Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Chianti, Fava Beans and Pornography

Beef heart marinating.
Warning: This post discusses adult themes, sexuality and graphic violence. Persons who may be triggered or offended by discussion of any of these subjects are forewarned. Also, this post may contain some spoilers for the television series Hannibal, The Leftovers and the films The Silence of the Lambs, Manhunter, Hannibal, Hannibal Rising and the novels of Thomas Harris.

We recommend you read this with a nice Chianti.

Merriam-Webster's tertiary definition of "pornography" is "the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction."

In 1964, United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously remarked in his concurring opinion (Jacobellis v. Ohio; 378 US 184):
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it [...]
The honorable justice did not survive to experience the circus that is today's 24-hour news cycle and it's hyperbolic cousin, reality television[1], but I have grown up with both and I would readily describe either as pornographic by the above definition.

Gore and violence is on glorious, shameless display in what passes for entertainment in this country and yet the depiction of coitus, whether genuine or the rote intercourse between fake-plastic performers paid to titillate their audience in frankly boring, normative sexual scenarios found on DVDs sold in those shops at the edge of town, is something that is considered inherently shameful.

Succinctly, it is less controversial to depict murder than intercourse in America.

Sex, along with breathing, eating, water, homeostasis and excrement form the foundation of Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs."

Violence is not mentioned as a need on any tier.

Thomas Hobbes is not so optimistic, positing that the natural state of the human animal is the constant conflict with one another driven by endless want and checked only by the sovereignty of society that suppresses our animistic desires.

This Edwardian Enlightenment idea is nothing new, of course, Siddharta Buddha purports that the cause of all suffering is desire, and the end of desire is the end of suffering.

Yet neither Justice Stewart, nor Maslow, nor Hobbes, nor Buddha have succeeded in quelling the desires of a species that is both acutely self-aware and at the same time tragically un-self-aware we continue to create works both profane and profound examining the ugly realities of our nature.

Starting to feel uncomfortable? Murder, sex, violence? Let's add to today's mise en place a grisly new ingredient: long pork.

One subject that is particularly and nearly ubiquitously taboo is cannibalism, and yes, it's an odd subject for a "food blog."

We are going to broach that taboo because it is a recurring theme in my new favorite television diversion, the wonderfully, gleefully and artfully pornographic serial "Hannibal," based on the characters conceived by writer Thomas Harris and named for the author's most beloved villain, Doctor Hannibal Lecter.

--


Doctor Lecter is a fascinating bad-guy. He is erudite and extremely learned. He is known to have a level of intelligence that is difficult to quantify. He is charming and charismatic, yet completely lacking contrition of any sort. He is in control. He is what was classically termed "sociopathic" (although the psychiatric field now prefers the wordy term "antisocial personality disorder.")
Antisocial personality disorder is a type of chronic mental condition in which a person's ways of thinking, perceiving situations and relating to others are dysfunctional — and destructive. People with antisocial personality disorder typically have no regard for right and wrong and often disregard the rights, wishes and feelings of others.
A depiction of the destruction waged by the historical Vlad the Impaler. (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/43/Impaled.gif).
So says the Mayo Clinic, clinically (naturally).

Lecter does have a sense of right and wrong - his own - which features a proclivity to casually dispatch any that might cross him without a hint of guilt.

There is a scene near the end of the second season of the television series that is... the term gratuitous is understatement. For those familiar with the Hannibal Lecter canon, you finally get to watch Mason Verger's comeuppance in glorious and gory High Definition.

I'm surprised that something so graphic was even allowed on network television, but I can't deny experiencing great schadenfreude in watching.

Contrast to HBO's The Leftovers, whose premier season recently featured a scene so graphically violent that I had to look away – and I am not normally phased by depictions of violence.

The scene depicts a middle aged woman being stoned to death.

Speaking of leftovers, here's some fried rice with kimchee and spam.
I suppose it is a bit of a cliché to say that we are desensitized to violence; a more accurate description of the phenomena of our casual relationship with cinematic violence and gore is that we do not react to it as if it were real because we know it is not real. It is, like reality television, hyperreal: scripted, choreographed, scored, lit, recorded, edited, overdubbed and fixed in post.

