Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Benefits of Hard Work

I wrote back in March of my annual ritual of pruning the roses and discussed while it is real work, it is very contemplative and satisfying work. You can see for yourself the satisfaction of hard work. Come down to the restaurant and enjoy our second bloom of, hopefully, three for the year.

A Thrill a Minute

All I wanted was a bit of hot tea. Really, it was 7:25 this morning and all I wanted was a spot of tea. Was that so much to ask? Apparently. I guess the restaurant gods had it in for me this morning.

While my computer was pulling down the overnight emails from my server, I went to make a cup of tea as I am wont to do daily. I've been off of coffee for a while; I guess I'm just bored with it or with our selection of exactly one kind.

Anyway, I went to get some hot water from the dispenser tap on the coffee maker and all I got was a dribble. Not good and so much for my plans to get anything positive accomplished today. I remembered that last night our sous chef was cleaning up a coffee spill—would you be surprised to learn that we make coffee without a pot under the brewer nozzle at least once a month?—and I warned him that the machines are hard-connected to copper and not very mobile. I asked him to be very careful not to pinch or break one of the supply lines.

This all flashed through my mind in an instant and I might have cast some mental aspersions and/or epithets in his direction. Sorry. I had to turn on all the lights and move a whole bunch of stuff to trace the copper water tubing. It sure seemed intact.

I then thought to check the water on the bar gun which comes off the same supply tube. No water. OK, I figured that he shut off the valve on the supply line for some reason. Nope, it was wide open. Major aspersions and epithets now as it looks like this might not be a trivial problem. Into the kitchen, and you're already ahead of me here, no water at all.

It was too early to call anyone about the problem and none of the other businesses around me were yet open to see if the problem were isolated to my building or if it were a more general problem. I know for a fact that the City is working on something in the street just down the way.

At 8 am, I called the City and managed to get to the Water Department just as someone was arriving. She was very nice and was concerned that they might have turned off the water yesterday as they did a bunch of cut-offs then and the management company for our building is notorious for not paying the bill until the City shows up, wrench in hand, to disconnect the water.

We decided that it probably wasn't likely that the City disconnected the water between late last night when I left and 7:30 this morning, but that it was a good idea for someone to come over and check for a break in a main. Very nice and very responsive she was, a pleasant surprise in dealing with the City.

Minutes later, one of the guys from the Water Department came through the front door and told me that the meter had not been disconnected. I nonplussed him with the question, "Yeah, but is there water at the meter?" I followed him out to the meter to see, and I could hear before he got the cover off the meter access hole that water was screaming through the meter. I don't think I've ever seen a dial rotate that fast in all my life.

Clearly we were dealing with a break in the line between the meter and the restaurant. I ran to the back of the building where the basement stairs are located to find that the neighbors have constructed a new deck blocking the doorway. Nice neighbors, huh? As I got the door open, I could hear water pouring out into very deep water. Cruddy, but better than an underground leak in the supply main coming into the building.

The landlord and his plumber were pretty responsive and the problem was repaired at 11:55am. We opened for lunch at 11, unable to make any soup or boil any water for pasta. And we used our entire supply of alcohol swabs cleaning our hands. But, we got open with some water that we cadged off of the very understanding neighboring coffee shop.

The first table was a regular customer and he was understanding that we couldn't brew his usual iced tea. The second table that arrived at 11:50 was miffed that we had no iced tea. I would think that it is easier to be understanding than to be miffed about something over which nobody has any control, but noses out of joint they did have. Par for the course.

Fortunately, we got the lines flushed, the tea brewed, toilets flushed, the pasta water hot, and generally back in action before the bulk of the lunch traffic.

Yes, the restaurant business is a thrill a minute—and I never did get that cup of tea.

Fried Green Tomatoes

Right now, just before the onset of field-ripe tomatoes is the best time for green tomatoes and that quintessential Southern comfort food, fried green tomatoes. Some nights when we have green tomatoes, fried green tomatoes account for more than half of our appetizer sales. Fried green tomatoes seem to be a food that people around here cannot live without.

