Monday, January 31, 2011

How I learned to love the red wattle

There is a white paper bag bleeding out along my counter top, a thin red trickle blushing the corner. The pig meat it was once holding is safely squirreled away in the fridge. I sweat white wine and a thinner, richer musk of bacon fat as I look through my fridge for a vegetarian option for lunch. My legs are tense and I feel like I've been salted, brined, and fried. But it is all worth it (as many days when I wake up to find my head in pieces on the floor) to have experienced the night before and the event...Cochon555 at the Fairmont.

On our first date, on our way to get a few sushi rolls, Kelly told me that he had double-booked in case the night went sour and he needed a pick-me-up. Ever since, all I have heard about for the past ten months has been Cochon, Cochon, Cochon. When it came back to Boston, I made sure to go if only to see how I stacked up against this pork phenomenon. Their mission statement from their web page sort of says it all: "Cochon 555 is a one-of-a-kind traveling culinary competition and tasting event--five chefs, five pigs, five wine makers--to promote sustainable farming of heritage breed pigs." Well, I may not have five chefs, wine makers, or pigs, but I can bend myself in half and talk dirty in Spanish (What you got now, Cochon?!)...

For weeks before the event, I visited their website. I studied the breeds of heritage pigs, which in itself is a little creepy and fascinating when you realize that you're reading about how something has been breed purely for flavor or the marbling of the muscle. I memorized a few names and tried to remember a few facts of each pig so that I would at least sound somewhat intelligent when asked which was better, the Large Black or Duroc. But once I stepped inside the hotel, it was forced out by the smell of bacon and the overwhelming stimulus from baroque architecture.

At the VIP event beforehand, we bonded with a representative from Yelp! and the sister of a caviar producer and her husband. (These would be the people I spent the evening with while Kelly was sequestered as a judge.) We took turns guarding the tiny, tall table and our wine glasses as one or two people went off for cheese, wine, or St. Germaine cocktails. Our holding pattern worked so well that after they showed a promotional video and opened the doors, we continued to work together to guard the limited space set aside.

As is, I only managed to get to three chefs' tables and the Elk Cove Vineyard table as the deluge of people flooded the function hall of the Fairmont. Although two hours seems like plenty of time to get to every chef, wine maker, and pig, no one seemed to take into consideration that people really like their pig...Regardless, the few people I got to were well worth the wait.

There is little information on this cross-breed of pig. All I could learn was that the Duroc is a large, aggressive red boar; the Yorkshire is a pale white and known for its lean meat; and both are a perfect pig to cross-breed.

The first table I spotted had a small line already started, so I threw myself in knowing that I'd get the long table out of the way (so much for that). The plate is arranged like a clock face, with a small snack at 12, 2, 4, 8, and 10:
  • The croquette had a nice crunch and a good bite from a spicy red sauce.
  • The caviar-maker's sister all but swallowed her waffle whole and purred that I had to try it next. Slathered with a thin sauce and a slab of pork, the waffle added a nice bit of substance as the pork all but melted with each bite.
  • Next came a pig's ear (at least I thought it was) with pop rocks. Although a strange combo, it was far from the strangest and added a nice, lighter dimension.
  • The least favorite dish was the blood sausage on a bed of beans. Although the white beans were creamy and added a nice contrast, the blood sausage was too dense and its spice was too much of a contrast to the beans.
  • The dessert, however, made up for the poorer sausage. A rich chocolate cookie, the filling was made from bacon fat. Decadent and filling, it went very well with the reds being served. The caviar-maker's sister made sure to go back and pocket several more in her purse for later.

Large Black
Originally a Chinese breed, the Large Black is a rarer breed known for its taste and hardiness. The smaller marbling and shorter fibers of the meat make this breed the perfect choice for bacon. The team (headed by a chef named Mary) also wore "Mary had a Large Black" t-shirts that I coveted greatly...

I got the table for the Large Black after sampling the wines at Elk Cove. Mulling over my glass, I watched as the sous chefs platted two dishes. The pulled pork rillette (Lunch) was served in mason jars topped with pickles and coarse-grain mustard, and served with hard crostini. I ate as much of the jar as possible, treating the dish almost like a high-brow pork dip and fishing the pink bits out with the edges of the bread. The slow-cooked pork loin and kimchi pickles on a grilled pita (Dinner) was almost like a White-people pork bun. But, as the first table, the best dish was the dessert. Ethereal and surprising, the cotton candy looked innocent until I bit into it. Acting as the basis, a thick strip of bacon added a needed salty taste to the sweeter spun sugar that my co-workers still will not believe in (despite my photographic's not Bigfoot people!)

