Monday, October 22, 2007

Socially aware & comfortable food

Today was one of my favorite days of the course (at least, so far). We covered two topics near and dear to my fat little heart: socially responsible eating and Southern food. :)

Jason Ryan was a graduate of the master's program I'm attending and it was good to see someone who had gone through the program and hear a little about it. He explained that one of the classes left a huge impression on him and has changed his life quite a bit. The class discussed the economics of hunger and poverty (I think?) and made him think more thoroughly about where the food he ate came from and how it got to him.

This is a topic we talk about a lot at home. I never really used to consider the source of food very much, but I think living in San Francisco, reading more about food and the food world and eating at more and more locally focused restaurants has opened my eyes (and conscience) up to doing what I can to eat well and smartly. Speaking of smart, this is a topic of conversation Catherine and I have pretty often and from early on in the class. She recommended that I read the Omnivore's Dilemma, which I hope to get to soon.

One of the more interesting topics we discussed (albeit briefly) was the impact of high fructose corn syrup on health trends (not conclusive, only a correlation). I would love to read more on that topic in the future (and I'm hoping to take the class he took).

Another great thing that came out of that day: CSAs. I've been looking for a CSA to join since I've moved to Boston but couldn't find one. I've asked all the chefs, but none of them knew of any. Finally, though, Jason was able to suggest a website and a few CSAs that he subscribes to.


There are few things in the world that please me more than fried chicken and southern food. Many women turn to chocolate when they're feeling down. I turn to fried chicken. I'm not too picky about where it comes from, I just want it. It's a constant, soulful craving.

... um, unfortunately we didn't have fried chicken today, so I don't know why I'm going on about this. But, like I said, this is a deep love. It gets me sidetracked.

Anyway, Barry Maiden was the chef today and his specialty is southern cuisine, which is obviously a sensitive topic, as every part of the American south has a different idea of the "true south." I know this because I found myself surrounded by Southerners in college and having to break up arguments on the Mason-Dixon line, BBQ, amongst other things. Anyway, Barry is from Virginia (I'm pretty sure) and is probably my favorite person in the course (sorry JJ).

We made some classics today and they were just spot on fabulous. The fried green tomatoes in buttermilk dressing was just spectacular. The crunchy and tart tomatoes was great with the creamy punch of the buttermilk. We actually served it all over a small salad with fresh cherry tomatoes, which gave the over all dish some great color and balance because of the contrasting types of tomatoes. It's a great and dynamic way to showcase the diversity of a food. Really great.

Next, we worked on the collard greens, which I haven't had in an extremely long time. I never really understood why they need to be cooked to a mushy pulp. Collard greens (and bitter leafy green vegetables in general) are prominently featured in Chinese food, and I know they have to be cooked for a longer period of time than other greens, it doesn't need to be reduced to a mush. We started off trying to render out some fat from a ham hock in a dry pot, and we cut into to ham hock help release the fat. I can't imagine trying to do this my own kitchen, the smoke alarms would be screaming for days if I did this.

After getting out a good amount of fat, we threw in some red pepper flakes, garlic and other seasonings and let them get nice and cooked into the fat, producing even more smoke (this time more spicy). We poured in some water, but I think some a little stock for extra flavor would be just fine and started throwing in the trimmed up collards. Those suckers really cook down a lot. Adding in one or two handfuls at a time and waiting a minute while they cooked down a bit, I eventually added in nine or ten handfuls of collards into a relatively small pot. We brought it up to a boil and then dropped it down to a simmer. I, personally, thought they were cooked through after 20-30 minutes (and tasted great), and while Barry agreed he said traditionally they need to be cooked for a good hour to hour and a half.

I think it turned out really well, although a little overcooked for my tastes. I don't, however, understand why anyone would drink the cooking liquid that southerners call the pot liquor. Theoretically, it makes sense, ham hock, delicious seasonings, etc, but no... it's still too bitter and hardcore for me.

My favorite of the day was the shrimp gravy (which is a major statement for me given that we also made chicken fried steak today). It was the most amazing thing we've ever eaten in class I think, and I'm fairly certain that everyone was a big fan. It was sweet and savory and salty and just perfect. I think a lot of us were surprised at how sweet it turned out, since we didn't add any sugar. Barry explained that good heirloom tomatoes really impart that special flavor that really makes the dish, normal out of season tomatoes wouldn't result in anything nearly as good. This is definitely a great dish. We served this on some grits, but I think this gravy would be just perfect with any starch, rice, pasta, potatoes... I want to eat this again right now!

One of the best things about today, particularly in relation to the shrimp gravy, was that we needed to make our own shrimp stock. I'd never made a seafood stock with shells before, so it was really helpful to see a recipe for it and do it ourselves. I was surprised to see that we really didn't need to have a large volume of shells to get a great flavor out of it. And I was really pleased to find that it doesn't really take long to make at all, much much faster than a traditional brown or white stock (of course!). I should ask Barry if has a recipe for converting the shrimp stock into shrimp bisque. Or, if he could tell me the proportions needed to make lobster stock and bisque. I imagine its roughly the same for the lobster stock and for the bisque we'd mainly need cream and a stronger broth.

Chicken fried steak was a toughie for us to do well today. I think it's hard to gauge the doneness of a piece of meat when it has a batter. So, our steaks ended up a bit further along than we had hoped, but it tasted quite good regardless. We all had a bit of difficulty trying to get the crust to stay on the steak too. I felt like the batter was just barely attached to the steak, just flipping the steak over in the pan while cooking would result in a break and loss of the crust. It was so frustrating. The steaks turned out better as we moved along, make me wonder if successful crust adherence had something to do with the cooking temp/temp of the oil. Or maybe the last few steaks I'd done had been sitting with the batter on it for longer allowing for more glue time? I'd really like to figure out how to improve the final product before I make a mess of my kitchen at home. I never would have thought that chicken fried steak would be one of the more complicated dishes I'd made. Pity. All the simple foods are the hardest to make well.

The Vidalia cream gravy we had with the steaks was another really eye-opening dish. Again, we added no sugar or sweetener of any kind to it and it came out amazingly sweet. The softball sized onions were so full of sugar, they totally changed the flavor of the gravy. When I first tasted it, I was so stunned because I'd assumed it would have a more traditionally onion-y flavor, but it was really interesting to see (again) how specific produce can be used in new, unusual or unexpected ways to really defy traditional expectations. I think that's a great philosophy / cooking technique to carry with me forever.

We all ate the main course together, chicken fried streak with vidalia cream gravy, collard greens, horseradish mashed potatoes and corn bread. A really great meal that felt homey and comfortable and full of all the great family style food known from the South.

Barry was one of the best teachers we've had to far. He's really great at explaining why he does things the way he does and what causes various reactions. He's thoughtful and decent and doesn't make someone feel stupid or inadequate just because they did something wrong or had a questions.

I can't wait for Barry's new restaurant, the Hungry Mother, to open up. I'll gladly go and support him.