The Knives Are Always Wet

Monday, December 31, 2007

This entry promises to be long and rambling. A busy week coupled with a cold has made me fall behind. Christmas in New Bern was a little less nuts this year because there was never one moment where everybody showed up in the same place. That is not to say that things were calm, just that the chaos was more diffused. My mother's rococo Victorian was decorated to the nines, it's dining room and living room transformed into restaurant on Christmas night. My parents live right around the corner from Tryon Palace which means that they live right around the corner Tryon Palace Seafood as well. I discovered this place years ago by smell. I was led to it by the exhaust of its fryers. It mainly sells fresh seafood to be cooked at home, but there is a tiny takeout counter where you can buy fried oysters, shrimp, scallops or fish fillets. Everything is fresh and splendid. My sister Deborah and I often buy shrimp and/or oysters to snack on as we maraud through the second hand stores that dot the downtown.

I returned to Chapel Hill to a gloriously clean kitchen. It is always as clean as I can keep it from day to day, but there is something exceptional about a kitchen where one has had the time to take high pressure hoses to the walls and corners. I've been doing this long enough to have made arcane observations about this sort of thing- like the fact that every morning in the silverware bins, the knives are always wet while the other flatware will be dry. This is because they are denser, and thus retain the heat of the dishwasher for a longer time than it takes to dry them. They then gather condensation. Or, that plastic wrap refuses to be swept along the floor by hot water when we clean under the stoves. The heat causes it to seize up like shrink wrap and to cling in place to the floor. Then overnight as it cools, it fluffs itself up again. When you look under the stoves the next morning, you can't understand how you missed so much trash. Then, there are corn shucks. When you grill corn in its husk, the outer leaves turn into lighter than air cinders. They fly everywhere. The heat in the air keeps them aloft amid the hanging pans or behind the hood. Then in the cooling late night they settle back down to be found the next morning. I could go on and on but I'll stop with a comment on the adhesive properties of cooked collards. Almost every morning, when I'm drying the knives, I invariably discover some silverware with bits of collards that the dish machine has been unable to dislodge. Never any other food-only collards. I often wonder if I should notify NASA or the Pentagon about the tenacity of this natural mucilage.

posted by Bill Smith at 3:37 PM 1 comments

Closed but Ruminating

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Because of the way the holiday fell and because of a staff baptism (see photo to left), we are taking a little longer holiday than normal. This has given us time to clean the kitchen really well, to paint the bathrooms and replace worn out equipment. I have caught up on two months of inventory, and am spending time at my parents home in New Bern, North Carolina. This morning I went with my father to the farmers' market here. There were lots of baked goods for the holiday, Christmas greenery, and a fair amount of fresh produce. It was all winter stuff, but it is just enough milder here that you can grow most of the brassicas from November until warm weather. There were radishes, turnips, turnip greens, mustard greens, and the prettiest collards I have ever seen. They are amazingly fragrant when freshly cut. A bell choir from the Prebyterian church provided background music.

I love cold weather vegetables. We serve collards all year round, of course, (Despite, I must add, my great -grandmother's admonition to never ever use them until after the frost.), but sweet potatoes, rutabaga, brussels sprouts and parsnips are definately seasonal. My favorite of these is celery root. It has a crisp, fresh flavor. One large celeryroot will provide quite a lot of salad. It will grow well here when planted in the fall, but you do need to look out for nematodes. I can never quite convince the public on this one, though. I've put it on the menu in several guises. Presently it's julienned (with a carrot for color), tossed with shredded country ham and dressed with mustard and lemon juice. The first thing I had to eat, the first time I visited France, was a little plate of celery root remoulade that I got out of a vending machine on the train from Spain. I've always remembered it fondly.

