In praise of brining

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I admit it, I am a late convert to brining. When I first began cooking about 15 years ago, I read all about brining – the submersion of meat in a solution of salt, sugar and aromatics meant to enhance the flavor and texture of meat – but it always seemed like too much trouble. Many authorities recommend, for example, brining a Thanksgiving turkey. But to submerge the turkey in water requires a huge container, copious amounts of salt and sugar, and a place to keep the turkey cold. My un-brined turkey, carefully seasoned and properly cooked, was plenty flavorful and tender, thank you very much.

And so I discounted brining for years. Even though salt is hardly a scarce resource, whipping up a brine solution felt very wasteful, especially since it’s not supposed to be reused. Instead, I adopted a practice which Alice Waters and others have called “dry brining”, simply seasoning with salt far enough in advance to allow the salt to become fully incorporated into the meat, allowing the salt time to modify the cellular structure of the meat to ensure juiciness and to unlock the flavor compounds trapped in the meat. Dry brining by salting a few hours in advance seemed to accomplish the same goals as wet brining, but with much more economy of effort.

And it does… mostly. Dry brining works for almost every meat, and it is one of the most important techniques in the kitchen. But I was troubled that certain lean meats still were too dry, even when salted in advance. In particular, pork loin – whether cut into chops or left as a roast – continued to elude me. No matter how carefully seasoned and cooked it was, even when keeping it at a rosy medium-rare temperature, the results were underwhelming. I despaired of ever cooking a pork loin that I was really proud of.

But some time in the last year, I decided to give wet brining another try, hoping beyond hope that it could do something to enhance the loin. I carefully prepared my solution of salt, sugar, and aromatics. I submerged the pork. I hoped for the best.

It didn’t help that different sources give wildly different recommendations for brining solutions and brining times. Messing this up means meat which is under or over-seasoned with no way to fix the problem. I settled on a ratio of 2 quarts water to 125 grams salt and 60 grams sugar, and a brining time of 12 hours for a small boneless pork loin roast weighing several pounds.

I admit I had low expectations, but when I cooked and sliced the roast, I was blown away. Even though it was slightly overcooked at around 165 degrees, the meat was still moist. I couldn’t believe it. I knew that salt changed the cellular structure of the meat, allowing water to be better retained, but I had thought that dry-brining could accomplish the same thing. I’m not sure at this point why wet brining does this job better, and my interest in food science is not so great as to research it, but there’s no doubt that it does make a difference, at least for pork loin. Finally, I had found a way to redeem pork loin and turn it into something succulent and delicious.

Because of the extra time, materials, and space involved, wet brining will not replace my  time-honored practice of dry brining for most meats. Most meats can be served juicy and succulent simply through careful cooking. But at least for pork loin, there’s no question that it’s an essential technique.

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Juicy pork tenderloin with a noble, golden-brown fat cap

Cannellini bean soup with garlic & parsley

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When Marcella Hazan passed away almost four years ago, tributes came pouring in from every major newspaper, and from chefs and home cooks from across the country. Invariably, the eulogist would mention Marcella’s most simple and exquisite pasta sauce with tomatoes, onions, and butter. It’s a sauce I’ve never had in Italy (perhaps Marcella made it up herself), but it became a symbol to many people of her forceful dedication to simplicity and flavor.

Another dish that comes to mind in this way is Marcella’s cannellini bean soup with garlic and parsley. It exemplifies the same extreme minimalism as the pasta sauce and demonstrates the principle that Marcella was always preaching: what you leave out of a dish is as important as what you include. Her understanding of her native country’s cooking was not only at odds with the caricature of Italian food in America at the time, but it was also at odds with the great majority of cooking from restaurant chefs, with their fixation on presentation and technical execution over freshness and taste.

We’ve been serving the bean soup this month at Old Tioga Farm, and though I’ve been making the soup for myself and family for almost twenty years now, I hadn’t served it at the restaurant in a while. Making it for the past few weeks has given me the opportunity to reflect anew on the recipe and on Marcella’s understanding of good cooking.

Marcella knew that it was not presentation, but flavor, which matters most in cooking. The bean soup is not going to win any prize for beauty, nor is it likely to appeal to the food porn crowd. But that’s not the point. When you taste the soup, if it is well made, you’re struck by a few very simple but powerful flavors: the beans themselves, soft and rich, substantial but yet dissolving; an underpinning of garlic, not so much as to overwhelm but just enough to serve as a sort of bass line, aromatic but not browned or harsh; parsley, the most common herb in Italian cooking, which provides freshness like no other herb; a light meat broth, refined and delicate, never intense and concentrated; and last but not least, olive oil of the very highest quality, an ingredient whose quality will make or break this soup. The oil infuses the beans with and enfolds them in its glow. A great oil will elevate the beans. A poor one will flatten them.

