Uncle Boris’ Voodoo Saloon
by Bernard Brandt
Well, here I am again, peddling some more food porn. Part of the reason, I suppose, is some of the things I have been reading lately. One of those things has been a recent article from the Harvard Business Review. The take-away idea from that article is that only 10% of the American public likes to cook, while the other 90% is about equally divided in either actively loathing the process, or just being indifferent to it.
In typical Harvard Business School logic, what the author of this disquieting article wants his audience to conclude is that supermarkets and grocery stores should re-organize, and exclusively give the people what they want, and good and hard too: only pre-packaged crap that can be quickly reheated and put on plates. The author even goes so far as to praise this Reuters’ article, which in turn is an encomion of the latest food technology, in which packaged, sterilized food-like substances with unlimited shelf life will replace that nasty real stuff that tends to spoil and reduce market value. Even better, this stuff can be shipped by Amazon drones, and we can cut the middle-man of the local markets right out of the picture.
I dunno about you, but two images which immediately come to my mind are visions from that demented genius, Terry Gilliam, who turns his jaundiced eye toward the immediate future. The first is from his movie, Time Bandits, where one of the running gags in this delightful piece of mockery is “The Moderna Wonder Major All-Automatic Convenience Center-ette”, an automatic kitchen which the young hero’s mum praises as being able to ‘turn a block of ice into Boeuf Bourgignon in eight seconds.’
The second image comes from Gilliam’s somewhat darker film, Brazil, where the only existing haute cuisine in that alternate future is several scoops of… No, I can’t bear to say it. You’ll just have to watch it for yourselves, all seven or eight of you.
I am reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul here:
Now, if I were yer typical William F. Buckley, Jr. conservative, or some classical lauditor tempori acti, I would perhaps clutch my pearls, and stand athwart the course of history, shouting ‘STOP!’
But really, I find that sort of thing to be pretty effing stupid. Nor is it particularly effective. So, as the vibrants are wont to say, ‘Fornicate that excrement!’ Or something like that.
I intend on doing several other things, instead.
First, I plan on voting with my wallet. The rest of yez can pay too much at Bristol Scams, or Whole Paycheck, or Traitor Joe’s (although there are still some good values at that last, if you know where to look), if y’all should like. Far be it from me from changing the stereotype that too many Third Worlders have of white-bread Amurricans, that they ‘don’t know how to shop.’ If ya wanna spend too much for too little value, far be it from me to prevent you.
Second, I plan on cooking as much good stuff as I can, and sharing it with as many of my family and friends as I can. I hear tell that two of the old Roman Catholic Corporal Acts of Mercy are to feed the hungry and to give drink to the thirsty. That works for me. How about you?
Third, and most subversive, I plan on using this silly weblog and other means of teaching as many people as I can how to find good food and drink, how to prepare it, and how to serve it to as many people as you can. I’m also told that one of the Spiritual Acts of Mercy is to teach the ignorant. Personally, I think that among those Acts should be included a good full body massage.
But I digress.
So, let’s start with breakfast. How do hash-browns, a cheddar omelette, and freshly roasted and brewed coffee sound to you?
Okay. Let’s start with hash-browns. First, take a gander at this here clip by a Famous Cowboy chef. Actually, it’s quite good. Don’t worry, it won’t take all that long.
All right, then. The cowboy has said that the things you need for hash browns are potatoes, a grater, some oil or butter (or both), some seasonings (say, salt and pepper for now), a pan to wash the grated potatoes with, a towel, and a flat cooking pan with a lid that you can cook them in. You’ll need all of them. Ready. Set…..
I’ll assume that you’ve brought as many of ‘em as you can back. So, here’s a lesson I learned a long time ago from St. Julia Child and from my mother: figure out what you’re gonna do, break that down into steps, and then do the steps.
First, wash and grate the potato. The green scrubby you use for washing dishes should work. Scrub that tater. Rinse it off. When yer done, get the grater. It’s that metal box-like thing with the oval or round holes in it. Find the surface with the largest holes. Take the tater in one hand, the grater in the other, and rub the tater against the grater until the grater starts biting the tater. Put a plate or bowl under the grater to collect the grated tater. Try not to give yourself a manicure with the grater in the process. It hurts. And if you want to be adventurous and learn how to use a potato peeler to peel it, then be my guest.
Or, if you’ve got a Cuisinart or some other gadget that can grate taters, and you know how to use it, then go right ahead. I’m easy.