The scene from The Leftovers, if you should watch it, is scored, choreographed, filmed at a high frame rate in high definition but is still wholly cringeworthy – for me a bridge too far, an all too true depiction of hate in its rawest form.

Arguably as graphic but not as gut wrenching is the fate of Verger (spoiler alert – if you've come this far without knowing this bit about Lecter canon then you probably don't care either way: Lecter drugs Verger then orders him to peel off his own skin, which he then feeds to the protagonist's dogs).

The contrast between the two scenes and my emotional responses to them point out the latent hypocrisy of my attitude toward violence, one I believe I share in common with the larger American audience, that celebrates brutal comeuppance for perceived villains but still abhors violence against those who are felt to be undeserving.

The key motivator of our bloodlust is the unhelpful emotion of vengeance.

--


Getting Cheeky:

Enough of bloodlust, for a minute.

I'm watching the arc during the first season of Hannibal that features British comic Eddie Izzard as Dr. Abel Gideon, a transplant surgeon and rival serial killer to Hannibal Lecter. The two take turns dancing around one another, a folie à deux between killers, with FBI psychological profiler Will Graham pinned in the middle.

Izzard is always fun to watch, and relishes feasting on the scenery... or not: after a daring escape from captivity, Gideon strings up organs on a nearby tree as if festooning a Christmas tree with ornaments.

"The Chesapeake Ripper," as Graham's elusive – yet literally under his nose – serial killer is called, "would never have left the organs behind."

Right you are, Will Graham. Lecter would have eaten them.

In honor of Izzard, a cheeky bastard if there ever was one, I give you beef cheeks.

Deconstructed Stew of Beef Cheek with Broccoli Pea Purée:

Braised Beef Cheek:
  • 1 beef cheek, about 3/4-1 lbs.
  • 1 tablespoon black strap molasses.
  • 1 tablespoon Tapatìo hot sauce.
  • 1 tablespoon nam pla fish sauce.
  • 1 tablespoon hot Chinese mustard.
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce.
  • 2 teaspoons dark sesame oil.
  • 2 teaspoons Bing cherry syrup (get the good stuff, not that artificially colored crap).
  • 1 teaspoon smoked hot paprika.
  • 1 teaspoon 5-spice powder.
  • 1 cup meat stock.
  • 4 medium stewed whole plum tomatoes.
  • Olive oil or bacon fat.

Marinate cheek with molasses, hot sauce, fish sauce, mustard, soy, sesame oil, cherry syrup, paprika and 5-spice for a few hours.

Remove cheek, reserving marinade. Pat cheeks dry and sear in a hot saucier in oil on all sides until well charred.

Add remaining marinade and stock to cover cheeks and carefully add the stewed tomatoes.

Cover and braise for about 3 1/2 hours at 325ºF.

Remove cheeks and tomatoes once cheeks are fork tender, set aside and reduce the remaining liquid by about 2/3rd of the original volume.

Broccoli Pea Purée:
  • 1 broccoli stalk, stems chopped and florets separated from stem.
  • 1 stale tortilla, grilled stove-stop and torn into pieces.
  • 1/2 cup of peas, edamame or both.
  • 1/4 cups of arugula.
  • 1/2 cups of water.
  • 1 teaspoon of cider vinegar.
  • Salt and pepper to taste.
  • 2 tablespoons of cold butter.

In a saucier, heat broccoli stems with water, salt and pepper. Cover and cook for about 10 minutes over medium heat.

Add broccoli florets and cider vinegar and cook for another 5 minutes covered, over low heat.

Add peas, arugula and tortilla. Mix to heat through and transfer all to a blender.

Add cold butter and blend until mixture is desired smoothness (I like a loose mashed potato).

Return to saucier to reheat later.


Vegetable Medley:
(This should be whatever you like, preferably in season...)

