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Charles Perry

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Sylmar, California

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Charles Perry is a former rock and roll journalist (staff writer at Rolling Stonein the 1970s) who suavely transitioned into food writing in the 1980s. During his 18 years at the Los Angeles Times’ award-winning Food section he was twice a finalist for a James Beard award. He is a world-renowned food historian who has been cited in books in seven languages, and he is a major contributor to the “Oxford Companion to Food,” a two-term trustee of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery and president and co-founder of the Culinary Historians of Southern California.

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‘Split’ Chicken Technique Welcomes Marinades Image

You say you want a striking way to serve barbecued chicken? Here’s one that will stick in your guests’ minds. It looks like a miniature rack of ribs, perhaps crossed with a bizarre pre-Cambrian life form.

But it has the classical flavor of browned chicken infused with the sweetness and poetic perfume of onion and a subtle hint of cinnamon. “Winner, winner, chicken barbecue” (or however Guy Fieri’s saying goes).

Its proper name is kırma tavuk kebabı, which means “split” or perhaps “pleated” chicken in Turkish. It’s one of the subtle and inventive dishes that graced the tables of Istanbul big shots back in the days when the Ottoman Empire was still a vast and wealthy affair. It was recorded in 1839 in a cookbook called Malja’ al-Tabbakhin (“The Refuge of Cooks”) that was later plagiarized with great enthusiasm by Turkish and Arab cookbook writers down to the early 20th century.

The recipe was first translated into English after “some of England’s fairest ladies and grandest gentlemen” were impressed by the Turkish dishes served aboard the yacht of the visiting viceroy of Egypt in 1862. Two years later, a certain Turabi Effendi published a collection of recipes swiped from Malja’ al-Tabbakhin and given the on-the-nose title “Turkish Cookery Book.”

The distinctive technique of this dish is to cut the chicken into strips, leaving the pieces attached at one end. This structure helps the marinade flavors penetrate the meat while keeping it in a relatively compact shape for convenience on the grill. It also makes the meat cook a little quicker and more evenly.

Turabi Effendi’s recipe calls for deboning entire chickens, but I suggest taking the easy way out by using boneless chicken breast, which lends itself very well to this technique. Turabi says to baste the meat with butter when it starts to brown, but I don’t recommend this because of the risk of flare-ups. If you want more butter flavor, basting the meat after you take it from the grill works perfectly and will certainly win the approval of your local fire marshal.

Kirma Tawuk Kebabi

Prep Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

  • 4 boneless chicken half-breasts, about 1¾ pounds total
  • 1 teaspoon salt, plus more for serving
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon or a pinch more
  • 1 large onion
  • 2 ounces (¼ stick) butter, melted

Directions

  1. Using a sharp knife, cut the meat crosswise into 9 or 10 strips ¼ to 1/3 inch wide. But make sure your cuts reach no farther than ¼ inch from the far edge of the meat so that the “fingers” remain attached. Mix the salt, pepper and cinnamon and rub into the meat all over.
  2. Purée the onion in a food processor and strain the onion juice from the solids in a fine sieve (leave the windows open for this operation because of the onion fumes). Mix the meat with the onion juice, cover with plastic wrap or place in a sealable plastic bag and let marinate at room temperature for 1 hour.
  3. Pat the meat dry with paper towels and thread it onto skewers down the uncut edge (if your skewer is too broad for the uncut section, you can thread it through the bases of the “fingers” as well). Baste the surface of the meat and between the “fingers” with melted butter. This will keep the meat from sticking to the grill and to itself; you don’t want so much butter that there are flare-ups.
  4. Grill over a moderate fire, turning often, until the meat stiffens and turns golden brown, about 20 minutes.
  5. Remove from skewers and brush with more melted butter if you want. Sprinkle with salt to taste.

Notes

Fine accompaniments for this would be a scoop of tart yogurt and a simple green salad.


Main photo: Cut into strips, kırma tavuk kebabı — “split” or perhaps “pleated” chicken in Turkish — enables marinades to penetrate the meat. Credit: Charles Perry

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Too Hot Weather Inspires Two Cool Recipes Image

It’s hot today. Really hot. That makes me think of two things: the tropics and how much I don’t feel like cooking. That’s why I invented these quasi- or pseudo-tropical items, a sweet corn milkshake, and a pomegranate and peanut pasta.

