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In the past few months, food writers everywhere(Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, etc) have been talking a lot about Hot Chicken, the ultra-spicy fried chicken of Nashville. In the articles they write, they seem to enjoy hamming up the idea that “folks” from Nashville just can’t get enough of the spicy treat. They make it sound like, here in Music City, a stop for Hot Chicken is about as frequent as making a sandwich or a bowl of cereal at home. This is not unlike the way in which non-natives incorrectly assume that most Nashvillians spend their evenings at the Honky-Tonks–though we sometimes do.

Now don’t get me wrong. As someone who loves to read and loves to write, I understand the power of a good story. And I also understand the power of the human imagination. In this way, food without a story often lacks a certain depth. (‘a rose by any other name would (not) smell as sweet’). I guess, after all, I’m not really upset with Bon Appetit’s inaccurate depictions of Nashville food culture, or any food culture. I guess, after all, I’d just like to be clear to my readers (the few brave souls you are) about how this ever-popular, peppery, poultry plate is and is not regarded here in our fair city of Nashville.

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Sure we don’t eat it every week or every month, but that doesn’t mean that this spicy-salty-sweet crispy fried chicken is not anything other than addictive. Because it is. I’m also willing to bet that, at least before Bon Appetit and Food & Wine gave it a write-up, there were not many people trying to make this stuff at home. But you should. In doing so, you’ll be gaining some experience with two dishes: Fried Chicken and Hot Chicken. You see, the two dishes are essentially the same thing, if not for the painful punch in the face rendered by a couple pieces of Hot Chicken. And it is a punch in the face. For some, spicy food is unpleasant and unnecessary; For others, it’s a great joy, something to be relished. It’s like the intensely glorious pain of a deep-tissue massage, but for your mouth. 

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So, let’s talk turkey (er, chicken):

Hot Chicken (adapted from–you guessed it!–Bon Appetit)

Ingredients:

2 lbs chicken thighs and legs, split

1 tbsp freshly ground black pepper

1 tbsp salt

2 eggs

1 cup whole milk

1 tbsp hot sauce

2 cups AP flour

vegetable oil for frying, about 10 cups

3 tbsp cayenne pepper

1 tbsp brown sugar

1/2 tsp chili powder

1/2 tsp garlic powder

1/2 tsp paprika

White bread a pickles, for serving

Season the chicken with salt and pepper and let it hang out, covered, in your fridge for about 3 hours. The salt will help to tenderize the meat. It will also help for the chicken to caramelize during frying.

Whisk the eggs, milk, and hot sauce in a large bowl. Then whisk the AP flour and salt in another bowl.

In a dutch oven, or a very wide rimmed pot, pour in your vegetable oil. It should be about a depth of 2”. Be sure that whatever you are using to fry the chicken has very tall sides, because the oil will expand dramatically when you begin to fry the chicken. And you don’t want to kill yourself. Set your stove on medium high heat. As the oil comes to temperature, let’s bread the chicken.

Working with 1 piece at a time, dredge the chicken in flour, shake off the excess, and then dunk it in the milk mixture. Then, dunk it once more in the flour mixture before placing it on a plate to rest. Once all chicken has been battered, you’re ready to roll.

When frying, work in batches. You don’t want to overload your fryer. The cold chicken will bring down the temperature of the oil drastically. That being said, don’t put more than 3 or 4 pieces into the pot at a time. Once in the hot oil, turn the chicken occasionally. Cook each batch for about 14 minutes, or until an instant read thermometer reaches blah blah blah. After you finish a batch, place it in a 250 degree oven to keep it warm.

Okay, the chicken is fried and delicious. At this point, you could eat. But you’re not going to. Instead, very carefully spoon out a 1/2 cup of the oil used for frying into a bowl that is not going to crack on you. Seriously, be careful. Into the oil, whisk the cayenne, brown sugar, chili powder, garlic powder, and paprika.

Throw down a few pieces of white bread and some pickles and stack a piece of juicy chicken on top. Lather the hot oil over the chicken and enjoy, y’all!

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For the past few months, I’ve been on a non-stop beet binge. I must admit that, with all of the attention beets had been given in every little hipster kitchen and all across the blogosphere, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. If you yourself have not fully explored the wonders of beets, I will serve as a messenger come back from the other side to say, with complete confidence and excitement: beets are immeasurably versatile, nutritious, and most importantly, damn delicious.