I have learned over the years that the correct tomatoes make all the difference in the end product. This shouldn't be a surprise, yet it took me a while to learn it. The tomatoes in the photo above are perfect. They are just starting to blush on the outside. Tomatoes ripen from the inside out, so when they are blushing on the outside, they are getting fairly pink in the middle as you can see in this photo. This tomato, not a stone green tomato, will make excellent fried green tomatoes. It is still very firm, a requisite for frying, has good acidity, also required, and yet it has started to develop some tomato flavor. A totally green tomato will be very acid, very firm, and taste more like a tomatillo than a tomato, not what we're looking for in fried green tomatoes.

And here they are in all their glory: fried green tomatoes. Dip the slices in egg wash and then in cornmeal and fry in a hot pan. For presentation purposes, we often stack them with some kind of salsa in between the layers, shown here with a tomato salsa. Sorry for the crappy photo; my camera is sub-optimal for food photography and has no way to override the flash.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


One of my wine reps brought by a bottle of Brachetto yesterday for me to taste and that reminded me that how much I like it. Although it is something that I am known to serve at parties at home, it is not a wine we stock here at the restaurant, but one that I really should find an excuse to bring on. But where am I going to find the cooler space? Wine reps take note: cooler space is a finite resource.

Brachetto is the name of a red grape that is most commonly grown in the Piedmont of Italy, but a little bit is also grown in Provence around Nice where it is known as Braquet and the wines are labelled Bellet AOC. Bellet is bottled in both red and rosé forms. I have mostly drunk the rosé in Provence, but the red can be quite solid.

The most well known Italian appellation is Brachetto d'Acqui DOCG, which although made in still and sparkling wines, is almost always seen here in the US in its lightly sparkling (frizzante) form.

The wine I tasted yesterday was of the lesser appellation Piemonte Brachetto DOC, but it was as good as any wine from Acqui that I have ever tasted. Brachetto in its most common frizzante form is a low alcohol, slightly sweet, slightly sparkling light red wine with a bouquet and palate of strawberries and sweet cherries. I find it very refreshing.

I like to serve it at brunch over fresh strawberries in the spring and fresh raspberries or wineberries in the summer. And we always seem to end our Piemontese wine dinners here at the restaurant with a glass of Brachetto d'Acqui. It's a wine you should add to your vocabulary.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Served Raw or Undercooked

On October 16, 2007, the Virginia Department of Health required all restaurants in the state to help protect the citizens of the Commonwealth from themselves. We, the restaurants that is, are now required to tell our customers that items are served raw or undercooked might be hazardous with a statement such as the following:

*Served raw or undercooked or may be ordered undercooked. The Virginia Department of Health warns you that raw or undercooked meat, poultry, seafood, shellfish, or eggs may increase your risk of foodborne illness.

I have put the blame for this nonsense squarely on the VDH by stating that they are the ones warning you. I operate from the premise that my customers are adults and do not need or want me helping them to decide what is appropriate for their diets.

Do I have to tell you how stupid this warning looks taped to the front of the display case at my favorite sushi bar?

Do you have any idea what a nightmare this verbiage at the bottom of our menus has been for our servers? Can you imagine how many times a shift they must answer the question, "Does this mean that the quail is served raw?"

The VDH, following the lead of the FDA, has decided that most proteins and potentially harmful foods must be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 155 degrees. Have you ever had a steak cooked to 155 degrees? It's a travesty, a lump of shoe leather, and a dishonor to the cow that died so that we could eat it.

The required statement on our menu merely articulates that for certain food items such as steaks, you may order it rare if you like, but don't say that the VDH didn't warn you that you might get sick. They don't bother to mention that you have a higher chance of getting killed by a drunk driver on the way home from the restaurant, do they?

And for other foods where we don't give you the choice of how you want it cooked, the warning is stating that we're not going to make shoe leather out of that duck, because you're either going to send it back or go tell everyone you know how bad it was.

I've been in restaurants long enough to know that bad things can happen when people handle food and I know that the VDH is sincerely trying to help prevent that. But, guys, a regulation that causes more confusion on the part of the consumer is not helping.

Monday, July 28, 2008

It's Vegetable Time

Although I hate the terribly hot kitchen this time of year, I love the constant stream of vegetables that are coming in now through frost. These vegetables never fail to inspire me to create something really beautiful from them.