  • 1/2 cup shredded carrots.
  • 1/2 cup corn kernels.
  • 1/2 small zucchini, diced.
  • 6-8 small brown mushrooms, chopped.
  • Salt and pepper.
  • Fresh herbs to taste.
  • Optional: butter to mount.

Simply sautée to heat through.

Assemblage:


Swipe the purée across a decorative plate.


Arrange vegetable medley in a pile near the center of the plate.


Top with a stewed tomato, then slice off about 2 ounces of beef cheek to top the vegetable and tomato.



Spoon reduction over meat and serve... perhaps with a nice zinfandel?



--

"Miggs... multiple Miggs in the cell next door, what did he say to you?"

Lecterphiles know how the rest of the scene goes, and how Miggs meets his (un?)timely demise. Miggs makes a crass comment at freshly minted Agent[2] Starling when she passes his cell on the way to interview Lecter about the Buffalo Bill murders in the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs. Upon leaving, Miggs hurled a bodily fluid at her. When she returns, Miggs is gone – he was found dead earlier that morning – Lecter had talked Miggs into biting and then swallowing his own tongue.

When asked why, Lecter responded that he felt that Miggs had been rude.

The two men were chained up in separate cells, yet Lecter was able to murder Miggs by proxy (technically Miggs commits suicide) using only the power of persuasion. Using only the sound of his voice.

Take that, Paul Atreides.

And so begins the legend of Doctor Hannibal Lecter (for those of us learning about the good psychiatrist and anthropo-gourmand for the first time in his screen debut): a man so evil, vicious and dangerous that he is forced to wear half a hockey mask to protect those around him, although chained to a gurney, should he use his only available weapon, his teeth. A man for whom extraordinary security measures prove inadequate.

Yet Doctor Lecter is almost universally lauded as a sort of anti-hero: the slick, erudite, autodidactic manifestation of a nation's animistic id – the hyper-lethal yin to our national passive aggressive yang, the personification of all the murderous rage we feel stuck on freeways, in the line at the DMV, behind the cheapskate with a million coupons at the grocery store, at our idiot bosses, perfect strangers, people who vote differently than us, the other and so on.

--


Eat Your Heart Out:

If you buy fava beans whole – that is, in the pods – they are significantly cheaper than buying fava beans that have been shelled (unless you buy them frozen, which is fine if you have a hankering for fava beans in January but cheating if they are in season).

Cheaper, yes, but a significant pain in the ass to prep for eating.

The pod is inedible, and there is a film on the bean that must be removed after a quick blanche.

The difference between fresh and frozen fava beans is remarkable. A judge on Iron Chef America once remarked during a battle involving fresh peas that she could really taste the "pea-ness" of a purée the Iron Chef had made; fresh legumes have a je n'est c'est quoi that is hard to put into words. "Fava-ness" doesn't have the ring that "pea-ness" has but I'll take it.

I once bought about two pounds of fresh fava beans from Rainbow Grocery (which doesn't sell any liver, long pork or otherwise). About an hour into the process I began to question the meaning of life and my own sanity. When I was finished, I had yielded a small bowl of shelled beans. It was perhaps 3/4 of a pound.

I ate them with fresh pasta and a nice pinot noir.

Dr Lecter's going to kill me for this, but the only fava beans available in October are frozen only thing close to a fava bean I could find in October was edemame. I hope he won't eat me for lunch if I use them in this dish.


Cold Soba with Raw and Pickled Radishes, Carrots, Lobster Mushrooms and Seared Heart:

Pickled Radish and Carrots:


Follow the pickling method here.
  • 1 pickled carrot, sliced.
  • 1 pickled radish, sliced.
Noodle Dressing:
  • 1 tablespoon cider vinegar or rice vinegar.
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons of dark sesame oil.
  • 1 teaspoon of Sriracha.
Seared Beef Hearts:
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce (nam pla).
  • 1 tablespoon Sriracha.
  • Juice of 1/2 lime.
  • 2 teaspoons of dark sesame oil.
Note: Unless you are a surgeon or a butcher, it's best to have your trusty butcher trim the heart for you. A great deal of connective tissue and arteries must be removed before the meat is ready for cooking.

