adventures in craft beer and real food

Sunday, February 26, 2006

IMBB 23: Vive la France

I was on break the other day and one of my coworkers asked what I liked to do for fun. I told her that I enjoy cooking. When prompted what I cook, I told her that I have a real affinity for French food. She responded by saying that she enjoys "cooking gourmet" every once in a while.

Historically "cooking gourmet" meant cooking French. Yet the refined cuisine we imagine when we think of French food and indeed the food we cook in our restaurants isn't a good representation of French fare. Yes, the French are known for being of the world's preeminant cooks. But there's another side to what the French eat that we don't often talk about in the food world, and that's the rustic every day kind of food.

As I sat and tried to figure out dish best epitomizes the opposite of the kind of French food we find in our restaurants, a traditional Alsatian dish came to mind. Baeckoffe is a simple stew of meat and onions in white wine.

In the Lutèce Cookbook, Soltner gives a charming account of the dish's history. Apparently, women traditionally did the laundry on Mondays. Since they were so busy, they threw some meat, potato, and white wine in a pot on Sunday evening and let it marinate overnight. As their children went to school on Monday, they dropped off the pots at the village bakery. By that hour, the day's baking would be finished but the ovens would still be quite hot. The children would then pick up the pots on their way home at lunchtime, and the family would sit down and eat together.

It seems that a parallel story has emerged on the history of the dish. Several websites claim that the dish originated as a Sunday after church lunch. This (probably Americanized) version is almost undoubtedly false. The name of the dish means "baker's oven" via the German "Bäckhof." This fact signifies that the baker's oven must have played some role in the tradition of the dish. However, French bakeries are closed on Sunday.

Regardless of the dish's origins, I made baeckoffe.

On the first day of making it, I put half a pound of beef, lamb, and pork into a pot. Then I minced an onion and sliced some garlic, which found it's way into the pot as well. I then prepared a bouquet garni with two stands of thyme, parsley, and a bay leaf. I immersed the contents of the pot with a dry Alsatian white wine. In the interest of economy, and to stick with a rustic preparation, I chose a wine that was made to be quaffed. That is, I chose an Edelzwicker. This kind of wine is made out of whatever grapes the vintner has at hand, and isn't crafted into any particular "style." Ironically, though, the name means "noble blend." Specifically, I used a 2002 vintage Domaine Bott-Geyl. It was about $10 at my local wine store.

On its own, the wine is actually relatively tasty. In the interests of integrity, I need to fess up and admit that I'm more of a beer drinker than a wine drinker. The nose is full of muted fruit notes. I can almost smell grapefruit in the glass. The taste is slightly dry, with biting acidity and a pleasant but astringent oak aftertaste. The flavors aren't necessarily well balanced and seem vaguely "square" but I kind of appreciate a bit of edginess to the taste. At 12% abv, it seems fairly graceful.

After 36 hours of refrigeration, I sliced some russet potatoes and laid them into the bottom of a dish. The meat, onions, garlic, and marinade all got poured into the dish. I then cut up a half an onion and added it. Slices of potato topped the stew, after seasoning of course. The stew was baked at 300°F for 2.5 hours. I tried to seal the dish with some dough, but the lid seats from the side rather than from the top.

The result?


This is a no-nonsense dish in which any imperfection wouldn't hesitate to announce itself. The meat was not as tender as I would have liked, owing to the tough cuts of meat that were used (again, sticking with the spirit of the dish). When I make this dish again, I'll let the stew go for my "tried and true" four hours instead. From my experience, that produces wonderfuly tender meat.

As a wine, I wanted to set up a contrast. I was worried that the flavors of a dry white wine would cancel out the wine flavors of the stew. As a result, I deliberately picked something that might seem zany to some of you. I chose a pinot gris. As in that which was once called tokay. Tokay, which usually refers to the Hungarian variety, is dessert wine par excellence. My goal was to play off a sweet-savory contrast in picking the wine. Specifically, I chose a 1998 Domaine du Clos St. Landelin Grand Cru Pinot Gris.

