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Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Fat Man's Diet (Part Two)

Lost Masterpieces Dept.: Many years ago, I wrote a few sample chapters of a tome titled The Fat Man's Diet, which included essays on the joys of being fat, a selection of rich recipes, and mini-biographies of the fat and famous. I sent it to publishers and agents, most of whom ignored it, although I was told by a couple that the book was too confusing. Is it a cookbook? A humor book? What? These are the concerns of the excessively skinny, of course. Here's the second section. (You’ll find the first chapter here.)


The oil in the pan is about to smoke: just right. The Fat Man takes the pan in one hand and, with the other, ladles a measure of batter into it, swirling the pan to cover the bottom with a nearly translucent layer.

It’s a rhythmic process, one the Fat Man performs with the pride of an acrobat. He is cooking crepes, the thin French pastries that will then be filled with meat or fish, fruit or ice cream, or possibly swirled in a flaming bath of orange liqueur.

His guests regard him with awe. He waited until they arrived before beginning this process, for he knows how impressive he looks upon this, his most comfortable turf: the kitchen.
Cooking at Home

Nero Wolfe
Stove, refrigerator, countertop, sink. A contemporary work ethic demands that success be measured by time away from home, time spent workaholically locked in an office. That’s why contemporary apartments cram the kitchen into a space even a small cat would find uncomfortable.

The Fat Man has no tolerance for this attitude. His kitchen is a workplace, and artist’s studio. Ideally, he will have a six-burner, two-oven stove, one of the big black units by Garland or Vulcan that restaurants use. In fact, with so many restaurants going south these days (the price they pay for catering to the thin), such stoves are always available second-hand.

A two-barrel sink is preferred, as is an oversized refrigerator and stand-alone freezer. Plenty of counter space is essential, because the Fat Man loves his cookery toys almost as much as the food itself.

No professional kitchen is complete without a Hobart orbital mixer; for home use, the Hobart is known as a Kitchen Aid. A good food processor, one with a heavy-duty motor, is essential, and my Cuisinart has outlasted a couple of generic brand competitors. A small Braun coffee mill is good for grinding fresh spices.

Knives are essential: long tang, well-balanced knives with blades of hardened steel. The wimp is welcome to his Ginzu gadgets, those “never need sharpening” cheapies. Only a skinny guy would boast of never sharpening a knife. The Fat Man appreciates a good Sabatier blade the way a painter appreciates a finely-crafted sable brush.

Add to the arsenal the tools for stovetop and oven: skillets of seasoned iron, all-metal pots with firmly-joined handles. Wood-clad Revereware is pretty, but try finishing a chicken saute in the oven in one of those things.

Every city boasts a nearby restaurant supply store. Make friends there. You need easy access to professional equipment.

We’re used to finding those tiny jars of overpriced herbs on supermarket shelves, and, unfortunately, we’re used to buying them. It’s one of the biggest rip-offs going. Those seasonings are always long past any potent prime. A health-food store will offer fresh seasonings at a fraction of the price.

Freshness is the key to good cooking. Gone may be the time of the open market where fresh meats and fish and vegetables were traded day by day, but you still can find purveyors happy to let you know what’s best (and freshest) to buy. Make friends with the butcher and the produce manager, or find out where the better restaurants go for their provender.

The Fat Man cooks the way he eats: with love. He isn’t shy about experimenting in the kitchen: after all, through such variations the new gourmet treats are born. He measures with his eye; he times the courses with his heart.

A chicken waits on the chopping block. The Fat Man unfolds a wing, extends it and severs it at the inside joint with a deft stroke of the cleaver. He spins the bird and repeats the process to remove the other wing.

With his chef’s knife, the Fat Man carves along either side of the backbone, removing the strip in one piece. Directly opposite he makes another cut to produce two equal-sized halves. These could be broiled with butter, lemon and garlic, but the chef has a boneless sauté in mind. He splits each half into leg and breast sections, then expertly excises the bones. Wings, bones, neck and offal go into a stock pot for tomorrow’s soup and sauces.

For less than a dollar pound, the Fat Man has two servings of fresh chicken (not to mention the stock: don’t forget to add onions, carrots, celery, a couple of cloves and any stray skins or vegetable discards). For four or five times that amount, skinny guys pay their butchers to do the work – and to keep what’s removed.

Is it any wonder they stay so thin?

Black and White Duckling
serves four

A delicious appetizer that features strips of roast duckling laid over puff pastry and a drizzle of two compound butters: beurre blanc and beurre noir.