Red Wattle
Named for its red color and unfortunate jowls (think octogenarian chicken), this breed has lean and juicy meat that has a beef-like taste and texture.

This was the table that ate up all my time. Waiting in line (for half-an-hour), I sucked down the last of my wine and gratefully took a slice of the pork hock and drunken pineapple pizza. Familiar and close to the one that Kelly and I order all the time (pineapples, bacon, and jalapenos), the drunken fruit is almost flammable and hurts to eat. At the table, I find that most of the seven dishes are already gone. I take a ladel of the chestnut flour pappardelle with pig's head and celery heart ragu, while the chef carves. She plates the porchetta with dried peach and pistachio and cuts a wedge of lard and lemon pastry to go with it. I spot her doughnuts in their warmers and fish one out with my fork. At this point, I have eaten at least one entire pig by myself. I fork as much of the ragu as I can, but it's not as appetizing as it would have been hours ago. Likewise, I can't bring myself to eat more than half of the porchetta and lard/lemon pastry. The doughnut, however, is airy and delicious. It tastes like summer and doesn't sit as heavy as the other pastry. It's only later that I find out it is a pig's feet and Mexican spiced margarita doughnut with salt and lime juice.

Kelly finds me leaning against the table, trying to find room for the chicharron and dark chocolate dip that is making it's way around the floor. He smiles wide and puts down a plate of porcelet de lait (milk-fed piggy veal). At this point, I am drunk, filled with so much pig I have grown hooves, and exhausted for being on them for hours. I nibble half-heartedly at the porcelet and watch as they name the winning chef (the Duroc/Yorkshire). We all clap and I am grateful when the waiter comes to take our mostly empty plate away, saving me from myself.

Following the river of people out of the hotel, we join up with more of Kelly's friends and brave the winter towards the after party (where I don't even think of eating anything ever again). Flushed with the cold, we order a few more drinks and try to digest. Kelly sits across from me and everyone is drunk on pig and alcohol. I sink further into my chair, fully aware now what I am worth in pork.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"Hello, my name is Mark and I am a wine snob..."

Or, The harmful effects of the Boston Wine Expo

I have come to a dangerous conclusion of my character. After yet another stressful day at work, I shrugged off my coat, left my shoes at the door still clinging onto one sock in desperation, and pour a glass of Merlot. I take a sip, swallow, and stare at the bottle in despair. The last of my stash from the holidays, it was a gift from my boss and has a crow on the label. And my praise stops there. I take another sip in hopes that it was a fluke--a bad sip--but the second one tastes the same. I used to be able to drink anything short of vinegar as long as it was made from grapes. I pour the glass out into the sink and look at my corked bottle as the realization sets in. I have finally become a wine snob.

Clearly the blame can be placed at Kelly's feet. The day of the Boston Wine Expo, he wakes me up extra early so that we can shower, dress, and grab a quick bite to eat before the unwashed masses take over the convention center. The massive blue room is broken down into grids, squares of tables arranged by country, wine produced, items sold, food. I snap my plastic badge onto by belt loop. "GUEST OF Kelly..." it screams above a bright orange bar proudly announcing "TRADE VIP" with its chest puffed out and fists on hips. "Oh great, now people are going to want to talk to me," Kelly says as he looks at his own badge with his restaurant under his name. His face says he's miffed, but I don't believe it. The man behind us mentions that we shouldn't miss the Barefoot table, and Kelly snorts. "Don't worry, we will," he says.

We grab our glasses and Kelly darts off as if he is trying to lose me. He pauses at the tables to see what's there, but darts as soon as it's clear he won't drink anything. We start with Prosecco and a sweeter white before dashing off to try some hearty reds. Cards are exchanged at every table we stop at for more than two glasses. Kelly cherry-picks vintages and varietals and shakes hands. I swallow a few of the whites, but spend the rest of the morning trying to master the spit bucket. Leaning over, I feel as if I just finished brushing my teeth and it looks like I cut a gum. Holding the bucket up closer has the dangerous risk of splash-back if the bucket is full, with one attempt ending in frantic scrubbing of my face with water and a napkin from the cheese table. It's only after our 20th table that I find the perfect height to hold the bucket (chest level) and the velocity to spit (just enough force to jet the wine like I'm a drunken fountain loose from my pedestal).