This, to me, is what good cooking is all about; at least, good Italian cooking. A few ingredients of highest quality, assembled in a way which just develops their full potential without confusing everything with excess complication. This is food meant not to impress so much as nourish. This is the philosophy of cooking which I learned from Marcella, which changed the course of my life, and inspires me every day in my home and restaurant kitchens.

Cannellini Bean Soup with Garlic and Parsley

I make this soup almost identically to Marcella. Of course, Marcella knew that not even the same cook prepares the same dish identically every time. My version is definitely a little more liberal with the garlic, and I also like the soup less thick but more pureed than Marcella. According to Marcella’s husband Victor, Marcella learned the soup from her father. She taught it to countless cooks through her classes and books, and now I share it with you.

Begin the night before by soaking one pound of dried cannellini beans. Certainly, if you must, use canned beans. I certainly have on occasion. The best canned beans I know of are the ones from Goya. Be aware that other brands might be over- or under-seasoned with salt. But do try to use dried beans for the full experience. If you forget to soak them overnight, you can skip that step, but it will take a little longer to cook them. Not a big deal. Cook in a big pot with water to cover and 2 or 3 teaspoons salt until tender, about an hour or two. Or you can go all out and mail order the Tuscan heirloom bean Sorana, which Marcella considered perhaps the best bean in Italy and which is marketed in this country as the Marcella Bean.

The soup also requires good homemade broth, which is one of the very simplest things you can do to improve the quality of your soups. The simplest vegetable broth just contains an onion and a few carrots and celery stalks, simmered for an hour in about 2 quarts of water. A more complex broth adds a whole chicken, or just a carcass, or just some chicken parts thrown in with the vegetables and simmered for closer to 3 hours. Another layer of flavor would involve adding some beef scraps or bones. There would be no harm in adding some tomatoes, or sweet peppers, or potatoes, or zucchini. But all of that is icing on the cake. A simple vegetable or chicken broth will do just fine.

When the beans are tender and the broth is made, you can begin to make the soup by sautéing one tablespoon garlic (Marcella used only 1 teaspoon) in 1/2 cup highest quality olive oil. You might find this an excessive amount of olive oil. It most certainly is not. It is an essential flavor component of this soup. As the winemaker Paolo di Marchi once told me: “In Tuscany, we think of olive oil as just another vegetable.” And so it is.

When the garlic is sizzling and taking on just a hint of color, add the beans, which should have been drained from their cooking liquid and tasted for proper seasoning. Let the beans absorb the flavor of the olive oil over moderate heat for about five minutes, and then add 2 cups or so of broth.

Pass about one third to one half of the beans through a food mill, or (if you must) put them in a blender, and then return them to the pot. This will thicken the soup a little.

Add more broth as needed to create the consistency you want. Some like it very thick. I like it more like a traditional soup. After the flavors have married for 10 minutes or so and the seasoning is just right, add a generous bit of freshly chopped parsley and several grindings of black pepper.

Garnish with a little drizzle of olive oil, what Italians would call “a benediction.”

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A kindred spirit at A Mano

Please note this is not a formal review. Among other things, a professional review is based on repeated visits to an establishment and eating through a larger portion of the menu. Instead, I simply offer some impressions of my first visit to A Mano.

I recently wrote about my idea of a restaurant, about how I most prize those few establishments where the chef is actually doing most of the cooking instead of relegating that responsibility to a team of line cooks, poorly paid and anonymous to restaurant guests. This is usually a function of scale, with smaller BYOB restaurants more likely to have kitchens where the chef is actually cooking. For me, the best cooking is a reflection of the personality of a particular cook or chef.

And so I was delighted when I walked through the doors of Philly BYOB A Mano to find chef Michael Millon at the helm of the open kitchen.

I had high expectations, owing to Craig LaBan’s glowing review and the repeated recommendation of A Mano from good customers of ours from Philly.

I was not disappointed. The only aspect of the experience less than ideal was the rather deafening noise in the dining room, which made it difficult even to hear my server clearly. In every other way, the experience was one of the best dining experiences I’ve had in some time, and I will surely be back soon.

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The menu is divided properly into antipasti, primi, and secondi, and I was delighted to learn that the portions were moderate enough to order all three, which is the intention of the restaurant. Excessive portion size is the hardest aspect of dining out these days, both in the US and even in Italy, and it makes multi-course dining challenging to say the least.

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The meal began with well-made, classic focaccia, not unlike the style we make for the CSA and restaurant. More surprising was the olive oil infused butter served with it. I have always been a skeptic of mixing olive oil and butter, but I must admit it worked in this case. Every authentic Italian restaurant in America struggles with what to serve with bread, because in Italy bread appears at the table unaccompanied by butter or olive oil. Yet, in the US, guests are so accustomed to a condiment with bread that faithfulness to Italian tradition would come across as negligence. A Mano’s solution to this dilemma was a successful one.

