Saturday, May 31, 2008

Magic in a Bottle

I think for most of us serious wine drinkers, there is that one bottle of wine that made us say "Wow! I get it!" and caused us to understand that sometimes something very magical happens to grapes. For a lot of people, this never happens, or perhaps it does, but they are not receptive to it. Others cannot perceive that the magic in the glass is worth the price and so they never try world class wines. Or they cannot comprehend that wine can be magical at all.

I've been studying (this verb makes it sound like much more work than it was and is) wine, and seriously building my flavor memory and palate for almost thirty years. And it has been a hugely rewarding process. Along the way, I have had some amazing wines such as Penfolds Grange, Chave Hermitage, many big Bordeaux, various Cortons and Chambertins, and the mind-blowing 2001 Domaine de la Mordorée Châteauneuf du Pape Cuvée de la Reine des Bois.

As great as these wines are or were, they will still never approach the taste memory of that first amazing bottle, the one that made me realize that sometimes magic happens. For me, that wine was a Champagne, Dom Pérignon 1982. I bought it on release in the mid-1980s for what was then—especially given my extremely limited means—an astronomical sum. I no longer remember why I bought it or where, but I do remember the almost startled look on my wife's face when she first tasted it. And I remember saying, "Now, I understand."

Until that point, all I had ever had was wine. Never before had I had magic.

Has there been magic in your life?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Boletes Anyone?

Today, our first porcini (Boletus edulis) of the year arrived from Oregon. One of the most prized edible mushrooms in the world, porcini (also known as boletes or cèpes) are also one of my favorites. Tonight they are destined for the appetizer menu as Porcini Trifolati, a classic Tuscan preparation. On the weekend, I have no doubt that I will do Porcini Risotto, by far my favorite way to eat them.

While many mushrooms have similar flavors fresh and after drying and being reconstituted (morels, for example), porcini have entirely different flavors when fresh and dried. Fresh porcini remind me of a nutty potato in flavor, while the dried ones have an indescribably deep, rich flavor that screams porcini. I prefer dried porcini. When I make risotto with fresh porcini, I always use stock made from dried porcini to cook the rice.

Without further ado, here is the (highly precise and totally accurate) recipe from tonight's dinner menu. This is an appetizer designed to generate a bowl of garlic butter into which you can dip your bread once you've eaten your mushrooms.

Porcini Trifolati

unsalted butter, clarified
fresh porcini, cubed
garlic, minced
parsley, minced
salt and pepper to taste

Heat clarified butter over high flame in a sauté pan and when hot, add the mushrooms. Let the mushrooms brown before stirring them. Try to brown them on most sides, adding more clarified butter as necessary. As the mushrooms start to cook down, reduce the flame to moderate and add copious quantities of fresh garlic and parsley. Let cook slowly until the mushrooms are silky and the garlic is very soft. Season to taste (I always add more fresh parsley at this point). Serve with excellent bread.

This is a phenomenal recipe to do with baby artichokes (quarter them) or large artichokes (slice them thinly on the mandoline). It also works extremely well with shiitakes as a substitute (and is the basis for Nancy's Pasta on our lunch menu).

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


I hate writing recipes. There. Now it's out in the open.

Writing a recipe is like taking a photograph of a beautiful butterfly in flight. You end up with a snapshot of a gorgeous, ephemeral creature, but in no way can you capture the essential beauty of its flight.

And if you have ever watched a butterfly on a butterfly bush, as I do each Sunday during the summer and fall when we have scores on the bushes outside the family room, you see how the butterfly flits from one flower to the next on a whim. It is this serendipity, this impulsive behavior that is missing from both the photograph of the butterfly and the recipe.

Recipes leave no room for chance, for whim, for feeling, for emotion, and ultimately for "I don't have exactly 2 and 1/2 cups of chopped carrots in my refrigerator."

Cooking for me is what I imagine that playing the jazz saxophone was to Charlie Parker. Not that I am comparing myself in any way to the Yardbird. But to hear him play the same song on different recordings is to start to understand what I am talking about.

The recipe, like the sheet music, provides the basic framework. But after that, it's all improv: responding to mood, to the audience, to the other players around you, to the muse inside you. And there's no way that sheet music or a recipe can capture that. It's a static image, a snapshot if you will, of a process that is continual and infinitely variable.

And while I have this issue with writing recipes, they, like sheet music, are the only way that we have to share our ideas with one another, if we cannot be in the same room. And so I share my recipes with you.

