This vs. That

Early morning, hot coffee, flipping through a food magazine and I noted some food-porn pictures of glorious edible artwork served at some of the nation’s best restaurants. Really, looked like the kind of stuff that people always say, “it looks too good to eat.” I’d be afraid to eat some of them, afraid in the same way I’d be afraid to to touch a painting in a gallery to check out the texture. These chefs go to great lengths to display perfection, using tweezers and paint brushes, sometimes creating food that doesn’t look real, other times putting something that seems casual and random but is actually choreographed chaos.

And then there was the picture of a roasted maple-miso salmon head (this was in Bon Appetit), adorned only with a few sliced radishes and scallions, a dusting of sesame seeds and a brush stroke of white sauce and a few dots of red (each of those last two might taken a little too much thought, but you get the idea). Bold. How dare a chef put such food on a plate? The outright balls of it! The audacious, mad genius!

Somehow, that picture reminded me of a trip to Paris, 10 years too long ago, when after trying this pretentious restaurant and that, we stumbled on a bistro and after a few glasses of wine, I found myself facing down a bowl filled with incredibly rich and simple lentils topped with a pork shank. Bread on the side. A jar of grainy mustard on the table. More wine. That was it, in all of its enlightened simplicity.

So I’ve been thinking about differences this morning, differences between simplicity and complexity, chaos and order, overrated and underrated, boldness and subtlety. For example, Fred Gwynne was funny and bombastic and over the top in “The Munsters,” but he was controlled, understated and far superior in “The Cotton Club.”

Are flaming Thai Bird Chiles really better than jalapenos, or just hotter? Is truffled lobster mac-and-cheese better than a grilled lobster with lime and butter? Is a short rib/brisket/sirloin burger with foie gras, a fried egg, edible gold leaf, guanciale and wine-braised ramps on a house-made pretzel roll better than a ground chuck burger with American cheese on a potato roll?

“Voodoo Chile” or “Little Wing?” “Born in the USA”or”Nebraska.” Buck Cherry or Jeff Buckley? The Jam or Pearl Jam?

“The Lords of Discipline” or “The Prince of Tides?” “Twilight” or “Dracula?” “The Beach” or “At the Shores?” “The Good and the Ghastly” or “Brave New World?”

Does any of this make sense, yes or no?


Another night of cooking (local) by the beach

We welcomed friends, a formerly local family now living the life fantastic in southwestern France, to our tiny beachfront apartment the other night for dinner.

Question 1: Cook a French-style meal, to give them a taste of their new home and us of the Old World? A good chance to practice the technique.

Question 2: Give them a real New Jersey shore meal to show off what we here can do within a mile or two of the Atlantic Ocean when it comes to perfect food. A taste of what they’d left behind, if you will.

Yeah, Question 2 was answered clearly and resoundingly: YES!

Since my favorite seafood and vegetable markets are less than a mile from our place, not to mention the herb garden on the deck, this would be easy.

The local ingredients included: clams, chiles, corn, lemon thyme and scallions for the entree. A little olive oil and butter, garlic, onion, the white part of the scallions, chiles and a dab of bacon fat went into the pot to start cooking out the rawness before the clams made their entry. In a smaller saucepan, a corn cob simmering in water to build a quick sweet corn broth, the corn that I had cut from it waiting in the wings. Grand finale: clams in, corn in, broth in, beer in (I used lager, some ales and stouts can make the dish too bitter).

The result, which was served over spinach and fresh pasta, looked like this:

Our new favorite summer salad is as simple as it gets: local tomatoes, both heirloom and basic Beefsteaks, a cucumber, shaved red onion, good olive oil, lemon juice, cracked black pepper and flaky sea salt.

Here’s what “easy” looks like:

When the food was gone, the conversation began…

Memorial Day Weekend: Two Dinners by the Shore

Since I had to trot off to work on Sunday night, taking one good holiday evening away from me, I decided to go all-out on Friday and Saturday evening.

I had a plan.


Grilled skirt steak and potatoes, salsa verde, simple salad, cold beer and wine

Six tomatillos, medium onion (quartered), red anaheim chile, two garlic cloves are coated in olive oil and salt and roasted in a 400F oven until browned, about 20-25 minutes. Once they cooled, they went into the blender with a big handful of cilantro, the juice of a lime, a splash of red wine vinegar, two tablespoons of olive oil and salt and pepper to taste.

Easy dessert: Whisk together 8 ounces of mascarpone cheese and a little milk until smooth, then add 3/4 cup of store-bought lemon curd, a shot or two of limoncello and healthy teaspoon of lemon zest. Meanwhile, slice a store-bought pound cake into eight pieces, put them on a platter and splash a healthy amount of limoncello over them. Spread the lemon-mascarpone mixture over the sliced pound cake, top with variety of berries. Put it in the refrigerator to soak and set.

I then boiled large red-skinned potatoes sliced in half the long way, in salted water for 15 minutes. Drained and cooled, I put them on a platter, drizzled with olive oil and heavily seasoned them with salt and pepper.

With the skirt steaks on a half-sheet pan, I coated them with olive oil, salt and pepper, cilantro leaves, crushed garlic and ancho chile powder for a good massage and rest at room temp. Filled the chimney starter with natural wood charcoal and, once hot, poured them onto one half of the bottom grate of my old workhorse, a 22-inch Weber kettle grill. Replaced the cooking grate and brushed it clean, then dropped the steaks on the hot side until seared (4-5 minutes per side) then moved them to the cooler side grate to finish while I grilled the potatoes, cut side down.