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I began with seared octopus with cockles, chorizo, and white beans. It’s a dish that might appear on menus all throughout the city, but I imagine few would have the balance and grace of Chef Millon’s. The flavors were simple enough to be clear, but rich and nuanced enough to surprise and interest through the last bite. Cockles, tiny and briny, are really the only clam in the US which resemble the Italian clam. Pastanecks, littlenecks, manilla clams, and all the rest in the US are simply too large and tough.

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The lumachelle all’Amatriciana was an untraditional approach to a traditional Roman dish. Instead of the classic Roman pairing with spaghetti or rigatoni, chef Millon used house-made and house-extruded lumachelle. And instead of the traditional Roman pecorino cheese, Millon employed the Sardinian sheeps’ milk cheese fiore sardo. Finally, he incorporated majoram, which has never graced any plate of Amatriciana I’ve been served in Rome. But none of these innovations detracted from the dish, and none were done merely out of a sense of novelty or creativity. The combination simply worked.

However, for me the jury is still out on the nascent trend to serve house-extruded semolina pasta, a path blazed by iconic chef Marc Vetri. Unlike rolled egg pasta, which should always be made in-house, semolina pasta such as spaghetti and penne have been traditionally made on an industrial scale. I’m not sure if much is gained by doing in-house extruding rather than using high-quality imported pasta from Italy. But I have to give both Vetri and Millon credit for pushing outside of the comfortable and familiar and continuing to explore and grow.

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In Italy, secondi are rarely the most memorable course of a meal. At our own restaurant, we struggle to serve secondi which are not eclipsed by the pasta that precedes them. Although my braised short rib with carrot puree and trumpet mushrooms was delicious, it too perhaps suffered just a bit from the excellence of what had come before. The rib was exquisitely tender and deeply flavorful, but the raw carrots, peppers, and greens on the plate felt just slightly perfunctory, slightly out of place, the only example the whole night of a dish which perhaps placed too much emphasis on plating. Still, it was delightful and a benchmark for how such a dish can be prepared, and any slight imperfections were dwarfed by the overall success of the dish.

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A bunet is a sort of custard traditional in Piedmont. Often made with chocolate, Millon presented a version with almonds and espresso, one which could perhaps have  evoked more powerfully than it did those two noble ingredients. Still, it’s a minor quibble, and the dessert was an excellent and light way to end an exquisite meal.

A Mano, which opened a little more than a year ago, is an excellent addition to Philadelphia’s wonderful dining scene. Michael Millon feels like a kindred spirit, and I’m looking forward to many more visits. I can only hope he stays in the kitchen and continues to produce dishes with character, depth, and personality.

Coffee in Italy

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A properly made cappuccino and pastries at Roscioli Pasticceria, in Rome.

One of the joys of Italian life is the coffee bar. Even though we have a lovely espresso machine at the farm, Italian coffee bar culture is probably the thing I miss most about Italy when I’m not there. One orders at the cash register, takes the receipt to the bar, watches the barista make up to four or five coffees at a time with care (hopefully), and enjoys the drink quickly at the bar. It’s possible to sit down at an Italian coffee bar for an additional charge, but it’s stopping in for a quick coffee at the bar itself which is, to me, the most delightful thing to do.

I’ve very rarely had bad coffee in Italy. Some places are certainly much better than others. Some take pride in the drinks they’re making. Some are just going through the motions. Some properly clean their equipment, while others are sloppy. Some source beans with attention to quality. Others just use industrial beans.

But even at their most average, coffee in Italy is usually delightful. Milk is properly frothed and served at the right temperature (not 1000 degrees). Cups are properly pre-warmed.

Not as successful are the pastries at coffee bars. Although they are wonderful compared to the dreadful pastries one often finds at coffee shops in the US, the harsh truth is that 90% or more of coffee bars sell industrial pastries, as Katie Parla thoroughly detailed in an article in Eater.com last year.

In a development which has significant improved my life, the historic and respected Roscioli bakery has recently open a coffee bar a mere 5-minute walk from the property in Rome where I teach and live a few weeks a year. Not only do they make their coffee with care, they are one of the few bars which produces their own pastries from quality ingredients and eschews industrial shortcuts. The difference is immediately obvious both by sight and taste.

It’s easy to romanticize Italy and assume that quality is more common than it is. Sadly, there is not enough demand for quality from tourists or even Romans to ensure it. Nonetheless, the few who do produce exceptional products of excellence are diamonds in the rough, and I for one am deeply grateful for them.

IMG_0839.JPGA horrific example of a cappuccino from a bar in Venice, one of the few Italian cities where it is in fact very hard to find a well-made coffee. Note the “soap suds” type frothing, the mark of an amateur. It was also about 1000 degrees and impossible to drink. Terrible.

Teaching in Prison

I had driven past the metal bridge leading to the prison a thousand times, literally – driving past on the way to and from work for a year, and then once or twice per week for the past eight years to run errands.

Although the prison might have been only across the river, it might as well have been on a different planet.