Here's a case in point: a napoleon made from layers of fresh corn pancakes and sliced tomatoes, sitting on a bed of sautéed spinach, topped with a little mousse of herbed goat cheese. The pancakes are made from raw kernels of local bi-color corn, a bit of stone-ground blue corn meal, and flour.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Chef is an *sshole

You might as well read about it here first. I caused a table of eight boors to leave the restaurant tonight. I didn't actually tell them to leave, but they were smart enough to understand my intent. No doubt, the encounter will be plastered around a bunch of Internet review sites by morning and the world will know that I am an *sshole.

You've seen people like this: fairly young, know-it-alls, with huge chips on their shoulders. Really, after being seated in a nice restaurant, who asks oh-so-snidely, "Does anyone here know anything about wine?"

The party ordered a bottle of Burgundian style Pinot Noir, accepted it, had it poured around the table, and then called the server back over to send it back because it was "musty." Actually, I smelled and tasted the rejected wine and it was gorgeous.

They decided to replace it with a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, which the taster rejected as "vinegar." Again, I tasted the wine and it was totally tropical dead-on NZ SB. If it wasn't clear before this point, it was certainly obvious that we were dealing with poseurs.

At this point, I had lost just about all my profit on this table, but in the spirit of hospitality, we were still gracious and got them wine and took their order. The appetizer order came and went and then we cooked the entrée order. Immediately, three of the fish plates came back as being overcooked.

I looked at the plates and they were perfect. The fish was still just a little translucent in the center of each. I tasted each to be sure and they were beautiful.

I went to the dining room to see what we could do to appease the table and all I could hear was this party talking so loudly about what terrible wine and food we had. You've heard them before: the ones that talk so that everyone must hear them, the ones that want everyone to know how important they are.

I could see the eyes rolling on the table just behind them and that's when I knew I had to do something. These boors were intruding on the evenings of our other guests.

After they left, I went to the other table to apologize to them for the intrusion of this other party on their evening, but before I could say anything, the woman at the table asked, "What was their problem?"

I learned a long time ago, the hard way, that in the long run, you lose a lot less by making offensive tables leave, than by letting them stay and offending other guests. Sad, but true. I guess that makes me an *sshole.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Bird Egg Beans

One of the glories of summer is the appearance of bird egg beans, shown here from left to right: two over-mature pods on their way to becoming dried beans, three perfectly ripe pods, and two underripe pods. Looking at the shelled beans, the pale green ones are underripe, the creamy ones with pink flecks are just ripe, and the white ones with maroon flecks are very mature.

These bird eggs just made their first appearance in our market this week and naturally, they came back to the restaurant. I love them for their very beany, almost meaty flavor. I highly prefer just picked green bird eggs to dried ones, not only for their shorter cooking time, but for their flavor. Sadly, the pretty pink and purple colors fade away when the beans are cooked, but that's true for many purple vegetables—think purple string beans, purple artichokes, and purple asparagus.

I've heard these beans called borlotti, after the famous beans from Tuscany. My feeling is that borlotti are what we call cranberry beans: rounder and more spotted versus the more egg-shaped and more striped bird eggs. If anyone knows the relationship between bird eggs and borlotti, please post a comment.

Fresh Bird Egg Beans Ed's Style

I've been cooking bird eggs this way ever since I left college. For me, there's no better way, but I do love them any way that they are served.

3 c (about 1 pound) shelled fresh bird egg beans
1 poblano chile, diced
1 small onion, diced
1 T minced garlic
1/8 pound slab bacon, rind off, diced
salt and black pepper to taste

Place all ingredients in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer until all beans are tender, 30 to 45 minutes. At home, I eat them just like this. At the restaurant, I take a big ladle full of beans and juice and reduce them over high heat in a pan. When nearly dry, I season with salt and swirl in a touch of butter just to finish them. They make a perfect base for lamb chops.

I just love these beans. I hope you will try them.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Simple Things

Tonight we held our special event dinner for the month of July, our third annual garlic dinner, pairing wines with garlic-heavy dishes. Each time we hold one of these dinners, some particular thing in the dinner really resonates with customers and it's generally one of the simpler things, a background player rather than one of the headliners of the dinner.

Tonight, it was the creamy garlic dressing for the salad course. Before the course was barely served to all the dinner guests, the servers were back telling me that guests wanted the recipe.

Oh no! Not the recipe! If you've followed this blog for any length of time, you know that recipes and I are not really good friends. I just don't use them. Sometimes I record them after the fact to convey what I did to others, but for me, I have little use for them.

