Tuesday, October 30, 2012

EGGS, Lets Start at the Beginning

Marco Pierre White says you can tell a lot about a cook just by the way they prepare an egg. When he talks about fried eggs he explains it’s more poaching in butter than it is frying. “If you can hear the egg cooking when you put it in the pan… your heat is too high.” After the whites have set carefully spoon the melted butter over the top of the egg until the tops of the white are set and voila, the perfect fried egg complete with a yolk that for all intents and purposes is its own sauce. It compliments anything it goes on from a cheeseburger to pizza even the toasted bread of a simple egg sandwich. Today I know this to be gospel yet somehow, that wasn't always the case.

I started cooking eggs not long after “The Great Pudding Incident of 80.” This cooking thing was fun and easy and hey, I even managed not to kill anybody! I made fried eggs for sandwiches that were cooked past Silly Putty stage both in texture and flavor. I couldn’t manage to flip the egg without breaking the yolk which although being fine by me, it was sacrilegious to my father.  My scrambled eggs were surprisingly good being both creamy and yet somehow fluffy. 

Then there were omelets, sadly I made my parents eat all manner of omelets not fit for human consumption. Sure there were some winners with onion, peppers and ham topped with cheese. But then there were those oregano, garlic and ginger fiascos that they somehow managed to choke down. They were overcooked, rarely folded in an omelet like manner and most definitely awful. My parents never said an ill word about any of it… and today I have them to blame for my love of cooking.

Dad’s famous egg dish was the simple fried egg. To pull this off you need a white hot cast iron skillet heated to somewhere between 1200 degrees Kelvin and the sun, a dollop of bacon grease (you mean there are other fats you can use?) and an egg. Melt the grease then drop your egg into the pan then as soon as you can grab your spatula your fried egg is done. This will give you a perfectly laced nearly burnt egg white on the bottom, on the top you get the stuff that hangs from the jowls of a St. Bernard and the yolk will be nearly as cold as it was when the egg was cracked. Dad liked to dip toast into this mess and I liked to drown mine with ketchup.

Mom’s Idea was a little different with regards to eggs and actually had the right idea in theory if not in practice. She would crack a dozen or so eggs beaten with a touch of milk and a little salt and pepper, cooked slowly in a low cast iron pan. She cooked the eggs slowly taking care to keep stirring the bottom of the pan nearly constantly making sure to hit the entire bottom in a back and forth motion like a tractor seeding a field. I suggested she turn the heat up but she wouldn’t hear of it and kept stirring gently. The only thing mom did that made them less than perfect was she cooked them a little too long.

Her hardboiled eggs were incorrect in every way imaginable in that you cover the eggs with water, boil them just shy of a decade, and take them off when there was no water left in the pan, or the egg. This would make for a Sahara dry green yolk perfect for adding to everything from salmon pea wiggle to potato salad?! My mother dearly loves adding eggs to dishes and if you turn your back long enough they’d end up in who knows what and for some reason, I still love them. Yes I love a creamy yolk as well, but I never balk at a mom’s cooked to death hardboiled egg.

Today as I start making what I now know to be a perfectly “fried” egg I realize I can learn a lot about myself just by looking at that egg “not making any noise in the pan.” I can see the evolution of me in it as a cook, not only the present successes but also what I’ve learned from my past failures. Then I smile and turn the pan up just a little and hear the egg start to spit. I grab two pieces of bread to toast and reach for the Sriracha to do an over easy egg sandwich. A little bit over cooked, a little bit under cooked  to honor the people who faced odd combinations and botulism to help me become the halfway decent cook I am today. Oh and mom, dad… thanks for not becoming physically sick from the canned tuna and macaroni omelet.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Fair Food

Last weekend I attended the 161st annual Carhartt convention in Maine or as some folks lovingly call it, the Fryeburg Fair. Since I was a little kid I went to fairs every year and to this day Fryeburg is still my favorite. They have the most animals by far, probably enough to sink Noah's Ark. They have tons of food vendors and not just your typical New England fair favorites of Italian sausage, fried dough, French fries and cotton candy. 

