Friday, December 28, 2012


I cooked a goose for Christmas, and it was delicious, but Jesus (so to speak), it was a lot of work.

The superlative butchers at Golden Gate Meat Company in San Francisco managed to get hold of a few dozen geese from Grimaud Farms--air-chilled (hence no water weight added, as is customary with most other poultry) and never frozen: beautiful birds.  Early on the morning after I'd brought home my ten-pounder, I woke up remembering a recent experience with a duck that I had cut up in order to braise the legs, roast the breasts rare, and make a nice stock from the back and other scraps; and I thought, Well, that would be a dandy way to deal with the goose.  I also remembered, however, that the anatomy of that duck had been sufficiently different from that of birds I was more familiar with that I had really been digging around and doing some damage to its lovely dark flesh.  Moreover, the connective tissue holding the joints together had been extremely hard to slice through.  Now I was looking at a critter five times bigger, with pretty much the same anatomy, and tendons probably five times tougher.

And so I'm thinking, Time to call the guys at Golden Gate.  Sure enough, they'd be glad to cut it up for me.  Therefore, as sheets of rain slashed across the Embarcadero and the Bay at high tide splashed against the piers, I made my way through a gray eight a.m. Sunday to the Ferry Building to find Golden Gate--Closed Sundays?  Naw!  Who had I been talking to, then?  I banged on the steel gate, hollered through it.  I could see a guy mopping inside, but he didn't look up.  I banged, I hollered.  Finally he saw me and disappeared into the back.  Soon appeared one of the butchers I recognized--the one, in fact, who had answered the phone.  Padlocks click, in I goes, a discussion of the surgery ensues.  Ten minutes later, one bag contains drumsticks, thighs, and first joints of wings with a knob of breast meat attached to each; another has the whole breast, un-split; and a third the carcass, wing tips, neck, giblets, heart, and liver--all but the last the makings of my stock.  With Christmas Eve dinner not till the next night, I could make stock that day and let the fat rise in the fridge overnight.  Also I could do my braise.

I thought I would brown the meat and bones on top of the stove.  Not a good idea.  First of all it took six frying pans, all six burners.  Second, despite my assiduous drying, the fat-spatter was unbelievable.  Goose napalm.  So, a five-hundred oven.  Lotta spattering there too, of course, but at least it was contained.  Also in the oven I browned onions (skin on), carrots, and celery; together, for both the braise and the stock.  I poured off the rendered fat--yeow--more than three cups.

I gave the stock a two-hour head start so I could use some of it in the braise.  I managed to fit the meat into two large cast-iron skillets, then wedged in the now-caramelized vegetables, added some stock, thyme, and bay, discovered that my back-yard parsley was dead, and poured half a bottle of Loire (unoaked) chardonnay into each pan.  Up to a simmer, and into a three-hundred oven.  Wearing this great little timer around my neck, I could "remember" to check on everything once an hour.  Barely bubbling, just right.

After four hours, the goose drumsticks were still so hard I could have cracked somebody's skull with one.  After five, they were merely inedibly tough.  Good thing this was the day before.

Finally, after six and a half hours and several addings of water, they began to soften, and that was enough for the day.  I put the meat in a bowl in the refrigerator and added the braising liquid to the stock pot.  By now the carcass was breaking apart, which was good--more gelatin in the stock, more unctuosity in the sauce to come.  I fished out all the big stuff and smushed it hard in the strainer to squeeze out whatever juice I could, then strained the rest, again smushing anything smushable to a paste.  All the solids could now go to compost and the beautiful, though very greasy, stock to the fridge.

Christmas Eve morning, the fat having nicely congealed, I scraped it off the top of the stock.  What lay beneath was a sparkling-clear consommé.  Beauty, thy name is stock!  It did need to reduce by about half.  No problem.  That done, I put the goose in a bit of it and put that again in a 300 oven.  After an hour and a half or so, the meat was falling off the bone; I took that out and kept it warm.

When the oven reached 450, I roasted the breast to an internal temperature of 145.  The skin was tight and crisp, the meat bright blood-red.

I took a quart or so of the stock to reduce further for a sauce.  I julienned an orange peel, blanched it, and added that.  I just happened to have three kinds of oranges on hand--a regular navel, a Cara Cara, which has flesh sort of grapefruity-pink, and a Clementine.  I cut out "filets" from the first two and just sectioned the third because it comes apart so nicely, and set those aside.  The juice left over I added to the sauce, followed by a wee tad of butter for viscosity and what the hell.  I completely forgot to chop, cook, and add the liver.

After resting it for forty minutes, I carved the breast meat off the bone and sliced it crosswise into thin medallions.

Braised meat went on one end of the platter, rare breast on the other.  I chucked the little orange quarter-moons here and there amidst both.

It was very, very good.  But once, I think, will have been enough.

Thursday, December 27, 2012


"I shall try to explain these things, and others connected with the successful manipulation of eggs, for they are well worth the practice needed and the time and money you must spend.  From unsuccessful attempts there is much to be learnt, so one must count an occasional wasted egg or failed soufflé as profit rather than loss."

--French Provincial Cooking, Frome: Butler & Tanner Ltd., 1960

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


--By far.  If the country can figure out how to deal with what this courageous writer describes, we will all be much safer.  Click on this link:
I am Adam Lanza's mother

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


[From the Big Timber, Montana, Pioneer of December 6, 2012:]

Nov. 22 - A woman reported finding a black cow in her front yard.

Nov. 22 - Dispatchers received several calls regarding a buffalo on Highway 191.

Nov. 23 - An officer responded to a burglar alarm at a local business.  It was a false alarm.

Nov. 24 - A woman requested information about fatal crashes in the area during November.  There weren't any.

Nov. 25 - A man reported a cat stuck on a power pole near I-90.  An officer was notified.

