Thursday, October 14, 1999
"Why," author MFK Fisher wants to know, "is it worse in the end, to see an animal''s head cooked and prepared for our pleasure than a thigh or a tail or a rib?" And furthermore, she continues, "If we are going to live on other inhabitants of this world, we must not bind ourselves with illogical prejudices, but savor to the fullest the beasts we have killed."
Of course, in her epic book The Art of Eating, she does recall being given quite a start at her first introduction to tete de veau, classic French charcuterie that calls for a calf''s head as the main ingredient. Actually, it was the fact that the recipe required half of a calf''s head--described in detail--that at first caused her to balk. But, by the end of the account, MFK, the bard of gastonomy''s belle lettres, is smacking her lips in high praise of her Aunt Gwen''s "cold shape." (We didn''t bow to euphemism, back in Alabama. We called it head cheese. Or souse, if we were puttin'' on the dog.)
One must wonder how these certain culinary breakthroughs come to pass. Who was the first guy on the block to figure out that if you stuck the end of the garden hose into a pig''s small intestine (minus the rest of the pig), rinsed it out and fried it up, you''d have yourself a fine mess of chitlins''? Perhaps it was the same trend-setting New York chef who figured it would get a lot of attention if he added some whitebait to the fisherman''s platter. Usually used specifically as bait, this worm-like fish that resembles bucatini pasta, only with two eyes, is representative of the most au courant of the culinary avant garde. It''s one of many new wave main courses that may be measured by their shock value.
If you order the pico roca ''cause you kinda like the way it sounds, the reverse could well be true if the appetizer list called it "steamed barnacles with drawn butter." Barnacles have become big-time, just like huitlachoche, sometimes described as "the Mexican truffle" and otherwise known as corn fungus. The kind that blackens the kernels, causing them to blow up to twice their size. Specialty wholesalers are getting $15 a pound for it. If you''re dining out at the latest pastel pink, cutting edge, Tex-Mex taqueria, it might be a good idea to ask the waiter what all goes in the "deluxe" burrito.
But, maybe the buzz is just much ado about nothing. Offal of almost every description is lovingly lauded throughout Larousse Gastronomique and the Escoffier Cookbook. You''ve got your Pieds de Mouton Poulette (sheep''s trotters in a snappy sauce), Vol au Vent de Cervelle (calf brains in puff pastry), and Ris de Veau Bonne Maman (veal thymus glands like mama used to make), ad infinitum. Maybe it''s just a matter of keeping your culinary hips loose. "One way to horrify at least eight out of 10 Anglo-Saxons is to suggest they''re eating anything but the actual red fibrous meat of a beast," says MFK Fisher. "It is too bad, since there are so many nutritious and entertaining ways to prepare the various livers and lights." You gotta love her.
Keep digging through your Escoffier and you''ll find that there''s nothing really new in the kitchen, after all. The Holy Father of gastronomy calls whitebait "one of the riddles of ichthyology, for, while it is generally admitted that it is the fry of one of the many species of fish, its real parentage is quite unknown.a dish the delicacy of which is incomparable." He prefers his fry fried.
Maybe it''s not such a stretch, when you think about it. It was indeed a brave soul who first ate an oyster, and who woulda thought that a wriggly, bug-eyed cephalopod could be so addictively delicious when it sits next to some cocktail sauce, transformed into a crispy, crunchy plate of calamari? For that matter, find me a Safeway in the land without a shelf dedicated to potted meat and Spam. Any bets on the real parentage here? Wine recommendation, anyone?
Speaking of which.
Over at Gino''s in Salinas, just one of the interesting Italian wines on their list is an Amarone, a Luigi Righetti vintage from the Veneto region. The Larousse Encyclopedia of Wine calls this style of wine "dry, yet stunningly opulent," and for a very good reason. After the grapes for this wine are harvested, they''re dried inside airy vineyard attics until sometime in January. The drying concentrates the flavor and makes for a big red wine with an almost sweet finish, redolent with plums and currants, and reminiscent of Port. This is the bottle to enjoy along with a plate of rich osso bucco. Magnifico!
A quick lesson on Italian wines: Italy is an area covering 116,333 square miles. Italy likes to drink wine, something that is apparent from the more than two million wineries you''ll find there. As a guide to understanding what all these wines are about, back in 1963 the DOC--Denominazione di Origine Controllata--law was put in effect, modeled after the French AOC system--Appellation d''Origine Controlee.
Like the AOC does in France, besides setting standards to regulate the way wine is produced, a wine labeled DOC links a specific zone to a particular style of wine: wines of controlled origin. Another law, passed in 1992, set up a pyramid of quality, the lowest rung becoming known as vino da tavola, or table wine that''s simply labeled as red or white.
The next rung up will have a label identifying the locality where the wine was made and the name of the grape. Then you get into your DOCs and another, higher quality grade, DOCG. The "G" stands for "garantita," meaning that it is held to yet higher production standards. But don''t be fooled--some vino de tavola wines are also DOCG. Many of these superior wines are produced in Tuscany, made according to their own standards, and are now referred to as the "Super Tuscans."