Buckwheat Crepes with Fresh “Ricotta” and Cinnamon Apples

These crepes were the perfect example of how simple, humble elements can come together to make something way more impressive and tasty than the sum of its parts. The three elements, from top to bottom:

Thing 1: Cinnamon Apples

If you’ve been following for a while, you may remember the neglected apple crumble I made about a month ago, when I had so many mealy, wrinkled apples that after I’d peeled and diced them all, I realized I had more than I could possibly fit in my baking dish. I threw the extras (about a pound after coring and peeling) in a pot with a cinnamon stick, about a tablespoon of brown sugar, and about an inch of water and let them simmer while I prepped and baked the crumble. I had to add more water a few times—I think I’ve actually destroyed two pots by further neglecting already-neglected apples in my attempt to salvage them. (What did I say about my fruit-neglecting superpowers?) After 20 or 30 minutes, they were soft enough to mash with the back of a spoon.

if you care about your pots, don't leave this alone by the time it was done, it was getting dark, so the picture quality declines; you get the idea--the apples were soft

But I didn’t mash them. The apples were too sweet and mild to make a very good applesauce, although I suspect it would have been better if I’d added some lemon juice like I did in the crumble. I’m not much of a plain applesauce eater anyway, and the more I read about the health effects of sugar vs. fat, the less likely I am to substitute applesauce for fat in baked goods (I’m not actually to the point of avoiding sugar or starch, I just don’t choose them over fat). Instead, I left them chunky with the vague notion that I might use them to fill or top a breakfast or brunch-type object.

Perhaps because the apples were so lackluster, or perhaps because apples always seem more delicious when there’s cheese involved, or perhaps because an episode of Chopped inspired me to try making my own cheese (proof positive that despite what Michael Pollan claims, cooking shows do actually teach people useful skills and demonstrate recipes and techniques they can and do recreate at home), I decided that what my apple crepes needed was fresh ricotta.

Thing 2: Fresh “Ricotta”

Most cheese is made from milk curdled with rennet, acids, salt, and/or heat and aged. Rennet is found in mammals’ stomachs and contains protease enzymes like chymosin, which helps them digest their mothers’ milk.

Ricotta, on the other hand, is traditionally made from whey, which is what you get when you strain the curds out of the milk. I always assumed that making true ricotta must be more difficult, because all the “homemade ricotta” recipes I’d seen call for milk instead, but according to Instructables, it’s an almost-identical process (if you don’t feel like clicking on each of the steps, they’re : 1. heat the whey to 200 F, 2. let it cool to <140 F, 3. strain through a coffee filter).

I imagine the real reason most homemade “ricotta” recipes call for milk, which makes them closer to a traditional paneer or queso fresco, is that most people don’t tend to have whey lying around—at least not before making “ricotta.” Also, what you get when you heat milk with acid and strain it is so similar to ricotta it works for basically all the same applications.

Step 1: cook milk with acid to 165-180 F Step 2: strain...Step 3: profit?

In February, Serious Eats tested most of the primary variables—temperature, acids, and straining time. For temperature, they concluded that heating the mixture to anywhere between 165-180 F works. For acids, they report that vinegar is the most reliable, buttermilk a little fussy, and lemon juice more citrusy. And unsurprisingly, the longer you strain it, the less moist it gets. I decided to go with lemon because “citrusy” sounded just right for my insufficiently-acidic apples and let it drain for nearly 30 minutes while I was making the crepes.

It was drier than it would have been if I’d scooped it out of the paper towel earlier, but still creamy and salty and a lovely foil for the cinnamon apples. Sweetened and flavored with a vanilla bean and/or some cardamom, it would have also made a nice base for a creamy dessert, perhaps topped with fruit. Of course, it would also work as a filling for pasta or lasagna or any of the other standard ricotta applications.this is "acid whey" because the curdling agent was acid; the byproduct of rennet-curdled cheeses is called "sweet whey." both kinds, and others like "wine whey" and "cream of tartar whey" (also named for the curdling agent) were historically popular drinks in European cheese-making populations

The whey that’s left over can be substituted for the water in a bread recipe, consumed as is—usually chilled and sometimes sweetened, or apparently, used to make more ricotta.

I’m curious enough about the differences between milk “ricotta” and whey ricotta that the next time I go to the store I’ll probably pick up a gallon and make a big batch of “ricotta” and use the leftover whey to make non-scare-quoted ricotta and report back.

The Cat in the Hat: Buckwheat Crepes

What summons Thing 1 and Thing 2 together to wreak havoc? Crepes do!

I thought crepes were supposed to be difficult. As it turns out, buckwheat crepes—which are confusingly sometimes called galettes, just like free-form tarts—are exceptionally easy (regular ones might be too, I haven’t tried them). Mine didn’t all turn out perfectly round, but the batter was really easy to spread around the pan with an off-set spatula, and basically no matter how thin or evenly I spread it, it cooked into tender, flavorful crepes that made a perfect vehicle for Thing 1 and Thing 2.

Side 1: not perfectly smooth at all side 2: browning cooperatively regardless of the imperfect spreading

Also, since the batter isn’t sweet, they were equally delicious filled with a little sharp cheddar, soft-scrambled eggs, and chives. So that’s all there is to it. Some bad apples and curdled milk and transformed into a beautiful weekend brunch by some flimsy pancakes:

in case it's not obvious: apple-ricotta topped with cinnamon sugar; cheddar-egg topped with fresh chives; evil but delicious Big Organic strawberries

In reverse order:

Recipe: Buckwheat Crepes (adapted from the Los Angeles Times)

  • 1/2 c. buckwheat flour
  • 1/2 c. all-purpose flour (or 1 T. cornstarch filled to 1/2 cup with bread flour)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 c. milk (plus up to 1/2 cup more)
  • large pinch kosher salt
  • 2 T. melted butter + more for the pan

1. Combine flours in food processor and pulse to combine. Add remaining ingredients and pulse just to combine. Cover and refrigerate at least 1 hr or overnight.

 pulse the floursyou could also do this in a blender or with an electric mixer or by hand

2. Add enough milk to make the mixture into a smooth, pourable batter (I added the entire 1/2 cup).

3. Heat a large, flat pan until water sizzles and dances when it hits the surface.

4. Add a small pat of butter and spread it around with a paper towel as it melts—so the surface just glistens with oil.

5. Pour about 1/4 cup batter into the pan and swirl it around with a spatula until it forms a thin, even circle (off-set/icing spatulas work especially well). The batter will begin to cook as soon as it hits the pan and little bubbles will around the edges and on top. That’s fine, just keep moving the spatula, spreading the uncooked batter on top of the part that’s cooking towards the edges of the circle.

6. Prepare for and accept the likelihood of an initial failure. In many cultures where skillet breads are common, there are sayings to the effect of “the first pancake goes to God.” And when there’s a canine in the house, the palindrome God-dog is realized in an uncommonly material way. The first crepe may be gummy or misshapen or burned. It happens. You want the crepes to cook through and just begin to brown after about about 3 minutes. If the first one takes longer, turn the heat up. If it cooks too fast and you struggle to get the batter spread around before it cooks through, turn the heat down.