Nov. 26 - A woman reported a roping bull out on her property.

Nov. 26 - An officer helped with a locked vehicle.

Nov. 29 - An officer assisted in unlocking a vehicle at a local gas station.

Nov. 29 - An officer assisted in unlocking a vehicle at a local business.

Nov. 29 - A woman called 911 accidentallly.

(What is it with these folks and their car keys?)

Sunday, December 2, 2012


November 16, 2012.  2 killed; child critically injured.... The woman died at the scene.  The man...was taken by helicopter to a Billings hospital, where he died.  A child who was a passenger in the woman’s car was ejected. The child is hospitalized in critical condition.

November 12, dies....The car rolled several times before it stopped, and [he] was ejected from the vehicle.  [He] was the only person in the car, and he was not wearing a seatbelt.

October 30, 2012.  Teen killed....The boy was not wearing a seatbelt and was ejected from the pickup, which rolled over him when it rolled a second time.

October 20, killed in single-vehicle crash....The driver, who was not wearing a seat belt, was ejected from the car. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

October 1, dies....partially ejected and died at the scene.

September 27, 2012.  1-year-old boy killed, 8 injured....The driver apparently overcorrected.... “I’ve never seen so many people all being ejected”.... The Montana Department of Transportation lists failure to use seatbelts as the leading contributor to motor vehicle fatalities.

September 14, 2012.  Second victim named in fatal accident....He over-corrected... was not wearing a seat belt and was partially ejected through the front windshield.

August 29, killed in 1-vehicle crash....ejected and died at the scene....Neither he nor the passenger were wearing seatbelts.

August 24, dies in rollover....was ejected in the crash and died at the scene.

August 18, dies....The man, who was not wearing a seat belt, was ejected from the vehicle, the MHP said. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

August 14, dies after one-vehicle rollover....His Ford Ranger pickup truck rolled several times and he was ejected from the cab of the pickup. He was not wearing a seat belt.  He was thrown approximately 50 feet north of where the truck came to a rest.  [He] was pronounced dead at 11:45 p.m.

August 9, 2012.  1 killed, 3 seriously injured in 1-vehicle rollover....The vehicle rolled several times and ejected three of the four occupants.

August 6, 2012.  Woman dies....The SUV went off the road and rolled. The woman was partially ejected and died at the scene.

August 5, 2012.  2 killed....The man was ejected from his truck upon impact and died at the scene of the collision.  An 8-year-old boy who was riding in the Honda was also killed.

August 3, 2012....girl dies in crash....The SUV flipped and rolled several times.  The patrol says the girl was wearing her seat belt improperly and was ejected from the vehicle. She died at the scene.

July 12, dies after rolling motorcycle....The motorcycle rolled and he was ejected from the bike. He was not wearing a helmet.

July 7, 2012.  2 killed, 1 injured in rollover accident....The driver was thrown from the vehicle and was pronounced dead on the scene.  The back seat passenger...was partially ejected from the rear side window and was also pronounced dead on the scene. Both men were not wearing seat belts.

June 26, killed.... lost control of his vehicle in a turn and slid off the road. The vehicle rolled twice.  He was not wearing a seat belt and was ejected from the vehicle. He died at a Whitefish hospital.

June 14, 2012....woman dies....ejected....

June 8, 2012.  Teenager killed in rollover crash....The boy was partially ejected and died at the scene.

June 4, 2012.  2nd rollover crash victim dies....sitting unrestrained....ejected....

June 4, 2012.  Woman killed....[The passenger] was ejected from the vehicle and died on scene.  [The driver] was not injured and was wearing a seat belt.

June 4, dies, 1-year-old injured.  The driver overcorrected, went off the other side of the road, skidded and rolled three times. The driver was ejected and pronounced dead....The toddler was flown to a Great Falls hospital.

June 1, 2012.  Rollover crash kills 1, injures 3.  The driver...overcorrected causing the vehicle to trip and roll two and a half times before coming to a rest on the vehicle top.  Two passengers...were ejected. The third passenger...was wearing a seatbelt and suffered minor injuries.  [The driver] died at the scene....

May 30, 2012.  Two men sought after fatal crash....During the rollover, two unrestrained passengers seated in the second row of seats were ejected.  [One] died at the scene.  [The other] was taken to Ivinson Memorial Hospital for treatment of serious injuries.... The driver and a front-seat passenger fled the scene on foot....

May 8, victim of Jeep crash....went off the side of the road and down an embankment. It collided with a tree and then rolled and flipped.  The driver was ejected and died at the scene.

May 5, 2012....woman dies in 1-vehicle accident....It rotated counter-clockwise on the shoulder, rolled and traveled into the ditch, where the woman was ejected. She died at the scene of the crash....not wearing a seatbelt.

May 4, 2012.  Canyon crash...kills 1, injures 4....rolled five or six times....Four people were ejected....A man died at the scene....The victims' injuries appeared "very serious."

May 3, dies in rollover crash....ejected....

April 5, killed.... The driver was ejected from the driver's-side window and the passenger was partially ejected from the back window.  Neither man was wearing a seat belt....[The driver] was pronounced dead at the scene.

March 10, 2012.  1 dead, 8 more hospitalized in rollover accident....A 6-year-old girl died.... Nine people were ejected from the SUV....[Only one was] believed to have been wearing a seat belt.

March 5, killed in accident that injured three others.... four men, ages 20 to 26 all were ejected.

March 3, who died in rollover identified.... The Ford pickup truck went off the road, hit an embankment, rolled once, and came to rest on its driver's side. The man, who was not wearing a seat belt, was ejected and pronounced dead at the scene.

February 29, killed....was not wearing a seat belt and was ejected from the vehicle.

February 28, dies in crash....was not wearing a seat belt and was ejected....

February 15, dies in one-vehicle rollover....partially ejected....

