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 sautĂ© 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 CafĂ© 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.