7. Flip and cook just enough to set—less than a minute—and remove to a plate lined with wax paper. Top with another sheet of wax paper in preparation for the next crepe.

sometimes you may end up spreading a bit too thin at the edges--those thin crispy bits will break off easily do not skip the wax paper part or they will stick to each other and you will end up with one very thick crepe instead of many very thin ones

8. Repeat, occasionally brushing with the buttery paper towel or another pat of butter if the crepes begin to stick.

9. Serve immediately or keep the crepes warm in an oven on low for up to an hour. Refrigerate any leftovers—they’re not quite as tender when you reheat them, but they’re not bad.  

Recipe: Ricotta (adapted from Serious Eats)

  • 2 c. milk
  • 1/2 t. kosher salt
  • 2 T. vinegar or lemon juice, or a combination

1. Combine ingredients and heat to 165-180 F in a saucepan or microwave. If using the latter or if you don’t have a thermometer, just heat until it begins to look curdled and the solids begin to separate from the liquid—perhaps checking in increments of 1 min in the microwave.

165 F is not very hot; depending on your stove, this part should only take 5-10 min after several minutes of straining

2. Strain for 5-15 minutes in a sieve lined with a coffee filter or double-layer of paper towels.

Recipe: Cinnamon Apples

  • 1 lb apples, after peeling and coring
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 T. brown sugar
  • juice of 1 lemon (optional)

1. Dice peeled and cored apples into 1/4”-1/2” pieces.

2. Place diced apples in saucepan with cinnamon stick, brown sugar, juice of lemon if using and at least 1” water.

3. Simmer until apples are cooked through and soft.

Don’t Drink the Agave-Sweetened Kool-Aid Part III: The Mint Julep Taste Test and Calorie Comparison

taste tests are an excellent excuse to double-fist your cocktails

Earlier in this series: Why agave nectar isn’t a "natural" sweetener and Why it isn’t healthier than table sugar or high-fructose corn syrup

As promised, this entry addresses two final questions about the difference between agave nectar and sugar: 1) whether it tastes different and perhaps better in some applications and 2) whether it’s a good way to cut calories because it’s sweeter than sugar. The answer to both is yes in theory, but not really in practice.

The Claim: Agave Nectar tastes different/better

Agave nectar definitely tastes different than sugar, which is probably due mostly to the trace minerals that remain after the liquid harvested from the cactus is centrifuged, concentrated, filtered, coagulated, treated with activated charcoal, and then treated with heat or enzymes to hydrolyze the inulin into its constituent fructose molecules. However, the flavor is mild. Clotide of Chocolate & Zucchini used it as a substitute for honey in a recipe for marshmallows specifically because the flavor is less pronounced than honey:

I decided to use agave syrup, a more flavor-neutral sweetener that can be found in natural food stores.

However neutral, as long as it’s different, I’m willing to accept the possibility that it might taste better in some applications. But based on the Derby Day taste test, mint juleps aren’t one of them.

Part of the inspiration for the taste test was an entry on Cooking Issues about a blind taste test of margaritas sweetened with agave nectar or simple syrup, with the following results:

The consensus was that the agave nectar drink was deeper, more complex, had a longer finish, and was more tequila-y (in the sense of blanco tequila), than the simple syrup one. The simple syrup was deemed cleaner and fresher tasting. Three people said they outright preferred the agave nectar until Nils said, “It depends, during the daytime or at the beach I’d prefer the simple syrup, at night at a bar or with food I want the agave.” Everyone could agree to that.

They used a refractometer to make sure the amount of sugar in the two mixtures was the same, which required them to water down both the agave and simple syrups (4:1 water:syrup). Their mixes contained the same amount of tequila, lime juice, and ice, but the simple syrup one contained 22 g more water (about 3/4 oz) based on the refractometer’s measure of how much sweeter agave was. Not perfectly controlled, but I agree that you wouldn’t really expect 3/4 oz water distributed over multiple taster portions to affect the taste much.

“Deeper” was also how the friend who hosts the annual Derby Day party (and makes some of the best fried chicken I have ever had) described the agave-sweetened mint juleps he had had in the past. So my expectation—the hypothesis of this little experiment, I suppose—was that agave nectar is sufficiently different in taste from sugar to noticeably affect and perhaps improve the taste of cocktails.

you can see why this wasn't a double-blind experiment; agave does not look like simple syrup The Contenders: Agave Nectar in the French Press, Simple Syrup in the pitcher

In advance of the party, my friend made a simple syrup that was 1:1 white sugar:water and steeped a bunch of mint leaves in both that and about 12 oz. agave nectar. Neither of us has a refractometer, but the bottle of agave claimed that it should be substituted for sugar using a 3:4 ratio. Since it wasn’t diluted at all, it was substantially more viscous and sweeter than the simple syrup. There was some discussion of diluting the entire pitcher and then measuring out the cocktails very carefully with 3/4 as much diluted agave syrup as simple syrup and marking glasses randomly and having people fill out ballots. But in the end that seemed like too much effort and possibly still not completely controlled, so we decided just to let people mix their own drinks to taste.

I prepared a side-by-side test by pouring about 1/2 oz of simple syrup into one cup and about 1/4 oz of the agave syrup into the other, diluting the agave to about the same level as the simple syrup, topping both with about 3x as much Jim Beam as syrup, and trying to add about the same amount of ice to both cups. This was in no way a controlled experiment. However, once mixed, there was no visually-apparent difference between the two. I knew I had gotten a few more mint leaves in the agave-sweetened one, but to anyone else, it would have been basically impossible to distinguish.

how much more summery and breezy do the sunglasses in the background make them look? they totally look like they belong in kentucky in early may instead of michgan in early may.I took a sip of each and couldn’t tell any difference at all. So I had two other people taste them, without telling them which was which—including the host who had claimed that agave made for a “deeper” drink, and they couldn’t tell any difference or identify which was which either. It was even almost a double-blind because I kept losing track of which one was in which hand and having to peer into the glasses to compare the number of mint leaves.

The syrups themselves definitely tasted different, although the difference is difficult to describe—the flavor of the agave is almost a little caramelly, not as different from white sugar as brown sugar is but comparable to turbinado or “raw” sugar. Also, the sweetness seems thinner or purer than the sweetness of sugar, although that may be entirely the product of my expectations for how fructose might taste different than sucrose. Still, the fact that we could taste the difference in the syrups despite the fact that both were steeped in mint suggests that what masked the taste difference in the cocktails was the bourbon, ice, and/or dilution of the sugars in water.

The results have made me question whether the taste difference in both the Cooking Issues margarita test and my friend’s previous agave-sweetened julep experiences really did have something to do with the amount of water in the cocktail. The Cooking Issues mixes were 445 g (simple syrup) and 423 g (agave) including the ice, 255 g and 233 g without. Perhaps 22 g water—which would have been between 5-10% of the mixture depending on how much the ice melted—really did affect the taste. That certainly might explain why the tequila was more prominent in the agave-sweetened drink, and why it tasted “deeper” and “more complex.”