January 13, killed....not wearing a seat belt. He was ejected from the truck.

January  9, 2012.  State tries to revoke Montana bar's license after crash.... Seven Blue Moon bartenders were cited for serving alcohol to an intoxicated person....[The man] had been drinking at the Blue Moon for about 5 1/2 hours before the crash....His pickup fishtailed and struck [a 19-year-old woman’s] car when he tried to pass it. Both vehicles rolled into the ditch and both drivers were ejected. [The woman] was pinned under her car and died at the scene.

Saturday, December 1, 2012


Holy smokes!  I just found out today that they published the list more than two weeks ago.


"The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hit a record high of 390.9 parts per million in 2011, the World Meteorological Association reported on 20 November.  Levels of the potent greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide also reached new highs last year."

--Nature, 29 November 2012

Thursday, November 29, 2012


First please let me apologize for my absence from this space.  I'm renewing my commitment to blogging here starting today.  And now:

A pre-election letter to the editor of the Big Timber, Montana, Pioneer.  I am omitting the writer's name to spare him the embarrassment that a less congenial fellow would say he damn well deserves:

The current administration has vowed that if it is put back in office, they are going to take away our second amendment rights.  An armed man is a CITIZEN and an unarmed man is a SURF.  On election day you will have the chance to decide which one you would like to be.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


As is said, a dish best served cold:

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


BABBO in New York (Mario Batali's baby) is everything you don't want in a restaurant--disorganized, unfriendly, and stupid. After half an hour waiting for the table I'd been promised "in ten minutes," I was told that "policy" forbade seating single persons.  And now that I'd waited half an hour, and tables were obviously available?  No, sorry, policyPolicy.  This is a place that persons of sensibility should assiduously avoid--and please tell your friends.

Thursday, August 30, 2012


The audiobook of THE MAN WHO CHANGED THE WAY WE EAT has just gotten an unbelievably great review in Publishers Weekly:

Thursday, August 9, 2012


Grrr.  (That would be a quiet little growl....)

Originally published on, now picked up on Huffington Post. The original's a bit better because of the comments. Plenty of room for comments here, too, of course, so please have at it.

Monday, July 23, 2012


Here at the Langston House in Outer Greater Metropolitan Melville, Montana, I can look out my window and see just shy of three hundred calves and their almost three hundred mothers.  That's a lot of veal on the hoof.  They're still nursing, but grazing a bit too, so I'm not sure whether they qualify as milk-fed veal.  At this point they may be vitellone.  The scene is repeated hundreds of times to the north, south, east, and west of me.  Gigatons of goddam veal.

So you might think you could buy some in the supermarket.  I called and called and called.  One butcher said he could get some in a couple of weeks and would be glad to call me.  I had folks coming for dinner in three days, and I wanted to give them Pierre Franey and Craig Claiborne's Côtes de Veau Pavillon--one of Pierre's great dishes from the days when he was chef of America's greatest restaurant, Le Pavillon in New York.  In desperation I went to the one supermarket I hadn't called, in Bozeman--a hundred miles from Melville--and sho nuff if the young butcher didn't say, "Yeah, I think we've got some in the freezer."  Loin chops?  "I think so."

He never showed them to me, as a normal butcher would, but I was so grateful I just took them blind.  When I got them home and unwrapped them, aghButchered is precisely what they were: uneven of thickness, apparently hacked with a dull knife, and with a long stringy sort of tail hanging from them, consisting mainly of fat.

Now, browning veal is never that easy.  I didn't want to use flour because the dish calls for a slick vinegar glaze at the end and any sort of thickener would ruin that.  These damned little chops just wouldn't brown. And the whole point of the vinegar déglaçage was to pick up the yummy crunches of fond that the caramelization of meat ordinarily creates.  Meanwhile my dinner guests were talking to me constantly, and I just couldn't concentrate, so while I kept on trying and trying to brown the chops, I forgot entirely about the cherry clafouti that should have been in the oven at the same time.  Well, finally, after a longish simmer in stock and vinegar, a reduction of that down to a glaze, and a slip of butter to make it shine, I had some veal chops that really looked like hell.

I had started with an avocado soup, by the way, which was no masterpiece either.  For dessert we had to wait quite a while for our clafouti.  Luckily I had already pitted the cherries or it would have been midnight.  Well, and it was good.  It was downright delicious.

My guests were non-drinkers.  This particular evening I was perhaps exceptionally not.

A couple of weeks later, the other butcher called me.  Said he had some beautiful veal chops.  Which he did.  Which he cut properly.  Which browned just fine.  Which produced a just-right and abundant bunch of fond in the pan.  And which turned, in due course, into an excellent rendition of  Côtes de Veau Pavillon.

And where had that veal come from?  The butcher didn't know, but we agreed that it almost certainly didn't come from Montana.  The three hundred calves out my window are going to grow up into red meat.

The dish is worth doing.  It's best with pale, milk-fed veal, but pink vitellone will do.  It is actually possible, by the way, to get humanely raised milk-fed veal, but it may take a bit of a search even if you're in New York or San Francisco.  (I knew better than to ask about mine.)  It's easy, and it's extraordinarily yummy.  Here's how:

Sauté your veal chops in butter till they brown.  I don't think they'll ever get uniformly brown, but do what you can.  Toss in one clove of garlic per chop (whole), a couple of bay leaves, a bit of thyme--not too much--and enough chicken broth (or veal stock, even better) to come a quarter-inch up the chops.  Craig adds less than a teaspoon of vinegar per chop at this point, but I think more is better--say two teaspoons per.  Cover and simmer till tender--maybe twenty minutes.

