Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Salumaio update

not sure how to quantify this, but my first short story, published spring '09, was the third most viewed page on the Contrary website for 2009. Incidentally, the current issue has 3 poems from Sherman Alexie. Here's a link to front page of current issue, which includes top ten most-viewed list from 2009.


Friday, September 11, 2009

One Bar Food That Is Almost Always Better At Home

With the college football season upon us, one of the most important times of the year, I would like to turn my attention to a wonderful and much-maligned snack you can serve to your guests that will literally drive them crazy with adoration for your cooking skills. But first things first. When I say college football, what I really mean is Michigan Wolverine Football. Before reading any further, submit yourself to the notion that the Wolverines are the finest college football program in the history of the sport. If you've previously rooted for some other school as a result of your college education or geography, now is the time to make the switch. Start by waking up tomorrow morning and dressing yourself head-to-toe in maize and blue. You'd be surprised how good it can make you feel.

But let's get on to talking about Buffalo wings, my purpose today. We've all had them, we all love them, but the vast majority of the time they are not as good as they could be. By way of background, allow me to state that in addition to cooking professionally or teaching cooking to future chefs, I lived in Buffalo for seven years, from ages seven to fourteen—prime chicken wing eating years as far as I'm concerned. My parents, reasonable folks, would order our family ludicrously large pizzas and buckets of wings on a weekly basis. For a family of four boys this was just what the doctor ordered. It was the eighties, and people didn't worry about all the senseless chatter you hear nowadays about eating local or organic, much less healthy. Not in Buffalo, at least. Incidentally, I still to this day favor the pizza I grew up on. Pizza in Buffalo is really heavy on the sauce, lighter on the cheese, which is exactly the opposite of what most prefer, in my experience.

But on to the wings. One major advantage that a restaurant has over the home cook with regards to Buffalo wings is the use of a deep-fat fryer. If you have a fry daddy or some other such contraption, or are the kind of demented soul who likes to torture yourself with deep frying at home, don't even bother. I've got a technique that will produce the best wings you and your guests have ever had.

First, buy the right kind of chicken wings. There are basically three kinds of wings you can purchase in most grocery stores. First, there is the kind that is frozen that is presauced, in some cases even pre-cooked. Under no circumstances should you purchase this product if you're goal is to serve real Buffalo wings. If you want to serve "Buffalo" style wings that are pre-sauced or coated with barbeque sauce, you might as well root for a team like Ohio State. The second kind of wing to avoid is the frozen, still-raw wing that comes in the five pound sack with some kind of colorful packaging. This is the most cost-effective, but the problem is that these wings are too large. They come from old hag chickens that have run around the barnyard for too long. They are simply too tough to chew on and do not produce a desirable product for you or your Wolverine-loving guests. Here's what you have to do. Go to the fresh meat section and pick up some small styrofoam packages of small fresh, raw chicken wings. They should be about three inches in length. If you're not sure if you're getting the small, tender ones, compare them to the frozen bags of wings. In terms of size it's night and day.

Bring your wings home. Feel a bit of pride at what you are going to engage in. Here's where it gets all culinary. Instead of simply cooking your wings, borrow a technique from classical cookery of duck. Duck, like chicken wings, contain a great deal of fat in the skin. In order to open the pores to allow the fat to run out during cooking, it's necessary to blanch them very briefly in rapidly boiling water. Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Dunk your chicken wings, only a few at a time, into the water for no more than 10 seconds. Any longer and you will cook them, which is not the point.

After blanching, turn your oven up to a ridiculously high temperature—as high as it will go. Lay your wings out on sheet pans, preferably on a rack to allow air to flow around them as they roast, in a single layer. When oven is smoking hot, slide in the wings for about ten to fifteen minutes, or until you're confident they are done. They should have a light golden to brown crust on them. While they are roasting, prepare the sauce!

Here is the only kind of sauce you should coat chicken wings with if you want them to be Buffalo wings. Best case scenario, order some online from the Anchor Bar in Buffalo. This stuff is an almost neon orange, probably toxic and very delicious. Short of that, buy some sauce like Frank's Red Hot, Crystal, or Tabasco. The goal here is not just pure heat, but tang. Mix whatever sauce you buy with equal parts melted whole unsalted butter and place in a large bowl. Keep it warm.