But if you’re really gonna try out this whole beet thing, you’re gonna have to throw away your notion of what beets are. And that means you’ll need to throw away the image you have stored away of a can of beets being opened and then sucking and gurgling their way out onto a serving plate, all in one cohesive, gyrating mass, indented with corrugations of the rusted aluminum can in which they sat for (no doubt) years, ribbed for your pleasure. That must go.

I’d like to apologize to the folks at home, or to anyone who was offended by such an image. As a means to quell your repulsion, I will direct you to the very real, very natural, very earthly photographs of beets in just a few of their multifarious incarnations.

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In an effort to rid myself of that memory and to help beets shed their tired cloak of shame, I’ve been treating them with all kinds of respect in my kitchen. Perhaps the simplest and most delicious way to prepare beets is to roast them. That’s right; lather them in a bit of oil, a generous sprinkling of salt, and wrap them in aluminum foil. Throw them in a 400 degree oven for about an hour. The result is strangely delicious, because beets, unlike most foods, don’t call out for seasoning. Sure, you can dress them up however you like (I’ve provided a recipe for that), but beets are so complex that they don’t really need much to make them taste incredible.

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So here’s my thought for an interesting and satisfying way to serve beets: enter Golden Beet Tartare. Now, technically, a tartare implies that something is both finely chopped and also raw, as in steak tartare or tuna tartare. In this case, we will be working with beets that are not raw, but instead are roasted. This is a tartare in that the components are finely chopped, and that it begins with a briny and bright, egg-enriched emulsion. Also similar to a steak tartare, this dish has an assertive onion-y kick, thanks to freshly chopped scallion.

But the big difference is thus: a traditional steak tartare has a taste profile that pulls from the flavors of France: briny capers and anchovies, bright, snappy cornichons, dijon mustard, fresh parsley, and yellow onion. If you’re thinking, “screw this golden beet tartare! I want to make the real thing!” then look here. If you’re still with me, great. To give the beet tartare some interest, it’s flavors center more on those of asia: toasty sesame oil, rich soy, rice wine vinegar, chopped scallion, and hot chili oil. You need to eat this.

Golden Beet Tartare

Ingredients:

2 medium-sized golden beets, roasted

1 egg yolk

1/4 cup safflower or vegetable oil

1 tbsp toasted sesame oil

2 tsps soy sauce

2 tsps rice wine vinegar

1/2 bunch chopped green onion, green only

few sprigs of cilantro

hot chili oil

Remove the greens from the beets, but don’t toss them. They can be cooked down in the same way you might cook collard greens. Give the beets a good wash, but don’t peel them. Coat them in oil and salt them liberally. Then wrap each one in aluminum foil. Place them on a pan in a 400 degree oven for about an hour. Once done, let them cool in the fridge.

Meanwhile, let’s make our sauce. This one start with an egg yolk. Crack the egg and separate the yolk from the white, using your hands. With minimal space between your fingers, the white should naturally pull away from the yolk. Place the yolk in a large mixing bowl.

Okay, so now we’re gonna make something very similar to a mayonnaise or an aioli. That means our goal is to mix the oil into the yolk, so that the two thicken and emulsify into a thick sauce. In everything I’ve ever read on aioli or mayonnaise, the advice seems to be that one should whisk the crap out of it. But I’ve found the contrary to be true.

Pour in the oil a few drops at a time, all the while stirring slowly to incorporate the oil and the egg. As you continue, you’ll start to notice long strands of proteins in the yolk being strengthened by  fats in the oil. If you’ve done your job right, once all the oil has been slowly poured in and well mixed, the sauce should adhere to the whisk when it is held up. Into your emulsion, add the toasted sesame oil, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and chopped green onion. Mix well.

Once the beets have chilled, remove the outer skin (this can be done most easily with your fingertips). This slice the beets into thin rounds. Cut down through these rounds to make long, thin strips. Then slice again, so that the long strips become tiny cubes. When well chopped, mix the beets with the sauce, ensuring that the mixture is well incorporate.

Plate the tartare immediately, garnish with cilantro and hot chili oil. Serve with toasted bread, or, to continue the asian theme, eat them with toasted nori crackers.

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Ever wonder why foods so often considered refined and fashionable originated, in actuality, from the poorest rungs of society? In today’s food culture, it’s curious how what we often cherish deeply is the sense that what we are eating is an exotic and mysterious delicacy. I am not to be excluded from this accusation. In fact, it’s safe to say that my cravings for food seem to fall into one of two categories. If I’m in search of the familiar (a hamburger and fries; biscuits and gravy), I’ll seek out the real deal, the most authentic spot, the epitome of that flavor. In other words, if what I crave is the familiar, I’m not in search of surprises. I’m in search of the hallmarks of what makes that food great.    