Season the chops to taste and keep them warm while you boil down the liquid in the pan, meanwhile assiduously scraping up all the brown bits.  Get rid of the garlic, bay leaf, and thyme.  Continue reducing until you have perhaps a tablespoon and a half of liquid per person, and swirl in a little butter.  The sauce will be a rich dark mahogany in color, and almost syrupy.

A couple of tips.  Don't use balsamic vinegar, it will be too sweet and too sticky.  Do use really good vinegar.  Be sure to reduce the cooking liquid down to very little, to bring back the intensity of the vinegar aroma which otherwise would seem to have boiled away.  Oh, and back at the beginning: inspect your chops at the butcher's and be sure they're of even thickness and properly trimmed.

Mashed potatoes would be great with this dish.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Sorting through the thousands of recipes that Craig Claiborne published to come out with 100 or 125 "greatest hits" for a cookbook to come, I face an unruly host of hard decisions.  I can't just choose Craig's own favorites--he already published those in his memoir, A Feast Made For Laughter--and there's no way to know which dishes have been most popular with his readers, so I'm left with subjectivity.  That's fine with me.  I'm picking some things that seem indispensable, others for their flair, and some just for fun.

In the last category came last night's Creamed Mushrooms with Dried Beef.  This is the same thin-sliced Armour beef in a jar that is the main ingredient in Chipped Beef, a thing that generations of students and soldiers have abhorred, calling it Shit on a Shingle, but which I particularly liked when I was at Yale.  Since the recipe began with a simple white sauce--equally essential to chipped beef--I thought, Hey, this may well be great.

Craig calls for cutting regular white mushrooms into julienne strips, which I found impossible.  They break.  So I ended up with some batonnets and some smaller chunks. These you sauté in butter.  I was surprised that Craig didn't call for the stiff discs of reconstituted beef also to be julienned, but the recipe leaves them whole, and, obliged on first try to be faithful in every possible way to the original, so did I.  The recipe also calls for prepared pimentos, the kind you also get in a jar, a little grated nutmeg, and a pinch of cayenne.  Craig cautions you not to add salt, good advice, because the beef is stunningly salty.  Craig doesn't tell you how long to cook it, but a little while suffices to soften the beef.  What you have at this point is a gooey gray glop flecked with red. 

At the end, off the heat, you stir in the cheese.  I'm in Montana this summer, so I'm doing many of these recipes the way Craig's readers would have had to do them when they were published--you don't see many fancy foodstuffs here.  At the Big Timber IGA you have your choice of Kraft Cracker Barrel Cheddar and Crystal Farm (since 1926) Sharp Cheddar.  I'd never heard of the Crystal Farm cheese, but it had fewer non-cheese ingredients.  Both are the unearthly orange-yellow of annatto.  The result, once I added the cheese, ws one of the most revolting-looking things I've ever seen.  You serve it on toast or English muffins.  I chose the latter.

It didn't taste revolting, but it wasn't good.  The meat was so salty it ruined everything.  There was way too much of that godawful cheese, and good cheddar wouldn't have made it much better--a less lurid color, I suppose.

I love being wrong--I say this a lot--because if you're right all the time you never learn anything.  Choosing this dish was wrong.  I suppose I ought to have known that, but now I've learned.

Sunday, June 17, 2012


When did this start?  I remember the Gotham Bar & Grill in Greenwich Village in the middle 1980s putting out vertiginous assemblages that fell down at first touch.  Alfred Portale’s food managed to be delicious nevertheless.  For a long time in my neighborhood in San Francisco there was a tiny place called Café Kati that was best known for its ready-to-tip architectural craziness, and even there things tasted pretty good in spite of the silly stacking.  The idea, presumably, was that if you could slice down successfully through the layers you would have a pleasing, perhaps surprising combination of flavors and textures.  The problem was that when the whole thing collapsed, as it always did, that was impossible.  It was like one of those absurd Dagwood sandwiches that only Dagwood Bumstead has ever had a big enough mouth to get a comprehensive bite of.

So today, up here in the nowheres of Montana, I’m reading the San Francisco Chronicle online, to wit, Michael Bauer’s review of a new restaurant owned by the well-known coast-to-coast restaurateur Charlie Palmer, whose other places have nearly always been both critical and popular successes, which baffles me.  Aureole, his flagship in Manhattan, always seemed insanely expensive for the quality of the food—it looked good but didn’t come together (perhaps a definitional description, now that I think of it).  His great-looking Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, California, has the same characteristics—handsome food that doesn’t taste like much.  Bauer seems in general relatively sympathetic to stacking, but in today’s Chron he writes of Palmer’s new Burritt Room that the “cornmeal-crusted oysters ($16) were poorly fried and quickly became sodden atop fennel slaw.”  Now why, I beg you, would you put fried oysters on top of the goddam slaw?  Put your fried oysters on a nice hot plate and your slaw in something else, preferably cool, maybe a little bowl, and you have one of the world’s fine combinations.  Put 'em together and you have—sodden.

In the Ninth Arrondissment of Paris there’s a superb little restaurant called La Carte Blanche that seems to get the stacking thing gloriously right.  What they do is simple, unfussy, and logical.  Here’s a prime example, a recent fish dish:

So obviously there’s nothing inherently wrong with stacking: If you can actually get a bite in your mouth and its tastes good, great.  But crisp fried oysters on top of wet slaw?   Bleah.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


This is more like real life.  For all of June and July, I'm in Outer Greater Metropolitan Melville, Montana--as close to the middle of nowhere as you can get in this country.  Melville is not really a town; the post office and the snack bar constitute its one commercial building.  Big Timber, a town though not much of one, is 28 miles away.  The one grocery store there is lousy--forget the produce--though there is an excellent organic butcher with superb local beef and pork.  For real supplies I have to drive to Bozeman, a hundred miles.  Thank God for audiobooks (just now, I, Claudius, by Robert Graves, beautifully performed by the late Frederick Davidson).  Bozeman has its Community Food Co-op, where if you hit it on the right day you may find excellent organic produce, or you may not.  What they have that's consistently great, surprisingly, are salmon and other seafood.  They have a direct relationship with a salmon boat in Alaska, which I find rather amazing.  The other day we had Copper River king salmon, the ne plus ultra of the whole salmonid family.  Damn stuff cost thirty bucks a pound, though.  Helps you keep the servings small.  And there's a brand-new Safeway with a lot of organic things, good olive oils, and so on; a nice place.