By itself, the wine is exceptional. It's breathtakingly sweet, but in a good way. The nose is full of peach and apricot flavor, with strong wood notes. I think I can smell traces of green apple. The alcohol smell of the wine is very subdued, and lets the other scents really come through in a pleasant way. The flavor has none of the astringent or alcohol flavors that I expect in wine. Instead, it has a peach flavor that lingers on the tongue for tens of seconds. Over time, it fades to a wooden taste that isn't entirely rounded. But again, the wood taste is extremely pleasant and sets up a contrast with the rounded sweetness of the earlier fruit flavors. I'm not so sure that I'd drink this wine with dessert, unless said dessert were gelato or sorbet. However, this wine is so fantastically complex that I learned something new about wine with every sip. To drink it with anything would almost undoubtedly sacrifice that very quality of the wine.

Maybe it's because I'm not a sworn oenophile, but I thought the combination was pretty good. The sweetness did contrast with the dryness of the wine in the dish. The flavors were like a couple on a first date. Not completely going together, but clearly sharing some common interests. I was just happy that they didn't fight like a married couple.

In some ways, water seemed to be a better choice than the wine though. Despite the fact that the two wines have different flavor profiles, there was some cancellation of flavors. Water cleansed the pallate and let me taste the dish for the first time many times.

Since this is a food and beer blog, I think that any beer you think would go well with stew would be a good choice here. Any kind of Belgian dubbel or trippel would be nice provided the flavor wasn't tipped too heavily toward banana. A traditional English porter would make an ok partner, but only if the flavors weren't too roasty.

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Saturday, February 18, 2006

Political Commentary: junk food in school

A recent spate of news articles have brought attention to the growing scandal (so-called) of schools selling junk food. It's even brought the attention (and sometimes ire) of bloggers. Many say that it's unacceptable for schools to promote and even profit from childhood obesity.

Many of the responses to one of these articles, however, were misguided. The gist of the article is this: Even though schools in Boston have forbidden the sale of unhealthy snacks, students still indulge in junk food because they just bring it from home. The response goes something like this: This shows that the ban on junk food doesn't go far enough; junk food should be forbidden in school no matter where it's purchased.

Not so fast I say.

Now, I'm sensitive to the fact that experts say that today's youth are unhealthy and that there's a growing obesity problem in youth. But this solution isn't the right way to go.

For one thing, I wonder what the people who oppose junk food being sold in schools think of contraception-first or abstinence-first sex education. America's progressives claim that not providing contraception encourages unsafe sex (because students will have sex with or without protection). Which is true. But then they turn around and say that not making junk food available will stop the consumption of junk food among students. Talk about hypocrisy. Students will indulge in junk food whether or not it's available or allowed in schools.

And let's not forget that children are getting, on average, more heavy is a comprehesive problem. It's not just about eating junk food in schools, the caloric intake in itself probably contributes little to childhood obesity. Eating less overall, eating a greater balance of food, and regular exercise need to be prioritized together. This policy fails beause it only tries to tackle only one of these goals.

A better solution might be to teach students how to make their own decisions, so they themselves decide not to over-indulge in junk food. Simply cutting it out of schools like this simply makes a forbidden apple. Schools should work harder to work with parents, who -- I would argue -- have the exclusive right to decide what kinds of foods their children should eat. That right does not lie with schools. To say otherwise is to take a dangerous step backwards toward the mistaken policy of in loco parentis.

This entire issue is yet another example of cultural nannyism where one group of people thinks they know what's best for another group of people. The school nurse at Mildred Avenue School, Sue Burchill, sums it up when she's quoted as saying ''They are not capable of making good choices at this age, so you have to do it for them."

I don't know about you, but I knew that Three Musketeers and Munchos were unhealthy when I was that age. I knew that I shouldn't be guzzling Jolt. What the school nurse is saying is that even though 12 year olds can and have been tried as adults, that they have the cognitive ability to fully consider the ethics of murder, they don't have the cognitive ability to decide what to eat. What policies like this do is quite simple: it prevents children from making mistakes. And I think we learn the more from our mistakes than from our laws.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Restaurant Review: Rock Bottom Brewery

I made a visit to the Rock Bottom Brewery in Milwaukee last weekend. Yes, I know, it's corporate. But I figured that I'd give it a try.

