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    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's...um...better 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. 

  • Dashi is the base of Japanese cuisine, and crucially important in making a simple miso soup.

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    I just wanted to make a bowl of miso soup.  That's all. It was going to be the first course of a casual dinner party, something that wouldn't require too much attention so I could focus and pull off the main course in a reasonable amount of time.  I figured all I needed was some miso paste, a hunk of tofu, and a seaweed or two to make it look right.  I was wrong.

    This perturbed me to no end. Japanese cuisine is not one I've indulged in that often, feeling far more comfortable across the Straight of Korea in, well...Korea. I find that cuisine brasher and more gloriously hedonistic. I certainly respect Japanese cuisine, but it's not one I've wanted to really figure out. Or at least not right now. Now I have no choice.

    To make a proper miso soup I needed to make dashi.  To make dashi I needed water, konbu, and bonito flakes. As for those last two ingredients?  I had no idea.  I just set off for my local Asian market figuring I'd run across them at some point.  There I spent well over thirty minutes trying to decipher labels with my nonexistent grasp of any Asian language. Finally, after a good 10 minutes sprawled out on the floor looking at the bottom shelf, I got the nerve to ask someone where I might find these things. She just laughed.

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    Konbu is dried kelp, which means my miso was going to have dried kelp and seaweed. Who knew?

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    As for the bonito, it's skipjack tuna that has been smoked and dried into something called katsuobushi.  This resulting wood-like block is then shaved into flakes and sold in plastic bags.  Of course, the bags of them were on the top shelf.

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    What about the miso?  In my mind miso was miso, but it turns out there are various kinds which vary in color and strength.  The recipe I was using called for shiro miso and aka miso.  I have much more to learn about this as well.

    As left the market with a bag of wakame (seaweed), dried kelp, two kinds of miso, a bag of bonito flakes, two packages of tofu, and scallions, I wondered how long this new obsession of mine would take and whether I'd ever get that first course out before the dinner guests got hungry.

  • blood sausage 1

    Last year I fell in love with blood sausage.  Maybe that sounds strange.  So let me explain.

    In Estonia, around Christmastime, they begin to fill up the meat counters, black and smooth. Just piles of them.  When Christmas comes, everyone roasts pork and potatoes, makes sauerkraut, and serves them with blood sausages.  And it wasn't until I had them as apart of this ritual that I began to understand.

    Blood sausages are a celebration of the pig's life and the bounty it brings. When the animal's life is ended, nothing should be wasted. In Estonian, they are known as verivorstid, which literally means "blood sausages." (The Estonians are straightforward people: they're not like the English or French, who sidestep the issue by calling it "black pudding.") This year, I wanted to recreate them for Christmas at my wife's parent's house in Indiana.

    The making of blood sausage in her family is nothing new, and has a certain lore. Early on, I was regaled with a story of my father-in-law answering the doorbell in 1983 with blood up to his elbows--opening the door to a couple of surprised members of the International Police. With shocked faces, the Interpol agents were able to regain their composure long enough to state their business (following up on someone who had rented the house and evaded taxes on an RV). The measured response--"let me just get this blood off my hands"--was about the perfect, and only, way to respond.

    My problem was finding pig's blood. It's illegal to sell it these days, at least to the public. I called butchers all over Chicago and between here and Bloomington, Indiana, who all gave me the same answer. I even got close with a pig farmer in Southern Indiana who ended up backing out at the last moment for fear of retribution. What was I, buying illegal arms?

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    Have you ever read Stuart Dybek? He's a wonderful Chicago writer who writes magical stories about urban life. Looking for this blood, I thought back to his story called "Blood Soup" about a couple young kinds looking all over Chicago for duck's blood to make a traditional Polish soup for their dying grandmother, as she believes it will cure her. There's something very strange and dangerous about calling around asking for animal blood. There's an understanding between parties that something serious is at stake.

    I know you're expecting all the gory details, or for me to go on about the gross-out factor. But blood sausage is actually really natural and wonderful when you think about it. While I admit that the concept might be frightening, this is one of those foods that will really surprise you once you taste it. Meaty without the texture, not at all metallic like you might imagine if you've ever sucked on your cut finger, deep and rich. Similar preparations exist all over Europe--black pudding in England and Ireland, boudin noir in France, morcilla in Spain--each made of blood mixed with grain to hold the sausage together.

    Eventually, I had to settle for beef blood, which is legal to buy and sell. Why beef blood is okay but pork blood isn't, I couldn't say. But I was assured that it would behave just about the same way, and Paulina Meat Market, who sold me a gallon of the stuff, said it's what they use for their own blood sausages.

    I picked it up on the day we left town--it was frozen--along with a tub of hog casings for making the sausages themselves. The next day, armed with a funnel, we spent the day boiling barley, sauteing salt pork with onions, stuffing the casings, and poaching them in water. A couple days later, we crisped up the sausages in the rendered fat from a gorgeous leg roast until they were hot and steaming and crisp all over.

    This is the story of how we got there.

  • Articles about food

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  • By Blake Royer One of nature’s gifts in winter is...
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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 “What is the recipe for a perfectly...

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    “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.

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    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.