Damn! That's a sexy looking lamb leg roast. Rosemary and garlic, lamb roasted onions, roasted yams.
As a meat cutter, my most frequent customer query was: “How do I cook this roast?” And there are two fundamentally different answers to this question: wet or dry.
The wet-roasting (“pot roast” in the vernacular) scenario involves, as you may have inferred, liquid. Refer to my (very) early post about braising for more information on how I feel about that. The dry roasting scenario is equally intuitive. Synonymous with simply “roasting” and referred to by some grandmothers as “baking,” it involves putting a piece 0f meat in the oven and cooking until done. Of course we could cook a piece of meat and eat it from this description, but maybe we want it to be a little more soigné.
Cuts of meat appropriate for dry roasting are typically leaner and have less connective tissue (gristle, stringiness; technically collagen and elastin matrices) than those for the pot. Leg cuts are typical. The leg (butt muscles) of a cow or veal cow is called the round; of a lamb is just called leg; of a pig is called the ham or leg. Confusingly, a pig’s shoulder is called a butt.
A special occasion calls for a nicer cut. The loin of any animal is typically the tenderest part and these are the cuts one associates with high living. They go by a similar range of confusing names that are oftentimes criminally contradictory. Meat nomenclature is less than linnaean in its logic, so I am here going to make a little list of the different beef cuts generally considered suitable for dry roasting, including their aliases and other helpful notes:
Beef Leg (Round) Cuts are the cheapest:
- Top Round is sometimes sold as huge steaks called “London Broil,” which is generally not suitable to our purposes here. Although you can, if you find it on sale, have them cut it in a manner suitable to our purposes, explanation below.
- Bottom Round is sometimes called “Rump Roast” which is suitable for our purposes. The first cut or “watermelon cut” is by far the best, those toward the tail end will be flatter and wider, the whole thing is shaped roughly like a doorstop, and progressively less desirable.
- Eye of Round has no aliases that I know of, although I have seen meat shops try to pass off other cuts as the eye of round. Old people seem to love it; it’s always seemed too lean to me. But hey, maybe you should try it and tell me about it
- Sirloin Tip is also known as the Knuckle. It is not to be confused with either the Sirloin or the Tri-tip roast. This cut is lean, but the tenderest of the round cuts. Try to find one without too many pieces of white connective tissue running through it.
Sirloin Cuts are slightly more expensive:
- Top Sirloin is, as a marketing ploy, sometimes cut into very large steaks referred to as Chateuabriand. As before, these are not great for roasting. Top Sirloin makes a great roast, but is nearly impossible to get properly cut because most butchers refuse to remove the-
- Culotte, which is hard to find because butchers generally just leave it attached to the Top Sirloin and sell it as one cut (the Culotte being the smaller, leaner part on the cut with the grain running the opposite direction). It’s usually referred to as a steak. Indeed it’s a little on the small side for a roast, but quite delicious.
- Tri Tip is also on the smaller side, has incredible marbling, and is usually referred to as a roast, unless it is cut into steaks.
Loin Cuts are the most expensive cuts of all:
- Tenderloin, also known as Fillet Mignon, Fillet or Chateuabriand (beware of this last name which literally means “house cut” and usually refers to Top Sirloin) is the very most expensive and tender part of the cow. It is generally regarded as overpriced.
- Striploin might be referred to as the Top Loin or the New York. The steak is more popular than the roast version of it, but it makes a tasty (expensive) roast.
- Rib Roast goes by the most confusing mess of names of any part of the beast. It can be boneless (usually just called Boneless Rib Roast, but possibly called a Ribeye Roast,) or bone-in and referred to as Standing Rib Roast, Seven Bone Roast (not to be confused with the Seven Bone Chuck Roast) or Prime Rib Roast. This last is generally a huge misnomer as the “prime” part refers to the USDA grade of beef, prime being the top level in terms of maximum fat marbling. It is the most reasonably priced, popular and possibly the <tastiest_synonym> cut of beef loin for roasting. Bone in is the way to go; it’s ordered by the bone and can be cut from from the leaner loin or “large” end, or from the fattier rib or “small” end .
Here, the sustainably raised top round roast is browning.
So that was about as exhaustive of a list of beef roasting cuts you’re likely to find on the internet. I see Cook’s Illustrated has a nice illustrated pdf guide but it lacks my snarky, authoritative voice and my impeccable credentials. Mine also has a little actual information that their’s lacks.
I made my last roast beef with a 5 pound Top Round Roast from a Crooked Gate Ranch steer that I bought with some other people. This guy produces some of the best pasture- finished beef anywhere, right here in the Willamette Valley. I was fortunate in that the processor cut my roast properly, a rarity anywhere anymore. Here’s what I mean by that:
Meat has a grain pattern, a direction in which the muscle fibers run. You can see this grain pattern if you look closely. Look at the end of the cut to see that there aren’t fibers running parallel to the face. It is desirable that the grain runs across the longest dimension of the cut. If the cut is a rectangle, the grain should run the length. This is because, when it’s sliced, we want to slice across (perpendicular to) this grain, cutting the grain pattern into cross sections. It is easy to imagine how this results in more tender slices of meat. The cheaper the cut of meat, the more thinly the meat needs to be sliced.
That is a well-browned roast. you can easily discern the grain pattern running the length of it.