Running to the back, Kelly gasps at the square of tables tucked away forgotten before the seminar rooms. "Ooh, Greek wine," he says. The woman behind the table gets Kel's card and spends our time at her booth chasing him from bottle to bottle. "We would love to interview you for local carriers that feature our wines," she says with a whisper of desperation behind her earnest smile. Kelly promises to take her call and we sip the first, a Santorini. Sharp and clear, it tastes like nothing I have ever had before. I swallow it wishing I could get a second glass without seeming greedy. The people behind the table present each wine with a story--grape vines grown into basket shapes to protect the delicate fruit, clay slopes the color of brick that must be snacked on by the people visiting for the first time. Each wine from the first to the ending samples of Samos are perfect and make everything else seem lesser in comparison. Oh sure, the Georgia [the country, not the state] table was very good, but nothing else felt on par with the Greek wine. "You should blog about this and call it 'It's all Greek to me'!" Kelly says.

We pause for a seminar featuring most of Kelly's friends. But after an intelligent discussion (with one yahoo dominating a small part of it), I feel the morning catching up with me. My mouth gets dry from the many tastings and spittings. My gums are woolly and my teeth feel a little filmy. I grab a glass of water to rinse and continue on to the Grand Cru lounge, which has fewer wines at a higher price that don't speak to me at all (the best item there was the wine cookies that were designed to cleanse the pallet between tastings). By the end, I am tired, drained, and educated.

I plug the bottle of red in my kitchen and hope that it can be saved to cook with, but I have a feeling it won't. As they always say, you should cook with what you like to drink...and I apparently like to drink something of substance.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Meat Christmas

Kelly is excited the moment I pick him up from work. He steels himself, though, and falls in beside me. Walking to the car, we exchange sideways glances and I pull my scarf further up to hide my face, trying to look nonchalant. "You got the stuff?" he asks. I nod and motion him towards the car. "It's in the trunk," I say. He gets in and we drive back to his place, fully aware of the items hidden in their bags. I pull into a spot away from prying eyes and pops the trunk. He gets the items out and hugs them to his chest. We're silent all the way upstairs to the safety of his apartment. "Alright," he says as soon as the door is shut and locked behind him, "let's see what we got."

This is my first CSA. Before Kelly, the only CSA I knew was the Community Service Advisor in college. That morning, I drove all the local middle school and approached the unmarked, white van. I gave Kelly's name and got a plastic bag in return. Knowing it would be five pounds, I was a little disappointed that it didn't strain a single muscle (there's something about the word "pounds" that lends a sense of gravity and mass--a bit of oomph that would cause some effort instead of swinging it at my side as I walked back to the car). As I promised, I waited for Kelly to get out before we unwrapped our meat Christmas, eager to see what CSA Santa brought us.

Kelly digs into the bag, eager to see what we got. He oohs and ahhs at the pork chops thin enough to be prosciutto, a lump of chicken breast the size of my fist, and a unknown hunk of beef that Kel has already designated for braising and smothering. He tosses me the chicken breasts and I put them down on the table, eager to decide what to limited cookbook flipping its pages through my mind.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The noodle incident

"There you guys are," Cordelia says with a grateful sigh. "They've been giving me dirty looks. 'Who's this bitch think she is taking up a four-top...'" The dumpling place smells of the usual Chinese spices, the air thick and soupy with white pepper and sesame seed. Flushed with a few hours exploring the MFA and the train ride over to Chinatown, I sit down across from her after the usual greeting of kisses on each cheek. "This place is supposed to be phenomenal," she gushes.

