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  • cold oatmeal 1
    Oatmeal at Cafe Fanny in Berkeley

    I think I've always loved the idea of oatmeal for breakfast: it's simple to make, it sticks to your ribs until lunch, and it's economical. I don't always put a lot of time into breakfast, or much thought, save the occasional calm morning of a slow-fried egg on toast or scrambled eggs with chives from the windowsill garden. Oatmeal seems like a good, honest solution. Though I've occasionally had some wonderful bowls of oatmeal in cafes, when it hasn't been gluey, and drizzled with just enough maple syrup and floated with a cream, I've never developed an oatmeal habit. It struck me a few weeks ago when I was in San Francisco, and had what could only be considered a transcendant bowl at an Alice Waters place called Cafe Fanny in Berkeley.

    This was Platonic Ideal stuff, the best an oatmeal lover could ask for, each grain its own distinct pearl of flavor, the entire bowl just creamy enough. But all I could think about was a line from one of my favorite comedians, Mitch Hedburg, describing the importance of starting out a comic routine strong and finishing just as well. "You can't be like pancakes: all exciting at first, but by the end you're f***ing sick of 'em."

    Obviously, the instant stuff sucks, and though I've read about steel cut oats cooked a dozen ways (in rice cookers, slow cookers, and quickly over high heat morning-of, etc.), I've never been convinced that the hassle is worth it. Maybe you could convince me? Do you have the best way to prepare oatmeal?

  • pc ncbbq 32

    After the fifth barbecue stop in North Carolina my brother-in-law and I were delirious. We stumbled out of the door of the last joint, nearly tripping over ourselves like a couple of drunk freshman.  I called my wife but when I attempted to speak the right words wouldn’t come out.  Sure my belly was full of pork, but it was something about the addition of coleslaw, hush puppies, and glass upon glass of sweet tea to the equation that produced some kind of odd chemical imbalance in my brain.  I was drunk on pork, and I giggled at the buzz. 

    It surprised the hell out of me.  I thought I knew what North Carolina barbecue was before I ever set foot in the state.  I mean, just close your eyes and what do you see?  I figured I’d be eating a ton of pulled pork set on plain white buns topped with creamy coleslaw.  That's what I made from scratch all those years ago.  I knew the sauce would be vinegar-based, and I even knew that the western part of the state might add a little ketchup to that simple equation.  But that's really it.  And to be perfectly honest, I wasn't all that pumped for the drive.  Seriously, how good could 5 pulled pork sandwiches possibly be?

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    Turns out I was wrong...about a lot of things.  When I ordered barbecue, the above picture is basically what I got every time.  Now, you can find pulled--those sandwiches do exist--but by an large it means a plate of chopped pork, hush puppies, and some coleslaw.  This turns out to be a very good thing.  To pull pork you need to cook it until 185 to 195 degrees.  But to chop it the internal temp need only reach about 165 to 180, leading to juicier hunks and also more fat.  It' than pulled pork. 

    Where did our mission begin?  For help traversing the barbecue trail of North Carolina, I used Mike Mills and his daughter Amy Mills Tunnicliffe's Peace, Love, & Barbecue.  It's been my guide to all things barbecue for the past couple years, and it's never let me down.  Like my Memphis trip, I used their recommended Barbecue Shrines as the basis for my pilgrimage.  That included Lexington Barbecue, Stamey's, Allen and Son, and Wilber's Barbecue. I also got a tip on Twitter from Amy Mills that I needed to visit The Pit in Raleigh, so I added that to the list.

    And so off we went to find out what North Carolina had to offer. 

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    Had you put a gun to my head a few years ago and asked me what my least favorite kind of food was, I'd have A) asked you why wanted to shoot me, and then B) probably said Chinese. Bad broccoli and beef, greasy fried rice, those strange orange packets of sauce--these were my impressions of the entirety of Chinese cuisine and what a billion people ate for dinner. Though I probably knew better, I couldn't block the mental image of those bad Chinese buffets that litter Midwest strip malls.

    So imagine what happened when I first tried Mapo Doufu from the Sichuan region of China. It's a mixture of tofu, ground meat, and chile bean paste suspended in a bright red and dangerously spicy sauce. The first bite knocks you over with heat, and then this strange numbing sensation takes over your brain and cools you down. It's like slamming five beers and then eating spicy buffalo wings, without having to, you know, slam five beers. It's so rich, you'd think every ounce of the dish was made of meat, but there is actually very little in the bowl. Tofu is the main star, and never has tofu seemed so racy and hedonistic.

