This is Milk Street Radio from PRX. I'm your host Christopher Kimball. Today we interview Nigella Lawson. You know Nigella once told me that she doesn't believe in guilty pleasures, but she does love the sublime art of eating chocolate in bed.
Nigella Lawson: Deciding do I really crunch down with my teeth on this square, you know, like a dog or do I let it this one I think I'm going to let melt very slowly, always hard but then more gratifying.
CK: Also coming up, we make a simple shrimp and polenta dish inspired by Venetian cucina povera and Dan Pashman explains why he likes ordering dinner through the mail. But first, it's my interview with pit master Rodney Scott, he started cooking whole hog at his family's barbecue joint when he was just 11. He now runs Rodney Scott's Whole Hog Barbecue in Charleston, South Carolina. Rodney, welcome to Milk Street.
Rodney Scott: Oh, man, it's a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
CK: You talk about there's a right way to cook a hog but there's also a wrong way to cook a hog. And I'm sure you've you've done both. What's the wrong way? Well, what can go wrong over 12 hours cooking a whole hog?
RS: Well, one of the first things that can go wrong over 12 hours cooking hog is you cannot get your temperature up high enough to get past that danger zone in the first four hours. And you can also fire it too fast and lose it. And that's not good either. You don't want to burn the entire thing up.
CK: Well, you mentioned I read you said that more than once a pig would actually catch fire, right?
RS: Yes, pigs can definitely catch fire
CK: Which is not a good thing at all. So how does this work? So, you have to get the wood going into charcoal separately, and then you shovel it under the pig. I mean, how does that work?
RS: For us, we have this thing called a burn barrel, which is like 255-gallon drums stacked together. And in the bottom, there's a grate and we put the wood inside whole pieces of wood, and we burn them down in the hot coals. And once those hot coals fall to the bottom of this wood barrel, we'll go ahead and scoop those hot coals up and scatter them under the shoulders and the hands of the hog. And that process goes on, you know, every 10 to 15 minutes for about 12 hours.
CK: So how far above the calls us is the hog?
RS: The hogs are about two and a half three feet above the coals. Just enough to get that nice dripping simmer and steam right back up into the meat. Oh man, ooh it’s something you got to see.
CK: So, I read somewhere that when the pork is fully cooked in when it's fully cooked you talking about like 185? Well, you probably don't use a thermometer but 185 to 190 or is this over 200 or right what point is the pork cooked for you?
RS: For me that pork needs to sit at least at 190 to 200, 200 is really good. If you don't use a thermometer like I do, you can just grab that bone where the feet were cut off.
And if that bone twist or rotates real easy or slides right out, then you've reached that full cook time it is it is done.
CK: Whoa. I like that.
RS: Yeah. So so when you're sipping on all those beers and bourbon and you can't find your thermometer, you grab that bone and pull it.
CK: So, when things have gone wrong, I mean, I think I read some time he actually burned down the whole thing, right? This wasn't just a pig lighting up.
RS: So so, if you're cooking a whole hog, one of the things that you need to do very first and foremost is be careful. You know you're having fun as well sometimes and you need to be careful because if the hog flares up the grease, that's when the fat drips into the fire. (Right) And if anything is close by that's combustible. It can catch be at a wall or the woodpile itself or anything flammable and it can lead to the building if you're inside one or it can lead to the building if your next to one and before you know it man. Yeah, you got a major fire and it's gone. And trust me from experience. It doesn't take long when a pig catches fire
CK: So how did you learn to do this? I gather your your dad on more than one occasion said oh, by the way, you'll be cooking the hog for the next 12 hours. How did that work out?
RS: Oh man. So, my dad did teach me he pretty much would tell us what we had to do and one of one of the things was cooking hogs and he would just basically tell you you need to cook a hog tonight. It wasn't if you're busy or you're tired or whatever right you need to cook a hog tonight and that's what we did you had to go get make sure you had you wood set up your barrel and he grabbed his hog he loaded in you start cooking.
CK: You also spend some time farming and I love this quote. I mean you basically said you hate farming. I like anything like like cooking pigs is like a picnic compared to farming. So, what kind of farming did you do and why did you end up painting?
RS: Well, the kind of farming my dad did, we planted cucumbers, which you had to bend over the pig. We did sweet potatoes, which you had to dig in the dirt to get out. We did tobacco, corn, soybeans, you name it, my dad probably planted it. And you were always in these hot fields in the middle of the summer doing this work. And as a kid, you want to go drink Kool Aid and play in the shade, you know. But I said to myself, one day we were riding down the field on a tractor, I said, I got to get away from this. I can't do this all my life. I hate farming.
CK: I'm not a professional barbecue-r like you. But I want to barbecue at home you know, except for once a year I'm not doing a whole hog. give some tips for people about doing this at home. Using your grill for barbecue or using a green egg or whatever you have?
