Friday, November 28, 2008

A Family Thanksgiving

I hope that if you cooked yesterday for Thanksgiving and you have children at home that you got them involved in the kitchen. My kids and I had a great time in the kitchen.

Before I got into the restaurant business, I used to be that perfectionist who wouldn't let anyone help. Being in the business, I have no choice but to give up control and let others help. Yeah, it's not always the same as how I would do it, but so what? Especially at home, so what if the celery dice is a little larger or smaller than you wanted? If you're a control freak too, lighten up. Life is a lot more fun when you lighten up!

Our dinner yesterday was a family affair. Here I am kneading the dough for the potato rolls. They were "off the chain!" Maybe I'll follow this up with a "recipe" for rolls and a bit on technique. Maybe. Making breads is one of those feel things; how do I convey just how something should feel? This is a lesson that only experience teaches.

Here is Ellie demonstrating her "mad celery skills." I'm not too sure about that grip she has on the knife, but the celery did get diced. And good form with the left hand, thumb and fingers out of the way! We're still working on this; using a knife is still a bit of a scary proposition. Hey girls, I didn't get "mad knife skills" overnight. You're seeing the result of 40 years of daily experience. Keep on practicing and it will come.

And Lillie is my sauté chef in training. So far, she won't toss the ingredients in the pan in true sauté chef fashion, because "I'm going to make a mess!" She who hasn't tossed a pan of food onto the burner has never tossed a pan. How else are you going to learn? We all learned our trade by screwing up a few times. Of course, it helps to put a pound of dried blackeyed peas in the pan and go out into the backyard and play until you get it.

And the two of them breaking up cornbread for the dressing (aka "savory bread pudding"). When I mentioned to Ellie that I was going to make dressing to go with our pork rack, she said, "No, make savory bread pudding," meaning to make the dressing with a savory custard base. I guess the girls are picking up stuff via osmosis.

Here's hoping that you will get your kids involved in the kitchen. Yeah, I know all about psycho weeknights when you just need to get something on the table ASAP and when you surely don't need any more "help." But on weekends and holidays when there's no rush, what's wrong with some help?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving!

I'm sitting here in my home office—so this is what it's like to not be at work!—with my cornbread for my savory bread pudding in the oven and my potato rolls on the rise and the kids watching the parade on TV, preparing to make Thanksgiving dinner for the three of us later this afternoon.

This year is very strange. In all the years before I opened the restaurant, our house was Thanksgiving central. We'd invite friends, family, and anybody we knew that didn't have anyone to celebrate with. The house would be full and the feast would be enormous.

Since I bought the restaurant, my aunt has taken up the challenge and we've gone to her house to celebrate. This year, circumstances have conspired against us and it's just me and my two daughters along with the faithful floor-cleaning beagle. The house is oddly quiet.

While our celebration is very small this year, we are together and celebrating. Which brings me to the point of this entire post. I spoke to another chef last evening about his book for today and in the course of that conversation, he said that he had reservations for nine singletons. Nine people dining by themselves on Thanksgiving. How pitiful! If I knew who they were, I'd invite them over to eat with us, like the old days.

Do me a favor. Next year, invite someone who has nobody else to your house for Thanksgiving.

Mmmm, I smell cornbread smells wafting up the stairs. Time to go check....

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Here's the next to last recipe from my recent Low Country cooking class. This recipe is for a classic rice dish called pilau. The word is quite obviously a variant of pilaf, but the Sandlappers have invented their own pronunciation that is more at "perloo" than anything.

It seems to me, but I'm no expert, that the pilaf originated in what is roughly Persia and dispersed throughout the world. The similarity among pilau, pilaf, pullao, polow, paella, risotto, jambalalya, biryani, and like dishes is amazing. The majority of these dishes, like pilau, call for adding rice to boiling liquid. Some, like risotto, are stirred until the end; others are finished in the oven; still others are steamed. Other dishes such as biryani are completed by mixing cooked rice with the sauce and garnishes. In any case, they're all delicious.