Just so that you understand that I am sharing the melody and am leaving the riffs up to you.

Postscript May 31, 2008—It just struck me on re-reading this post that cooking is an excercise in passion and recipes are essentially passionless. How do I convey my passion to you in a recipe?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Jealous Yet?

Today's post is a picture. Local, ripe, fragrant, and delicious! Come and get them while they last!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Portabella Mushrooms

I went on my produce company's web site to order things for tomorrow, including portabella mushrooms, which are real crowd pleasers on our lunch menu in the Grilled Portabella Sandwich and Crab-Stuffed Portabella. I noticed on the web site that the produce company uses the term Portobello (the produce company is known not to be the most virtuous of spellers) which I see fairly commonly on other menus and on the Internet.

A quick check with the industry trade group the Mushroom Council shows that they refer to the mushroom as a portabella.

The portabella is simply a large cremini mushroom, which is also known as a brown mushroom and also marketed as a Baby 'Bella. Ports develop a good bit more flavor than the creminis, and a lot of this flavor is in the very dark brown gills. The stem on the portabella, which is up to a week older than the cremini form, is fairly woody. We order caps only, so as not to waste storage space on stems. If we had stems, they would go into the stock pot.

For many applications, I remove the gills by scraping them out with a spoon. I remove them when the flavor would dominate the other ingredients in the dish (such as crabmeat) or when they would give an undesired dark color to the dish. For all other applications, such as grilled ports, I leave the gills.

Here is a vastly crowd pleasing appetizer that we ran many years ago and make now for customers by special request.

Balsamic-Glazed Portabella Mushrooms

extra virgin olive oil
1 large portabella cap, in 1/2" slices
fresh thyme leaves
fresh garlic
salt and pepper
salad mix and balsamic vinaigrette

Film a large sauté pan with a good coat of olive oil and heat to very hot. Place the mushroom slices in the pan, cut side down and cook until browned.

Flip the mushroom slices over. You may need to add more oil at this point because the mushrooms are sponges. Sprinkle with thyme, garlic, salt, and pepper.

Just as the mushrooms brown on the bottom, splash the pan with some balsamic vinegar (beware of flash flames) and turn the mushrooms to coat in the reducing vinegar.

Serve immediately.

We fan the mushrooms over a small plate of salad mix dressed with balsamic vinaigrette and pour any remaining liquid from the pan over the top.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Discineration, to Coin a Term

From all of us professional cooks out here, thank you Par-Way Tryson for Vegalene®!

We have a running battle in my house—and why my wife has decided to make her stand on this particular piece of turf is beyond me—over pan spray, of all things. We use Vegalene at the restaurant as do most restaurants. So common is it that cooks ask "Where is the Vegalene?" even if the restaurant stocks the cheap knock off from Sysco.

So naturally, when we need pan spray at home, I bring home a can of the tried-and-true Vegalene and for some reason, this sets my wife off: "I can't stand that crap! It's too thick." The tirade goes on from there, but all I hear is Charlie Brownesque "wah-wa-wah-wa-waaaa." And my can of Vegalene disappears only to be replaced by not one, but two cans of Pam® crap, no doubt bought at Costco in the twin pack because everyone needs more than one can at a time!

So, what set off the kitchen curmudgeon today? It probably all started with the fact that I got to bed around 2am, early for a Saturday night actually, only to be awakened at 6am by the beagle wanting to go out, because the kids are too lazy to do it so that their father might sleep in on his one morning off. Once I'm awake, there's no going back to sleep.

But what started me to the incendiary point was that my eldest daughter asked me to make some pancakes for her. No problem. I whipped up some batter and went to the stove to cook the pancakes in the pan that she so thoughtfully set out for me, the worst pan in the entire house and the one most likely to stick. How my beautiful pan got to be this way is a long story involving four females that inhabit my house while I am not there, and that is a tirade that I don't want to broach currently.

Confronted with this pan, I could have swapped it for another, but they're all dirty and in the sink. Why? Ask the aforementioned foursome as I have nothing to do with it. So, I need to oil up the pan pretty well to make halfway successful pancakes and I reach for my speed bottle of oil, which is obviously empty and has been that way for months, hence the three liter can of extra virgin olive oil on the counter. Fab foursome too lazy to refill it.