RS: A lot of tips for people who are cooking at home If you're using the grill, you want to be again, careful not having too close to the house. You want to pay attention to make sure that everything is handled correctly because it's so easy to make mistakes when you're entertaining people. You always want to be sure and everything is safe. the right temperature food is not laid out in Sun. Most importantly, you want to have fun, you want to enjoy it. Have a thermometer if you're not sure, check your temperatures, don't be afraid to google it to make sure your food is done. Have fun, turn the music up. also invite the neighbors just in case because I don't think they're too happy when you throw big parties in there. They're not invited.
CK: That's the best advice. Even if you don't like them, invite them
RS: Even if you don't like them, trust me, please invite them or send a plate.
CK: How do you deal with constant temperature? I mean, first of all, what temperature Are you looking for for barbecue? And how do you what's the best way let's assume you have a Weber grill for example, what's the best way to maintain that temperature?
RS: The best way to maintain the temperature on a Weber grill, you want to pay attention, you may have to gap it every now and again Open the top, there's a little opening at the top that kind of cools it off and turns it up. And you just kind of want to check the temperature and when you close it down, pay attention to the smoke and try to keep that smoke stream going. And that will tend to help you recognize the temperature on a grill with no gauge.
CK: So, this is all the calls are one side that meets on the other side there are these briquettes what what are you using for cooking.
RS: If you're in a Weber and you're in an urban area, you probably want to be using some hardwood lumb. I prefer hardwood lumb. For me, it gives a better flavor. And you definitely want to not put it all over one side is definitely important. Because if food gets too hot, you can move it over. As opposed to if you have the entire grill filled up with hot coals. There's nowhere to move. There's no where you can put food.
CK: Right. I know the question I have is about mopping sauces. You know the idea of coding, let's say pigs as they cook hogs as they cook with a sauce. Do you think that that? Does that, cool them down? Does that really add flavor? Why? Why do you do that during the cooking process, or maybe you don't?
RS: Well, we mop during the cooking process. But before we mop, we bring the temperature up so that when the sauce the mop sauce does go on, it doesn't cool it down to a point where it stops cooking. And then once we get the mop sauce on it, we add more heat and let it sit for another 3540 minutes so that the sauce can cook through.
CK: Barbecue for you is a lot more than the food, right?
RS: Man, barbecue for me is way more than food. It's it's you get to meet new people. You get to hear their stories of where they're from and how they did barbecue. Do you exchange numbers in emails? Before you know it there's a new relationship. I mean barbecues is a universal language. Food is
CK: Rodney, it's been just like a great pleasure. Thank you so much.
RS: Pleasures, all mine. Thanks for having me.
CK: That was Rodney Scott. His book is Rodney Scott's World of Barbecue Every Day is a Good Day. Right now, my co-host Sara Moulton. I will be answering your cooking question. Sara is of course the author of Home Cooking 101. She also stars in Sara's Weeknight Meals on television.
Sara Moulton: So, Chris, do you have a memorable meal that you had in another country when you were traveling at any point in your life that just really stands out? And I don't just mean because the food was good, but the whole moment
CK: Not because it cost too much money and it was overpriced. I've had a few of those. No, I had back in the early 80s I went to Fredy Giradet’s Crissier and was outside Lausanne Switzerland oh yeah side of Switzerland and i was actually cross country skiing in Switzerland for a week. I took a day off and we went there. And I interviewed him. And the thing that was so interesting was a very small restaurant, maybe seated 30 people. I think his father had a different kind of eatery there before he did. And he did the shopping at like five in the morning, right? And it was the most amazing food ever had my life. It was spectacular. Everything was absolutely perfect. The pastry was paper thin. He did a foie gras, you know, sauteed was crispy on the outside with vinegar. The truffles were huge and absolutely phenomenal and he was the most down to earth. nicest guy, you know, a combination of brilliance, great craftsmanship, and humility. Right. And that, for me is the ultimate thing in a restaurant is those three things together anyways, I still remember today.
SM: Wow, I wish I'd gone there. But nice. Thanks for sharing that.
CK: Yeah, I wish I could share the meal, but I can only share the memories.
SM: Okay. Anyway, let's take a call.
CK: Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?
Caller: Hi, this is Emily.
CK: Hi, Emily, where are you calling from?
CK: How can we help you?
Caller: So, I've been making a lot of scones recently. And I've seen all different kinds of recipes. And I was wondering how can I get the best texture? Well, I
CK: Well, I think we need to take the rest of the show to discuss this because this is one of my favorite topics and it's the most complicated thing in the world. Let's start with your definition of best? what's the best scone?
SM: Yeah, we really need to know what you're looking for. When you say best.
CK: You want flaky layers. You want a cake like texture. You want it crispy and crumbly on the outside?
Caller: Yeah, I want it crispy and crumbly on the outside and inside I'm kind of open.
CK: Let's start with a big thing. The ratio of fat to flour, the leaner, the scone the more pebbly and crusty and crumbly i's going to be. The more fat you have a softer and more pillowy, it's going to be Do you remember the recipe we're using, or do you have a recipe in mind?