This is, of course, quite different from when I crave the mysterious. In search of what is exotic and unknown, my hope is to be caught off-guard, to be carried away to another land, swept out to strange waters, heart aflutter, body afloat.

This was how I was introduced to gazpacho, a bracing ‘liquid salad’, served ice-cold. Before I ever knew its name or what it was made of (or certainly how to prepare it), I knew of the idea of ‘cold soup.’ Though eating something cold and refreshing on a hot day seems obvious and practical to me now, this was not the case when I was five years old. It was 1992: Bush and Yeltsin proclaimed an end to the Cold War, US forces were leaving the Philippines, the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed. But all I could think about was a “little town, in a quiet village, every day like the one before.”

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Yes, I could not stop watching Disney’s animated feature film “Beauty and the Beast.” I could go into why the movie was so enthralling (the juxtaposition of the beautiful and the grotesque: the idyllic french village, (just as Belle herself) unaware of its beauty, situated so close to the dark and towering castle, as cold and brooding as the master himself), but I won’t. You’re probably wondering how a Disney film has anything to do with gazpacho. We’ll get there.

In one scene, Belle is lifted from her despair when the oddly endearing residents of the castle (Lumiere, Cogsworth, Ms. Potts, and Chip) regale her with the fineries of food and drink. As the music swells, a parade of pâtés, gastriques, and other delicacies fans itself out upon the table. I can remember one day at my grandmother’s house, as she watched this scene with me. She being of swiss-french origin, I imagine the mention of ‘ragout’ and ‘souffle’ got her thinking about her own childhood food memories.  As the scene continued, she told me about ‘vichyssoise,’ a cold soup her mother often served when she was young. For whatever reason, despite my deep interest in the film, I found myself more interested in a bowl of cold soup. And though I thought about it countless times in the years that passed, I would not confront the cold bowl of soup until my sophomore year of college. I was at the swanky restaurant Jonathan at Gratz Park, and the first course was a summery strawberry gazpacho with basil and mint.  At such a clean, correct establishment, I was convinced that this little bowl of bright, fragrant liquid was the food of high society, the elixir of kings and magistrates in far-off lands. But I was quite wrong.

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What I did not know was that gazpacho has long been a food for the poor. And that it began as a cold bread soup, made with garlic, almonds, olive oil, and grapes. Not surprising, considering Columbus would not bring over tomatoes from the New World until sometime after 1492. What I’ve come to learn about gazpacho is that its most consistent feature is its variation. No two gazpachos are alike. They’re subject to the whim and whimsy of the cook, and more importantly, the ingredients she has on hand. In other words, you can’t mess this up.

The version I made used tomatoes of all color and shape, green bell pepper, deeply charred poblano peppers, a jalapeno, balsamic vinegar, a glug of olive oil and a handful of fresh herbs.

Here’s how you make it:

Charred Poblano Gazpacho

Ingredients:

2 1/2 lbs fresh tomatoes

1/2 large red onion

1 large cucumber

4 cloves garlic

green bell pepper

2 poblano peppers

1 jalapeno

1/2 bunch of parsley

1/2 cup olive oil

3 tbsp balsamic vinegar

salt and pepper, to taste

To get started, we’ll char the poblano peppers. If you have a gas burner, awesome. Fire it up and let the peppers sizzle, pop, and char over the open flame. It might feel odd to intentionally burn something in your kitchen, but it might be your only chance to do so and feel proud of it. If you don’t have a gas burner, heat an ungreased cast-iron pan on the stove and wait until it’s screaming hot. Place the peppers in the pan and turn occasionally. Once fully charred, wrap the peppers in foil to steam. After 5 minutes, chop off the tops of the peppers and pull out the seeds. Now we’re ready to roll.

To make this, you’ll need a blender or food processor. Traditionally, it would have been made with a mortar and pestle. While that sounds romantic and artisanal, it’s also highly impractical and probably very annoying. There are a couple ways you can put this recipe together. In the picture at the top of the page, I blended the first four ingredients, which yielded a soft pink liquid. I then blended the rest separately for a deep green garnish. The tomato puree was then accented with the pepper-herb puree. This was done for aesthetics only, and it’s not at all necessary. To make things easier, you can throw everything into your blender and give it a spin.

