The two Comments of the Week

Sometimes something needs to be said and it's nice when one of you says it so eloquently, more eloquently than I could have said it. EL

Paul W and Donny B, you are technically correct about Baltimore's food traditions of 50 years ago disappearing, but the same can be said of any city and any era. In the 1940s, H.L. Mencken probably waxed nostalgic about the Baltimore dining institutions that fell to the Great Fire of 1904 or to Prohibition. New Yorkers of the same era likely bemoaned the closing of the original Delmonico's, scene of Diamond Jim Brady's greatest gluttony. Elderly Parisians probably thought that Maxim's became a tourist trap with the German occupation of the 1940s followed by the American tourist invasions of the dawning jet age. And so it goes.

Those of us who weren't in Baltimore 50 years ago can't recreate the past. The best we can do is to try to discern that which is best of what remains available today.

Posted by: hmpstd | October 1, 2009 6:54 PM

By popular acclaim I'm going to give the second Comment of the Week to sue veed for his/her dissertation on sous vide, molecular gastronomy, the state of modern cuisine during the Great Recession and the reason we don't have affordable health care. I do want to disagree that readers in general aren't interested in hearing more about sous vide and foam. But they are understandably skeptical of yet another trend that might or might not taste good but will make the food more expensive. Baltimore is a Show Me city. They will embrace it if you prove to them that it's a good thing. Anyway, here's the comment. EL

Get ready for a brief dissertation on "molecular gastronomy". ...

Hmm I recall already two weeks ago that your blog topics "leached" into your review, so somehow I have a feeling that you had some unsuccessful sous vide at Alizee, but we shall see in the review.

Not to be dogging the Baltimore food scene, but really just look at the comments -- nobody here is really interested in hearing about sousvide or foam or transglutimase (isnt that a heart medication hur hurr hurrr). And that's fine I guess. Any technique really has to be executed well for it to be effective -- it has to be better than what you could do without it.

Take for example a sous vide steak. Basically what you do is put your steak in a vacuum bag, seal it, and put it in an immersion circulator at a set temperature (say 125F) for 6 hours, or however long it takes to get there. Then your steak is perfectly med-rare throughout, and a quick toss on the grill. Now for like a sirloin, is that better than just grilling it? I dont know. Maybe if you infuse some herbs into it.

But a sousvide short rib that is cooked at say 130 for 48 hours or whatever (see also the flank steak I had at bistro blanc), youre getting a pink piece of shortrib that as just as tender as any pot roast you've had, which is a pretty interesting improvement on the original (the tenderizing effect is temperature vs time.. the collagen breaks down at say, 170 internal temp for 3 hours, but also 225 for 2 hours (but your meat is also shredded and dry), or say 130 for 35 hours. These are enhancements to the original.

Foam is out -- air is in. Again with many of these chemically thickened sauces, well say you want to make an intensely flavored chicken consomme. What do you do.. start with stock, mix egg whites with ground meat, let it bubble gently, strain it carefully, through a coffee filter etc etc. Now what if you wanted to make an intensely flavored tomato consomme. Or lime juice, or maple syrup? Kind of out of luck, unless you turn to some chemical agents (well agar which is seaweed, so its not too crazy).

Same with say a cheese sauce, or an intense red wine sauce or something -- normally it involves concentrating flavors, thickening with roux or cornstarch.. a lot of cooking and muddling of the original flavor. But with use of some chemical agents (yes I do like using this peculiar phrase more than "molecular"), you can make a very intensely flavored sauce or whatever, that is not marred by starchiness or reduced, burnt flavors, etc.

Again.. improvements over the original.

So anyway to end my little essay here, I'm not saying that these should replace common everyday food, nor are they always better. But I feel they are interesting when they can ENHANCE a dish.. make it better than could be done normally. But its also a double edged sword because Im sure there are cooks out there (not necessarily in Baltimore, but anywhere), who can do all these airs and foams and spheres and not be able to make a simple chicken stock -- there's a reason you teach long division, and not just hand kids a calculator. Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz were spectacular cooks before they tinkered with these methods -- it doesnt work the other way around. And you need a staff who is familar with these methods and can pull them off.. I really don't know if Baltimore has such a sophisticated talent pool yet (besides some obvious exceptions).

So where does all this fascination come from? I heard an interesting theory.. that basically it is a continuation of peasant food becoming haute cuisine. Back in the day, terrines and forcemeats, confit and such.. food of the poor, who HAD to eat those cast off parts, save them however they could. Even in the 50s, commercials would say "the MODERN woman uses canned celery hearts", and wonderbread.. and only the lower class would still have to make their own bread. Now.. Im dying for a good sourdough around here. Offal and charcuterie as well have had their resurgence into vogue.. it was a really desperate man who said "lets boil a pigs head, cover it with fat and gelatin, and eat it all winter". Now look at how many restaurants have a chicken liver mousse or "pate d'grand mere" on the menu.

So look even today.. what is our "peasant food".. fast food, junk food. Which is precisely where you will find agar, gellan, xanthan, methylcellulose, sodium alginate (burger king onion rings), and the like. It's just an extension of who we are (like it or not) as a society now, the old/lowerclass being elevated to the 'cutting edge'.

Anyway, this is very long, but I can't sleep, so thanks for reading. :)

Posted by: sue veed | September 30, 2009 2:41 AM

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