My pilau is started as for jambalaya and finished by stirring like risotto. This is not atypical of pilau, but there are as many variations and methods as there are cooks. I would say that more cooks cover their pilau and let it gently steam itself rather than stir it as I do. I love the texture of my version.

The key to pilau for me is the rice. I use Carolina Gold rice, an heirloom Low Country rice available from many outlets including Anson Mills.

Ed's Pilau

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large poblano chile, diced
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 bunch green onions, diced
3 stalks celery, diced
4 Surry sausages, diced
2 cups Carolina Gold rice
1 cup diced tomatoes
4-6 cups stock
1 T minced garlic
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
fresh parsley
crushed red pepper flakes to taste
salt to taste
black pepper to taste

Heat a heavy bottomed pan over medium high flame and film it with the oil. Add the onions, peppers, celery, and sausage and cook until the yellow onions turn translucent. Add the rice and stir for a couple of minutes. Add the tomatoes and two cups of the stock. Let the rice come just to the boil and adjust the flame so that it simmers. Add the garlic, thyme, parsley, red pepper, and a little salt and pepper.

Continue to stir as necessary to keep the rice from sticking and to release the starch from the rice into the liquid. It is this starch that gives this pilau its silky texture, like risotto. As the stock evaporates, add small quantities of additional stock as needed until the rice is done to your liking, about 20-25 minutes. Season to taste.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Red Hat Ladies

Does the mere mention of Red Hat Ladies drive you into a frenzy? If so, you must be a server at a restaurant. War stories of serving these purple- and red-clad women are legion in the restaurant business.

We've hosted our share of luncheons for Red Hat Ladies over the years, the most recent was last week. And like our compatriots everywhere, we've had a few experiences that have been less than positive.

From my conversations with a lot of servers, here's the general knock on Red Hat Ladies:
  • There's a group dynamic that takes over at times that causes them to be rude, pushy, and highly demanding of servers.

  • Some groups seem to make great sport of running the server: sending the server running for something, then when she gets back to the table, sending her for something else, all afternoon, effectively preventing her from serving other tables.

  • The check averages are reputedly very low: no alcohol, just water to drink, appetizers instead of entrées, no desserts, split entrées, and lots and lots of free bread.

  • They are reknowned for miserly tips on top of weak checks.

  • They want separate checks: the server's nightmare.

  • They're never in a hurry to leave until they've just sent the server to process 20 separate checks, which at a minute apiece takes at least 20 minutes.

Surely, we've witnessed all this behavior from Red Hat Ladies at our restaurant in the past, but we've also seen this behavior and worse from other large groups. My guess is that the Red Hat Ladies by virtue of being instantly recognizable are unfairly taking a lot of heat for large groups everywhere.

Last week, our group of ladies was charming; they ordered well; they tipped well; and they were neither rude nor pushy. In fact, many of them came up to me after their lunch and thanked me for a good time. Ladies, thank you for your business. Now if we could just clone you as an example for how large groups should behave in restaurants....

Sunday, November 23, 2008

First, You Make Some Roux...

I've mentioned a roux ("roo") several times in recent posts and a reader asked me if I could give a little more how to information. Here is a series of photos that I took Saturday.

The thing to note is that nothing much happens in the first ten or twelve minutes of cooking and then all hell breaks loose in the last five minutes. Your strict attention during the last few minutes is critical.

Time Zero. I put one part flour and one part fat (in this case, canola oil; often, duck fat) into the pan over high heat. Here, it's not even mixed yet.

3 Minutes. I took a photo at this point because I want you to look at it. See all the foam and bubbles? That's the water boiling off from the flour. This is why you never want to dump flour into really hot oil. If all this water flashed to steam suddenly, you could end up in the hospital with terrible burns all over your face. Despite what the macho chefs tell you, don't do it. Start with cold oil and flour.

