26 April 2009
In the interest of full disclosure, I would like to start this entry off with a disclaimer: in the great New York v. Chicago pizza war, I stand firmly on the side of my Big Apple brethren (and not just because I like getting hand-jobs from trannies while riding the subway.) It’s not that I don’t like Chicago-style pizza – quite the contrary, actually – it’s just that a thin, foldable crust seems to better fit my culinary predilections, for whatever reason, than the deep dish variety. But, really, who cares which style anyone prefers? Any competition between two styles of pizza is more an academic exercise than anything, after all; a battle not between culinary styles, but rather of the geographic pride from which those styles sprang. Chicagoans like Chicago-style because they’re proud of their town and how the deep-dish has come to symbolize it. New Yorkers like New York-style because “What? We gots’ta explain ourselves to you, you fuckin’ mutt? I think fuckin’ not, paisan.” But, much like a murder-suicide pact between the Octo Mom and Bernie Madoff, the great pizza battle is win-win. It’s like having to choose to snort coke off the ass of either Marisa Miller or Brooklyn Decker – I mean, either way, you get to snort coke.
My predilection for thin, New York style pizza notwithstanding, I have a much richer history with its hefty, mid-western counterpart. Having grown up in a land of intolerable humidity and the constant fear of cow-hurtling tornadoes, I often made trips to the Windy City with family and, later, my best friend, Pete. A Cubs game, listening to blues, and taking three bottles of wine to that one Italian restaurant that didn’t card and had no corkage fee always seemed to soothe the 17-year-old soul. But it was all prelude to a huge-ass dinner at Gino’s East, where one slice seemed to do the job that six normal-sized dinners used to. Chicago holds a special place in my heart, and even though I decided not to go to Registered Scientist school there, I always reminisce about staying at the Palmer House Hilton and walking down the Miracle Mile, or napping next to the lake in front of the Shedd Aquarium, or mugging that Northwestern student so I’d have enough money for my next eightball. The fact is, Chicago makes me happy, as do loads of cheese, meat, sauce and a rich, flaky, butter-infused crust. Unfortunately, in order to make Chicago style pizza in your very own home, you’re not only going to have to get a special deep dish pan, but you’re also going to have to make dough, which, as previously discussed on this blog, makes going to the moon look like a fucking walk in the park.
Stuff That Goes In The Food You’re Making
All those dough ingredients, which I will describe shortly
Sauce ingredients, which I will describe shortly
Make The Good Kind Of Pie
I ain’t goin’ over the dough procedure, because I don’t feel like giving myself bread baking flashbacks for the next two hours, but suffice it to say that this particular dough involves yeast, water, oil, flour, corn meal, salt, and frustration. It’s also going to need an ass-load of time to rest, because God forbid it has to get up off its ass and fucking do something, for a change. Once you’ve got your dough all set up, the rest is pretty simple (which is pretty much like saying “Once you get the whole Israel/Palestine thing figured out, the road to peace in the Middle East is pretty simple.”) Place your dough in the pan and press down on the bottom and at least an inch up on the sides. At some point, a Chicago area chef got the mind-blowing notion of putting cheese on the bottom of the pizza, and the sauce on top. I’m assuming this was some Freudian protest to his wife’s insistence that they always have sex in the missionary position. Good for him – the missionary position is, like, the Godfather III of positions (in both cases you’re constantly asking yourself “What is Andy Garcia doing here?”). In any event, slap a layer of cheese down on the crust – I like fresh mozzarella and sliced provolone.
Next, start in on the sauce. I like scotch, but pick out whichever spirit manages to pick yours up (holy shit did that sound awesome; I should have been an ad man.) In terms of the sauce for the pizza, sweat some onions and garlic in a pot. Add in tomato sauce and some tomato paste. Throw in dried oregano, basil, and a bay leaf. Salt and pepper that bad boy to taste, and simmer for an hour. Boom! Pizza sauce. Pour your sauce on top of the cheese, add any toppings you want (bacon), and finish with a blizzard of finely grated Parm. Put the pizza in an oven pre-heated to 450 degrees and cook until the crust is golden brown, about 30 minutes. Hope you don’t have anything planned for the next two days, because this pizza is definitely going to give you a monstrous case of The Bloat.