But last week I finally crossed the bridge as the guest of a friend who teaches in the prison. Ostensibly, the class she teaches is on health and wellness, but my friend has taken the opportunity to go deeper by studying food and the food system with her students, reading authors such as Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin, watching documentaries such as Supersize Me and Food, Inc. Although she’s very humble about it, I wonder whether there’s another person anywhere in the country studying such material with inmates?

I was invited to give a presentation about our farm and restaurant. I accepted at once with no hesitation. Nothing about the idea of walking into a prison gave me pause. But I can’t deny that I had to face the fact that I knew nothing about prisons or inmates. Like most Americans, going to a prison was as unfamiliar to me as going to the Middle East or Africa would be. Most of my acquaintances and peers don’t know anyone in prison and certainly haven’t been in prison themselves. Most of us have a vague sense of pity, perhaps, or fear, or even revulsion for prisoners. But most of us have no real knowledge of the culture of prisons or prisoners.

I suppose every prison is different, but my first reaction upon entering this compound was how much like a school it felt. People walking to and fro (I was shocked by the free-ranging of the inmates), people playing on the basketball court, people eating in the cafeteria. People saying hi to friends and having conversations. It all seemed so normal. And why shouldn’t it? Inmates, after all, are people just like you and me.

But just like in a school, there was a clear sense of hierarchy. Guards giving inmates a hard time. Inmates addressing teachers as Mr./Ms. ____________. When I find myself in such a situation, with a palpable sense of superiority and inferiority, my first instinct is to break those roles. I once got a teaching job in part because I took the time to shake the hands of my students at the beginning of my teaching demonstration. It was the same with the prisoners. I shook as many hands as I could as they entered the room, as if to say we are all equals, we are all human beings.

I realized our paths had diverged in dramatic ways based on choices we’d made, but that fundamentally our places could have been reversed if not for the vagaries of chance and circumstance. I was not a superior person for having been given gifts and opportunities denied to others. In shaking hands and meeting inmates eye to eye, I saw not strangers but brothers.

Of course, as important a realization as that is, there is another side. The harsh truth is that some percentage (maybe even just 1 in 100) of those inmates would have shot me in an alley to steal my iPhone if given the chance. I was sobered to hear after my presentation that one of the inmates in the class had beheaded a clerk in a convenience store.

The truth is rarely neat and tidy. We tend to classify, organize, and sort other human beings: friendly, evil, selfish, loving, dependable, irresponsible, etc. The mention of the word prisoner tends to conjure in many of our minds the judgment: other, not like me, a little scary, not my problem.

But it dawned on me in the class that just like poorly paid migrant labor that ensures an abundant and cheap supply of food for our supermarkets, inmates in our culture are rarely given a second thought by the rest of us, even though there are 2 million inmates in the US. We benefit from a system that separates us physically and intellectually from unpleasant truths.

My friend pointed out that many prisoners are in desperate need of mental health care, but there’s only one counselor for a hundred or two hundred prisoners. One man who would have been at my presentation had been punished for receiving drugs in the prison. He was an addict, but there wasn’t addiction care in the prison. He explained to her that drugs were how he’d always solved problems and now he had no other way.

When prisoners are released they’re largely left to their own devices, even if they’ve been culturally left behind after years in prison (I was surprised to hear prisoners weren’t allowed to use the internet at this prison). Is it any surprise so many end up back in prison,  costing taxpayers an average of $31,000 per prisoner per year?

Like so many ills in our society, the problem isn’t bad people or people who don’t care. It’s that a system exists which makes it hard to see the reality that would produce caring. Factory farms are far away and we don’t have to see them. If farm workers have higher cancer rates than the average American, that information doesn’t reach our awareness.

I’m sure I received as much as I gave during my visit. I met some precious, unique human beings who are more similar to me than different. I was reminded that we all need help, some of us more than others, and that we have a moral obligation to provide that help as soon as we become aware of it. A nation of individuals, all fighting it out with each other through competition and self-interest, is a bleak vision of things. But a community of human beings – all flawed but all giving and receiving help – that is a vision worth striving for.

Pane e Salute, 10 years later

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In July 2006 – before we had kids, before Old Tioga Farm – I was newly enrolled in law school, ready to buy my books and start classes in the fall. But before starting, I treated myself to an experience related to cooking, my principal hobby. I spent two weeks in the kitchen of Osteria Pane e Salute in Woodstock, VT, a sort of mini-apprenticeship, or stage, as it’s sometimes called. It was two weeks that changed my life.

Dillon and I had learned of Osteria Pane e Salute a year or two before, stumbling across in a bookstore their cookbook/memoir Pane e Salute (since republished as In Late Midwinter We Ate Pears). Perusing just a few pages of the book, it was clear I’d found kindred souls, both in cooking philosophy and love of Italy. We decided to make a trip to the restaurant, and we were impressed. We met with the proprietors the next day – Caleb Barber manages the kitchen, Deirdre Heekin the front of house – talked of cooking, Italy, and the possibility of staging at the restaurant. They were kind, generous, and enthusiastic. We made plans to return for two weeks in July.