8 Minutes. You can see fewer bubbles and the tiniest hint of color, indicating that the water is finally boiling away.

11 Minutes. Here we are eleven minutes in and things are just getting started. I have been stirring nonchalantly to this point. But things are about to change, quickly.

12 Minutes. Another shade darker in just a minute.

13 Minutes. Now, you see the texture change. Once this happens, you know things are cooking quickly and you'd better ignore all external influences, save the house burning down around you.

14 Minutes. In all the previous photos, the spatula is sitting against the pan. In this photo and all subsequent ones, though you cannot see it, I'm stirring. There's been a significant color change in the last few seconds.

15 Minutes. This is as light brown as I would use for a gumbo. If I were making a general purpose roux to store in the cooler for some future use, I'd be stopping right about here. But, today, I'm making alligator and shrimp gumbo, so I want a dark roux.

16 Minutes. This is a good red brown roux. I'd stop here for duck.

17 Minutes. Look at the smoke coming off of this! It's not black yet in this photo, but it was about 30 seconds after I snapped the photo. I was too busy working with it at the last second to take a final picture. To stop it from cooking, I threw a couple of pounds of trinity (onions, peppers, and celery) into it, then hit it with a gallon of stock.

Here's the final product. I wasn't kidding about it going black in a hurry, was I?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Shrimp and Grits

If ever there were a dish that screamed "Charleston!", Shrimp and Grits would be it. The following recipe records what I made in my latest cooking class on Low Country cuisine.

I've tasted many dozens of versions of this dish and they're all good. I guarantee that my version, informed by my sensibilities and the ingredients available to me in my locale, is different from what your ancestors might have made, but it suits me to a T. That is to say that I am treading on some sacred ground here: I'm not a native Sandlapper and I know already that your grandmother makes the world's best version of Shrimp and Grits. People have started small land wars over the "correct" version of Shrimp and Grits, for goodness sake.

I don't want any part of your little wars. Just remember that while this isn't grandma's shrimp and grits, you might actually find you like it, if you can bring yourself to make it.

The first thing to talk about is grits. I have told you all I need to tell you in my recent posted entitled Grits 101. In that post, I introduce a couple of new tricks that you old dogs should probably read. If your grits suck and you didn't read my post, don't blame me. And, if you did read my post and your grits still suck, don't blame me either: I didn't cook them!

The next thing to talk about is shrimp. What you want is very fresh, small, head on shrimp right out of your own net. But, if you're like me, that's not happening in your neighborhood until Hell freezes over. If you've got some, by all means, bring them down to the restaurant and I will personally make the Shrimp and Grits for you. All the fat in the head of the shrimp will make this dish mind-blowingly good. Sadly, I'm using 16-20 count peeled and deveined Gulf brown shrimp, available at a supermarket near you.

My version of Shrimp and Grits has a lemony butter sauce redolent of thyme and smoky from Surry sausage. The following recipe serves four.

Shrimp and Grits

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 shallots, thinly sliced vertically
4 Surry sausages, diced
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 bunch green onions, bias cut into 3/4-inch segments
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon minced fresh Italian parsley
pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
2 lemons
1/4 cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons cold sweet butter, diced
salt and pepper to taste

In a sauté pan, heat the vegetable oil on medium high heat. Add the shallots and Surry sausages and cook until the shallots start to brown. Then add the shrimp and cook about half way. Add the garlic, green onions, thyme, parsley, and red pepper flakes. Stir well and add the juice of two lemons and the white wine to the pan. Let the liquid reduce by three fourths as the shrimp finish cooking. Off the heat, swirl in the butter to thicken the sauce and season to taste. Serve immediately.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Smothered Quail, et al.

This is the next in the series of recipes from my Low Country Cooking Class last week. Smothered Quail is really just quail that has been browned on all sides and then cooked in a gravy; my family would call this Fried Quail (for whatever reason). This method of cooking is technically a quick braise (though without a lid on the pan) and is my favorite way of cooking rabbit and pork chops.

