron Chef and the Food Network are similarly transforming kitchen work into spectacle.” In other words, instead of learning to play instruments and sing, we fire up a track iTunes and instead of learning to cook “we’ll pop a favorite chef’s signature dish into the microwave,” writes Thorne.

“Cooking is a metier that demands that you learn to think with your senses and articulate with your hands. Tasting, smelling, prodding, kneading, even listening — at bottom, kitchen work is just not a verbal activity.” He’s referring here to how difficult it is to learn to cook from a book. Learning to cook requires direct hands on experience, getting down, “mano a mano with the onions and potatoes.”

In this way, cooking —real cooking — is like meditation. You can read about meditation all day long and it won’t have nearly the effect of actually sitting and watching your thoughts and you breath for five minutes. Naturally there is an entire industry dedicated to emptying your pockets in exchange for books and such about meditation because at the end of the day it’s easier to read about meditation than it is to actually meditate.

And so it goes with cooking. Thorne writes that after a hundred years of massive commercial effort being invested to create more things for you to buy to make cooking easier, even the word “cooking” has been twisted. “As the prepared-meal counter at markets like Whole Foods gets longer and longer, ‘cooking’ becomes a matter of selecting something among all this food to bring home for dinner.”

When writing food stories, I greatly prefer writing about home cooks over professional chefs. Most of the professional chefs I’ve interviewed are very, very self-aware—too self-aware to lose themselves in the interview. But I’ve found that the best home cooks are not worried about their image as “chefs” or worried about entertaining.

Just as the best musicians disappear in service to the music they are creating, the best home cooks disappear in the kitchen and mostly are preoccupied with being true to what they are making. Whatever other chaos or madness may permeate their day-to-day life, when they are in the kitchen explaining how to make something dear and personal to them, these home cooks become like Zen masters, vessels for the direct transmission of enlightenment.

Thorne says that as cooking becomes entertainment it becomes easier to let other people do it for you. Of course where the pace of modern life intersects with the convenience of modern, prepared food options, every family has to weigh their priorities.

If getting down “mano a mano with the onions and potatoes” is not as important as soccer practice or whatever other commitments are on the calendar, prepared foods are going to win out.

And so, as I was reading this on week leading up to Thanksgiving, I’m thinking that there’s no soccer practice on Thanksgiving, right? This is our country’s only holiday that is based on sharing food together (there probably ought to be more of those) and many of us will be lucky to be at home with our families.

In reading Thorne’s essay at this right time of year, it occurs to me that this holiday is the perfect opportunity to be mindful in the kitchen. No matter what we do in the kitchen the rest of the year, the very essence of Thanksgiving is to be mindful and grateful, especially if we have families to share that gratitude with. I can think of no finer way to do that then to be rubbing elbows at the counter while we get “mano a mano with the onions and potatoes.”

The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and The Art of Living Wide Rather Than Living Long

The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and The Art of Living Wide Rather Than Living Long

How Would Buddha Organize Our Cutthroat Modern Economy? | Blog, Perspectives | BillMoyers.com

How Would Buddha Organize Our Cutthroat Modern Economy? | Blog, Perspectives | BillMoyers.com

Paris Review – The Art of Poetry No. 83, Billy Collins

Paris Review – The Art of Poetry No. 83, Billy Collins

What went down.

Our neighbors help us taste test San Marzano and regular plum tomatoes

If you’ve been relying on Facebook to stay up-to-date with what your favorite local Red Bank food site or friend’s tumblr is posting, you’re missing out. Facebook shows you an arbitrary smidgen. To fill in the gaps, here’s what you missed this week,

Imported Italian Tomatoes We get an earful from Jimmy DiBartolo of restaurant wholesaler Quick Stop Food & Paper about tomatoes and sauce.

Keep neurotoxins off your plate. We share a few pointers we picked up from Master Gardener Carolyn Heuser’s presentation on organic vegetable gardening.

Beer and Cheese Seats are selling out for this Belgian-brew and cheese pairing event at the Molly Pitcher.

Also, I posted some thoughts about Jonathan Miles’ new book, Want Not.

And for your listening pleasure, I’ve been enjoying the new album from the NJ-based band, Real Estate:

Jonathan Miles, Want Not

want not book cover

Nutritionists tell us that when we go to a buffet, we eat more than if we order a single dish a la carte. This is because when we go to a buffet we are able to alternate between different foods with different flavors (bacon, french toast, eggs, muffin, etc.) Presented with all of that variety means that we are less easily satiated than when we sit down with a single bowl of plain oatmeal.

That’s the way reading Jonathan Miles’ Want Not felt. Like a buffet table I couldn’t leave. Miles weaves several very different characters and scenarios together but doesn’t cinch them closed until the very last moment in the book.

It makes for compelling reading. A story that seems to be about all the traces of ourselves —trash and otherwise — that we leave behind on this planet. In the end, I’m not quite sure what Miles’ point is about what we leave behind and whether it has any real applicable guidance to how we live our lives, but it does get you marinating about the comet trail of debris we leave in our wake as we burn our way through our lives.

Also, that much of it takes place in NJ means that the characters, the scenes, the scenarios – from the dumpster diving freegans to the McMansion-dwelling weirdos to the small university academic types — are all easy to imagine.

