Saturday, December 13, 2014

Film And Food: Good Old Fashioned Chili And War

The Film: Lone Survivor.

Nationalism, propaganda, and blatant patriotism all define The American War Film Genre to varying degrees. Lone Survivor has all three traits in nauseating abundance.  So nauseating in fact, that to not kill someone after watching this movie would be un-American.
The beginning and end of this movie is spliced with actual military footage: the opening credits denote the authentic trials of becoming a Navy Seal; the end credits convey sympathy and realness with photos of the actual veterans who lost their lives in the conflict this movie aims to explain.  As you have already guessed by now, Lone Survivor is based on a true story—a phrase about as real as Hollywood. 
Four Navy Seals go on a recon mission in Afghanistan only to be discovered by three goat farmers; now the question is: do they kill the farmers, who may or may not be Taliban, or do they let them go? To let them go might result in their demise, an act, which, however noble, feeds the blatant patriotism that fuels this movie. The Goat farmers are released and the four soldiers are now on a mission to survive.
Taylor Kitch, playing the part of Lt. Michael Murphy, is very Tim Riggins-like, which I loved in Friday Night Lights but doesn’t work for me as a gun toting Navy Seal. Mark Wahlberg plays Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell. His acting is robotic, his lines monosyllabic.  Ben Foster and Emile Hearst play the other two soldiers.
The best parts of this movie are the ‘falling scenes’.  While running from the Taliban, the four soldiers take a long and violent tumble down a steep cliff. (It happens twice.)  What ensues is brutal: violent images filmed in slow-motion and stop-action of faces and backs hitting rocks and dirt. The sound is enhanced at just the right times to such real effect that when Taylor Kitch’s face slams against a rock you will feel his pain. The two falling scenes alone make this movie worth watching. In an interview with Variety, director Peter Berg said of the stuntmen who did the scenes, “Oh, they went for it. Broken ribs, punctured lungs, concussions. A lot of my job was trying to calm them down, because they'd all read the book and a lot of them come from military families and there were SEALs on set while we were shooting, so everyone wanted to get it right.”  What Lone Survivor ‘got right’ is up for debate. Articles abound on the Internet that call into question the accuracy of the film, as well as the book. I can tell you that the falling scenes have merit on a cinematic level, which is all Peter Berg should be concerned with.
The end of the film, according to various sources and news agencies on the web, is also accurate. The movie ends with Wahlberg’s character—the Lone Survivor—sheltered and ultimately saved by members of a small Sabray Tribe.  The people in this Afghan tribe hate the Taliban, are fiercely independent, and practice a code of honor known as Pashtunwali: a very ancient and noble code that mandates hospitality, asylum and righteousness, especially toward strangers. The ultimate hero in this movie is an Afghan man named Mohammad Gulab.  If anything, director Berg goes against the grain of the American War Film Genre by making a perceived enemy the hero.  The 'un-American' message at the end is not only that American men and women give their lives for their country, but that not all inhabitants in an ‘at war with country’ are enemies-a truth all first world inhabitants need to be reminded of.
Despite whatever empathy and noble message is captured in the end however, this movie will not fall into any definitive, post-Vietnam, war movie category of the Jarhead and The Hurt Locker likeness. It’s missing way too much for that, except for the falling scenes, did I mention the falling scenes?

The Food: Chili

Fig.1. Good'ol chili. Except for onion, no vegetables allowed.

The dish that came to mind after watching this movie is Chili with a side of Afghan bread. I could spew some sentimental bullshit about how eating an All-American dish like Chili along with Afghan bread symbolizes peace between two parties at war with one another, but I’ll just give you the recipe instead.  You can purchase Afghan bread in most Middle Eastern grocery stores.

People fuck up chili all the time because they over-think it. Chili is not a Bolognese Sauce with beans, nor is it meant to have an abundance of vegetables and legumes, despite what all those gun-loving, republican vegetarians would have you believe. When it comes to Chili, do what they do in Texas: find a steer, find a pot and find some heat. 

Fig.2. Ingredients at the ready.

