Friday, March 26, 2010

give me your best shot, pal, I can take it

Another shopping excursion at Battambang Market in Little Cambodia (preceded as always by pizza at Stromboli's in Billerica). Most of the meat, of course, will go in the freezer for after Lent.

Champagne mango, young coconut juice, sarsaparilla

Champagne mangos, frozen young coconut juice, that sarsaparilla I love.

Pork and beef

Pig tails, "flank steak" (it's flank, it's not a steak cut), pig ears, pork belly.

Spring rolls, mung bean cakes

Spring rolls and mung bean cakes. Usually I get a bahn mi, but I didn't see any today.

Squid heads, pigs' feet

They also didn't have any duck! The cost of supermarket duck doubled (literally doubled) a year or so ago, and Little Cambodia has been my duck source since, and the only place that sells duck parts, not just whole ducks. But today, no ducks at all, except the non-eviscerated frozen ducks (which are no cheaper than the supermarket eviscerated ducks).

But sometimes life hands you duck, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes when it doesn't, you shrug and take the opportunity to buy squid heads for the first time.

Also pictured, pigs' feet.

Frog legs

Frog legs!


Chinese celery, fufu flour, chi pra har, curry leaf, maras prov. Maras prov is new to me. No idea what it is.


Shallots for a DOLLAR for a whole thing of them like that there. Daaaamn.

Chinese watercress, "chi fish" (also new to me), "cooked peeled young corn" (most of which is green), also new to me.



Oh man I wish I was making chili sometime soon. Well, I'll make vegetarian chili, that's all there is to it.

Also, ngo om, basil, and Asian greens of some sort.


Chile peppers, long beans, cha plue leaf (new to me), unmarked green leaf.

Not pictured: cane vinegar, calamansi soy sauce, and various fish: six salmon heads, six catfish heads, two pounds of squid, and a redfish.

I got multiple packages of many of the things pictured above. All told, about thirty pounds of fish, fifteen pounds of meat, twenty packages of vegetables. Total? $155. And they gave me a free cookbook.

barely know her

Grapefruit bitters

Grapefruit Bitters - the simplest bitters to make at home because you can get everything except one optional ingredient at the supermarket.

1 empty 750ml bottle
1 large grapefruit
black tea
cinnamon chunks or 1 cinnamon stick
whole allspice
gentian (optional)

Juice the grapefruit. Drink the juice. Cut the juiced grapefruit - rind, pith, bits of pulp, and all, though feel free to get rid of any seeds - into small pieces and stuff them into the 750ml bottle.

Add loose black tea (about enough for two cups of tea, I'd say) to the bottle, along with a stick's worth of cinnamon and a pinch of whole allspice. If you have gentian, add a pinch of it to help round out the bitterness.

Add vodka until everything is covered. 100 proof vodka is better than 80.

Let it sit for a couple weeks, maybe a month, shaking the bottle from time to time. Because everything will expand in the bottle, you'll lose some vodka, but the bottle is also practically self-straining -- just pour it from the big bottle into something smaller, and almost all the solids will remain in the bottle.

A drink to make with your grapefruit bitters:

1 oz grapefruit bitters
1 oz St Germain elderflower liqueur
1 oz Ugli fruit juice (sub orange or grapefruit juice)
3/4 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz rye

(I would love to know why, with the new version of Opera, I'm suddenly unable to click "publish post" in blogger. I can type, I can save, but to post, I have to open blogger in Firefox instead, and because blogger and Google are linked, that means logging out of my normal Google account and logging back in as okaycheckitout, just to go to the dashboard, open the draft, and click freaking publish. Actually, I don't want to know why. I just want it to stop being true.)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

tell all your friends they can go my way

This post mentions free stuff. Check out the free stuff policy here.

Dig it.

Powdered root beer float

This is a root beer float.

Are you excited?

You should be excited. This is a fine white powder that dissolves into a fast-melting creaminess in your mouth, tasting like root beer.


There are three keys. Let's Memento this and reveal how we got to be here.

Third: Tapioca maltodextrin is one of the food industry substances adopted by 21st century cuisine to manipulate texture. Technically it isn't a hydrocolloid, but tends to be spoken of in the same breath as them. Tapioca maltodextrin is a polysaccharide produced through partial hydrolysis of tapioca starch, resulting in a flavorless, nonsweet, starchy powder. It's used as a bulking agent in the food industry.

In the kitchen, you can use it to turn fats into dry powder. The powder will melt back into the fat once it's in your mouth. Or anyone else's mouth.

It's easy but takes some practice. Take a fat -- it's easiest if it's liquid -- and keep adding tapmalt to it until you have a clumpy powder (and then break the clumps up by passing them through a sieve). You'll wind up with something that looks like cookie dough or something at first -- just keep going. Tapmalt is a fine and very light powder -- you will use much more of it, by volume, than the fat you're using.

You need a high-fat substance to mix the tapmalt with -- it will turn gummy and terrible if you expose it to water. But it doesn't need to be pure fat like, say, coconut oil -- you can make powdered peanut butter just fine. I'd like to find out if powdered avocado is an option but haven't tried it yet. I have an idea for a powdered salad dressing but I'm not sure if it will gum up once exposed to the wet surfaces of things like cucumbers and tomatoes -- and it's certainly not the season to find out.

Popcorn butter; popcorn butter powder

After a couple tests just to see how it mixed, the first thing I really made with tapmalt was popcorn butter.

This was involved, and silly, and self-evidently not worth the effort except as a way to play with various processes:

I popped popcorn;

simmered the popcorn in pasteurized cream;

cooled and strained the cream, which took a LOT of work since that popcorn happily soaked up all the cream;

refrigerated the popcorn-flavored cream;

churned the popcorn-flavored cream into butter;

melted the popcorn-infused butter;

mixed the popcorn-infused butter with tapmalt;

popped more popcorn and topped it with powdered popcorn-flavored butter.

It's worth pointing out, both the cream and the butter did have immediately recognizable popcorn flavor. Not "microwave popcorn butter" popcorn flavor, not "buttered popcorn Jelly Belly" flavor, but popcorn flavor.

Second: Remember fat-washing? Expose a fatty substance like butter or nuts to alcohol for a while, put the alcohol in the freezer, remove the fat that solidifies as it gets cold, and what you have left is an alcohol that carries the flavor notes of the fat -- because anything that is fat-soluble is alcohol-soluble.