I understand they have corn milkshakes in the Philippines, but I actually got the idea from another tropical island country: Madagascar, which makes a corn pudding called katsaka sy voaniho flavored with corn kernels, coconut milk and vanilla. Madagascarians use vanilla with a free hand, since they’re the world’s largest producers of the spice.

It turns out that vanilla goes spectacularly well with the flavor of fresh corn. I can imagine adding a drop to the melted butter for corn on the cob, and I’ve actually made corn ice cream by substituting corn kernel juice for some of the milk in a vanilla ice cream recipe and reducing the quantity of vanilla to a tiny drop. It’s not bad, but it’s too much work on a day like this one.

Today I’m only up for a corn shake, which requires close to zero cooking. All you have to do is zap the kernels in a microwave for 45 seconds or so and they lose the slight (and actually not very objectionable) starchy note of raw kernels. It’s just slice, zap, purée and make your milkshake. Go outside and make some barbecue if you like — the flavor of corn goes great with anything off the grill.

As for the pasta, my first idea was to use the combination of tamarind, garlic and lime that features so prominently in India and Southeast Asia. I was going to combine it with the idea of pasta tossed with oil that was big back during the carbo-loading and olive oil-crazy period of the ’80s because I was going to use angel hair, which carries a sauce more suavely when it’s oiled. Oil and a sour ingredient go well together anyway, as in a salad dressing.

But then it occurred to me that I actually prefer pomegranate to tamarind, and the domestic pomegranate molasses sold in Middle East markets has an attractive sweet-sour flavor. (Some imported brands of dibs rumman or rob-e anar are a lot more sour, though.) This pasta comes out so tasty you might just inhale it all as is, but I like to put in some roasted peanuts for a little more heft and protein.

Corn Shake

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Total Time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1 serving

Ingredients

  • 4 to 5 ears sweet corn
  • ¼ cup milk
  • ½ cup vanilla ice cream

Directions

  1. With a sharp knife, slice the kernels from the corn cobs. You should end up with 2½ to 3 cups.
  2. Transfer them to a food processor, add the milk and process to a purée, about 30 seconds.
  3. Strain the corn purée in a sieve; you should have about 1¼ to 1½ cups liquid.
  4. Transfer to a blender and mix with the ice cream until foamy.

Notes

In the final step, an old-fashioned blender is preferable to a food processor if you want the traditional foamy texture. The processed version will just be a liquid, but it will still taste good, of course. If you don’t have a blender and want a foamy shake, you can shake it in a cocktail shaker. In fact, that was the original method and the origin of the name "milk shake." Try adding the ice cream in ¼-cup increments, because some brands of vanilla ice cream are so strongly flavored that they will overwhelm the corn.

Pomegranate Pasta

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 12 minutes

Total Time: 22 minutes

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

4 ounces (¼ of a 1-pound box) angel hair pasta

4 quarts lightly salted boiling water

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

½ to 1 clove garlic, pureed

2 teaspoons pomegranate molasses

½ cup roasted peanuts

3 to 4 sprigs cilantro

Directions

1. Put the angel hair in the boiling water. As the pasta softens, make sure it’s all below the water’s surface . Stir to separate the strands. Cook until the pasta is soft and the raw aroma goes away, 10-12 minutes.

2. Drain the pasta and place it in a mixing bowl with the oil. Toss with two forks to coat all the strands with oil. Add the garlic and molasses and toss.

3. To serve, mix the pasta with the peanuts or sprinkle them on top. Garnish with cilantro and serve hot or cold.

Note: The flavor of olive oil would be distracting in this dish. Use a neutral oil.

Main photo: Too hot weather inspired two cool recipes: a corn milkshake and  pomegranate pasta. Credit: Charles Perry

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O.J.’s Jell-O Judge, a Recipe That Requires Trial and Error Image

During the first O.J. Simpson trial in 1995, I was working at the Los Angeles Times, about three blocks away from the L.A. County Courthouse. Once in a while I would wander up there to gawk at the sidewalk circus that was in progress.