Back at home I was teaching cooking classes in my spare time, having already developed a clear and committed approach to cooking through studying the writings of Marcella Hazan, but had never worked in a restaurant kitchen. Caleb’s cooking spoke to me too, based as it was on the same understanding of Italian cooking as being rooted in the home kitchen: traditional dishes meant to comfort and nourish, more than impress with novelty. It was soulful cooking.

Despite my hopes to one day have a farm, at the time we were living in a city, both working full-time and saving money for the future. As a private school teacher, I didn’t see a way to earn enough to ever buy a farm, and law school seemed like a more practical career option. The agricultural dream was indefinitely put on hold, if not completely dead.

But staging at the osteria changed all that. Woodstock is the most picturesque Vermont town you can imagine, with a creek running right through the center, the most beautiful library I’ve ever seen, and independent businesses lining Main Street. It’s surrounded by agricultural land, and small, productive farms abound. Here was the world I really wanted. The restaurant was small, magical, and exciting. The osteria was exactly the sort of restaurant I recently wrote about, one in which the proprietors actually do the work, a restaurant in which a talented person with excellent taste cooks for those who appreciate the personality of his/her dishes. I worked for two weeks in the kitchen, and Dillon joined me for the last several days, working with Deirdre in the front of the house. The day Dillon arrived, I told her I wanted to drop out of law school.

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A visit back in 2011

The rest is history. Instead of law school we decided to start a family, and Peter was born the following July, one year after the Pane apprenticeship. The Christmas after the apprenticeship, exactly 10 years ago from the time I write this, we stumbled upon an exquisite but negelcted old farmhouse on four acres in Northeastern PA, just a mile from Dillon’s family. Walking through the house, we knew it would be right for a business – maybe a B&B, maybe for cooking classes, maybe a farm-based restaurant like we had seen in Italy a few years before.

A lot has happened in the ensuing decade, both for us and Caleb and Deirdre. A year after we found our farmhouse, the restaurant at Old Tioga Farm was born. We welcomed two more children into our family. We started a vegetable CSA to ground our experience in agriculture. Three years ago, I was finally able to resign from my off-farm job in order to expand the restaurant. Now I lead culinary tours to Rome and Bologna.

Deirdre and Caleb’s journey has been just as rich. They had always lived in the country, some distance from the restaurant. But they began to give more attention to food production there, from their gardens and orchards. Deirdre wrote a second book, Libation: A Bitter Alchemy. Despite all the successs and business they could want at the osteria, Deirde decided she wanted not just to study and serve wine, but to make wine herself. She studied in France, planted grapes on their farm, and took the first steps toward crushing and fermenting the fruit. The results have been nothing less than spectacular. Long dismissed as a region incapable of producing fine wine, Deirdre has shown that the unique terroir of Vermont is actually capable of producing wines of real interest and character when produced by someone with good taste and the right experience. She wrote a third book, An Unlikely Vineyard, which caught the attention of Eric Asimov, wine writer for the New York Times, who was so intrigued he found time to visit them at the farm and write about it here. They’ve reduced their hours at the osteria in order to devote more time and energy to the winery – La Garagista – and they’ve begun offering wine and food events on their farm in addition to the winery. Perhaps a time will come when they will let go of their Woodstock osteria and become an exclusively farm-based winery and restaurant. Caleb and Deirdre have been one of the seminal influences in our life, and we like to think our lives and businesses have been an inspiration for them too.

A ten-year anniversay is a good time to celebtrate. I raise my glass to Deirdre and Caleb and offer a warm embrace for their friendship and example, and good wishes for new things to come.

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Now that’s a sexy couple if ever I’ve seen one.

The problem with food porn

Suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theater by simply bringing a covered plate onto the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us when you can get a large audience together to watch a girl undress on the stage— a strip tease act?

C.S. Lewis

To me, one of the more disturbing trends in food culture has been the adoption of the term “food porn” to refer to food photography which is particularly salacious. It term bothers me because, like pornography itself, food porn places appearance over substance and tries to satisfy with illusion rather than reality. As a result, both pornography and “food porn” are dangerous.

A full-blown critique of pornography is better left for another day and another forum, I think. But the key insight for me is that pornography deals in lust, not in love (or even in pleasure necessarily). It is the fulfilling of one of our most primal urges, but out of the context of the human culture that makes the fulfillment of that urge truly human and not simply animalistic: love, safety, commitment, etc. In short, if true human sexuality is best expressed through a loving relationship, pornography is fake.

Much professional food photography is fake too, literally. Perhaps the milk in a bowl is glue. Or perhaps the grill marks on a steak are drawn on. Or, my favorite: perhaps the little black flecks on the strawberries are really flecks of beard collected from the photographer’s razor (I’m not making this one up, folks). Even the food in Stanley Tucci’s film Big Night, a film which is all about how meaningful food can be, was fake. As Tucci has explained:

All the food was spat out by all of the actors. The audience walked out of the theater starving, and the actors walked away from the set sick.