posted by Bill Smith at 3:23 PM 1 comments

Pork Rinds Through New Eyes

Thursday, December 13, 2007

My trip to Celaya was even better than I had expected. It is always a pleasure to be in the company of old friends, especially those who you haven't seen in a long time. As I mentioned in my last post, these guys have a family meat business, so naturally, they prepared the bulk of the food for the wedding party. There were to be five hundred guests, so there was a great deal of food to cook. My task was to scrape the hair off of the hides of four large sows that were to be fried into chicharrones or pork rinds. I guess I had always assumed (if I had thought about it at all) that hair would have burned off in the fryer. Not so. The skins had to be carefully scraped from one end to the other before they were put into an enormous copper cauldron of boiling lard. The cooking was done outside in the courtyard. Actually, four large copper cauldrons were needed for all of the food. One was used to flash scald the pork that was to become the barbacoa, before it was tranferred into the others for a slower simmering. Later the pork will be drained, cooled a little and chopped to be eaten in tacos.

My friend Luis has branched out since I was last in town and has opened his own little butcher shop in a neighborhood that had had none. I sat with him there in the mornings as people came by to buy chorizos and milaneses or whatever, in small amounts, one meal at a time. People there shop day by day. The neighborhood children would hang out for a minute or two on their way to and from school. Luis will still get supplies from his father, but will no longer work for him.

Guanajuato is known as the state of "eternal spring" and indeed every day I was there, it felt springlike. In fact in the evenings, one wanted a sweater. I had hoped to get some writing done while I was there, but I was instantly seduced by circumstance and therefore couldn't possibly be either responsible or productive. I've always gotten lost in Celaya- it's about the size of Greensboro, but on this trip I finally got a handle on the layout and could find my way between places that I knew. This part of Mexico seems a little more prosperous every time I return. There are dozens of very swanky car dealerships. One can buy a latte or a cappuccino at the mall. There are ethnic restaurants. (I had a really delicious fettuccini carbonara at an Italian place on the one evening that I was left to my own devices.Instead of pasta with scrambled eggs and bacon its sauce was like a lovely egg enriched soup. This is probably how it's supposed to be made, I've just never encountered it before.) Globalization pulls everyone along.

I'm considering breaking form this winter. Ordinarily in January I go to Quebec City, but this year I'm seriously considering returning to Celaya to hang out with my friends some more.

posted by Bill Smith at 7:29 AM 1 comments

On Measurements and Mexico

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

On Thursday morning I'm off once again to Mexico to visit staff members who have returned home. This particular trip is the result of a wedding invitation colliding with an airline voucher that is about to expire. This will be my third wedding, but somtimes I go just to hang out. I love doing this. It never ceases to amaze me that although every single thing appears different, we are so very much alike. This trip I will be visiting Luis Ortega and his family in the city of Celaya in the state of Guanajuato. The family owns a butcher shop. One of Luis' little brothers, Camino, is getting married. I pointed out that I hardly knew Camino, but Luis said that it didn't matter. "Ven a la fiesta."

Preparing for this trip makes me think back a few years to when I trained my first Spanish speaking pastry chef. Having wet and dry measurements never made any sense to me and furthermore, I was preparing to teach someone who was used to working with metrics. I decided to switch all our dessert recipes to our set of beatup, but easy to read clear plastic measuring cups. Then I translated them all into Spanish. If they ever stop manufacturing this format of measuring cups, I'm in trouble.

I'm delighted to report that all my pupils were successful students. Francisco Guzmann, who I'll be seeing this weekend, went home and began making pineapple upside down cakes, which he sold to the schools.I've trained a lot of dessert girls (This is a generic term in a restaurant kitchen, applied universally without regard to age or gender. I've been one myself). I always tell them that they will never be out of a job, because good bakers are hard to find and hard to keep.

Every time I visit Mexico I am swamped with generosity. My friends are working class and they tend to live in gritty unglamorous places.Try as I might, I'm never allowed to buy so much as a postage stamp. Nobody ever has their own bedroom, but I always seem to get one.I could go on and on. For the next few days I'll be sitting on the hoods of cars drinking beer, listening to the trumpets of the mariachis in the cathedral or perhaps telling a swarm of giggling little children that the pinata is really full of angry wasps. My hosts will inevitably search for something weird for me to drink or eat. I always dig right in.

posted by Bill Smith at 6:42 AM 0 comments

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