Once smooth, taste it. Should it be sweeter? If so, add a little sugar. Is it not quite zippy enough for you? Add a few more drops of vinegar. Does it seem generally lackluster? Add a little salt. When you’re satisfied, transfer it to a large bowl and let it cool completely. It’s best served incredibly cold. And though this is all about freshness, I will say that gazpacho is best on the second or third day, as the flavors of the vegetables and herbs begin to meld.

As for serving, you’ve got plenty of options. It’s great with white wine or a crisp lager. You can also elevate it with a healthy spoonful of jumbo lump crab or a few large pickled shrimp.

Enjoy.

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Here in Nashville, the undisputed champion of vietnamese food (at least, in my opinion) is a little hole-in-the-wall joint called Kien Giang. Though the menu boasts a nearly exhaustive list of vietnamese offerings, regulars come for the big, steaming, fragrant bowls of Pho. There in the bowl, perfectly cooked rice noodles luxuriate in a complex, elixir-like broth so nuanced it borders poetry, seeks the sublime, and attempts to utter the ineffable nature of the cosmos. It’s little wonder I’m not trying to give you the recipe for that. I wouldn’t have a clue where to start.

So let’s keep it simple, shall we? Delicious in their own right are the vegetable spring rolls: crisp carrot, crunchy lettuce, a mess of fresh basil and mint made neat when wrapped in a tiny bundle of chewy rice paper. And what made this snack even more special was the fact that, for the first time in my life, I have the chance to use vegetables from my own garden. That’s right: the herbs and lettuces you see above are the work of my own two hands.

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The Recipe:

Vegetable Spring Rolls with Peanut Sauce

Ingredients (for the spring rolls):

1 bunch of romaine lettuce

handful of mint

handful of basil

2 large carrots, cut into matchsticks

2 spring roll papers

Ingredients (for the peanut sauce):

1 tbsp soy sauce

1 1/2 tbsp peanut butter

1/2 tbsp rice wine vinegar

1/2 tbsp chili oil

Before you begin to prep your vegetables, fill a large pot with water and put it on a burner to warm. You’ll want hot but not boiling water. By the time your vegetables have been prepped, the water should be at a good temperature. Before I give you any instructions on how to cook and then roll the rice papers, I should tell you that patience and a sense of calm will do you well. I can almost guarantee that the first couple tries will be failures: the rice paper will fold upon itself into a complicated mess, or it will tear, or you’ll drop it into the water. You will likely curse, sigh loudly, and yell “why didn’t we just order from Hunan Palace?!?” to your significant other (or your dog, perhaps). Just accept the initial failure of the first few attempts; it will get better.

Instead of dunking the entire paper into the water, hold the upper half of the paper while submerging the bottom half. Then, turn the paper as if you were turning the steering wheel of your car. After one revolution, the entire paper should be wet. Place it flat on a clean surface. Pack it with the carrot, lettuce, and fresh herbs, being sure to leave a quarter inch of space on either side. Roll it as you would a burrito, tucking in the sides to avoid the innards falling out. Place the rolls in the fridge while you make the sauce.

For the sauce, simply mix all the ingredients together. Slice the rolls on a diagonal (or leave them intact) and serve.

Enjoy.

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It was in high school that I first began to cook. Sure, in middle school I dabbled with quesadillas and even the occasional triple-decker ham sandwich. But as my own adolescent machismo manifested itself in strange ways, I felt the desire to experiment with multi-step cooking projects: cinnamon rolls from scratch, homemade pizza, grilled chicken with rosemary, lemon, and garlic. I watched a fair share of the Food Network (just as I’m sure most red-blooded American boys did). It was an odd relationship I was having during the hours of 4-10pm EST. All those mascaraed heads, delivering every sentence (regardless of its import) with a chuckle, were often making food that I wanted to eat. Was it perverse to love that which I hated so very much?IMG_6533

There was, however, one Food Network host who seemed somehow different than the rest. She seemed not at all focused on what she was wearing. Her mind was instead considering how to make an unforgettable menu for a weekend at Martha’s Vineyard; or the most delectable apple crostada for her precious and hobbit-like husband, Jeffrey. And that seemed admirable to me. I am, of course, talking about Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa (whose feet I have never seen–though I imagine they are silky soft and well-manicured). My respect only deepened when I found that long before she had ever hosted a cooking show she was the nuclear policy analyst for the White House.IMG_6531

On one such episode, the contessa showed America how to cure salmon. This seemed alchemical to me, as I was sure that uncooked salmon would cause instant death.  Then again, around that time, I was also sure that rare meat and uncooked eggs would do just the same. But as I assumed that this was not Ina’s first rodeo and that she was, indeed, still living and breathing and seeming generally serene, I figured it was safe enough to eat after all. The sad news, however, was that in those days my options in itty-bitty Lawrenceburg city did not offer fresh, high quality(much less wild-caught) salmon. In fact, the only fresh fish available would have been whatever you could snag on the end of your cane pole down at the salt river (perch, catfish, the occasional striped bass). But here we are, some 10 years later, and I’m finally curing my own salmon. I’m strange folk, as this is a special moment in my culinary life.