Another consideration is the fat cap. Most meat cutters and butchers will take off every bit of visible cap since customers hate to see fat on their meat. Try to pick, or order, a roast with a layer of fat on top, which will help protect the meat from the heat of the oven and may or may not baste the meat as it cooks. If a piece of meat with a fat cap is unavailable, barding is an option. Barding involves tying a piece, or pieces, of fat or bacon to the top of a piece of meat in order to protect it. My roast was already so nicely tied, I didn’t wanna mess with it, so I just laid the bacon right across the top. I don’t have time to go into how to tie a butchers knot here. I’ll do that someday in future.
Let the roast sit in the refrigerator for a couple (or three or four) days, uncovered. Replace that box of baking soda! Turn it over every so often and pour off the excess blood that collects under it. This is an (weak) approximation of aging. Grocery stores “wet age” their beef which means that the beef doesn’t get a chance to lose some of its excess moisture, which would intensify the beefy flavor. The night before the roast will be cooked, season it relatively heavily with salt and pepper (season it with whatever you want, just make sure you use primarily salt.) By heavily I mean a teaspoon per pound or so. The next day pull the roast out of the refrigerator, maybe two hours before you plan on cooking it. If this is all starting to sound unsanitary, I really don’t know what to say. I don’t have the time to go into the fundamentals of sanitation and bacterial growth here, so just believe me, it’s fine. It’s important that we begin with roast that is at room temperature through and through.
Put a heavy, preferably cast iron, skillet that is large enough to hold the roast on the range, turn the burner on high and add some vegetable oil to it. Olive oil would just burn here, as would butter. Let the skillet get so hot that the oil smokes and brown that roast really well (remember, perfection is just this side of burnt) on all sides. Set the roast aside, turn off the pan. At this point we can add wet flavoring ingredients (garlic, herbs, etc…) to the exterior of the roast. I like to either make a crust of herbs (parsley, rosemary, thyme, whatever…), mixed with olive oil and garlic to coat the exterior of the roast with, or make little incisions all over the outside that I stuff with garlic and herbs (rosemary.) Then, if we are going to, we bard. I suppose I don’t recommend barding with the herb crust idea, but I’ve never tried it.
So this isn't "Barded" proper like. I just laid the bacon on top . Properly, there would be more bacon, and it would be tied down.
We want the roast to sit above the bottom of the pan, otherwise it will just stew in its own juices. I like to cook mine in my cast iron skillet. I don’t have a roasting rack that fits it, so I make a rack from vegetables. I cut two peeled onions through the stem into quarters. I put these into the pan, and the roast on top of those. The onions keep the roast up so that hot air can get around it, and simultaneously flavor and prevent the juices dripping from the roast from burning in the bottom of the pan. Clever.
The slower the better. 200° for 30-45 minutes per pound is about ideal. 325° for 15 minutes or so per pound is okay too. We need a thermometer to take the temperature. The roast will finish to a nice rare/medium rare if we pull it out at 125°-130° and let it rest. Resting is really important, 30 minutes is not too long. Let it rest on a plate so that the delicious juices that leak out of the roast do not run all over the floor for the dog, baby or cockroaches to lap up. As the roast rests, the muscle fibers relax and the blood redistributes itself throughout, resulting in an evenly red interior.
That's nice color you can't get by just fiddling with the oven temperature, not on this size a roast anyway.
While that is going on, it’s time to make the sauce. Put the pan over high heat, onions and all, on the range top. If the juices are not browned, brown them first. Add wine (I use a combination of white and red- white for acidity, red for earthiness and tannin) and cook down to about half. How much wine depends on how much you are willing to sacrifice. Don’t be too much of a lush, as you will have no sauce. As the wine cooks, be sure to scrape any browned bits from the bottom of the pan so that they are able to dissolve into the sauce. After this we can add beef stock if we have it and cook that down until it is of a relatively saucy consistency; we could add a small amount of tomato paste to make it more rich and substantial; we could add cognac or brandy or bourbon for sweetness and complexity. We could do an infinite number of things to vary this basic sauce. Make sure to pour the drippings from the resting roast into your pan and reduce that too. Finally, strain that juice from the onions into whatever, maybe a measuring cup. If we like this, it could be our sauce. We could return it to the empty pan and throw a large chunk of butter into it, swirling the pan over low heat until the butter melts happily into a rich brown sauce. We could then add herbs, or green peppercorns, or chopped anchovies. We could have sautéed some finely diced shallot and or mushrooms in the empty pan before we returned the juice. We could have toasted a little flour and butter into a nice roux to give our sauce more body, more substance. We could then have added chopped hard-boiled eggs, parsley and lemon to make it more interesting. There is no end to the ways we could finish our roast.
What’s important is that we slice it correctly. If the roast was cut correctly (in the case of loin cuts it would be nearly impossible to do otherwise) then we will be slicing across the width of it. Slicing across the length would be exceedingly difficult, and a real mess. If we are using a Round cut, slice it thinly, say an eighth inch or less. A Sirloin cut can be sliced somewhat more thickly, and a Loin cut could practically be cut into steaks if we liked.
The beginning of a nice sauce. The possibilities from here are endless.
Choose the right cut. Make sure that cut is cut right. Season early and heavily. Allow it to warm up. Brown it well, roast it slow, keep it raised. Rest and slice appropriately. That is all we need to know.
Curly endive with egg and olives in red wine and red chili vinaigrette.
This gangster just finished off three plates of salad: endives, grapefruit, Kalamata Olives, pepperoncini, Myzithra and red wine-grapefruit vinaigrette. You may be asking yourself, “what kind of gangster eats loads of salad? Does he also carry a snubnose .38 that he just lobs at his rivals as he wheels away in terror?” No tough guy, I don’t. I vanquish my rivals with an assertive vinaigrette and equally assertive leaves. When I make salad a goddamn turf war is fought upon the plate. I eat salad because when it is made well, it’s delicious; and I know how to make salad.