One fellow in the colorful crowd was selling an amazing souvenir of those days: a plastic mold you could use to reproduce the face of Superior Court Judge Lance Ito in gelatin. As I like to say, there’s always a food angle.

Several members of the trial’s cast of characters used it as a springboard to fame: the late attorney Johnny Cochran, police officer Mark Fuhrman, party pal Kato Kaelin (not that much fame, in retrospect) et al., including Robert Kardashian, of course, who bequeathed us a pack of telegenic daughters the world might otherwise never have heard of. Judge Ito took a more dignified route and continued an honorable career on the bench.

The gelatin mold looks kind of like the judge, but not exactly. It’s based on a life mask of the owner of SKS Sibley Co., which mostly makes molds for Halloween purposes such as brains, hands and eyeballs. At any rate, it looked enough like the Honorable Ito that people recognized the resemblance at the time. The mold came with a pair of glasses made from construction paper, which were not really very close to what the judge wore.

Of course I bought a mold. Shortly afterward, the judge expressed a desire that the maker cease and desist, or something to that effect, so it has become something of a rarity.

That day I took it back to the Times Test Kitchen and we made it following the accompanying instructions. They created gelatin with a color a little like a flesh tone, more orange than one might like for the purpose, except perhaps on the Jersey Shore. The hair? More of a problem. The idea was to use food coloring (gelatin is food, people), but black food coloring is hard to find. Blue with a few drops of red gave a very deep purple hue that read close enough to black for the gag to work.

It takes a long time for the gelatin to set, but the next day we had it ready, and we proudly carried it all around the Times building to show it off. Everybody found it highly entertaining … everybody, that is, except the City Desk people who were covering the trial. They didn’t get it at all.

Today with O.J. nostalgia in full bloom, I dug that mold out, a little surprised to find that I’d hung onto it through the years and that I still had the recipe for the quasi-flesh tone gelatin. I had to make new fake glasses, of course – construction paper is less durable than plastic. So here it is, one for the “Remember Those Fabulous Nineties?” book.

By the way, here’s the gelatin recipe that came with the mold. You can use it whenever you need a flesh-colored dessert. In the absence of a suitable mold, you might chill it in custard cups and then paint eyeballs or something when you unmold them.

 

Quasi-Human Gelatin

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 7 hours, 10 minutes

Yield: One face mold’s worth, 9 ½ cups

Ingredients

    For the Gelatin
  • 3 (6-ounce) packets of peach-flavored gelatin
  • 4 cups boiling water
  • 1 cup cold water
  • 1 (12-ounce) can nonfat evaporated milk
  • 3-4 drops of green food coloring
  • For the Fake Hair Color
  • 6 or 7 drops blue food coloring
  • 3 or 4 drops red food coloring

Directions

  1. Dissolve the gelatin in the boiling water.
  2. When dissolved, stir in the cold water and the evaporated milk.
  3. Add three drops of food coloring – if the color is still too peachy try another drop.
  4. Refrigerate until quite firm, seven hours or more.
  5. After the gelatin is firm, squeeze the blue and red food coloring in a small bowl and stir. If it doesn’t look black enough for you, doctor it with more drops.
  6. Apply the blackish coloring carefully to the appropriate areas of the gelatin with a small brush.

Main photo: Twenty years after the O.J. Simpson trial, Charles Perry digs out his Jell-O mold of  Superior Court Judge Lance Ito to revive an unlikely recipe. Credit: Charles Perry

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S’more Pizza, Please – No Campfire Required Image

The invention of the s’more was a landmark in American culinary history, comparable to the equally simple and classic root beer float. Neither s’mores nor floats can really be improved.

But the s’more can be made bigger, lots bigger, as you might want to do as a salute to the return of camping season. This isn’t the sort of s’more you make over a campfire; it’s definitely more of a s’more on the scale of a pizza, made (but not cooked) on a pizza stone. It is a bit of trouble to make — you have to start it the day before and you need a good thermometer — but your guests will be amazed.