But that's only half the story, right? Because you also end up with a fat that carries the flavors of the alcohol you soaked it in. If you mix a fat with a high-proof alcohol -- I don't know if this would work with wine or liqueur, but it works at base liquor proofs of 80+ -- the resulting "infused fat" very distinctly carries the flavors of the alcohol. You Freaky Friday everything up.

First: The folks at Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction sent me a sample of Root.

We will cover Root in more specific depth later. It's a base-strength root-beer-inspired spirit that has less sugar and more alcohol than a liqueur -- so it certainly isn't root beer schnapps -- but is noticeably sweeter than, say, bourbon or vodka.

Mix butter and Root.

Freeze butter and Root. Strain solid Root-infused butter particles out of butter-infused Root:

Root-infused butter

Mix Root-infused butter with tapmalt.

Powdered root beer float

Boom. Powdered root beer float.

Applications: give your friends a spoonful to impress them with your magic powers; mix with powdered sugar to dust absinthe truffles; perhaps mix with a little citric acid and a little baking soda to make some sort of root beer fizzy.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


About twenty years ago, I was at Matt's house watching the remake of The Blob. Kids today with their Netflix and Amazon and internet, they don't get it. We didn't even have Blockbuster. We had a video rental joint in town, about the size of a classroom, and the selection didn't change very often. We rented the Halloween and Nightmare On Elm Street movies over and over again. I've seen Platoon a lot.

Anyway, Matt's mother had picked up Cape Cod Sour Cream and Dill potato chips for us. This is a very vivid food memory for me, that's why I remember the movie we were watching. They were just so damn good -- the combination of dill, sour cream, and potato ... it was just awesome. They don't make those chips anymore, and I wish to hell they did.

Cause the thing is, I'm not a fan of dill very often. I don't eat many pickles, and never buy dill pickles. Once in a while I buy fresh dill thinking "oh I'll find something to do with this," and I never do, except on the rare occasion when I make a dill vinaigrette to have with roasted asparagus and potatoes.

Reason I'm bringing this up is dill pollen is fantastic. It has a strong dill flavor that's far more complex than the dried dill or dill seed, and easier to use than fresh dill. I find myself looking for excuses to use it -- using it instead of paprika on deviled eggs, adding it to ranch or onion dip for Buffalo wings, adding it to salad dressings. And every time, I go "damn, that dill pollen is so good" -- exactly the way I reacted to those potato chips a billion years ago.

Spicy fried chicken with dill pollen

This week, Meat Sunday is spicy fried chicken with dill pollen.  Two chicken thighs marinated in hot sauce and dill pollen, battered with flour and salt and dill pollen, fried, and dusted with more dill pollen and salt.

Spice and dill don't seem to be combined often enough, except when dill is part of the ranch dip served with Buffalo wings, which is pretty indirect.  I think I may play with that.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

i'm the leprechaun

Corned beef for St Patricks Day

Some month when I'm not off meat, we'll talk about how to make corned beef -- and how "corned" comes from the "corns" (kernels, i.e. "small bits") of seasoning used in making it.  Maybe we'll even talk about the differences between Irish cuisine and Irish-American cuisine, I don't know.  Maybe next year I'll make colcannon or champ.

This isn't that month, so I took advantage of the sales and picked up a cheap pink corned beef for the day, and a not so cheap grey corned beef (made with regular salt, not curing salt) to put in the freezer -- this is the only time of year they sell the grey corned beef.  (Interestingly, I did not see corned ribs or roast this year, as I have in previous years -- just brisket.)

Corned beef hash

The big thing to do for St Patricks Day here -- hell, for any damn day -- is "New England boiled dinner": corned beef, cabbage, potatoes, and sometimes other root vegetables, all boiled together like cozido or pot au feu. I've never been a fan, and in fact, until after my teens, I thought I only liked corned beef in sandwiches and hash -- which wouldn't make any sense, of course, but I had never stopped to wonder about it.

So me, I generally roast my corned beef. It avoids that mushy laundry texture of boiled dinner. (How I cooked it this time, for a four-pound corned brisket: after soaking it for an hour to get some salt out, and rubbing it with mustard and hot sauce as I always do, I baked it uncovered at 275 for two hours, then covered for about 75 minutes, then uncovered and rubbed with more mustard for about 30 minutes at 425. The result is really tender but has a real density and pronounced crust.) And the main goal here, the main reason I ever cook corned beef, is to have leftovers with which to make hash. I can't remember the last time I had pancakes. Why? Because I live alone, an egg makes too many pancakes for one person, and any time I go out for breakfast, if corned beef hash is on the menu, I get corned beef hash (unless I'm in the South -- southern breakfasts are a whole nother deal, whether we're talking chicken-fried steak, grillades and grits, a smoked pork chop, or a chorizo and egg taco).

Every cook seems to discover at some point that there somehow aren't many good corned beef hash recipes out there. Instead there are things calling for fresh herbs or canned gravy, handfuls of chopped parsley, hard-boiled eggs, roasted garlic, things that sound nothing like the hash you know. I don't know why this is, unless it's that usual Signature Syndrome, the same one so many new managers suffer from -- people feel the need to add their "personal touch" to things, for no reason except to do so.

But you don't really need a recipe, is what it comes down to. You want corned beef, potatoes, and onions. Add beets if you're making red flannel hash, a New England specialty. You can add small amounts of carrot or turnip, but again, these make the hash as distinct a variant as red flannel hash is (I added a tiny amount of both in mine, for the record). In any case, all of the above ingredients should already be cooked: the corned beef, of course, is leftovers; the potatoes may be leftovers from your boiled dinner or may be cold baked potatoes, a very good choice; the onions should be sauteed or grilled.

Assemble the ingredients -- the meat coarsely chopped, everything else a bit smaller, roughly equal amounts of meat and potatoes and considerably less of anything else -- in a cast-iron pan with animal fat (bacon or salt pork is traditional, beef fat is terrific, butter works), press closely together, and cook on low to medium heat on both sides, until you have noticeable browning and crisping.

Thyme or rosemary actually don't make terrible choices here, judging from a couple of restaurant hashes I've had, especially if they are in a homemade beef gravy that you add in small amounts to help with the binding. A touch of fresh cream -- a couple spoonfuls per serving, little enough that the cream isn't visible when the dish is done -- can help a lot with binding and flavor. I rarely buy cream specifically for the sake of adding to hash -- except turkey hash with Thanksgiving leftovers -- but I'll always add it if I have it in the house already.