Here, then, is an attempt to capture the recipe for creamy garlic dressing. (I'm still at a loss how to express the concept of using however much sour cream I had left in the bottom of the 5-pound tub.) Also, I made about a liter and a half of dressing and this is an attempt—a wholly untested attempt I might add—to both recreate and scale down the dressing simultaneously. Caveat emptor, which is Latin for "this recipe is worth what you paid for it."

Creamy Garlic Dressing

1/4 c rice wine vinegar
1 T minced garlic
1 T minced parsley
1 T minced chives
1/2 t black pepper, coarsely ground
1/2 t salt
1/2 c sour cream
3/4 to 1 c vegetable oil (I used pure olive oil)

Place the vinegar, garlic, parsley, chives, pepper and salt in a blender container and blend until smooth. Add the sour cream and blend, then with the motor running, add the oil in a stream.

I let the dressing sit in the cooler for several hours and it tightened up, so I added a small quantity of hot water to loosen it back up.

I should mention that ratio of acid to oil is highly personal. I generally like 1 part acid to 3 parts oil, but I found in this recipe that I wanted more oil. Perhaps the sourness of the sour cream wanted more oil. Making any dressing is an exercise in balance. First, you have to know how tart you want the dressing and then add either more acid or more oil to get it to that point.

Bob, you said you'd tinker with this to refine the recipe. Have at it. And post the result as a comment if you wouldn't mind.

Monday, July 21, 2008


You know, I really shouldn't let small things get to me. I really shouldn't. But on Saturday I got a bit perturbed by the series of lunch tickets on which were scrawled "SOS," literally sauce on side and meaning no dressing on the salad, to put it in a dish so that the customer can dispense it herself. Herself is appropriate here: I can't remember the last time a guy ordered a salad SOS.

We all know why we send out so many salads SOS. It's because Jane Customer has conned herself into thinking that she can control the calories better if she dresses the salad greens herself. Mainly what I see happening is that we send out an espresso cup of dressing, about 2 times what we would normally put on a salad, and Jane proceeds to put a little bit on the salad. And then because she has no way to mix the salad, the greens below the top layer have no dressing and Jane applies more dressing, again and again, until she has consumed twice the calories that she would have if we dressed the salad properly for her.

I know that we have all experienced salads in so-so dining establishments in which the greens were drowned in dressing. This is a pet peeve of mine and so we work very hard to dress our salads as lightly as possible, so I guess what really irritates me the most is that when Jane orders SOS, it is generally a signal that she doesn't trust us. Why is she eating in my restaurant if she doesn't trust me?

The other irritant is that I know that the salad with the dressing on the side will not be as good as if we dressed it in the kitchen, and therefore, it could reflect badly on my food.

Anyway, it is a small thing and I shouldn't really care about it. So what if the customer consumes double the dressing? That's just my little revenge for ordering SOS.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Longing for Tomatoes

This morning, I got to seriously longing for a tomato sandwich. You know what I'm talking about: white bread, mayonnaise, a huge slab of beefsteak tomato, salt, and pepper. It grieves me to no end right now that tomato season is still days if not weeks away. It could be that I am really hungry or it could be that I haven't had a tomato since October. Or it could be both.

How I got in this mood is pretty straightforward. My primary produce supplier, Beth Nowak of the Freight Station Farmers Market, and I were guests this morning on Michael Haman's Winchester Morning Magazine radio show and Michael led off the morning by asking Beth about the difference between real and flannel tomatoes. And this naturally led into a conversation about tomato sandwiches.

Each year, the first large ripe tomato of the season meets its demise as my lunch in a sandwich. Tomato sandwiches are one of those comfort foods that reconnect me with being a kid, running around barefooted, out of school for the summer, and feasting on tomatoes still warm from the garden, with the inevitable tomato juice-mayonnaise dribble down my chin.

Beth brought in a couple of her tomatoes, grown in the ground inside her greenhouse and as pretty as they are, I still won't be serving them until they come from fruit ripened outside. While these hothouse tomatoes are good, the outdoor ones are even better and for my annual summer ritual, only the best will do.

As Beth said on air, tomatoes grown outside taste better because the vines are stressed. In the same way that stress helps contribute flavor and character to grapes, so it goes for tomatoes. While tomatoes grown under cover away from pests, with moderate temperatures and regular water, are beautiful, they're just not the same as when subjected to the vagaries of the weather.

