Friday, March 30, 2012

DESERT GASTRONOMY


I don’t suppose many people go to the Mojave desert in search of haute cuisine, and if they do they must come away very disappointed.  Still there are one or two oases. The Bun Boy in Barstow does an OK meatloaf, though you go there for the old world vibe rather than the food.  Pappy and Harriet’s in Pioneertown serves up a pretty decent steak sandwich, but you’re probably there for the live music.


One place I always find myself going to is La Casita in Yucca Valley, actually in the corner of a mall parking lot, within hailing distance of a Food 4 Less and a furniture store named Kelly’s Future.  Haute it ain’t, but a Mini Fiesta Tostada and a Corona, in the middle of a hot desert afternoon, always get the job done.


In fact I think the restaurant must have changed hands in recent years, and very possibly changed its name too.  Until I wrote this blog entry I wasn’t even sure what the name was.  In the Nicholson household it’s always been known as “that decent Mexican place in Yucca Valley.”   And I first went there because I was attracted by the plaster sculpture outside.



Even back then she’d lost her hand, and eventually she lost her arm, and then she disappeared altogether.  I hope she went to a good home.  Maybe they got rid of her because she didn’t look authentically Mexican.  Now there’s a painting out front of a mustachioed hot pepper in a sombrero. I like him well enough but I’d like him a lot more if he was in three dimensions.


Further evidence that the citizens of Yucca Valley don’t much care for fancy victuals: the local antique store there had a copy of Larousse Gastronomique, on sale for at least the last couple of years.  I always thought of buying it, and I know a true gourmet would have bought one decades ago, but it always seemed a little pricey, and frankly I wasn’t sure how much actual use I’d get out of it.   Now however, the antique store is getting rid of the book section and last weekend everything was half price.  So I’m now the owner of the first American edition of Larousse Gastronomique, 1961, “the internationally famous bible of cooking … But until now it has only been available in the French language.”




I think I was right about just how much use I’m likely to get out of it.  I’m pretty sure I’m never going to tackle any of the recipes for garden warbler or calf’s mesentery.   But the book is a wonder nevertheless. Needless to say, the recipes tend to be a bit heavy on the aspic and the foie gras, and when in doubt the tendency to toss in a handful of truffles. But I’m very grateful to the book for describing the taste of certain things I suspect I’m never going to eat.  The fenowlet, for instance, “a variety of pear which tastes slightly of aniseed.”  Nipplewort, “a plant similar to the sow-thistle.” Ivrogne de Mer (a small fish), “it’s flesh is tough, but it is nevertheless edible.”  And occasionally forewarned is forearmed “The flesh of the avocet,” Larousse tells us “although quite delicate, savours of the food it lives on, which consists almost entirely of fresh fish, worms and aquatic insects.”  There’s no entry for Mexican cookery, but mescal does get a mention.  The illustrations and photographs are just wonderful.


And of course the book contains the notorious entry on rat, which we’re told was “elevated to the rank of comestible during the great siege of Paris in 1870.”  Larousse also says that “rats nourished in the wine stores of the Gironde were at one time highly esteemed by the coopers, who grilled them, after having cleaned out and skinned them, on a fire of broken barrels.”  Wine stores and coopers are probably in short supply in the Mojave.  Desert rats on the other hand – we got ‘em.


Monday, March 26, 2012

GHOSTWRITERS IN THE SKY (OR KITCHEN)


Have you been following the culinary ghostwriters debate?  It had never even crossed my mind that celebs actually wrote their own books, but it seems that Gwynneth Paltrow wrote every word of the book that has her name on the front.  And she did her own proof reading, and jacket design, and her own printing and binding, and she drove a delivery truck down to the Amazon warehouse so she could keep complete control of the process.  Good for her.


And yet, and yet.  Look at that title: my father’s daughter.  No capitalization!  Some people might think this was just folksy, borderline illiteracy, but others might ask themselves, “Is that woman plagiarizing e. e. cummings?”  In a way I rather hope she is.


My favorite e.e. cummings line, “Humanity I love you because when you're hard up you pawn your intelligence to buy a drink.”

Friday, March 23, 2012

DISORDER AND DAT ORDER


Some years back, at the original Umamiburger on La Brea in LA, I had half a conversation with Adam Fleischman, the restaurant founder, who was very excited that they were about to start selling ice cream sandwiches, bought in from Cake Monkey.  I had never heard of Cake Monkey, but it did cross my mind that a restaurant with ambitions would make its own desserts rather than buy them in. The burger was fine, and the place was crowded but somehow I never thought Mr. F was going to be the next LA entrepreneurial food superstar.  How wrong can you be?


