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What the Heck is That? Part 5

Sometimes when we read menus, terms are mentioned that we are not fully familiar with. Other times, familiar terms are used in unfamiliar ways, leading to confusion on menus. Still other times, the Chef hasn't come up with anything original lately and falls back on this ongoing series to help define culinary terms. Anyway, here is the latest in our continuing saga of Culinary terms and how we use them at Vi. Please refer back to the first four installments, and let me know any I have missed. when we reach the end of the alphabet we will probably start over again so get your requests in.

Mayonnaise ; Mayonnaise is, in it's simplest form egg yolks blended with oil and a touch of lemon and salt. This Noble sauce has been hijacked by commercially produced by supermarket versions, that while perfectly tasty as an ingredient or condiment has nothing of the silkiness and flavor of the real thing. Think about it; if I served our famous Almond crusted Shrimp with... mayonnaise it would sound strange at best, but if I called it a Citrus Aioli that would sound delicious. Anyway, This sauce is an Emulsion, which is how we combine things that don't ordinarily mix like oil and water. The origin of the word Mayonnaise is a matter of debate, Some say that the name comes from the French verb manier (to stir), some say that it can be traced to the Old French word for egg yolk moyeau, but the most commonly accepted is that the name comes from an early spelling of mahonnaise (literally of Mahon), and that the sauce was named for the taking of the Port of Mahon capital of Minorca by the duc de Richelieu in 1756. The word first appears in English in 1840.

A locally renowned Chef preparing to make Mead for his customers with honey from the private Apiary on the roof.

Mead; a fermented mixture of honey and water, one of mankind's most ancient alcoholic drinks. The name traces back to early Indo-European languages, and has changed very little over the millennia. In Northern Europe, Mead was drunk at least as far back as the Bronze Age, and in Anglo-Saxon England it was the warrior's drink of choice, but as the Middle Ages passed, it became more provincial replaced by the more fashionable wines of Southern Europe. Mead can be sweet or dry, and is often combined with barley, grapes, fruit, hops and spices to make innumerable flavor combinations. I personally feel like Mead is underappreciated in the modern world, and a comeback is long overdue.

Dame Nellie Melba

Melba; the Soprano Nellie Melba (1859-1931) was no great cook as history records, but she was the cause of much cooking in her time and should be celebrated as such. The best known dish named after her was of course Peach Melba created in her honor by the renowned Chef Escoffier in 1892. Chef Escoffier's version consisted of a swan carved from ice, bearing vanilla ice cream on which reposed peaches surmounted by a net of spun sugar. This of course was a little over the top even for the illustrious Escoffier (and I assume his point in honoring her beauty and grace was made with the first version), so the chef developed a simpler version in which the swan was replaced by raspberry puree. But we are not done, in 1897, Dame Nellie was staying at London's Ritz hotel, and having returned in poor health from a tour of America was put on a strict diet common in the Victorian era, of which very thin crisp toast was featured. Never slow to spot an opportunity, the manager of the Hotel, Cesar Ritz put the toast on the menu and declared it to be Toast Melba. I think the part of this story that sticks with me is that the practice of naming food after beautiful women is one we should definitely have kept, and the idea that a trip to uncivilized America for such a delicate soul was so stressful that she needed to be pampered in a luxury hotel. These ideas should be returned in the 21st century.

Merlot; a red grape variety, historically one of the blending grapes used in claret or Bordeaux wines particularly those from the right bank. it is widely planted all over the world, and it is generally accepted that the name derives from the French word merle for Blackbird but the reasons for this are obscure. Merlot as a varietal gained much ground in the 1980's and 90's and the future looked bright for this blackbird, until the 2004 film Sideways made a mockery of this noble grape and anyone who drank it. sales plummeted almost overnight, but have steadily increased since then.

Moonshine; this name has been used for centuries to refer to spirits illegally distilled or imported. The name comes of course from the secretive nocturnal circumstances of it's production or acquisition. Here at Vi we of course would never, ever take the beer and or mead that we produce, distill it into a spirit, age it with oak and keep it secret in a storeroom not listed on the blueprints. Ever.

Mustard; a sauce made of crushing the spicy seeds of the mustard plant with vinegar or grape juice. Enjoyed by various cultures over the millennia, mustard really took off as a condiment when Colemans of Norwich started marketing a yellow mustard powder in the nineteenth century making it available for mass consumption. the bright yellow color comes from turmeric, and like Mayonnaise has taken on a regrettable status as a simple condiment for hot dogs.