1 duckling (approx. 4 lbs.)
4 cups all-purpose flour
3 cups sweet butter
1 1/4 cups cold water
1/3 cup white wine vinegar

Prepare the duckling by removing the bag of innards (add them to a stock) and draining the beast. Tuck the wing tips underneath the wings; save yourself the bother of trussing the carcass by making an incision beside each of the leg ends and tucking the legs inside the cavity. Season the inside with parsley and chopped onion. Roast for about an hour in a 350 degree oven. Drain the accumulated fat once or twice during this process.

When the meat has cooled to room temperature, remove and save the legs (you can have them for lunch tomorrow). Remove and eat the skin that covers the breasts; slice the meat into 1/8" sections. Each breast should yield two servings, but don’t be afraid to pile it on if you’re hungry and there are only two (or one) of you.

Puff pastry:

Soften 1/4 cup of butter at room temperature until very pliant. Knead 1 3/4 cups of butter until it is smooth but still waxy. Don’t be afraid to chill it again if it gets too soft. Blend the 1/4 cup of butter with the sifted flour in a bowl until the dough is of even consistency; turn it onto a pastry board and make a well in the center. Pour the cold water into the well and blend until the dough is firm. Knead for about 15 minutes. You want a nicely elastic quality here.

The tricky part comes in working the not-too-softened butter into the mixture. You want to roll the firm dough into an oblong about the size of a cafeteria tray (8" x 16"). The extra butter should be formed into a smaller cake, 4" x 6", and placed in the center of the dough perpendicular to its long end. Then fold the two flaps of the dough over one another as if you were folding a letter, imprisoning the butter. The edges must be pressed securely shut.
Flip the packet over and position it before you like a portrait. Roll it again into a large oblong, the same size as before, taking care that none of the butter leaks. Fold it in thirds again. Chill it for half an hour. Each roll-and-fold is called a “turn.” Do two more turns, chill it again for half an hour, do two more, chill, two more, chill. Eight turns. Two hours of chilling.

The result is a puff pastry that you will roll into a dough no more than 1/8" thick. Very little of it is needed for the duckling; have fun making pastry shells and suchlike with the rest. The pastry should be thoroughly chilled before baking. Cut crescents about four inches long, two per serving of duckling, and bake them in a 400 degree oven for 15-20 minutes (until they have fully risen and turned golden brown.

Compound butters:

Beurre blanc is prepared by cooking a tablespoon of minced shallots in a quarter-cup of vinegar until the liquid has all but evaporated. Add a pinch of pepper and lower the heat. Whip in ½ cup of softened butter, keeping the mixture in motion and the heat very low. Set aside.

Heat ½ cup of butter until it turns dark brown (don’t burn it!). Add a tablespoon of hot vinegar, a couple of tablespoons of minced parsley, and a sprinkling (not more than a tablespoon) of capers. This is your beurre noir.

Put it together:

Drizzle a swirl of beurre blanc on the appetizer plate in a spiral; add a swirl of beurre noir within that spiral. Place two crescents of puff pastry atop the butters and layer the hot duck meat over the pastry. Garnish with parsley and pimiento. Serve with a good Balsamic vinegar.

The Fat Man Dines Out

“He’s here,” the waiter says, emphasizing the pronoun with a tone of deferential awe. The chef nods and straightens his toque. And smiles, a rare expression for him.

The Fat Man is in the dining room. There is nobody for whom the chef would rather cook.

As he does most visits, the Fat Man simply upturned a palm and said to the waiter, “Ask the chef to order for me.” The waiter does so by saying, “He’ll have the usual.”

A buzz of excitement sounds among the cooks and prep staff. “What are you going to start him with?” the pantryman asks.

The chef points to the walk-in refrigerator. “Get me the fresh duckling,” he tells an assistant. “And make me some compound butters.”

“Weren’t you saving this for the Governor’s meal tonight?” the assistant asks.

“Never mind him. This customer is more important!”

DINING OUT IS A social ritual, but for the Fat Man it has at its heart a solitary confrontation between man and meal. Friends and spouses come and go, but a relationship with food lasts a lifetime.

While nothing is as satisfying as a carefully-planned meal cooked at home, there’s a special delight in appreciating the culinary artistry of others. The first challenge lies in finding a culinary artist. Ours is a world that boasts of fast food chains which bathe processed patties in bubbling grease. And shamelessly sells as “gourmet” those portion-controlled quick-frozen foodstuffs nuked by nitwits who call themselves cooks.

But every so often you will find a kitchen run by someone who really appreciates food, probably a Fat Man (or Woman). Cultivate such restaurants: they’re what foodservice is all about.

When the Fat Man takes his seat in such an establishment he becomes part of a symbiotic process that presents food in its most creative context. Chef and servers alike display the artistry that elevates a restaurant visit from mere feeding to refined dining; the Fat Man is an extension of that process. Actors, musicians, athletes—they are performers who require an attentive but passive audience. A restaurant offers the non-professional participant an opportunity to become an intimate part of the art.