And if you don’t know how to make salad, you can’t get good salad because, and I do not exaggerate here, there are no restaurants in this city, and mostly in this entire cheeseburger country, that make good salad. If by chance some clever restaurateur or chef type guy stumbles upon a good salad, they make sure to serve it in the tiniest portion imaginable so that no thinking person would ever order it. Many restaurants still serve that godawful mesclun mix that tastes of nothing and does even less to satisfy the stomach. I’m sure it’s wonderful in its original home of Provence, where it has a specific composition that inlcudes endives, chervil, arugula and lettuce, but have you ever seen chervil in a mesclun salad this side of the Pacific? No, and the reason is that people here perceive salad as something to be endured, a palliative for the guilt of consuming sugar with a side of fat and a protein garniture.
Restaurant chefs, accordingly, assign the youngest, newest and lowest-skilled employees to what is euphemistically referred to as the garde-manger, officially referred to as the “pantry”, and usually denigrated as the “salad bitch” station. The phrase “salad bitch” is a testament to both the implicit sexism of (most) restaurant kitchens and the disrespect thrusted toward cold, vegetal foods in our contemporary American understanding of cuisine. It’s a goddamn hate crime.
Iceberg lettuce, along with a little Romaine, at it's very best. Hey Madhur Jaffrey, check out my blog!
I found my time as a salad bitch extremely enlightening. It’s hard to make good cold food. It’s hard to make it look nice and taste nice and it’s even harder to garner a lick of respect for it. The fatty fat public remembers well their Brobdingnagian repast of starchy mounds of polysaccharides, dripping with flavor-enhancing salt and lipids. Who can soon forget the preternatural appeal of the cut of a hearty, tannic Barolo through the fat and blood ambrosia of a perfectly rare grilled porterhouse? Not this gangster. Dieters, with their obsessive- compulsive eating behaviors, existential ennui and irritability have done little positive for the genre’s reputation.
Let me give you a few ideas for a nice salad. Primarily, people like food to be, or at least appear to be, abundant. I personally recommend serving a lot of salad. Pile it high, put it on a plate, and avoid atrophied greens. I can’t stress enough how much pre-made mesclun sucks. If you think it’s good, you’re probably a foodie and should go read this site.
Dressing should be assertive, almost offensively so. Dressing should remind you of me after four or five drinks, not me after nine or ten; add sugar or fat if this becomes the case. The traditional ratio of vinaigrette is three parts oil to one of vinegar. Traditionally, one should rub the inside of the salad bowl with garlic and dispose of the clove, attend church every sunday and religious holidays, and beat one’s wife only in the privacy of home. Make it to taste, but don’t make it like the balsamic vinaigrette that came (hah!) on my greens last night: the oil masking the taste of the lettuce with the vinegar contributing little but a brownish color and an annoyingly subtle sweetness. Speaking of Balsamic vinegar, I recommend disposing of it. If you can afford it, it sucks. And it doesn’t belong in this country anyway. If you insist on using it, good luck. Caesar dressing and the like should be made with coddled whole eggs, put them in boiling water for one minute and stir gently, make sure to scrape out the cooked white from the shell when using. Don’t let your foodie sentiments get in the way of enjoying yourself; Thousand Island is possibly the best sauce for iceberg that god hath wrought.
Curly endive with parmigiano and raw sliced matsutake. Raw matsutake is not for all stomachs.
I’ve been waiting to tell you about iceberg lettuce. Actually just one variety of “crisphead” or what used to be called “cabbage” lettuces, it is quite possibly the zenith of lettuce horticulture. I once grew a “chocolate iceberg” in my garden. It was good, but not great, because crisphead lettuces are so very difficult to grow. It has acquired a reputation amongst people who think about what they eat as a leper of lettuce, pariah of produce. This extreme prejudice is usually rationalized as a nutritional concern. “Iceberg has so little vitamins, why would I waste my valuable stomach space eating it?” the foodie whines. Because it’s delicious. And if you don’t believe some self-proclaimed gangster writing on the internet, you can ask Madhur Jaffrey what she thinks about it. What? you think you’re smarter than Madhur Jaffrey?
Who cares about the nutritional composition of lettuce? It’s just lettuce. It won’t fill you up, the 8 calories per serving can be empty without hurting your precious health. What may damage your health is the bacon, chopped hard-boiled egg, diced beets (not so bad) and Thousand Island that I recommend slathering great wedges and torn shards of iceberg with. You should make your own Thousand Island as all bottled salad dressing is awful; it should include copious horseradish, lemon, tabasco and worcestershire.
The Holiday Salad: Bibb lettuce, Satsuma mandarins and candied pecans in poppy seed dressing with cranberry gelée (jello mold) garnish.
Endive (or chicory) whether curly, belgian, escarole, friseé, raddichio, treviso or otherwise, requires an assertive, really aggresive, dressing. Red wine vinegar, mustard (powdered or strong prepared), copious garlic, anchovies and red pepper flakes (or, better yet, Tutto Calabrias) blended with a judicious measure of olive oil usually does the trick. Garnishes should include some combination of olives, garlicky croutons, pepperoncini, country ham, raw mushrooms, dry cheese, citrus fruit (probably best to hold back the garlic in this case) bacon or anchovies.