Caller: It uses two cups of cake flour, and then it's got six tablespoons of butter and seven tablespoons half and half.
CK: Yes, that's about right. You can use buttermilk. You can use milk you can use cream you can use half and half is fine. You just use enough liquid to pull the dough together once you cut the fat the butter into the flour with the salt and the baking powder. So, if you want to crumbly or texture, you might use less fat. Use five tablespoons instead of six. If you want a softer scone, it's more like a biscuit. You'd up that butter to seven or eight tablespoons to get a slightly fattier texture. (Okay) the other thing you could try is if you really wanted a more crumbly scone, if you cut the cold butter in a food processor into the flour, that'll give you a more layered effect. As in a pie pastry if you use melted butter, you're going to get a shorter dough, which means more like a cookie. So, if you're looking for more like a cookie like scone, it's not as layered. It's crumblier on the outside, you could try melting the butter and make a scone that way. (Okay) Sarah?
SM: Oddly enough, I agree with Chris. But if you could find a recipe that had you weigh the flour rather than measure the flour, that would be much better, because that's far more precise. So, if you may have made this several times, and it comes out differently every time it's probably because you're actually measuring the flour differently.
CK: There's one thing we haven't talked about, which is the flour. You said the recipe call for cake flour? (Um hm) I’d go to all-purpose flour, because cake flour is going to by definition give you a more cake like soft, tender. I would try all purpose and that'll give you you know, a sturdier scone.
SM: I think a rough and tumble stone.
Caller: Yeah. And then I have one last question about preserving them. Because when I make a batch, I don't want to eat them all right away. So, should I freeze the dough before I make them or after or after baking them or?
CK: You can definitely shape them and then freeze some of them. sure, that'll work fine. Double wrap them and freeze them. So yeah. And then you could just take them out.
SM: Yeah, I think that'd be much better than freezing them afterwards. There'll be much better just much more moist. Yeah.
Caller: Okay. Sounds good.
SM: All right.
CK: All right, Thanks for calling.
Caller: Thanks for answering my question.
SM: All right. Thanks, Emily. Bye bye. Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?
Caller: Hi, this is Mike from Phoenix.
SM: Hi, Mike from Phoenix. How can we help you today?
Caller: I had a question about how our mouths perceive flavor. A couple months ago I started experimenting with flavors and there's this one chocolate my wife really likes that has chili so I took some chocolate chip cookies and put some chili powder and it tasted okay. But I felt like I tasted the sweet first and then the spicy later. Do we taste you know sweet, savory, salty, spicy in any certain order? Or is it all at the same time? Wow,
SM: Wow, that is a very good question. I mean, remember those old diagrams of the tongue and they said, oh, you will taste dinner here and salty there. Well, actually, there's all sorts of little bumps all over your tongue that taste those flavors, sweet, salty, bitter, and umami, there are certain things that we need historically, or mean, you know, from caveman times, like sugar, lots of sugar. So, it's interesting, it doesn't strike us as squarely as say something like salt or bitter. Probably because salt or bitter might mean that something was dangerous for us to eat way back. One of the great things about all these tastes is if you have the right amount of sugar to the right amount of chili, you should actually taste both
CK: Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami yes, those are the little ___ in the tongue. And they each contain a bunch of cells and different cells taste different things. If you ask about flavor that comes up through the nasal passage into the brain, so virtually all flavors like strawberry, for example, is not a function of the tongue and the palate, it's the vaporized food being analyzed through the nasal passages up into the brain. Also, chili heat is stimulates the nerves in a very different way than sour or bitter does. But 99% of what you perceive as flavor is not what's on your tongue. It's what's going up through the nasal passage. And that's how the brain the brain has to recognize all that stuff. And that's based upon history and experience so that that's where most of that occurs.
SM: Well, in the case, Chris, of these cookies, what would you advise him to balance it better?
CK: Well, as I said, the chili that's a different sensation. So just use more or less chili powder, or use a different kind of chili, like an ancho chili or something that has maybe a fruity or flavor to go with a chocolate chip cookie. That's what I would look for not something that's mostly just heat.
Caller: That is incredibly helpful. And actually, I don't think I'd thought much about the difference between the taste and I guess that's perceived by the tongue versus what goes up in the nasal cavity that's just opened up a whole another world of possibilities. Thank you so much. I'll go back to the recipe and work on the balance.
SM: Okay, Mike.
CK: Thanks, Mike.
Caller: Thank you.
SM: Take care. Bye bye.
CK: This is Milk Street Radio if you need help in the kitchen. Give us a call anytime our number is 855-426-9843 that's a 855-426-9843 or email us at questions at Milk Street Radio.com.
SM: Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?
Caller: Hi this is Deidre.
SM: Hi Deidre. Where are you calling from?
Caller: I am calling from Grayson, Kentucky.
SM: How can we help you today?
Caller: So first, thank you for taking my call. I'm super excited because I have a serious problem with the chocolate hazelnut cream cake that was featured in November December magazine.