I didn't really want to use extra virgin anyway, so I opened the cabinet to get the Vegalene only to be confronted with the two cans of Pam. I sprayed the pan with Pam and poof! Acrid smoke and black gunk in the bottom of the pan. Pam sucks.

At this moment, my wife came into the kitchen and we renewed our friendly (it is really a pretend scuffle on our part) battle over pan spray. I was so tired and flabbergasted at the non-performance of the less than satisfactory pan spray, that my mind could not decide which term to use, incinerate or disintegrate, and it came out "discinerate!" And so our mock battle ended in a good laugh.

But the Vegalene is coming home this afternoon when I get back from the restaurant!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Where Did You Train?

It seems that almost every new table that comes into the restaurant wants to know where I trained. I'll take this as a compliment, but I don't really see how it matters. Either I can cook or I can't. I think this question is just a polite conversation opener anyway.

Short answer: nowhere.

Long answer: I've been cooking a long, long, long time. Seriously cooking for almost thirty years now. Going to restaurants, reading cookbooks, and turning out better food than most restaurants. And culinary schools in America are of a very recent vintage; certainly there were few if any such schools when I was thinking about college. And if the truth be told, cooking professionally was not even a remote thought back then, even if there were back then the cooking school opportunity which everyone seems to take for granted now.

I learned a lot from watching my mother, her mother, her sisters, and my father cook. I've always gravitated towards the kitchen and I learned how to make a lot of things by watching. When it came time to make the dishes, I just did what I saw done.

I don't really know how to say this without coming off wrong, but I don't know how to say it otherwise. Cooking for me is intuitively obvious, as easy for me as breathing is for most people. I guess I'm just doing what I was born to do.

I've never worked for another chef or in another restaurant. One Block West is my first and likely only restaurant.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Mojito Spring

Mojito: the Official Drink of One Block West Staff. Hey, you ought to put this on the blog.”—Anonymous One Block West Server

I was outside last night trying to knock some of the aphids off the roses when it struck me how gigantic and lush our spearmint is. But then, it should be. We've had a wet (16 to 20 inches of rain since April 1 according to NWS) and cool spring, ideal growing conditions for mint. Seattle, take that!

Just for grins, here's a shot of the top of a typical plant, showing the size in relation to my hand. Huge!

Besides using this bounty as garnish for desserts, we've used it in Mint Pesto for the lamb and Mojito Crème Brûlée, apparently named after our drink of choice and flavored with rum, mint, lime zest, and brown sugar. But to be fair, most of the mint has gone into Mojitos after hours. [Am I alone in thinking that those Kentuckians are wasting both good Bourbon and good mint in their juleps?]

One Block West Mojito

The following recipe is for one drink. Are you serious? Who makes one Mojito?

8-10 mint leaves
1/4 lime, sliced lengthwise and crosswise
juice of 1/2 lime
1/2 teaspoon white sugar
1/2 ounce simple syrup
2 ounces Bacardi light rum
club soda
1 sprig of mint
slice of lime

Put the mint leaves and lime pieces into a tall glass, squeeze the 1/2 lime over that, and sprinkle in the sugar. Muddle well. Add the simple syrup and Bacardi. Stir well. Taste and adjust by adding more simple syrup or lime juice as necessary.

Fill with crushed ice and top with club soda. Garnish with a mint sprig and a lime wedge. Enjoy!

Monday, May 19, 2008

A Forbidding Recipe

Customers were extremely happy with a vegetarian special (Forbidden Rice Baked in a Banana Leaf) we ran this weekend, so I thought I would share it with you.

We have about a dozen different rices in our pantry at the restaurant, including a Chinese purple or black rice that is often called Forbidden Rice. As the story goes, such rice was (and still is) scarce and was considered the emperor's property, thus forbidden to commoners. Believe it if you will.

As you can see in the photo, this is a medium- to long-grain rice that has many shades of black when raw. It is a non glutinous (non-sticky) rice, which is unusual for most black and purple rice. The most common kind of purple rice is probably Thai purple sticky rice, which is outstanding for making desserts. Forbidden rice has a very nutty flavor that I find especially appealing.

When cooked, the rice turns fairly uniformly eggplant purple, as you can see here.

When a box of banana leaves arrived on the produce truck, I knew I had to do some rice in them, sort of a take off on Sticky Rice in a Lotus Leaf. Without further preamble, here is a recipe, scaled down for two, but you'll need to use your judgement in how much of each ingredient to use. A small handful of each would suffice. Learn the technique here and don't worry so much about the specific ingredients. You can substitute what you will and for the most part, this will still be a terrific dish.