You might recognize this as the country cousin to an étouffée, from the French verb to smother. A Cajun étouffée is very similar in technique, but the roux is going to be darker and the dish will contain trinity (onions, peppers, and celery) and a lot more seasoning. Once you get comfortable with the technique, try an étouffée.

The method could not be simpler. Season a cup of flour with salt and pepper (sure, add cayenne and dried thyme if you like; you're the cook). Dredge the quail in the flour and then brown on all sides in a large skillet over moderate heat. Be careful not to let the brown bits in the pan burn.

Remove the quail from the pan and add 1/2 cup of the seasoned flour to the pan. You might need to add a little more oil at this point to make a good roux. Once the roux is mixed up well, this would be a good point to add any other flavorings that you might want. For my class, I added a couple of diced Surry sausages. I generally would have added sliced onions too, but for some reason I didn't last Sunday. No matter. Cook the roux until it is light brown, then add as much water as you need to make a nice gravy. Start with a couple of cups and add more as necessary.

Add the quail (rabbit, pork chops, Salisbury steaks, beef paleron steaks, chicken, whatever) to the pan and cook gently until it's tender enough to pierce easily with a fork. When done, season to taste with salt (remember, your roux flour was already seasoned) and pepper. I threw in a good portion of crushed red pepper and a couple teaspoons of fresh thyme too.

I can't eat anything cooked in gravy like this without rice and a big pile of greens.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Grits 101

The grits that we made during my Low Country cooking class were without a doubt the hit of the class. Before I can get into the recipe that I promised for Shrimp and Grits, we must first talk grits. And I'm not talking about that pablum that Quaker tries to pawn off on the world.

I'm talking about real deal grits, fresh, extremely coarse, long cooking grits. With something as simple as grits, the devil is in the details, so you better buy the best grits you can. I know none finer than the Antebellum Coarse Grits from Anson Mills in Columbia, SC. and I speak from over 40 years of experience. Grits are one of my favorite foods.

These coarse grits take a minimum of 90 minutes to cook and two hours is better. But, you don't have to stand at the stove and stir all day. Here are two grits tips that will help you a lot; just don't tell your grandmother or she will have a fit, because it's surely not the way she did it.

First you're going to preheat your oven to 250F. That's right folks, the oven. And, you're going to find a very heavy ovenproof pan with a tight fitting lid. I use my large cast iron Le Creuset oval cocotte.

Next you're not going to sprinkle your grits slowly into boiling water following the conventional wisdom. You are going to put your grits and an equivalent volume of cold water into the pan and you're going to stir to form a lumpless slurry, adding a little more water if necessary. See how easy that is? Then you're going to add two more volumes of water and one of heavy cream to the pan and put it on the stove on a high flame.

Then while stirring often enough to keep the grits off the bottom of the pan, you're going to let the grits come to almost a boil and thicken, which usually happens just about the same time. At this point, add a bit of salt, cover and place in the oven. Stir every 20-30 minutes. If the grits are too thick, thin with heavy cream. (Who are we kidding? This recipe is about awesome grits, not diet grits!) You don't really want the grits to boil, so adjust the oven temperature accordingly.

Continue cooking in this manner until the grits are done to your liking, then stir in some sweet butter and salt to taste.

To recap, most grits take about four parts liquid to one part solids by volume. For my recipe, I start with one part grits, three parts water, and one part cream. Over the course of the two-hour cooking period, I probably add another part of cream. If you soak the grits overnight (a really good idea, but if you plan ahead like I do, it will never happen), you'll need significantly less liquid, probably only 3 parts in total.

Once Upon a Time

Sometimes you find something so cool at the farmers market, that you just have to take it home with you. Such was the case last year when I saw my first Fairy Tale Squash (Cucurbita moschata). I just had to show it to you. It's an old French heirloom known there as Musquée de Provence; that's the Musky Squash from Provence. Why the Musky in the name? I've no clue.