Newburg; a designation given to cooking lobster by sautéing it with cream and fish stock, and finishing with sherry or brandy. The recipe was created in the latter part of the 19th century by Sea Captain Ben Wenburg and Chef Charles Ranhofer and served in the famous New York restaurant Delmonico's. By the 1890's the name of the dish had been changed from Wenburg to Newburg and the Chef was no longer employed at Delmonico's. The Captain does not give his side of the story but I am really curious to know. Anyway, today the term is loosely applied and can be used for any creamy seafood dish, with an emphasis on rich flavor and lots of sherry.

Nog; an East Anglican term for strong beer dating back at least to the 1600s in England. Not until the 19th century do we hear of Egg Nog, as a dish of eggs beaten with milk and rum or brandy. I am a big fan of Egg Nog, and feel that it should not be confined to the Christmas Holidays but should be served year round with a generous tot of rum.

Nutmeg; the seed of a tropical evergreen indigenous to the islands of the Indian ocean. It grows surrounded by a web of fibers which are dried and ground to be sold as Mace. Nutmeg , along with other spices was the subject of highly sought after trade monopolies for hundreds of years.

Oats; in 1857 Elizabeth Acton's famous cookbook The English Bread Book, describes oats as 'food for horses and Scottish people'. While this probably says more about the English and Scottish distain for one another, the reputation of Oats as fodder not food reaches back into antiquity, and is unfortunate as Oats are both Delicious and highly nutritious. Their ability to grow on marginal land may have contributed to this view, as even Pliny the Elder referred to it as a weed, sometimes eaten by Germanic people. Most of the oatmeal we use today is cooked, then pressed and dried for use as Instant oats, but Steel cut oats are superior, even if they take much longer to cook. The expression to sow one's wild oats, meaning to commit youthful indiscretions originated in the sixteenth century from the unwelcome notion of sowing weeds rather than proper Cereal crops like what or barley.

Okra; the edible seedpods of a tropical member of the hollyhock family, Okra is widely cultivated in the Caribbean and American South, but is native to Africa. One of the most famous American regional okra dishes is of course Gumbo, whose name derives from the African word for Okra. The mucilaginous (slimy) nature of okra makes it a great thickener of soups and stews. Quickly cooking Okra, as in Fried Okra reduces this quality and makes it much more palatable to the modern taste.

Olive; The olive has been a cornerstone of Mediterranean cuisine for so long that it's almost synonymous with civilization itself. While whole olives (soaked in Lye or Brine) are eaten, it's main use then as now is in the production of Olive Oil-indeed the English word for oil is derived from the Greek word for Olives. Olive oil, when artfully pressed and served fresh is a delight, and the very aroma itself can be intoxicating. Speaking of aromas, the esteemed 1861 cookbook Mrs. Beeton's book of Household Management-a Victorian staple and the source of many of our modern recipes only grudgingly acknowledges this 'foreign' oil and concedes that it's use in salads is 'an antidote against flatulence'. To be fair, I have not tested this theory.

Omelet; the notion of cooking beaten eggs in a pan is a very old one, but the name omelet does not enter into the English language until the Early Seventeenth Century. The question of how to make the perfect omelet has often been the subject of debate, so much more so than the simplicity of the dish would suggest. Should one cook the omelets on both sides? Should the eggs be firm or runny? Most would agree on folding the omelet in half, but even here there are exceptions, notably a Spanish omelet which is served flat. The old adage ' You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs" -(meaning you can't achieve anything of consequence without causing incidental damage along the way), is attributed to Maximilien Robespierre, the great but controversial statesman of the French Revolution, who despite being a champion for the rights of the downtrodden, was fairly indifferent to the human suffering caused by some of the policies he pushed, and was the architect of The Reign of Terror that almost perfectly explains this view of governing as well as eggs.

Onion; The onion has a history that goes back at least 7000 years, and is so synonymous with modern savory cuisine that it should almost always be assumed that a dish contains some member of the family (garlic is a close relative as are leeks). Sweet onions such as Walla Walla and Vidalia are best used for salads, where their mild flavor does not offend, White onions are usually mild as well, Yellow or Spanish onions are full flavored and are the base of most soups and stews, while red varieties are pungent and should be enjoyed with friends when everyone partakes of the same dish. The burning sensation in the eyes as onions are sliced are caused by the aromatic oils in the plant and should not discourage their use. If they are too strong, a simple rinse with cold water will take away much of the sting.

Thanks for your time, I do enjoy looking into the origin and use of these terms and hope you find it as fascinating as I do.

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