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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Pork Belly: Your taste buds will love you!

Ok, you hungry gourmets, and inebriates….I always get those two mixed up…it’s time for a new recipe.  Pork belly is the au courant delectable on many snobby restaurant menus these days, so let’s try that.  What the hell is pork belly anyway?  Don’t think stomach; that’s on the inside.  Belly’s the meat on the outside and when it’s cured with sugar, or salt, or smoke, we call it bacon.  So, think of pork belly as a big slab of uncured and unsliced bacon.  One difference for Americans is the thick slice of skin that remains on top.  Europeans are used to seeing a strip of tough covering, as their bacon also usually comes with the rind in tact.

Between the layer of rind and the meat is a layer of fat, and it’s this layer that will lead to a heavenly flavor and the tenderness you only get from your spouse on special occasions. 

The secret to a great pork belly is to give it a chance, and that means lengthy cooking at low temps.  Try to rush it and you’ll see disappointment and scorn on the faces on the other side of the table.  The more volatile will smash plates.

Follow my instructions, which I present with love and good wishes, and all you will see are smiles.

Preheat the oven to 250ºF (120ºC)

Pork Belly

1  to 1 ½ lbs pork belly, dusted with salt, pepper, and sugar

For the sauce

2 Cups water
1 Heaping tablespoon of Bovril (my favorite, or use another brand of beef extract)
1 Bottle of beer (I used Bitburger pils)
½  Cup soy sauce
½ Cup sugar

Puttin’ it all together

Leave the skin on and braise the pork on all sides in 2 Tablespoons of oil, then remove it from the pan and set it aside.

Put the sauce ingredients together in a large saucepan (with a lid), or a small roasting pan. Stir while it comes to a boil.

Add the pork belly to the saucepan, cover, and put it in the oven for 3 ½ hours. 

At the end of 3 ½ hours, remove the pork belly from the saucepan, slice off the skin, and put the meat aside to rest.  I sometimes slice the skin into bite sized pieces and put it in a 400ºF oven until it’s crisp.

Remove the skin and here's what it looks like after removal
 Chill the broth and skim off the fat.

While the meat rests, put the sauce back on the stovetop and cook until the broth is reduced by half.

Return the pork belly to the saucepan and allow it to reheat, turning it once. 

Remove the meat, slice it into serving portions, put the portions on plates and ladle on the sauce.

I served this with small boiled potatoes, halved, skin left on, and sliced zucchini with diced onion and a sprig of rosemary, lightly steamed and laced with balsamic reduction.

Now you’re asking me to get to the good part and tell you about the wine.  Ok.  A wonderful Italian Primitivo.   Don’t know about Primitivos?  Well, I’m happy to oblige, but not now.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Truth and Other Lies by Sascha Arango

Henry Hayden, hedonist and best selling author – make that best selling and adored author, the toast of every book signing - has a problem.  Just a sec, he has more than A problem.  He lives on an anthill of problems, bringing pleasure, but also spoiling his picnic.

Nevertheless, his wife loves him for all his faults.  He loves her, as he should since she’s the silent author of all his best sellers, and therefore directly responsible for the celebrity status he so richly enjoys.

They live in a home worthy of an architectural magazine article.  He drives an eye-catching compliment to Italian luxury.  He’s swamped by fanfare in restaurants and grocery stores.

Oh, there is one more thing:  His mistress is carrying his child.  Something must be done about that.  An endless steam of possibilities roam Henry’s self-centered world.   Not that he entertains objections about any of them.

Sascha Arango, in his very first novel, creates that most interesting of characters, an ambitious, multi-faceted rogue, with an uncanny sense of self-preservation.  Exposure lurks around every corner and in his struggle to survive, Henry has to peer around all of them.

You ask yourself:  What would I do?  But, that’s not a fair question.  For most of us, moral objections loom large, so let’s put it to Henry:  What should he do?  Confess all to a loving wife?  Convince his mistress to have the abortion she does not want?  For Henry, whichever choice he makes, self-protection and preservation of lifestyle are the beacons that guide his way.

Yes, it’s quirky, so you may well ask:  Why did I pick up this book?  I like to be entertained. More and more I’ve turned to European authors, especially if they are male and German.  The finely etched characters stand out.  (The Collini Case:  But also, so many European plots avoid the expected flow of the wide-river stories, and instead follow the personal tributaries, and rivulets that trickle in unexpected directions and lead to unexpected results.  Another thing I like is the cohesiveness.  Everything leads toward the character and the plot.  No irrelevant angst and dithering to fill fifteen pages with useless verbiage.  In a word, leanness.  Europeans write their mysteries sparsely.  No distracting fat, and the prosaic knife cuts almost unexpectedly straight to the bone.

The Truth and Other Lies is one such mystery.  As you read, you’ll constantly ask:  What happens next?  Good luck.  Think the laugh-out-loud bits make this a comedic novel?  Good luck with that one, too.

You’re going to pick this novel up and become so involved, so quickly that anybody who interrupts you is going to be met with a barrage of verbal gunfire.  Oh, yeah, it’s that kind of book.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Argentine Beef Stew -with apricots? Oh yeah!