In Montana you learn to live by the freezer.  Almost everybody I know has a huge one, often full of last fall's wild game--pronghorn antelope the best, though hard to hunt; elk delicious and abundant; deer insanely superabundant and child's play to kill one, but it's nobody's favorite meat.  And there are the birds: grouse of various sorts, Hungarian partridge, pheasant, ducks.  All these are wonderful food, and, not a hunter myself, I mooch them whenever I can.  At the Co-op you can get domestically raised bison, which is mild and nice and somewhat uninteresting.  One learns also that beef and chicken and pork and salmon all freeze pretty doggone well.  If you want a domestic duck, you can get it only one way: hard as a rock.

So in cooking my way through Craig Claiborne's Greatest Hits, as I'm doing this summer, I'm in a situation much closer to that of most Americans, with difficult access to good ingredients and making do with a lot of not very good ones.  In San Francisco, a weekly visit to the best farmer's market in the United States yields wondrous produce all year round, and you can get just about anything you want.  For the meal I'm about to write about, I decided to see if I could find live snails, and I could.  In the event, they're an amazing pain in the neck to deal with, and people tell me the canned ones are just as good.  In any case, planning to use them in Montana, I had no choice but canned.  And I had to bring those.  Otherwise I'd have had to order them shipped in.

Elizabeth was here until yesterday, and night before last we made an all-Claiborne dinner for two dear friends.  I wanted to revisit one of the first appetizers that my young bride and I made when we were learning to cook from Craig's New York Times Cook Book, in the early 1970s in New York: Mushrooms Stuffed with Snails.

You need large mushrooms, regular white ones, and my guests were diligent in finding some, at Costco in Helena, nice and fresh.  You make snail butter by chopping parsley, garlic, celery, and shallots very very fine and then creaming that mixture with room-temperature butter.  I couldn't find any shallots, so I used onion.  Craig's recipe calls for a quite a lot less garlic than the other ingredients, and I found that it could have used more, so I suggest you use equal amounts of all four of those, and do please keep chopping till they're teeny-tiny.  This would probably be a good place to use your food processor, actually.  Smush the vegetables with the butter and season it.  Eyeballing the amount you make seems to me just as good as following an instruction--make as much as you think you want to use for however many mushrooms and snails you've got (at one snail per mushroom).  French tradition is to really drench the snails in the snail butter, but American diners may find that excessive.

So you pull out the mushroom stems (use them elsewhere, as I did below), roll the caps in melted plain butter, and splooch some snail butter into each cavity.  Top it with a snail and smear a little more butter on top of each.  Bake for fifteen minutes at 375, and there you are.

Craig serves only two mushrooms per person, and for once I think his servings are too small.  Three or four look much better on a plate.

I wanted to try something adventurous and somewhat difficult for the main course, and that's where the duck came in: Canard au Citron, from the New New York Times Cook Book, published in 1979 when Craig was discovering, and loving, the French Nouvelle Cuisine, which this dish is a fine example of.  Thanks again to our guests, who got a duck early enough to have it fully thawed by the time I went to work on it.

First you pull out all the goodies inside.  Save the delicious liver for something else, then chop up the neck, the heart, and the giblets, also the wingtips, and brown them over high heat.  Add onions, carrots, and celery and cook till they soften.  Then add a quite large amount of chicken stock--Craig says three cups--along with parsley, thyme, bay leaf, and peppercorns.  If you've made the mushroom dish above, you could throw in a few of the mushroom stems as well.  Don't worry about the size of the vegetable pieces, you're going to strain all that out.  Cook that for an hour or so while the duck is roasting.

Craig trusses the duck and turns it from bottom to side to top to side every half hour.  I find, however, that you get a much nicer finished duck, more evenly cooked and with crisper skin, if you don't truss it at all.  (Please do not use the non-word crispy, okay?)  Also you don't need to turn it.  Just salt and pepper the bird and roast it for two hours at 375, pouring off the accumulated fat every half hour or so.  (That fat is great for frying potatoes, by the way--essential, in fact, to the great dish Pommes de Terre Sarladaise.)

After an hour or so, strain the stock, pushing hard on all the solids to get the last best juices. Craig says you should have two cups; I say if you do, there's going to be too much sauce, and you should reduce it by half.  Other than that, there's a lot of down time during all this roasting, for everybody to stand around and drink wine and yak.

Then toward the end you have to get moving.  You make a gastrique by boiling down a quarter-cup each of sugar and wine vinegar and set that aside.  You peel a lemon, getting as little pith as possible, cut the peel into julienne, blanch it for a minute in boiling water, and set that aside as well.  Then squeeze the juice out of the lemon and keep that at hand.  Also have at hand a fine strainer, a half-cup of Sherry or Madeira, and a quarter-cup of Grand Marnier.

Transfer the duck to a fresh roasting pan and put it back in the oven.  If it's not nice and brown, though I think it will be, turn the oven up to 400 or 450.

Now pour off all the fat and deglaze the roasting pan with the Sherry or Madeira.  You're going to have a lot of delicious though very adhesive gradu to scrape up, and please get it all.  Reduce the Sherry by quite a lot, then add it to the gastrique.  The latter may have hardened into something resembling glass, but don't worry, it will melt.  Combine with the reduced stock.  You may want to thicken this sauce, and cornstarch or arrowroot would be best, in order to preserve its quite lovely transparency.  Strain the sauce through your fine sieve.