Forbidden Rice Baked in Banana Leaf

1 cup black rice
pinch of salt
1 cup coconut milk
1 Kaffir lime leaf, finely shredded
long beans in 2" lengths, blanched to tender
fresh tomatoes, diced
fresh pineapple, in small dice
whole roasted peanuts
cilantro leaves
Thai basil leaves
pressed tofu, finely julienned*
ground white pepper
banana leaves

Add rice, water to cover by an inch or more, and pinch of salt to a sauce pan and boil rice until tender, about 30 minutes. Drain and reserve.

Meanwhile, reduce the coconut milk by half and prep the vegetables and tofu.

Mix all the ingredients except the banana leaf and season to taste with white pepper. For myself, I would also add a bit of green Thai chile and I would add a bit of fish sauce, however, as this was a vegetarian special, I couldn't add fish sauce.

Cut the banana leaves into as large squares as you can given the size of the leaves. You can overlap pieces if necessary. Place about half the rice mixture in the center of a piece of banana leaf and fold up, burrito-style, into a large square packet. Place folded side down on a pan in a hot oven for five to ten minutes just to warm everything and start the flavors melding.

*Pressed tofu is soft tofu that has been weighted and pressed. In this case, I am talking about unflavored tofu, which is generally brushed with red dye to mimic the red dye that is traditional on roasted pork. There is another kind of tofu, also excellent, that is rubbed with five-spice powder before being pressed. It is a golden tan color. While really tasty, not the flavor profile that I am going for in this recipe.

We get all of these ingredients from our wholesalers. As for where you can get these ingredients in retail sizes, my favorite Chinese store is Kam Sam Food Products, 4316 Markham Street, Annandale, VA 22003, 703-658-2550. For Thai ingredients, I like Duangrat's Market on route 7 near Duangrat's Restaurant, between Seven Corners and Bailey's Crossroads. You can also hit the big H Mart in Fairfax City if you can tolerate Wal-Mart-sized emporia. And for Thai on the internet, has been very good to us. I think you can find dried banana leaves (soak before using) in a couple of the more Central American-oriented bodegas on Loudoun St/Papermill Ave here in Funchester.

A funny anecdote about a trip to Kam Sam, where I always seem to be the only non-Asian person there. I was pushing my cart through the pickle aisle, looking for something that I no longer recall, a jar of dried or pickled plums perhaps. When I put the jar into my already bulging cart, an ancient Chinese woman shopping in the same aisle stopped me and asked in very broken English what I was planning to do with the jar I had just selected. I told her and then I asked her how she used it, hoping for some pearl of wisdom. She replied, "I no use ever, that's why I ask you."

Saturday, May 17, 2008

What Grapes are in Prosecco?

Surely you've heard of Prosecco, if not drunk it, the fresh and lightly sparkling wine from Italy that seems to have been all the rage over the past few years. For me, it's a great summer sipper in the same vein as rosé and the recent warm patio weather has me thinking of it again.

The question, "What grapes are in Prosecco?" is a good one and one that came up during a server meeting a couple of weeks back. Do you know the answer? It's staring you in the face.

Prosecco is a grape that is planted in many areas in Italy and made most frequently into a sparkling wine (yes, rarely some is made into still wine). But, what we're really talking about here is wine that carries the Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOC label. Conegliano and Valdobbiadene are two rival towns in the Veneto north of Treviso (which itself is just north of Venice). Any wine carrying the DOC label must be made in this area from at least 85% Prosecco grapes. While a few wines may contain other grapes such as Pinot Blanc/Bianco, Pinot Gris/Grigio, or Chardonnay, a great many Prosecco wines are 100% Prosecco.

Both towns have been known for their sparkling Prosecco wines for a very long time. And because there is a friendly rivalry between the two, you'll almost never seen the full Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene appellation on a label. The bottle will proudly state Prosecco di Conegliano or Prosecco di Valdobbiadene. On the whole, I have a slight preference for wines from Valdobbiadene.

There are very fine Proseccos that are not allowed to use the DOC, for the simple reason that they are made outside the DOC boundaries or they contain less than 85% Prosecco (Yet, they must contain at least 75% Prosecco to be called Prosecco). The wines carrying the DOC are from hillside pre-Alpine vineyards and these vineyards tend to produce wines with more character. For maximum complexity, look for Prosecco Superiore di Cartizze, from the hill named Cartizze in Valdobbiadene.