Caller: I have gained 20 pounds in two months because of this cake
SM: What? Oh dear.
CK: That's a testament to the recipe.
SM: Oh my god, what an advertisement. Yes
Caller: It is fabulous. I can't stop eating it. I have made it at least 12 times. But the sad part is I know if I eat it all I'm going to gain like 40 pounds. So, I cut half of it and give it to my 70-year-old neighbor who is now complaining that she is gaining weight. What I'd like to know is can I make the cake and make like snacking sizes and freeze it?
SM: So this cake tell me what are the parts
Caller: There is whipped ganache portion after you make you split it and you add your Nutella into it. Then there's the cake and there's the soaking syrup.
Caller: and you bake your cake and put it all together and tada
SM: I think the easiest solution for the cake half of it is to just make cupcakes. You could even make mini cupcakes and then freeze them and then when it came time to you know have another batch you could make the ganache and you know whip it, now I need to know a little more about the ganache is cream and chocolate basically?
Caller: it calls for white chocolate finely chopped and gelatin, heavy cream, ____ and cheese and honey.
SM: Oh geez. Okay, because I don't think that would freeze very well.
Caller: I didn't either.
SM: And I wonder if it's possible to make a half a batch of it. Do you think it would divide?
CK: Well, which you might try is you could bake the cake separately or do it as muffins and cupcakes. You might make the hazelnut filling the ganache and try freezing part of it. Right? Just give that a shot. And then when it comes out, you know the next day, let it thaw room temperature and then try whipping it up and see if it whips up after freezing, it might not, but at least you get the answer to that. The other possibility is you make the ganache, let it sit in the fridge. And that'll be good for three or four days. Well, the problem is now I'm going to go have to make the cake this weekend. So thanks
Caller: Yeah, you need to make it recently
CK: Like 10 times in a month, right?
SM: Oh, dear. All right. I'm not sure
CK: Well, I'm glad you like it.
Caller: Thank you.
SM: We love your enthusiasm. Thank you.
CK: You're listening to Milk Street radio. Up next. I'm getting philosophical with Nigella Lawson. That and lots more after the break. This is Milk Street radio. I'm your host Christopher Kimball right now it's my interview with food writer and TV host Nigella Lawson, about her latest cookbook, Cook, Eat. Repeat. Nigella Welcome back to Milk Street.
Nigella Lawson: It's so so lovely to be back, Chris.
CK: First of all, let me say that you put the book back in cookbook. Thank you. Well, you know, in reading your book, I just realized how much I miss people who can write in cookbooks. You know, the Jane Grigson’s the MFK Fisher's etc. They used to actually write books, cookbooks, there wasn't just a bunch of recipes. They, they thought about it and they had a point of view. You talk about Aldous Huxley, who described in one of his books, a young man's first taste of champagne. And he says an apple peeled with a steel knife. And you write, which I love. It lets you feel that sharp effervescence taste that sherberty tang, and conveys the wincing abruptness of that first unexpected sip. That's pretty good.
NL: Well, I, I was writing that in the context of how you write a recipe that's helpful. And often metaphor can give readers a clearer idea of the properties of a dish rather than just describing it, I think you need to do both. But I think it's very important that the reader can gauge as much as possible before they have cooked the recipe, what tastes it will end up having, and what kind of a dish it will be. Now, of course, Aldous Huxley’s description, is as a winemaker would tell you, not actually correct and yet, it tells you much more than if a sommelier were to explain what it really tasted of or what the grapes were. And I think sometimes, and I feel this very importantly, from my point of view, is that food occupies a physical impractical domain, but it also lives in the world of the imagination. And in a way, I think that's a very important part of it. When you're writing about food, you're conveying something from one world to another, from the practical to the imaginative, and from one person's mind and sensibilities to another's,
CK: It makes me think or reminds me I should say that recipes don't exist in a vacuum. Right? It's about context and point of view and personal experience. And I think your book does exactly that. I mean, I love the recipes, but the recipes are put in a context, which makes them wholly more interesting and brings them to life rather than just being food in a pan.
NL: Well, well, thank you. I mean, that is what I want to do, and I get a lot of pleasure from doing in that, but I also think in a way that a cookbook has to have a dual life, because it has to be utterly reliable as a manual. The steps have to be right. The oven temperatures have to be right, you need to have tested things over and over again. And then it has another role, which is talking about the context, the beauty, why you're drawn to ingredients. And context can be many things culture, personal, historical, and I think that is why those of us who are fascinated with food continues to be so fascinated because it seems to me to occupy every realm of study, its social history, its anthropology, its esthetic’s.
CK: You've often said you enjoy eating in bed, something that I find anathema for some strange reason.
NL: But yeah, but I think I'm probably much more sloppy than you.
CK: But it's almost I find it hard to, to match what I know about you with eating.