The menu is expected...noodles; soups; sections for beef, chicken, and seafood. But we're not here for any of those. Looking at the Dumpling section, I breeze through the short list but Cordelia's already chosen. The last two items are not the dumplings I have grown used to. Encased in the slightly sticky skin, the dumplings are filled with a cousin to pork soup. "It's the latest thing that's really big in New York," Cordelia says after she orders them. The waitress smiles and brings us refills of ice water. In only a few moments, she returns with the bamboo steamer. Cordelia pops it open with a gentle hand and fishes out a dumpling with the provided tongs. Her eagerness punctures the side of one, bleeding the pork soup out onto her plate. "Oh no! That's the best part," Kelly says with some consolation. She quickly fishes it onto her flat spoon. Using the care of a surgeon, Kelly and I fish ours out by gripping the purses' thicker tops in the tongs.

The dumplings are hot and sharp. The pork perfectly done and the soup a viscous orange that tastes just as it looks. Savoring the first one, we each devour our second with less care. Popping hers into her mouth, Cordelia's face switches back and forth from wide-eyed pain of the hot soup to delight with the taste. As the waitress returns, we make a decision that sets into motion "the Noodle Incident" [insert dramatic music here].

Cordelia orders the other soupy dumplings as Kelly and I peruse the rest of the menu for something else to go along with it. Kelly asks for another water glass and Cordelia and I decide on noodles with pan-seared pork and mustard greens. "Not the soup one," she says to the waitress, pointing to the menu with emphasis. The waitress smiles and we go back to our conversation, unaware that Pandora's box had been opened.

The waitress returns to fill our glasses and gives Kelly a second, empty glass. She looks concerned and hands it over with as much gusto as she could while imagining what this strange man wants with an empty drinking glass. "No, I wanted it filled..." Kelly says, but she is already gone to another table, and his request fades with her. And then the noodles arrive. They smell strong and we each grab a portion onto our plates. "They taste super snotty," Kelly warns and manages to suck down the bundle twisted around his chopsticks. I manage to get a little of the pork and greens with mine and shovel it quickly into my mouth to keep it from dropping onto my lap. The noodles are strings of mucus so soft that they break apart with the barest touch of my tongue. The pork is boiled and tough, while the greens are limp and soggy (and all of it is somehow flavorless despite the scent of spice).

"I think they just drained the soup and plated it," Cordelia whispers. Kelly and I nod in agreement and we all put the remainder back on our plate. As nicely as possible (and after a few minutes of agonizing), she calls the waitress back over and apologizes, but tells her that the noodles aren't what we ordered. The waitress, who understood us perfectly before, suddenly transforms into a woman fresh from Beijing with the barest grasp of English. With each rephrasing into the baser parts of the conversation, Cordelia's gentleness fades until she is all but yelling "We don't want these!" and gesturing at the plate of noodles with both hands. "So sorry," the waitress says in broken English and takes the plate away to the general manager. A slightly older woman with a no-nonsense haircut, the GM comes to our table. "You not like?" she asks. "Sorry, but it's not what we ordered," Cordelia says, bringing some of her original charm and care back into her voice. The GM nods with understanding and then is replaced by a waitress that is not ours. "You not like?" she asks harshly. We all shake our heads and watch as yet another waitress comes to our table. Lather, rinse, and repeat a few more times. Cordelia emphasizes it was not what we ordered as Kelly and I cover our mouths with our drinking glasses, sucking down water and then devouring the ice...anything to keep us from talking and taking the attention away from our unintentional sacrificial lamb.

As the GM returns, Cordelia sighs. "We'll just get our order of dumplings, please," she says. She asks for the other kind that we have not had and the waitress brings over the same steamer of dumplings as before. "Let's just eat them and go," I say and Kelly nods. We suck the dumplings down, scalding our tongues and blistering the roofs of our respective mouths. Kelly and I pull out cash to pay, but our waitress has disappeared. Awkwardly, we wait as every eye of the serving staff, kitchen, and front of the house watches us to see what unreasonable request we would make next. In what seems like a lifetime, our waitress returns and we pay her as quickly as possible. Returning with Cordelia's card, she brings a plate of orange slices that Kelly and I ignore and shrug on our coats as quick as we could. Cordelia pops one in her mouth, sucks off the fruit, and joins us on our run away from the dumpling place. "I can't believe you did that," Kelly says. "What do you mean?" Cordelia asks, her voice quivering just slightly with concern. "You know they spit on the fruit," I tell her and she gags.

Embarrassed, slightly abused, and still a little peckish, we disappear in search of a bar in hopes that we can put a good spin on the story.