Like my German forebears, I pick dandelions in the earliest days of spring. These I toss in hot bacon dressing. Render bacon of its fat, add apple cider vinegar, sugar, mustard and scallions. Pour this immediately over the greens and serve post-haste.
Another derided tradition is the use of gelatin-set fruit juices as a garnish for salad. Salad serves, among other puposes, to make your mouth wet, and gelée, if you have to get fancy about it, makes your mouth wet without drenching the salad (although a salad should be, despite fancy chefs’ assertions to the contrary, a wet thing). The holiday salad here consisted of bib lettuce, satsuma mandarins and candied pecans dressed in a sweet- sour poppy seed dressing with a cranberry and white wine gelée for garnish. I can only tell you that it was fantastic.
This is a basket of choice mushrooms, matsutake in center.
Every time I go out to pick mushrooms anymore, I see fewer and fewer mushrooms and more and more Subaru wagons, Volkwagens, Priuses and, occasionally, old beat-up Toyotas tucked away at random little pullouts in the woods. What all these vehicles have in common is that they would not typically be driven by the firearm owning public. I sometimes see people getting into those cars with bags and buckets. This past fall was like some kind of goddamn petit bourgeois scavenger hunt up on Larch Mountain. My little hobby has gotten so popular that I even overheard some people in sports attire talking about it at a wine event back in August. This year was a particularly bad mushroom year due to lack of rain, then came the cavalcade of yuppies-come-lately with Shun’s Bob Kramer line mushroom knives, North Face mushroom sacks, and golden retrievers in Arcteryx doggy jackets (just kidding, but they’ll probably be out next year) to scrape every last bit of fungal life from the dry, crusted Earth. Who even wants to get out of the car when you’ll soon be rubbing elbows with Bob, the VP of social networking from the startup Techitty Tech Solutions Inc.? I’d say, “You know what Bob, I think I’ll go look for Shaggy Manes near Dignity Village.”
But a Gangster doesn’t just bitch and whine when life hands him the mycological equivalent of lemons. A gangster bones up on his mushrooms. As a matter of fact, I’ve been boning up on mushrooms for years now in the expectation that foraging would come exactly to this point, the point where I have to compete with “breathable fabrics” and “trekking poles” and “trail runners” (oh haha, it turns out that I have a really fancy Outdoor Research raincoat. Thanks wife!) And while I still would rather find a pound of Matsutakes (Tricholoma magnivelare) than two pounds of Pine Spikes (Chroogomphus tomentosus), I’ve found that Pine Spikes are pretty damn tasty nonetheless. They’re slightly tart, almost Rhubarby. The texture is so-so, but my hippy (pretty near yuppie) neighbor thinks that Chanterelles have gross texture. Here’s a fucking clue: you have to cook ‘em for a little while guy! The best part is, Pine Spikes are all over the place and nobody picks them. The reason being that, it’s not as distinctive-looking as a Chanterelle or a Porcini or a Morel. They look kind of like other mushrooms, kind of like a Chanterelle, so one actually needs to know something about identifying mushrooms to ensure that they aren’t eating a poisonous member of the Paxillus genus. They are totally disparaged by the mushrooming community at large, and are primarily collected by recent immigrants from Eastern Europe and, according to David Aurora, people with large families to feed. And the thing is, there’s all kinds of delicious mushrooms that are totally overlooked by most foragers.
Another overlooked mushroom that I enjoyed this year was the Honey Mushroom(Armillaria Mellea). We were out on Larch Mountain looking for our chestnuts, but as usual the Asian ladies got there first leaving only the scrapings. The Asian ladies (along with the Eastern European families) are to foraging what Americans are to subsidized agricultural exports, they fucking rule it. So I expect to be beaten by them. Anyway, I was traipsing about some particularly dark and dank piece of private property looking for what the Asian ladies had left in the brush and I came across a nice little patch of what I immediately recognized as Honey Mushrooms. They’re really a little difficult to know for sure because, as David Aurora informs us, it’s not a species per se, it’s a group.
There are lots of little tricks to differentiating them from other mushrooms, but the best little trick is just to know the mushroom by observing it. I don’t mean that you should go into the woods, find what you think is the right mushroom and stare at it until you feel like you know it. If that is your idea of “knowing” something, you should stick to the supermarket. Honey mushrooms get lots of bad publicity and I certainly can’t understand why. They’re really quite delicious. I read one prominent forager-blogger describing it as slimy and speaking of its filé-like thickening power. I had to think: “I’m pretty sure you had the wrong mushroom, you’re lucky you’re not dead yet, forager guy.” My opinion was reinforced with his description of how he used a dichotomous key to identify his specimen (a description that was way off base). Here’s a clue (and these clues really are invaluable little bits of information): Don’t eat a mushroom that you’ve identified only once, through the fucking dichotomous key! Trained biologists have a hard time using those things. The Honey Mushroom, when it is a Honey Mushroom, is really intensely flavored, like an over-reduced beef stock that has that slightly scorched flavor. The texture is typically mushroomy, flabby. The stem is often maligned as being tough, don’t be fooled, the pithy white interior can be torn out like string cheese and used right alongside the caps. It does stand up to long cooking. Ideal with, or in place of, red meats.
I also found, but could not eat, some Fairy Ring mushrooms in my front yard. I’d love to be able to tell you all about them, but my wife threw them away (note from wife: they were rotting!).
Gangster Of Food had to attend a conference in Ohio, “How to not be an asshole” put on by the Association of Snarky Bloggers of America (ASBA). Meantime the garden has come and gone, mushrooms have started sprouting, a handful of squirrels have mysteriously died in the backyard, looks like they were shot, and you all quit paying any attention to me.
