Tag Archives: Harold McGee

Go, Daddy, Go!

This story of abundance begins two hours away, at a freshwater reservoir in north-central Utah, where, on a summer night, crayfish emerge from sandy soil and are easily caught between a net and a bright flashlight. Two hunting methods prevail. Shine a light in shallow waters where crayfish dwell and either: position a net behind them to catch them as their abdominal muscles (i.e. the delicious “tails” we seek to eat) furiously backpedal, or position yourself to pluck them by hand, one by one, writhing, in tact, as they slowly maneuver forward. Toss them quickly into ice coolers waiting nearby.

 

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Crayfish in wait.

Genetic cousins to insects, crayfish (also known as crawfish or crawdads) are crustaceans that have proliferated as a species for millions of years. Sturdy exoskeletons and an instinctual affinity for the dark have encouraged their success. To their detriment, their sexy abdomens: humanity’s temptation.

In the intervening hours after catching crayfish, and prior to boiling the crayfish in restaurant-sized pots situated on heat sources of your choosing, encourage the little bugs to purge the mud and flatworms from their digestive tracts by submerging them in a series of cleansing salt-and-ice-water baths, each of which should grow successively less murky as the purging progresses. Crayfish, like other crustaceans, have evolved to self-metabolize at death; their digestive enzymes quickly begin breaking down the very muscle tissue prized by food enthusiasts, so be sure to keep them very cold and cook them quickly.

At cooking time, aim for maximum output and minimal clean-up. Our hosts, Kurt and Maggi, set out vinyl tablecloths topped with newspaper and mason jars filled with fresh flowers (the former for practical disposal, the latter for aesthetic pleasure). Maggi and Kurt invited all guests to contribute their lot of corn-on-the-cobs, red potatoes, sausages, and butter. Kurt graciously incorporated all of our ingredients into a crayfish boil, extending the haul – with generous sprinklings of Old Bay – to a lavish backyard feast. Maggi adorned each table with bowls of hot, melted butter for dipping.

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The art of eating involves tactile education, which many guests received together, under Kurt and Maggi’s tutelage. With their guidance we learned to twist and snap the abdomens away from the upper bodies, and to grasp the middle tail fins in order to pull out the digestive tracts cleanly. (These are filled, mostly, with sandy debris.) Once accomplished, we smashed the protective abdominal shells in order to harvest the silken meat. Crunchy orange confetti, small enough to be overlooked, signify females and their roe. That weird green stuff under the spindly legs? Probably related to the tomalley in lobsters, crayfish’s bigger, saltwater relative: sometimes used as a flavorant, but deleterious to leave in tact, for its self-destructive tendencies. Should we eat the claws or the heads, as we’d seen on television? Yes, we could, crunching their shells in our teeth – we found them briny, but less abundant than the abdomens, which yielded fleshy stores about the same size as small-to-medium shrimp.

Seafood boils have roots in the coastal regions of the southern United States, but they vary in history, geography, and name: clam bakes, shrimp boils, low country boils, etc. Boils flourish in ice coolers (excellent insulators for temperature extremes); in cast iron pots or Dutch ovens; on the stove; on the grill; and in any place the human initiative seeks to celebrate the bounty provided by the natural world. For us, it was central Utah on a random July night with gas stoves in a friend’s backyard.

James Beard wrote fondly of the crayfish boils of his Oregon youth. “If you can find or order crayfish in your locality,” he wrote, “they are something to hail with joy and treat with reverence.” He cooked his in court bouillon; we cooked ours in water and Old Bay, but I like to think that, over two nights and in our very small scale, we joined Beard in spirit, hailing in joy over a delicious feast.

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© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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Thanks Be

Dear Mary Frances,
Thank you for pioneering the genre of food writing.  Your smart prose blazed the way for thousands of writers today – most significantly, female writers –stripping stigma from a field once thought to be solely esoteric and reminding us that food offers so much more than its nutritional content.  Your writing rallies interest in the pleasures, no matter how modest, of the plate.  I have read The Art of Eating at least half a dozen times, and I always discover new meaning with each reading.  You are my idol.

Cher Jean Anthelme,
Your immortal words set the tone for each episode of Iron Chef.  What would the tone of the show have been without them?  Would Chairman Kaga have appeared so Chairman-ish?  The Iron Chefs so ennobled?  Your keen attention to the virtues of culinary enjoyment is rivaled only by your witty social commentary.  I really appreciate that level of attention.  I’ve been wondering… If I believe that wine, cheese, and bread are major food groups, does that mean I’m actually French?  Do tell, do tell.

Dear Julia,
I’m thankful that we share a common first (and nick) name.  I’ve often envied what I’ve read about your marriage to Paul.  He wrote you lyrical love poems for your birthday, for goodness sake!  Together, you created personalized valentines to share with friends each year.  You had what truly seemed like a passionate storybook relationship.  I envy that.  But I also envy – perhaps I should say admire – your robust sensuality.  You would have been so fun to party with! I would have loved to watch you at work in the kitchen.  Sometimes I pretend to be you. (My daughter, Rory, finds these reenactments hilarious.) I think of you every time I accidentally drop a piece of food.  Thank you for making it okay to use the five second rule.