Way too big for home use, this rascal is perfect for restaurant service, weighing in at a hefty 15 pounds. Retail markets generally offer the squash by the individual lobe, which exposes the super dense, deep orange flesh that is pleasantly sweet. The seed cavity is relatively small in relation to the thickness of the flesh. This is definitely at the top of my list of favorite soup and pie squashes.

Now, where did those mice run off to? I have a slipper to fetch....

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Evolution of a Menu

Long post warning. This is the saga of the development and evolution of my latest tasting menu. Some of you might find it interesting to see the process that I go through in developing a menu. I might find it interesting too, because I've never really considered how I develop a menu before; I've just done it.

This post concerns the menu development process. I describe the dishes and give photos in another post.

November 5, 2008. A customer emailed me two days ago, inquiring about a custom tasting menu to celebrate his anniversary. I have just received answers to the questions that I sent him about his food likes and dislikes, allergies, etc. And we have agreed on a price for the menu. Armed with a price and some guidance about the food, I can now set about developing a menu.

I always start my menus by writing a list of ingredients or techniques that I might like to work with. As I was going through my day, I had my clipboard near me most of the time. When an idea would pop into my head, I would scrawl it down. Ideas never come singly to me; they come in rapid-fire bursts. I am more likely to write down seven things at one time than I am to write down a single thing.

You can see that this list is pretty random, but contains only things that are in season right now. When I put an asterisk by something, it means that I really want to do that dish, such as the tartiflette. The process of writing things down gets my mind going about dishes and presentations. There's a lot happening in my mind that you can't tell from this list.

November 6, 2008. For the price, seven courses seems about right to me. I always like an odd number of courses; an even number somehow feels wrong. Seven is a good number: I can show a lot of what I can do in seven courses and there's less chance of the customer getting bored. Have you ever been to one of those 4-hour, 13-course eating marathons when you were full by the fourth course? Yeah, me too, and I want to avoid that for my guests.

You can see here that I have sketched five courses in red and then gone back in black and blue and added two more courses and converted a first course, a salad with goat cheese truffles, to a cheese course just before the dessert course. And here on this draft, I have numbered the courses in the order that I think they should appear. At this point, I have pretty well decided on the structure of the menu: a soup course, four savory courses, a cheese course, and a dessert course.

I've also started to sketch some thoughts and amplifications about certain courses, such as using rose-fleshed fingerlings for the tartiflette, potentially making siu mai (steamed dumplings) from the rabbit confit, adding some cherry to the chocolate mousse to echo the kriek sabayon, making the risotto from fregola sarda instead of rice, adding mushrooms to the duck soup ravioli, and flavoring the duck soup with five-spice.

November 7, 2008. At this point, I put the menu into Word and printed it out. Things always look much different when they are printed. Here you can see that I changed my mind about the soup. I want it to feature parsnips and to have a cream base, so I no longer feel comfortable calling it cock-a-leekie.

And I was not comfortable with the cauliflower mushrooms in the ravioli, because I wasn't sure that I would have them in stock—the dinner got pushed back four days—but more importantly, with the introduction of five-spice, the dish has taken a Chinese inflection and black mushrooms are much more in keeping with that theme.

You can see that I have made minor tweaks, such as brining the rabbit loin to make sure that it won't dry out and adding Thai basil to the "risotto." I've also started making some notes about plating: a ring mold for the rillettes and round crème brûlée molds for the tartiflette. I've also made the goat cheese truffles a lot more concrete in this version of the menu.

And finally, I have decided that I want my guests to taste each of the goat cheese truffles in a particular order, from most savory to most sweet, as a transition from the savory courses to the dessert course.

November 12, 2008. I let the menu sit all weekend without looking at it and without thinking about it very much. I always find it extremely useful to get some distance from the menu before going back over it.

I did score some tart cherry juice at the farmers market on Saturday that I can use for the granita, so I will probably change that from blood orange to tart cherry. Today, I am just running through the menu to make sure that I either have all the necessary ingredients in house or on order. With the dinner happening on Tuesday, I'll need to make sure that the things with two-day order times get here on Friday. Saturday delivery is out with most carriers as is Saturday ordering with most vendors. So, that means many items need to be ordered today, Wednesday. It takes a lot of logistics to pull off something like this.