The Umami empire now stretches far and wide, and there’s an outpost in downtown LA named Umamicatessen, which is actually a kind of upmarket food court, a collection of various food enterprises under one roof, including an outfit that sells $8 foie gras doughnuts – jelly and foie gras mousse fighting it out in there together.


Well, as they say, if that’s the kind of thing you like, then you’re probably going to like it a lot.  Although evidently a lot of people don’t like the idea of it at all.  When a Brooklyn restaurant named Do Or Dine served foie gras doughnuts earlier this year it “sparked outrage,” and indeed protests.  Here in LA we await developments.  Gotta say the LA version (above) looks a little more elegant that the Brooklyn one (below).


As for whether jelly doughnuts and foie gras go together, well we all know that somebody somewhere will eat just about any combination of anything, and it just so happens I’ve been reading a short story by Arthur Machen titled “A Fragment of Life” in which a late 19th century London suburban couple, not poor, but concerned about money, fret that their maid is illicitly cutting slices off the week’s roast mutton joint, then eating them “in her bedroom with bread and treacle in the dead of night, for the girl has disordered and eccentric appetites.”


“Disordered and eccentric appetites.” Sounds just a little like LA, no?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

CHEZ BEN, INDEED





To which the only sensible response is, "Oh no he doesn't."


On the other hand, if I want some booze endorsed by a celebrity who knows her product, I'll go with Bette Davis. 



 It also looks like a covert (actually not all that covert) endorsement for smoking.  And it's curious, isn't it, that she has a cigarette in hand, but not a drink.  Fortunately the problem was solved by the time she got together with Robert Wagner, in this ad.





Tuesday, March 20, 2012

UNITED POTIONS

I don’t want this blog to turn into the Psycho-Mixologist but I do seem to be on a roll at the moment, and I just bought this amazing little book.


It’s a parallel text in English and Japanese, and the contents page describes it as an “American-Japanese Bartenders Guide” It’s written by somebody named Kappa, and the publisher is Kasuga Boeki of Tokyo, distributed (not sure how widely) by the Charles E. Tuttle Company.

The book doesn’t have a date on it.  The most reliable sources I’ve found place it as 1953.  It calls itself a revised edition, and although some sources doubt that there ever was a previous edition, others say it’s a reprint from a 1940 edition.  I don’t honestly know where these sources are getting their information.

I suppose there may have been some Japanese bartenders who wanted to impress American customers in 1940, and by 1953 (the year after the end of the American occupation) I suppose they’d be wanting to impress them in a different way.



Anyway it’s a lovely little book The English language versions of the recipes seem perfectly good: I can’t speak for the translation.  My copy did have a couple of odd, possibly alcoholic, stains on the front that came off pretty easily.  The idea (unprovable of course) that they might have been splashed there by some eager Japanese bartender in the early 1950s is somehow very moving.

More moving still in its way, the book contains the United Nations Cocktail, which obviously couldn’t have been in any 1940 edition.  It contains one ounce each of American Bourbon, “British Scotch Whiskey.” Cuban Rum, French Cognac, Dutch Gin, Swedish Punch, Vodka (nation unspecified: you’d think Russian but no doubt the Cold War had turned very chilly by then) and Japanese sake.  The instructions say, “Shake on Ice, strain into Highball glass and avoid police action.”  A little cocktail humor there.


I was hoping to find an image of a 1950s Japanese bartender, but I’ve failed.  The best I could do was the above Monkey bartender automaton, made in occupied Japan: a little something to remind Americans of home.



Thursday, March 15, 2012

COCKTAIL DEGUSTATION, MY ASS.


And as if to get this whole cocktail thing out of my system, I just read a piece from last Sunday’s LA Times travel section titled “Chicago, that tippling town.”  In the piece, Krista Simmons, a self-proclaimed “native Angeleno” describes a boozy visit to the Windy City, the highlight of which, at least for fans of the culinary absurd, is a visit to the Aviary.


She writes, “The Aviary flips the traditional tasting menu on its head. Here, cocktails take center stage: They're served with nibbles that complement the drinks' flavor profiles. During the seven-course degustation, sips were sent out in architecturally inspired glassware. Ginger-spiked apple brandy cider arrived in a metal-lined glass canteen. Shortly after, a rocks glass encased by a plastic pillow was placed on my table, then cut open, sending forth a cloud of lavender-scented vapors. Then came a warm Rooibos tea cocktail (the Rooibos tea leaf hails from Africa) delivered in a coffee siphon. Using that device's vacuum pressure, the drink's gin and maraschino components were infused with flavors from lavender, citrus, cinnamon and the tea leaves.”