Ahem, the recipe:

Cured Salmon

Ingredients:

1 lb wild-caught salmon (1-inch thick, skin-on, bones removed)

1 bunch of fresh dill

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cups kosher salt, coarse

1 tbp fennel seed

2 tbsp black peppercorns

Place the salmon skin-side down on a large piece of plastic wrap. Trim off any long stems from the dill and place it on top of the salmon. In a separate bowl, mix together the salt, sugar, peppercorns and fennel seed. Pour the mixture evenly over the dill. Wrap the salmon tightly and place it in a rimmed pan. This is important because as the salmon cures in your fridge, the sugar and salt will begin to draw out moisture from the fish, thereby replacing it with sweetness and savor.

Once wrapped and in the pan, place a flat plate or dish on top of the salmon and weigh it down with a few heavy cans. Place the dish into the fridge for 48 hrs. After 48 hrs, unwrap the fish, toss the dill, and rinse the fillet under cold water to remove excess salt and sugar.

When you’re ready to serve it, slice the fillet as thinly as possible, being sure to cut long slices. As for service, you could keep it classic and throw it on an everything bagel with a schmear, thin sliced red onion, capers, and more fresh dill. Or, you could get all fancy and serve it with grapefruit, super thin slices of fennel fronds, a splash of gin, and a drizzle of good olive oil.

Enjoy.

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We begin today with a poem. A meditation on the idea of “home.” A prayer, you could call it. And a damn good one:

I leave the bedroom…I begin walking

through my house. I will traverse it

many times today like a creature

covering her turf. It is a journey

that zigzags and returns upon itself…

a circumambulation…a re-remembering of “place.”

I know this is the way many ancients prayed–

circling a holy site to deepen their devotion.

I wonder if animals offer their speechless prayers to You

by scuddling over their well-known ground?

My foot rises. Before it falls

there is a tiny moment when

neither of my feet are really carrying weight–

a suspension, a moment of physical trust.

Something in me knows that the ground will still be there.

Let me return to this innate knowledge–

this ancient confidence.

The floor in this house is wood…wide, old boards.

When I walk I am walking on the wood and in the woods.

I am walking on the life of these trees.

They have been cut and planed…offered up

for this sheltering. Let me remember to offer myself

to be shelter for something in Your world.

My foot falls. The ground rises to meet it.

A holy, ordinary moment is repeating itself.

All the time I am meeting and being met like this.

Your whole creation is ground.

Help me to remember that in this mutuality

we can become home for each other.

You are asking us slowly to become

Your holy site.

–Gunilla Norris

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Some months ago, my wife’s friend and colleague at the university asked if we would watch her home over the summer. She was going away for the months of June and July to make much of late spring and summer in Aix-en-Provence. We were to care for the dog, tend to the mail and the recycling, and to keep healthy the hundreds of plants that surround the grounds. We accepted.

To indicate the transatlantic nature of my life, you must know that at this very moment, my wife is traveling by train from Ascona to Zurich, as part of her tenure in the French PhD program at Vanderbilt University. And so I come to this house alone, packing as much as possible into my tiny little car. I move over our things trip by trip, so that each time I leave my apartment it becomes less my home. And I’m pressed with the task of figuring out what it really means to be at home and to call a place your home.IMG_6699

I have no revelations yet. But as I move through the house, books are perched on coffee tables and cabinets like signposts pointing me in the right direction. The poem above comes from the book “Being Home” by Gunilla Norris, which quite literally fell into my lap this morning when I set down my cup of tea on the side table. IMG_6696

One thing of which I can be sure is that food will play a big role during our summer in the big, old house. The owners even started a small patch of tomatoes and butter lettuces, which I’ve been caring for over the past few days. In time, once we’ve settled in, you can expect more recipes and photos of what I’ve been eating and cooking. Talk soon.