And so with enduring patience and hunger pangs, I wait. That first tomato sandwich is going to taste so damned good!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Roulade of Veal Breast

I love working with less commonly used cuts of meat. Here's a recipe for veal navel brisket (or plate), which we put on the menu as veal breast. While I use a lot of point end brisket, the larger triangular brisket, I really enjoy working with the flatter, thinner navel brisket that comes from back towards the belly (hence the name navel). The great thing about a plate or navel brisket is that it is thin enough to roll, so I always seem to roll it.

No matter which cut of brisket you use, each requires long, slow cooking and will shrink considerably, so you must figure shrinkage loss into yield. I plan on at least 25% shrinkage loss (but no doubt you could reduce this using a really low temp on your combi oven). Fortunately, brisket pricing is low enough to offset shrinkage loss.

The following recipe made from a single brisket yields about 8 or 9 substantial portions. Scale up is fairly direct.

Roulade of Veal Breast Stuffed with Goat Cheese and Spinach

2-1/2 pounds mirepoix (onions, carrots, celery)
4 T garlic, minced
1 pound spinach
6 ounces goat cheese, softened
1 Le Québécois navel brisket, about 5 pounds
1 bouquet garni
12 ounces dry white wine
1 gallon tomato coulis (tomatoes, garlic, basil, salt and pepper)


Sweat half a pound of mirepoix and add a little minced garlic during the final couple minutes of cooking.

Blanch, shock, and wring out a pound of baby spinach. Chop well.

Soften 6 ounces of goat cheese.

Add all three ingredients to a bowl, mix, and season to taste.

Lay out the brisket, rib side up, skin side down on your cutting board. Cover the brisket with the spinach mixture, leaving a good one inch margin all the way around.

Roll and tie the brisket.

Brown the rolled brisket in a large braising pan, being careful not to burn the fond.

Remove the browned brisket from the pan and add the remaining mirepoix and the bouquet garni. Cook until the onions become translucent, then add the garlic and cook a couple minutes longer. Deglaze with white wine.

Place the brisket roll on top of the vegetables and add the tomato coulis. Adjust the liquid level with water as necessary. Braise at low temperature four to six hours as necessary.

When done, remove to a sheet tray and chill. Defat and season the braising liquid.

For service, remove the strings from the cold, firm brisket. Portion into slices about an inch thick. To reheat, add a couple ounces of water to a pan with a cold brisket slice and warm four or five minutes in a very hot oven.


I tossed some gemelli pasta in the braising sauce and put that down in a large pasta bowl with the veal leaning against the mound of pasta. Sauce over the veal and a bit of grated Pecorino Romano and a rosemary sprig for garnish.

Friday, July 11, 2008

What Kind of Knives Do You Use?

Note: much of this information has been published previously on

When I do public demonstrations, the attendees want to know what kind of knife that I use, meaning what brand I use. I almost always reply “one that fits my hand.” There are much more important selection criteria than brand, and here are three very important ones, none of which have much to do with price.

The single most important thing about a knife that you are going to be spending long hours with is fit. The handle must fit comfortably in your hand and you must be able to use it without banging your knuckles on the cutting surface. There is only one way to determine if a knife is comfortable and that is to try one. Try all your friends’ knives and then go to a shop where you can hold many brands in your hand.

Second most important to me is balance, especially in a chefs knife. There needs to be enough weight in the handle to counterbalance the blade, letting the knife rock easily back and forth when mincing.

Third, and something that all the test reports neglect, is ease of sharpening. If a knife is too hard to be readily sharpened, it is useless.

Here's what's on my magnetic knife bar and a little bit about each. Each knife or implement in the photo is labelled with a letter. You'll need to click the small image to the right to open the large photo.

A—First up is my 20-millimeter Econome melon baller from France. I bought this about 20 years ago in New York from Carolynn Bridge at Bridge Kitchenware, the kitchenware mecca for chefs, in their 52nd St. store. Carolynn suggested that if one melon baller was all I wanted, I should use the 20mm one. She was right. I see that son Steven still offers them in sizes from 10 to 28 millimeters. My primary use for the melon baller is hollowing out tomatoes and making cups from squash and cucumbers. It takes some patience to keep the round edge sharp.