Although agave is more viscous than simple syrup, it dissolves even in cold drinks much more easily than granulated sugar. That might be better grounds for a defense of its superiority  than the difference in flavor: agave might be a way to make drinks sweet without diluting them as much as you do when you add simple syrup. However, if the issue is dilution, you should be able to get the same effect by making a less dilute simple syrup, if necessary, by cooking it down. Cooking it could also produce caramelization, which might mimic the flavor of agave for applications that might benefit from that; using turbinado sugar might have the same effect. And either of those options might be worth considering if you really think agave tastes better but you’re at all concerned about your liver. However, in general, I think the difference in flavor and concentration of sweetness is not likely to be significant enough to outweigh the potential health risks.

The Claim: Agave Nectar is sweeter so substituting it saves calories

Fructose is sweeter than any other naturally-occurring carbohydrate. According to Wikipedia, pure fructose is about 1.73 times sweeter than sucrose. That may call into question the Cooking Issues refractometer, or their use of it to control for sweetness, because it judged their agave nectar to be 1.77x sweeter than the simple syrup. Agave nectar is supposedly between 56-90% fructose and 8-20% glucose, so it should never be sweeter than fructose. Madhava says its agave has approximately 1.4x the sweetening power of sugar, which seems far more likely. I’m not super familiar with refractometers, but from what I can tell, they measure sugar content and not the type of sugar, so something with a lot of lactose could still get a high reading even though it wouldn’t taste nearly as sweet as something with the same concentration of glucose, sucrose, or fructose. So another possibility for the perceived difference in the Cooking Issues taste test might be that the agave-sweetened margaritas were less sweet and that’s why they tasted more like tequila, deeper, and more complex.

Anyhow, the caloric content of agave nectar varies based on the plant it comes from and the method used to hydrolyze the inulin, but in general, 1 Tablespoon contains 60 calories whereas 1 Tablespoon of sugar contains 45 kcal. That’s largely a difference of density—a tablespoon of agave is 21 g (part of that is moisture, but Madhava claims that 77% is solids, so that’s 16.17 g) and a tablespoon of sugar is only 12.5 g. Most of the suggested substitutions I’ve seen, including the one on the Madhava site and the back of the bottle we used for the mint juleps, call for 3/4 cup agave nectar for 1 cup of sugar or honey. 3/4 cup agave (252 g total; 194 g solids) @ 60 calories/T = 720 calories, which is exactly the same as 1 cup sucrose (200 g) @ 45 calories/T. So if you follow the manufacturer-recommended substitution, there are no caloric savings. 

It’s possible that the 3/4 cup agave = 1 cup sugar is an incorrect substitution. Given that fructose is sweeter than glucose, you should be able to use less agave than sugar (based on the weight of the solids, not just volume) to achieve the same level of “sweetness.” However, the nutritional information of agave-sweetened products vs. their sugar and HFCS-sweetened alternatives also suggests that in practice, people end up using the caloric equivalent rather than the sweetness equivalent. Wholemato Ketchup, which is sweetened with agave, contains 15 calories per 17 g serving, which is 5g less than sugar-sweetened Hunts, but exactly the same as HFCS-sweetened Heinz. From what I remember, Hunts actually tastes sweeter than Heinz, which may account for the difference between the two “normal” brands; having never tasted Wholemato and being somewhat disinclined to buy it, I can’t say whether it’s sweeter than Heinz or not. Nonetheless, no real savings here either.

15 calories per Tablespoon (17 g) 20 calories per Tablespoon (17g)15 calories per Tablespoon (17 g) 

Just to give agave full benefit of the doubt, I decided to calculate how many calories you’d save if you substituted how much you should be able to use to achieve the same amount of sweetness, rather than how much people actually seem to use: if agave is 1.4x sweeter than sugar, you should only need 143 g (in solids) to achieve the same amount of sweetness as 200 g of sucrose. That would require 186 g agave nectar, or 8.9 Tablespoons for every cup of sugar, closer to 1/2 cup for every 1 cup of sugar than 3/4 cup. Those 8.9 Tablespoons would contain 531 kcal, or about 190 fewer calories than the cup of sugar. If a “serving” of whatever you’re making contains 1 Tablespoon of sugar, the agave-sweetened version would contain about 12 fewer calories per serving than the sugar-sweetened equivalent (for 2 T sugar, 24 fewer calories, for 3 T sugar, 36 fewer calories, etc.)

So yes, in theory you can save around 12 calories per serving (or more for very sweet drinks and desserts; 1 T is just the “serving size”) by using agave nectar instead of sucrose or HFCS. But in practice, it’s not clear that that actually happens, and you definitely shouldn’t be misled by the difference in the volume of the recommended substitution. 3/4 cup agave is calorically identical to 1 cup sugar. Also, none of that changes the fact that it’s probably nutritionally worse.

Popcorn Chickpeas: Random Cool and Delicious Stuff You Can Do With Pantry Staples

the blurry flying chickpeas are easy to miss, so I circled them in red they're tricky buggers to photograph.

and i wasn't using a fast enough lens to capture them in focus so i'm hoping the preponderance of visual evidence will be convincing: these are not smudges on the lens, these are chick peas in flight.

The first time I encountered “popcorn chickpeas” was on a menu. It was offered as a $5 or $6 appetizer a wine bar/restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor. When I ordered it, I wasn’t sure whether to expect the chickpeas to be mixed with popcorn or coated in popcorn or if maybe the chick peas themselves would be puffed like corn pops. And I was initially a little disappointed when I got what looked like just a bowl full of regular old chickpeas. They had clearly been cooked—they were golden brown and mixed with browned bits of garlic. And that’s all there was—no greens, no sauce, not even a garnish; it was almost audaciously simple.

But they turned out to be delicious: a little crisp on the outside, creamy in the middle, garlicky and salty. Addictive. I imagine they’re a little like the fried black eyed peas that Alton Brown chose when he was featured on The Best Thing I Ever Ate.

I inquired about the name, and the server said it was because they “pop” when you cook them in hot oil. So the first time I made them, it was just for the novelty. I had to find out what this popping business was all about.

the size of the explosion seems to depend on how dry they are and how hot the pan is; drier & hotter = more spectacular explosions and a messier kitchenObviously, chick peas don’t have a hard shell the way dried corn does, so the explosion isn’t quite as spectacular and doesn’t produce a starchy poof, but as far as I can tell, the reason for the popping is basically the same—the outside of the chickpea is slightly drier and harder than the inside, so moisture inside the peas turns into steam and starts to build up pressure (again, way less pressure than inside a popcorn hull, but basically the same idea). When it reaches the breaking point, it ruptures, which makes a popping sound, and the release of pressure sends it flying.