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Thursday morning, I woke early to the sound of birdsong and the slight chill of the breeze pushing through the two open windows of my bedroom. And though I woke peacefully and easily, there was the sense that I had been working through some things in my sleep, untying a knot that had just come loose. It became clear then that I would fast from food for the following 48 hours. This was not some sort of religious observance, nor was it an attempt to tighten up my midsection. In the weeks prior, I had been reading about and meditating on the idea of human desire: how one’s attachment to ‘things’ can shape one’s entire life.

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The morning and afternoon came and went without event. My work always keeps me busy, and it’s not out of the ordinary for me to skip breakfast and lunch. But when I returned home, it was odd not walking into the kitchen and preparing dinner. And though I wasn’t plagued with intense hunger, the evening hour seemed to crawl. It was my night, more than my stomach, that seemed empty. This made increasingly clear the idea that food is more a source of entertainment than a means to nourish my body. I prepared a cup of tea and fell asleep.

Day two brought more thoughts about food: giant bowls of bibimbap, piled high with steaming vegetables and meat and seasoned with toasty sesame oil, crispy rice sticking to the sides of the ferociously hot stone pot; a french fried potato, heavily salted and dipped in the most impossibly creamy garlic aioli; a biscuit smothered in spicy sausage gravy and topped with a fried egg over easy. And yet, amidst the deluge of the most indulgent pleasures of food, there were no hunger pangs. There was no sense of weakness. In fact, I felt alert and sharp. As Friday evening fell, even the thoughts began to fade. I spent the day’s last hours on a terrace with my wife. I sipped cold clear water. I watched the sun fall. The crickets chirped. A bird alighted. I fell asleep.

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In the morning, another knot had been untied. The fast was over. We drove to the grocery store to buy the ingredients for the meal that would break my 48 hour fast. I decided on roasted leg of lamb, a meat I had (oddly) never cooked before. Throughout the day, I ate judiciously: a ripe peach in the morning, a green salad for lunch. I wanted to approach the evening meal without the sense that I was ravenous or that I just couldn’t wait any longer.

Here is what I made:

Roast Leg of Lamb with Gremolata

Ingredients:

2 lbs boneless leg of lamb

1 cup red wine

1 medium shallot, diced

4 cloves garlic, diced

2 lemons, zested and juiced

7 sprigs rosemary, chopped

1/4 bunch parsley, chopped

1 tbsp salt

2 tsps black pepper

2 tbsps olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. After prepping the shallot, garlic, lemon zest, rosemary and parsley, put them in a medium bowl. Add the salt and pepper, lemon juice and olive oil and stir to create a thick paste.

After placing the lamb in a shallow roasting pan, cover it completely with the gremolata. Add two more tablespoons of olive oil to the pan along with the cup of red wine. Place the lamb in the oven and allow it to cook for 40 minutes, or until the internal temperature reaches 140 degrees.

Remove the lamb from the oven and let it sit on a cutting board for 10 minutes. Slice the lamb against the grain into 1/4 inch thick pieces.

When the lamb had been cut, it was served over blistered pita bread with parsley salad, dill yogurt sauce, and ricotta salata. There were olives of all kinds and chilled red wine at the table.

Maybe only when you’ve given it all up can you have it all back again.

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My family talks a lot about food. We talk about it so much, in fact, that I would wager a statistical analysis might show that food(its preparation, consumption, etc) serves as the genesis of most all of our conversations. This doesn’t sadden me. On the contrary, it comforts me, because out of these conversations come the most sincere, honest, and passionate opinions. I think this goes for everyone, though. After all, most people don’t lie when it comes to their opinions on food. Want to see the face of honesty? Witness a toddler’s first bite of carrot, or spinach, or apple sauce.

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I say all of that to say this:

I met my father’s wife, Mary, about three years ago. She was instantly likable; generous, welcoming, wise. But as the frantic pace of life would have it, time never really allowed for much more than a hello or goodbye. In time, my wife and I grew thirsty for a life outside Kentucky. With little money or prospect, we packed our things into a trailer and moved to Nashville.

What the move did not allow me to discover was that while Mary was indeed kind and warm, she was also an incredibly knowledgeable baker and cook who authors a widely successful food blog.  I started getting phone calls from my brother or sisters, the sole purpose of which was to share that Mary had recently made “the best” this or “the most incredible” that.  I knew my family to be honest in their opinions on food, but the consistently glowing reviews seemed almost suspect. I needed convincing of my own.