    If our favorite foods make us obsess, then our least favorite foods probably just come from not understanding. Sure enough, if you point that gun at me today--though, let's stop with the violence from here on out--I'd first pick Mexican (my true love), and then say Sichuan.

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    Why do I love it? Well, just like Mexican, Sichuan cuisine seems based on relatively cheap ingredients coddled and transformed into something beyond the sum of their parts. Both feature a healthy helping of chiles and introduce spices to jazz up cheap cuts of meat. Sichuan usually skips the acidic element, but it makes up for it with one key ingredient: the Sichuan peppercorn. The peppercorn has no perceptible heat, and yet it tingles your tongue into a numbing submission.

    I attempted to make Mapo Doufu a few weeks ago for Serious Eats using a well respected recipe. Unfortunately, I couldn't find every ingredient, and had to sub a few other Korean condiments for Sichuan ones. The result was fine, but it wasn't nearly as good as the dishes I'd been eating in Chinatown.

    Luckily, I got a comment on the dish by resident Serious Eats scientific whiz, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, who claimed that Mapo Doufu was his favorite dish of all time. Here's a guy that's been writing a burger column every week, and throwing all his talent behind meaty mains, and yet his favorite dish is a fiercely spicy tofu dish from Sichuan. Best part: He'd written about it in detail for the Boston Globe.

  • By Nick Kindelsperger A couple of Fridays ago, I showed...


    A couple of Fridays ago, I showed up at my sister's house with a big hunk of pork belly, a pork butt, and some hickory sawdust, and for the next 8 hours I smoked meat.  I thought it would be a carefree time and a big improvement over the first time I tried to smoke meat.  I dreamed of watching the smoke pour out the side of that grill, while taking slow, steady drinks of a cold beer and listening to Hank Williams.  But my experiments don't always go as planned.  The first hour was chaotic.  I couldn't get the smoke to come and tried various ridiculous steps to figure something out.  But once it came, as the above picture does attest, it billowed.  I could do nothing but sit and stare at the smoke.  The moment was among the most satisfying experiences I have ever had. 

    I was spurred to smoke by a great barbecue book called Peace, Love, & Barbecue by Mike Mills and Amy Mills Tunnicliffe.  Their book had a recipe for the perfect pulled pork, which I'll write about that later.  But with the smoke pouring out, I thought I would tackle bacon again.  I needed to right a few wrongs. 

    My previous attempt wasn't necessarily a disaster, it just turned out differently than I had wanted.  That River Cottage approved bacon was heavily salted and perfect for stews, big pots of beans, and other hearty dishes.  But I wanted breakfast bacon.  I wanted a maple syrup tinge and I wanted smoke.  I realized I'd need to hunker down and really figure how to do this right. 
  • By Nick Kindelsperger “What is the recipe for a perfectly...


    “What is the recipe for a perfectly cooked egg?”
    - Hervé This, Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor

    I am more confused now than when I began.  But, in a completely odd and mind-boggling way, isn’t that kind of exciting?  Before this weekend I never gave an ounce of thought to hard-boiled eggs or how to cook them.  I now have spent the better part of a weekend slow boiling them.  The previous method took under 15 minutes.  And I did all for a dish that I didn’t and probably won’t eat that often. 

    It was all because I picked up Molecular Gastronomy by Hervé This (It’s a French name, and I don’t have any idea how to pronounce it).  The cover looked interesting and text was lively and inviting.  It approaches food scientifically, much like Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking.  But while the latter volume is encyclopedic in nature, this slender volume only covers a few topics and is conversational and completely engaging.  That’s where I found this incredible--and completely infuriating--chapter on hard-boiled eggs.


    Why is it infuriating?  After three pages spent exploring the intricacies of cooking the eggs, he basically comes to the conclusion that hard-boiled eggs need to be cooked at a low temperature, around 154 degrees Fahrenheit, because that’s the point when the yolk will set (the white sets at 144). He concludes, “Obviously this would mean longer cooking times, but the result is a perfectly cooked egg.” 

    Great.  I’m all about exploring ridiculous recipes in search of perfection.  Who knew that a hard boiled egg could reach anything close to perfection?  We’re talking about the humble hard-boiled egg here. But there’s one little problem with Monsieur This’s chapter: He never gave the recipe. 

    I’m left dangling at the end of this beautifully written chapter with the knowledge that hard-boiled eggs should be cooked slowly at 154 degrees F, but am given no indication on how long it will take.  He hints at the traditional method Hamine eggs being cooked for “several hours,” but what exactly does that mean?  Are we talking about 3 hours or 10?  I scoured the net for some kind of reasoning.  I searched “hamine eggs” and got gobbledegook responses and some random site that wanted to cook the eggs for 10 hours.  A few other sites just linked back to that site.  I needed some proof.

