It’s been a strangely busy couple of weeks around here. I survived my first catering job (with a
little lot of help from my friends), started making plans for the smokehouse, began the research and work on a business plan to open a community kitchen/catering service/barbecue cart, ate some less-than-stellar ‘cue, had the best coffee of my entire life, found a new meat market, and accidentally made pork croutons.
Of course, the one thing I didn’t do was research the culinary traditions of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Getting sidetracked is the story of my entire middle-aged life. And besides, Virginia has been around a lot longer than I have–chances are good that it’ll still be there when I get around to writing about it.
Let’s start with those pork croutons.
One of my good friends loves rillettes. In fact, for our housewarming party, she gave me a cookbook with the rillettes page marked and a request that I make them for her birthday. These are my first attempt. Trust me, this doesn’t look anything like the photo in the book. (Note: I’ve since remade them and my suspicions were correct.)
What I learned is this: if you want to slowly braise something in its own fat, don’t use a pot that is too large. It’ll end up frying and instead of a soft, pate-like texture, you end up with crunch bits of overcooked pork. On the plus side, Marge and Carlos tell me these make excellent dog treats.
Pork croutons and fresh mud make for a happy Marge
The best coffee I’ve ever had? Fuego, in downtown Rochester. I met a former student there one afternoon–we’d been talking about getting together to catch up on life and absurdities, and I chose this place from google maps, based solely on the location. It’s a tiny, grubby space with a distinctly postindustrial vibe. From the street it didn’t look entirely open, but I was committed to the coffee meeting so I wandered in and bellied up to the bar where I ordered a cortado (equal parts espresso and steamed milk) from the owner (who was, to be frank, less than charming that day). Ultimately, neither the ambiance or the borderline surliness mattered. The cortado she served me was velvety, sweet, rich, and made me want to live in a corner of the very tiny space for the forseeable future. Really, with coffee like that, who needs creature comforts? If you find yourself wandering around downtown Rochester, stop in. Seriously. I’ll be the one in the corner surrounded by empty glasses. Lesson? Passion and quality trump environment (not unlike the strange way that the best Asian cuisines come from old Ponderosa restaurants).
This leads me to the saddest barbecue experience I’ve had in, oh, ever. A new place opened up in town, and since smoking is kind of my thing we stopped in to check it out. Like Fuego, the space wasn’t particularly glamorous–nor would I expect it to be in barbecue place. Unlike Fuego, I had the chance to chat with the owner. Her Culinary Arts diplomas are displayed prominently on the wall (Paul Smith, Le Cordon Bleu), so there was a point of conversational entry. Plus we were the only people in the place so there was that.
As someone who breaks out the wood chips every chance she gets,I had a set of expectations. It is a generally accepted fact that people who smoke do it because they love it. You have to love it to do it–because it’s messy, and hot, and smelly, and a long-term commitment, given that a good smoke takes 10 hours. And if you’re doing it over coals instead of in an electric smoker, you have to pay attention. Pit denizens also like to talk about their craft. So when I asked her about the wood, and she just kind of shrugged and said “it’s a mix that we soak in beer” I was a little, well, nonplussed. When the hubs asked the follow up, “why barbecue?” and her answer was “because nobody else here is doing it, but it’s not what I want to do”, my hopes for some seriously good ‘cue went out the door. She then admitted that she’d rather do fine-dining, but doesn’t think the town would support her in it. I get that, actually. If the market won’t sustain your product, do something else. But why, I can’t help wondering, pick barbecue? Unsurprisingly, it was some sad, sad barbecue. Which is saying a lot, given that I live in Yankee land. Lesson? The market research might support it, but if the product isn’t good your guests won’t come back.
And finally, that wine. It’s a South African blend that comes in a screw-top bottle, and I bought an entire case of it. Lesson: an “indaba” is a council meeting of indigenous peoples in South Africa.