4 to 5 tablespoon sunflower or canola oil
1 kilo beef blade cut to small cubes. (palette in French. See Fig.2. above.)
1 onion, chopped
1 tablespoon cumin
½ tablespoon caraway seeds
2 cloves
1 can plum tomatoes, crush the tomatoes with your hand
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup water
4 tablespoons soy sauce
4 anchovies, chopped
3 to 4 smoked chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, chopped (I buy La CosteƱa brand see Fig.2. above. Available in most grocery stores in the ‘Latin’ section.)
1/3 cup bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 cans red kidney beans, drained and washed
salt and pepper, to taste
A few squirts of Frank’s Red Hot Sauce

Add the oil to a large Dutch oven or heavy bottom pot set over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the cubed beef. Cook until meat begins to brown. (You must be patient. First the beef will emit a lot of water; the water will eventually evaporate at which point the meat will begin to brown. Stir the meat making sure it browns evenly but not too fast. Do not set your element on high.) When the water is gone and the meat is just beginning to brown, add the onion, cook for 5 minutes while stirring. At this point, make a little opening in the center of the pot and add the cumin, caraway seeds and cloves. Toast the spices for about 1 minute, see Fig.4. below. (Toasting the spices will release their flavours. If your spices are several years old, throw them out and buy new spices.)  Add the tomatoes, tomato paste and water and stir making sure you scrape the bottom of the pot to release all the flavours. (see picture below. If it looks dry, feel free to add more tomato or water, it’s not an exact science.)  Add the soy sauce, anchovy, chipotle peppers, and chocolate. At this point, partially cover the pot and lower the heat. Simmer for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally.  Add the beans and simmer for another 20 to 30 minutes. If it looks dry, add a bit of water. Season with salt, pepper and Frank’s Red Hot to your liking and serve. Chili is better the next day.

Fig.3.  Blade of beef, cubed.
Fig.4. Browning the meat and getting a good fond which  add flavour to your chili. Add liquid and scrap the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to deglaze the pot. Also, in this picture I created an opening in the centre of my Dutch Oven in order to cook my spices. Cooking your spices will release a better flavour.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Oscar's Smoke House-It's All About The Smoke

Fig.1. Oscar and Edith Quintal, circa 1942.

Fig.2. Oscar's Smoke House, circa today.

I discovered Oscar’s Smoke House a couple of years ago; the fine folks at Endless Banquet brought it to my attention.  At the time, I was looking for good eats and great antiquing between two geographical points: New York and Montreal. I found both in Warrensburg.
Oscar’s Adirondack Smoke House is located in Warrensburg, Upstate New York, (about one hour south of Plattsburgh.) Oscar’s is the type of small town shop so easy to fall in love with. Opened since 1943, they have meat and most of it is smoked. In fact, smoke is the first discernible odour inhaled when parking your car.  Like June Cleaver, it kisses you gently as you walk to the door and enthrals your senses upon entering it.  Smoked hams, beef jerky, (one of my favourites) bacon, ribs, cured meats and oh so many types of smoked sausages. Apart from meat, Oscar’s also smokes fish and cheese.
Oscar’s is a storied place. It burned down twice: once in 1945, and again in 2009. The image of a smoke house burning down, its floors and walls engulfed in flame, lends a poetic allegory to Oscar’s legacy: the building itself born and forged of veritable smoke.  It’s ancestral walls now a foundation of ash from which more smoke is created. The foodstuffs that Oscar’s creates is a by-product of its past and its nature: it smokes, therefore it is.
It’s not easy for me to shop there-I’m like a kid in a candy store. The lack of quality, smoked goods in Montreal makes me want to take all of Oscar’s meats home, and that might not go well at the border. The next time your driving back from New York I strongly suggest you make a stop at Oscar’s Adirondack Smoke House.  

Fig.3. Winter goodness.

Lentil, Split Yellow Pea, And Smoked Sausage Stew
Serves 4
This dish will taste better if you use smoked sausages. You can make it with regular Italian sausages, but a smoky taste will give it a ‘gumbo-like’ feel.  It can be made with smoked meat and/or chorizo if you don’t have smoked sausages.

Fig.4. Smoked Andouille et al from Oscar's.