The best part is, you may very well have all the ingredients in your pantry and refrigerator right now. The main things you need are unflavored gelatin, graham crackers, bittersweet chocolate and cream.

It’s very similar to marshmallow pie with chocolate ganache frosting, which was really conceived of as a plus-size Mallomar rather than any variety of s’more. The pizza shape results in a higher proportion of frosting and crust to filling — in particular, there’s more of the graham crust, with its toasty, buttery aroma and cinnamon perfume. The filling is still that incomparably creamy homemade marshmallow, which does not need to be melted to be luscious.

The traditional s’more (and Mallomar) filling has a vanilla flavor, but you might want to try coffee liqueur instead. Of course, that would technically make it a … s’mocha.

Let me call your attention to National S’mores Day, which is coming up on Aug. 10. Study this recipe (and marshmallow pie too). You have plenty of time to practice.

Oh, I know! Put fresh marshmallow on them and dip them in ganache! What to call them, I wonder? S’lesses?

S’mores alla Pizza

Prep Time: 5 hours

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 5 hours, 15 minutes

Yield: Serves 16

Ingredients

    For the crust
  • 20 graham crackers, 9½-10 ounces
  • 4 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Optional: dash nutmeg
  • 5 ounces butter, melted
  • For the filling
  • 1 cup water (half for step 1, half for step 3)
  • 2 (1-tablespoon) packets unflavored gelatin
  • ½ cup light corn syrup
  • 1½ cups sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract or coffee liqueur
  • For the ganache frosting
  • 8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
  • 8 ounces cream

Directions

    For the crust (prep time: 1 minute; cook time: none; total time: 30 minutes)
  1. Break up the crackers and put them with the sugar and cinnamon (and nutmeg, if using) into a food processor. Process until fine, about 20 seconds. Pour in the melted butter and pulse about 10 times, until just amalgamated.
  2. Pour the crumbs onto a 12- or 13-inch pizza stone (the cheap metal kind with a rim actually works fine for this) and spread with your fingers almost to the edge. Crimp a low pizza-type rim around the edge between the edges of your hands and flatten the center with your palms. Refrigerate at least half an hour before filling.
  3. For the filling (prep time: 20-25 minutes; cook time: 10 minutes; total time: 5 hours)
  4. Put ½ cup water in a mixing bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer and sprinkle 2 packets of gelatin over the surface. Allow the gelatin to sit until it forms a rubbery mass, about 5 minutes, then set the bowl over a small saucepan of simmering water. Leave without stirring until the gelatin is entirely dissolved (no floating layer), 10 to 15 minutes.
  5. Remove the bowl from the saucepan and set aside until cool, 10 minutes. Return the mixer bowl to the mixer (if you have used a mixing bowl to dissolve the gelatin, scrape the gelatin into the bowl of a mixer) and whip the dissolved gelatin, as if it were egg whites, for 1 minute.
  6. In a small saucepan, mix the corn syrup, sugar and remaining ½ cup water. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to medium and place a lid on the saucepan for 3 minutes so that steam can wash any sugar crystals off the walls.
  7. Remove the lid, raise the heat to high and insert a thermometer probe into the syrup. When it reaches 238 F, about 10 minutes from the start of cooking (the sign is that if a bit of syrup is dropped into cold water, it forms a firm ball), pour the syrup into the gelatin, scraping out all the syrup you can with a spatula. Beat on high until the temperature of the mixture is just warm, 20-25 minutes.
  8. Beat in the vanilla or other flavoring and scrape the warm marshmallow onto the pizza crust. With a spatula, working carefully but without wasting time, spread it over the surface as evenly as possible, making the center slightly lower than the edges. Return the pizza stone to the refrigerator and refrigerate 4 hours to overnight.
  9. For the ganache frosting (prep time: less than 1 minute; cook time: 5 minutes; total time: 1 hour, 6 minutes)
  10. Chop the chocolate into small pieces, put into a food processor and process to the consistency of coarse sand.
  11. Put the cream in a small pan or saucepan and bring to a full boil. Pour the hot cream onto the chocolate and process until smooth, 10-15 seconds. Spoon onto the marshmallow with a spatula fairly close to the edge, allowing drips here and there. Refrigerate until the ganache hardens, at least 1 hour.
  12. To serve, cut the “pizza” into wedges with a warmed sharp knife or a pizza cutter. Slide a warmed knife or pie server under the slice and carefully remove it.