B—This is an inexpensive Dexter-Russell 12-inch slicer with a Granton edge, meaning that little air pockets called kullens have been ground into the blade to help food release from the blade. I use this knife for slicing things paper thin, mainly gravlax and hams. This is a very recent acquisition, about two years ago, and is not something you'd need at home. The edge needs babying.

C—This 7-inch flexible boning knife from Henckels is the oldest knife I still use currently. I bought this about 26 years ago and we use it every day here at the restaurant when breaking down meat. Because the blade must be flexible, the steel has to be softer and as a result, this knife takes a great edge very quickly, unlike the rest of the rigid Henckels knives, which are so hard that they are an absolute nightmare to sharpen. I love this knife.

D—Here's my workhorse 8" Wüsthof chefs knife that I bought about 15 years ago to replace a piece of Henckels junk that I had owned since I was 18. This is the extra heavy, extra deep knife that Fred Bridge worked with Wüsthof to develop. I love this knife and my hand knows just how to work it. Truthfully, I rarely use it any longer (for reasons I'll get into below), except for breaking down large fish, rabbits, and chickens. When I was growing up, a lot of chefs thought it was not macho to use an 8" chefs knife. To be a chef's chef, you had to use a 10" knife. What baloney! In a cramped kitchen, what use is a broadsword?

E—Another knife in daily use is my 15-year old 8" Wüsthof slicing knife. It comes in very handy for a lot of tasks, but mainly I use it for skinning and portioning fish and portioning meats. This is the knife I use to cut tenderloins into filets mignons, for example.

F—Cheap and extraordinarily useful, this offset handle F. Dick serrated bread knife is the best value knife I own. It does everything from slicing tomatoes to rough chopping. I probably use this knife more than all the others put together. This one is about three years old and is getting to the end of its life. Time to get a new one and give this one to one of the newbie line cooks.

G—Here's a little 3.5" F. Dick paring knife. Everyone should own one for those pesky little tasks such as hulling strawberries or fluting lemons. I buy cheap ones as they tend to disappear because of their small size. Pesky tasks aside, I never use a paring knife.

H—I break down a lot of fish and nothing is better at pulling the pin bones out of filets than a pair of needlenose pliers. For wet work, you do not want to go to your local hardware store to purchase cheap pliers that will rust. These are expensive stainless steel ones from Messermeister.

I—One of two steels that I use at work, this one is a very light, very fine one from Dexter-Russell that I use daily to keep my blades aligned.

J—Up next is my santoku from Shun, a knife that is pretty new to me and one that has all but replaced my chefs knife in daily use. I bought it about three years ago, looking for a lighter weight knife that could motor through standard prep tasks. When buying the knife, over the course of an hour, I tried about ten similar knives and my selection quickly narrowed the Shun or the Wüsthof. I chose the Shun because the blade has more rocker (more curve) near the tip, letting me use it more like a chefs knife when I want to. I think if I were to do it again, I might choose the lighter and straighter Wüsthof: that little rocker up front on the Shun means that for certain things, I have to chop a bit further back on the heel of the knife than I want to. I am really happy to have a santoku in my arsenal: I use it constantly.

K—Also hanging in my office is my Matfer offset handle icing spatula that is useful for all kinds of applications from serving desserts to spreading batters to turning scallops to lifting tuiles off baking sheets. Matfer is expensive, but it will last my entire life.

L—Finally, you can just see the handle of my Wüsthof diamond-coated heavy steel. I use this steel when I really need to tweak a blade, rather than just touch it up. You must be careful in using such an aggressive steel.

That's my arsenal. As you can see, my hardware comes from a lot of different manufacturers. If I had to recommend one brand, it would be Wüsthof: they make great steel. But don't get hung up on brand.

Over the past 30 years, I've used all kinds of knives from Masamoto sashimi knives, to classic mild steel Sabatiers, to the really slick Global knives, to the ceramic Kyocera knives. And I can summarize this experience with the old maxim: it's not the arrow; it's the archer. That is, practice will make you better with a knife, a better knife will not.

Edamame, Pickled Ginger, and Seaweed Salad

Here's the second recipe of three that I cooked while taping some new PBS shows. Like most of my recipes, this is more of an idea than an exact recipe. Use your judgement.

I put a piece of grilled tuna on this salad on the show. I often serve this salad with tuna sashimi, seared wild sockeye salmon, or lightly grilled hamachi.