4 tbsp olive oil
1 large onions, chopped
4 strips smoked bacon
4 to 5 small potatoes, diced (or 2 larger potatoes)
1-796ml can plum tomatoes
1 cup green lentils
½ split yellow peas
5 cups chicken stock
8 pieces of assorted, smoked sausages. (I used smoked Andouille and bratwurst from Oscar’s. Chorizo would work as well.)

Fig.5. Ingredients at the ready

Heat the olive oil in a pot or Dutch oven set over medium heat. Once oil is hot, add the onions, bacon and potatoes. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes stirring occasionally.  Add the rest of the ingredients and bring to a gentle simmer. Let the stew simmer semi-covered for 1 ½ hours, stirring occasionally. Once the lentils and yellow peas are tender, salt and pepper to your liking and serve. This dish is better if made the day before.

Fig.6. After 1 1/2 hours of simmering

Oscar's Smoke House: 22 Raymond Ln, Warrensburg, NY 12885, United States

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Film And Food: Steak and Kidney Pie And Joy Division

Despite what familial social conventions and Norman Rockwell would have you believe, eating while watching television is good for you. In a world praised for efficiency, you're killing two birds with one stone, or, to put it in more practical terms: you're feeding two areas of your anatomy simultaneously. But while your brain and stomach are being fed, your spirit is being unified by two art forms working in unison: great film and great gastronomy.  I'm writing a new segment that combines my love of film with my need to cook. I will critique a movie, and then pair the film with food in the hopes that I can inspire some of you to eat in front of the television. And while I'm aware that such an act might not demand inspiration, cooking for one's self does; that being said, there's isn't anything wrong with ordering pizza as long as it pairs well with the movie. If I can't get you to cook, I hope at least that my movie reviews will inspire curiosity,  as well as propel the art forms to a place where the next time someone sanctimoniously tells you that you shouldn't be eating in front of the television, you'll be inspired to tell them to fuck off.

Film: Control
Food: Steak And Kidney Pie.

Control is a movie based on the story of Ian Curtis. Curtis was the singer for the post-punk-rock-English band, Joy Division; an energetic performer best remembered for his spastic stage presence and his death.  The question of why Curtis took his own life at 23 years of age is a main component of the film. Mental illness, guilt and a creative drive rooted in an endless pit of human insecurity made Curtis prone to severe depression; a tone skilfully depicted within the film’s gloomy realism. Control is a black and white film. Director Anton Corbijn first shot the film in color but later printed it in black and white. In an interview Corbijn conducted with Rotten Tomatoes, he stated, “the real reason I chose it is that all my memories of that period and Joy Division in particular are black and white memories. If you go back to try to find official references, old photographs, of Joy Division, I would say without exception you're going to find them to be in black and white. So combine that with their album sleeves being in black and white, the clothing being not very bright in the sense of colors, it just felt appropriate.”
Anton Corbijn knew the members of Joy Division well, he spent time with the band as their photographer.  At 24 years of age, Corbijn, (a professional photographer at the time) moved from his native Holland to England to take pictures of Joy Division. He toured with the band taking pictures of Singer Ian Curtis, Bassist Peter Hook, Guitarist Stephen Morris, and Drummer Bernard Sumner in his unique, melancholy style, a style apparent in the film.  It’s no wonder Corbijn manages to capture the image of the band with such completeness having been a part of their entourage at its inception. Each frame of the film is a composition of content and style reminiscent of stylized persona's that once graced the surfaces of gelatin-coated photographic paper, the monochromatic backdrops of misty, foggy Manchester air in compatible contrast to the subjects within each frame.  The audience is exposed to a visual melody of greyscale somber sounds that parallels the deep baritone sound of Curtis’ voice.  If it’s at all possible to take a picture of sound, Corbijn did it in Control.
The music in the film spans from 1976 to 1980, the life of the band.  Within that time, Joy Division released two studio albums: Unknown Pleasures and Closer.  Apart from the visuals, this musical biopic auditorily establishes Joy Division as an important part of music history.  The band pioneered hums and tones that can be heard in bands like Sonic Youth, RadioHead, to present day band, The National.
Yes there are many stage performances in this film that brilliantly capture Joy Division’s resonant, dark romantic image and sound, but make no mistake: Control is a movie about Curtis.  The singer’s personal life either interfered or added to his creativity and there’s plenty about his private life in this film. From his impetuous teen wedding to Deborah Woodruff, to his affair with Annik Honore; from his epileptic seizures to his nihilistic bouts with depression; Curtis’ life is more than he can handle. He has no control over himself or his emotions, until that very loss of control drives Curtis to hang himself in his kitchen on the very eve of the band’s first American tour.
Actor Sam Riley captures Ian Curtis’ angst and mannerisms well.  No doubt any actor having to depict Curtis on stage would face a bodily challenge, but Riley choreographs himself into gesticulations of spastic jilts, stationary running dances, and swaying meditative motions that capture the stage presence of Curtis perfectly.  Samantha Morton, plays Curtis’ high school sweetheart and wife with poise, intelligence, and finally, with tragedy as she finds the body of her husband in their Macclesfield home. (Curtis’ relationship with his wife is a large part of the film since it’s based on her memories, Touching From a Distance; she also co-produced the film.)
What’s truly remarkable about Control is it provides the perfect balance between the music biopic of a band and a biography of a life. She’s lost Control is one of Joy Division’s most popular songs. After watching Curtis progress into a darkness of his own design, I can’t help but wonder if the song is about him, not because he was his own inspiration, but because nothing sings as sweet as creative sadness.