NL: Well, I don't do all my meals in bed, but for example, lying in bed with a huge slab of chocolate ideal. Reading a book, eating chocolate deciding do I really crunched down with my teeth on this square, you know, like a dog? Or do I let it this one, I think I'm going to let melt very slowly, always hard, but then more gratifying. So that, for me is very pleasurable. But I wouldn't, you know, I don't come up with a trade and knife and fork and a bowl. But occasionally I've done a noodle soup in bed, but not much. I mean, actually, funnily enough, I did that more under normal conditions, because I suppose, you know, life's busy and hectic. And on days when I was in, I thought, I'm just going to take this upstairs.
CK: I've always thought you have a very specific idea about how life should be lived. And I think that kind of goes through your book, and you don't come out and say it. But you’ve you’ve very strong opinions about how to do it the right way. Could you could you just share a little bit of that with us?
NL: Well, I didn't know what you mean really because I think I do have strong opinions. But I know how I need to lead my life. I'm not convinced everyone knows not needed. I mean, I don't know I think in life one sort of just, you kind of make it up as you go along. But you perhaps after a while you see there are certain defining features, or certain things you hold onto. Cooking for me is very important, feeding myself taking enormous pleasure in the beauty of produce. And maybe, maybe it's the sense of, we get through life by taking pleasures where you can you there's no point waiting for something great and monumental, because that doesn't happen very often. And things go wrong very often. So, if I can look at a bowl of lemons on my table and get pleasure from that, I regard that as it enormously lucky. And it does change the emotional tenor of the day, just like eating does.
CK: You know, cream has been now relegated to the dessert table here in America.
NL: Yes, and here too probably
CK: And you brought it back in a fennel gratin, for example. Those are dishes I used to make a long time ago. And I saw that picture. I go like, why, why am I not making this now? So, in defense of cream and savory dishes?
NL: Well, yes, I mean, I would, I wouldn't feel great if I did it every meal, but I'm absolutely in favor of it. You know, I've said this before I feel you know, fat is very important. And I regard it as moisturizing from within. So, I'm very happy to carry on. And I think there is something with the fennel when I mix gruyere, Dijon mustard, cream and dry white vermouth. I know I mispronounced the myth, but I've done it for too long. I can't change now. And it's such a wonderful combination. And I think that maybe there's something comforting about those old you know, cream bound dishes. I don't know that mean, there's not a huge amount of cream in it actually if you think about how many people might eat it, but it certainly plays a very important part.
CK: I think I've spent most of COVID telling people to brown their butter for some reason. I don't know why. I guess I'm losing it. But you talk.
NL: Yeah, it's very wise. Well, you
CK: Well, you lead the march here about browning butter.
NL: Well, it's, I think, because to some people think of it as a complicated sort of, they don't realize you all brown butter means is you're browning the butter. And I wanted to talk about the various ways you can use brown butter, the French call it __ noisette and was that hazelnut and that's the color to go for. But it's actually got quite a nutty taste. And it's caramelly without being sweet. Exactly. It's like a savory hint of caramel. It's extraordinary and, you know, just pat on a piece of white fish is fabulous, I happen to like it with pork chops a lot too and a bit of sage, but the great thing about cooking is you apply something you you've learned, or you've grown to love, do something else. And so, so many of the head notes in the books are about suggesting connections, I call it my culinary stream of consciousness, but it's about this is brown butter. These are its properties, and these are other ways you could use it. So as much as possible, I suppose I want to show that every recipe has within it the seeds of so many other dishes. And I think it's very important not to make it look as if a recipe has to be one way and no other. Because that’s antithetical to what I like to think of as the the anarchy of cooking. There’s’ an order to cooking but there needs to be an element of anarchy.
CK: Most cookbooks, every recipe is just, you know, a cog, right? It exists on its own. You tie all these recipes and cooking together in sort of this fluid prose where things go back and forth between recipes and between ideas.
NL: Yes, well, I feel that one can overlay food with many things and it's not false to do that. But in a sense, how people write about food or how they think about food is really about how they keep alive, how they keep others alive. What reminds them of their families, what reminds them of a vacation, they took somewhere, it was about their identity. And I was thinking about the recipe form generally. And I think what makes it interesting is that it's written for the present. Even if it draws on the past, it is for the present. You don't set out to write something for posterity, you're communicating to people who are alive now. And it’s sort of irrelevant how it lasts afterwards, even though I'm sure you know, some people worry about that. But it's so extraordinarily present. And for me, that translates to cooking as well, which is maybe for me one of the easiest ways just to be in the moment. I often think people who think food is somehow trivial like fashion or you know what it's oh, it's a food you need to keep alive so dwelling on it is is somehow frivolity. I always feel there are so many people who would want to be sitting around a table eating the meal that their mother cooked them or food that they grew up with, or food that they have been exiled from because of having to move country. It's not a small thing. So, it is your responsibility. It is my responsibility and a very glad duty to be grateful for it and not to be flippant with it as if it's immaterial. It's not it's it's the fabric and of our of our lives and of our relationships.
