Monday, December 31, 2012

The Beginning (and the E.N.D.)

“People have even made eating into something else: necessity on the one hand, excess on the other; have muddied the clarity of this need, and all the deep, simple needs in which life renews itself have become just as muddy.” – Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke

I will be brief as I have to slip into my clogs and head into work shortly. New Year’s Eve is one of the busier shifts in a busy restaurant’s year and I’d like to finish my list in time to slip into a party frock before midnight. Tomorrow morning’s frenzied feed will mark the end of the seasonal madness even as it signals the beginning of the New Year. The popularity of fried potatoes and eggs, washed down with a few Bloody Marys, epitomizes my feelings about going into a new year: Excess tempered by resolution, optimism haggling with experience.

The corridor between Thanksgiving and New Year’s requires focus and determination, energy, cooperation, vodka, and a good sense of humor. The jokes I make to the Expo about needing to push the rock up the hill, despite the high-wind warning and avalanche conditions, the silly puns we make from the names of prep items, the absolute hilarity of mislabeled containers, well, a little laughter goes a long way during the Big Push. Okay, but before I digress into an exposition on The Relationship Between Laughter and Flavor-Profiling, let’s tackle this New Year’s Eve Clog Blog.

The two things that interest me the most about Black Eyed Peas are, number one, they illustrate a Food Path, and, number two, they are considered “lucky.” The spelling of’s name (not to mention – are the periods meant to evoke the “eye” on the pea?) is another thing I find interesting about the Black Eyed Peas, and also, were I in the same green room with the group, I might have some questions about that Superbowl Half-Time performance.

Ah, digressions. At this rate, I’ll never get to work. The pepper jelly and the tomato-basil jam will remain unmade, a collection of separate ingredients sharing only an undetermined fate, rather than undergoing the transformation over heat into well-balanced accompaniments to the charcuterie. Also unmade: The mashed potatoes, the trinity, and the millions of gallons of stock. This paragraph is only here to mark the progression of my procrastination.

When a large population of humans is displaced, whether willingly or by force, the movement of the group across the globe creates a sort of Food Path (a term that is about as juicy and scientific as a piece of old bread). The Romans, with their vineyards and olive trees, forever changed the existing regional food in the entire Mediterranean basin. The Portuguese, and their consummate curiosity about What Lies Past the Horizon, opened up the world of spices and effectively Unblanded the Western World’s cuisine. And then there was the Slave Trade, which gave the New World peanuts, black-eyed peas, cucumbers and watermelons, and created a divisive element evident in pretty much every aspect of modern civil discourse. Things to think about for the New Year: how does the method of an ingredient’s incorporation into a cuisine – the way the ingredient arrived – affect the ways in which the ingredient is used and/or perceived? According to the source of all information in the world, Wikipedia, Sherman’s Yankees ignored the fields of black-eyed peas, even as they torched pretty much everything else, as they considered the pea nobbut animal fodder. And yet, two hundred years later, the humble sun-dried tomato swept across the culinary landscape, leaving a scorched swath of California Pizza Kitchens and Wolfgang Puck restaurants in its wake.

Was the Northerners' disdain one of the reasons hoppin’ john, a traditional New Year’s dish made from black-eyed peas, typically served with rice, greens and some kind of pork, was considered lucky? Because they were left alone? Our font of online information suggests that the peas, because they swell, symbolize prosperity, the greens symbolize money, and the pork, because pigs forage by rooting forwards, symbolize progress. The article also mentions that hoppin’ john is usually served with cornbread, but offers no insight into what the side dish might symbolize.

But the idea that food symbolizes anything is what interests me. Nicole Mones' book, The Last Chinese Chef, is practically an exercise in scratch-n-sniff reading, so clearly does she write about flavor and aroma. There is no shortage of symbolism in a culinary tradition as old as China’s – each ingredient is an element in a larger story; the completed dish has a clear narrative, a strong beginning, middle and an end, and the relationship between story and food is relatively easy to parse. American food is a mish-mash of different cultural markers and meanings  as a result of a bunch of pretty obvious factors that I don’t have time to analyze. 

But consider this. The black-eyed pea, as a legume, fixes nitrogen in soil, is extremely drought tolerant, is versatile and has a nice buttery flavor, and bees love its flowers – it’s the kind of crop you want to plant when you’re entering another year of uncertainty, or during a post-apocalyptic rebuild, or when you decide it’s time to start your own apiary. Right there we have practicality, hope, and ambition. Not a terrible set of words to start a new year with.

We had, for a minute, a Black-Eyed Pea Succotash on the menu. Served with molasses-braised short ribs, some mustard greens and sweet cherry tomatoes, the dish was a nice mix of traditional Southern cooking and the brightness of Pacific Northwest flavors.

Here’s a quick overview:

Sort and rinse the peas (there is a surprising number of pebbles in a bag of black-eyed peas).
Cook 4 cups of beans in lightly salted water for about an hour, or until tender. Drain and set aside.
While the beans are cooking, prepare your mise en place.
½ cup slivered garlic
¼ cup thinly sliced Serrano pepper
1 cup bacon, cut into lardon
1 red onion, brunoise
2 cups of corn cut from a cob (a bag of frozen corn is fine)
A handful of blanched haricots verts, cut into pencil-eraser sized pieces
10 piquillo peppers, diced (roasted red peppers are fine)
½ cup of apple cider vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Set the bacon in a large sauté pan and cook over medium-low heat to crisp up the cubes and render the fat.
When the bacon is a nice ruddy color and the fat is crispy, add the garlic and the serranos and gently cook them until the garlic is golden.

Push all that action to one side of the pan and turn the heat up. When the fat is lively, add the onions and corn. Toss, toss, toss. Saute for about 4 minutes, or until the onions will have lost their “raw” flavor. Add the beans. Toss, toss, toss. Add the peppers. Toss.

Combine this mixture with the cooked peas. Add the vinegar, about a tablespoon of salt and a nice teaspoon of coarsely ground black pepper. Stir and taste. Maybe a pinch of sugar if you feel like the spice and the vinegar call for it.

Serve with whatever you like – a braised pork shank, roasted chicken, short ribs, pork chops, a heaping pile of spinach – but be mindful of the New Year’s story you are telling – pay attention to the images each component on the plate evoke, because therein lie possible clues to your feelings about the New Year.  I hope those feelings are delicious.  

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