What to Eat While Watching Control.
It’s a no brainer for me: Steak and kidney pie. I’ve been to Macclesfield, the birthplace of Ian Curtis. It’s located about 50 kilometers from Manchester. While there, I experienced what a proper steak and kidney pie tastes like. This recipe replicates that taste.

Fig.1. Ingredients at the ready. I sometimes buy my pie dough. The one above comes from Metro, it's a lard based pie dough made locally.

Steak and Kidney Pie
Serves 6

5 tbsp sunflower oil or grape seed oil
2 onions, chopped
700 g cubed steak (use the shoulder or blade)
500 g of veal kidneys
½ cup flour
2 packages of mushrooms, halved
3 tbsp of Worcestershire sauce
3 tbsp English Mustard
1 1/2cups of beef stock
440 g English beer (I used a can of Boddington’s)
2 bay leaves
2 springs of thyme
Salt and Pepper

Suet Pie Dough
500 g of self-raising flour. (If you don’t have self-raising flour just add 1 ½ tsp of baking powder and 1 tsp of salt per 1 cup of all-purpose flour.)
250g Shredded suet (Suet is beef fat and tallow found around the kidney and heart region of a cow. To shred it, pass it along a cheese grater or run your knife along the side of the suet at a 45 degree angle. Sometimes you can find shredded or minced suet at the grocery store)

Pour the oil in a large Dutch oven set over medium heat.  Add the onions and sweat for 5 minutes. (You don’t want any color to the onions, just cook until soft and translucent.)  Add the steak and cook for about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the veal kidney and cook for 3 to 5 minutes. Lower the heat and sprinkle the flour over the meat. Stir in the flour until it’s well incorporated, cook for 2 minutes. (At this point if some flour sticks to the bottom of the pot don’t worry. The flour will begin to turn brown, which is good; the brown flour is what gives the gravy its color.) Add the Worcestershire sauce and the mustard and turn the heat back to medium, cook and stir for 2 minutes. Add the beef stock, beer, bay leaves and thyme. Scrape the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. (By doing this, the flour that stuck to the bottom of the pot will eventually dissolve into the liquid. If you don’t have any flour stuck to the bottom of your pot that’s ok, it just means that the flour has coated the meat. Stir until the liquid comes to a simmer.)
Once simmering, turn the heat to low and cook for 1 hour and 30 minutes, stirring often. Add salt and pepper if needed and let it cool.

Fig.2. All the ingredients in the pot.

Fig.3. What it looks like after 1 hour and a half of simmering.