Marinate for at least two hours and as much as four (overnight the acid will start to cook the meat).

Bring meat to room temperature. Pat dry before cooking.

On a hot sautée pan sear each piece of heart one at a time, about 2 minutes per side for rare. Set aside to rest.

The Rest:
  • About 1" diameter bunch of buckwheat soba (6" length).
  • Bowl of ice water.
  • 1/4 cup of edemame.
  • 1 raw radish, sliced.
  • 1/2 cup of pea shoots or micro-greens.
  • 1/4 cup of lobster mushrooms, thinly sliced.
Boil soba until tender, about 10 minutes, and submerge in ice water.

Assemble beef hearts, sliced vegetables and shoots. reserve about 1/3 to garnish and dress the rest with the soba dressing.

Mix in drained noodles. Arrange on a plate and top with remaining beef, vegetable and shoot mixture.

Serve chilled or room temperature, perhaps with a nice chianti.

--

The cuisine of Hannibal Lecter.

I was going to go on at some length about the food featured on the TV series then I ran across this:

http://janicepoonart.blogspot.com/

Food stylist Janice Poon fashions a hollow Ortolàn out of marzipan.  (credit: Janice Poon)
A sketch by Ms. Poon for Hannibal episode 2:13, "Mizumono." (credit: Janice Poon)

Nice butchering job! (credit: Janice Poon)
--

TV versus books.

Throughout history there have always been naysayers regarding whatever the popular art du jour might be: the waltz, ballet, jazz, rock and roll, hip hop.

Luckily the poorly written waltzes and ballets have fallen by the wayside leaving the pinnacles of each form to survive. But who chooses? Perhaps some obscure waltz existed that was as good or better than Shubert? Perhaps a contemporary of Prokofiev scored ballets that for one reason or another faded into obscurity.

Television is larded with crude entertainment, but to say "read the book" is automatically better than a screenwriter, director, actors, set designers, foley artists and production assistant's version of the literal text is to say Chekov only exists on paper (and in the mind's eye).

Television has become worse (examples I don't even need to enumerate here, but let's just say "Maury Povich") and at the same time much, much better.

Beef bone marrow at Longman And Eagle, Chicago.
Our current generation of script writers have given us The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, The West Wing, Breaking Bad, Twin Peaks... and that's just drama. Look at comedy: The Simpsons, Futurama, Key and Peele, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report.

Modern television can be as good as cinema, as good as theatre and certainly as good as literature.

It's easy to cherry pick examples of the form that validate the claim "television is garbage," but it's much harder to do once you focus a critical lense on the subject matter.

"Hannibal" is not "War and Peace" but it is also not "The Price Is Right" or "Doctor Oz." In fact, I'd probably feel a pang of schadenfreude if the good Doctor Lecter made (literal?) mincemeat out of that fatuous television celebrity doctor.

--

Recently a friend of mine lamented on Facebook that he felt it was somehow unjust that Samuel L. Jackson was considered an "A" actor and Lawrence Fishbourne (Special Agent Jack Crawford) was considered a "B" actor.

I pointed out that Jackson is famous for recently playing a role in a film un-ironically named "Snakes On A Plane" and that in addition to his starring role in Hannibal, Fishbourne has been in a number of marquee roles (including his stint on CSI:TOS following William Petersen's departure – coincidentally Petersen plays Will Graham in the 1986 film Manhunter, the first of the Hannibal Lecter related films, based on the novel Red Dragon by Harris).

Neither roles put either actor in the "A" class of leading men, and part of me begs that Lawrence Fishbourne will always be a Ray Liotta circa "Cop Land" sort of character actor and never a George Clooney circa Ocean's Whatever.