Notes

Monroe Boston Strause, who invented the graham cracker crust in the 1920s for his famous Black Bottom pie, wrote that you can make the crust stiffer by adding 2 tablespoons water and 5 teaspoons corn syrup to the graham crackers and baking it at 425 F for 5 minutes. I’ve never tried this, because, frankly, I like a crumbly crust, but if you want a stiffer crust, that’s what Strause said, and he was nationally known as the Pie Man in his day.

These days Nabisco is marketing its graham crackers in a box with three packets of nine crackers each, but I think this crust needs a total of 20, so you’ll have to think of some use for the remaining seven crackers.

Main photo: A pizza-sized s’more. Credit: Charles Perry

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The Slick Idea That Elevates Super-Simple Antique Fish Image

Most fish are so delicate we add only minimal flavoring, probably nothing more than a squeeze of lemon these days. The ancient Greeks and Romans, in no position to use lemon juice because the lemon hadn’t arrived, tended to use vinegar. Sometimes, they even added cheese.

It’s a slick idea. Give it a try.

We know this because a Greek foodie named Archestratus sampled fish all around the eastern Mediterranean, and around 330 B.C. he wrote a poem about his findings. It has not survived complete, and we aren’t even sure about its title — it has been referred to as “Gastronomia” and “The Life of Luxury,” among other names. Most of the surviving fragments appear in a book called “The Deipnosophists,” which was written some five centuries later, ample testimony to its fame.

Here is one fragment: “Whenever Orion is setting in the heavens and the mother of the wine-bearing grape clusters is casting away her long hair, then it is the time to have a baked sargue sprinkled with cheese — a large one, and piping hot, and cut with sharp vinegar.”

Well, it was a poem; these days even the most bizarro food writer wouldn’t dream of referring to grapevines losing their hair. As for sargue (or sargo), it’s a member of the bream family that is well regarded in the Mediterranean today, but Archestratus recommended his preferred treatment for bland fish, topping it with cheese as well as sprinkling it with vinegar (which I think works better here than lemon juice). I suggest using it on tilapia, a bland fish that is readily available.

Archestratus lived in a Greek colony in Sicily, and in another passage he associates the idea of sprinkling cheese on fish with the Syracusans, who would, of course, have used some kind of Sicilian cheese. What was that cheese like? We don’t know.

However, in the Middle Ages, the Arabs imported Sicilian cheese (jubn siqilli) and added it to vegetable dishes at the same time as spices, suggesting that it was grated, so you could use Sicilian ricotta salata or even Parmesan or Romano. This is the oldest recipe I ever make for fun, rather than research.

Fish a la Archestratus

Serves 2 

Ingredients

2 tilapia filets, about 10 ounces

1 tablespoon light olive oil

Salt to taste

2 to 3 tablespoons grated ricotta salata, Parmesan or other grating cheese

Vinegar to taste

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Spread oil in a baking dish.

3. Set the fish in the dish and sprinkle with the salt and cheese. The cheese will melt after 10 minutes, fish will flake at 14 to 15.

4. Serve hot with a sprinkling of vinegar.

* * *

Here’s another simple fish recipe, this one from the 18th century. It appears in Louis Auguste de Bourbon’s “Le Cuisinier Gascon” (1740) as a variation on truite à la hussarde. Hussars were proverbially dashing, impetuous, overbearing, none-too-intelligent cavalrymen who wore flashy uniforms and claimed to be so badass they would be ashamed to not to die by the time they were 30. (A lot of people hoped the same fate for them.)

It’s such a simple dish it scarcely needs a recipe — it’s so simple that a hussar could probably cook it. You just poach the fish and serve it with a sort of 18th-century tartar sauce. If you prefer trout, go ahead and make it with that.