You may need to flip the hash more than once. Look, when I heat up canned hash -- one of the only two convenience foods I ever buy -- I take at least half an hour to cook it. Texture is a real big key here. Keep it crisping, don't add too much liquid at once if you add any, and be prepared to cook it a while in order to cook the moisture out of your leftovers. 

Not a Reuben

As for the sandwiches?  This isn't a Reuben, but it's terrific: corned beef on seeded rye, with pickled red cabbage, Irish cheddar (on sale for St Patrick's!), and comeback sauce (a mustardy sauce a little like remoulade).  I swear there must be some chemical explanation for the flavor magnificence that is toasted buttered rye bread.  It's probably in McGee.

I realize there's a tradition that says that Reubens -- and presumably any sandwich riffing on them like this one does -- must be stacked high with meat, but look, I like sandwiches a lot more than I like eating half a pound of cured meat in a sitting.  It doesn't need to be a mouthbuster every time.

o sole miso

O sole miso

Sole fillet rubbed with red miso and marinated overnight; plantain rounds; edamame stir-fried with ginger, garlic, and turmeric.

There's not much to say about it, I ... just wanted to use the title.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

up against the wall, motherfucker

Snapper melt

I had hot-smoked snapper for dinner last night (in a taco with salsa and fried potatoes), so lunch today was a snapper melt with the leftover fish: seeded rye bread toasted on both sides and buttered on the outside, flaked snapper, red miso + mayonnaise, grilled onions, mozzarella + aged Mahon.

Pepper Relish Lay's on the side.  (Imagine salt and vinegar chips, a little sweeter, with the flavor of fresh pepper and onion.  They're pretty good.)

Fish definitely makes meatlessness easier.  So does being a week away from St Patricks Day, a Reuben, and corned beef hash.  What I miss most from the meat counter: hamburgers, Buffalo wings, duck breast, roast chicken, unctuous pork bits (tails, feet, etc).  Even Buffalo wings depend on the collagen-richness of chicken wings.  That lip-smackingness, you dig, that's always missing from "boneless Buffalo wings," because the collagen in this case is all in the skin.  Unctuousness -- the almost-gooeyness of collagen-rich parts like oxtails, spareribs, pig tails, etc -- is something neither fish nor flora can provide.  

Similarly, I find that without meat as a palette for it, I have not much interest in tanginess -- the sweet-sour-sharp of barbecue sauce, for instance, or mustard glaze, or Filipino adobo.  Peppadews or pickled cherry peppers on a steak sandwich.  The contrast between a hot dog and sauerkraut.  I'm not sure I miss it yet, but it's one of my favorite counterpoints for meat, which means it's a well I'm used to going to often.  I would certainly miss it in the long run.

(Interestingly, one of my favorite fish dishes, Platonic fish, is a tangy dish -- I just haven't got round to making it yet.)

Monday, March 8, 2010

when the moon hits your eye

After writing that pizza post, you won't be surprised to hear that I was craving pizza.

I really should try making one of those spinach pizzas, I thought.  So I picked up some pizza dough, rather than attempt another draft of fool-proof dough myself, and some spinach, some garlic, some ricotta.

The results ... made me realize just how high-fat Nashua House's spinach pie must be.  Because while I added a ton of fat to mine, it came out "delicious but kind of lean-seeming."  Maybe just drizzling some olive oil on would make a difference, I don't know.

What I did was, I combined garlicky creamed spinach with whole-milk ricotta and spread that on the dough, and topped it with cheese.  It was certainly very good!  It just wasn't as delectable as Nashua House's, and didn't seem NEARLY as high-fat as I knew it was.

This pizza, today's pizza, is not that.  But I found that the creamed spinach makes a great addition to a red sauce pie: spinach, ricotta, and lampascioni pie:

Spinach, ricotta, and lampascioni pizza

First, the creamed spinach:

I minced about half a bulb (that's half a bulb, like six cloves) of garlic and cooked them in half a cup of heavy cream in a saute pan until the cream reduced to the point that the garlic was frying in butterfat.

Meanwhile, I took one bunch of cleaned spinach, blanched it (boiled for about 45 seconds, shocked in ice water), squeezed every drop of moisture out of it that I could, and chopped it fine.  When the butterfat broke from the reducing cream, I added the spinach to the pan, cooked it quickly, and added a touch of cream at the end to bring everything together -- and then seasoned with a pretty healthy pinch of salt.

You use about a third of that spinach for a pizza.


Next, the lampascioni.  Nevermind the label: these are not wild onions.  They're labeled that way sometimes because they sort of look like onions and a lot of English-language guides to Italian food refer to lampascioni that way.  They're wild hyacinth bulbs.  You can't eat most varieties of hyacinth, but you can eat this one, which grows wild in Italy.  It's bitter -- punishingly bitter if you don't precook and/or soak them in olive oil before your final preparation.  The brand I have, sold by Zingerman's, has been roasted and packed in olive oil.  Noticeably bitter, but edible.  (My bitterness threshold: I can drink Campari straight, but bitter melon is almost completely inedible for me.)

There is maybe a gene for the enjoyment of bitter foods.  I'm half-Italian, and the Italians certainly love their bitter things, from bitter greens to Campari and other amaros to chinotto oranges.  Salt reduces bitterness-perception, so all those bitter things pair well with salty cheeses like Pecorino and parmigiano, or meats like prosciutto.  One of the finest flavor combinations in the world is broccoli raab (rabe, rape, rapini) with pork and Pecorino or parmigiano.  

On a pizza like this, the cheese, the garlic, the tomato, they all provide great contrasts for that bitterness, which in turn distracts you from how much cream and cheese is involved here.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

ain't nothing wrong with that

Well, finally.

Cornmeal blondie

Cornmeal blondie

For a while now I've wanted to come up with what I'd been calling a "cornbread brownie" but should really call a "cornmeal blondie."  The idea is, take sweet cornbread and make it as sweet and fudgy as fudge brownies (I'm not a big fan of cakey brownies) -- but without the chocolate.

You could also think of it as a cakey version of chess pie, which I guess I haven't made in this blog yet, but I will.  Chess pie tends to be something I make in between sour-citrus season and fresh-fruit season -- February through June.