Pie Crust:
Pass the self-raising flour through a sieve. Add the shredded suet to the flour. Gradually add the water and mix gently with your fingers until combined; don’t overwork the dough. The dough is ready when all of the mixture comes away from the sides of the bowl. Roll the dough into a ball and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Fig.4. Pie filling has cooled and dough rolled out.

Fig.5. Ready for oven

Assembling the Pie:
Pour the meat mixture into a 9” pie dish.
Add some flour to a work surface and roll out the dough to a thickness of 1 cm. Place the dough over the pie plate, making sure it hangs over the plate by at least 3 cm. Cut off any excess dough and press the dough onto the side of the dish.
When you’re ready to cook the pie, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Brush the top of the pie with an egg wash and bake for 45 minutes or until crust is golden brown. Serve with boiled or mashed buttered potatoes and pees. 

Note: Regarding the pie crust. Feel free to use any crust you want, as long as it’s not sweet. I like the locally made, lard based pie crusts available at Metro, you can find them in the meat section. See the pie crust in Fig.1.

Fig.6. 45 minutes at 375 degrees.

Fig.7. Serve the pie with Boiled buttered potatoes and a pint.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Eating Sine Qua None

Fig.1. All of the above ingredients are farm sourced. When cooking with such ingredients, your finished dish will sing songs of sublime taste. Such ingredients should be Sine qua none with life.

Sine qua none refers to an ‘indispensable and essential action, condition, or ingredient.’ (Wikipedia) It’s a Latin legal term that has tied its assertion alongside many of life’s doctrines. I first read the words Sine qua none in a cookbook. The author used the term to explain that, while it’s up to the reader what ingredient they ultimately use, the end result is indispensably linked to the quality of ingredients used.  One can see evidence of this when eating in the county sides of France, Italy or Greece: Farm and hill sourced ingredients will cause the final dish to rise significantly up the taste echelon when compared to the same dish made within the walls of a city. And while many of the ingredients we buy carry markings of ‘local’ and ‘organic’ and ‘free range’, it’s best to remember that the finest, freshest, and best tasting of ingredients have no packaging at all; the only markings on the garlic you grow yourself is dirt. But like it or leave it, the vast majority of us who live in the city but long for a taste of the country have to avoid food-cynicism and find a way to cope. So, the question becomes, how does one live in a city and eat and cook sine qua none? The answer can be found in travel and sourcing.
There is one constant truth with regard to every major city the world over: they are surrounded by farms. Some of these farms are large-scale, industrial farms and some are small, family run; go to the latter. If 
you live in Montreal, you don't have to travel far. Laval has some great farms, most of which can be found on  
A little further away than Laval, Vermont is a bastion of good ingredients. Vermont’s abundance of small farms, co-op farm programs, and food shops makes this American state an ideal place to source worthy ingredients.  Another noble trait that makes Vermont a territory filled with Sine qua none ingredients is their attitude towards food: eating local is not a theory in Vermont, it’s a practice. Any worthwhile restaurant in Vermont creates their menus with local ingredients front and centre.

For those who can't travel, sourcing involves knowing where your food comes. Your best bet is a farmer's market, but, ask questions. Buy local and eat foods that are in season is a tired sentence for most food writers worth a damn, but I'll keep writing and repeating it until I don't believe it anymore. 

The cookbook in which I read the words sine qua none, in case you were wondering, was in Jacques Pepin’s, Complete Techniques—an indispensable and essential cookbook if ever there was one. Pepin's mindset is one shared by all of the great gastronomes that have pondered the philosophy of food: Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, James Beard, M.L.K Fisher and George Auguste Escoffier all agreed that only optimal ingredients should ever be used when cooking. 
There is, however, one essential need Pepin forgot to mention when it comes to food and eating. We would do well to remember that it’s not just our ingredients that should be sine qua none with what and how we eat, but hunger as well. For without hunger’s genuine state, nothing will taste as it should.

Fig.2. Farmer's Market in Woodstock Vermont.

Fig.3. A mascot cow from Sugarbush Farms in Vermont. Sugarbush is a great place to get Vermont Cheddar,  smoked cheese, and blue cheese.

Fig..4.  Moving to the country, gonna eat me a lot of peaches.