Of course, most “food porn” today is not fake professional food photography but amateur photos of real food about to be eaten by real people. But like pornography, which is literally real but fake in a deeper sense, the concept of “food porn” encourages a distorted view of food and its role in our lives.

As in so many aspects of my cooking, my teacher on this subject has been the writing of the late Marcella Hazan, who wrote that it was taste, not appearance or artifice or novelty, that made cooking good.

All that really matters in food is its flavor. It matters not that it be novel, that it look picture-pretty, that it be made with unusual or costly or currently fashionable ingredients….Such incidentals may add circumstantial interest to the business of eating, but they add nothing to taste and signify nothing when taste is lacking.

Although I might quibble with the assertion that flavor is all that matters in food, Marcella’s point is a sound and important one, especially for our particular culture at this particular time. Because although food, especially beautiful or delicious looking food, has become prominent in our culture, we have no idea whether much of the food which attracts our attention is any good, because we never even taste it, as much of our attention on food is based not on actually eating, but on entertainment, whether through cooking shows or videos, cooking demonstration classes, cookbooks, or “food porn” — not on producing food or even eating food, but consuming it secondhand through visual images. Whenever I see a cooking show where a dish is tasted by the chef and he or she asserts that it tastes “amazing”, I always have to laugh. What are they going to say? That it’s underseasoned or that the flavors are poorly integrated? That it’s not cooked through or that the ingredients weren’t fresh or flavorful enough to start with?

Or think of what cookbooks look like today. How many are chock-full of recipes and wisdom in the manner of Julia’s Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, or Marcella Hazan’s The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, neither of which has a single photograph? Instead, cookbooks become almost like art objects, loaded with gorgeous photos and beautiful layout, but whether the writing is any good, or (God forbid) the recipes actually work or are delicious — that all seems beside the point. Some of us are even more likely to look through and read a cookbook for pleasure than to actually cook from it!

Likewise, although Julia Child more or less invented the cooking show, it was always very clear that she was not simply entertaining her audience, but teaching them how to cook so that they could do it themselves! How many of us ever cook a recipe we see Emeril or Bobby Flay cook on TV? The point of the Food Network is to entertain, not teach. It’s an amazingly ironic paradox that we say we don’t have time to cook, and yet we spend 30 minutes watching someone else cook while we could be doing it ourselves! Although there is more interest in food than ever before, there is less interest in cooking than ever before.

One reason for this strange state of affairs is that we don’t do it well. As much as we talk about not having time to cook, I think it is more accurate to recognize that the problem is not simply lack of time but just as much or even more the lack of skill and competence. Like pornography, which can make our own rather ordinary bodies seem paltry by comparison, so too can contrasting our own skill in the kitchen with that of celebrity chefs make us feel impotent. Perhaps we would make time to cook if we felt better about the results. After all, many working people in Italy and France still find time to produce delicious meals because they simply know how to do it with an economy of effort. And they value the result, not only delicious food but time spent at table with friends and family.

For most of our history, even when the quality of our cooking wasn’t great (and it never has been in America), at least we had a cultural sense of the social and personal value of eating over and above its self-centered pleasurable characteristics. For those who were raised with mom or dad tending the braising pot in the kitchen, who doesn’t attribute such memories with warmth and affection? Although some of my happiest and most formative experiences cooking were when I cooked for myself as a bachelor, there is no doubt that in its fullest expression, cooking is an act meant to result in sharing good food with others, family, friends and loved ones.

There is great cultural confusion about the place of food in our lives, even while there’s never been more interest in food and the quality of cooking has probably never been better. We’re more likely to lustily devour images of food than to cook for ourselves. We’re more likely to eat out than to eat at home (not counting convenience foods). And we’re more likely to focus on the shallow, self-centered pleasure of eating rather than its nourishing or social aspects. In certain high-end restaurants, we’re more likely to be concerned with plating than flavor, as Marcella warned us.

The result is a food culture which at first looks impressive, at times even beautiful, but like pornography it’s a beauty that is only skin-deep. And like pornography, it brings a whole host of evils with it. It brings obesity through the prevalence of processed and fast foods. It brings disempowerment through the loss of the ability to cook. It brings crassness through emphasizing our animalistic lusts, like on Facebook when someone asserts “I want that!” to a photo of something that looks delicious. And it brings narcissism, through the focus on self and pleasure. In general it brings shallowness through the emphasis on secondary things in place of primary things.

Real cooking, like real sex, is about nourishment, connection, and love. It is about self-sacrifice and giving, and sharing with those we love. Neither should be about the gratification of lust nor a self-centered shallow pleasure. Although the term and concept of “food porn” isn’t wholly or even mostly responsible for these cultural ills, it is part and parcel with them, and I won’t be using the term.