Dear Laurie,
Your writing gave me the idea to host a tea party in honor of my daughter’s birthday.  As I draped beaded garlands over the lights and scattered lavender buds across the table, I thought I heard your voice calling out in singsong approval.  Thank you for writing about your daughter with warmth and affection.

Dear Calvin,
Though I think your wife, Alice, was spot on when she coined the term “food crazies,” and though chances are likely that I am one myself, I appreciate your sustained interest in all things food-related. Thank you for being a “food crazy.” Your version of the first Thanksgiving is far better than the one I learned in elementary school.  I fully support your campaign to make spaghetti carbonara the official Thanksgiving dish.

Dear Harold,
You know you’ve got real cred when chefs all over the world refer to your tome as their “McGee,” as in, “I’ve got my McGee right here!”  I thank you for your tome and your cred. You’ve helped me through many a food inquiry.  I hope you don’t find this too creepy, but I think of you as Uncle McGee.  You seem like the type of person I’d enjoy spending time with on my deck.  As the sun descends over the western mountains, I might casually turn to you and say, “So, Uncle McGee?  Tell me the story about when you wrote your book.  Did you have a grant to fund your daily expenses as you researched?”  And you might chuckle, take a sip of your Malbec, and say, “Well, it all started back in the eighties….”

Dear Jeff,
You are an enigma when you guest-judge on Iron Chef America and Top Chef.  You share the same name as one of my first “real” crushes, a sous chef named Jeff who worked at the finest dining establishment in my college town.  The state he left me in was not funny, but you are.  Thank you for giving your assistant a comically disproportionate amount of work to do and for fielding so many marriage proposals. Thank you for accidentally poisoning yourself with taro leaf and writing about it with humor.

Dear Jane,
Mushrooms, onions, butter, sour cream, and dill…  Who knew? I serve your sour cream sauce over a big bowl of rice.  The mushrooms whisper, “We are so happy,” and so am I.  Thank you for loving fungi enough to dedicate an entire book to them.

Dear Tony,
I started watching your television show before I read any of your work.  I (unfairly) assumed you had writers.  Then I read your books, and your writing bowled me over. I couldn’t believe it!  Your prose is tight!  I haven’t had the good fortune to travel the world like you, but your writing amazed me with its ability to make me ravenous.  I’ve never tried pho, and yet I feel as if I have tasted it with you on the streets of Vietnam.  In my imagination, we traipsed across the globe throughout A Cook’s Tour, loosening our belts and belching happily.  I was your Zamir.  Thank you for making me hungry.  Even though No Reservations is over, never stop being hungry for more, okay?

Cher Jean Louis,
Will you ever find me indispensable? I think the world of you and would gladly be your scribe.  Thank you for renewing the zeal of my Francophilia.

Dear Readers,
Thank you for reading my work. I’ve been busy with a new job and haven’t been in the kitchen as much as I’d like, but I really appreciate all of your continued support. I am thankful for you.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Love, Jules

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Green Eggs

Go green.

A burly man with an impressive white beard and faded blue overalls greets me at the Farmer’s Market.  “Well, hello!” says the man, whose name I soon learn is Tennessee.  He extends a warm hand.  “Welcome to our market, young lady,” he says.  As I select my produce for the week, Tennessee pulls aside my 4-year-old daughter, Rory, and says, “Aren’t you a pretty one?  Would you like a plum?”  She accepts his plum with a toothy grin and seats herself on a nearby cooler, nibbling.  My son, Kai, joins Rory momentarily with a plum of his own. Over the tables piled high with peaches, tomatoes, apricots, corn, and berries, Tennessee asks how much I’d be willing to sell my children for.

Kai and Rory, who agreed to accompany me because I bribed them with the prospect of freshly popped kettle corn, find Tennessee enthralling.  “Have you ever seen a green egg?” Tennessee asks.  Kai and Rory’s eyes widen.  “Like the book?” they say, pressing their little bodies forward.  Tennessee nods.  “Like the book,” he says, leaning in conspiratorially and flourishing his arm over a carton containing eggs in a spectrum of colors: white, beige, brown, pale green, pale blue.  “Whoa!” exclaims Rory.  “Cool!”

Tennessee encourages us to take home a dozen of his fine eggs.  I explain that I already have a dozen store-bought eggs at home and could never go through two dozen eggs in a week.  “Aw, those eggs are old,” he says, dismissing the eggs at home with a wave of his hands. “Here’s what you do with old eggs: hard-boil them.  That’s all they’re good for.  Be sure to make the water very salty.”  I pack up my purchases and thank Tennessee for his hard work.  “Not at all, my dear,” he says, smiling.  “Not at all…  And don’t forget to come back next week for some green eggs!”