When those wings come out of the oven, slide them right into that bowl with the sauce and toss, toss, toss. Use the bowl to toss so that the sauce sloshes out all over your kitchen counter and your freshly-pressed Michigan shirt. I wouldn't have it any other way. Next, slide your wings onto a platter with celery sticks and homemade blue cheese dressing.

Homemade blue cheese dressing? I thought we were done J Not quite. Never buy this pre-made, it's too easy to make yourself. And never, ever serve Buffalo wings with Ranch dressing. Talk about a tragedy. For blue cheese dressing, buy some quality genuine blue cheese. Make sure you have plenty of store-bought but full octane mayo on hand, more Crystal or Tabasco sauce, Worcesterschire sauce, fresh lemon and salt and black pepper. Basically add blue cheese to mayo until very chunky. Keep seasoning until you can't taste mayo anymore, which is one of the golden rules of using pre-made mayo for a sauce. I can't guarantee that your blue cheese dressing will taste as good as mine, but I've had lots of practice. Most often what it needs is more salt, lemon juice, Crystal, Worcesterschire and pepper.

Take control of your life today. Get your supplies, including Wolverine shirt, Buffalo wing ingredients, lots of cold canned beer and bloody mary fixings. Wake up tomorrow morning, brush your teeth, put on your Michigan gear, fix a bloody mary, make your wings. Take a moment to step outside in the glorious sunshine, beer in one hand, bloody mary in the other. Then retreat into a dark cave, and see how the other half lives.

Friday, September 4, 2009

A Gardening Tragedy

Each day, like Don Corleone in his old age, I like to go into my garden and spend a little time among my tomatoes. I don't really do much to them while I'm out there, unless I need to water. Partly I don't know what to do to them! Mostly I just walk among them, look at their leaves, examine the ripening fruit—enjoy their company.

But at this time of year the plants are definitely starting to die. It's not so much the wilting and the spotting of the leaves or the reddening of the fruit. It's as if their entire stature has started to shrink. They're a lot thinner through the middle. They seem to be all stem and fruit and less and less leafy liveliness. They're really more of skeletons than anything. I can't help but wonder if I did all I could during this growing season. I'm aware that the answer is, most likely, no. But that's okay. I've committed greater crimes in my garden, one of the more venal of which I will describe at this time. I do this not so much out of a sense of expiation as an acknowledgement that sinning seems to be such a central part of me and my gardening habits.

This story has to do with the Great Snowstorm of 2008 in Seattle, an event so momentous it seems to have cost us our otherwise wonderful mayor, Greg Nickels, as well as shaved several years off the lives of the majority of our citizens. I'm sorry, but coming from Michigan, a few inches of snow in December, no snowplows or not, does not a tragedy make. The story that follows, however, does.

Long before the snow came, around this time last year, my wife and I set out in the garden several types of lettuces, greens, and other winter vegetables. By the time December rolled around, they were doing swimmingly. We had been eating wonderful lettuces and greens for months, picking them one minute, eating them the next. Enter into the picture several inches of snow. Our lettuces became buried under a soft bed of white. We flew back East for Christmas (where there was real snow!), and by the time we returned to Seattle in early January it was the grey, dreary, snowless place we have come to call home.

Before we even got into the house, suitcases in tow, I went straight for where the plants had been. Several lesser varieties of lettuce, such as frilly frisee and that primadonna of Italian lettuces, lolla rossa, were gone completely. Gone without a trace. It was as if something had just zapped them out of existence, wiped them, quite literally, off the face of the earth. Some of the hardier varieties, your more quotidian romaine, were still there, but not long for this world. Imagine a head of lettuce lying completely flat on the ground. It was one-dimensional, each of its leaves spread out like a child's drawing of a flower. I lifted a limp leaf, hoping against hope that I might revive it. There was nothing left to do.

But standing in the back of the bunch were several plants I had all but forgotten about back in the fall. At that innocent time, slugs had all but eaten them to stumps. But there they were now, several sturdy, healthy, proud collard greens. It was a triumph of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie. I felt victorious. I monitored their progress for the rest of the winter. They were knee high when we decided to reap their benefits and cut them down. It was early spring, around the time I started to build my raised beds, and there wasn't room for them anyway. I had one very, very full shopping bag of the freshest collard greens I had ever seen.

I proceeded to stuff them into the back of the refrigerator, behind the milk jug and the water pitcher. And there they sat, week after week. That's right. One of the worst things that I do as a gardener is spend time growing things, only to throw them out later after they go bad.