In glancing back at the menu today, I noticed that the second course, the duck soup ravioli, has gone totally Chinese in flavor and concept, so why continue to work the ravioli metaphor? Let's just make wontons and be done with it.

Also, I got some experience with Idiot Fish over the weekend and I am no longer sure that filets are the way to go with that fish. That whole dish is the weakest on the menu and I may want to revisit the entire thing. But I'm going to give it another day or two of rest before I come back to it. I may just sous vide the fish.

November 13, 2008. Today, now that the basic components of the menu are on order and before I get busy for the weekend, I want to bring the menu into something nearing its final state. So, I am going to look at each dish very critically with an eye to composition, plating, and transition to the next course. This menu is very unusual in that the customers do not drink, so I don't have to worry about wine pairings.

In looking at the soup course, the breast of guinea hen added nothing; it was there merely for the gee-whiz factor: "Cool, guinea hen!" This is something that I have learned as I have become older, to pare a dish to its essence. Adios guinea!

The wonton course is spot-on; today I am merely amplifying my thoughts on garnish and flavor harmony.

The fish course still bothers me. I've decided to sous vide the Idiot filets because they are so fragile. Sous vide is French for "under vaccuum." I'll put the filets in a vacuum bag with some lemon-infused oil, remove the air, and very gently "poach" the filets in about 135-140F water. The broccolini that I had written on the prior draft of the menu was just a placeholder for "needs some color contrast," so I have decided to go with a little blood sorrel, whose tangy lemony flavor should echo the Meyer lemon in the fregola risotto. Whew, no more clumsy and useless broccolini on that plate! I asked myself whether the fregola risotto would be too rustic for the fish, but on reflection, I want the chewy rusticity of the fregola to contrast with the silkiness of the fish.

I'm happy with the tartiflette and mostly so with the rabbit trio, save for the juniper-cured confit. I need to focus on presentation and flavor harmony. I'm not convinced that I will understand this rabbit course until I actually taste the confit on Tuesday when I finish cooking it.

November 14, 2008. So, here's where I am today. The rabbit and duck confits are in the cooler curing, and the rabbit is braising for rillettes. I've decided on an Asian pear confit (hey, I just scored some chestnut honey at the market; that will work great in the pear confit) as a garnish for the rillettes. The rabbit confit really bothers me ("leek-tied bundles" is just so lame). Perhaps I'll plate a raviolo stuffed with confit? Not a terrible idea. And we can fry the raviolo after cooking it to make it crispy, to give some additional textural contrast between the silky confit and what otherwise would be limp pasta. Bear with me, thinking out loud as I type.

November 18, 2008. And here's the final menu. I made a few last minute tweaks. Meyer lemons were outrageously priced, so I used standard lemons in the risotto. And I added sauces or other garnish to each of the rabbit dishes. Other than that, the menu remains pretty much as it was before the weekend.

Creamy Parsnip-Leek Soup with Chive Oil and Parsnip Latke

Five-Spice Duck Soup Wonton with Green Onions, Soy- and Ginger-Braised Black Mushrooms, and House-Cured Duck Confit

Lemon-Oil Poached Filet of Idiot Fish
on Lemon and Thai Basil “Risotto” of Fregola Sarda; Blood Sorrel

Tartiflette—Rose Fingerling Potatoes, Virginia Slab Bacon, and Onions Baked under Réblochon Cheese

Trio of Rabbit Preparations:
Prosciutto-Wrapped Brined Loin with Pan Sauce
Crispy Raviolo of Juniper-Cured Confit with Juniper Salt and Gin Beurre Blanc
Rillettes with Asian Pear and Blood Orange Marmalade

Trio of Goat Cheese Truffles:
Pickled Peach and Cajun-Spiced Pecans
Cranberry and Walnut
Blood Orange and Candied Fennel Seed

Sour Cherry Granita; Cherry-Chocolate Mousse with Kriek Sabayon

Chef's Tasting

One of my favorite things to do is create tasting menus for customers. I like it because I get to create things that people ought to taste, but which would never sell on the dinner menu.