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In subsequent visits to Kentucky, I made it a point to schedule some time to cook or bake alongside Mary. Her food was perfectly seasoned and prepared in a way that seemed effortless. One afternoon, Mary brought to the table a dish filled with the most brightly colored red beets. Nestled among them were hard boiled eggs which had taken on the purple hue from the beets. I later found that the recipe is a part of Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine. And with dishes like Cup Cheese, Hog Maw, and Bova Shankel, how could one not be at least a little intrigued? Until then, I was unaware of any such tradition beyond Quaker oats, of course. And so, in honor of the Easter holiday, I thought I would pay tribute with a Pennsylvania Dutch favorite.

Red Beet Eggs

6 eggs, soft boiled (I’ve got you covered)

3 large red beets, peeled

1 onion, diced

2 cups white vinegar

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 tsp salt

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. After soft-boiling the eggs, allow them to chill in the refrigerator. Meanwhile, lightly oil and salt each beet before wrapping it in aluminum foil. Place the wrapped beets on a baking sheet and allow them to roast until they yield when cut with a fork. Depending on the size of the beet, this can take anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour.

While the cooked beets begin to cool, mix the vinegar, sugar and salt into a large pot and bring the mixture to a boil. Chop the beets and the onion. Once the vinegar solution comes to a bowl, add the beets and onion and reduce the heat to low. Let the beets and onions simmer for about 20 minutes. After 20 minutes of simmering, let the beets cool.

Once cool, fill a wide rimmed dish with half of the pickled beets. Place the soft boiled eggs on top of the beets and then cover them with the remaining half of the beets. Be sure that the eggs are completely immersed in the deep purple liquid.

And now we wait. You can let the eggs pickle for up to 3 days, but the ones you see in the pictures above were given just 24 hours. As for ways to serve them, they’re swell on their own, or with crackers, or with a side of Hog Maw, I suppose.

As it is Easter, I let the bounty of Spring be my guide: a bed of fresh, bright peas flecked with smoky local bacon gave way to a new take on “bacon and eggs.”

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On occasion, I feel that a food trend has escaped my attention, crept quietly onto the tables of the best restaurants, paraded itself on the cover of every food magazine. Most of these trends, I’ll admit, are so fleeting that they’re gone by the time I ever decide to try them in my own kitchen. Perhaps they don’t last long because many of them (Kale Everything! Quinoa Dark Chocolate!) are not so delicious. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.

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I first tried pork belly at Table 310, a handsome little bistro in Lexington, Ky. There, fine slices were served, quavering on a bed of local arugula, bejeweled with a fried quail’s egg. The dish was so impressive that I believed, at the time, that the chef possessed some culinary sorcery. And since my local grocery is not a purveyor of such a fine porky cut, I gave up on trying it at home.

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But then one fine day, I heard about the good people at Porter Road Butcher. Pioneered by James Peisker and Chris Carter, PRB specializes in local whole-animal butchery. This yields a greater variety of cuts, and it promotes more culinary experimentation with specialties not often found in the plastic-wrapped aisles of your local grocery.

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When I called them up to ask if I could take a few photos, they welcomed me with open arms, showed me around the place, eager to share their craft. And while I know that their willingness was in part due to the fact that they’re nice folks, I think it has more to do with the pride they have for their work. I left with a deep respect for their work. Oh yea, and a handful of pork belly.

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Roasted Pork Belly with Savory Oats and Apple Chutney

For the Pork Belly:

1 lb pork belly

1 cup apple cider vinegar

3 tsp salt

2 tsp black pepper

3 tbsp honey

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Place the belly skin-side down in a rimmed baking dish and cover with a layer of salt and pepper. Pour into the dish the apple cider vinegar, water and honey. Cover tightly with foil and let cook for 3 hours. Turn over the pork belly and let it cook 3 more hours. When done, allow the belly to cool completely in the fridge. This will ensure that every piece holds together upon being cut. Before plating, warm a saute pan on medium high heat. Slice the cold pork belly into 1/8 inch pieces and warm in the saute pan until the fat begins to render and crisp. 

For the Apple Chutney:

4 gala apples, peeled, cored, and finely chopped

1 large yellow onion, finely chopped

1 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar

2 cups sugar

3/4 tsp dried ginger

1 cup raisins

pinch of salt

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan and let simmer on med-low heat for 45 minutes, until the mixture is thick.

For the Savory Oats:

1 cup quick-cooking steel cut oats

2 cups chicken broth

1/2 tsp black pepper

salt, to taste

Bring the chicken broth and the black pepper to a boil. Add oats and cook for 7 minutes, or until the oats have softened and come together. Once the oats have cooled slightly, place them in the center of a dish, then top with the crispy pork belly, and warm apple chutney.