10 April 2009
Now, I want you to remember that no poor bastard ever made a dish great by “putting love in it.” He made the dish great by putting bacon in it. Men, all this stuff you’ve heard about America not having its own cuisine, not having good food, is a load of horse dung. Americans traditionally love good food. All REAL Americans love the sting of a hot pan. We have the finest food and culinary techniques, the most passion, and the best chefs in the world. You know, by God, I actually pity those poor bastards that have to eat foreign food every day. By God, I do. We don’t just cook animals in this country, we cut out their living guts and and use them to grease our cast iron skillets. Now there’s another thing I want you to remember. I don’t want to hear any messages that we’re cooking things like crepes or paella. Let the socialists do that. We’re making steak and potatoes and we’re not interested in fusion cuisine. Our food’s going to grab the diner by the nose, then when he takes his first bite, it’s going to kick him in the ass. It’s going to kick the hell out him, and when he’s done with that, we may even cook him a goose. There’s one thing American chefs will be able to say when they get back home. And they may thank God for it. Thirty years from now when you’re sitting around your fireside with your grandson on your knee and he asks what kind of food you cooked, you won’t have to say “Well, I cooked pasta at the Olive Garden.” Alright now, you sons of bitches, you know how I feel. Oh, and I’ll be proud to lead you wonderful people on the line – anytime, anywhere. As long as you’re not making sushi. That’s all.
I don’t know about you, but I’m fucking fired up. I’m ready to run head-first through a brick wall and cook the shit out of something. Something with meat and carbs and butter. Something that my grandma would have referred to as “stick to your ribs.” Now that I think about it, I’m ready to eat some fucking ribs. America may not have the culinary cache of France, Spain, or Italy, but those places don’t have In-and-Out Burger, so it’s a bit of a wash. Defining “American cuisine” is kind of tough, considering it has been shaped, much like the country herself, through immigration and its attendant assimilation of cultures, most of which revolve around stealing jobs and my wallet. So who’s to say what’s truly American? Me, that’s who. I’ve lived in this country for nigh on 28 years, and I think I know a thing or two about stuff we’re good at cooking. So join me, won’t you, as we take a tour of culinary patriotism. This shit may not be what Escoffier cooked up, or what Epicurean had in mind, or even what the guy who invented rice might deem as worthy but, dammit, this here’s America, and if there’s one thing we do well, it’s rock ‘n roll. We also do food pretty good, which, I guess, is where I meant to go with the last part of that sentence.
One could make the argument that hamburgers were really a product of Hamburg, Germany, but there’s no place in Deutchland called “Cheeseburg,” so we’ll focus on that incarnation of the inveterate classic (never thought to put cheese on it, did ya, Jerry!). Perhaps the quintessential American food, cheeseburgers are as liable to be found in upscale restaurants as they are in greasy spoons. Gussied up or dressed down, cheeseburgers offer a delicious meal, and also a way to make bad feelings go away by eating three of them in one sitting. Holy shit, do I want a cheeseburger right now. There are myriad ways to make a cheeseburger, but I would like to impart you with a few general rules: (1) after putting the patty on the grill, don’t press down on it; (2) for God’s sake, don’t over-cook the fucking thing; (3) melt the cheese on the meat while it’s still on the grill; and (4) while the bun is important, don’t let it play the leading role – and for Christ’s sake, don’t use one with a thick crust. There are a lot of people who don’t like mayonnaise on their burgers, but they also rooted against the U.S. hockey team in 1980, so fuck them.
If you don’t really feel like cooking one yourself, I’m pretty sure that if you look hard enough, you may be able to find an establishment which serves them up at an affordable price. The aforementioned In-and-Out seems to be the consensus winner of the “best burger” award, and I can’t really disagree with that sentiment. I would like to say, however, that the best single cheeseburger I’ve ever had was at Fatburger, and that, even though I’ve had it only once, The Baconator from Wendy’s continues to haunt my dreams, in a seemingly relentless attempt to make me fat. You should take my recommendations with a huge grain of salt though, because I’ve literally never had a cheeseburger that I didn’t like. They’re kind of like boobs, that way.
Macaroni and Cheese
This dish couldn’t be more American if it was made from pieces of the constitution and tiny Abraham Lincolns. Growing up, Mac & Cheese Night all over this great land wasn’t just an evening when mommies couldn’t handle it anymore and wanted something simple for dinner so she could enjoy her six glasses of Chardonnay. It was also a night when kids would rediscover their ability to projectile vomit streams of neon yellow sick after eating three pounds of cheese-covered noodles. I think I just heard heard a bald eagle cry from excessive pride. There are lots of ways to make this wonderful dish, and many restaurants pride themselves on rich, decadent interpretations of the classic. My Persian friend, Ali, and I are in agreement, however, in our assessment that the best mac and cheese remains the tried and true blue box version from Kraft. Sure, we may have had a dalliance with the “shells” variety, which favored a packet of creamy cheese product over the cheese cocaine packaged in the original. But we always returned. The only other interpretation I’ve found that comes close to matching the original in downright deliciousness is the dish I made with Gruyere cheese and black truffles. I made it a year and half ago, and I’m still full. In closing, I’d like to do something that I often feature on this blog: make sweeping, ill-informed generalizations about people, based solely on their very subjective, and often widely held, opinions. Having said that, the people that bake their macaroni and cheese with breadcrumbs on top called me the other day and told me that, while watching The Neverending Story, they cheered when Artax died in the Swamp of Despair. What a bunch of assholes.