Aside from being kind of fun to make, they’re such a vast improvement over plain chickpeas that this has become my favorite way to add them to salads or pasta/grain dishes. So I guess this is more of a concept than a recipe—the version below is as adaptable as chick peas themselves. The only constants are cooked chickpeas, enough oil to coat a pan, a clove or two of garlic, and plenty of salt. Serious Eats posted a version from the cookbook The Herbal Kitchen that calls for rosemary. You could dress them up even more with a blend of spices like chili powder, cumin, and ground ginger. Or you could use them to showcase a fancy or flavored salt.

 in a green salad, with roasted cauliflower and cucumbers over a brown rice pilaf with diced tomatoes, topped with grated parmeggiano cheese

Recipe: Popcorn Chickpeas

  • 15 oz can chickpeas or ~2 cups cooked chickpeas
  • 1-2 T. olive or peanut oil
  • 2-3 cloves garlic
  • 1 t. kosher salt
  • 3-4 grinds of black pepper
  • a sprinkle of fresh lemon juice (optional)
  • other herbs and spices, like rosemary, parsley, chili powder, and/or cumin (optional)

1. Drain the chickpeas well.

2. Mince the garlic and chop/grind any herbs or spices, if using.

3. Heat the oil in a large skillet until it shimmers. Add the garlic and toss or stir to coat lightly in the oil.

4. Add the drained chickpeas and cook for 5-10 minutes, shaking the pan or stirring occasionally. They should start to pop after the first couple of minutes. Cook until they’re as browned as you want them.

they are also totally delicious just as they are

Morel “Risotto” with Israeli Couscous: On cost, value, and pleasure

my parmeggiano curls are not as pretty as they could be

The entry about identifying morels is here.

The Moody Sclerotium

This “risotto” was the fate of the morels that appeared in our yard late last month, which is unfortunately probably going to be the only harvest this year because the landlord decided that our little patch of moss and dandelions needed to be mowed and in the process, chewed up the ones I had left to see if they’d get bigger. Curse you, lawn maintenance norms.

I find it difficult to separate the gustatory pleasure of morels from their market value, even when I get them for free. Obviously I’m not the only person who thinks they’re great—they’re widely admired for their nutty, richly umami flavor and chewy, meaty texture, which is one of the reasons they’re as expensive as they are. But there are reasons for the price that aren’t related to how they taste, too. Fresh morels are extremely fragile, so they have to be handled carefully and transported and sold quickly. They can be dried, which makes them considerably easier to transport and store, and dried morels are nearly as good as fresh when they’re soaked in some hot water. But they’re expensive too, even when you take into account that about 3 oz of dried morels are equivalent to about 1 lb fresh.

click for source, along with way more info about morel cultivation from Volk's websiteThe main reason that morels aren’t as readily available or as cheap as button/cremini/portabella (which are all the same species: Agaricus bisporus) or even the more exotic and flavorful shiitake or oyster mushrooms is because there’s an intermediary step in their life cycle that makes them exceedingly difficult to cultivate—the lump labeled “Sclerotium” in the diagram. According to Thomas Volk, a biology professor at UW-Lacrosse, the sclerotium is made up of big, thick cells that can survive all kinds of bad weather—including, say, Michigan winters. In the spring, the sclerotium has two choices: form a new mycelium, which is a network of cells arranged in tiny threads underground, or form a fruiting body—i.e. a mushroom.

All kinds of factors have to be exactly right for it to pick the “fruiting body” option—soil nutrients and moisture levels, CO2 levels, humidity, temperature. To complicate matters further, different species probably fruit in response to different factors, and the same species might even respond to two different sets of factors. That would make sense given that the same morel fungi seem to work like symbiotic partners with living trees (the mycelia can extend even farther than the root base, bringing useful nutrients closer to the roots) and saprobes that feed on the tree as it dies, possibly speeding its demise and then thriving on the remains for years.

The symbiotic/semi-parasitic relationship with trees adds yet another complicating factor. Morels seem to prefer ash trees, tulip trees, old apple trees, and dead elm trees, although they can grow under any tree and also seem to like areas cleared by wildfire. But you can’t just grow them in a basement or a parking lot somewhere; you kind of need a forest.

There have been scattered reports of effective cultivation strategies—a few patents have been filed and I read somewhere (can’t find the link now) about at least one company that figured out a way to cultivate them, but ultimately failed because it couldn’t come up with a cost-effective way to remove the grit from all the little brainy ridges without damaging the texture or rendering them too unstable for transport. There are also anecdotal reports of huge crops appearing where people have poured the water used to soak or rinse morels over a compost heap or on the roots of a tree. And earlier this month, The Traverse City Record-Eagle quoted a chef from a hospitality company saying they were sourcing them from a “a gentleman, a scientist, who has figured out how to raise them, like farm-raising fish…year-round and at a fraction of the cost of the dried ones.” But whatever the gentleman-scientist’s secret is, he must be guarding it pretty well. I still only see them in markets around Ann Arbor between May and June, and this year they seem to be priced around ~$40/lb.

which makes this about $14 worth; in New York, where I remember seeing them priced at $80/lb this would be nearly $30 of mushrooms

So I almost never buy them (or much of anything else that’s $40/lb+, even taking spices into account, which obviously get used in much smaller quantities; the only exceptions I can think of are saffron, vanilla, and cardamom; even cinnamon and Szechuan peppercorns are only half as much per lb) and I find myself wanting to “stretch” the ones I get. The most common preparation seems to be breading and frying them, usually using flour or cracker crumbs and butter. I’m sure that’s delicious, but with only 5.5 oz, it would yield two or three appetizer/small plate portions at most. Cream sauces are also common, usually paired with pasta or meat, and they show up in recipes for egg dishes, like omelets and quiche, especially with ramps—the wild leeks that appear around the same time in the early Spring. I decided on something risotto-like because the defining characteristic of risotto is that the starch is cooked in the dish rather than separately, so it seemed like a good way to really get the morel flavor infused into multiple dinner-sized portions of food.

Instead of using one of the varieties of starch-exuding short-grained rice that give risotto (“little rice”) its name, I decided to use Israeli couscous (or ptitim). Israeli couscous is basically just a bigger version of normal couscous—the grains are probably closest in size and shape to barley. They have a little more chew to them than normal couscous and they’re often toasted lightly before being boiled in liquid, which gives them a nutty flavor that I thought that would play well with the morels. Some people recommend against soaking fresh morels because they claim it changes the flavor and texture, but I wanted to be sure to get all the dirt and any critters out. If I had known about the home cultivation technique, I might have dumped the water under the tree, but instead I strained it with a paper cloth and used it for part of the cooking liquid. Aside from that, the recipe is classic risotto: some shallots and butter, a little white wine and homemade chicken stock, and lots of parmeggiano regiano grated into a heap of delicate curls with a microplane (that way it melts into the dish easily and doesn’t clump up).

before toastingthere's probably no reason you couldn't do this to normal couscous...and perhaps from now on, I will

It was one of the most delicious things I think I’ve ever made.

When Food is Worth Its Weight in Gold

I’m not even the biggest fan of mushrooms. I hated them as a kid, and probably only acquired a taste for the flavor due to years of vegetarianism, since they’re so often used as a substitute for meat, especially in Euro-American cooking. But the texture, especially of all of the different sizes and colors of agaricus bisporus, still squicks me out. They’re one of the few foods I actively avoid and, occasionally, especially if they’re big, try to surreptitiously remove from my plate. I have less of an aversion to other varieties—I’m actually rather fond of porcini, shiitake, maitake, and enoki mushrooms, but I still tend to prefer them minced, cooked, and combined with other ingredients—part of the flavor profile, but not the dominant note.