David Eggers’ review in the NYTIMES is what originally put me on the book.

For my tastes, the book is a bit too now, too temporal. I mostly enjoy books that feel universal, timeless — books that while I’m reading, i could imagine myself reading again in ten years and enjoying and extracting more from because of how I’ve changed, not because of how the world changed. Selfish/solipsistic reading is my bag, I suppose.

Anyway, very hard to put this book down. Totally worth a read if you need a break from the classics or non-fiction (as i did).

Weekly Update for February 28, 2014

Like the random patches of clouds blotting out swaths of the blue sky on a partly cloudy day, Facebook permits you to see only a few intermittent and unpredictable slices of the awesome, local food stories PieHole publishes.

These are the stories we ran this week:

  • The Red Bank Community Garden committee is kicking off the first of —what they hope to be — a series of monthly talks and presentations at the Red Bank Public Library. This month’s talk is on Organic Gardening
  • PieHole readers asked for an update on Red Bank’s Peruvian restaurant coming on Monmouth Street.
  • Another burger place opens in Red Bank, this one caters to late-night diners.

I also wrote up a comparison of Beats vs. Spotify that you might be interested in reading if you’re looking into online/streaming music subscriptions.

Beats v. Spotify

I’ve been bouncing back and forth between Beats and Spotify for the past couple of weeks. I’d love to know what other people are thinking. Here are my criteria/important features, in no particular order.

  • Pricing
  • Grateful Dead Catalog
  • Classical title display
  • Remote control for home audio system from iPad/iPhone
  • Discovery
  • Catalog Depth

Both are identical on sound quality, or purport to be, so i didn’t make that a criteria. If I really want to settle in for listening, I’ll put on vinyl, a CD, or some lossless audio. But for hanging around the house or driving in the car, you can’t beat a subscription music service.

Pricing

Beats wins. But barely and it could be better.

If you’ve got AT&T, you can get the Beats family plan for $14.99/mo. Otherwise like Spotify, an individual monthly plan is $10/mo.

I was hoping to put the kids on the family plan so they could use it with their iPads but since they don’t have cell phone numbers, they’re not eligible. So it’s just the wife and I. Still that’s cheaper than buying two Spotify plans.

Grateful Dead Catalog

Spotify wins.

This is silly and sort of trivial, I know, especially since there’s so much available elsewhere online. But anyway, Spotify has a nice Dick’s Pick selection. When Beats first came out, it did, too. They seem to have disappearred though and been replaced with the “Road Trips” series of shows. Can’t say that one really wins here. They both have plenty of listening.

So as a tie-breaker here, Spotify has a much deeper JGB catalog than Beats. Much much deeper. So we’ll give the win to Spotify

Classical Title Display

  • Desktop: Tie
  • Mobile: Beats

As my test here, I try to find a listenable version of the second movement of Dvorak’s Ninth. When you type “Dvorak 9 II” into Beats or Spotify, you get just what you want.

If you just type “Dvorak 9” in Beats, you get list of tracks that makes it easy to find the movement you want. The sort order doesn’t make any sense but you can find what you want. If you type that expression into Spotify, meh. You can’t find the second movement among the results, easily.

This works on the iPhone, too. Beats, thankfully, gives two lines for title display so you can see which movement you’re clicking. Spotify just gives your “Dvorak Symphony No.9 …” and makes you guess at the movement you’re selecting. Boo.

Remote Control for home audio

Spotify wins.

Spotify has a companion/third-party app called Remoteless. This iPhone application allows me to remotely control Spotify on a computer that’s plugged into my home audio system. This is hugely convenient as it allows me to pick songs, playlists, control volume,etc. from my listening chair. Unfortunately, the application only works about 70% of the time.

Beats has no such remote control option. While it’s frustrating as hell to deal with a remote control that often doesn’t work when you need it to most (phone ringing, want to turn down music), at least it’s something.

Discovery

Beats wins.

There’s almost no contest here. The suggestions that Beats has been making for me on my mobile app and the desktop app are amazing. The human-curated playlists are spectacular. I’ve listened to more new music on Beats in the past two weeks than I have through any other channel in the past year.

My only disappointment here is that there seems to be almost no way to keep my new discoveries organized. Both Spotify and Beats offer custom playlists and subscribing to lists, etc but neither really has nailed a way for me to organize my discoveries for later listening.

Catalog Depth

Spotify wins.

Two quick examples. Spotify has three singles off of Beck’s new release Morning Light. Beats has one. Spotify has had multiple releases from Lake Street Dive for several weeks now, Beats just added a single album from the band this week. Neither, though, has Lake Street Dive’s newest album. Still, between the new releases, depth of JGB catalog, etc. Spotify’s catalog is just deeper. I suspect this will be a moving target though.

Conclusion

I’m still up in the air here. I really enjoy the interface of the Beats iPhone app. The ability to filter album lists is great and new music discovery is really a treat.

That being said, the few times I’ve really wanted to hear something (like some of the new Beck album or a Jerry Band tune), Beats just hasn’t had it and I find myself switching over to Spotify.

So, no clear winner yet. Would love to know others’ thoughts here.

There’s a Reason That Rye Is Having a Moment – NYTimes.com

There’s a Reason That Rye Is Having a Moment – NYTimes.com