Salmon, Badass Cavalryman Style

Serves 2

Ingredients

For the sauce:

½ cup mayonnaise

3 to 4 teaspoons capers along with ½ teaspoon caper brine

½ teaspoon Dijon mustard, or more to taste

For the fish:

10 ounces salmon filet

Water

1 teaspoon lemon juice or 1 tablespoon dry white wine

Directions

1. Put the mayonnaise into a sauce bowl. Stir in the capers and caper brine, then the mustard. Add the mustard bit by bit, because too much can make the sauce seem salty.

2. Put the filets in a pan. Add water nearly to cover, then the lemon juice.

3 Heat over medium heat, turning the fish after 5 minutes, until the fish flakes easily with a fork, about 10 minutes.

4. Drain the fish and serve hot or cold with the hussar sauce.

Main photo: Fish a la Archestratus with tilapia, foreground, and Salmon, Badass Cavalryman Style. Credit: Charles Perry

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How Potato Kebabs Can Make Roasted Spuds Exotic Image

They like their shish kebab in the Caucasus. The Azerbaijanis even make a potato version. It’s not really that exotic — just a fancier way of making roasted potatoes, really — but it is delicious, looks cool and might help vegetarians feel less like wallflowers at the barbecue.

The idea is simple. String small potatoes on skewers and grill until nicely browned. To serve, sprinkle with salt, red pepper, green onions and melted butter. It’s the sort of thing that is quite convenient to do when you’re barbecuing something else.

Probably the Azerbaijanis’ inspiration was the older Middle Eastern tradition of grilling chunks of eggplant on a skewer. They adapted the dish to the potato after it arrived from the New World. And they did the same with another New World import, the tomato.

Tomato kebab is a little less exotic though, at least if you were around for the Greek food craze that swept the country in the 1960s. Back then souvlaki just wasn’t souvlaki unless you inserted cherry tomatoes between your chunks of wine-marinated beef. Pomidor kababï is the same idea except that it does without the meat.

Interestingly, according to the photo I’ve seen, the tomatoes are pierced through the sides, rather than from the stem end. The recipe recommended small, juicy, fully ripe tomatoes, apparently of some size between cherry and Roma, which I imagine are best if you can get them.

Both these ideas come from “Azärbayjan Kulinariyasï,” a polyglot coffee-table cookbook published in Azeri, Russian and English.

Yes, there is an English translation but you can’t necessarily go by it. Take the recipe for gabirga-kabab, which reads, “Cut into equal pieces fat mutton brisket. These pieces string on a spit with flesh on one side and roast over charcoals. Dress with coiled onions, shredded herbs and pomegranate grains, when serving.”

From studying the Azeri and Russian texts and the photos, you can figure out that “coiled onions” are onion rings, “shredded herbs” are cilantro and “pomegranate grains” can be narsharab, a sweet-sour molasses made from boiled-down pomegranate juice, like the Lebanese dibs rumman but rather more tart.

As for this potato kebab recipe, the book calls for 16 “middle-sized potatoes left whole” but the photo shows oblong new potatoes cut in half. It sounds as if you can use just about any smallish spuds so long as they aren’t so thick that they will take too long to cook.

By the way, if you’re thinking about grilling tomatoes this way, you had better use the Middle Eastern skewers with a flat blade shape. On old-fashioned round skewers, the tomatoes will tend to slip, making it hard to turn the skewer over. They will cook in about 20 minutes.

Potato Kebabs (Kartof Kababï)

Serves 2

Ingredients

6 small potatoes

2 ounces (½ stick) butter, melted

Salt and ground red pepper to taste

1 bunch green onions, roots and ½ of green part trimmed

Directions

1. Cut and skewer the potatoes. Remove the eyes.

2. Start your barbecue. If using charcoal, burn until the briquettes are covered with gray ash.

3. Brush the potatoes very lightly with melted butter and grill, turning over from time to time to check doneness. When the potatoes can easily be pierced with a fork (taking care not to break them) and are browned on  both sides, about 45 minutes, remove and serve, sprinkled with salt and pepper and garnished with green onions with the rest of the melted butter on the side.

Top photo: Potato Kebabs (Kartof Kababï). Credit: Charles Perry

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