We are getting some pigs. Big pigs. Anyone who is interested in this endeavour should comment on the post. The pigs will be from Lance’s Farm Vittles in Bay City, Oregon. They are advertised as “milk fed” although they obviously eat other things too. The pigs are raised in a pen/ barn structure and someone expressed concern that the pigs were confined in some way. Apologies, sir for reprinting my thoughts on the matter here, but it was good of you to give me an opportunity to express my feelings on the subject of animal confinement:
If you got someone that you are going through then by all means do that, I’ll easily have enough people to get two or three pigs and I’m sure the PMC has more resources and a nicer space than I got. I’m trying to get into one of their fall pork classes as well.
Concerning the raising the pigs indoors vs. outdoors I’ve talked to a few of different pig producers about the subject and I’ve gotten two main responses. One response is: “They’re pigs, given the choice they stay inside” from Sweetbriar Farms whom I believe the PMC has gone through in the past and the other, from the rancher at Crooked Gate which primarily raises beef using MIG practices is: “you can have pigs or you can have pasture”, basically meaning that pigs tear up pasture through their digging and rooting. From an environmental perspective, tearing up pasture is bad for soil retention, biological diversity, and soil carbon sequestration which is why feral swine are considered a noxious invasive species wherever they are found in the US and many states (including Oregon) have open season on them year round.
From an animal welfare perspective I find it illogical to argue that an animal should be allowed to do something that it is not naturally inclined to do. Free will seems to be more a preoccupation of human than animal endeavor. More importantly, if the animal is destructive to its immediate environment, allowing unfettered access to destroy its environment does little for the long- term happiness or health of the beast (witness my neighbor’s chickens, which have totally destroyed their range, and the human race).
That being said I realize that there are some farmers like Joel Salatin who make a conscious effort to move their pigs to different areas on the farm in order to utilize the pigs rooting and turning behavior to kill weeds and “rototill” the area. If I found such a farm in the area then I would at some point definitely try some of their pork. Even in this circumstance however, the pigs are usually confined to some extent so that they actually turn the area the farmer would like them to turn rather than, say, attack the nearest row of grapevines.
I see that this fall PMC will be getting their pork from Tails and Trotters which prides itself on finishing their pigs on acorns. I don’t know for sure, but from the photos on the T&T website it seems as though the pigs are confined to a pen.
In other words, freedom is of limited usefulness.
So these pigs, they gonna be good eh?
Last night we ate at Spints, a new German restaurant on NE 28th in that trendy little area near Burnside. You may not know about it but the Gangster is a Germanophile. It’s hard to be a Germanophile in an increasingly Franco-Italophillic world. Everybody loves the Italians and the French. They love their food, their wines, the funny way that they talk like zis. Even I love the French and the Italians. My people hail from Alsace and so I get to have two cultures at once, which does not create an internal conflict. What does create a conflict is that, outside of the sausage places, there is really no where to get decent
This is what Over-the-Rhine looks like.
German food in Portland. Neither is there any good German food in Cincinnati, which is strange because in Cincinnati they like to say Zinzinnati and they have an old neighborhood called Over-the-Rhine that is now a big, decaying ghetto, despite repeated attempts at gentrification.
As a matter of fact, I’ve never actually visited Germany. I’ve been to Alsace and it was awesome and the food was great and Germanic, but not wholly German. The closest I’ve been is the train station in Munich and I tell you, that train station had some of the best goddamn food in the entirety of Western Europe. They had pretzels and roasted chicken and potato salad with bacon and sausages and all types of hardy braises and beer, large glasses of German beer. Truly the best layover that a weary traveler could hope for. I can’t wait to go back. But until I do, I’ll have Spints.
My Alsatian family.
Spints may be the first restaurant in this city, maybe the whole west coast, to take German food seriously. Everyone gets to do a “take” on French or Italian or Japanese or Thai, but bloggers and “professional” reviewers alike get real confused when they go to a restaurant where the cooking is rooted in the German aesthetic but serves items outside the predictable pretzel, fondue, saurbraten formula. I’m not confused, these are my people.
We started with a friseé salad that had a creamy garlic dressing and smoked salsify. The garlic dressing was plenty assertive; served with anything but a bitter endive it would have been aggressive. The smoked salsify was cut into little batonnetes and provided the perfect punctuation. I will say that, when I tried a piece of salsify without salad, the smokiness took on that acerbic quality that a vegetable can take on when it is aggressively smoked. I might have noticed in the context of the salad too, but I was starving and drinking fast.
Then als Hauptgerich, I ordered the pork shnitzel which came with a little cabbage gratin and a sherry butter sauce which I will not here refer to as a beurre blanc. She ordered the brisket Pelmeni which turns out to be a sort of ravioli. Imagine wrapping a spaetzle around a beef forcemeat. That’s a Pelmeni. They are delicious, although these were a little over-salted. Nothing a gangster like me couldn’t handle though.
The schnitzel was tasty, not as tasty as the cabbage gratin but tasty nonetheless. It could have benefited from a little more pounding; slice it thicker and pound more. The butter sauce was well executed but the sherry was a little assertive for this guy.
For desert we shared a ricotta/ chocolate layer cake. delicious. It could have been at room temperature to be more delicious.
The beer selection really shines here. I had an Upright Rye and a Heater Allen Dunkel. I then had some Cynar with dessert.