A couple of things should be noted about collard greens. When properly stored, as mine were, they take a long time to go bad. Two, I personally love to cook them. After cooking in New Orleans for a year, where I learned to fix them with lots of bacon, brown sugar, and Abita amber, they have become a household staple several times of year. I've cooked them for parties and even catering events. I've been told on several occasions that they were the best collards that someone had ever tasted. And I knew it. Most collard greens are bland and boring. Mine roared with life, and flavor.

Why did I let them go to waste? I don't know. Each week my wife asked me to cook them. Each week I grew more and more apoplectic about them. I tried to pretend they weren't back there. Finally I took the bag and threw it directly into the trash can, not bothering to open it up and see them in their wilted state, not bothering to honor them with the food waste bin which sits adjacent to our regular trash.

"What happened to the collard greens?" my wife said one winter day, noting their absence almost immediately.

"I don't know," I answered meekly.

"What do you mean you don't know?" she responded rather logically.

I honestly didn't know, and I still don't. I have no excuses. Every time I try to come up with one, it just seems to fall apart, as if buried by you know what.

Will I ever be able to bring myself to grow collard greens again? Let's add that to the list of unanswerable questions. I seem to have a garden full of them at this point.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

How to Live the Good Life

If you do not currently have a garden of any kind, or even a house plant, you should consider doing so. Few things are capable as providing as much nourishment for the soul as helping something grow. Once you gain the confidence that comes with keeping something alive, you will quickly discover that there are things you can keep alive that taste really, really good. For me, gardening is really a selfish pleasure. But, naïve as it may sound, it makes the world a better place as well. It improves our air, and it provides something green for others to look at. Anytime you can make your own selfishness align with the better of someone else you are doing a good thing.

I have only been gardening for a couple of years. For so long it seemed as if gardening was just a vastly complex hobby that offered the newcomer so many different ways to fail. I used to tell people around our P-Patch that hour for hour and ounce for ounce, my wife and I work the hardest for the least amount of actual gain, if such a calculus were to exist.

But no longer. At least when it comes to basil. Our first year, which was really a half year, the summer of 2007, we grew a few basil plants with moderate success. We planted late, didn't fertilize or water enough, and were pleasantly pleased with our results. I don't recall that we had enough even make a batch of pesto that year, but we certainly made our share of caprese salads and the like. Last year, 2008, we got an early start and planted seeds in the spring in the south-facing window of our Ballard apartment. They grew too fast, became too spindly, and amidst the madness of house shopping and then moving, in May of last year, the basil plants never made the transition. I don't even remember exactly what happened to them. But that's probably for the better. I don't even recall being too upset. So accustomed to failure when it came to gardening, we likely shrugged our shoulders, hung our heads low, and moved on.

But then came this year, 2009, the year of the bountiful sun and the somewhat experienced gardening team at the old Redman household. I built raised beds back in February. I ordered shipments of the finest organic topsoil and compost that money could buy. We purchased basil plants from a local nursery sometime in May, just as the sunshine was beginning to blanket our glorious corner of the Earth. We watered. Boy, did we water! By late June we were looking at four waist-high bushes of basil. They were as big as the nascent tomato plants that grew alongside them. I joked to my wife that this was my Italian bed. That basil and tomatoes were meant to be together not just on the plate but also in the garden. I perhaps grew slightly smug at our success.

For the past month or so we have been making pesto once a week. Everytime we go out to cut down some basil, thinking we are going to have to take down a whole plant, only to realize that no matter how much we seem to cut, there is always much, much more. We eat pasta lousy with pesto. We purposefully make too much pesto, and then overdress the pasta with its luscious greenness. No, I take that back. It's not possible to overdress pasta with pesto. In addition to our lovely meals, we have been making pesto and freezing it. Will it taste the same come January, when we are staring outside at gloom and rain and bare tree branches? I don't know.

Our plan for this week is to cut down most of our basil. We plan to make another big batch of pesto, as well as try freezing some whole leaves, which we've heard works well. There's also other reasons to cut down the basil. It's started to flower, and while I love watching the bees gather round, since they seem to take as much if not more pleasure in our basil, it also means that the plants won't produce many more leaves.

