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myMEGusta

Named for things that please me (“me gusta” in Spanish) and rhymes with balabusta (Yiddish for “good homemaker”).

Archive for the month “March, 2012”

MyMEGusta Reviews: Peeking Behind the Wallpaper, by Arno Schmidt

Arno Schmidt, one of the leading chefs of his day, has now published a lively collection of memoirs and anecdotes focused on what really goes on in hotel food and beverage, some at the highest echelons, spanning three continents and nearly a half century.

Starting the old fashioned way, as a lowly teenaged kitchen apprentice in post-war Austria, and eventually rising to be Executive Chef at stellar properties like The Plaza and The Waldorf Astoria, the author paints a vivid picture of life behind the scenes, and how the industry evolved over the course of his long career.

One of my favorite anecdotes has to do with dignitaries meeting at a hotel in Geneva, any of whose illness could have derailed delicate negotiations on Indo China (e.g. the partitioning of North/South Viet Nam), as the chef recalls dangerous (by current standards) food safety procedures which could have killed off, or at least sickened, major players and caused an international incident.

A breakthrough innovation during his stint at the Waldorf Astoria was Chef Schmidt’s hiring the first full-fledged female chef at a major hotel, Leslie Arp Revsin, a crack in the glass ceiling which enabled future generations of women to aspire to jobs never before open to them. She was among the women who prepared a 1978 Showcase of Women Chefs dinner there for Les Dames d’Escoffier, an organization of women leaders in food, beverage and hospitality (www.ldei.org). (Full disclosure, I’m a member, and remember that dinner!)

Photographs of elegant hotels and dining rooms are complemented by actual menus interspersed among the stories. And, there are delightful descriptions of how foods were prepared in kitchens with coal burning stoves, long forgotten in our age of high tech. The Wiener Schnitzel at a hotel near Salzburg, Austria in 1949, described in delicious detail made me think of the perfect, puffy and fresh and greaseless example I enjoyed in Vienna just a few months ago.

But the real fun lies in the stories of interactions among the “players”, truly little armies of workers who make things like seamless banquet service seem easy. For example the chapter about the Waldorf Astoria, goes to great detail about the complexities of leading a team to get great food out via multiple channels – private clubs, huge banquets, room service, and, yes, several restaurants – efficiently and economically in an often highly politicized environment.

For more information, or to purchase a copy, go to http://www.arnochef.com/ .

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From Deadly Mush at Sea Level to Spargelfest at 35,000 Feet

On these beautiful days of spring, thoughts go to those pointy treats poking their heads up as the days get warmer: asparagus!

The Asparagus Emerges

But they have not always been good thoughts.  Growing up near Hadley, Massachusetts, the self-proclaimed “Asparagus Capital of the World”, meant eating it, a lot, in the season. Cooked to death, never peeled, this asparagus was vile, its acrid flavor reminiscent of the abominable olive green stuff in cans.

It was not until years later, when I had properly cooked asparagus for the first time, that I realized what all the fuss was about and became an asparagus lover.

In these days of globetrotting foods, we can get very good fresh asparagus all year round, but well traveled asparagus simply is not as good as the fresh product available from farmers’ markets or, at the farm stand, harvested in the morning and in your pot later in the day.

Green and White Asparagus

Native to the Middle East, asparagus inspires festivals every year throughout Europe, where white asparagus is the norm, versus the green which is most popular in the United States.

The only difference between the two is in the growing method for the white known as “hilling”, more complex and expensive, as the stalks are kept literally in the dark, buried under mounds of dirt, preventing the development of chlorophyll. When the little purple heads emerge, the farmer reaches deep into the soil with a sharp knife to cut at the bottom and, voila, a single white asparagus shaft

Harvesting White Asparagus

I remember the beautiful market around the cathedral in Freiberg, Germany, during asparagus season, known as Spargelfest: Bins heaped high with white asparagus of varying thickness and purity of its whiteness, all at different prices, and the shoppers presumably knew the difference among them.

Restaurants mirror the market and the home cooks in presenting special menus, for example three courses comprising asparagus soup, asparagus with hollandaise sauce, asparagus with ham.  It’s a reminder of what life was like before everyone took favorite vegetables for granted year round, and when they feasted on short-lived seasonal treats.

Asparagus with Hollandaise and New Potatoes

Lufthansa even offered a Spargelfest menu in transatlantic First Class that week, and it was delicious, all things which could be easily prepared in flight and really tasted good in the stratosphere (a novel thought).

Getting closer to ground, green and white asparagus are both easy to prepare, although need to be approached differently, and occasionally you’ll find purple (an expensive novelty).

One myth is that thin asparagus is tenderer than the thick. Not so. They have the same number of membranes, and so the toughness is more concentrated. The stalks are thickest at the start of the harvest, which ends when the spikes become so thin that they are like grass, left to mature for the summer, to reemerge the following spring.

All asparagus needs to be trimmed at the bottom (there are two schools of thought: the snappers and the cutters); my approach is to look for where the woody part starts and cut. Green asparagus benefits from being peeled, but just the lower half, and cooked only a few minutes until tender. White asparagus is much woodier, and requires both trimming the bottom and nearly complete peeling, difficult as it breaks easily, and takes longer to cook.

Peeling White Asparagus

You don’t need a fancy vertical asparagus cooker. I use a wide, shallow pan with an inch of salted water, boil the whole stalks horizontally (makes for even cooking and less leeching of flavor and nutrients), dump into a colander and shock with cold water. Then it can be served whole or cut into bite-sized pieces for salads or to be reheated for a few seconds in butter or olive oil just before serving.