So I’m a little surprised how much I liked this “risotto” given how intensely mushroomy it was. I probably never would have ordered anything like it from a restaurant menu because I would have assumed I’d only enjoy it moderation. But there was nothing moderate about how much I liked it. I could have eaten it for multiple consecutive meals. I would prefer it to just about anything else I can imagine eating for dinner tonight. I want it again. I want it now. And I suspect that at least part of that is due to the fact that I know how much morels are valued—both the fact that they’re supposed to be “gourmet” and how much they cost, which probably aren’t unrelated. For instance, it seems more than coincidental that the word we use to describe fatty, savory foods is “rich.”

slicing them into rings is another way to ensure that there aren't any critters hiding anywhere in either the hollow middle or any of the ridgesIt certainly seemed like my faux-sotto was different—and better—than it would have been if I had made it with cremini or portabella mushrooms. I find the thin, chewy pieces of morel way less objectionable than big chunks of anything agaricus bisporus. And the flavor was richer and nuttier and more umami than any cultivated mushrooms I’ve ever had. But, as I’ve mentioned before (both in the discussion about robots and the discussion about umami) the physiological experience of taste can’t be separated from the contextual cues and expectations that shape the perception of taste. Whatever real, scientific differences there are between a morel and any other mushroom, they don’t explain how I evaluate those differences as better or worse.

Does lobster taste objectively better than shrimp, or do I just think it does because I know it’s supposed to be better and it’s more expensive? “Objectively” is the wrong word—there’s probably no such thing as “objectively better” when it comes to taste, but it also isn’t as arbitrary and individual as “subjective” makes it sound. Chemical components and measurable physical attributes like texture and temperature elicit relatively predictable responses, and the combinations that generally register as tastier have greater social, cultural, and economic value.

My suspicion is that morels really do taste “better” (to most people, most of the time) than other mushrooms, and would even if there were no difference in their price or availability. However, I think that gets enhanced by, and is ultimately inseparable from, their crazy, mushroom-optional, sclerotium-based life cycle, not because the cycle actually changes anything about how they taste but because it makes them more expensive and exaggerates their perceived value. Or in other words, they are delicious because they are delicious, but they are even more delicious because they are rare, delicate, and expensive. Which doesn’t make the enhanced deliciousness false or invalid. The added pleasure is a bit like a placebo effect—real, measurable, and usually good, despite the fact that the medicine is fake.   

On the other hand, it also means that this recipe might be just as good—or nearly so—with any other mushroom, especially if you believed it would be. 

Recipe: Israeli Couscous Risotto with Morels

  • 2 large shallots (about 1/2 cup diced)
  • 5 T. butter
  • 5.5 oz fresh morel mushrooms or 1 oz. dried, soaked in hot water for a couple of hours
  • 1 cup Israeli couscous (ptitim)
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 3 cups water or stock (and/or mushroom soaking water if you have it)
  • 2 t. bouillon (if using water)
  • ~2 oz. parmeggiano reggiano, or about 3/4 cup finely grated (microplane highly recommended)
  • salt and pepper to taste

1. Melt 4 T. of the butter in a large pot or saucepan. Dice the shallots and cook in the butter until golden-brown (7-10 min).

my favorite allium...not like there are any i don't like  I assume butter foam is caused by its moisture content? I don't think ghee foams.

2. While the shallots cook, brush or rinse any dirt from the morels and slice them into rings, looking out for critters that may be hiding inside. Add to the shallots and cook until the mushrooms begin to release some of their liquid.

just after the wine is added...after about half the wine has evaporated

3. Add the wine to the mushrooms and cook until about half of the liquid has boiled off—what remains will thicken a bit.

4. Meanwhile, in a separate skillet, melt the remaining tablespoon of butter and toast the couscous until golden (about 5 minutes).

5. Add the couscous and stock (and mushroom soaking water and/or bouillon if using) to the shallots and mushrooms. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is absorbed and the couscous is done, but still has a little chew to it (15-20 minutes). Add more water or stock at any point if it begins to dry out or stick to the bottom.

just after adding the toated couscous just after stirring in the finely grated cheese

6. In the last minute of cooking, stir in the grated cheese and season with salt and ground pepper to taste. Remove from heat.

7. Garnish with curls of hard cheese (I use a vegetable peeler) and, if desired, a few chopped herbs like parsley or chives.

golden, creamy, nutty, chewy, shallot-wine-and-mushroomy. so. freaking. good.

Food, Inc. Part II: Is the food more dangerous? Aiming for the heart instead of the head

I know the print is small, so fyi: the source of the "more than terrific--important" plug is Entertainment Weekly.

Part I of this series is here.

The Claim: “The food has become much more dangerous”

When NPR’s Steve Inskeep interviewed Robert Kenner and Michael Pollan about Food, Inc. he noted that the entire film can basically be summed up by one sentence spoken by an unattributed voiceover close to the beginning of the film:

Now our food is coming from enormous assembly lines where the animals and the workers are being abused, and the food has become much more dangerous in ways that are being deliberately hidden from us.

There are parts of that claim that I don’t dispute at all. A lot of the food—not just in this country but around the world—is mass-produced using assembly-line production. Many of the animals raised in industrial-scale agriculture are subjected to enormous pain and discomfort and conditions that require vast quantities of synthetic hormones and antibiotics to make them get big enough and live long enough to be profitable (even Pollan chose to feed the steer he bought during his research for Omnivore’s Dilemma corn and horomones instead of grass). Food processing plants are often dangerous places to work—according to the government, “In 2007, rates of work-related injury or illness for full-time food manufacturing workers were higher than the rates for all of manufacturing and for the private sector as a whole,” with especially high rates in the seafood and dairy industries. And the jobs pay very little. In the last few decades, the meatpacking industry in particular has come to  depend heavily on undocumented immigrant workers who are far less likely to seek compensation for job-related illness and injury or unionize to bargain for better conditions and wages out of fear that the employer will report them to immigration enforcement officials (and some companies have been accused of knowingly hiring undocumented workers who they can pay less than minimum wage). So please, don’t mistake me for a defender of the industrial animal agriculture system. It sucks for most of the animals and people involved.

Except for the consumers. I think that’s why Kenner and Pollan have to make the argument that the food is less “safe” even though they don’t have any real evidence to back up that claim. Animal rights and exploited immigrant workers might elicit a little sympathy from some people, but most of the people whose eating habits are actually going to be changed by those things alone have probably already been converted. Kenner and Pollan make a big deal about how it’s so hard to get this information, but I think they underestimate the average consumer. Just because there are happy-looking cows on the packages, that doesn’t mean most Americans are really duped into believing their meat and dairy come from halcyon farms, just like a million smiling suns on food packages don’t really convince anyone that the sun has a mouth. People know the meat production system is ugly—that’s the entire thrust of the cliché about not wanting to see how sausage is made. But if you really want people to stop eating industrially-produced meat, you have to convince them that it’s bad for them and/or their kids.