Now, my recipe won't help you much, though it has occurred to me that the cocoa butter may not be as necessary to the texture as I've been assuming, which would be funny.  I have cocoa butter in the house partly just to play with, and partly to make chocolate-like things without chocolate (that is, without the cocoa solids that contribute the bulk of chocolate's flavor -- cocoa butter does retain some faint, subtle notes if it isn't deodorized).  But for all I know ... the butter and eggs alone may be enough to make this fudgy.

You don't need the corn whiskey; what it adds is barely noticeable.  Do not substitute vanilla instead, though -- you don't want flavors to crowd the corn here.  If you really think you need some other flavor, serve it alongside, in the form of a sauce, ice cream, fresh fruit, whatever.

Cornmeal blondies/cornbread brownies:

Melt 6 tablespoons butter and 2 ounces cocoa butter in a pan and let cool slightly.  Beat 2 eggs and beat butter/cocoa butter into them.  Add 1 cup sugar, 1/4 cup flour, 3/4 cup stone-ground yellow cornmeal, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, 1 Tablespoon corn whiskey.

Bake at 350 for 30-35 minutes.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

it's a trap

Braised squid

There are two ways to cook squid: very fast or very slow.  Two minutes or three hours -- anything in between, you may as well shit in your hat.

Slow, above: braised squid.  

I cooked garlic and chopped hot peppers in oil for a minute or two, added about equal amounts of red wine and Trader Joe's marinara sauce (mostly tomato and basil), and chopped squid (including tentacles), and barely simmered it for three hours.  The squid goes from cooked and edible to rubbery like a finger puppet to tender but a little toothsome.  Serve over pasta.  Goat butter garlic bread would've been awesome alongside.

Fast, not pictured because a Picasa update ate the photo: Buffalo squid.

Slice squid bodies into rings.  Spread out on a kitchen towel to blot the surface moisture away.  Dredge with a combination of flour, self-rising flour, and Old Bay.  Heat oil to pretty hot, so that the temp doesn't drop much when you drop the squid pieces in, and fry until just cooked -- about a minute and a half, two minutes.  Drain, toss with Buffalo wing sauce, serve with ranch and celery sticks.

Major success.

and for my 100th post...

I might not have heard the story at all if I hadn't been waylaid by this greasy Irish wop named Gino just before we turned off Main Street. Back then Gino was always waylaying me -- he could reach right through a closed car window and do it.

Gino's Fine Italian Pizza is on the corner of Main and Basin Drive, and every time I saw that sign with the pizza going up in the air and all the i's dotted with shamrocks (it flashed off and on at night, how funky can you get, am I right?), I'd feel the waylaying start again. And tonight my mother would be in class, which meant a pick-up supper at home. The prospect didn't fill me with joy. Neither my dad nor I was much of a cook, and Ellie would burn water.

"Let's get a pizza," I said, pulling into Gino's parking lot. "What do you say? A big greasy one that smells like armpits."

"Jesus, Dennis, that's gross!"

"Clean armpits," I amended. "Come on."


Gino's is run by a wonderful Italian fellow named Pat Donahue. He has a sticker on his cash register which reads IRISH MAFIA, he serves green beer on St Patrick's Day (on March 17 you can't even get near Gino's, and one of the cuts on the jukebox is Rosemary Clooney singing "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling"), and affects a black derby hat, which he usually wears tipped far back on his head.

The juke is an old Wurlitzer bubbler, a holdover from the late forties, and all the records -- not just Rosemary Clooney -- are on the Prehistoric label. It may be the last jukebox in America where you get three plays for a quarter. On the infrequent occasions when I smoke a little dope, it's Gino's I fantasize about -- just walking in there and ordering three loaded pizzas, a quart of Pepsi, and six or seven of Pat Donahue's home-made fudge brownies. Then I imagine just sitting down and scarfing everything up while a steady stream of Beach Boys and Rolling Stones hits pours out of that juke.

-- Stephen King, Christine

Good pizza is one of the most satisfying meals there is, up there with cassoulet, grits, and a nice vegetable soup. I love pizza.

... but I didn't always.

It's true. I loved pizza when I was a little kid, and was very excited to discover that on the first day of school (EVER), we were going to have pizza for lunch. For LUNCH! Can you imagine? I was so thrilled. So in I went to the cafeteria, and was served ... some terrible square thing, with that cheese that doesn't quite melt, that too-sweet sauce, that cardboard crust, and ... look, you know school cafeteria pizza.

Well, I didn't eat pizza again for six or seven years.

Now, this is thirty years ago, so forgive me if I can't wiggle out my exact reasoning at the time, but I think it was something like this:

Holy shit, they broke pizza.

It's like I just assumed that either pizza had stopped being good, or that I had abruptly stopped liking it. After a couple years, I obviously realized this couldn't be the case, but I'd gotten in the habit of having a meatball grinder and a Ramblin' root beer (or a Dr Pepper: like Jesus and Kurt Cobain, we were graced with Ramblin's presence for too brief a time) any time pizza was on the menu, and let me tell you, meatball grinders up here -- especially at C&S Pizza in Pepperell, Massachusetts, which is where my family usually got pizza -- are fantastic.

But I eventually came back to pizza, just in time for my teens, for having enough pocket money to split a cheese pizza three or four or eight ways just to have something to do other than going home, for driving to Little Caesars to get two pepperoni pizzas and hit Rally's for a sack of cheeseburgers on the way back, and eventually the pizza/cafeteria relationship came full circle in high school, when a bunch of people would pile into a couple cars and hit the all you can eat lunch buffet at Pizza Hut in lieu of eating at the cafeteria.

After high school, I lived in other places, and came back to southern New Hampshire thirteen years later, at age 31 -- with a new appreciation of pizza, because Jesus fuck, in most of the country nobody can make it worth a damn. There are five foods New Hampshire is very good at: corned beef hash, steak subs, black raspberry ice cream, fried seafood (really fried clams and fried haddock, I just didn't want to list them separately), and pizza.

There's this Pizza Cognition Theory that says the pizza you grow up with is what you measure pizza by, and I suppose that explains why so many good folks in good parts of the country are content by galactically shitty pizza or actually bother to waste their money on Pizza Hut and Dominos.

I have had very little good pizza, and even less excellent pizza, outside the northeast (to be clear, I've never been to Chicago).  It's probably not a coincidence that the best pizzas I've had outside the northeast have been the more unusual ones -- the ones that were really "food on flatbread" rather than a failed attempt to emulate traditional pizza.