Edamame are often called "edible soybeans" and I often wonder what that is. Aren't all soybeans edible? Look for the boiled, shelled young soybeans in the freezer section at your grocery store. To prepare the frozen beans for this salad, I pour them frozen from the bag into a colander and run water over them for a few seconds to defrost.

Edamame, Pickled Ginger, and Seaweed Salad

1 pound edamame, shelled
1 c seaweed salad
1/2 c pickled ginger (gari), roughly chopped
1 T mirin
1 t shiroshoyu (white soy) or substitute any soy
1 t ponzu
1 t sesame oil
1 t black sesame seeds or substitute any sesame seeds

Mix well, season to taste.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Karela a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

Karela. Just the mention of the word is enough to make half of my Indian friends cringe. For many Indians, especially those from the north, karela is that vegetable that their parents made them eat. It's your broccoli or whatever vegetable you promised yourself you would never eat again as an adult; it's my canned button mushrooms.

Karela is a squash that we call in English a bitter melon, which as you can see is a small green squash with a warty skin. This is the cultivar called "Indian;" another that is larger, rounder, and paler is called "Chinese." And, like all squashes, there are endless other styles that fall in between.

Karela is widely appreciated (and widely despised, especially by children) in Asian cuisines for its bitter flavor. Americans in particular have no stomach for bitter flavors. I must be a mutant, because I really appreciate bitter flavors. Mutant or not, there are other karela afficionados out there and my buddy Shiv fiends for karela as much as I do. He called me on Tuesday afternoon:

"Ed, I have just been shopping in Fairfax and guess what I am bringing back?"
"Tomorrow night?"
"I'll bring the beer!"

So last night after a morbidly slow evening, I brought the beer and an eggplant curry and we set about our karela feast. Shiv had already peeled the warty skin off the squashes and salted them by the time I arrived. Salting them withdraws some of the bitter juice. (Personally, I don't salt them.) After letting them sit for an hour or so, I squeezed them and then chopped them.

We let the sliced karela cook slowly over a low flame after browning them in hot pan, while Shiv started the rest of the dish in a separate pan.

Here you can see the onions, the large quantity of green Thai chiles, and the masala working. I didn't see all the spicing that Shiv used because I was busy making naan. We all have our own pet masalas and spices that we use for different dishes; me, I would have put hing and mustard seed in this dish, but I could taste that Shiv did not. But I did taste quite a lot of mustard oil.

Once the onions and karela were cooked, Shiv mixed the two of them, and added some additional spices while I finished my eggplant curry. Here is the finished dish waiting for the naan to cook.

This photo of the naan in the tandoor is proof that my naan are actually round and no longer resemble maps of the United States in shape. Junior tandoor cook in training here!

We feasted very well last night and that has satisfied my karela craving for at least another 8 hours.

Sadly, there's no way that I can serve karela in my American restaurant. And, even Shiv won't put it on his menu because it's relatively expensive and his largely American clientele won't order it. The question remains: Are you brave enough to drive into Fairfax to buy some and then come home and cook them? If you are, you just might find yourself joining our little late night karela club, which numbers about five or six right now.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

In Good Taste

I feel much refreshed after taking a weekend off from blogging. Sometimes, as hard as it is to imagine, I just have nothing to say, or rather I feel like I have nothing to say. This weekend, I did not get near a computer and as a result, I got in a bit of reading long overdue: the obits of Robert Mondavi, an essay on hyenas, a bit on the Teapot Dome scandal, and other not particularly work-related materials.

But in surfing the latest Gourmet (July 2008), I came across an article entitled "The Corrections." This title is surely not all that enticing but what caught my attention was the photo of a standard family reunion name tag stating "Hello, my name is Joe; I am pumpernickel negative." That along with the subhead "Recent discoveries show us that practically everything we think we know about the science of taste is wrong, wrong, wrong." hooked me.

It is thoughtful stories such as this one by Bruce Feiler that keep me reading Gourmet, when I rarely crack the other lifestyle-oriented magazines such as Bon Appetit and Food & Wine. The story's thesis is that the decoding of the human genome is letting scientists truly understand taste in novel ways, ways that make the classic bitter-sweet-salty-sour model archaic.

The story looks a bit forward to the day when flavor scientists can perhaps engineer foods specifically to the tastes of each particular individual.