2006 edition with a forward by Eric Schlosser: grisly butchered cow staring at you with a sad, accusing eye 1980s cover apparently designed by someone who actually read the book and perhaps thought students being forced to read it deserved fair warning: an old painting of people who look poor and sad. 2006 edition with a forward by Eric Schlosser: grisly butchered cow staring at you with a sad, accusing eye

Upton Sinclair discovered the same thing over a century ago. The Jungle—as I was surprised to discover when I taught it a few years ago—is a novel about the exploitation of the mostly-immigrant workforce that powered the industrial revolution, not a piece of journalistic muckraking about the meatpacking industry. And it’s not subtle. It’s about the most heavy-handed treatment of the subject you could possibly imagine. Sinclair doesn’t leave any room for confusion about his agenda, which is not reform of the food system. But, of course, that is its legacy. Over 400 pages of leaden prose and cheap melodrama designed to reveal the crushing poverty, the lack of social support and legal protections, the punishing nature of the work, and the impediments to social mobility, and instead, people got their panties in a bunch over the idea that the meatpacking industry was insufficiently sanitary. As he famously put it:

I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.

To abuse his metaphor a little bit, I don’t think Sinclair’s problem was his aim, but his weapon. He was so focused on trying to bludgeon the public in the heart with his softball-sized hunk of purple prose about worker’s rights that he didn’t even realize he’d shot a perfect, bullet-sized piece of rat shit-tainted sausage at its stomach.

Food, Inc. aims for the heart,too, with perhaps the most lethal form of sentimental appeal: be afraid for your children. I kept waiting for the film to offer some kind of real evidence for the “more dangerous” claim—or at least specify what ideal past moment the comparison was based on (pre-pasteurization and refrigeration, perhaps?). Instead, the “dangerous” part of the argument is carried almost entirely by the story about Barbara Kowalcyk, whose son Kevin died from eating hamburger that was contaminated with E. coli. The contaminated meat was recalled, but not in time to save her son. And that is tragic. You’d have to be a monster not to feel for a mother crying over the loss of her son and trying to find a way to make sure that never happens to any other family.

Kevin’s law sounds like an entirely reasonable piece of legislation—it calls for the UDSA to do a survey of food-borne pathogens and develop a plan to reduce their presence in the food supply, and gives them the power to shut down plants that fail inspections and don’t take corrective action. I have not spent a lot of time with this law, and I’m not a law or policy expert—if you have or are, please let me know what you think. What I do know is that even if it’s a good law, it probably wouldn’t have saved her son—the meat that killed him wasn’t from a plant that had failed any inspections. Nor would she have been able to save him by feeding him only pastured beef, even if that were financially and logistically possible. As Food, Inc. also reminds us, many of the recalls in recent years have involved things besides meat, like spinach, jalapenos, and peanut butter. And don’t let the equally-falsely-pastoral marketing of Big Organic products or the Food, Inc. soundtrack choices fool you; if E. coli or salmonella gets into the water, “organic” food is just as vulnerable to contamination as conventional.

The Claim: Grass-Fed Beef Have Less of the E. coli O157:H7

The main reason the documentary gives for how industrial agriculture might be making the food supply more dangerous than pre-industrial or organic agriculture (or whatever else they’re comparing it to) is that feeding cows grain (mostly corn) instead of the grass they evolved to digest increases the prevalence of dangerous E. coli in their shit, which occasionally makes its way into our food. I actually thought that was well-established scientific fact, largely due to the 2006 NYTimes editorial about the source of the contamination in the spinach, “Leafy Green Sewage,” which said:

It’s [E. coli O157:H7] not found in the intestinal tracts of cattle raised on their natural diet of grass, hay and other fibrous forage. No, O157 thrives in a new — that is, recent in the history of animal diets — biological niche: the unnaturally acidic stomachs of beef and dairy cattle fed on grain, the typical ration on most industrial farms.

The editorial refers to a study in which, allegedly:

When cows were switched from a grain diet to hay for only five days, O157 declined 1,000-fold.

But that turns out to be not quite right. The review article in The Journal of Dairy Science they’re talking about mentions two studies in which generic E. coli declined in cows switched from a feedlot-type ration to hay, but neither of them measured E. coli 0157.H7. Most forms of E. coli are harmless. Additionally, the first study (Diez-Gonzalez 1998) only involved three cows and the second was never published, so it’s impossible to evaluate. Still, as a response to the NYTimes editorial noted, those findings did suggest that perhaps grain-feeding was more likely to cause the dangerous E. coli, too, assuming O157 works just like the generic forms. But subsequent research hasn’t supported that assumption: 

A substantial number of papers by researchers around the world have documented that cattle on pasture or rangeland (i.e., eating grass) have E. coli O157:H7 in their feces at prevalences roughly similar to those of confined, grain-fed cattle of a similar age (Sargeant et al, 2000; Fegan et al, 2004b; Renter et al, 2004; Laegreid et al, 1999). One study (Fegan et al, 2004a) found a higher prevalence among pastured cattle and, among positive cattle, similar concentrations of E. coli O157:H7 in feces.

Furthermore, if the problem was grain-feeding, then all O157 contamination would be caused by feedlot manure. Not so:

Several outbreaks and sporadic cases of human disease have resulted from pasture or water contamination with E. coli O157:H7 from grazing animals (Ogden et al, 2002; Locking et al, 2006) and several papers have documented environmental contamination with E. coli O157:H7 originating from cattle on pasture (Strachan et al, 2002; Ogden et al, 2005; Strachan et al, 2006; Looper et al, 2006). (Hancock and Besser 2006)

There are other reasons industrial animal agriculture might be “more dangerous”: 1) the close quarters in CAFOs may make E. coli contamination from fecal matter on hides harder to avoid during slaughter, 2) the speed of contemporary meat processing may make E. coli contamination harder to avoid, and 3) the health implications of hormones and agricultural antibiotics are still sort of unclear. But what’s the proof? Are more people getting sicker and dying because of industrial agriculture than without it?

It turns out there’s not a lot of long-term data, and even if there were, it would be difficult to evaluate because on the one hand, increases might reflect advances in the detection and tracking of pathogens, and on the other hand, a lot of cases of food poisoning still go undetected because they’re difficult to distinguish from other causes of GI distress. What little data is available suggests that infections from the most common forms of food-borne pathogens have decreased since 1996:

Vibrio is usually caused by eating raw oysters and shellfish. The CDC suggests that the higher relative rate in most years post-1998 may be due to inconsistent or insufficient refrigeration of shellfish consumed raw.

In 1999, the CDC estimated that food-borne pathogens caused approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths in the United States every year. That’s more, per capita, than England or France (26,000 illnesses and 1.7 deaths per 100,000 Americans vs. 1,210 illnesses and .9 deaths per 100,000 French), so the people who claim that the U.S. has the “safest food in the history of the world” are wrong, too. It seems probable that a more centralized inspection system with better enforcement powers could improve our food safety, which is why reforms like Kevin’s law seem like a good idea.