So let me introduce you around to the pizzas near me.

First off, here's C&S, in Pepperell, Massachusetts.  This is, was, and remains my #1 pizza parlor.  I don't go very often cause, well, it's in Pepperell, and I'm never there for anything else.  C&S is a good example of the Greek-style pizza parlors of New England, which nearly always have subs, gyros, Greek salads, and baked pasta dishes (which might include American chop suey), but do not as commonly have steak bombs, that other staple of the central New England pizza parlor.

Bacon pizza at C&S in Pepperell

That's the bacon pizza from C&S.  The crust of the Greek-style pizza is thicker than the local Italian-style, but not as thick as national chains' pan pizza, nor Chicago's deep dish.  The sauce is zestier than Italian-style; if you order sausage, it will often include noticeable amounts of fennel.

Pizza Americano; Stromboli's, Billerica

This is the Pizza Americano, from my #2 pizza parlor: Stromboli's, in Billerica, Massachusetts.  The Americano is double pepperoni, double cheese.  Stromboli's serves Italian-style brick oven pizza, and skews towards what you might call the neo-classical -- too many fancy ingredients for it to be a "traditional pizza joint," but they're all Italian, not mashed potato and chicken curry and what all.

White pizza; Stromboli's, Billerica

Pizza bianco, Stromboli's in Billerica

Stromboli's serves an amazing white pizza, something that's easy to take for granted in the northeast.  I didn't fully grow up with it -- you tend to find white pizza at the Italian-style pizzerias far more than the Greek-style ones -- but it was a specialty at Elvio's, in Center Harbor, NH, where my family has a place on the lake.  And Elvio's was near about walking distance -- hell, it's summer, we didn't have much else to do -- so I went there a lot more often as a teenager than I would have had I had to wait for my parents to want pizza again.  Elvio's isn't there anymore, but there's a new pizza joint in the same location, and they're still real good:

White pizza from Center Harbor

As you can see, the Center Harbor white pizza sprinkles some herbs on top.

White pizza comes a few different ways: pizza with Alfredo sauce (really "white-sauce pizza," but some places that serve it will just call it "white pizza"), pizza that's just like red sauce pizza but without the sauce (cheese directly on top of the crust), and pizza in which instead of the red sauce, you've got some olive oil, some chopped garlic, maybe some ricotta -- some sort of flavor between the cheese and the crust.  That third is what I think of as what white pizza should be -- a little garlicky, a little oily, with some good ricotta.  Lot of people don't like ricotta cheese, or think they don't -- I'm guessing they've just never had it good.

Pizza Salsicchia, Stromboli's in Billerica

That's Stromboli's salsicchia -- sausage and ricotta.  Damn good.  See how the crust is thinner and flatter than the C&S pizza?  Italian-style.  Notice the amount of cornmeal dusting too.

Meatball pizza, Papa Romano's

I don't know why I don't have more, or better, photos from this pizzeria, but this is my #3 pizza parlor, Papa Romano's, in Nashua.  That's the meatball pizza, and meatball pizza is a special feature of pizza around here, and Papa's has its own spin on it, so let me back up and explain that first.

First, typical "meatball pizza" around here has nothing to do with meatballs.  It's an offering of the Greek-style pizza parlors, and what you get is strips of highly seasoned gyro-like meat on your pizza.  Sometimes the meatball subs are the same, so that you get "meat strips" instead of "meat balls."  I had no idea growing up that every pizza parlor in the country didn't serve meatball pizza, though I should've twigged to it since Pizza Hut doesn't serve it.

Now, Papa's isn't a Greek-style place.  I think Matt calls them Italian-style -- and the crust fits that description -- but I think they're in their own category, slightly skewed from the traditional Greek/Italian/new-school/bullshit-national-chain categories of the New England pizzeria landscape.  The meatball topping is more like the meatballs you make at home, only crumbled up onto the pizza instead of balled up and simmered in sauce.

Though I'm listing Papa's as my #3, they're the first local option on my list here, and they deliver.  So as you can imagine, I've had an awful lot of their pizza ... just not lately.  They haven't answered the phone any time I've tried ordering in the last couple months, and I'm not quite sure what's going on.  Keep your fingers crossed.  Not only are they terrific, but they're cheaper than most, and the steak subs were until recently the best in the area (they've declined in quality in that category).

Pepperoni, sausage, ricotta

My #4 for a long time was Monument Square Market, in Hollis.  I've talked to the owner quite a bit about pizza, and he knows a lot about what he's doing, and why he uses the brand of pepperoni he does, etc.  I always get some variation of "pepperoni, ricotta, and--" -- in this case, the "and" is sausage.  MSM was a convenience store when I was a kid, and more or less still is, except half of it's taken up by the pizza oven and deli counter, and the beer selection's a lot better.  

Why's it not my #4 anymore?  Because two times in a row, when I ordered "pepperoni, ricotta, and--," they put the ricotta on INSTEAD of the mozzarella, not ON TOP of mozzarella.  The first time I thought it was a mistake, didn't think to say anything about it.  The second time, the owner was there and I didn't think to doublecheck my pizza until I got it home.  I've ordered that pizza 20 times, I've talked to him about that pizza and why I like those particular toppings together -- it makes me wonder if they're deliberately leaving the mozzarella off to save money.  I don't know.  Either way, they fucked up twice, and at the prices they charge (they're the most expensive pizzeria on this list and don't deliver), that doesn't encourage me to go back.

Sausage/gyro, spinach pie, from Nashua House

This is a terrible photo of pizza from my new #4, the Nashua House of Pizza, a Greek-style joint.  Sausage and gyro on the left; spinach pie on the right.

The spinach pie is without a doubt one of the best pizzas in the region.  It's like a white pizza with spinach, garlicky and very rich.  That's one reason I'm including it despite the quality of the photo -- I feel like discussion of the local pizza scene would be incomplete without Nashua House's spinach pie.

So that's my family tree, you dig.  And that brings us into the complicated matter of authenticity.

Now as you know, I think the whole idea of authenticity is basically bullshit.  Why should anyone, why should a single person outside of Italy, give a shit how they make their pizza?  I'm not saying there's anything wrong with Italian pizza.  I'm saying there's no reason to consider it the best, to consider it the standard against which other pizzas should be measured, or to consider it at all.  There's no reason food should be like that.  That would be like doing Goodfellas in British accents, or letting your grandfather decide which college classes you should take and who you should date.  It doesn't really matter where pizza comes from.  The regional pizza styles of New York, New England, Chicago -- Japan, for that matter, with its corn and shrimp and goddamn Hello Kitty designs squirted out in mayonnaise -- are no less real just because some other pizza preceded them.  The notion that they are is bullshit nonsense left over from colonial thinking.