Here's the menu from the latest tasting. I will follow up this post with another one discussing the development of this menu from a list of ideas to dishes on the plate.

Creamy Parsnip-Leek Soup with Chive Oil and Parsnip Latke

Five-Spice Duck Soup Wonton with Green Onions, Soy- and Ginger-Braised Black Mushrooms, and House-Cured Duck Confit

Lemon-Oil Poached Filet of Idiot Fish
on Lemon and Thai Basil “Risotto” of Fregola Sarda; Blood Sorrel

Tartiflette—Rose Fingerling Potatoes, Virginia Slab Bacon, and Onions Baked under Réblochon Cheese

Trio of Rabbit Preparations:
Prosciutto-Wrapped Brined Loin with Pan Sauce
Crispy Raviolo of Juniper-Cured Confit with Juniper Salt and Gin Beurre Blanc
Rillettes with Asian Pear and Blood Orange Marmalade

Trio of Goat Cheese Truffles:
Pickled Peach and Cajun-Spiced Pecans
Cranberry and Walnut
Blood Orange and Candied Fennel Seed

Sour Cherry Granita; Cherry-Chocolate Mousse with Kriek Sabayon

Creamy Parsnip-Leek Soup with Chive Oil and Parsnip Latke. I love soup all the time, but never more so than when it is cold and last night, as expected, was really cold for November, in the low 20s. I decided on parsnips because they're in the market now, they are so good, and so few Americans have ever tasted them. Except for the parsnips, this was a classic leek and potato soup. I decided to highlight the versatility of the parsnip by garnishing the soup with a latke. Parsnip latkes are even better than potato latkes.

Five-Spice Duck Soup Wonton with Green Onions, Soy- and Ginger-Braised Black Mushrooms, and House-Cured Duck Confit. I love Chinese comfort food, especially the red-cooked dishes, long slow braises with soy sauce, rice wine, star anise, ginger, garlic, and green onions. I also adore Chinese noodle soups, especially hand-pulled noodles in duck broth with roast duck. This dish then pays homage to Chinese tradition, but as I like to play with dishes and make people think about what they're eating, I took the traditional duck soup and put it inside the noodles, making duck soup wontons.

Technically, this is trivially done by letting the broth congeal and then using that solid form to stuff the wontons—no big secret there. Naturally, the broth melts as you cook the wontons. The garnishes are pulled duck confit, dried black mushrooms slowly braised with soy sauce and ginger, hoisin sauce, white sesame seeds, and green onions.

It's kind of fun for customers to cut into the wontons and have the soup bowl fill up with the soup that was missing just moments before.

Lemon-Oil Poached Filet of Idiot Fish
on Lemon and Thai Basil “Risotto” of Fregola Sarda; Blood Sorrel
. After the strong earthy flavors of the previous dish, I felt the need to go light in flavor. Idiot Fish is a delicate, high oil content fish mainly from the Gulf of Alaska. Because it is so delicate, you must handle it gently especially if it is in filets. I decided to seal the fish in a vacuum bag with a lemon-infused oil and gently poach it. I find that lemon (any citrus, actually) works wonderfully with high oil fish. I decided to echo the lemon flavor in the "risotto" of fregola sarda, but to give it a little punch with Thai basil, which adds mint and white pepper notes. Tangy blood sorrel poses its oxalic acid notes against the richness of both the fish and the risotto. We avoided cheese in the risotto: often cheese makes fish taste fishier.