When you dine at a fine restaurant, you come away with more than a warm memory.  The spark of creativity suddenly flames up inside you and you long to get back into your kitchen.

Creativity is like that.  Go to a wonderful garden, you come home and plant flowers.  After leisurely strolling through an art museum, you fixate on color and design.  You rush home to throw paint on a canvas, or touch up all those fading spots on your house, or rearrange the furniture.

Art in all its forms plants the seeds of creativity that will readily bloom in your garden…if you let them…if you accept that we are all creative, whether it’s painting, or music, or drawing, or flower arranging.  The ‘what’ isn’t important, the ‘embracing’ of your own human need to create is what matters.

What does this have to do with beef stew?  See, you interrupted me and made me explain all that other stuff, all of which should have been self-evident.

Argentine Beef Stew (My version).  A stew with apricots and sweet potato and all that other junk?  Again, there you go, suppressing your urge to create, to start something new, to step smartly into new adventures.  Stop leaning so heavily on your adulthood and be a kid again!

Besides the philosophical and psychological aspects of this dish, it’s delicious, or for you heathens, damn good!

Getting Down to It!

Argentine Beef Stew

 The first thing you need to know is, you can’t do it wrong.  There are as many versions of this dish as there are cooks in Argentina.

1 to 1.5 lbs beef, cut in cubes (I use a whole chuck roast, slice off most of the fat and cut the rest into cubes)

1 One large brown-skinned onion, peeled and diced

4 Cloves of garlic, peeled and diced

5 Cups of beef broth (I used 6 heaping tablespoons of Bovril in 5 cups of water - just to make the broth richer)

1 Can (14 oz) of whole tomatoes, drained

1 Lg sweet potato, peeled and cut in a medium dice

1 Green bell pepper, seeded and diced

1 Sm to med Acorn Squash, peeled, seeded, and chunked (don’t worry if you don’t get off every bit of skin)

1 Cup dried apricots, chopped

1 Teaspoon dried or fresh oregano (You should have planted some oregano last spring!)

Salt and black pepper to taste.  Careful with the salt because the broth is already salty.
Getting it Done!

Heat the oven to 250ºF

On the stovetop, put some olive oil (about 2 Tablespoons) in a stew pot and heat to a medium temperature.  Add the onions, garlic, and green pepper.  Slow is the secret.  Do not let the onions burn.

When the onions are translucent, add the beef and stir to lightly brown.  Add the whole tomatoes by squashing one at a time into the pot.  You’re not really a cook unless your hands get messy and smell like onions and garlic and tomatoes!  Add the oregano and give everything a stir.

Add the beef broth and bring to a boil.

Cover the pot, put it in the oven, and cook for two hours.

Add the cubed sweet potatoes, chunked squash, and apricots.  Cook another hour.

Bring the stew pot back to the stovetop, take off the lid, and boil the stew until the broth is thickened and reduced by about half.  Judgment call at this point.  Give the broth a taste.  Rich and wonderful?  It’s done.  Still too watery?  Leave it on a while longer.

Ready to eat!  I serve it with thick slices of heavy bread.  If you really want the flavors to meld, let the stew cool and reheat it the next day!

Before reduction.  Boil it a while longer!
A vegetarian?  Sorry.  Tell me again why you’re reading about BEEF STEW.  Don’t like green pepper?  Not a fan of sweet potato?  Don’t like the idea of apricots in your stew?  Ok, you whimpy whiner, grab another beer, sit back and let the rest of us eat this succulent Argentine Beef Stew in peace.

Don't forget to also try my Steak and Ale Pie!  It's going to be a long, cold winter!

Monday, October 19, 2015

La Bonne Auberge: A Jewel in the French Culinary Crown

La Bonne Auberge  (The Good Inn) sits unobtrusively in a drab suburb of Forbach, France, so close to Germany you can only tell you’ve crossed the border when the roasty smells of wurst and beer disappear.  Suddenly, it’s France and just as suddenly the food changes, and you’ve left behind the tried and true meat and potatoes. My German friends won’t like to hear this, but you haven’t just stepped up a rung, you’re on a different ladder, surrounded by ambrosial clouds.  I always say, the French can teach anyone how to eat.  At La Bonne Auberge even the French can learn a thing or two.

In this small inn, one does not eat; one dines amid the tinkle of sparkling crystal and glint of polished silverware.  Awarded a Michelin Star some time ago, it’s never lost that distinction.

A word about the Michelin star system for American readers:  One Star:  So amazing, you will insist on telling even complete strangers you happen to pass on the street.  Two Stars:  It’s here where God’s angels gather for a meal.  Three Stars: God has a permanent reservation, and the waiters call him by his first name.  That’s according to those who do the rating. 

My rating system is different, but what do I know?  FYI:  I’ve visited many Michelin starred restaurants.  And what is it I look for?

My ultimate question:  Would I return, even if my credit card were full and my bank account low?  For La Bonne Auberge, the answer is:  Three thumbs up and the next round is on me!!