*

Kai recently started reading Green Eggs and Ham aloud to me in the car, so green eggs have been on my mind.  My copy of The New Larousse Gastronomique lists several variations on green eggs, among them: Oeufs… en chartreuse (with carrots, turnips, French beans, green peas, and braised cabbage); à la chevreuse (with pureed French beans); à la chivry (with butter-fried asparagus tips and chivry sauce, consisting of white wine, shallot, chopped chervil and tarragon, velouté sauce, white stock, and butter); à la clamart (with peas à la francaise and green pea butter); and à la cressionère (with watercress puree). All of the green ingredients repeat themselves in respective recipes for hard-boiled, poached, scrambled, and omelet counterparts as well. Tarragon and other green herbs play supporting roles.  Larousse recommends boiling eggs in water with well-mashed spinach in order to attain green Easter eggs without the use of artificial dyes.

Tennessee’s green eggs result from genetics: a chicken’s breed determines the color of its eggshell.  I owe thanks to blue-shelled breeds like the Chilean Araucanas, who crossbred with brown-shelled chickens to create my beloved greens.  Leghorns comprise a majority of white shells available today, while Rhode Island Reds and Plymouth Rocks produce brown shells.  The Science of Good Food informs me that “the color of the shell has nothing to do with the nutritional quality of an egg, nor how it was processed.”  Nutritionally speaking, an egg is an egg regardless of differences in outward appearance, though there is some evidence that free-range chickens nourished on a varied diet produce eggs that are richer in flavor, as Larousse posits.

The egg salesman at the Farmer’s Market – a boy of about ten who I suspect is one of Tennessee’s grandchildren – confided that sometimes the green eggs have double yolks, which instantly elevated them to my favorite variety.  Though it may pain my physician to read this, the yolk is the jewel of my egg.  I adore a soft, creamy yolk with the white barely set, whether soft-boiled, poached, or fried.  Double yolks?  Sweeeeet.  Here is my perfect soft-cooked yolk formula for 6400 feet above sea level:  Place eggs in cold water, cover.  Bring to boil, remove cover, add salt, and quickly reduce heat to a gentle, almost non-simmer.  Simmer for 4 minutes only.  Empty pan of water and replace with lots of cold water to cool eggs.  Peel off shells, cut eggs in half, sprinkle with salt, and eat immediately.  You’ll lose some white if your eggs are fresh, but no matter.  In this preparation, whites are the readily discarded protective armor for the glorious yolks within.

“The egg is one of the kitchen’s marvels, and one of nature’s,” writes Harold McGee.  “Its simple, placid shape houses an everyday miracle: the transformation of a bland bag of nutrients into a living, breathing, vigorous creature…” A life-nurturing bundle of essential nutrients concentrated in one convenient package: shouldn’t it be celebrated as such in the kitchen?  Perhaps MFK Fisher, who clearly shares Tennessee’s egg opinion, puts it best when she writes: “I decided then, and I still hold on to it, that I would rather eat a good fresh egg only occasionally than have a whole cellarful of those dishonest old ones, which in spite of being ‘almost as good as new’ would not make omelets, even, but had to be used in cakes and cookies.”

Old age is the primary culprit in egg dishonesty.  As McGee explains, egg whites become “progressively more runny with time.”  Additionally, a slow influx of the water present in egg whites crosses into the yolk each day, causing “the yolk to swell, which stretches and weakens the yolk membrane,” thinning the yolks “dramatically.” Runny whites may be easier to separate from the yolks, rendering them optimum for baking, but most egg cooking methods benefit from the use of fresh, firm eggs.  Is there a good way to test an egg’s honesty?  Drop it into a pot of cold water.  A fresh egg will sink – and quickly, because it has less air and is dense.  The older the egg, the bigger the air pocket in its fat end, which causes the egg to rise/float in the water.  Several authors agree that an uncooked egg should be discarded if it fully floats on the water’s surface.  Fisher contends that “the finest way to know that the egg you plan to eat is a fresh one is to own the hen that makes it.” I would add that it is also very fine to know the farmer who owns the hen who makes it.

*

I boil my store-bought eggs as Tennessee suggested.  The following week, I buy Tennessee’s instead: $2.00 for one dozen, a price competitive with the grocery store.

Tennessee’s eyes twinkle as he gently opens a cardboard egg carton to reveal the small, pale celadon eggs that his chickens have laid.  “You won’t see eggs like these in your supermarket,” he says.  “Aren’t they beautiful?”  My eyes move from his weathered, bearded face to the delicately hued eggs he presents before me.  I also won’t find this sense of vitality in the supermarket, this realization that these eggs come from multiple breeds of chickens with distinct personalities who roam Tennessee’s yard plucking bugs from the soil.  I hadn’t really thought about it before, but something clicks into place as I lift my eyes once more to meet his intent gaze.  “Yes,” I tell him. “They are beautiful.”

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