But some people—including adorable children, who are especially vulnerable to the nasty death-causing complications of food-borne pathogens—are going to die no matter what we change about the food system. And depending on what we change, I worry that a lot of people, including adorable children, could starve. More on that later on in the series, when I get to the film’s list of what you can do.

It’s also worth noting that none of the above is being “deliberately hidden” from anyone. It’s available to anyone with an internet connection, probably because it’s not especially damning. I agree with Food, Inc. that there are hidden costs associated with industrialization—but it’s the animals and the workers who suffer the brunt of those costs, not the consumers. Maybe the people behind Food, Inc. had access to other evidence that does suggest the food supply really is more dangerous, but if so, why didn’t they include it in the documentary? There are only two options here: either the people behind Food, Inc. didn’t do their research, or they did, but opted not to show it in favor of manipulative sentimental appeals.

Benedictines and Pimento Cheese Sandwiches for Derby Day

not, perhaps, filled as neatly as possible, but I'd rather have the filling go all the way to the edges. you can definitely pretty them up more if you have the time and inclination. some people even cut little hearts and flowers in the bread with a cookie cutter. 

The Great Crust Contradiction

Given that a chewy crust is the main distinguishing feature of expensive, artisinal breads, it’s sort of ironic that when people want to make sandwiches “elegant,” they often cut the crusts off entirely. And it’s even more ironic that many of those crust-less sandwiches are filled with some combination of cheese and/or mayonnaise, the hallmark ingredients of un-refined midwestern, church-social, Jell-O and macaroni “salad” cuisine. Especially given the Wonderbread-style bread, the ingredients on their own say something like “trailer park,” but turn them into little crustless triangles filled with cool, tangy spreads and you conjure images of dainty tea parties and women in be-ribboned hats. They’re perfectly-suited to the kinds of events where you plan on sipping mint juleps while you watch horses with names like “Make Music For Me” and “Devil May Care” dash around a track in the most potentially-lucrative two minutes of their racing careers.

These two sandwich spread recipes contain both cheese and mayonnaise, but I promise you that despite the low esteem that many people hold the primary ingredients in, they will generally consider these sandwiches classy and delicious. I know I’m posting them too late for this year’s Derby (I made them for a Derby party and it’s difficult to explain how something turned out or post any pictures of it before you’ve actually made it), but they’re also perfect for any other spring or summertime event. And pimento cheese is also a great appetizer or burger topping. I’ll post the recipe for the sourdough-risen, soft, white sandwich bread I used sometime later this week, but if you’re not up for making your own bread, store-bought loaves will seem just as fancy when you remove their crusts. And if you’d rather not waste the crusts, they’re perfect for making homemade croutons

if you're in a hurry, it's just a basic sourdough bread recipe: 1 c. starter, 1 c. water, 3-4 c. flour, 2 T. melted butter, 2 T. sugar, 2 t. kosher salt per loaf, knead until a smooth ball, rise until double, shape and place in loaf pan, rise again, bake at 350 for 35-45 min or until golden and the bottom sounds hollow when tappedI usually try to check my snark about processed foods because to each her own, right? But I admit to being totally flummoxed by those frozen pb&j pockets called "uncrustables." I mean, how much time does it really save you if you have to defrost or toast the thing? And you give up the ability to choose the kind of nut butter and jelly you want. AND the crimped edge may not be dark like a crust, but it's still a harder bit without filling. What the hell is the point?

Cheese and Mayonnaise Sandwich #1: No, Not that Benedict

Benedictines are essentially a variation on the classic cucumber sandwich in which the cucumber is shredded and drained and then combined with the cream cheese and mayonnaise to make a spread. They’re usually flavored with onion and tinted a pastel green with food coloring. The main difference between the many different Benedictine recipes out there seems to be how the onion flavor is added. The simplest way is just to add onion powder. Yumsugar uses scallions. Saveur’s recipe calls for grating an onion and squeezing the juice into the cream cheese mixture and then discarding the onion flesh. Other recipes, including Paula Deen’s, include the grated onion in the mixture—as much as an entire onion or as little as 2 tablespoons (all of them call for just one 8 oz. package of cream cheese so it’s not a question of scale).

I have no real fidelity to “authenticity” (a term that’s usually meaningless anyway), but I decided to try to find out whether there was an “original” recipe out there somewhere and how it incorporated the onion. The sandwich shares its name with monastic orders that follow the teachings of Benedict of Nursia  and the herbal liqueur originally produced at the Benedictine Abbey in the Normandy region of France, but apparently isn’t related. Nor does it bear any relation to the classic brunch dish composed of a split English muffin topped with ham, poached eggs, and hollandaise sauce, which is apparently named after either Lemuel Benedict, a 19th C. Wall Street broker, Commodore E.C. Benedict, an early 20th C. banker and yachtsman, or Mr. And Mrs. LeGrand Benedict, who were regulars at Delmonico’s (my money’s on Lemuel—I expect I’ll have the occasion to look into it more another time).

Classy but accessible: Benedict's restaurant in a photo published in The Louisville Times November 13, 1969, from  http://www.littlecolonel.com/Places/Louisville/Benedicts.htmThe sandwiches have a much more recent and less contested namesake—one Miss Jennie Carter Benedict, who studied at the Boston School of Cooking with Fannie Farmer and then worked as a caterer and restaurateur in Louisville from 1893-1925. She’s been credited with shaping the tastes of the Kentucky elite and the emerging middle-class. She catered weddings and other special events for many of Louisville’s most prominent families, whose tastes were broadly influential. And given her Boston School training, which emphasized the kind of cooking that came to be seen as “American” in that period (inspired by British/New England traditions, distinguished on the one hand from the French food associated with aristocrats and on the other from the foodways of recent immigrants), she and her eponymous restaurant were among the pioneers of a new kind of middle-class entertaining and dining.  Benedict’s and the kinds of food popularized by “Miss Jennie,” as she was known, were seen as genteel and respectable, but not aristocratic. Benedict’s was part of the emerging middle-ground between the pubs and cafeterias that catered to the (mostly male) working class and fancy restaurants that catered only to the wealthy. Miss Jennie’s food was a newly “respectable” version of recognizable, “American” ingredients and techniques within reach for families who couldn’t afford the kinds of ingredients or brigade of servants required to prepare elaborate French meals.

Despite the fact that she and her restaurant were so famous for their dyed-green cucumber sandwich spread that people referred to it by her name, she didn’t include a recipe for it in The Blue Ribbon Cook Book she wrote, first published in 1904. The omission was so glaring that when the University Press of Kentucky decided to re-issue the cookbook in 2008, they added one provided by Louisville-area cookbook writer Ronni Lundy. Like Saveur’s recipe, it calls for onion juice. But unlike any of the other recipes I’ve seen, it also jettisons the cucumber pulp. You grate and drain the cucumber, but reserve and add just the juice to the spread.