I think the Pizza Cognition Theory makes a lot more sense.  You basically inherit your idea, your ideal, of pizza -- it's not "real" exactly, the way authenticity-fetishists claim their Neapolitan whatever represents a more "real" pizza than later adulterations.  But it's real to you.  It certainly affects your taste, what you want, what satisfies a pizza craving, and ultimately that's what pizza is and all it can be -- that thing which satisfies your pizza craving.

Politically, I'm a moderate, a centrist, a Clinton Democrat, which means frequently taking the intelligent but unthrilling position of saying "what you just said is wrong, but so is its opposite."  So too with pizza.  I think the authenticity-fetishism that wants to turn back the clock and only acknowledge pizza as it's made in Naples is ridiculous, even anti-food, anti-cooking -- but I think the "anything goes, do whatever the fuck you want and call it pizza" attitude is appalling.

Pizza on a bagel is not "pizza anytime," jingle be damned, because it isn't pizza at all.

Pizza on French bread isn't pizza.

Pizza with barbecue sauce isn't pizza.  Sorry Indiana.

Chicken curry on flatbread isn't pizza.  It's curry on flatbread.

Now that doesn't mean any of those are bad food.  But words need to have some limits or there's no point to them at all, and just as "slider" can't mean "small sandwich" or we lose the word completely, "pizza" can't mean "some food on flatbread."  It has to be more specific than that.

That's why white pizza is called white pizza -- just like a turkey burger is called a turkey burger.  Because people know that if you say "burger" without a modifier, you mean beef, and if you say "pizza," you mean tomato sauce.

"Food on flatbread" can be really really good without being pizza.  Look, I love a Reuben.  But if there were no word for "Reuben," and you tried to convince me that "corned beef, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing on rye" was a "hamburger" just because there was no other word for it, as though some sort of grammatical rounding-up were possible, I would punch you right in the face.  "But it has beef and bread and it's really good --"  IT IS NOT A HAMBURGER.  DAMN.  That's what people keep trying to do with "pizza" -- and with "burger," for that matter!  Sons of bitches.  This is like calling all vegetables "potato," and having to constantly explain what kind of potato you mean.  "Can I interest you in some Buffalo wings with a side of celery-potato and carrot-potato to dip in your ranch dressing?"  NO.  NEVER SAY CARROT-POTATO AGAIN.

So when I'm ordering pizza, when I say "let's get some pizza," these are my "rules" for "what I mean by pizza."  Now, keep in mind these are more narrow than I would expect the world at large to follow, because it's a combination of "what I think the word pizza must mean and how it must be used" with "what I think makes for a good pizza."

Crust: not cracker-thin but not bready.  Noticeable flavor.

Sauce: tomato-based, zesty, not too creatively spiced.

Cheese: not too much.  "Extra cheese pizza" is a distinctly different pizza.  Pizza is about the balance of ingredients, and heaping the cheese on shifts that balance enough to make it a whole different thing, in as real a way as leaving the Russian or Thousand Island off of a Reuben makes it a totally different sandwich.

Toppings: if there's more than one topping, vegetables should not outnumber meats.  There should be no more than four toppings (probably no more than three, I'm just open to the possibility of four).  Ricotta, feta, anchovy, and garlic do not count as toppings for the purposes of these rules.

Obvious variants: The above describes what is meant by "pizza" without a modifier, just as "burger" without a modifier means "made with beef," which doesn't invalidate the turkey burger but requires it to be separately named.  Variants on this modifier-free pizza therefore include: spinach pie; white pizza; extra-cheese pizza; tomato pie (cheeseless, or with cheese under the sauce); chili pizza; clam pie (white or red); macaroni and cheese pizza; fried egg pizza; chicken pizza (which I think can be very good, but which is as different from this narrowcast "traditional pizza" as a turkey burger is).  Variants are not lesser pizzas.  They just have their own names.

Like I said under cheese, these rules are about balance.  Pizza Hut and its imitators make their name on "super supreme" pizzas, which pile toppings on until they're rolling off the slice, which totally misses the point.  Not only should you not have that many toppings, the total volume of toppings -- regardless of how many different toppings are involved -- should never overwhelm the pizza like that.  You should taste the cheese.  You should taste the sauce.  You should taste the crust.  Distrust any pizza involving toppings you wouldn't want with tomato sauce and cheese.  Too many toppings will also keep the cheese from melting properly.

Pizza involves a near-emulsion of cheese and sauce with crust.  The toppings become trapped in the cheese, and don't fall off when you pick up a slice.  That's pizza.

So that's eating pizza.  Let's talk about making pizza.

Now, I gotta say this: when it comes to pizza, cocktails, baking, confectionery, the use of smokers, charcuterie, hamburgers, or beer, there are blogs out there that will give you much more extensive coverage than I will, because they are devoted just to that thing. I'm not a specialist. I'm a generalist. There are people who buy professional pizza ovens or build wood-burning pizza ovens in their backyards, just as there are people who build barbecue pits or have temperature- or climate-controlled spaces for their charcuterie. I am not one of them. While lack of resources plays a role, it's also that I enjoy being a generalist, I'm a generalist by nature. Even if someone built a brick pizza oven for me, using it would require a greater degree of devotion than I really want to give, because it would take time away from other areas of cooking.

I probably wouldn't make pizza if it had to be a big production every time. Some people want cooking to be like that. They want it to be all elaborate and flowery, for it to be a big performance, like they're putting on a show for you, like this basic everyday act of survival is something you're supposed to applaud. Hell, a lot of cooking blogs leave you with the impression that the blogger treats cooking that way, as something done for an audience. Fuck that. Hey, Martha Stewart, you already have a holiday for that -- Thanksgiving. You want another one, I'll give you Arbor Day.  I cook pizza because I want to eat pizza. Because it's a good way to use good tomatoes. Because it's not too hard once you figure it out, and it's not very expensive, and it's easy to keep the ingredients around.

So what I want from homemade pizza is:

1: Something that is recognizably pizza, which is where all of the homemade pizza I see on the Food Network etc fails.  Red sauce glopped on top of a thick piece of bread isn't pizza.