With any luck, you've got somebody there to carve the duck while you finish the sauce (tip of the hat to my pal Bob Kiesling).  Add the lemon juice and cook as long as it takes to get the duck ready to serve.  Then at the very last minute add the lemon julienne and the Grand Marnier--don't boil off the alcohol--and you will have a rather wondrous, gleaming, fragrant sauce.

I served wild rice lightly flavored with orange peel (I thought Pommes Sarladaise would really be too much duck fat for one meal) and some nice frozen Birdseye peas cooked with lettuce.  And red Burgundy.

For dessert I made, for the first time in my life, one of the great dishes I remember from growing up in Memphis, Chess Pie.  The story of that name's origin is this.  Yankee goes into a restaurant, finishes his main course, and asks what's for dessert.  Waitress says, "We got pie."  Guy orders apple pie.  "We ain't got apple pie."  Then he'll have peach pie.  "We ain't got no peach pie, neither."  Well, he demands, what kind of pie do you have?  "Jes' pie."

Basically it's a baked-custard pie flavored with lemon--a nice harmony with the duck.

Make a pie crust with a cup and a half of flour, six tablespoons of butter, a little sugar, and enough ice water to make it right.  Put the dough in the fridge or the freezer while you make the filling.

Grate the peel of a lemon--a Microplane rasp is good for this--then squeeze out the juice.  If that's not a quarter-cup of juice, squeeze another lemon, but you've got enough lemon zest already.  Cream a stick of room-temp butter with two cups of sugar, beat in a tablespoon or two of flour and an equal amount of cornmeal and then four eggs, adding them one at a time.  You probably will want to taste it at this point and add some salt.  Then add a quarter-cup of milk, your quarter-cup of lemon juice, and the zest.

Roll out a single crust and settle it neatly in a nine-inch pie pan.  Crimp the edges.  Pour in the batter, and bake at 350.  Craig says 45 minutes, but after 45 minutes at this elevation--we're at 5500 feet above sea level--the filling would still slosh back and forth like soup.

Here is a delicate aspect of making custard pies.  You'd like it to be firm enough to stick a knife in and have it come out clean, but mine never did reach that point even after half an hour extra of baking.  And if you over-bake it, the custard is going to get watery.  So if you're lucky you'll have nice firm custard.  Otherwise you're going to have to take a chance on it firming up in the refrigerator.  Which mine did, by the grace of God.  You want it fairly cold.

It comes out a beautiful, warm brown.  Grate a little nutmeg over the top.  The cornmeal you added lends the texture a gentle crunch.  Some whipped cream is good against the boldly assertive lemon flavor, though with the snail butter, the duck, and naked Chess Pie you may feel you've had enough fat for one dinner.

A glass of the Sherry or Madeira you used in the duck sauce is terrific with jes' pie.

Friday, June 8, 2012


This is the Big One, the New York Times Book Review.  Click on this link to see it:
 THE MAN WHO CHANGED THE WAY WE EAT, reviewed by Corby Kummer

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


If Craig Claiborne were alive today,  and he walked into The Slanted Door in San Francisco, I believe he would turn around and walk back out without tasting the food.  He would find the noise unbearable.  I spent more than two years researching a book called The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance (just out, by the way), so I’m pretty confident in saying that.  Craig was the first food editor of the New York Times, having started in 1957, and he is the father of the food world we now inhabit.  Some of his legacy would appall him.  Civilized conversation was something he prized.

Yet The Slanted Door is very popular—it is the highest-grossing restaurant in San Francisco, so clearly a lot of people can tolerate the racket and do like the food.  I don’t, but I wouldn’t eat there again anyway, so that doesn’t matter.

New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles—every major American city is chockablock with painfully noisy but nonetheless popular restaurants, each full of bellowing men and screeching women.  To my ear the women are worse, owing to two factors: the relatively recent ascent of baby-talk voices so piercing they almost could cut glass; and the increasing tendency of some women to imitate men in laughing with their mouths wide open.  Woo hoo! is their aural signature.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant reviews do their readers a particular favor by bestowing not just the usual star ratings for food but also noise ratings that rise from one bell for “pleasantly quiet” to four bells, “can talk only in raised voices,” and finally to a little icon of a bomb, indicating “too noisy.”  It’s not unusual for the Chron to give a place three stars and also a bomb.  Why so many people willingly go to a restaurant in the full knowledge that they will have to shout to be heard throughout the meal, and and still may not be heard, would be a mystery to Craig Claiborne.

Why are things like this?  I can think of several causal factors.

    —Managers and servers know that turning up the music makes a crowd louder, and they conflate the resultant shouting with “having a good time.”  The New York restaurateur Tony May was quoted thus in the Wall Street Journal: “I don't think of it as noise.  It's excitement.  The new consumer is looking for energy, a good vibe.”  In France and Italy, meanwhile, people laugh and have a great time in restaurants without yelling.

    —Owners tend not to mention this, but the din makes people drink more, eat faster, and leave sooner.

    —Many restaurants are physically designed to be noisy, with hard surfaces and no sound-deadening materials.  Of The Slanted Door the Chronicle’s Michael Bauer wrote, “When the metal legs of the formed wooden chairs drag across the floor as patrons scoot in or away from the table, it's the 21st century version of nails scraping across a blackboard.  All through the night, the already explosive noise level is pierced by the screech of metal against stone.”

    —A small number of very noisy people raise the noise level throughout a restaurant.

    —The belief is widespread that we must show happiness and that raucous laughter is an index of happiness.

    —Ear-splitting noise increases the secretion of the “fight-or-flight” neurotransmitter epinephrine, and the edgy sensation that that induces can be perceived as an exciting “buzz.”