I want a little more than cream cheese in my sandwiches—I actually prefer entire slices of unpeeled cucumber when I’m not trying to be Derby-appropriate. Also, while I have no personal any objection to food coloring, I was afraid other people might (I wouldn’t have any qualms about their response to truffle oil or “natural” flavoring, but consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, right?). Since my favorite thing about classic sliced-cucumber sandwiches is the dill, which Benedictine recipes usually don’t have, I tried to give it a little more green coloring with a puree of fresh dill and a little of the cucumber water.

the dill juice was quite green... but barely noticeable once stirred in

All of which is to say, the recipe, as with most things I post, is a set of general guidelines at best. I don’t think you can make a bad sandwich with cream cheese and mayonnaise and cucumber and onion.

Cheese and Mayonnaise Sandwich #2: A Better New-Bacon Contender

pimento cheese is coming for you, bacon!

One of Subway’s current commercials claims that pepperoni is the new bacon. I don’t actually think anything’s going to replace bacon as America’s favorite icon of dreaded/desired food, but if it ever caught on big time, pimento cheese might have a better shot than another cured meat. Recipes almost invariably mention something about how fattening and diet-busting and artery-clogging and waistline-expanding it is.

It’s the kind of dish that should come with its own treadmill—The Amateur Gourmet

And even people who aren’t afraid of fat often cringe at the idea—Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s, who’s  an ardent defender of things like butter and bacon, made the mistake of dissing pimento cheese at the Southern Foodways Alliance because he thought it was a processed, “flavorless” food (as if lack of flavor is really the problem with processed food). He’s since made up for it by putting pimento cheese all over the Roadhouse menu, where you can get it as an appetizer or in a mac & cheese dish and sometimes on a burger. They also sell it at the deli and online ($20 for 12 oz!).

Given that this really is composed almost entirely of cheese and mayonnaise, when you put it on a sandwich it’s basically the Anti-Subway Diet since emulating Jared requires you to get your subs without cheese or mayo.So, the reason I think it could give bacon a run for its money is that not only does it have the same OMG Fat transgressiveness, it’s also got OMG Americans-and-their-awful-cheese-and-mayo-food transgressiveness. Like bacon, it’s great on its own but can also be used to enhance a wide variety of dishes, including the all-important burger. And if anyone wrinkles their nose about the ingredients, you can gesture to how authentically Southern it is and imply that if they don’t like it, they’re racist or something. (If that’s not “exotic” enough for you, you can gesture to the virtually identical dish called Cheese Pimiento that’s popular in the Philippines or one of the similar family of dishes in Europe that go by the names Liptauer (Austria), Liptau (Germany), Körözött (Hungary), and Šmirkás (Slovakia)). 

It kind of reminds me of a culinary version the Kelly Clarkson song, “Since U Been Gone,” which even indie-music fans and hipsters were abnormally devoted to despite its mass-culture taint—or perhaps because of it. Pimento cheese would be the perfect new obsession for foodies looking to prove they’re not snobs who hate America.

I decided to make my own mayonnaise, which I had tried doing it by hand before, but the emulsion didn’t hold. This time I used an immersion blender, the way Herve This recommends. Instead of having to add the oil droplet-by-droplet and then in a thin stream while trying to whisk madly, you just put the yolks and vinegar in a 2-cup measure, stand the stick blender in the cup and then pour the oil on top so it’s a separate layer.

crepes and benedictines 047 crepes and benedictines 049

As you pulse the blender, keeping it flush against the bottom of the measuring cup, the oil gets gradually incorporated and you can actually see the emulsion bloom up from the bottom of the measure. It takes less than 2 minutes and is supposedly foolproof—it certainly worked like a charm for me. However, despite everyone else’s protestations to the contrary, I don’t actually think it’s that much better than Hellman’s/Best Foods. As with all homemade things, it does give you the chance to adjust the saltiness and acidity level and flavor as desired, but I think the real reason people bother is bragging rights.

Recipe: Benedictine Sandwich Spread (adapted from YumSugar and Saveur)
fills 30-40 slices of bread, or about 2 standard home-made loaves—depending on how thin you slice the bread and how thick you spread the fillinglike a cucumber canoe

  • 1 English-style cucumber 
  • 16 oz. cream cheese, softened
  • 4 T. mayonnaise
  • 1/2 t. Tabasco or other hot sauce
  • 1 small-to-medium white or yellow onion
  • 4 green onions
  • 4 T. fresh dill (optional)
  • salt and pepper to taste

1. Peel the cucumber, slice it lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with a small spoon. Grate it either by hand or in a food processor, toss with a pinch of salt and drain well in a fine mesh sieve or cheesecloth-lined or paper-towel lined colander, pressing to remove as much excess liquid as possible.

2. Place the cream cheese, mayonnaise, and Tabasco in a bowl and stir until smooth and creamy. Add the drained cucumber.

the salt helps the vegetables drain more liquid I think I liked this method, which involved lots of onion flavor but no big chunks of raw onion

3. Grate the onion either by hand or in a food processor, toss with a pinch of salt, and wrap in cheese cloth or paper towel, and drain into the cream cheese mixture.

4. Finely chop the green onions and the dill if using and add them to the mixture.

5. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as desired.

Recipe: Pimento Cheese (adapted from the Los Angeles Times and Amateur Gourmet)
fills 30-40 slices of bread or about 1 1/2-2 loaves of homemade bread, again depending on how thin you slice the bread and how thick you spread the filling

For the mayonnaise:

  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 T. white wine vinegar
  • large pinch kosher salt
  • large pinch ground white pepper
  • 1 t. mustard powder
  • 1 c. canola oil (or any other neutral-flavored oil)
  • 1 T. lemon juice
  • 1/2 c. olive oil

For the pimento cheese:

  • 10 oz. sharp cheddar (I used a mix of white and orange, which several recipes recommended; some people use Velveeta, some use part Monterey Jack)
  • 1 4 oz. jar of pimentos (some people substitute roasted bell peppers)
  • 1 t. cayenne pepper (less if desired)
  • 1/2 t. ground black pepper
  • 3/4 cup mayonnaise
  • salt to taste

1. Separate the yolks into a 2-cup measure, or the beaker that came with the immersion blender. Add the vinegar, salt and pepper, and mustard powder. Place the blender in the measure or beaker, flush against the bottom. Gently pour the oil in so it sits on top of the other ingredients.

2. Pulse until most of the mixture is emulsified (less than 1 minute). Then, begin to rotate the blender a little so one edge is always touching the bottom but it can grab a little more of the oil. Once most of the mixture is emulsified, plunge the blender a half a dozen or so times until the mixture is creamy throughout.

finished blending after the lemon and olive oil have been mixed in

3. Transfer to a bowl and whisk in the lemon juice and olive oil—you should not use olive oil for the first part or the emulsification won’t hold and the blending will release bitter-tasting compounds.

4. Let sit at room temperature for 4-8 hrs, which is the temperature at which acid is most effective at killing bacteria (per Alton Brown). Then refrigerate for up to a week.

5. Drain and mince the pimentos and grate the cheese (I used a food processor for both).

is it really pimento cheese if you use bell peppers?  I cannot believe the big Z charges over $1/oz for this. Seriously...it is cheese and mayonnaise. WTF.

5. Combine all the pimento cheese ingredients. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving to allow the cheese to break down a little and the flavors to meld.