Another question:  Would I invite a friend to join me and still pick up the bill?  For La Bonne Auberge the answer is:  It would have to be a friend who not only knows what Dom Perignon is, but knows how to spell it.  In other words, a close friend and congenial gourmet, with table manners worthy of a prince or princess.

Still another question:  Would I walk away thinking I could have done better?  After a meal at La Bonne Auberge, the answer is NON, NON, et NON.

Want to read some more specifics about Michelin Stars?

Isabelle (standing), a woman with a compelling sense of color and design,  and Lydia, whose bright eyes and warm smile shower you with imagination, innovation and culinary courage.

Let’s get to the meat of the matter.  Two sisters, Isabelle and Lydia both own and run La Auberge, with help from significant others.  They began circa 1980 or 81, when Isabelle was 19 and Lydia 21.  To clean things up in your mind, Isabelle is the sommelier, and maître d’, and interior decorator.  Lydia is the innovative magician in the kitchen. 

In Lydia’s case, Chef is far too bland a word.  What she brings to the kitchen is ingenuity, imagination, and sensuality that take your breath away with each glance and each bite.

La Bonne Auberge is more than a restaurant, much more.  Part artist’s atelier, part elegance, part design studio, and above all a dining experience that leaves you speechless, as you eat and sip your way from one part of paradise to another, each step of which is narrated by Isabelle’s lyrical voice.

You think this is just a restaurant?  Are you mad?  Insane?  This is culinary heaven, a lifetime event.   Ok, now you’re sure I’m exaggerating.  Point of fact, the two old friends who took me to luncheon at La Bonne Auberge last visited the inn some 25-30 years prior.  We were greeted at the door as visiting royalty.  Yes, everyone remembered my friends’ names!  Of course, we got kisses on both cheeks and warm embraces on the way in.

As we were seated, our eyes swiveled at the wonder of the interior.  Aperitifs appeared.  Lightly flavored Crémant, Alsace’s delightful rendition of sparkling wine.

“My how the place has changed,” one friend remarked.  Yes, it has.  Old photo albums quickly appeared at our table.  Thirty years ago, the restaurant was beautiful and pleasant, but ordinary.  Now, Cinderella has turned into a princess.  Now La Auberge is an elegant gallery of art in all its many forms.  In addition to the incomparable foods and dishes, huge canvases, alive with color, fill every wall.  Statues and ceramics.  But, rather than go on raving like a man who’s just won the culinary lottery, I’ll let the accompanying photos speak for the artistry that is La Bonne Auberge.

New York, with skyline and Central Park

Every detail, even the chair covering is exquisite

I'll come back in the Spring and enjoy the garden.

No detail is too small for Isabelle's practiced eye.

An olive tree grows in the central atrium.
I dare not attempt to name all the dishes or ingredients from Séduction, the six-course chef’s selection on the extensive menu.  The six courses include at least three or four individual tidbits in individual sauces.  Sacre bleu! In the French manner, portions, small and dainty, politely graced our china plates. 

The American appetite always growls for more … and faster.  The American appetite is indescribably foolish.  Relax. Sip the wine.  Enjoy Lydia’s artistry, as she fills your eyes with wonder and treats your taste buds divinely.  Listen attentively to the elegant descriptions provided by Isabelle.  Savor the silky blends of flavors you had never even considered before today.

Too vague?  Ok, let’s look at the mushroom plate, which the French call Cep, the Italians call porcini, the Germans Steinpilzen, and Americans call, ‘them brown mushrooms with big caps.’  Even this simple fare is graced with aromatic sauces that bring alive the woodland wonder of freshness and flavor.

Or the shrimp plate.  Only three shrimp, but you cut them time and again, relishing the small bites that capture the flavors of fig and mint and others whose names are forever lost to my mental acuity, but forever remembered by my palate.

From left to right:  Foie Gras wrapped in pasta, minced beef with beef liver, chicken gizzards

Oh, hell yeah!  1995 come alive once more!

Sorbet, accompanied by desiccated eggplant (aubergine) skin, encrusted with sugar.

Smoked trout in a melange of diced fruit and vegetable.

How dare I so rudely cut into these works of art???  I dared.
When the meal ended, both Isabelle and Lydia and company joined us for a few minor miracles of sweetness to accompany tiny cups of espresso.  We lingered for another hour or more amid laughter and conversation.  Believe me, you will too! Push aside the Michelin ratings.  Banish them.  This is dining at it’s very finest, an enjoyment of food and friendship that will last a few hours, but cling to your memory forever.  La Bonne Auberge.  

After lunch sweets.
No, there is no Internet site.  Isabelle does not accept that a wonderful dining experience rests on the click of a mouse.  Call her.  Listen to her voice.  Let her listen to yours.  Start with the human contact that will lead you back to La Bonne Auberge again and fill your dreams in between.

‪15 Rue Nationale, 57350 Stiring-Wendel, France

‪+33 3 87 87 52 78

Even the color and design of the small rugs capture your attention.

An Inn you will never forget!