Justin Naylor, chef & proprietor, Old Tioga Farm

Cooking from the garden

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I have watched with delight the growth of farmers markets, CSAs, and farm-to-table restaurants during the last decade or two. Although we have a long way to go, this is certainly the best time we’ve ever had in terms of obtaining quality veggies, raised with care and respect for the land.

Still, not all vegetables are equal, even farm-fresh ones. So many factors affect the flavor of vegetables: genetics, climate, soil conditions, and more. The vegetables, for example, from the island of St. Erasmo in Venice have almost mythic fame. Closer to home, from my own garden I see sometimes good results and sometimes great results. This is both frustrating and exciting. I always tell people that my life as a farmer is just as intellectually stimulating as my former life as a Latin teacher, and it’s true! My goal is the ever elusive goal of bringing to my customers vegetables of the highest freshness and quality, veggies that practically glow with health and vitality.

But it’s an elusive goal. Take beets. Some of my beets at some times of year from some garden plots are so sweet they taste just like sweet corn. A little butter and touch of salt are all they need with no other adornment. I swear I’d rather eat beets like that than the finest white truffle from Alba! But at other times of year, from other garden plots, the beets are just okay. Sugar content in vegetables can be measured by a Brix meter, and Dan Barber in his book The Third Plate tells the delightful story of how his gardener at Blue Hill at Stone Barns was delighted to find out that his carrots measured in at 16.9% sugar, compared to the store-bought carrots which measured in at a whopping 0%. Zero? So much for thinking of carrots as a commodity.

But what promotes the flavor of vegetables isn’t always clear. Yes, good soil and organic fertilization makes a huge difference. Yes, genetics make a huge difference. But weather and other unidentified but real factors make a huge difference too. Why vegetables from St. Erasmo are so remarkable is partly a mystery.

And so, as much as I applaud the local foods movement, there is a deeper and further step to be taken. As a chef, if I really want the best ingredients possible, I need to find a way to produce them myself, to produce exactly the types of vegetables I want to cook with. I need to recognize that good cooking happens as much in the field as in the kitchen, just like good wine is as much a product of the vineyard as the cellar. Just as the best winemakers are always producers of the finest fruit, so I believe that the best chefs need to become farmers and gardeners and producers of the finest produce. We need to take the next step beyond simply promoting local produce, and move on to promoting the most flavorful produce, and these two things are not necessarily inseparable. It’s a Herculean and at times Sisyphean task, but one I’m proud to be devoted to.

Cooking Duck Breasts

Duck is one of those dishes, like fish, that people order in restaurants far more often than they cook them at home. It’s a shame because duck is delicious, and it is hardly more difficult to cook well than chicken. One obstacle, however, is that it is hard to find. Few markets carry it regularly. Sometimes it can be found during the holidays, sometimes frozen at the supermarket. Fortunately, it can also be mail-ordered here and here.

Cooking a whole duck can be challenging, but cooking the legs and breasts separately is relatively easy. We’ve been cooking duck breasts all month at the restaurant, and I’ll describe the process here.

Pan-seared duck breast with rosemary & garlic, accompanied by braised chard (serves 2)

Begin by scoring the skin of an 8-ounce duck breast with a very sharp knife in a cross-hatch pattern, and generously season both sides of the duck. Duck has a great deal of fat which needs to be properly rendered, and the scoring of the skins facilitates this.

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Let the duck rest for an hour or two at room temperature, or even a few hours longer in the refrigerator.

The first step in cooking the duck breast is to render the fat. Because duck breast is traditionally served medium (a little pink), we need to do this with care so that most of the fat renders without the breast becoming overcooked.

Place a pan over high heat and add just a little olive oil. As soon as it begins to smoke, pat the duck breast dry with paper towels and place in the pan, skin side down. Immediately lower the heat to low or medium low and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, until the fat is rendered but before the skin burns or becomes too dark.

Remove the duck from the pan and place on a plate, skin side up. Unlike chicken fat (aka schmaltz) which doesn’t taste very fresh and is unappealing to most people, duck fat is a treasured substance, perfect for cooking all types of dishes, from eggs to sautéing vegetables. Even one breast will render a shocking amount. Simply store the fat in the fridge, where it will keep a very long time.

While the duck is browning (or while it is resting), slice or chop a little onion and sauté over lively heat in a small pan with a little olive oil or duck fat for a few minutes until softened and beginning to take on some color. Add a large handful of chopped chard or spinach leaves and a pinch of salt. Stir to combine and add a bit of water to steam the greens. Lower the heat and turn off once wilted.

To finish the duck, return the pan (the one you used before and poured the fat from) to high heat. Add a little duck fat or fresh olive oil. When the pan is very hot, add the duck breast skin side up. After 30 seconds or so, add a little chopped garlic, rosemary, and hot pepper. About 30 seconds later, remove the pan from heat and deglaze with some white wine, broth, or water. There will be a lot of steam, so I just hold it right up to the exhaust fan.

Place the pan under the broiler for about 2 minutes. Every broiler is different, but mine is strong and so I place it in the middle or lower third of the oven to crisp the skin without burning. You may need to do it differently.