But to look for significant complexity in Prosecco is to miss the point. Prosecco is a youthful, exuberant, and joyful wine whose mission is to refresh your spirits and help you celebrate the pleasures of daily living.

Prosecco is not Champagne and you should not compare it to Champagne. Champagne is treasured for its yeasty and toasty notes that result from long aging and secondary fermentation in the bottle. Bottle fermentation and the subsequent aging and riddling processes make for a wine that is very subtle and very expensive.

On the other hand, Prosecco is made by the inexpensive bulk tank Charmat process and bottled for sale to be drunk within the year. The bulk process and the speed with which the wine is made help preserve the delicate floral fruitiness backed by a lemony acidity that Prosecco is known for.

Many Italians like their Prosecco a little too sweet for my taste and I had to look around a bit to find a nice Prosecco that is also dry enough not to fight with my menu. Next time you're in, why not start your dinner with a glass of Prosecco? It is a great wine with the bulk of our appetizers.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

On Crossing Your Ts

Today, I got really tired of the spell checker in Word bitching at me about my spelling of the word omelette. The spell checker, in its infinite wisdom, wants the word omelet. I added omelette to my personal dictionary so that the spell checker will just shut up.

I have this nagging suspicion that omelet is what they taught us in grade school, but my spelling went to hell as I started studying at first French and then a succession of other languages. I am no longer sure how to spell a lot of words in any language.

What I do know is that if I write omelette in either English text or French text, people understand what I am saying, and that is quite good enough for me.

Almost quite good enough I should have said, for I really do have a deep-seated need to spell things correctly when possible.

So I turned to a couple of American dictionaries and the OED, all of which prefer the spelling omelet. The OED prefers it mainly, I conclude, because omelet antedates omelette by several hundred years. The American dictionaries, I surmise, prefer the shorter spelling simply because it is shorter.

But, I found a different preference in the real world. I went to each of the primary English language Google sites (America, UK, Australia, and Canada [sorry Kiwis!]) and queried both terms, searching the .com, .uk, .au, and .ca pages. As you can see below, the English speaking world seemingly and overwhelmingly prefers omelette, as do I, despite the dictionaries. omelet 2,420,000, omelette 3,390,000 omelet 54,000, omelette 307,000 omelet 22,500, omelette 93,500 omelet 57,900, omelette 103,000

As for teaching you how to make one, by either name, that's not a subject to broach in a blog. While anyone can make an omelette at home, making a great omelette for restaurant service takes the right pan and a lot of practice. You'd better get cracking!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Softshell Crabs

Yesterday, the long awaited first softshell blue crabs of the year arrived, and last night during dinner service, I took some photos while cleaning crabs to help answer the inevitable questions I get every year*.

*May 23, 2008 Update: yes, you eat the whole thing, legs and all. It's so obvious to me having eaten them all my life, that I failed to mention that.

I've grown up here in Virginia, right on the Chesapeake Bay, crab central in the US for blue crabs, so working with crabs is second nature to me. Working with blue crabs is apparently fairly alien to a lot of people. But, I can understand that. Would you believe that I have never had any Alaskan crab in my life?

This post is about how to prep softies for cooking. For more information on soft shell crabs, refer to the article I wrote some years ago and by all means, read the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay by William Warner. It sums up pretty well Virginians and our relationship with the blue crab.

First, crab 101. The crab at the top of the photo is a female, called a sook. Look at her apron, the part that is shaped like the US Capitol dome. The crab at the bottom of the photo is a male, called a jimmy. His apron resembles, well, male parts, or the Washington monument.

When buying softshells, look first for crabs that are alive: that will be your key to freshness. Next, feel the shells, especially the points on either side. The shells should be very soft and supple, not dry and papery. The points should be soft. If they are not, the crab has shed too long ago and is not going to be the most enjoyable it could be.

To prep a crab for service, it is customary to take off its eyes and mouth. This is certainly not necessary, but American squeamishness with food demands it, for the most part.

I use a knife to cut behind the eyes. Two of my cooks use scissors. Whatever works for you.

Next, pull up the edges of the soft shell to expose the gills. Remove the gills. I use the tip of my knife to scrape them out; the rest of my cooks pull them out with their fingers. In a fresh crab, this step is entirely optional as every part is edible.

Clean out the gills on both sides.