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    Deep-fried garlic bread, herring for breakfast, blood sausage, and boiled pig's feet. And, the story of the longest human chain in history.

    by Blake Royer

    Estonia_summer_2006_070 Dating someone whose family is from a foreign country means you’re always being introduced to new foods. Over time, I’ve tried kringel, a sweet cardamom-flecked bread, pirukas, similar to the Finnish meat pockets I wrote about in the previous post, Pannkoogid, a crepe-like pancake served with lingonberry jam, and rosolje, a salad made with beets, herring, apples, carrots, mayonnaise and a whiff of Dijon. These foods had come piecemeal over time, either as a foil-wrapped gift to take back to college, or as an impromptu breakfast, or in the exciting circumstances when there’s an Estonian deli or bakery in a city (Toronto), and we could enjoy rosolje without spending the hours of chopping it normally requires. Estonia_summer_2006_112 Once in Estonia, my first words were items at breakfast. While not unique to the country, it’s a tradition they embrace for the first meal of the day: the open-faced sandwich. In a basket you’ll find assorted breads (leib), usually brown. All around the table will be piled hams (sink), cheese (juust), cucumber (kurk), herring, hard-boiled egg (muna), butter, and sprig after sprig of dill. As the coffee begins to lift your eyelids, your senses begin to awaken, the interactive do-it-yourself mentality drags you out of the lazy morning reverie. You’ve got to make the sandwich yourself; you’ve got to start creating. You start getting funny with a large slab of bread, buttering it, then putting ham on one side and herring on the other, topped off with a little egg slice on the herring side and cucumber with the ham. When you’ve had your fill, out comes the sweet breads, like kringel, which are never too sweet. A little sugar in your system and it’s time to face the day. The sun, after all, has been up since 4 AM.

  • pineapple vinegar 2

    When I think of Mexican cuisine, I think of balance. Mexicans love acidity in their cooking, and that's what makes it so appealing to eat. Though it's a function of living in a warm climate--the same reason Thai cuisine is also fond of citrus, it's a necessary form of preservation--the culinary benefit has outlasted the necessity.

    When you have something rich and heavy in your taco--like, say, hunks of pork shoulder that have been slow-cooked in lard to become authentic carnitas--it is always accompanied by a bright, refreshing salsa to counterbalance it. That's something that's unfortunately lost in translation with so much Americanized Mexican food: the acidity. Americans aren't as fond of it. The typical Mexican restaurant, like the one in my college town of Greencastle, Indiana, serves rich, heavy food that sits in your stomach for hours. Cheese, beans, ground beef, all of it flavorful but nothing to set it all in relief. Your tongue just gets tired.

    A well-made guacamole is a perfect example of this necessary balance. Avocados are wonderful things, creamy and rich, and when you add salt their flavor deepens and becomes round.  But a guacamole really sings with a proper squeeze of lime juice. I've written before about the importance of acidity in seasoning, as important as salt itself, and Mexican cuisine intuitively understands this.

    I'm taking a cuisine of Mexico class right now in culinary school, and one of the things chef continues to refer to is the frugality of Mexican cooking. The frank reality is that most of Mexican cooking was developed by people who didn't have a lot of money. They made use of everything, including the seeds from dried chiles (they can be charred until black and crumbled into salsas to add a complex smokey flavor). And one of the biggest surprises was that the acidity in their cooking doesn't always come from limes.

    Limes and Mexican food seem inseparable, but the reality is that a lime tree can be a luxury, and most families didn't traditionally have more than one. Yet every dish needed that crucial acidity. So what did they do? They made fruit vinegar.

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    At the start of our class chef brought in a huge plastic bucket full of homemade pineapple vinegar, and we have used it for many of the dishes as a seasoning. The process of making it is simple: you simply combine the peels of a pineapple with water and brown sugar (actually, the tradition is to use a Mexican sugar called piloncillo, but brown sugar works just as welll) and allow it to become vinegar over the course of a couple weeks. Once you have the "mother," which is the good culture that has hence developed, it can be used to transform more water/sugar into yet more vinegar. It becomes an ever-replenishable well of acidity to be used without much worry of cost.

    My own homemade back of vinegar has just finished, and I just bottled it up. Here's a documentation of the very simple process...which is basically to dump everything in a container and wait around.

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