Second, put the grated tater shreds into a bowl, and fill the bowl with water. Let ‘em soak for half an hour. While you’re doing that, get things together for the next step.
Oh, and by the way, whenever you’re doing a recipe, read the whole damn thing. Figure out all the things you need, and the order in which you do them. Start as simple as possible, but get all of the parts. Read it through, and think it through, until you have a clear idea in your so-called head as to what to do. Then do it.
Third, when the tater shreds have soaked, pour off the water, and use your hands or a colander or that tea towel to squeeze as much of the water out as you can. Watch that cowboy YouTube clip again.
Collect the tater shreds into a bowl, sprinkle them with your seasonings (maybe pepper, maybe salt, maybe granulated garlic or mesquite seasoning, whatever tastes good to you), and use your hands to mix them, like someone tossing a salad.
Then get out your cooking pan. Personally, I prefer cast iron or stainless steel, but that’s just because I grew up in a family that knew how to do things right. If you have aluminium, or teflon, or any of those other Miracles of Science®, use what you’ve got. When you decide to do things right, you’ll eventually learn that using substances better served as ablative shields for the Space Shuttle, or which, like fluorine, are essential poisons to most carbon-based life forms, or both, are probably not a good idea for cooking. But again, I digress.
What you DO need, though, is a lid. You also need a pan at least 8” in diameter. Put enough oil or butter or both or even clarified butter to coat the bottom of the pan, with some to spare. Three tablespoons should work just fine for starters. Just don’t try using butter alone. It’ll burn.
Put that pan on the range heater (gas or butane or, dog help you, even electric), and wait until the oil is nice and hot, but not smoking. Then sprinkle the tater shreds in the pan until you’ve got about half an inch of shreds in there. Then put the lid on. And wait. Five minutes. Don’t peek.
And at this point, it’s best to know the Why as well as the How. By putting the lid on, you’re doing two things: 1) you are allowing the steam in the potatoes to cook them until they are tender; 2) you are allowing the oil and the taters to bake on a surface so that they both brown and are transformed by what science calls the Maillard reaction. If you don’t allow the taters to steam, they taste raw. Take a bit of raw potato and taste it, just to see what the absence of steaming or the Maillard reaction is like. The Science is Settled. So, again, don’t peek.
On the other hand, you are free to use your other senses. If it sounds like it is frying too much, or if it smells like it is starting to burn, then by all means, turn down or up the heat as necessary to get something good after five minutes. I believe that’s called using one’s common sense.
At the end of the five minutes, take the lid off, and use a metal pancake turner to scrape the bottom of the cooking stuff, to free it, and to turn it over. That’s a skill that takes some time to perfect, so don’t worry if you don’t get it right at first. What you want, though, is for the taters to get nice and crunchy brown. Three or so minutes more should work for that, but if it takes longer, then so be it. Then serve and eat.
Okay, those are the hash browns. You can improve each and all of the steps, by trial and error, or by plan. But the essential steps are these: shredding, washing and drying the potatoes; seasoning the taters with spices and salt, using enough olive oil, or oil and butter, or clarified butter, to coat the bottom of the fry pan; cover the fry pan for five minutes, then uncover, turn, and cook until the other side is done.
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Now for the omelette. Take two eggs. Put them, unbroken, in lukewarm water so that they rise to room temperature. They cook and taste better that way. Then break them into a bowl, and add salt and pepper to taste. Other spices work, like mignonette pepper, or white pepper, but let’s start simply. Take a fork, use it to pierce both yokes, and then beat with the fork until the eggs are well-beaten. I find 70 or so beats works well for that. But do as you like.
Then take that grater that you used for the potatoes (preferably washed first), and use it to grate some cheddar cheese from a block. Grate about half the amount by volume or weight which the eggs came to. Set the grated cheese on a plate or bowl.
Then take an eight inch round frying pan, preferably cast iron, but as you will, and put enough butter in (perhaps a tablespoon) so that when melted, it completely covers the bottom of the pan. Some take a stick of butter, heat the pan, and run the surface of the small end of the cube over the surface of the pan until covered. Some put a tablespoon of either hard butter or clarified butter or even olive oil in the pan and brush with a pastry brush until covered. Wut-ev. As that eminent philosopher, the Cable Guy, has remarked, just get ‘er done.
Then, heat the pan on the stove until the solid butter has stopped bubbling, pour in the egg mixture, and tilt the pan until the bottom of the pan is covered. As the egg mixture becomes cooked curd, pull the edges of the custard into the center of the pan, to allow more liquid to become curd.