Guy No. 1: “So, we’re going to get a steak, right? Then we’re going to bread it and deep fry it!”
Guy No. 2: “That sound’s a little rich, doesn’t it?”
Guy No. 1: “I haven’t even told you about the gravy, yet!”
Guy No. 2: “You have really pretty eyes.”
I remember the first time I ever had chicken fried steak. It was on vacation, sometime around 1988, and I was wearing an Indiana Jones hat without the slightest hint of irony or embarrassment. Needless to say, the dish was so good that I demanded that all of our meals be eaten at that same restaurant so I could re-live the delicious dish over and over again. I also liked that the cute waitress called me “darlin’.” Now, all these years later, I make chicken fried steak about once a month, and that cute waitress and I are married. Just kidding, she probably died of a meth overdose. Anyway, while the breading and the tenderizing of the steak are, of course, important, the accompanying white gravy, to me, always serves as the highlight of the meal. The key is to make a roux with the steak fry drippings, then adding the cream and lots of salt and pepper. Some effeminate people who like Sex and the City think you should only use white pepper, but, as I previously implied with those homophobic stereotypes, those people are probably homosexuals. Also, if you think this dish comes dangerously close to being German weiner schnitzel, I want to garrote you with an American flag.
Here, again, we see an American classic which has been embraced by every strata of our socio-economic make-up. From upscale eateries, to me having to scrape together a meal after spending the last of my paycheck on scotch, meatloaf is truly a dish that all Americans love. Except for vegetarians, I guess, but they aren’t really Americans. Now that I think about it, I’ve never seen a vegetarian at the same time, or in the same place, as a minion of Satan. Coincidence? Probably. Anywho, it’s a loaf of fucking meat, which should tell every real MMA-loving, red-blooded American all they need to know. The only thing better than meatloaf smothered in ketchup is a meatloaf sandwich in my tummy.
So, as you can see, the American culinary landscape is as varied and sundry as her populace. You know, if her populace was made up of different kinds of meat. Because the indiginous cuisine of the United States is so vast, I was forced to leave off any number of other meals, from hotdogs to barbecue to frito pie, which have also served to make this the Greatest Country Ever (especially since we got that whole race relations thing figured out.) So go grab some lunch, and remember that our forefathers brought forth onto this continent the dream of a more perfect union, a union which most likely pairs beef and bacon together in a lesson in harmony we can all take to heart.
Fried Chicken: The Grease Fires, Constant Fear Of Salmonella, And Impossible Clean-Up Make It Extra Delicious! (And by “Delicious” I Mean “Infuriating.”)
1 April 2009
If there’s one thing I have in common with the Oraon tribe of western Bengal, it’s that I love a good ol’ human sacrifice to mark the beginning of the Festival of Sarhul. If there are two things I have in common with the Oraon, it’s a good ol’ human sacrifice, and the love of a post-ritual meal of fried chicken. This is somewhat odd for me, though, because I typically try to avoid chicken in the meals I cook, and will almost always opt for duck or goose if I’m in the mood for fowl. I was going to write the last part of that sentence as “…if I’m in a fowl mood” but, luckily for you, I’m feeling generous today. In any event, the shining exception to this general poultry rule has always been fried chicken. Indeed, fried chicken is one of my most favorite meals ever, and would almost certainly play at least a small role in any death-row meal I’d have to put together after they found all those hooker parts in my basement. In fact, fried chicken satisfies several criteria which any great food must have: (1) deep fried; (2) involves eating with your hands; (3) is often served in a bucket; (4) can be just as good, if not better, the next day, straight from the fridge; (4) actually, that “bucket” requirement didn’t make much sense at all, back there – feel free to ignore that one; and (5) after eating, one is able to look at the mangled carcass of his consumed chicken and pretend that the bones strewn about the table are actually those of a tiny, yet formidable, vanquished foe, dispatched on some ancient and hallowed battlefield, the name of which will no doubt echo through all of time, as will the legend of your valiant heroism.
