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June 13, 2008 - Eric Paddock
A cursory review of many of the world’s great cuisines will convince you that truely great cooking more often than not originated among poor people.
Take barbecue, for instance. Trace its roots and you’ll find slaves who were tossed the dregs of butchered hogs ...ribs, boney shoulders; nary a loin or a ham in sight.
Strong believers in strong spices and available vegetables, they created American ‘cue a couple hundred years ago. Thanks to their research and development my summers are spent in a gastronomic stupor as my body tries to absorb more barbecue than it was designed for.
Look at French country cuisine and you’ll find the same thing done with beef. Beef bourguignon, ladled up in fancy-schmancy, five-star French joints where you leave the deed to the house with the maitre’d as collateral, is just a poor Frenchman’s beef stew laced with cheap local wine. Is it good? It’s so good you’ll think you’ve committed a sin by eating it.
Jamaican jerk: Here’s a marinade that turns chicken into something incredible, but it works best on the cheapest parts: legs, thighs and backs. It doesn’t work as well on breasts. The early Jamaicans, slaves who revolted against their enslavers and took to the hills, borrowed parts of the recipe from the indiginous Indians, employing spices common to the islands. The ingredients include a number of things that you wouldn’t normally associate with meat, particularly the predominant allspice. Then you add cinnamon, salt, pepper, garlic and the hottest pepper you can find. The Jamaicans use scotch bonnets, but you can substitute the almost-identical habeñeros. Experiment with the proportions, but keep in mind that allspice is the key. Add enough oil to create a thick marinade. It should be very dark and aromatic. Don’t be afraid to taste it. If it tastes good before marinating, it’ll knock you out at the end of the day. Coat all of the chicken pieces (it also works on pork, but I prefer chicken) and let them sit in the fridge over night. Either grill them over very low heat until done or roast them in the oven and finish them on the grill (I prefer the latter). Punch up a Bob Marley CD and put some Red Stripe on ice. Close your eyes and think of Negril.
The other week, disgusted by beef prices, I picked up a pack of pork shoulder steaks at Shurfine. I think they were about $1.89 a pound on sale. I brined them for about four hours (not enough to turn them into ham), and then tossed them on one half of the grill with some mesquite chips smoking on the other side. I didn’t bother to light the burner under the meat. About every ten minutes or so for about an hour I basted them with my own barbecue sauce. Best barbecue I ever made.
Paella: Clams, mussels, shrimp, chicken, sausage, onions, rice, peas, some pimento, salt, pepper and a few strands of saffron -- yeah, I know saffron is one of the world’s most expensive spices, but a tiny bit goes a very long way. You throw it all together, adding the seafood last, and basically steam it with some stock. My wife and I shared a paella -- the ultimate family-style dish -- with some friends at a Portuguese restaurant in Newark one evening. It was a meal I’ll never forget. Paella’s roots are embedded in working class Iberian culture and was brought here by people looking to work their way out of poverty.
And the Chinese...well, don’t get me started there. Let’s just say they invented fast food a thousand years ago with about a dozen basic ingredients. The best stuff is simple and subtle.
Celebrity chefs are still concocting new recipes, building dishes that are as much architectural achievements as they are culinary feats.
I’ll take a great stew, a great barbecue, a great meat pie any day.
Next: Rub-a-dub dub
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