2: Something that tastes great.

3: Something that does not take forever to make, though advance planning (making dough in advance, etc) is fine.

4: Something that doesn't break the bank.

Here's the thing.  I treat homemade pizza like homemade barbecue.  I can't make "the real thing" at home, because home kitchens aren't suited for it -- if you can't put a smoker in your backyard, you can't make real barbecue at home.  That doesn't mean you can't make pretty good pulled pork, though!  Likewise, though I can't make pizza at home that's the really-real real thing, it doesn't mean I can't make something worth eating.

I make pizza very simply:

Preheat oven, for an hour or so, to 500 degrees or more.  Put a heavy cast-iron pan in the oven at some point in there, to get hot -- it doesn't need to stay for an hour, though.  No, I don't have a pizza stone.

Meanwhile, bring your pizza dough to room temperature.  Assemble your other ingredients.

When you're ready to go, work fast.  Pull the cast-iron out of the oven.  Dust it liberally with cornmeal.  Stretch the dough out as thin as you can and put it on the cast-iron.  Spread sauce thinly on the crust, toss cheese on, toss toppings on, put it back in the oven and bake until ready.

It should take less than ten minutes to cook.  Even this is really too long, but you don't have a pizza oven and neither do I.

Some specific discussion:

Crust.  I don't have a pizza crust recipe for you.  I haven't worked one out that I'm really happy with yet.  Either it's reasonably easy to work with, or it tastes great, or it cooks up with just the right texture -- sometimes two of these three, never yet all three at once.  I've found storebought dough -- not crust! not Boboli flatbreads or anything, but the premade dough -- is pretty pretty good.  It's also far more than you need for a pizza.  Use half.  Maybe even a third.

Sauce.  In tomato season, thinly sliced fresh tomatoes can be great.  Outside of tomato season, don't use anything too watery -- it'll increase your cooking time -- and don't use too much sauce.  People get this wrong allll the time.  You should not cover up the dough with sauce.  It should remain visible, not enshrouded in red.

Cheese.  Forget fresh mozzarella.  You don't have a pizza oven.  Do you understand how much moisture is in fresh mozzarella?  Even at 500 degrees, it will sog up your pizza and either increase your cooking time or keep your dough from fully cooking, or both.  If you want to use fresh mozzarella sparingly, use it as a topping -- small pieces of it (never big thick rounds!) interspersed around the pizza, with plenty of space between them.  Do not crowd them.  

You are much, much better off using dry mozzarella.  Fresh mozzarella is better in salads anyway.  Fresh mozzarella is fine -- terrific! -- in pizzeria pizza, but you can't make that at home.  I have to keep coming back to this.  It's important to understand that you are never going to discover some trick that will fool your kitchen into thinking you have a professional pizza oven.  A home oven just isn't the same equipment, period.  There are no secrets to uncover, only the acknowledgment of your local limitations.

Pecorino, parmesan, feta, and ricotta are all swell in addition to mozzarella, not instead of it.  Mozzarella is made to be stringy.

One trick: save a handful of mozzarella aside while the pizza cooks; toss it on as soon as you remove the pizza from the oven.  The heat of the pizza will melt it.  This is the best way to make "extra cheese pizza" at home.

Toppings.  Because you don't have a pizza oven, any meat that isn't ready to be eaten as-is should be precooked -- bacon, hamburger, fresh sausage.  Whether or not vegetables should be precooked is a matter of personal preference.  Be spare with your toppings.

Some pizzas I've made at home:

Pizza with ramps and meatballs

Pizza with ramps and meatballs.  I'll explain ramps when they come into season in a couple months.  This pizza was slightly overcooked, though not as badly as it may seem -- there were only a couple bites where you could tell.


Pizza with a little bit of fresh mozzarella; sliced fresh tomatoes instead of sauce; pepperoni.  That's chopped Cuban oregano from my garden on top.  The crust is a little too bready.


Again slightly too bready, but a phenomenal-tasting crust, thanks in part to the Pecorino Romano mixed into the dough.  Sliced tomatoes, sliced peppers, Pecorino Romano, and bacon.  A combination of dry mozzarella, crushed red peppers, and dry herbs was sprinkled onto the pizza after baking.  A very flavorful late summer pizza that complemented the flavor of the tomatoes.

Pan-fried pizza
Pan-fried pizza

Pan-fried pizza: heat olive oil in a cast-iron pan on the stove, and get ready to quickly assemble the pizza in the pan: spread crust out to just the right size and place it in the oil; as it fries, ladle a small amount of sauce, followed by a small amount of thinly-sliced pepperoni or other toppings, and top with dry mozzarella; when the crust has mostly cooked through, lift pizza onto plate, pour excess oil out, flip pan onto plate, and invert pan and plate together so that the pizza is now cheese-side-down.  Let cook for a few minutes until cheese hardens, as pictured.  Serve with additional sauce, preferably mixed with anchovies.

And that's about all I have to say about pizza right now.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

we're not going to talk about judy at all


I can't yet tell you how to make bagels.  I'm working on that.  These aren't perfect.  There was some weird pocking in the first pan's worth (see the back row, third bagel from the left), resulting in uncooked bits of bagel below the topping, which seems to have been corrected in the second pan's, because I flipped the bagels halfway through.  Because I used so many "this is what I have in the house" substitutions for these bagels (notice there are black sesame seeds instead of regular, and I used pizza flour!), I wouldn't want to share this recipe with you.

If you haven't been to the northeast, it's very possible you haven't had a real bagel. They're not impossible to find -- both Bloomington, Indiana, and New Orleans had real bagel joints -- but you won't necessarily know them if you don't know what you're looking for.  Just because a chain is a bakery or carries bagels doesn't mean they have real bagels, for instance -- as far as I can tell, Panera doesn't boil theirs, and the fact that their bagel flavors skew so heavily towards ridiculous nonsense like "French toast bagels" says a lot about how they see the bagel, as basically a short yeast-raised muffin.

Aside from the fact that French toast isn't a fucking bagel flavor, here is the thing about bagels: they must, they must, be boiled before they are baked.  This is the defining characteristic, and it's the one generally neglected.  Magic tapwater doesn't matter, though ideally the boiling water should be alkalized with lye or baking soda, and should have malt syrup added (I used a bottle of beer).

