Friday, December 11, 2009
Culinary THROW DOWN: Salt of the Earth WINNER
Well, now, who'da thunk it when La Diva announced the topic of this challenge – salt – that this would end up being one of the most educational of all the challenges thus far? From posts that probed the chemical composition of salt itself, to methodical experiments with salt encasing, to tasty historical tidbits, goodness, it was like being back in class, only my brain was fully engaged in the lesson at hand and not the cute boy in front of me or what I was going to eat for lunch in an hour.
Here's how the contenders shook out:
Allison jumped feet first into her second Culinary Throw Down by creating a salt-encased pork loin stuffed with pancetta and accompanied by a spicy horseradish coleslaw. Major points for doubling up on the pork and for incorporating the use of the words "womb," "ass," and "Angelina Jolie" into a cooking challenge. Psyche! to all the Googlers searching for the latest news on the Big-Lipped One's latest movie.
Boxer entertained us with yet another video straight from the PNW Films vaults, this one a three-minute-and-change history on the journey salt takes from nature (whether as deposits in deep dark caves, on the ground, or in the water) to our tables. Despite my aversion to anything having the least bit to do with chemistry (and I bake, I know, I know), my brain did manage to retain quite a bit of useful info from this film, not the least of which is the chemical composition of table salt itself, which, if you say it out loud – NaOOC(2), COONa(2), BR(2), NN(2), and OO(2) – sounds like something an Eskimo might say to you as he is passing chunks of seal blubber around the dinner table.
Buzz Kill chose to bring the brining process to bear on several jars of pickling cucumbers to make for us, well, pickles! If, like me, you stamp your foot in indignation whenever you see yet another limp, lukewarm pickle resting like a desultory afterthought at the edge of yet another desultory sandwich plate at yet another desultory diner, you too will take up the banner of brining and make your own bursting-with-flavor-and-crunch pickles. From scratch. Head on over, Buzz will show you just how painless the process is.
Florida Cracker tamped out yet another humorous post that included not only recipes using said Throw Down ingredient (ribs, ribs, ribs!), but also a reminder that nothing in the culinary world is inherently evil if we all just learn to reign in our piggie tendencies. And, quit eating out so much at restaurants whose "secret flavor ingredients" all tend to be, well, an overabundance of salt. Also, thanks to F.C., I will never, ever again forget to salt my salad before dressing OR look at Bobby Flay without thinking: Nerdboy of the Universe.
Karl gave us a quick rundown on the difference between table salt, sea salt, coarse salt, and kosher salt, before applying his culinary talents to a dinner of rosemary garlic bread, garden salad, and homemade – homemade y'all! – chicken noodle soup. And then proceeded to produce an Internet-wide chorus of Aw Shucks! by snapping a blurred photo of the finished product. Still, I have to ask. Is there a Mrs. Karl? If there is, boy is she a lucky ducky. If there isn't, boy do I have a list of single women who would love to get an introduction to his kitchen.
La Diva, our resident doyenne (and I mean that in terms of experience, not age!) of all things culinary launched into what seemed like a no-brainer – maple-glazed cookies with kosher salt – but which ended up being one of those Baking in Hell Moments when you realize that even six simple ingredients can be totally screwed up in an infinite number of ways. Baking Lesson #345: Never mind that Martha Stewart has put her stamp of approval on a recipe, Chemistry is a Bitch, y'all. So, La Diva simply took a spin on her 4" inch heels and made instead a perfectly tender steak encrusted in a salt womb (thanks for that, Allison).
Sandcastle Mamma's admittedly disasterous previous entry prompted her to take a deep breath and keep things simple this time around. She, too, encased her ingredient in an attempt to see if a salt-encrusted Idaho potato baked up any differently than its nekkid companion. It did not. But her methodical approach and inclusion of plenty of photos to illustrate the process kept me engaged and my brain buzzing: maybe it's the egg white wash that formed a barrier to the salt penetrating the potato flesh? Maybe if the potato were from Washington and not Idaho? Maybe if Martha Stewart weighed in?
Sherry, La Diva's Detroit cousin, is a first time participant (hi Sherry!), who in one weeknight whipped up for our challenge two mouthwatering dishes. As if homemade (?!?!) proscuitto wrapped around salted bread sticks and served with canteloupe wasn't enough to send Moi into water retentive heaven, Sherry tossed more of that homemade (?!?!) proscuitto into a dish that I have come to think of as a kind of über pasta puttanesca. So what if yesteryear's economically strapped ladies of the night most likely didn't have access to clams? Oh, stop it.
Watching Troll complete a Throw Down is much like watching John Wayne get ready to go after the bad guys in a John Ford movie. What he often lacks in finesse, he makes up in sheer force of will and personality. This time, he chose to pay homage to one of his ancestors, William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame, by not only cooking something that the gents may have eaten on their journey (incorporating a salted fish, baccala, into his challenge), but also regaling us with wonderful bits of historical information about the expedition from a culinary standpoint.
My decision is not an easy one, because EVERYONE came through with flying colors, presenting dishes and techniques that make me want to spend the entire weekend trying each and every one of them out. And Troll's post especially is near and dear to my heart because I am a Lewis and Clark-ophile.
Listen, Party People, if you haven't read their diaries then at least dip into Stephen Ambrose's excellent Undaunted Courage, because without L&C, we wouldn't be here. Yeah, yeah, Columbus discovered our landmass, yada yada, but Lewis and Clark defined who we are as a people, both physically, as a this here United States, as well as psychologically and spiritually. Their legacy of curiosity, exploration, and bravery is etched into our DNA as surely as anything that defines what it means to be American. They also happily relied for much of their guidance on a level headed, gutsy Shoshone teenager who not only made the 2,000 mile trek with the expedition entirely on foot, but also carrying her infant son on her back. So the next time a woman tells you she can't get anywhere because of a "glass ceiling," tell her to Google Sacagawea.
Ah hem. Sorry. I tend to get carried away on this topic.
So, back to the winner.
Again, not an easy decision. It was neck-and-neck between EVERYBODY, but in the end, ALLISON, come on over and pick up your award! Not only did your post grab me and pin me to my seat with pancetta stuffed pork and horseradish cole slaw from the word go, it also showcases how all good cooks are like Lewis and Clark: healthy skeptics wrapped in game adventurers. We're not sure if it's going to work, but since life's a journey not a destination, we're going to give it the ol' college try anyway and if, in the end, it all goes to hell, there's always take out. Because, folks, this is America. Ain't it grand?
P.S. Miss Allison, your win also means that, should you choose to do so, you will host the next culinary challenge and pick its date and theme.