There is something else I need to confess to. My gardening is not quite where it needs to be. I planted too many tomato plants—good problem to have!—and they have completely overtaken the basil. My "Italian bed" is a tangle of green. It is more green than I ever could have imagined. It's impossible to tell where the basil ends and the tomatoes begin. I've mistreated my basil in this way. But it doesn't complain. It just does its thing, as it's done for centuries. It quietly goes through life and doesn't seem to complain. We could all learn a thing or two from that.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Grate Your Vegetables

There is a simple side dish you can make that accomplishes the magical goal of being inexpensive, extremely good for your body and your soul, and ludicrously delicious. Start by reaching for your box grater, that neglected tool you may not have used for since before they started selling pre-grated cheese-- remember when?

Now this dish involves vegetables. Vegetables, that elusive category of food you may have seen once on television. Not only vegetables, but a couple of the most despised species: carrots and beets. You want to choose one or the other. You can serve them alongside of each other, but don't mix them together. Unless you want to.

Begin with that most important first step. Peel your vegetables and baptize them under wonderfully cold water from your kitchen sink- Remember to be thankful for the Cascades and the luscious bounty they give us! A thousand page book could be written on the quality of our public water. Also, cleansing your vegetables in this manner will simultaneously cleanse your soul. Promise.

From here this dish is so simple you might as well open a pre-dinner beverage. But watch those fingers! A grater and its crude edges can do a dandy on the delicate flesh of your finger.

Whether using beet or carrot, simply grate the raw vegetable using the large holes. Now season with the four most important ingredients on Earth: salt, fresh-ground pepper, vinegar and olive oil. What kind of vinegar? Try red wine for the beets, perhaps rice wine or white wine for the carrots. How much of these seasonings? It is too difficult to describe in words. Add each seasoning judiciously, taste, and continue seasoning. One thing to keep in mind is these salads do best after sitting out for a good twenty minutes, and change considerably overnight in the refrigerator.

How should it taste? Like a tangy, crunchy mouthful of soul-satisfying flavor. Munch on this alongside a nice piece of protein--whatever your inclination or your pocketbook calls for-- and watch your body and your soul become invigorated at the table.
Box Grater

Friday, May 1, 2009

1st Work of Fiction Published

Hello, Wine Wall? How are you? :)

It's been a while. Thought I post links to a couple of other writing projects that have come up for the scant few who visit this quiet little corner of the Internets.

-Salumaio, Paul's first published short story, a work of "food fiction", has been published in the Spring issue of Contrary, a literary journal based out of Chicago. Here is a link if you care to read.

-I've started contributing to the online-only P-I as part of their Seattle Views section. Here is a link to my first piece.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

La Vida Dolce Per Tutti

If your soul yearns for spring, which is literally coming in fits and starts this year, take matters into your own hands. Feed yourself a hearty salad of delicate spring greens without even making a trip to the local grocery or farmer's market. Right now is the time to head out to your backyard, or a neighborhood park if you are a true city dweller, and start picking your own dandelion greens. Get them now before they blossom and their leaves turn woody. It's terribly simple and will make you feel like the most sophisticated eater in the world. Go out and pick your greens this weekend. Stick your fingers into that cold, muddy soil, disregarding strange looks cast your way from condescending urbanites. If you are self-assured, take an elegant wicker basket with you. If audacity is your calling card, wear your floppiest summer hat. Simulate a trip to the farmer's market with all the characteristic showmanship you can muster. Fill your basket with as many greens as you can before modesty takes over and you remember that your original mission was simply to have a satisfying lunch. Take your greens home. Scrub your sink and fill it with the coldest water possible. Fill it to the brim and stop for a moment to appreciate the resources at hand. Now carefully plunge your harvest into the water, stir gently, as if leading an infant around in circles in a swimming pool for the first time, and then let them float. Let them float and let the sand and dirt precipitate silently to the bottom. Cherish your life. Go and sit in a sunny corner chair and read a book, or just gaze outside and think of summer. When you are ready, when your stomach growls, remove your greens from their baptism and spin them dry. A salad spinner is another cheap addition to your batterie de cuisine that will repay itself in innumerable delicious salads over the rest of your life. If you want to elevate your greens to their most noble use, dress them lightly with the freshest, fruitiest olive oil you can afford. Bless them with a pinch of good salt, a turn or two of the mill, and a squeeze from a nice lemon. Toss them lightly. Pile them high on a white plate. Admire them before digging in. If you follow these steps exactly, your reward will be otherworldly indeed.

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