I first encountered Fishbourne as the lead in the 1990s cult-classic "Deep Cover"[3], a schlocky post-Iran Contra piece that immerses Detective Russell Stevens, Jr (Fishbourne), a maverick Cleveland cop into the shady underground of the international cocaine trade over a soundtrack of Dr. Dre and newcomer Snoop Doggy Dogg.

Olivier's Butchery in the Dogpatch. Meat porn.
Fishbourne's Special Agent Crawford is seen in the first half of the first season as a cold, calculating bully. Everyone is vying to get something out of Special Investigator Will Graham (played by Hugh Dancy in the TV series – previously portrayed by Ed Norton in the 2002 movie Red Dragon; a prequel to The Silence of the Lambs).

Graham is sent through a crucible of torments at the hands of Dr. Lecter, but also at the hands of himself and of other characters in A, B, C and D plot arcs that all intersect at the shows' first and second season climaxes.

Graham, more than Dr. Lecter or Special Agent Crawford, is the protagonist and main focus of the show – although the show is named after our favorite long-pork connoisseur.

Crawford however is masterfully played by Fishbourne, especially in a scene in the first third of the first season when he finally realizes that his wife has been keeping a life-changing secret from him. Fishbourne as Crawford goes blank in disbelief, backs away, and settles into his chair upon his shoulders the weight of this new realization: "how could I have missed this? What am I going to do? Why did she lie to me?"

Graham senses all is not right with his otherwise bullying boss and takes the lead questioning the wife of a suspected serial killer as the walls slowly come down around Crawford.

(Season 1, Episode 5 "Coquilles", minute-mark 30:50.)

For that little bit of acting I will forgive Fishbourne for his complicity in participating in the second and third installments of the Matrix trilogy.

Of course having such talent alight the screen doesn't mean the series is immune to criticism: many of the killers du jour are thinly sketched, as are some of the canonical favorites. Dr. Frederick Chilton, portrayed here by Raúl Esparza, is the bureaucrat who runs the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. In the novel and movie "The Silence of the Lambs," Dr. Chilton is thoroughly unlikeable and vain. His shallow attempts to humiliate Dr Lecter (a ward of Chilton's in The Silence of the Lambs) are as transparent as Lecter's deflections of Chilton's machinations are effortless.

Verger, and tabloid journalist Fredericka "Freddie" Lounds, are also painted with a thin coat of water-color only existing as foils for the major story arcs and principal character development.

That said the series principals are compelling to watch, last but certainly not least by Mads Mikkelsen who joins Brian Cox, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Gaspard Ulliel and Aaron Thomas in filling Doctor Lecter's shoes. Mikkelsen drops Sir Hopkins' saurian drawl and instead brings a more European aristocratic aesthetic to the role (which to my ear is more in line with Lecter as depicted in the novels).

Mikkelsen, a former gymnast and dancer, brings a Baroque poise to the role: he dwarves Dancy's Graham and stands chest to chest with Fishbourne's Crawford. Mikkelsen is a Danish actor, making him an interesting casting choice considering Danish television drama is very much en vogue at the moment (both The Bridge and The Killing have been lifted from their Danish counterparts and remade for US audiences).

Of course, the main uncredited star of the show is the food.

Is it porn? Well, you'll know it when you see it.

Menagerie of meat about to transform from a lowly chrysalis of mise en place into a beautiful butterfly banquet.
--

[1] The veracity of 24 hour news is questionable at best, and at worse as in the case of Fox News, is farcical propaganda whose relationship with reality is as ironic as "reality" television.

(Sadly there seem to be plenty of viewers of fake news like Fox News who aren't as savvy as the viewers of shows like Survivor or The Bachelor to realize that they are watching fabricated Kabuki disguised as reality.)

[2] Since Starling had not yet graduated FBI Academy, she had not yet earned the designation Special Agent. Anyone, from snitches to secretaries, can be called an "agent" of the Federal Bureau of Investigation as long as they perform work for the agency. Special Agents are sworn officers of the agency's investigative unit.

Yeah, I know, I'm a nerd.

[3] Although many of you, including our esteemed masthead g0b0t, will remember him from his very first role in Apocalypse Now.