Thursday, June 17, 1999
The Heartland. Deep inside the cornrows of the sticky hot Midwest, where I''ve been to church more times in the last week than in the whole last year. The Hoosier State, where even in fine restaurants, the waiter knows he''ll get a juicier tip if he keeps his customers posted on the latest basketball scores. Indiana, not the North and not the South, is intact with its own identity, flavored by its selfsame idiosyncrasies. Not the least of which are a dietary predilection for pork products and a quirky, consonant-flattening twang.
It is my nephew''s high school commencement, and there is good news for him on the culinary front. Luke is going on to college. (Good news for his parents.) And to mark this passage into independence, he received, from a variety of well wishers, a wok, a rice cooker, and a stoneware sushi service for four. The kind with the rice bowls that have notched edges for the chop sticks.
Perhaps this becomes more noteworthy in light of the fact that the kind of tuna my sister''s kid grew up with was usually Starkist, as opposed to temaki, and somewhere in the lower branches of Luke''s family tree, Daniel Boone is named. So it''s not exactly like hand rolls come as a birthright.
By comparison, the most wildly exotic delicacy to pass through my lips at his age was some cough-syrup-red sweet-and-sour pork, and I can still remember being astounded at the idea of sweet meat. Much has happened in the last twenty-something years. Cultural diversity has seeped in slowly from the continent''s outer reaches and insinuated some amazing items into the pantries and spice shelves of America''s mid-section. While it may be true that the local Kroger''s clerk did need confirmation on whether or not marinated artichoke hearts were a meat or vegetable (located on Aisle 8-A, finally, with the help of the manager), after many days of eating extremely well, preaching California cuisine is a moot point. Hoosiers are already hip.
For example, I was treated to an outrageously good roasted pork loin in port wine sauce, maybe the best I''ve ever eaten. The chef boned the loin, reserving the bones for stock. She then brined the whole filet, using one cup of kosher salt to four cups of apple cider, heating the mixture first, and then cooling it before adding the meat to soak overnight. Pork bones make for excellent stock, and this was no exception. She roasted them in a low oven, adding some sauteed carrots, onions, celery, and garlic for the last hour. Beautifully browned, the bones were then covered in cold water and set to simmer on the stove for several hours. Pouring off the liquid and reducing it by half, in went a bottle of port, punched up with aromatics like star anise and fresh ginger that were tied together in a bag for easy removal. After reducing this savory elixir to a silky nap, all it needed was a knob of butter to take it to the finish line.
After removing the loin from the brine, it was ready for a stint on the barbecue grill, to bring it to 128 degrees. Paired with a bottle of local Possum Trot Vineyards Merlot, it was a meal that wanted for nothing more than a bow from my sister, chef extrordinaire.
I''ll miss this Heartland cuisine when I return tomorrow to the West Coast. But right now I''m due in the kitchen for a date with some barbecued eel and a sushi lesson from an 18-year-old. America. What a country.