What else really shines is the atmosphere. The owner seems to have done her own interior design, blasphemy in the age of hyper-specialization and questionable “services”. The lighting is the same throughout. Believe it: at the bar we ate under the same frosted white globes as any of the roughly seventy five or so other patrons at the restaurant. I despise the trend that requires a restaurant to have at least ten different types of lighting; it is the height of pretension. The furnishings are simple and sturdy.
What’s great about Spints is that they take an underappreciated cuisine seriously enough to play with it. It’s so commonplace to do a “take” on any other cuisine in southwestern Europe. For fuck’s sake, there isn’t anything but “takes” on Spanish cuisine (which should be a post in the very near future). German food is treated largely like the bucktoothed, knock-kneed orphan of anything worthwhile, which perhaps explains more about why I identify with it than my provenance does. I could as easily call myself French, but that would be too conventional.
If the gangster were rich, he would buy billboard space throughout the city of Portland that would give all current and would-be restaurateurs solid culinary advice about things that they often fuck up. First and foremost would be french fries.
French fries or pommes frittes if you want to get fancy are, as you may know, fried sticks of potato. Usually seasoned with salt and dipped in a variety of condiments, commonly a tomato preserve known as ketchup, they are generally regarded as the epitome of simple. So why is it necessary to pay upwards of $5 for a serving of them that are both edible and not from a freezer truck? Is it because people who own restaurants are idiots? Yes.
So, listen up Mcmenamin’s brothers, Mr. Stanich, and the rest of you good- for- nothing, french fry slaughtering slobs, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: the secret is to fry twice.
Here’s what to do:
- Select nice, fresh russet potatoes, old potatoes won’t work as won’t red potatoes or yukon gold or anything else. Only Burbank russets make really good fries.
- Cut your potatoes into even french fry shapes, battonet in french, and don’t try to make them too big. Smaller is better.
- Rinse the potatoes several times with cold water and then put them in the refrigerator covered in water and let them sit overnight. This is very important.
- Drain off the water and dry the potatoes as you wish to fry them.
- Most crucially, fry the potatoes in peanut oil, lard, duck fat or even rice oil that has been preheated to 250 degrees farenheit for several minutes until they are quite limp, almost falling apart, and the corners are begininning to brown. Hydrogenated fat may be used as well, especially if you wish to perpetuate the notion that you really don’t care about your customer and they should respond in kind. Spread the potatoes on a screen or on towels and allow them to rest and drain off some of that excess fat.
- Fry the potatoes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until they are crisp and brown and season with salt that has been crushed in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle into a fine powder which will allow it to stick to the potatoes better. Now they are ready to serve to a customer who isn’t on death’s door or whose standards haven’t been mercilessly crushed by a lifetime of unfulfilled expectations.
You see, standards matter. If you’re going to serve something you should make it right even if it is just french fries. In The Gangster’s career as a preparer of quality foodstuffs, it would break his heart and kept him up at night to think of that one plate that he sent out that could have been, should have been, better. I’m surprised that some of you haven’t killed yourselves from shame.
Fusion cuisine is ridiculous. I think it’s practitioners think that they’re “transcending cultural barriers” and that “flavors exist without contextual association” which are infuriating pseudo- intellectual sentiments. To be perfectly honest, the gangster doesn’t even know any proponents of fusion cuisine, but he commits crimes of culturally perverse flavor building on an increasingly frequent basis.
I first learned the horrific wrongfulness of interbreeding flavors or ingredients of the cuisines of two or more distinct cultures at the Higgins, which restaurant, paradoxically, taught me that flavors are just flavors. Sambal Oleck was a staple of the house, now it’s a staple in mine. Sambal does what cayenne does, only better. It’s fruitier, less abrasive, and disburses more easily. So, secretly I’m a fusion chef too. The case in point is Cauliflower Mushroom and potato soup. By which I mean Sparassis crispa, the mushroom that vaguely resembles cauliflower, not Brassica oleracea var. botrytis, the genetic mutant of broccoli, mixed up with Agaricus bisporous, the supermarket mushroom, as most internet sources seem to understand.
We found this particular sparassisafter a long wet slog through the thick underbrush of Larch Mountain. It was, like all encounters with this bizarre mushroom, a little surreal. It grows from the base of fir trees, right out of the area where the roots meet the ground, and it can be massive. This particular one was about twice the size of my head.
Leona with cauliflower mushroom
I left it in the refrigerator for a week, I have my excuses. I didn’t know that it hosted maggots. I pulled it out to make soup and some pickles and found that the base was home to not quite a swarm, but definitely a family of writhing grubs. So I did what any conscientious fungivore would do; I sliced it up and started picking them out with a paring knife. If you think that’s disgusting you should take a close look at the next piece of predatory fish that you buy at the supermarket, especially tuna. I’m just saying, at least I dig out my parasites before I eat.
Potato cauliflower soup is sort of a classic of mycological cuisine, if that “cuisine” could be said to have “classics”. So normally I would start with some salty cured pork product and render the fat out of that, then sauteé the onions, celery and a little bit of garlic in that, then add wine, then milk and potatoes. The mushrooms, previously blanched, come about 15 minute before the end. Finish with pepper, parsley, a touch of vinegar or a little lemon and serve it up with bread. But this time I forgot about the pork. I started with butter which especially sucked because I had some Armandino Guanciale that I brought back from Seattle.