The building is very stately, being directly next to the river. And the neighborhood seems nice with a boardwalk district. The large neon "Rock Bottom" lights would look great on a gentle summer evening, but the forbidding winter temperatures didn't allow me to fully appreciate the atmosphere.

Inside the heavy wooden doors, we were greeted by a clean interior that was made to look like an old neighborhood brewpub. As our host walked us to our table as if he were crawling, the atmosphere took on a more sports bar theme. Flat screen televisions were strategically hung from the ceiling showing ESPN2. At the time that was a track meet and then golf.

The booths are very long and comfortable. They're raised above the floor level slightly, which adds a nice touch. Unfortunately, it was also very cold in the restaurant and all three of us wore our winter coats for much of the meal.

It took so long for the waitress to show up at our table that we were beginning to wonder if she was on break. When she arrived, she clearly had the "let's be friends" style of serving that I find annoying and inappropriate. The menu is too long and doesn't stick to any sort of theme. I ordered a pint of their Stillwater Stout ($4).

The beer was good, although I could swear that it's a clone brew of Guinness. In other words, it has virtually no roasted flavor and plays a strong hand of malts. There's little to no bittering hops either. The beer only carried a modest head. This beer was fine, but I prefer my stouts flintily dry and crammed full of roasted flavors. On the other hand, this beer has a good sessionability to it.

We had an appetizer of nachos. It came out on a huge oval plate piled at least six inches high with greasy tortillas held together by cheese. The chips themselves were very greasy, and indeed we found a lake of fat on the bottom of the plate. The salsa was timid, as if it didn't want to offend anyone. It didn't have a good balance of flavor, and wasn't even slightly spicy.

I ordered the "meatloaf and mashers." It comes with a nice helping of two slices of meatloaf, a pile of mashed potatoes, and buttery green beans. The meatloaf can be sauced with either stout tomato sauce or brown ale mushroom sauce, and I picked the former because the ketchup-meatloaf combination is traditional. The meatloaf is juicy (they let it rest) and filled with pieces of sautéd mushrooms, which imparted a nice flavor to an otherwise bland dish. The sauce, however, was truly one of the worst sauces I've ever tasted. And believe me, I have an open mind when it comes to experiencing new things. It just tasted bad. The flavor consists of a full-scale battle between the stout reduction component and the tomato component. The stout reduction tasted stale, as if a pan had been sitting on the stove for the last three days. And the tomatoes tasted like they were rotting in the back of their fridge. As I said, the flavors didn't parter either by similarity or contrast in the slightest. To make things worse, the menu boasted that the meatloaf is "made from scratch." If a restaurant has toclaim that they make their own food, you know there are serious problems.

The mash was good, although bland. The menu boasted that the potatoes had white cheddar in them, but I assume they meant the processed cheese variety.

The menu also said the dish would be served with "seasonal vegetables." Since it's January, I was expecting celeriac, squash, or maybe sweet potato. What vegetable did they consider seasonal? Green beans. At least they were well prepared. The vegetables felt firm and were crisp, unlike most green beans that are available at this time of year. Moreover, they had been blanched and shocked in the French manner. Unfortunately, unlike the French they didn't reheat their green beans after shocking them and instead served them cold. Serving them this way should be reserved for hot and humid summer days when you want something light and cool, not in the middle of the winter where it's even cold inside. The green beans were sauced with melted butter. I would have prefered sauce beurre blanc myself. Still, the green beans were the best part of the meal.

I should note that the plating was done in a very uncreative way. I would have placed the meatloaf on top of the mash, and then arranged the green beans around it in a decorative manner. Instead they do a basic 12, 3, and 7 o'clock plating scheme.

With my dinner, I ordered my first tripel. The nose was full of banana and bubble gum. The flavor had a nice balance of banana, bubble gum, and malts. It had a pleasant bitterness to it that I appreciated. Even better, they served it in an appropriate glass. It raised a nice white head that just wouldn't quit. It went great with the green beans. But at over 9% (typical for the style), it was a gracefully big beer.

I'd go there again for beer, but I'm not sure if I'd go there again for food.