She describes the experience as “highfalutin'.”  Oh how I wish that she, or I, was making this up.  



Wednesday, March 14, 2012

BRONX CHEER


It being my birthday, and my friends knowing me all too well, most of the presents I got were alcohol-related.  The Loved One gave me a classic martini shaker and glasses (thanks Dian): late fifties or early sixties we’re guessing. The glasses are especially fine, decorated with cockerels, and small enough that you might use them to have a three martini lunch.  


The shaker has various cocktail recipes embossed on the glass and it’s interesting what’s there and what’s not.  Present and correct are the Martini, the Manhattan and the whiskey sour, among others, but there’s no margarita for instance, and certainly no screwdriver, which I think is the first “cocktail” most of us ever drink, especially if we’re girls.  Maybe you could argue it doesn’t even count as a cocktail, just orange juice with vodka in it.

And there on my shaker is a recipe for the Bronx. I had certainly heard of the Bronx but just as certainly I couldn’t have told you how to make one, and now that I do know, it frankly doesn’t sound all that exicting, essentially a not very dry Martini with orange juice in it.  My shaker’s recipe involves 3 parts gin, one part French vermouth, one Italian vermouth, one part orange juice.

Fortunately I was able to compare and contrast this recipe with one inside the PDT Cocktail Book, one of my other birthday presents (thanks Elina, thanks Anthony). PDT is a “speakeasy bar” in St Mark’s Place in Manhattan and access is via a phone booth in the back of a hotdog joint named Crif Dogs, and you have to have reservation before they’ll let you in.  Honest.  One of my journo pals in New York did offer to take me there but it all seemed too much bother.  PDT apparently stands for “Please Don’t Tell,” which reminds me there used to be a beer bar in the East Village named DBA – which meant “Don’t Bother To Ask.”


The book is written by Jim Meehan, who’s Mr. Cocktail in New York right now, and it’s a beautiful thing, illustrated by Chris Gall with images like this:


According to PDT, the Bronx cocktail was named after the zoo, not the borough and “was one of the most popular drinks of its time,” that time possibly being the first decade of the twentieth century.  The book gives a recipe from William Boothby’s The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them, from 1908.


The Boothby Bronx cocktail contains 2 oz gin, half an once dry vermouth, half an ounce sweet vermouth, three quarters of an ounce orange juice, so it would be a little sweeter than the one on my shaker, but then many early cocktail recipes do sound surprisingly sweet.

That being the case, and me being an old school guy who likes a dash of bitters in his martini, I could see no harm it having bitters in my Bronx, orange bitters seemed the obvious way to go, and I did in fact find a recipe that demanded them, in A to Z of Cocktails, published by Ward Lock in 1980. Yes, yes, I do collect books of cocktail recipes, the quirkier the better.


The 1980s were a dodgy period for cocktails, there was quite a fad for them, but everybody seemed to drink Harvey Wallbangers, surely the sweetest cocktail anybody’s ever tasted: vodka and orange juice, plus Galliano and castor sugar, according to the boys at Ward Lock.  Come on.  Nobody needs a drink THAT girly.


My Bronx looked just a little pale and anemic, and it did taste like a slightly diluted Martini, but then of course it had all the bang of an actual Martini so it felt a lot better than it looked or tasted.


Now I had the bit between my teeth on this cocktail lark and I happened to come upon a used copy of Hollywood Cocktails by Tobias Steed, with recipes by Ben Reed.  It was published in 1990 but it’s satisfyingly old school, illustrated with classic black and white stills from the golden age of Hollywood: Shelley Winters, David Niven, Vincent Price, Better Davis et al, slugging back cocktails from surprisingly small glasses.  It seems to come in multiple editions with different covers.  Why not collect the whole set?


The book doesn’t have a recipe for the Bronx, but it does contain a line from The Thin Man, Nick Charles addressing the barman, “A Manhattan you shake to foxtrot time. A Bronx to, er, two-step time.  A dry Martini you always shake to a waltz time.” Which must have been pretty annoying for the barman.


The book doesn’t have an actual recipe for the Screwdriver either, but it does have a word about its origins, “Supposedly, it was devised in the 1940s by an American who found himself without a swizzle stick and turned to his utility belt for assistance.”  Supposedly indeed.


My other present (above) was three miniature bottles of Kah tequila (thanks Scott, thanks Gina), the bottles shaped like Mexican Day of the Dead skulls.  As I’ve said before, and as I’m sure I’ll say again: Everything tastes better out of a skull.  This stuff tasted great, far too good to use in a cocktail.