At the Fryeburg Fair you can get everything from a deep fried Oreo to Thai food and darned near everything in between. I even saw a vegetable stand and talked to the woman who owned it whom I had at first dubbed “the loneliest person at the fair,” but after talking with her and upon further inspection I saw that the veggies were battered, deep fried and covered with a mayo based sauce…way to keep it healthy veggie lady!

Growing up I remember going to the Cheshire Fair in Swanzey, NH every late summer as a child. The best part was after we were done setting up our vegetables for judging on the evening before the fair started, we were allowed to ride all the rides for free. In hindsight I’m not sure going on a thirty year old tilt-a-whirl for its “shake-down” cruise was such a good idea. 

But as children are immune to such logic, and are in their own minds immortal… I caught a lucky break and fate smiled upon mine and my brothers nights of fun. I remembered going into the main building which in winter was the ice arena my brother and I played hockey in and being in awe that this would ever be a rink again, especially with all that dirt, tractors, horses and of course horse manure covering the skating surface.

I always walked through the barns to look at the animals. I took the obligatory look at the cows and horses, but as I saw them at the farm all the time I was looking for the really exotic animals like turkeys, miniature lop eared rabbits and Lucifer eyed goats. After walking around for several hours through countless piles of manure smelling of animals, hay and sawdust, it was time to walk the midway and listen to the barkers cry. 

Since I had ridden every ride I wanted for as much as I wanted to the night before the fair opened, I was more interested in the food. Walking past the pretzel, cotton candy and candied apple stands (aside from six year olds, who’s eating candied apples and why?) I made my way towards the one constant at the fair that always made it seem complete…the Italian sausage stand.

This was one of those foods my father, my brother and I would always get at the fair and to this day it isn't a fair unless I have one. Mom wasn't much of a fair person and stayed home, as this left Dad to his own devices from a culinary standpoint we always went straight for the holy grail of fair food before joining my Uncle Gene in the stands to watch the tractor pulls. The traditional sausage stand had little diner seats along the sides and big circular ropes of Italian sausage along with onions and peppers sizzling away on the flat top. I don’t recall the first time I had one but I know it had to be at the fair as we never ate it at home, and to this day every time I bite into one it reminds me of my father and the fair. 

The most exotic ethnic food we ate at home was probably kielbasa sautéed with sauerkraut, which everyone but me smothered in yellow mustard. As I wanted to be authentic (to which country Poland or Germany I had no idea) I ate mine au natural.  Then there was “Spanish rice” which had nearly zero Spanish ingredients at all unless you count tomato as Spanish. Basically it was rice with ground beef and mom’s homemade meat sauce…Olé!

Of course I would eat the obligatory fried dough which is the north’s answer to the funnel cake. French fries smothered in malt vinegar, which being Acadian French was a given as we would eat a trailer hitch if it had vinegar on it, and a kiddies pool worth of lemonade. Today walking around I’m seeing lemonade that costs as much as my first apartment. Fried Kool-Aid which in as much as I could figure was Kool-Aid dumped into “clam fry” then deep fried, and eaten by people with a horrid contempt for their health and self esteem. 

I did see some good looking food in the way of wood fired pizza which had a nice “up skirt shot” and was crispy and bubbling, and Thai food which was probably as Thai as my childhood Spanish rice was Spanish but it looked hot and tasty regardless. That being said with only one day at the Fryeburg fair, barely enough room for a quart of Mylanta and a couple food items, I’ll take the Italian sausage with onions and peppers…it always makes the fair a fair. 

No...not from this mess! Sadly it's the only flat top pic I got...*sigh*

Ate BBQ sample at Fair in Northern NH earlier in the season...what was I thinking?!

UGH! Can't I go anywhere without politics?!

WOW...FREE DIPPING SAUCE?! Must be my lucky day!

As I told my friends relax I split this one... with myself! Hellz yeah I ate it all... I ain't scared... but my aorta probably is.

Same as above... who the hell wants boneless fried chicken?!

MMMM...Fried Kool-Aid! But uh yeah, I'd definitely eat the fried pickle chipe...wonder if they came with free sauce?