How to dine, then, becomes a vital element. It’s not enough to stab a stubby finger at the menu and devour the delivered product. A fine meal calls into play more of the five human senses than any other occupation except, possibly, sex. Don’t shortchange yourself.

Begin the meal with a palate-stimulating fortified wine. The hard stuff dulls the taste buds (as well as the senses), but a shot of cool, dry sherry is appetite foreplay.

Balance is a key to assembling a meal. This is where the Fat Man plays an essential role, for it is he who sculpts the chef’s cookery into an aesthetically-pleasing result. He knows how to play with the sharps and sweets, the textures, the temperatures. He is classical, beginning with a simple consomme. He is daring, boldly instructing the waiter to go right ahead and order that veal special neither has tasted before.

He also understands that his party as a whole is part of this process. It’s a common fallacy of the thin or otherwise unenlightened to believe themselves fully capable of using a menu. They rarely know what they’re doing. The first mistake, the one the Fat Man never makes, is to sit down at the table hungry. This persuades you to recklessly plunge into an entrée with no preparation of palate or spirit. The wise Fat Man who finds himself sharing a table with this sort of person gently steers the hapless soul in the proper direction. He knows what’s in season. He provides tips on what’s especially tasty. He steers the unwitting toward assembly of Fat Man-worthy meal, offering, naturally, to eat any undesired portion of it.

Of course, none of this works when the service staff is unhappy, and abusive and ignorant behavior is the normal course of events in a restaurant. You are surrounded by patrons who share none of your zeal and refinement, who take out their aggressions on servers only anxious to please.

In the better class of restaurant, the waiter is a professional. Treat your server as such. Solicit opinions, praise promptness. And never skimp on the gratuity: 20 percent is an absolute minimum. Remember: because of his girth, the Fat Man is instantly identified with largess. Uphold that image.

Stories of the Fat & Famous:
Nero Wolfe

Is fatness a necessary adjunct to mental dexterity? Fiction writers think so: in particular, those writers who specialize in that most brain-intensive genre, the mystery novel. Sherlock Holmes was brilliant, but his portly brother Mycroft was the genius of the family. Thin detectives – we’re speaking of the likes of Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Lew Archer – get knocked around a lot because of headstrong goof-ups or, like willowy Philo Vance, are too insufferable to be borne for long. But rotund little sleuth Hercule Poirot resisted the fistfight and instead tapped his head knowingly and worked out the problem there.

The best – and fattest – was Nero Wolfe (appropriately, played on radio by Sydney Greenstreet). With admirable disdain for exercise or any kind of physical exertion, he remained reclusively in his brownstone on West 35th Street in Manhattan, taking a specially-installed elevator from floor to floor.

His weight fluctuated between 250 and 285 pounds. He subsisted on a diet of beer and the rich, imaginative delicacies crafted for him by Fritz Brenner, his personal chef. Wolfe’s assistant, trim Archie Goodwin, is usually a fellow enthusiast, but he has a thin man’s suspicion of delicious cookery, as in this passage from Method Three for Murder:
. . . . The main dish at dinner had been pork stewed in beer, which both Wolfe and Fritz know I can get along without. . . . I sat in my working chair and looked across the desk at him. Since he weighs a seventh of a ton he always looks big, but when he’s being obnoxious he looks even bigger. “Do you suppose it’s possible,” I said, “that pork has a bloating effect?”
“No, indeed,” he said, and opened a book.
Wolfe understands the importance of ritual and food. No business is discussed at table, but he maintains a lively interest in literature, language, current affairs – and horticulture, especially as it pertains to the treasured orchids he raises in his fourth-floor hothouse.

Guests at the house, whether invited or not, will be fed if the occasion (or obvious hunger) demands it, but it’s a special honor to be invited for lunch or dinner, an honor appreciated even by Wolfe’s surly antagonist in story after story, Police Inspector Cramer.

Rex Stout (a wonderful name for Wolfe’s skinny creator) published the first Nero Wolfe novel, Fer-de-Lance, in 1934. Although the author was accomplished in other genres and even wrote mystery stories featuring other characters, nothing equalled the magic of the tales of Wolfe.

That’s because nothing equalled the magic of Wolfe as respectfully (although sometimes angrily) described by the devoted Archie. Wolfe’s very fatness was a character, contained within the straining walls of the little Manhattan brownstone. In story after story, book after book, one compelling image remains constant: the sight of Wolfe sitting behind his equally-massive desk, pushing his lips in and out, in and out as he reckons the solution to the problem at hand.

Genius needs no dietary restraint.

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