CK: Nigella It has been a great pleasure.
NL: Sorry, I talk such a lot, but it's always lovely chatting to you.
CK: That's why you're such a great interview.
NL: I don't draw breath. It was really lovely, and I hope you're all well
CK: Take care. That was Nigella Lawson. Her book is Cook, Eat Repeat Ingredients, Recipes and Stories. You know, writing about food is a lost art. Today most cookbooks are nothing more than collections of recipes biographical perhaps, but without the grace and inspiration of language to elevate recipes tell our stories only if we're able to communicate that is to use language to make surprising connections. So, a first sip of champagne can be described as bubbly. But here's what Nigella wrote that lets you feel that sharp, effervescent taste that shuberty tang. It conveys the wincing abruptness of that first unexpected sip. So, let's not forget that food writing should be first and foremost, writing. This is Milk Street Radio. It's time to chat with JM Hersh about this week's recipe polenta with shrimp and tomatoes. JM how are you?
JM Hersh: I'm doing great.
CK: You know, you spend a fair amount of time in Italy, for obvious reasons. And what really shocks me is that you go there and come back with classic recipes everybody knows, but discovered they're made totally differently in Italy. I would think by now, right with a history of food, especially last 50 years, all that would be kind of sussed out, you know, we know how to do it. One of the recipes that just shocked me more than any other was polenta. Because this whole thing about stirring and everything else, and actually, they don't make it that way at all, right?
JM: No, it's true. And you know, what I've concluded is that we tend to overthink things. And we complicate things. And when you go to Italy, and you start learning from home cooks, you realize that actually, they do it much simpler and frankly, much better. You know, we think of polenta as this kind of overwrought, stirring and stirring and stirring and then you lard it up with cheese and dairy. And you end up with glue. And you know, it was a few years ago, I was in this small mill, a grain mill outside of Genoa, and the cook there showed me that now, you know, you throw some ground, find the ground cornmeal in a pot with some water, you give it a couple stirs the beginning and you let it go. And I thought, well, maybe this is a one off. Maybe this woman has just like cracked the code of better polenta. But it's you know, every time I've seen polenta anywhere in Italy, it's the same basic hands-off approach. And there's no cheese in it. You let the real clean, fresh flavor of the polenta of the corn shine through because it does have to compete with cheese. And then it becomes this delicious creamy base for whatever you want to pair it with.
CK: So today we're choosing shrimp to pair it with polenta, right?
JM: Yes, yes. So at a farm about 45 minutes north of Venice, Hong Kong named Mikala Taska taught me this recipe where you combine shrimp and tomatoes to make this kind of sweet and savory sauce of tomatoes and garlic and red pepper flakes, a little bit of basil and of course, tender plump shrimp. Now, what I really found it fascinating is that we tend to think of shrimp as kind of a decadent food, you know, something you splurge on, but in Venice, it was always part of cucina povera, you know, poor food, you know, the poor kitchen. And so shrimp. This is just a very simple dish that just happens to pack a lot of fresh, bright flavor.
CK: And I assume it's honest to say that Italians will put almost anything on polenta?
JM: Yes, absolutely. And you know, I was recently in Venice, and you go from bar to bar, which, of course I like to do. And you know, and one of the things they do is they serve you fried squares of polenta, and it's these cataria they topped them with all sorts of things like, you know, cheeses and cured meats and seafood, and you know, dried cod and just all these amazing topics. They're happy to throw anything on polenta and I loved it.
CK: So Venetian polenta and shrimp. You keep the polenta simple, but just have fun with the topping, right?
JM: Yeah, absolutely. It's just some tomatoes cooked down with some olive oil and some garlic, and then you throw the shrimp in and they cook really gently and the residual heat of the sauce. Then you throw that on top of the polenta and it is amazing.
CK: JM thanks. That's Venetian polenta and shrimp the perfect marriage. Thank you.
JM: Thank you. You can get this recipe for Venetian polenta and shrimp at Milk Street Radio.com.
CK: This is Milk Street radio coming up. Dan Pashman orders takeout from across the country. We'll be right back. I'm Christopher Kimball and you're listening to Milk Street radio. Right now. Sara Moulton and I will be answering a few more of your cooking questions.
SM: Welcome to Milk Street who is calling?
Caller: This is Charlotte Sasso from Amagansett, New York.
SM: How can we help you today?
Caller: I was looking through some, you know, food porn, and I found a really fun recipe for a deconstructed modern sort of eggplant parmesan. So, they were upgrading all the ingredients, and pinko was the breading of choice for this recipe. And I started to think, is there an upgrade for Panko I'm always making my own bread crumbs. I never waste any sort of bread or cracker, I always find a use for it. So I was just thinking of it as an intellectual exercise. You know, how is Panko made? Is there a substitute for it? Is there a homemade version? And I thought it was an interesting question.