Bagels are really about texture: the outside has a well-defined crust which, unlike the crust of many loaves of bread, is incapable of flaking off; the inside is chewy and dense, not light and bready.  A bagel is completely and absolutely inappropriate for a hamburger -- that's just physics -- and for most any sandwich apart from the classic lox and cream cheese.  The bite necessary to carry your teeth through a bagel would compress a sandwich and shoot its contents out the other end.  Peanut butter and jelly, sure, that's fine.  Roast beef?  Yeah, I ordered the roast beef from Bruegger's plenty of times, and it was a mistake.  Bagel sandwiches are just dumb marketing.  They're unnecessary.  They're plenty filling and plenty caloric with just the cream cheese, you don't need to dress them up much to turn them into lunch.

When I ordered belly lox from Russ & Daughters, I froze most of it, separated by pieces of parchment paper to make it easy to thaw small portions at a time.  This is why, the classic combination of salt and fat and carbs:

Bagel, creme fraiche, dill pollen, belly lox

That's creme fraiche instead of cream cheese.  I'm out of cream cheese, and the truth is, Philadelphia-brand cream cheese isn't very good for bagels, but is my only supermarket option.  So I figured I would give creme fraiche -- made by heating cream to just-warm (90 degrees or so), stirring in active yogurt, and letting it sit in a warm place for a couple days -- a whirl.  That's dill pollen on top.

The color of the photo is correct, by the way.  I made the creme fraiche with pasteurized cream instead of ultrapasteurized.  Ultrapasteurized cream is paper-white and tastes like supermarket milk but thicker; pasteurized cream is cream-colored and tastes like cream.  It's hard to find, but Whole Foods had it, for a pretty penny.

Monday, March 1, 2010

I don't like you and I'm gonna beat you up

One of the interesting things about this meatless Lent has been the way that it's affected my meat cooking on Sundays -- for instance, yesterday I mixed miso into my burger for an umami boost, and gave goat butter Buffalo wings a try (they're good but the spice overwhelms the goatiness).  Now, the goat butter I probably would have picked up one way or the other, but miso is something I hadn't got round to picking up until it occurred to me that it would be a good addition to vegetarian chili.

See, I don't want some bullshit vegetarian chili.  Chili with a bunch of carrots and celery and squash and all that jazz isn't chili, it's spicy soup.  I want a chili that suits chili traditionalism (outside of Texas and its no-bean rule, anyway) but just doesn't happen to have meat in it.  So I'm working on that.  I don't think I have it quite down yet.  That's why I haven't posted a million bean recipes -- I'm still working them through.

But for now, a basic guide to dried beans.

First of all, you don't need to soak beans.

Almost everybody gets this wrong.  Food writers.  Cooks.  Your mom.  Bean vendors.  You don't need to soak beans.  It won't improve their texture, it won't improve their flavor, it won't have a significant impact on their cooking time, it won't make them more easily digestible.

You can soak your beans.  It doesn't do any harm.  With very stale beans that are years old, it might have a greater impact on their cooking time, and that may be where this practice comes from.  But generally it's going to buy you maybe half an hour, and I don't see that thirty minutes is worth an overnight soak and the need for advance prep.  Soaking is one of those myths that survives because if you do soak your beans, hey, your beans turned out fine.  Well, they'll turn out fine if you dance a jig and rotate the pot widdershins three times too, but that doesn't mean shit.  Stone soup comes out just fine with no stones at all.

Without soaking, beans take no longer to cook than a decent pot roast, and need very little supervision.

You can toss them straight into a Crock Pot, flip it up to high, and just wait a while.  That works.  Even soak-advocates often mention that, so I don't know why they're so hung up on the soaking myth.

But here's how Russ Parsons advocates cooking beans, here's how I generally cook beans:

Heat a cast-iron pot with a lid on your stove, on medium high heat.  Saute any aromatics you like -- carrot, celery, onion, pepper, garlic, for instance.  Add a fair bit of water (I eyeball this, can't help you with measurements).  Bring it to a boil.  Add your beans and maybe some seasoning.  Keep on a high boil for five minutes.  Cover and put in a 250 degree oven for a couple hours.  Start checking on the beans after 90 minutes or so.

Keep in mind that canned beans -- which not only weren't soaked before cooking, but weren't even cooked, in that the canning process actually does the cooking -- are softer, more "well done," than people traditionally cooked beans for the thousands of years before commercial canning was introduced.  So you can cook them to that point, but you shouldn't feel you have to.  Often when people avoid canned beans, it's because of this matter of texture and doneness.

Very important points about bean cooking:

Never add acids to uncooked beans.  That means tomatoes, vinegar, molasses, lemon juice, anything like that.  In an acidic cooking environment, beans won't soften.  Ever try to make baked beans and added the molasses at the beginning?  Twelve hours later you've got the same thing you started with, just hotter.

Add salt at the beginning.  You can add more later, but if you only add salt at the end, you're seasoning the pot liquor, not the beans.  Yes, this is another thing conventional wisdom gets wrong.  Look, it's the same reason you add the aromatics to the pot: the beans are soaking up water.  Put flavor in the water and the beans will soak up flavor.  If you wait to salt the beans, it will take more salt to get the job done.  It's a myth that salting the beans before they're cooked will make them tough.

What will make beans tough is having really old beans.  Beans keep for years.  For decades.  This is one reason they've been cultivated: they're a durable storage protein.  But if you're not living in a fallout shelter, they don't have to keep for years.  The beans at your supermarket, depending on where you live and what the sell-through is like, are probably quite old.  They may have been old when they arrived.  They may have been old when they were packaged.

Beans, peppers

Beans are so cheap, there's no harm in paying a little extra for them.  I've been happy with beans from Rancho Gordo, which are sometimes carried in stores, or available from the website.  They're not cheap.  But for entree beans, rather than afterthought beans, they're not expensive either. 

One of the reasons I'm digging these beans is because they're good and satisfying with minimal adornment -- anybody who's spent more than passing-through time in the South knows there's nothing wrong with a bowl of beans and maybe some cornbread, but your supermarket canned beans need a lot of hot sauce or other seasoning to keep from being one-dimensional.  (Black beans are an exception worth mentioning; canned black beans can have surprising depth and complexity.  There are probably a handful of other exceptions, though I have found canned black-eyed peas, for instance, to taste less "earthy" and more "like dirt.")  Really good beans come with more than one dimension right out of the pot.