However you cook it, boiled, steamed, roasted, grilled, asparagus is delish year round, and a special treat if you live in a place where they pop up fresh.

Frozen Thoughts for Ireland’s Big Holiday

Saint Patrick’s Day went south forever for me when I had the misfortune to win a high school essay contest about democracy.

The sponsors (the Lions Club or something like it) had the bright idea to plunk me on their float in the Holyoke, Massachusetts, St. Patrick’s Day parade, the third largest in the United States after New York and Boston, at least at the time. Before I could respond with horror at the thought my mother gleefully accepted for me. I had to sit up there for hours with a frozen smile (due to my mood and the extreme cold) in a formal dress and borrowed mink stole. Not good.

I often wonder why corned beef and cabbage has become so wildly popular at this holiday. If Americans really liked it, they’d have it more often.

Irish Smoked Salmon

Made well, it’s a good dish. But the watery steam table meat and overcooked cabbage that make their appearance every March 17 are not representative of Irish cookery, although it certainly is true that these inexpensive foods have long been staples in the Emerald Isle.

Instead, give me some nice Irish salmon. Travelers to Ireland find this wonderful fish is widely available, and the restaurants come up with delicious preparations.  Smoked Irish salmon is also a great treat, and available at good delis here.

Then there are the Galway oysters, another goodie for the traveler to seek out. And, for that matter, any kind of seafood will be a find on this little island.

Galway Oysters and Guinness

The quintessential Irish stout, Guinness, makes a big St. Patrick’s Day splash, pumping large sums of money into promotions to gain the largest possible share of this big beer drinking festival. It is actually lower in calories than most beers (other than the “light” beers), and is a classic accompaniment to those famous oysters.

As for other beverages, Irish whiskey is like a cross between Scotch and Canadian: in a nutshell, the same ingredients as Scotch with the Canadian production method (no smoking of the barley). I’ll leave that, Irish coffee made with it and green beer, to the leprechauns.

On the vegetable side, my favorite is Colcannon, a homey dish which is incredibly easy to make: boiled potatoes and chopped cooked cabbage (or kale) mashed together with butter, salt and pepper.  If you really want to be decadent, make a pool in the center and throw on a pat of butter (maybe some real Irish Kerrygold in honor of the holiday).

Colcannon

I’ll celebrate this year’s warm weather St. Patrick’s Day by avoiding parades and sipping some Vinho Verde (green wine, not from the color but because it is bottled and consumed very young) from Portugal. And maybe roasted salmon with steamed baby bok choy, not very Irish, but in the right spirit.

Shell Game: Bivalves, Tubers, and A Baby Cow

I had the most delicious scalloped potatoes the other night, and was musing on how it happened that this delectable mélange of potatoes and dairy had the same name as an elegant shellfish, not to mention a classic way to cook veal.

The short answer comes down to the concept of a shell, thin and flat, and the Old French word escalope meaning shell. From that came scaloppini for thin, flat slices of veal, and the word scallop for the seafood which has the distinctive shell shape. And that shape is so iconic that baking dishes were invented in its shape; when rich, creamy, cheesy potatoes were baked in them, they were called scalloped potatoes. (But this begs the question: is it because the taters are in thin, flat slices? Or both reasons?)

The Distinctive Shape

The best scallops I have ever had were in Nova Scotia, medium sized nuggets from Digby Bay which had a sweet, almost nutty flavor. And every restaurant sampled knew how to cook them properly, seared on the outside and barely warm on the inside.

Diver scallops are all the rage now in the U.S., and here’s why:

First, they tend to be fresher and tastier because they are hand harvested and suppliers charge a super premium price for them, rushing them to market. Whether ‘diver’ or not, look for ‘dry’ scallops which means they were not soaked in a brine after being shucked at sea and cruising for days, absorbing water along the way, which dilutes the flavor.

Second, the harvest doesn’t disturb the sea floor and other denizens of the deep like mechanical dredging does.

Most scallops in the market are labeled sea (big) or bay (small). There are occasional delights such as Cape scallops or Nantucket Bay scallops whose season is just finishing.

Scallop shell on the Pilgrim's Hood

Scallop shell on the Pilgrim's Hood

Nantucket Bays were listed on the menu at the wonderful Le Bernardin last week, but the waiter explained that they were not available, their season over. Ever curious, I asked New Wave Seafood in Stamford about this, and was advised that no, the season’s not over, but close, and what’s available is astronomical in price. I guess even Le Bernardin has to “86” some items from time to time to avoid serving molecular size portions or adding impromptu surcharges.

What we call scallops have much more interesting names in French and Italian.

The scallop shell was the insignia for the Order of Saint James in the middle ages, related to the legend that he had miraculously saved the life of a king, who emerged from the sea covered in scallop shells. Pilgrims to Santiago (St. James) de Compostela in Spain were recognizable by the scallop shell they wore on their capes or cloaks.

Hence, the French refer to them as Coquilles St. Jacques (shellfish of St. James) and the Italians as cappsante (capes of the saints).

When you encounter scallops in French markets, the pretty pink coral is usually attached, making for an even more attractive and tastier dish. Here in the U.S., you’ll rarely see the coral, with the rare exception of some diver scallops. The reason for this ties to the ocean ride most of our scallops take before coming to market; the coral is more perishable then the muscle, and doesn’t hold or ship well.

And one last word on scallops. Does anyone remember the myth that cheap scallops were really meat punched out of skate? Anyone who has ever eaten skate knows that it is yummy, but that neither the flavor nor the texture is remotely similar to scallops.

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