Unfortunately, getting to this pinnacle of skin-, fat-, and oil-based deliciousness is a time-consuming endeavour, filled with perilous culinary balancing acts and the omnipresent threat of dastardly salmonella. Salmonella, which sounds like the name of a hot Latina chick who would cut you if you forgot to pay her wireless bill like you promised to, is the world’s most insidious enterobacteria. Let’s see what the Centers for Disease Control has to say about it: Once infected, the skin of the unfortunate ingestor begins to crawl and itch, much like that of a junkie coming down from his high last weekend while trying to mellow out by watching golf. Shortly thereafter, the person becomes gripped with stomach cramps, resulting in vomiting and doo-doo butt. The worst is yet to come, though, and salmonella’s final salvo occurs when the victim’s organs begin to liquefy, his eyeballs fall out of his head, and his genitals spontaneously combust. It’s a real motherfucker, in other words. Yikes; sounds serious. And, if you listen to anybody on TV discussing raw chicken, you’d think that any errant drop of poultry juice, any contact with the carcass, or even the slightest bit of under-cooking will subject one to the above-described horrors of the poultry-based menace. I don’t know about all that, but I do know that I don’t want my junk to explode, nor my eyeballs to fall out, so I like to marinate my chicken in bleach before breaking it down, all in a portable Haz-Mat lab I got at a government auction. While you don’t have to take the precautions I do, it is best to practice common sense when butchering a chicken and subsequently cooking the shit out of it. I’m not going to re-hash stuff you’ve already no-doubt heard, but suffice it to say that cross-contamination, much like a Spike Lee movie about race relations, is a bad thing. Use plastic cutting boards, throw away your imported chef’s knife after using, and always wash your hands in boiling water. If all else fails, avoid contracting salmonella by committing seppuku after your meal, thereby avoiding a nasty case of mud-butt, while simultaneously honoring your family name.
Smoked paprika, salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, garlic powder
Crisco, vegetable oil, or whatever
Frank’s Red Hot
Breaking down your own chicken is pretty easy, and makes you feel like a real, honest-to-goodness chef. However, it’s pretty difficult to describe, in words, how to do this, so I’ll let Ming Tsai take over. Once you’ve gone all Green River Killer on your chicken, place the pieces in a gallon-sized zip-top bag and pour in the buttermilk. This is a dicey step, because at some point you’re going to think to yourself, “Hey, I like milk. I also like butter. Maybe I should drink some of this buttermilk.” I want to caution you to avoid this temptation, but the only way to learn, unfortunately, is the hard way, just like I did. Place the bag in a dish of some kind, and stash it in your fridge, overnight.
Alright, here’s the deal. Making fried chicken is not easy. You’ve got to get the temperature of the oil right, you’ve got to play a tight-rope act by cooking it through, but not so much that you burn the crust, and you’ve got to make sure you flour the meat precisely, or else all that delicious brown crust is going to fall off the chicken. And that’s not even taking into account that even a successful frying will leave your kitchen covered in a thick miasma of grease. If you want to cut your losses right here, I’ll completely understand. Albertson’s has surprisingly great fried chicken, perhaps the best I’ve ever had, so feel free to take this opportunity to drive over there and get you an eight-piece and some potato wedges. If, however, you feel the need to finish what you started, let’s get to cooking…
Pour the contents of the bag into a colander to drain. Season liberally with salt, pepper, smoked paprika, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper. In a cast iron skillet (much like with making a proper roux, or hitting a cartoon character in the face with, cast iron is the only pan fit for the job), fill with enough shortening or vegetable oil to come about an inch up the side of the pan. Bring the oil up to 360 degrees, and don’t be a smartass like me and simply wave an empty pan around in a circle and tell everyone you’ve done it. Coat the chicken with the flour, shake off the excess, and place in the oil. Here’s where shit gets tricky: you’ve got to somehow maintain the same heat throughout cooking, but I have no idea how to do this. My oil generally jumps up to 385 for a minute or two after I’ve dropped in the chicken, then backs down to 320 or so. I’ll crank the heat a little, and will be baffled at how the temperature continues to drop. Thinking I’ve encountered some anomaly in the physical and quantum makeup of my very own kitchen, I’ll call NASA, only to later discover that my deep fry thermometer accidentally got nudged out of the oil. Cook until golden brown, then flip. I forgot to mention this, but always have a splatter guard covering the pan. This won’t keep anything clean, but at least feel like you’re doing something proactive. Remove the chicken to a rack (no, not the sexy kind) and let sit for longer than you’d think. I like to eat mine by applying honey and Frank’s Red Hot to every bite, then waiting a couple of hours to see if my insides start to melt.