Once the steaks hit about 120-125F on the instant read thermometer, I took the steaks off to rest 10-15 minutes while the potatoes finished and threw together simple salad of green leaf lettuce, chopped tomatoes, olive oil, lemon juice and balsamic vinegar.

Steak and potatoes: check. Salsa verde: check. Lemon-cream pound cake: check. Dinner: done.

At about 10 that night, after clearing dishes, cleaning up and saying goodbyes to our guests, I took the 6.5-lb. pork shoulder out from the icebox and liberally dry-rubbed it with a combination of ancho chile powder, smoked paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, ground ginger, ground allspice, salt, pepper, mustard powder and white sugar. Then I wrapped it snugly in plastic wrap and popped it back in to the fridge.Pulled pork sandwiches, vinegar slaw, key lime pie, cold beer, wine, grapefruit margaritas


Pulled pork sandwiches, vinegar slaw, key lime pie, cold beer, wine, grapefruit margaritas

Pork shoulder (6.5 pounds) out onto the counter to loosen up and shake off the chill. I put about four cups of hickory wood chips into an old metal bowl and filled it with water until the wood was just submerged, soaking them for at least a half hour.  Meanwhile, out on the deck, surrounded with the adolescent potted herbs, I put about 15 charcoal briquettes into a chimney starter, balled up two sheets of the mostly useless daily paper and shoved them into the bottom, lit the paper and let ‘er rip.

When the charcoal was about three-quarters gray, I dumped it into the grill and shoved the hot coals to one side at the bottom of the grill. I added two handfuls wet wood chips and placed a disposable aluminum roasting pan onto the empty half of the bottom of the grill, replaced the cooking grate, and put the shoulder, fat side up, onto the opposite side, away from the burning coals and smoking wood.

Threw together an easy slaw of cabbage, onion, cider vinegar, sugar, celery seed, Dijon mustard, salt and pepper, which I would stir every hour or so until dinner.

After about 45 minutes, I dropped three more briquettes, gave it five minutes to grab the heat with the lid off, tossed in another handful of soaked wood and closed the grill again. This process repeated itself over the course of about three hours. By then, the shoulder had a decent bark (dark, beyond-mahogany crust on the outside) and some of the fat had already rendered.

So, while the shoulder was cooking and the cabbage marinating, what else did I have to  do?

I made a key lime pie, something I can practically do with my eyes closed: whisk together the four ounces of fresh lime juice, six egg yolks, one can of sweetened condensed milk, pinch of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of lime zest, pour it into a graham cracker crust and bake it at 325F for about 20 minutes until barely set, cool it on a rack then chill it in the refrigerator for at least two hours.

Done? Almost.

The work of the smoke was complete. I took the shoulder out and put it onto a half-sheet pan lined with heavy foil. Wrapped the shoulder tightly with the foil and put the works into a 250F oven… for five hours. Now, it could cook in a temperature controlled environment and I could do other things. I could feel the Carolinas shudder, but this was New Jersey. Too bad!

Two more accompaniments remained: 1) A ton caramelized of onions; 2) The juice of eight pink grapefruits and four limes, because you can’t have grapefruit margaritas without them, along with blanco tequila, agave nectar, pinch of salt and a lot of ice.

About an hour before I rang the dinner bell, I took the pork shoulder out to rest, stirred the slaw one last time, and started slicing hard-rolls in half. Once the shoulder was cooled just enough to handle, I pulled out the bone and started pulling and shredding the meat into a bowl, kissing it with cider vinegar and some decent barbecue sauce.

On Monday, we went out.

Time for dirt and water

Despite the fact that the only outdoor space we can call our own is a concrete-and-brick terrace that loses sunlight by about one in the afternoon, I still got my hands dirty today.

The goal? To try — against abbreviated daylight and too much saltwater in the air — to grow an herb garden. I would never profess to have a green or even greenish thumb, so I picked a few plants the should do well with little sun and even less maintenance.

The rosemary, thyme and mint should be fine, I’m old. In fact, thyme and rosemary have always been successful here.

I am concerned about the basil, tender and fragile and needy.

I am also worried about the hot Spanish chiles. I thought I heard the plant laughing at my futility as I gently brought it to it’s final resting place, in a plastic planting pot about 1,000 yards from the ocean.

Don’t waste your time, amigo, the plant said.

Still, I am determined and damn near confident. Planting things calls for some measure of faith and hope, and can bring a sense of accomplishment, success, as well as some pretty fine-tasting meals.

The point of this exercise in potential futility two-fold.

  1. I want it to work. I need to know I can make something happen
  2. I need the herbs to make some decent meals even better

Among the hundreds of potential applications, here’s the plan:

  • Rosemary: Act as part of a chicken, lamb or pork marinade; stuffed into whole fish; on the coals and for brushing olive oil on steaks; chopped onto grilled flatbread
  • Silver thyme: Pressed onto steaks before grilling; chopped into no-knead bread dough; part of a rub for slow-cooked pork shoulder or brisket; anything chicken
  • Lemon thyme: Shrimp, scallops split-grilled lobster, roasted clams or oysters and firm-fleshed fish; butterflied chicken on the grill; roast chicken
  • Mint: As part of tomato-watermelon salads; drinks; with chiles in shrimp summer rolls; chopped with grilled peaches and whipped mascarpone and cream
  • Basil: Tomato dishes; caprese salads with local Jersey tomatoes and cucumbers; grilled pizza; pesto
  • Hot Spanish chiles: Sliced for roasted and stuffed mushrooms; chopped into melted butter for grilled seafood; part of marinades for slow-bbq ribs, brisket or shoulders; with mint and crushed cumin seeds as part of marinade for lamb

Chile peppers