SM: It is a very interesting question. The way panko is made is by making a very simple dough, and then baking it using an electric current instead of heat. So it comes out sort of crustless with a lot of holes in it. And
Caller: And I mean, I think of Panko as snowflakes.
SM Yes, exactly.
Caller: like more of a crystal than a crumb.
SM: Exactly. And you know, there's this book that came out, I don't know, about 10 years ago, which talked about when you should make something and when you should buy something it's called Make the Bread Buy the Butter. I think this is one of those times where you just buy the Panko. I really don't think you can come up with something as crisp or as equivalent noodling around yourself. Let's see what Chris has to say about this.
CK: Buy the Panko yeah. What no, but she started by saying she does like to waste anything. So, if you did have a very light white bread, this is the classic Japanese style white bread, take the crust off grate two bread, and bake it in a moderate oven for 10 minutes, you know, 300 degrees, something like that. stirring occasionally and you probably get something that's pretty good. But the reason you do that is you don't want to throw the bread away.
Caller: Correct. That sounds great. I mean, in the past when I've, you know, jazzed up my eggplant parmesan. I've played around with Crostini type crackers, or garlic bread, you know, something to boost that flavor. So, it's something that I love playing around with.
SM: You know what, in my last cookbook, I have inside out eggplant parmesan. Oh, I slice the eggplant and I actually brushed it with oil and baked it till it got soft seasoned it to of course. And then the filling, I make some croutons basically, you know, little cubes and sauté them in olive oil, add maybe a little garlic, salt and pepper, and then that is the filling. And then I'd rolled the croutons inside of the eggplant slices with some parmesan and some mozzarella, and then topped it off with some marinara sauce.
Caller: It sounds terrific. And it sounds as if it looks really pretty as well.
SM: It does.
Caller: I definitely will check it out. Thank you so much. I've really enjoyed the show. It's a great pleasure to speak with both of you.
CK: Thanks for calling. Appreciate it.
SM: Yes, thank you.
Caller: Take care.
CK: This is Milk Street radio. If you're looking for a bit of culinary inspiration, give us a call anytime our number once again is 855-426-9843 one more time 855-426-9843 or email us at questions at Milk Street Radio.com. Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?
Caller: This is Robin from Farrington village in North Carolina.
CK: So how can we help you?
Caller: Well, I'm having problems with cannoli’s I'm finding that I can't get those ubiquitous bubbles that everyone else seems to be able to achieve. (Oh boy) I've tried different things. I frying them at 360 degrees. I abused both a regular instant read thermometer and I also have an old deep fryer that I got out of the back of a closet to make sure I had the right temperature did that. I'll get just a few bubbles. But that's it. I tried numerous recipes. I even tried seltzer water once.
CK: I tried that in waffles once I remember. Well
Caller: I had one giant bubble.
CK: Well maybe that's a new thing. Maybe you should start a bakery. I would go to Stella Park’s book. She's a fabulous baker and does fabulous desserts. I think she has a recipe for this. I've never made cannolli I have to be honest but the two things I would think are important. The liquid content of the dough because a wetter dough is going to probably have more steam in it when it hits the oil right and probably cause more bubbling. There's another thing I know she does in her recipe which is she rolls it out thin and then she folds it you know I think she probably brushes, egg white or something and folds it over. So, you get layering like in a lot of French pastries is layer going on. Right,
Caller: Right, like a lamination.
CK: Exactly. That would be another way of probably getting more bubbling. But the simplest way would just be to add a little more liquid to the dough. And make sure it's fully hydrated before you roll it out. Sarah, I mean, that's all I can add to this.
SM: I agree with Chris. And also I'm a big fan of Stella's.
Caller: Okay, thank you very much. I will try the water.
Caller: Okay. Take care.
SM: Bye bye. Bye
CK: Bye. This is Milk Street radio. Now it's time for this week's cooking tip from one of our listeners.
Caller: Hi, my name is Precious Neilson and here's my tip. I always use Worcestershire sauce on hamburgers when I'm making the burgers and on salmon. And you should try it. You'll like it on both of them, thank you. Bye
CK: If you'd like to share your own culinary hack or secret ingredient on Milk Street, please go to 177 Milk Street comm slash radio tips. Next up, it's Dan Pashman. Dan, what's going on?
Dan Pashman: Well, Chris, I am waiting for a package.
CK: Is it? Is this like Waiting for Godot? Or is it ever going to show up?
DP: I hope so. I hope so. I, I hit a point during COVID. During the worst periods where I got very sick of my own cooking. I think a lot of folks experienced this. I wanted to taste something new. I couldn't go out. Yes, I ordered takeout from my local restaurants and wanted to support them. But then I even got a little tired of those. And I started ordering food, mail order from different restaurants all over the country. And it is wonderful. And I'll tell you why it's wonderful. You know, Chris, like you at your restaurant, you're hungry or something delicious. And there's an anticipation that comes as you wait for the food to arrive. And that is part of the joy of eating, I think. When you ship food to yourself, you get that times 100 because you can set it to arrive on a certain date. You get the notification when it ships out. You know when it's coming sometime that day, but you don't know exactly when I ordered this coconut cake from a bakery in Los Angeles. And could not wait I knew the day it was coming. I kept like every hour opening my front door looking on the front steps is the box here yet, to get the box here yet. It was so much fun and exciting. Then when the box finally arrives. There's so much joy. I got ribs from Kansas City. I got dumplings. I got muffuletta sandwich from New Orleans. I got a lemon cake from South Carolina.