Then flip the crab over and pull the apron away from the crab and cut it off. It's perfectly edible, but it will blow up like a balloon in the pan and finally explode, splattering you with very hot grease. Not pleasant. Better to remove it before the crab takes its revenge on you.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Veal Brisket and Grits

Here's another recipe using veal brisket, a cut that's unfamiliar to customers and chefs alike. My inspiration for this recipe is grillades and grits, amazing comfort food from New Orleans and environs. I generally make this dish with beef paleron steaks, while high dollar New Orleans restaurants tend to use more expensive cuts of veal, such as butt tenders or eye rounds. I've got to tell you that veal brisket makes outstanding grillades.

This is a recipe for chefs; you'll want to scale this down for home use and no doubt, you'll need to substitute beef brisket for veal, unless you have a really good butcher shop. Also, the cook and reheat technique is for restaurants: you can either mimic that or not as you see fit.

Veal Brisket and Grits

For 20-24 portions:
4 Le Québécois veal point end briskets (about 16 pounds)
vegetable oil
1-1/2 cups duck fat*, oil, or other fat
1-1/2 cups all purpose flour
4 poblano* chiles, diced
2 large yellow onions, diced
1 bunch green onions, sliced
6 stalks celery, diced
6 tablespoons garlic, minced
4 T Cajun spice mix*
1/2 #10 can diced tomatoes with juice
salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat a braising pan over high flame, film with vegetable oil, and sear hard both sides of each brisket, being careful not to burn the fond.

2. Remove briskets from pan.

3. Add the oil, duck fat, or bacon grease and bring to temperature.

4. Add the flour and stir frequently to form a medium brown roux.

5. Add the vegetables to the pan to stop the roux from cooking and stir well for a couple of minutes.

6. Add the garlic and spice mix and cook for another minute.

7. Add the tomatoes and mix well, then the briskets, and enough water to come about half way up the briskets.

7. Cover and braise until tender, 4-6 hours.

8. Remove meat to a hotel pan and chill.

9. Defat the gravy and season to taste. Reserve gravy for service.


1. Slice a portion of veal (three slices about 3/8" thick, about 8 ounces) across the grain.

2. Reheat 4 ounces of reserved gravy and the veal in a sauté pan.

3. Finish in a hot oven, turning the veal once, until everything is hot.

Plate Up
1. Mound grits in the well of large soup plate.

2. Place veal and gravy over.

3. Garnish as desired.

Chef's Notes
*Roux in Cajun home cooking is made from whatever fat happens to be on hand. If you process as much duck at your restaurant as we do here, you have buckets of duck fat on hand at any time. Duck fat gives the roux great depth of flavor.

*Poblano chiles are not traditional in Cajun and Creole cooking; Bell peppers are. To me, Bell peppers have an assertive vegetal flavor that I don't really care for and I find that they bring out the absolute worst qualities in a wine. I'm also convinced that if the Acadians had had Poblanos, they would have used them in preference to Bell peppers.

*Cajun spice mix is ubiquitous any more: you can find it anywhere. Years ago, I used to make a unique blend for each specific dish, but now as a time saver, we make 5-pound batches of a blend that I've been tweaking for 10 years. Use whatever you feel like.

*We use Anson Mills grits, the long cook 90-minute kind. Use the best grits you can find.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Eggs One Block West

Yesterday was Mother's Day and each year, I make breakfast for my wife, usually with the help of my daughters; however, they were nowhere to be found this year. This year, I had no time to plan, so I brought home a couple of things from the restaurant to make Eggs One Block West.

Eggs OBW, in the fuzzy picture to the right (sorry, my Nikon battery died, so photo courtesy of my daughter and her little point-and-shoot), is my version of Eggs Benedict (which I don't really like at all). I used to run this as an elegant tapa or appetizer, but now I mainly do it for demonstrations. If we did brunch here, which we will never do, this dish would feature prominently.

Eggs OBW comprises a round of corn pancake flavored with finely minced Surry sausage, a crab cake, a round of prosciutto, a 3-minute poached egg, and pimentón sauce.

There's not too much I can give you in the way of recipes here because this is really a wing-it kind of dish, but I can give you some pointers.

For the pancake, mix 3/4 cup corn meal and 3/4 cup flour with a half teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of baking powder, an egg, a minced Surry sausage, and enough milk to make a smooth batter. Tips for cooking pancakes: a batter that is a little more fluid will spread better in the pan; use moderate heat and give the pancakes enough time to cook in the center before flipping: you'll see the bubbles forming in the batter as it cooks.