The soup was lacking. Savoryness. What it lacked was something that I always thought could only be gotten from cured pork or, occasionally, from anchovies. But it was too late now and I was determined to not make a fucking mess out of it after all that. Serendipitously I happened to have a little shot glass on the counter half full of toasted, powdered dried shrimp that I needed for some Malaysian crab nonsense. So, in desperation, I added a little and simmered. When it had had time to blossom, it tasted more better. So I added a little more. The same as with the cayenne trick, the shrimp didn’t assert itself. There was nothing fishy about it, it was simply more savory, more satisfying. So you see that I am a fusion chef too. Just like all the fusion chefs from the 1990′s who made up pan- asian and Franco- Japanese and Russo- North African and….
So here you go interweb, here is something that you really need, recipes for “cauliflower mushroom” not cauliflower with mushrooms.
Cauliflower mushroom soup:
Maybe 1 big onion, diced
Maybe 2 ribs of celery, also diced
about a clove of garlic, thin sliced
2,3 or 4 bay leaves, as you wish
a little bundle of thyme sprigs
pinch of cayenne or 1/4 t Sambal
1/4 t toasted powdered dried shrimp
white wine (whatever you have, provide it’s not white zinfandel, is, I’m sure, just fine) or white vermouth
a quart of chicken stock
a half pint of cream
4 yellow potatoes, peeled and cubed (not red, they won’t thicken the soup properly)
a goodly chunk, maybe a pound, of dewormed, blanched, bite sized chunks of cauliflower mushrooms
It’s fairly straightforward: melt the butter in your best pot, sauteé your onion, celery and garlic along with the bay leaf, but do not brown. Add the white wine, the cayenne and the shrimp powder and simmer briefly. Add the stock and the potatoes and season the soup well with salt (it should taste close to how the finished product will tase) and simmer, add the thyme in about 15 minutes. Add the mushrooms a little before the potatoes are done and when the potatoes are done fish out about a half cup, mash them well, mix them with a little stock and cream and stir them back into the soup. Then add the cream, cook until the soup thickens up nice then add the finely chopped parsley and chives and whatever else the soup needs including, perhaps, a squeeze of lemon or a little vinegar.
So I finally saw that movie “Food Inc.” and I really wasn’t expecting much. So Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin get interviewed by some foodie neophyte and then they all sit around and talk about local food and organics and how bad The Man is and stuff. Like the food movement for people who are too lazy to read popular nonfiction. But you know what, It was actually pretty good. I learned a few little factoids about The Man, like well I really can’t remember right now, but Wal Mart has organics stuffs ya’al so get on in there and get you some organic Totino’s Pizza rolls. Also I learned about some more Monsanto intellectual property rights cases that I hadn’t heard of. See I had only heard of this Percy Schleimer fellow who was a canola farmer in Canadia and who had his crop of canola invaded by the Monsanto roundup- ready canola pollen which fearsomely injected its little frankenetic information into Percie’s crops naturale little ovule’s and then they had these little crazy baby canola plants that were also “Roundup Ready!”. That is true. Well, this movie talks about another guy named Maurice Parr.
This guy apparently crossed Monsanto by not only helping, but encouraging farmers to save seeds from Monsanto’s patented “Roundup Ready!” (that sounds a Ronald Reagan movie title) with his little seed cleaning machine. Well, this little seed cleaning machine was a patent infringing criminal and the guy had to settle out of court with Monsanto and he went broke in the process. But you see according to Monsanto, this Maurice is a lying sack of spit- stained cow shit as a matter of fact, all these dirty farmers are liars.
So what does this mean to the gangster? That white shirt corporate nice guys are the side of truth and right? That commodity farmers are not just a bunch of painfully innocent, slack- jawed yokels spraying agricultural chemicals at each other through fire hoses, naught a care in the world? No. My world view has not changed. If Monsanto developed a cow that shit gold turds, I might try to get my hands on some of that gold, but they would still fundamentally be a bunch of sub- organismal jerk- off geeks with a real flair for marketing.
What defies my logic is why these people continue to work with this company, the economics must be brutal. Either that or they’re just lazy.
North American food is at a dead end. There are of course those fancy restaurants that proclaim to be serving some qualified version of American food, and Yankees can’t get enough “Southern Food”, the type that doesn’t include giblets, brains or chitlins, but mostly it cannot be found.
A trimmed down, fatted up institutionalized version of it can be found in fast food restaurants and greasy spoon diners, roadside cafés, “family restaurants” ( the definition of which, to my knowledge, means no beer and crayons) and the often times sorrily misnomered roadhouse. In these sorts of establishments the food served, well you know what they serve, It all comes from a can, a box or a frozen bag. It leans heavily on the “deep fried” group of foods and it consists primarily of white bread, potatoes, meat, cheese and laboratory- formulated sugars and fats. The food is manufactured in truly stupendous quantities in factories that, to the untrained eye, look as if they could just as easily be manufacturing formaldehyde.
Nothing is actually prepared on site in these types of places, no one knows how to cook. Even hash browns and french fries are beyond their scope. Burger patties are generally made by a Patty-O-Matic (yes, there really is such a machine) in a slaughterhouse in Des Moines, frozen in stacks of ten, packed 10 to a box, 4 boxes to case, 12 cases to a palate and shipped to warehousers and distributors like Sysco and Food Services of America to be distributed among the quaint- looking and humble roadside diners of this country, big signs proclaim Home Cooking. Why bitch about this? This is old news. Everyone knows, many take for granted that any restaurant that exists in a rural area that does not have a daily menu, printed on linen paper, hanging in a well-lit wooden box topped with glass hanging outside of the door is crap. It helps if the menu proclaims European food, by which I most heartily mean Western European:Salade Nicoise, Rissoto con Funghi and cetera, because everyone also knows that, if North America could be said to have a cuisine, that cuisine is crap. I protest because I know that this is not the case.