CK: Now wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, you got a fully made muffuletta sandwich and they give you all the components separately and you
DP: It was fully made. And I tell you what it held together just fine. I mean, it was the size of a hubcap.
CK: Yeah, I've had them in New Orleans. But I was just thinking with all the dressing and everything. It doesn't soak into the bread.
DP: I was afraid of that. But it held together very well. I did sort of disassemble it and I put the bread in the toaster oven. And then I the meat I warmed very slightly in my microwave just to like take the chill off, and then put it back together. And it held together very well. And it had it had the crunch of those. And the spiciness and the acidity of the vegetables and the cheese and the meat. It was so good.
CK: So, if I may ask, how did you suss out find all these places to buy the things you want?
DP: Well, you know, you can look online read reviews recommendations, there is a website called Gold Belly that does a lot of these deliveries that I've used, some restaurants will ship directly to you. I will say that that it's not cheap. Some of the prices were just prohibitively expensive, certain places for whatever reason are just astronomical. So, I wasn't willing to spend that much money. But certain types of food I think are more reasonable. Barbecue, I think is one of the best deals. Yeah, you could get dinner for for barbecue, for not much more than what it cost you to go to great barbecue restaurants going to get shipped to you from Texas or Kansas City or wherever. desserts also more expensive than a local bakery, but not so much more. And you can get all these kinds of specialty desserts, regional specialties you wouldn't get elsewhere. So, it's fun to look forward to eating it. It's fun to get this treat in the mail, it changes up what you're eating, it makes the meal an event. And to me that's part of what I love about eating.
CK: Well, I love the fact you're supporting, you know, these bakeries and restaurants they went went through just a horrendous year I think is great. But let's take barbecue eat is something about walking into a barbecue joint. That is almost as important as the meat. I mean there. It's just that experience right? I mean, yeah, it's great to have food but then you're sitting in your kitchen around the table. You're you had some really cool place in Texas or North Carolina or Kansas City. So yeah, but it's still not quite the same.
DP: That's true. I'm not going to say that it's the same as going to a place but it's a way to have new food experiences without leaving your house.
CK: Well, I think what this is part of his bigger story, which is the reimagining of food service in the hospitality industry, right, I mean, it's not going to be the way it was.
DP: I think that makes sense. I but I think you're right, also that there's going to be opportunities for smaller local places to use technology to grow their businesses, hopefully, you know, in a way that will make them sustainable, and allow them to sell well beyond their communities.
CK: Yeah, I think that's great. I think it's like the story of small farmers in the last 20 years, I think there's, there's a little bit of hope that the small restaurants her bakery, now has a wider audience, right, and can actually make a decent living doing that, which would be fabulous, because what we need more of is the small places, right? I mean, that's, that's where the food is really unexpected. And it's nice to support, you know, a small business
DP: 100%. And as long as those small businesses are shipping food, I will be here to eat it.
CK: So, one question, so you got an entire coconut cake. What did you do with it all?
DP: I ate it over a period of several days.
CK: If you get a whole cake. That's that's a pretty serious commitment.
DP: Yes, it is. But the great thing about cake also, as you know, like you can freeze it, it lasts. So you space it out, you know, treat yourself
CK: Or in twenty-five years you can claim it as your wedding cake. You won't remember anyway,
DP: That's right.
CK: So, Dan, you're now Mr. Mail order. coconut cake, barbecue muffuletta sandwiches. Good for you. Thank you
DP: Thanks, Chris. Take care.
CK: That was Dan Pashman, host of The Sporkful food podcast. That's it for this week's show. If you tune into later want to binge listen every single episode, you can download an extreme radio on Apple podcast, Spotify, or wherever you find your podcast. To learn more about Milk Street, please go to 177 Milk Street .com there you can find all of our recipes, you can take a free online cooking class, or you can order our latest cookbook which is Tuesday Night's Mediterranean. You can also find us on Facebook at Christopher Kimball's Milk Street and on Instagram and Twitter at 177 Milk Street. We'll be back next week with more food stories and thanks as always for listening.
Christopher Kimball's Milk Street radio is produced by Milk Street in association with GGH Executive Producer Melissa Baldino. Senior audio editor Melissa Allison, producer Sarah clap and Jason Turetsky. production assistant Amelia McGuire, intern Emily Kunkel and production help from Debby Paddock. Additional Editing by Sidney Lewis audio mixing by Jay Allison at Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The music by Toubab Krewe. Additional music by George Brandl Egloff. Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio is distributed by PRX.