Everyone has a crab cake recipe. Mine are a mix of lump and jumbo lump because without any other filler, I depend on the lump to take on the role of filler. Crab cakes made only of jumbo lump don't hold together well. I add celery, parsley, salt, white pepper, and eggs. I bind my crab cakes with mayonnaise* and the tiniest bit of panko (bread crumbs).
*I have tried many kinds of binder including egg whites, béchamel, sour cream, fish mousse, scallop mousse, crab mousse, etc. and I have yet to find a better binder than mayonnaise.

Sometimes I place the rounds of prosciutto between two sheets of parchment paper between two sheet pans and bake them in the oven to crisp them, but I am actually happier using raw prosciutto in Eggs OBW.

I poach eggs in gently shimmering water acidulated with a splash of vinegar (and a dash of salt for flavor). To my taste, three minutes is just the right cook time.

Finally, my pimentón sauce is a traditional mayonnaise flavored with bittersweet pimentón.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Cooking in an Alien Kitchen

Today is Mother's Day, and after the perfect storm trifecta (early Mother's Day celebrations, Handley High School prom, and Shenandoah University graduation) hit us last night, I awoke dog tired this morning to go down to the kitchen and cook the obligatory Mother's Day brunch.

I really don't mind cooking brunch, except that on this particular day every year, I am exhausted and would rather sleep than do anything else. Have you ever noticed that when you are really tired, that it is easier to do things by rote, to find and do things without thinking?

I was in this mode while I was cooking today and I kept thinking that nothing was in the correct place and it felt as though I were cooking in a strange kitchen, even though it is my own. Part of the problem, setting aside the exhaustion for a moment, is that I spend very little time in my home kitchen, less than an hour a week.

I am so much more attuned to the restaurant kitchen, where I know exactly where everything is, without having to search for it. And having everything to hand is half of the battle in cooking.

Moreover, while I have a vast kitchen at home, one of my own design, I have found that I like cooking in the smaller restaurant kitchen better. The compactness in part enforces efficiency and in part promotes it. When designing my home kitchen, I followed the rule of thumb that aisles should be four feet wide. And while this is great for working while having two toddlers and a dog screaming about and for hosting parties where everyone jams into the kitchen, it is not all that efficient.

In the restaurant kitchen, I have narrowed the aisle between the hot line (where we cook) and the line of counters and refrigerators behind the hot line to at most three feet and a little under three feet in some spots. The advantage is that with my big wingspan, I can stand in the middle of the aisle and reach both sides without moving. After this, I feel like I am cooking in an airplane hangar at home.

And I really do miss a lot of other things about the restaurant kitchen when cooking at home, not the least of which is that all my good knives, the ones with which my hands are totally comfortable, are at work. Another big bonus at work is having towels everywhere and a linen service to deal with the laundry.

At home, I miss the vast quantities of ice from the icemaker and the pot of barely boiling water that never leaves the back of the range. If I need to blanch vegetables or cook pasta, it's done in a relative heartbeat.

In the restaurant kitchen, we have no cabinets and drawers for things to hide in. The kitchen's not for show, it's for grabbing things as fast as possible and not having to worry about having pristine hands all the time. Speaking of which, there are boxes of gloves at each station in the restaurant kitchen that I miss when at home.

By my stove at home, there's no bain marie of tasting spoons, so when I need to taste, I have to walk to the far end of the kitchen for the silverware drawer, which is located where it is to facilitate setting the dinner table. If I spent any time at all in my home kitchen, I'd locate tasting spoons at the range, but we already know I don't cook at home.

I miss trashcans everywhere like we have at work. At home, they'd be both unsightly and way too tempting for the pooch. Too bad. I also miss the high volume water faucet at work: drawing a gallon of water takes about twelve seconds.

Finally, I miss the vast triple sink at work for scrubbing pots and pans and the high-volume dish machine that runs a rack in two minutes. That so makes clean up a breeze.

And now you know why I feel like I'm cooking in an alien kitchen at home: it's because I, like most chefs, am spoiled at work where our kitchens are designed for function and not aesthetics.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Customers Who "Get It!"

Tonight was horribly slow as this whole week has been, not only here, but everywhere in town, the annual post Apple Blossom Festival malaise. Because it was so slow, I had ample opportunity to be in the dining room.