How long has European- dominated America been around?, goes the familiar argument, not long enough to have developed a cuisine. We know, however, that although the myth that Catherine de Medici single-handedly brought cuisine to the French with her entourage of Italian cooks when she moved to the French court in the sixteenth century has been largely debunked, it is also true that the French still lived like barbarians before the sixteenth century. They didn’t even have knives and forks. What was European food anyway, before the discovery of the Americas? Italian food with no tomatoes, no peppers, no polenta, no winter squash? French food without turkey, without pomme frites, without vanilla, Spain without chocolate and cheap abundant sugar without alubias, chorizo or Tortilla de Patatas? These are not the European cuisines we know. Clearly, new cuisines have evolved in Europe since the discovery of the Americas.
It is, I admit, easier to admire the rural cuisine of say, Alsace than that of say, Clackamas county. In Alsace we went for a hike, arrived after the first leg of a long and brutally hot trek in a town called Hellert and went into the first restaurant we saw. We ordered Assiette de Charcuterie and Omelette Forrestiere as well as wine and Amer Biere. The Charcuterie was delicious, as well prepared as that in any of the fancy restaurants in Portland, The omelette was jaw dropping. Wild forest mushrooms and Gruyere folded inside of a perfectly cooked sheet of egg, seasoned perfectly. Mind you, we had bad food in Europe, but rarely in the countryside.
In contrast, we’re still trying to find a good meal near Estacada, We’ve tried the Carver Cafe, Fearless Brewing, The Trails and, The Hanger. The Trails approached edibility, but only by virtue of not making a mess of the fruit of the factory. Carver Cafe was so bad, and so cute, it inspired this little rant. The situation is the same no matter where you go.
Was this, I wondered staring deeply into my “chicken fried steak” with “white gravy”, what the owners of this little cafe envisioned when they opened or bought the place? That the chicken fried steak would be a frozen, deep fried patty topped with a milk gravy that tasted for all the world like dehydrated milk powder and xanthan gum. That the undercooked hashbrowns would come frozen and shredded in a bag, color preserved with ascorbic acid. Or did they slip into this slovenly lifestyle, little by little, like an oxycotin addiction? Did they come to believe, as I have heard the worst sorts of “chefs” proclaim, that their skills could never be any match for the wonders of the laboratory, filled with it’s highly educated scientists applying the principles of chemistry, the principles of laundry detergent and Zyklon B, to the gastronomic realm? Consistency is ensured by the clever machinations of the similarly credentialed engineers, lots of fuel ensures freshness.
You only have to beat your competition and if the competition serves the same thing then you only need a better brand, lower prices or nicer window- dressing. My inclination is that there is no competition. Nobody knows, or cares, how to really cook. The guy running the cafe may as well be running the gas station, or the mini mart because in his mind, he’s little more than a retailer. What happened to all the people who might be inclined to do a little better? Who might create something with the aim of making people happy, delighted or contented? They moved to the city and got jobs as “chefs”. You see it in restaurants all the time, small town kids who ache to throw off the chains of conventionalism and provincialism. Also, kids from places like Cincinnati, places whose very name smacks of insular conservatism. Becoming a “chef” in our society largely means forsaking your roots, assuming your roots are embedded in some decidedly non- sexy backwards terrain like the American plains, the Midwest or non- French Canada. You have to learn to embrace wine over beer (at least in your professional capacity ), Scotch over Bourbon and Foie Gras over Hot Dish or kraft dinner or whatever sort of embarrasingly pedestrian dinner you grew up eating. Isn’t all this changing? Sure, just not fast, deep or widespread enough to suit the likes of me.
Because to serve a great burger isn’t enough. Fried Catfish? You’re getting there. Barbeque spare ribs? Enough with those already. You have to go back pretty far to find American cuisine that is untainted by the grease of industry. Crisco was first used as food during World War I as a lard substitute because of food rationing. Velveeta, invented in the 1920′s. Artificial flavors, mid ninteenth century. In fact, one of my personal favorite books about Early 20th century American cooking, American Regional Cookery by Sheila Hibben was copyrighted in 1932, published in 1946 and begins thusly:
I say to people I am writing a cook book and they ask if it will tell how to make a cake with the new better-than-butter shortening and how to use all the latest dehydrated wonders and if there will be a set of rules showing the vitamin superiority of parsnips over nectarines… and when I am asked further if I think that this is right time to bring out a work unconcerned with the marvels which science has placed with such a flourish on our postwar plastic kitchen tables, I can speak up with a bold and certain yes.
When, a decade ago, I brought out the collection of traditional American recipes which forms the nucleus of this book, the regional cooking of the USA had been exploited neither by metropolitan gastronomes nor by harried writers in search of the picturesque.
Even with the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, I couldn’t have said it any better myself.
The concern is not that American cuisine will disappear, it has long been buried under a pile of individually quick frozen chicken wings, the concern is that it will be completely forgotten and that Americans will have to continue living like Hale’s “Man Without a Country” aimlessly drifting from port to culinary port with no food to call their own, nor anything to add to the international landscape.
American food is not, from my perspective, some exclusive, totally indigenous and unique cuisine. Risotto would not, by most standards, qualify as American but it has history in this country. Yet Hibbens gives a recipe for risotto “as prepared by the Italian housewives of rural California”. It’s prepared with saffron and mushrooms and is smothered in a giblet stew which is essentially gravy. And what’s more American than gravy?