When the omelette is mainly curd, sprinkle the grated cheese on the top of the omelette. When the cheese is melted and the custard of the omelette is completely set, then just wait until the surface of the omelette is the consistency you like. Some like it to be a dry and mainly golden yellow. I prefer a golden brown crust myself. Again, wut-ev.
But whenever it’s ready, it’s time to plate. There are a variety of way of doing this: either slide the whole mess onto the plate, or fold once or twice in the pan, and slide. Your choice. Here’s a vid by Jacques Pepin, who has quite literally written the book as to French Cooking Technique as to how to cook and fold it. Plate and enjoy.
* * *
Then, finally, there’s the coffee. And again, it’s a matter of breaking things down into steps. In this case, it’s a formula: two tablespoons of roasted and ground coffee per six ounces of boiling water. Let percolate for five minutes at 185 degrees. Then filter and serve.
And, as one has perhaps noted in the above two recipes, the devil is in the details. If you roast the coffee yourself, and serve within a week of roasting it, you get better quality coffee. If you freshly grind the coffee yourself, you get even better results. If you use filtered water instead of tap, ditto. And if you use a method of percolating that permits that process of mixture at 185 degrees for the five minutes, even better.
Me, I buy green Colombian coffee from a local market at $5 the pound. I’ve checked into online sources of my fix, and find that I can get it even cheaper there. I roast the stuff myself on a frying pan, weekly, and it takes me about fifteen minutes to do so. I keep the roasted stuff in a coffee tin in the reefer. I grind the stuff as needed for a cup or cups, and up until now, I brewed it with either a metal funnel I used as a drip percolator, or a French press, which worked even better. But since I am a bear of very little brain, like Winnie the Pooh, and one of Bored of the Ring’s boggies, that can not comprehend anything more complex than a garotte or a hand grenade, I try to avoid yer average steampunk espresso contraption. I couldn’t afford it, anyway.
Since I just broke my French press, I’ve decided on a simpler method, which still gets the job done. I boil twelve ounces of good water in a small sauce pan. I pour four tablespoons of freshly roasted and ground coffee into the boiling water. I then put stir the coffee once with a spoon, put a lid on the pan, and let it set for five minutes. At the end of that time, I pour it through a coffee filter, or better, through the metal funnel with a folded paper towel, and straight into the cup.
And so, for less than a dollar fifty in materials, I’m able to make a better breakfast than I could buy for ten times that amount. And, in about two thousand five hundred words, I’ve just shown you how you can do the same. And you’re welcome.
* * *
To sum up, it’s not all that hard to become a good cook. A lot of chefs talk about the Holy Trinity of cooking as carrots, onion, and celery (if they’re French), or carrots, onion, and bell pepper (if they’re Creole), or garlic, onions, and tomato (if they’re Spanish or Cuban).
Me, I think that the holy trinity of good cooking is materials, technique, and attention.
In short, if you take the time to learn the taste and quality of the materials of cooking, if you also learn the (limited) number of techniques in which you can put those materials together, and if you take the time and effort simply to pay attention to what is going on while you are cooking, you have all you need and all it takes to become a good cook.
And, as time goes on, I will be happy to inform you of those materials, that technique, and that attention.
I have, of course, an ulterior motive in doing all this. I figure that the more people who know how to cook, the less likely it is that our corporate lords in agribusiness will be able to put one over on us, and to destroy the means by which we can actually eat food that will nourish us, or that will taste good. And that would suit me right down to the ground.
* * *
And finally, allow me to explain the title of this little screed. It is perhaps good that the Lord Almighty did not see fit to allow me to become a priest. That is because, had He done so, I would most probably have taken the name of Father Boris, after my favorite cartoon character, Boris Badanov. As it is, though, I can take a pseudonym. Uncle Boris will be one of them.
In a long and misspent life, I have managed to become somewhat proficient at the several arts of fermentation: vinting and brewing, so far.
I intend on extending the field of battle to include distilling and cordial making.
My ultimate goal will be to host my own voodoo saloon: a home bar where all of the elements, mixers, beer, wine, spirits, bitters, and cordials, will be produced out of my own kitchen.
Of course, in an age when any independent thought or action is looked upon as crime, I risk being considered a criminal.
But, I suppose, it is with vinting as it is with cooking: the only way to become an accomplished criminal is to become a repeat offender. So be it.