    —Many American children are no longer instructed in civil behavior.  When they grow up, they do not know the difference between public and private space.

    —People with empty lives crave overstimulation—hence not only noise but obesity.  People with empty lives have nothing to say anyhow.

    —There are fewer and fewer alternatives.  In the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants,” ratings of one or two bells are scarce.

No doubt you can supply more reasons.   In Craig’s last years—he died in 2000—he published a slim little book titled Elements of Etiquette: A Guide to Table Manners in an Imperfect World, and in it he decried the increasingly boorish behavior he saw around him in restaurants.  If he were still among us, I am certain that he would be raising hell about it, in print and often, and he would undoubtedly get results.

The big question for the rest of us, now, without Craig to speak on our behalf, is, What can we do about it?   One thing I’m sure of is that if enough of us complain, things will change.  So complain.  Assertively.  Just not too loudly, please.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Dishes like this have all but disappeared from the French restaurant scene, and it’s a damned shame.  To a home cook it may at first look challenging, but with a food processor it’s really very easy.  It’s also persuasive proof that the classic cuisine française should not be overshadowed by innovation, weirdness, and dazzle.  All of those, now common in contemporary restaurant cooking, have their place; but classicism reminds us that elegance is a virtue worth preserving, and that the evolution of traditional food has strongly selected for deliciousness.

The mousse purifies the flavor of the fish; its airy lightness is a joy on the tongue; and the dugléré is one of the best-tasting things in the world.

This recipe makes six to eight main-course servings.  It’s very rich, so the servings should be small.  The dish also makes a fine first course.

For the mousse:

1¼ lb. filet of sole
2 eggs
salt, pepper, cayenne, freshly grated nutmeg
1½ cups cream

Cut the fish into one- or two-inch pieces.  In a food processor blend the fish and the seasonings to a coarse purée.  Add the cream in a slow stream through the top.  It’s important not to over-process the mixture.

Butter a four- or five-cup ring mold and pour in the mousse.  Or make individual servings in ramekins.  Cover with the mousse with buttered wax paper.  Set the mold or ramekins in a heatproof container and add water to a depth of half an inch or so.  Bring the water to a boil on the stove, then bake until set.  For the ring mold, that will be 35 to 45 minutes; for the ramekins, check at 25.  Let stand for five to ten minutes.

For the sauce:

1.5 lb tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped; canned tomatoes are fine
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp minced shallots
2 tbsp minced onion
1 tbsp flour
¼ cup white wine
¼ cup fish stock—this is important, don’t leave it out
1 cup cream

Cook the shallots and onions in the butter, gently, till translucent.  Add the flour and cook briefly.  Add the tomatoes and cook about fifteen minutes—until medium-thick.  Add the wine and the fish stock and cook for ten more minutes.  You may want to strain the sauce at this point, especially if there are tomato seeds in it.  Add the cream and bring to a boil.  Season to taste.

Unmold the mousse and nap with the amazingly bright-pink sauce.  Craig sprinkles on chopped parsley, but you may find that that detracts from the beauty of the dish.

Monday, May 21, 2012


Quoted in the New York Times of May 15, 2012: “With the relatively small number of people I feed, is it really my responsibility to worry about carbon footprint?” Mr. Keller asked. “The world’s governments should be worrying about carbon footprint.” 

For shame!  One of the most talented chefs alive, and as such a person with great influence--Keller really ought to understand that chefs and restaurateurs can lead their customers, and indeed the citizenry at large, toward a consciousness of sustainable farming and fishing.  Many other chefs and restaurateurs are already doing just that, and it can be very effective.  It's not just a matter of "carbon footprint."  There's a vast array of moral issues that arise from our food system--and who better to address them than a great chef?  I do hope Thomas Keller will reconsider his foreswearing of moral responsibility.  He's too intelligent not to understand what a force for good his leadership could be.

Keller might start by considering how well our government is doing in its "worrying about carbon footprint."  The United States' failures to act meaningfully on the issue are a disgrace, and our political leaders won't start moving in the right direction until there is sufficient pressure from the public.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


So much great stuff happening for my new book.  Wonderful pub party in New York.  Amazing coverage in the New York Times on the very day of publication:

--Not only the big piece by Pete Wells but additional ones by Jacques Pépin and Bryan Miller, plus two memorable pieces by Craig himself.

And now I'm in the plush comfort of Southern hospitality--readings, radio, TV, friends old and new.  Best of all has been a party given for me by Marion and Claiborne Barnwell in Jackson, Mississippi.  Claiborne Barnwell is Craig's nephew, and he and his wife brought together a splendid crowd of fascinating people. 

Mississippi is an amazing place: Lemuria in Jackson and Turnrow Books in Greenwood are two of the finest bookstores I've ever seen, both run by dedicated lovers of good writing.  Tomorrow I'll be reading at another of the state's extraordinary literary crossroads, Square Books in Oxford--cheek by jowl with Faulkner's house and Ole Miss.  It was John T. Edge of the latter, head of its Center for the Study of Southern Culture, who gave me the push I needed to get going on The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat, back in 2009.  And it was John T.'s grad student, Georgeanna Milam Chapman, whose master's thesis on Claiborne saved me many months of research; Georgeanna's generosity in sharing it with me warms my heart every time I think about it.

And oh, Memphis barbecue!  Without question the best in the world.  Leonard's my hangout since childhood, iconic, still the best of the best.  Central Barbecue new to me, with a uniquely powerful sauce and delightful staff.  Today will be lunch at the Barbecue Shop, another temple of barbecue greatness.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Craig Claiborne did not give one tiny damn about where his beef came came from.  He didn’t care whether the cow had a happy life or a cruel death.  He didn’t have the slightest idea that the creature that was to provide his prime beef spent its last weeks confined to a narrow pen, barely able to move, and gorging on corn that made it literally sick.  He knew nothing of the foul waste that flowed from those feedlots into nearby streams.  He had no notion of the disastrous effects that the highly industrialized and corporate American corn and beef markets had on small farmers in other countries.