Enjoy.

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I sound like an eight-year old when I say that pizza is my favorite food. As a bread baker, this should come as little surprise. Pizza is, after all, flattened bread taken to an ethereal place by something melting on top of it. But I must be honest and tell you that I like all pizza: the doughy(often undercooked), cheesy mess from delivery joints; the almost cracker-like rounds from the café across the street. In other words, even in its worst incarnation, I wouldn’t turn it down. I hope that I’m not alone in this. 

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I would say that humans are at their greediest when faced with the question of who gets the last slice of pizza. What is it that is so good about pizza that it manages to bring out our worst? Don’t act like I’m the only person who, as the slices dwindle, begins eyeing the plates of the dinner guests, considering who is on their third or fourth piece, to ensure no one takes what does not belong to them. I had never been willing to make this admission until my brother shared that he too had experienced the same sentiments, and that he had dubbed those mental calculations pizza math.

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Most avid home cooks, myself included, fuss over the tiniest of details when we cook, because we assume that the end product will be better for it. We insist on a pinch of this or a dash of that, the addition of some over-priced or hard-to-find ingredient to give the dish a certain je ne sais quoi. It’s part of human nature to think that good things must owe their goodness to some special secret, some guarded riddle to their greatness, as if all of life were a magic trick made possible by smoke, mirrors, and sleight of hand.

It came as quite a surprise to me when I discovered that the best pizza I could make at home held no secret: no advanced kneading technique, no imported flour, no special equipment required. The best pizza I could make at home called for flour, water, yeast, salt and time. That’s it. And I have Jim Lahey, owner and bread visionary of Sullivan St. Bakery and Co. to thank. 

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Pizza night at the Bostows is like an improv jazz session. In other words, we know that we’ll be making pizza, but we’ll decide exactly what kind when the dough has risen and the oven is hot. Lately, a favorite has been a pie with bacon-sweet onion jam, peppery arugula, and melty gruyére. It’s a richly satisfying, welcome change from the traditional margarita or pepperoni. Enough talk; let’s make pizza.

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Ingredients

For the dough:

1000 grams AP flour

1/4 tsp yeast

4 tsps fine sea salt

In a large bowl, mix all dry ingredients. While stirring with a wooden spoon, gradually add 3 cups of room temperature water. Mix just until the dough comes together. Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise for 18 hours at around 72 degrees.

After the dough has risen, turn it out onto a floured surface and gently shape it into a rectangle. Divide the tough into 6 equal pieces. Shape each portion into a round by pulling the four corners of the dough onto itself, flipping it over and turning it gently, so that the seam side is facing down. If you screw this up, don’t worry. All will be well. Let the shaped rounds rise for 1 to 2 hours or until the dough is very soft and extensible.

Thirty minutes before you’re ready to eat, crank your oven as hot as it will go. Using more flour to mitigate the dough’s stickiness, shape the dough into a 8” round. This is done most easily by allowing the dough to sit on top of your knuckles as you rotate it. With gentle force and the weight of the dough itself, the round will expand evenly without tearing.

Before baking, turn the oven to its highest broil setting. Place the dough onto a floured baking sheet, top with whatever you like (in this case, less is more), and let it bake for 5-7 minutes. Don’t be afraid to let the dough char and the cheese bubble.

For the Bacon-Sweet Onion Jam:

1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced

1/2 lb bacon, chopped

1 tbsp dijon mustard

2 tbsp ketchup

1/2 tbsp molasses

1/2 tbsp worcestershire

1/2 tbsp sugar

In a sautée pan, cook the bacon on medium heat until the fat has rendered and the meat is crispy. Scoop out the bacon with a slotted spoon and leave about 2 tbsps of the drippings. Add the onions to the pan and allow them to cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the onions become darkly golden, add all remaining ingredients to the pan and stir to incorporate. Let the mixture cook for 10 more minutes. It’s impossible to overcook this, and any additional cooking time will only make it taste better.

To make the pizza in the picture, top the shaped dough with a thin layer of tomato sauce. I like Cento Brand’s tomato purée. Pile high with fresh arugula, as the greens will wilt and shrink. On top of the arugula, gently strew the sweet-onion jam, followed by thick slices of Gruyére cheese. Let the pizza cook until the Gruyére is bubbly and the edges are charred.

Enjoy.