On the way out the front door, a customer told me that she loved the morel dish that she ate—morels with asparagus, Surry sausage, and pappardelle—and she remarked, "I loved the dish and the combination of morels and asparagus makes so much sense because it is seasonal."

Thank you. A customer that finally understands why we don't serve strawberries in January, tomatoes in March, and who gets it that morels and asparagus are harvested simultaneously.

Morels with Asparagus, Surry Sausage, and Pappardelle

4 oz pappardelle
1 T clarified butter
2 Surry sausages, bias cut
6 oz fresh morels
1 t fresh thyme leaves
1 shallot, minced
pinch salt and pepper
1/2 c heavy cream
8 asparagus stalks, blanched and bias cut

Cook pappardelle in boiling water until done. Meanwhile, heat the clarified butter in a sauté pan and add the Surry sausages. After this has cooked a minute, add the morels, thyme, and shallot and cook for another couple of minutes, stirring. Add a pinch of salt and pepper and then the heavy cream. Cook until the morels are soft and the cream is reduced. Add the asparagus and the cooked noodles and mix well. Adjust the seasoning. Garnish with fresh thyme. You may omit the sausages or substitute any other smoked pork product you have on hand; country ham works very well. Serves two.

Green Garlic

I was at the farmers market early Tuesday morning when I spied a bucket of green garlic in the back of Beth's truck where she had set it aside for me. She set it aside for me because I always buy it.

In the photo (click on it to view the large image), from the bottom, you see a leek, then the green garlic, and green onions. Note the flat, silvery, leek-like leaves on the garlic and a hint of purple on one of the bulbs. If you smell green garlic, it has a faint garlic smell.

Green garlic is merely immature garlic, harvested in the spring before the bulb develops. I use it as a replacement for garlic (except when I need whole garlic bulbs) and also as a substitute for green onions. Green garlic is a good way to add subtle garlic flavor to a dish. I also like to braise green garlic as I would green onions or bias cut it and stir fry it in Chinese dishes—lamb with green garlic is outstanding.

So far this week, the green garlic has gone into a risotto of bamboo rice, into the Israeli couscous for the lamb, and into the morels with Surry sausage, asparagus, and egg noodles. Here's a quick kid-pleasing take on "ranch" dressing:

Creamy Green Garlic Salad Dressing

1/2 cup green garlic, sliced
1 tablespoon parsley, minced
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, coarsely ground
1/4 cup unsweetened rice vinegar
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup neutral vegetable oil
salt to taste

Place the garlic, parsley, pepper, and vinegar into a blend container and blend until the garlic is fairly smooth. Add the remaining ingredients and blend until well incorporated. If you need to thin the dressing, taste it. If it needs more acid, thin with vinegar. If it is too acid, add more oil or water. If it is just right, thin with water. Season to taste.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Patio Wine

We're now back from a week off and already my calendar is full again, as it was this afternoon. Today, as every year in May, I sit with my wine distributors and taste rosé wines to select one for our list for the summer. We typically run rosé on the wine list starting about Memorial Day (or whenever the rosés land in the US). We do not re-order rosé after Labor Day in the fall.

For me, rosé is the quintessential patio wine: the wine I reach for on a hot day on the patio when I want something light and refreshing. My other go-to wines for hot weather are Spanish Verdejo and Argentinean Torrontés. But no matter how much I try, I cannot get customers to order rosé. My only customers who order rosé seem to be those people in the restaurant and wine businesses.

What's the matter? Have you had a miserable experience with White Zinfandel?

This year, I picked a wonderful Syrah rosé from a cooperative winery in the Languedoc. It stood out in a fairly broad line up of rosés for having just the right balance of fruit, nose, and dryness. When I taste, I don't look at the bottle and I don't know the price. What I do know is that I picked the least expensive rosé of the lot and my sales rep said, "Isn't it a fantastic wine?"

This just goes to show that price is not always an indicator of quality (and also why you should let your sommelier help you pick a wine, especially if you are on a budget). I picked this no-name rosé over some big names such as Tavel.

While I have your attention, a bit about how rosé is made. There are a bunch of ways, but typically red grapes are crushed and the skins are left in contact with the juice for just a couple of days, then the skins are discarded. By contrast in red wine making, the skins stay in contact with the juice throughout the fermentation process.

Some really cheap rosés are made by blending a little red wine with white wine.

Maybe this is the year that you will give rosé another chance?