January 24, 2013

A Quick Trip to Louisville, Kentucky

I'm just back from a foray into bluegrass country. Louisville is a compact and genteel city, where the faded glory of its nineteenth-century homes and buildings bumps up against a percolating farm-to-table and innovative drinks scene. It's hard not to like a city where life seems to revolve around horses, college sports, bluegrass music, food, and drink, a city whose most famous sons (broadly speaking) are Muhammad Ali and the Louisville Slugger.

The $82 million, six-story Muhammad Ali Center could have ended up the ego-driven deification of a great, still-living athlete. It does do its share of deifying, but focuses equally on Ali's humanitarian acts and moral courage, as well as his vision for international peace. I loved this installation by Korean artist Ik-Joon Kang, part of a larger series of 3" x 3" drawings that he has collected from over 135,000 children around the world. The drawings express their makers' hopes and dreams, so from far off you can see that the images spell the words "Hopes & Dreams." From close up, you can examine each child's individual visual message.

Ik-Joon Kang's "Hopes and Dreams." 

"Hopes and Dreams" from close up.

Dining in Louisville brought back memories of eating in Atlanta, Richmond and New Orleans, where the deep, sweet, sour and smoky flavors of barbecue and collard greens seem to inform those region's cooking as a whole. In Louisville, good baking and desserts abound as well; the biscuits, bread puddings and cobblers put northern attempts at the forms to shame.

Biscuits at the old-line Oakroom at the Seelbach Hilton Hotel.
Knowing how to get the best out of pork products is part of the Southern genetic heritage, as Decca chef Annie Pettry's super hay-braised pork cheeks with wheat berries, rutabaga, pistachios and apricot  demonstrated. Born in North Carolina, Pettry has cooked in kitchens in San Francisco and New York as well.

Hay-braised pork cheeks at Decca.
At chef Edward Lee's 610 Magnolia, the Brooklyn-raised Korean American chef mixes southern flavors with Asian accents (his king crab with coconut-banana, mango, red pepper and daikon sprouts is one example). When Lee arrived in Louisville eight years ago he began playing with forgotten and/or local products. He was so taken with the region's network of small farms and their handling and processing of livestock that he ended up staying. "Why would you use French honey when you have sorghum in the backyard, or spend money on osetra when a mile-and-a-half away you've got spoonbill (native paddlefish) caviar?" he asks.

Bourbon, of course, is Kentucky's spirit of choice, and we came back with our share of the mind- boggling array on sale in any liquor store. I'll share a dynamite bourbon-based cocktail I tried at Decca in my next post. 

January 14, 2013

Cassoulet All the Way

Who says cassoulet can't include pizza toppings?

I love the contrarian and agrarian bent of Jimmy's No. 43's annual Cassoulet Cookoff, which unspooled yesterday afternoon amid an avalanche of delectable bean and pork stews.  While the general post-holiday zeitgeist is centered on exercise and diet apps (and maybe even the actual doing of exercise) the irrepressible Jimmy Carbone takes the opposite tack, massaging winter blues away with a healthy dose of beer and cassoulet.  Thus, even though it was unseasonably balmy, the annual cookoff went forward at Carbone's boisterous East Village pub/restaurant.

Jimmy, as I've written before, is a tireless planner of events and doer of good, in this case donating all proceeds from the event (over $2,000) to Grow NYC and in particular to its very cool Youthmarket Farmstand Project.

Close to a dozen professional and amateur chefs showed up with steaming pots of cassoulet, and the variety and imagination on display were dazzling. The beans alone could have staffed a whole legume runway show. There were giant cream-colored butter beans winking from a delicious Iberian cassoulet featuring Asturian cider and Spanish blood sausage; Cayuga pinto beans with pulled pork, porter beer and fresh mozzarella; Great Northern beans from Matt, a home cook who riffed on Julia Child's recipe with lamb shoulder, goat, and Toulouse and garlic sausages; black-eyed beans camouflaged among burnt brisket ends from Mighty Quinn's Barbecue; a black bean cassoulet, and in the winning cassoulet, flageolet beans.

The winner: Laura Luciano.

Laura Luciano, a gifted amateur chef from Long Island who blogs at Out East Foodie, swept both the People's Choice and the judge's top spot (yours truly was a member of the second group), proving, as emcee and himself a producer of food "take-down" events Matt Timms, said, "that the judges are as smart as the people."

Luciano's two-to-three day cassoulet whispering process makes it clear why hers tasted so deep and transporting, as if French monks had been chanting over it for weeks. She braised pork butt on the stove with celery onion, carrots and bay leaf, added duck stock and cognac, and finished the braise in the oven.  Luciano pureed all the aromatics from her braise and added the mixture to her simmering flageolet beans, along with pancetta and duck sausage. Oh, and she confited her own duck and made her own duck sausage for the first time in her life, too, adding a layer duck fat to her beans as they cooked. Luciano credited much of the deliciousness of her dish to plenty of duck fat, though the fact that she took zero short-cuts mattered just as much. To top it all off, she added finely ground duck cracklings and minced micro carrot and parsley greens to her bread crumbs--all of it toasted, of course, in duck fat.

The judges' scorecard.

As we mulled over our top picks, several judges pointed out that a few of our favorites tasted great but weren't true cassoulets, such as the Iberian cassoulet and a delicious vegetarian cassoulet with parsnips created by Rich Pinto (so appropriately named that he was destined to place at least), a former Jimmy's No. 43 chef who still works the restaurant's catered and special events.  No problem, we just created a new category for them: "the best non-cassoulet cassoulets."

Back home, this discussion sent me to my Oxford Companion to Food, in which the late, great Alan Davidson wrote that the haricot bean is the most important ingredient in cassoulet, although Old World beans must have predated them (haricots did not arrive in France from the New World via Spain until the 16th century). Beyond that, though, there a fair amount of variety in French cassoulet meat types. Although pork and pork products predominate, cassoulet can include leg of mutton, duck,  goose or even confit d'oie (goose liver).

Despite its tradition-bound image, there are innovators in France: Davidson finds reference in Larousse Gastronomique to a cassoulet made with salt cod. Hear that, those of you planning your  bid for the sixth annual cassoulet cookoff title?