I saw the "up skir" shot on the pizza but in Northern Maine where guns are carried and cops are few, I didn't feel right asking the guy to take a picture of the underside of his pizza...go figure.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Dear Serious Eats

Dear Serious Eats,

    After waking up on a Saturday you were the first thing after my morning coffee that I looked forward to. You were interesting, topical and fun. You used to not only inform me, but you also entertained me. Because you were engaging, actively participated in your own as well as other peoples stories and threads. You were wonderfully warm, personal and different from any other food site/community. 

There was always someone there to learn from or commiserate with on cooking, and even though it wasn't interactive per se it was interactive enough. Talk was topical and even if it strayed off course from time to time you would bring it back to center with a friendly post. You were different, you were unique and everybody noticed.

Things took a dramatic turn when you made a decision to make personnel changes and in one fell swoop a big piece of both your personality and charm that made the site special and welcoming were gone. 

Things were exciting for a bit as you added science with the food. This was interesting and most probably enlightening for anybody who had never read Harold McGee’s book “On Food and Cooking”. The person behind the science was fun, engaging and seemed to fit in nicely even though there was an obvious and large gap to fill. 

It wasn't long after this that things seemed to take a turn eventually becoming in my humble opinion, a downward spiral. Your staff became increasingly detached and less involved with the community only taking time to comment with other staff members threads to tell inside jokes, and cajole each other into telling even more inside jokes that made us feel more like outsiders looking in. 

I’m not sure what happened but the whole look of the site became sterile and oddly colored, ads became hair triggered and talk threads seemed to almost disappear and people became unattached. Meanwhile content became so bloated and uninteresting as to appear like overzealous children looking for their parents attention and approval. It looked like you had caught Food Network Disease or FND...you poor thing.

You have had opportunities with your social media to embrace the community and if not promote them at least follow, like or otherwise acknowledge they exist. Twitter has something called Follow Friday which is an opportunity to mention people you like, or people who patronize and support you. 

I can only surmise you either don’t like anybody or… don’t feel there is anybody worthy of your mention. I’m not convinced it’s either, but rather something even worse…you don’t know how to use social media. Your people are all very smart, super smart...hell probably even genius smart, and I know you and they have the credentials to back it up. 

Unfortunately as sometimes happens, very smart people have one inherent flaw… they are too smart. Some say “long on smarts, short on common sense.” It seems someone in your group should have noticed that social media has the word “social” in it and took that as a clue to be... social. Not a one dimensional billboard becoming so much noise in the ever noisy Twitterverse.

Now I never claimed to be a smart man, but when all you do is pedal your wares, self promote and in general ignore all but the crème de la crème of the food world, you’re not being social but rather snobbish and boring. I'm sorry I know that seems harsh. But you’re now "that person" that wants to come over and show your four hour slide show from a trip to Panga Panga, and you shush anybody that tries to ask a question.

I only go there now for the sake of one person’s musings and rarely anything else, and I hate that you've driven me to that. I’m sorry you changed for the sake of progress, money, influence or whatever it was you changed for the sake of.

I do however think you’re missing some opportunities, let me explain. 1) Improve your social media, it isn't very good and it's not social. 2) Improve your interaction with the community both in, and out of the site..If you don't have the time to talk, it means you don't have the time to listen either... I promise you there will be time to post soup dumplings tomorrow. 3) When possible try talking "with" people and not "at" them, this is called a conversation. I know it sounds cliché but people have conversations and learn from each other every day.

You can probably speak to unbelievably successful numbers and staggering growth since "The Change" and to that I'd say good for you. But just because you're successful doesn't mean you know everything. Don't stop listening and learning.

Sure you could tweet this story and get a million people to call this letter and me... bullshit. That's because you have a million followers, not friends. If you listened to, cared about, and interacted with, the people in your community...you'd have a billion friends and they'd not only follow you, but they'd care. No man is an island.

You might say it's a case of the site growing in scope and content, that people move on and find something else and that technology is ever changing, that you have added responsibilities. Those things are all valid no doubt about it, but there's one thing people always respond well to and want to treasure, hold close and not let go of... friendly personal interaction... you've lost yours, and I wish you would get it back.

Love always,