I left the engineering world after many years simply because it wasn't creative enough for me. Am I worried that someday flavor engineers might replace chefs and that people might consider what I now do as a chef to be archaic?

Not in the least. For let us not forget that cooking is an art and not a science and all the scientists in the world cannot replace the love and care that a chef puts into a dish.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy Fourth!

On the way to work this morning, I was feeling a little bummed about having to work on the 4th, when just about everybody else will be out enjoying a long weekend. The ride in only reinforced this: the streets of Winchester were deserted. During my trip to work, I did not see another vehicle. None of the other businesses around me are open, so the town has a very quiet, almost Sunday morning feel, but without any church traffic.

To try to take my mind off this on my way in, I tried to think of appropriate blog topics for today, but that only reinforced the funk. So, I arrived this morning without a good blog topic in mind. Fortunately, when I retrieved my emails from my server, I got one from a customer inquiring if I had ever heard of a salad that she had eaten in Chicago featuring watermelon, feta cheese, and balsamic vinegar reduction.

Well, not only have I heard of such salads, I make them very frequently in the summer. It's a great adult way to indulge your inner child.

While the combination of balsamic vinegar and fruit is a good one—try strawberries with a splash of balsamic to see what I mean—I like a more aggressive vinegar to offset the sweetness of the watermelon.

The idea behind this salad is contrast. I learned from my mother a long time ago that the contrast of salt on watermelon makes the melon taste better. As an adult, I morphed that sprinkle of salt on my slice of watermelon to cubes of salty feta cheese in my watermelon salad. The combination is outstanding. Just a touch of raw red onion adds a bit of bite and texture. Without further ado, here is my basic summer watermelon salad.

Watermelon Salad

Seedless watermelon, cubed
feta cheese, crumbled or cubed
red onion, in small dice
red wine vinegar, to taste
extra virgin olive oil, to taste
salt and pepper, to taste

The ratio of watermelon to feta is a personal one. I like about 4 watermelon to 1 feta: suit your own taste. Place the watermelon, feta, and onion in a bowl. Add a bit of vinegar, oil, salt, and pepper. Mix well. Correct seasonings. This salad tastes best at room temperature.

Well, that was hard, huh? Now, I often do variations to fit my mood or the dishes that I want to accompany. Here are some ideas:

Add some chiffonade of mint: great with lamb
Add some chiffonade of basil: great with salmon
Substitute really old balsamic vinegar and serve as a dessert or sweeter salad
Add toasted pumpkin seeds to spoof the watermelon seeds: fun and crunchy

Finally, Kathy, thanks for the idea. I'm going to put a little watermelon salad with the grilled prosciutto-wrapped Hawaiian king prawns on tonight's dinner menu.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Historical Recipes

I have a large collection of American cookbooks from the 19th and 20th centuries which is coming in very handy right now as I am boning up for a competition in August.

August the 10th, the Mosby Museum in Warrenton is holding a Hot Chef competition in which ten regional restaurants including One Block West will prepare three courses of food using ingredients common to the area in the 1860's and 1870's. Tickets for this fundraiser for the museum are available for $125 apiece from the museum at 540-351-1600.

It's fascinating to read up on cow heels (typically pickled as in pickled pigs feet), pickled oysters, and cod sounds (swim bladders). It really brings home the absence of refrigeration and the need to not let anything go to waste.

But what is most striking to me in browsing these old cookbooks is the fundamental assumption that the reader already knows how to cook. In this day and age of explaining technique in minute detail in recipes, these recipes are refreshing to me. All I ever need or want is a basic sketch of the dish and by and large, that's all you get from these receipt books.

Here's an example from Mary Randolph's The Virginia Housewife:

Pepper Pot. Boil two or three pounds of tripe, cut it in pieces, and put it on the fire with a knuckle of veal, and a sufficient quantity of water; part of a pod of pepper, a little spice, sweet herbs according to your taste, salt, and some dumplins; stew it till tender, and thicken the gravy with butter and flour.

I like that this receipt leaves the spicing to the cook's discretion, that it assumes you already know how to make "dumplins," and that you are familiar with thickening a stew with beurre manié or "butter and flour."

These recipes are the way that we chefs communicate with each other, so they are very familiar to me. But they are also a reminder of how far we are removed from the day that a girl did not get into her teens without having learned how to cook.