Monday, March 5, 2012

KEEP IT CHEESY


It seems that when I was a boy I was (very briefly) a tyrosemiophile, though at the time I would have said (in the unlikely event that anybody had asked) that I was a fromologist.  I mean that I collected cheese labels.  It was pretty half-hearted and short-lived, and clearly it lacked the intellectual rigor of stamp collecting, but it had the advantage that it was related to cheese.  Not that this helped me much.


My parents, as I’ve said elsewhere, were plain eaters.  They knew what they liked and they liked what they knew, and they thought they knew what I’d like too.  So when we went to the Castle Market in Sheffield I’d gaze longingly at the cheese counter, admiring both the cheese and the labels, until my mother assured me she wasn’t buying any of that stuff because she knew I wouldn’t like it.


The most exotic cheese I ever got to eat was a multipack of Kraft cheese spreads.  I’d pretty much forgotten this – perhaps blotted it out – until I happened to see a collection of cheese labels online.  Dairylea was certainly our default cheese spread, so my mother didn’t find these too wild.  I can’t say I really remember the tastes, but I do recall liking the blue cheese a lot, the celery not so much.  And I remember there was one that contained tomato which was pretty awful.


As you see, the labels weren’t really very exciting.  When I first went to France I did find some beautiful labels on camembert boxes, but by then I’d moved on from my tyrosemiophilia.  And now I find there is indeed a thriving cheese label collecting community, and why not, given some of these amazing labels?  They’d make a collector out of any of us.   Of course in some cases you know the cheese inside couldn’t possibly live up to the label, but I could accept that.


I’ve also found this label for Trumps cheese, made in England, but I’d never seen it before.  In my bit of Yorkshire “trump” was a widely used, slightly childish, euphemism for “fart,” so maybe the Trumps company thought they’d be wasting their time trying to sell us their cheese.

Cheese has been on my mind again, still, because I’ve been trying to imagine a Venn diagram of cheese lovers compared with fans of free jazz. Most cheese lovers hate free jazz I’m sure (as do most people, full stop), but I think most free jazzers aren’t averse to cheese, so I think it would look like this:


I’m right there in the overlap, but I mention free jazz in relation to cheese, only because of the blessed Dutch free jazz drummer Han Bennink who once, famously, played a set of drums made from cheese. In fact he was playing an art installation titled, Cheese Kit Diptych by Walter Willems, featuring two drum kits, one made of plastic display replicas, the other made of real cheese.  Willems said the piece was incomplete until Bennink had played both drum sets.


In fact in the world of free jazz drumming, using cheese as a percussion instrument isn’t really all that outrĂ©.  Avant-garde drummers will beat on just about anything.  On Scott Walker’s song “Clara” from The Drift percussionist Alasdair Malloy is credited with “meat punching” though the picture below is Scott rather that Alasdair.


A playable trombone made of cheese – that would be really impressive, and although there are plenty of cheesy guitars in the world, even this one is only made of faux cheese.



And finally a cheese that’s about as faux as a cheese can get.  I was in Trader Joe’s supermarket t’other day when they were giving out samples of Trader Joe’s Chocolate Cheddar Cheese, “a creamy mature English cheddar with rich dark chocolate curls.”  Now by and large I don’t like things in my cheese – some sage is OK in Sage Derby, a bit of red wine in Red Windsor is acceptable, but those cheeses that have cranberries or lemon or apricot in them, they seem to be missing the point. 

But chocolate and cheese go well enough together in a chocolate cheesecake, and the sample I got in Trader Joe’s came with a slice of strawberry and a little sweet jelly.  I ate them together, enjoyed them well enough, bought a slab of the cheese, brought it home, opened it up, thought it looked pretty good, tried some, and it was absolutely foul.



I think now that they gave customers the strawberry and the jelly in order to disguise the taste, and boy does it need some disguising.  It’s not very good cheese, and not very good chocolate and you put them together and the taste is vaguely, though not completely, nauseating.  You know that line in Douglas Adams about the Nutri-Matic machine that served “a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.”  This stuff is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike both cheese and chocolate.  Quite an achievement in its way.   So now I’m trying to think of some creative, possibly free jazz, use for it.  Perhaps I could smash it with mallets until it’s dead.  It doesn’t even have a collectable label.







MR MENU





At last (it's been a long time coming) Gourmet Live has published my interview with Jim Heimann about menu design and menu collecting, in connection with publication of his book, Menu Design in America.  There's a link to it here.


http://www.gourmet.com/food/gourmetlive/2012/022912/a-menu-of-american-eating