When Craig published his and Pierre Franey’s recipe for steak au poivre à la crème in the Craig Claiborne Journal of February 15, 1974, Michael Pollan had just turned nineteen years old and was a student at Bennington College in Vermont.  He didn’t know much, if anything, about beef either, yet.

Craig had been dead for six years when Pollan published The Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2006, and the well-informed American beef eater’s life would never be the same again.  The dilemma is still very much with us.  There are a number of problems in beef production, but the biggest by far is “finishing”—that is, fattening—cows on corn.

(That fat is the “marbling” that is so highly prized in prime meat.  It is also quite similar to the stuff that was clogging Craig Claiborne’s arterial plumbing so thoroughly that he required quadruple coronary bypass surgery in 1993, complications from which pretty much ruined the last seven years of his life.)

Alice Waters, as you might expect, a personal friend of Michael Pollan’s, was among the first widely known restaurateurs to decide to serve only grass-fed, organic beef.  She hired a consultant to travel first nearby and then ever farther from Berkeley in quest of grass-fed beef that wasn’t tough as leather and tasted good.  I took part in a beef tasting one afternoon at Chez Panisse, judging the best that Alice’s forager had found.  It ranged from mediocre down.  I had dinner recently at Chez Panisse and was served a tournedos of grass-fed beef—from the filet, the tenderest cut on the animal—and it was...mighty chewy.  And it didn’t really taste so good either.

Yet of course it’s possible!  Consider the American pronghorn, more commonly known as the antelope.  This magnificent animal can sprint to sixty miles per hour and cruise at forty-five.  As you might imagine, there’s very little fat on an antelope.  But the meat is superb—the tenderloin silkily tender.  Other grass-fed grazers, including elk, mule deer, and bison, all manage to produce delicious, more or less tender meat, at least in some cuts.  It’s hard to say what accounts for that, but it may have something to do with the kind of lives they lead—fresh air, clean water, natural food, low stress, quick death.

Tom and Patty Agnew, in Sweet Grass County, Montana, raise magnificent grass-fed cattle.  They attribute the tenderness and deep flavor of their beef to a combination of factors that takes real dedication to achieve: generations of attentive breeding for meat quality; the fact that the animals are “handled quietly and extremely humanely”—finishing them on rich alfalfa hay; and dry-aging the carcasses for three weeks (an expensive process, because the meat loses a good deal of moisture as it gains greatly in flavor).

Contrary to widespread opinion, careful freezing does no harm to good beef, and you can buy frozen Agnew beef at

Now to the dish already!  For twelve people Craig calls for four one-and-a-half pound shell steaks.  (“Shell steak” is New-Yorkese for New York strip.)  That will give you really nice thick steaks and reasonable eight-ounce servings.  Obviously you can cut the recipe down to any number, but do please try to use a steak at least an inch thick.  You could do it for one person with a filet.

Craig then rinses three tablespoons of canned green peppercorns, crushes one tablespoon of them, and presses those into the sides of the steaks.  These green things were very popular back in the seventies, later to be succeeded by the decidedly bizarre Sichuan pepper, which isn’t really pepper at all.  Green peppercorns are interesting, and milder, but the classic pepper for this dish is good old black.  (If you decide to go with black, do try to find nice aromatic peppercorns in one of those spice departments with a lot of turnover, and don’t grind them in a mill—you should crush them, because you want bigger pieces than a peppermill will give you.  A mortar and pestle are just right for the job, but you can also fold the peppercorns in a kitchen towel and smash ’em with a hammer, which can be quite satisfying.  Careful if you have a marble countertop, however.  Forget Sichuan, by the way.)

Craig cooks the steaks in a big heavy skillet in oil and butter, but a friend of mine taught me a couple of years ago a truly great method using no fat at all—just a cast iron skillet heated to really really really hot, and then just a couple of minutes on each side.  The resultant caramelization of the meat is gorgeous, and there’s a lot less splattering of grease.  You need serious ventilation for this trick.  A thick steak benefits from a careful browning of the fatty edges as well.  Usually you have to hold them upright with tongs.

Then you let the steaks finish in a low oven, on a rack in a pan you’ve already heated there.  If you’ve got all the time in the world, 275º is not too low, but you can suit yourself according to how much of a hurry you’re in.  The low heat gives you a uniform doneness rather than the well-to-rare gradation you get on a hot grill or in a typical sauté.  At 125º they’re perfect, and 130º is still fine, and thanks to the low oven they’re not going to keep cooking very much off the heat as they do when they come straight from a very hot pan or grill.  In any case you’re still going to want to rest them somewhere merely warm—100º or so—for twenty minutes.

After your cast iron pan has cooled to merely hot, there may or may not be enough fat to pour out.  If you need to do it, try to keep the stray peppercorns in the pan.  Add some butter now, and a couple of teaspoons of shallots per person, and cook until they’re translucent.  Now deglaze the pan with a generous pour of red wine, scraping hard to get up all that nice fond, and let it reduce to very little.  Craig’s recipe doesn’t call for it, but some chefs throw in a bit of brandy here and let it burn or boil off—it’s a nice touch.  Now add about a tablespoon of cream per person, plus any juices that have accumulated around the meat, and cook till till the sauce just thickens.  Add the remaining green peppercorns (rinsed, uncrushed).  (If you’re using black pepper, don’t add more to the sauce—the meat will be fiery enough.)  Finish the sauce by swirling in a little butter, just enough to give it a pretty gloss.

Salt the steak to taste, slice it diagonally across the grain about a third of an inch thick, and pass the sauce, warning your guests that a little may go a long way—it’s strong.