Return the pan to high heat for just another minute or so and remove from heat.

Place the duck on a cutting board and slice into thin strips with a very sharp knife.

Place the chard on two plates and top with the duck. Pour over the pan juices and serve at once.

Justin Naylor, chef and proprietor of Old Tioga Farm

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An abundance of riches

When I started cooking in the late ’90s, there were no cookbooks focusing specifically on Rome, at least that I could find. But a few years later there was a flurry of publication: David Dowdie’s Cooking the Roman Way, Jo Bettoja’s In a Roman Kitchen, and Maureen Fant’s Rome (Williams Sonoma).

After another few years of quiet, a new crop of Rome cookbooks has suddenly burst on the scene offering an abundance of riches for those interested in the cooking of the Eternal City.

First, I offer an apology for not including a discussion of Rome: Centuries in an Italian Kitchen by Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi. It has only recently come to my attention and I haven’t had a chance to spend time with it yet. When I do, I’ll report back.

But I have spent time with three new books on Roman cooking: Eating Rome by Elizabeth Minchilli, Tasting Rome by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill, and My Kitchen in Rome by Rachel Roddy. You might wonder whether the market needs three new books on Rome. But these three books differ so much in content and tone that it wouldn’t be at all redundant for someone interested in Rome to own all three.

 

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Elizabeth Minchilli’s Eating Rome was the first published, and it is perhaps the most diverse in its content. In addition to recipes, it is full of charming stories as well as copious recommendations of where to shop, eat, and spend time in Rome. Minchilli is American, but moved to Rome with her family in the 1970s when she was 12 years old. They only stayed two years, but after numerous repeat trips for vacation and graduate school, she eventually married a Roman and has lived in Rome ever since. Having spent three decades in Rome, her breadth of experience is hard to match.

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For the sake of full disclosure, I must say that second author, Katie Parla, has been my friend and mentor in all things Roman since I started taking my high school Latin students to Rome and hired Katie to do our touring. I quickly learned that her expertise in the Roman culinary scene equalled her expertise in Roman art, history, and culture. So when I heard that she would be publishing her first cookbook, Tasting Rome, co-authored by Kristina Gill, I was pumped. Katie has an exceedingly rare gift of excellent taste. I’ve been let down many times by restaurant recommendations, but rarely from Katie. She has high standards, and like the late great Marcella Hazan, doesn’t suffer fools or fakes. She has strong opinions and doesn’t keep them to herself. This makes her writing compelling, especially on her blog. Her cookbook is beautiful. While it doesn’t have the breadth of Minchilli’s book, it more than makes up for this with its depth. It doesn’t try to do everything, but what it does it does very well. Perhaps its most unique and valuable characteristic is the extent to which it offers recipes from some of Rome’s finest chefs. The gnocchi recipe is the recipe from gnocchi master Arcangelo Dandini. The spaghetti alla gricia recipe is from Claudio Gargioli of Armando al Pantheon, to me the restaurant with the most exquisite rendition of this dish. The amatriciana is from Nabil Hassen of Roscioli. The fact that these chefs were happy to share their recipes with Katie for the book is a great testament to Katie’s reputation in Rome. Having recipes from masters such as Arcangelo, Claudio, Nabil and others elevates and ennobles Katie’s book. If there is a shortcoming to the book, perhaps it is that it’s surprisingly impersonal, and Katie’s personality doesn’t come through as it does on her blog. But it is a very important book, and one that I am thilled to have.

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Last but not least is Rachel Roddy’s My Kitchen in Rome. To me, it’s the best title of the three. The original British title of the book, Five Quarters, might be even better, as an homage to the importance of offal in the Roman kitchen as well as as a metaphor for the frugality and honesty of Roman cooking. But the American title, My Kitchen in Rome, is pretty great too because it immediately brings to mind a homely, personal, and authentic quality which is the book’s greatest characteristic. Rachel came to Rome about 10 years ago and hardly intended to stay. But as for so many others, months turned into years. Back home in England, cooking had played a part in her life, but it was a part amplified and enriched by cooking at home in Rome, in particular in the Testaccio neighborhood which has informed so much of Rachel’s cooking and which she writes so lovingly about. Rachel is refreshingly honest about the limitations of her kitchen: tiny, no exhaust fan, improvised equipment. It’s a reminder that good cooking comes from humble surroundings. But in the loving descriptions of her kitchen, of her neighborhood, of her husband and child, of her favorite restaurants, markets, coffee bars, and butchers; in her loving descriptions of all of these, Rachel communicates a real sense of her personality, a real sense of herself, and this makes the cookbook both rare and a treasure.

All three of these women have come to know Rome as an adopted home and all three communicate in their own ways their love for the city. All three have blogs. But despite the similarities, all three offer very different books, each of which is worth adding to your collection.

Justin Naylor, chef and proprietor of Old Tioga Farm