Tartiflette—Rose Fingerling Potatoes, Virginia Slab Bacon, and Onions Baked under Réblochon Cheese. Tartiflette is a modern French classic comfort dish from the Savoie. This rendition is fairly faithful to the original, save that I used rose-colored fingerling potatoes instead of yellow potatoes and that I used Picpoul rather than a local wine from the Savoie. Because of the cold weather, I wanted to do an instantly recognizable comfort dish. And what American doesn't recognize highfalutin home fries with cheese?

Trio of Rabbit Preparations: Prosciutto-Wrapped Brined Loin with Pan Sauce, Crispy Raviolo of Juniper-Cured Confit with Juniper Salt and Gin Beurre Blanc, Rillettes with Asian Pear and Blood Orange Marmalade. After the comfort food of the middle course, I wanted once again to push the customers' boundaries with the next dish. Rabbit shouldn't push anyone's boundaries, but it's not something many Americans have tried or would willingly try, which is why I like to include it on tasting menus: to show people that rabbit is indeed versatile and tasty.

From left to right in the photo, you see classic rabbit rillettes, brined and prosciutto-wrapped loin, and a crispy raviolo filled with rabbit confit. The goal of this tasting was to make use of the entire rabbit.

Rillettes is a classic French charcuterie and what we and the English would most likely call potted meat. It consists of finely shredded or chopped meat mixed with fat (as a preservative) and is typically used as a spread for bread. I braised all the random bits of the rabbit (forelegs, back, breast and side meat, etc.) with thyme, shallots, and white wine. Then I picked and finely shredded the meat and reduced the strained braising liquid to a syrup. Mixing the braising liquid, meat, nutmeg, mace, thyme, juniper salt, rosemary, and a bit of congealed duck fat yielded my version of rabbit rillettes. We served the rillettes at room temperature with a marmalade of blood orange rind and Asian pear.

I trimmed the two loin halves and brined them with salt, sugar, and white pepper for about six hours. Then I wrapped them in prosciutto and seared them. We served them with a pan sauce from deglazing the pan with guinea hen stock (because that's the stock we have on hand right now) and a quick mounting with sweet butter.

To confit the rabbit, I rubbed the rear legs in salt, sugar, juniper berries, garlic, thyme, and allspice and put them in the cooler for several days to cure. Then I slowly poached them in duck fat for about six hours. Finely minced confit seasoned with juniper salt went into the ravioli, which we crisped by frying after they cooked in boiling water. We garnished the ravioli with a gin beurre blanc (like a traditional beurre blanc except that we substituted gin for a portion of the white wine).

Juniper salt is just juniper berries that I ground in the spice mill and mixed with fleur de sel.

Trio of Goat Cheese Truffles: Pickled Peach and Cajun-Spiced Pecans, Cranberry and Walnut, Blood Orange and Candied Fennel Seed. I am a huge fan of cheese. A formal dinner just doesn't seem right to me without a cheese course. And while I rarely eat dessert when I am dining out, I will often order cheese to finish my meal. I used this cheese course to segue between the last savory course and the sweet dessert course by making each of the truffles successively sweeter.

Sour Cherry Granita; Cherry-Chocolate Mousse with Kriek Sabayon. This dessert is about temperature and texture contrast. I wanted to play the crunchy texture of the granita against the smoothness of the mousse and I wanted to contrast the warm kriek sabayon (egg yolks and wine, or in this case, beer whisked over a steam bath until foamy) with the cool mousse. Also, I've never been a fan of sweets, so my desserts tend to be low in sugar. The granita, the mousse, and the sabayon were all barely sweetened.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


For my latest cooking class, we tackled Carolina Low Country cuisine, including collard greens, which are a pan-Southern tradition, not just Low Country. Collards are a cole crop, with huge leaves that look like overgrown Chinese broccoli (gai lan) leaves. They're a good starter green for most people because they are smooth leaved, stay solid when cooked, and are naturally sweet. I prefer turnip greens which are hairy leaved, are less solid, and are decidedly more bitter. As with most greens, I think collards have the best flavor once they've seen a frost or two.

Instructions for prepping collards greens along with photos are at the end of this post.

I typically cook collard greens one of two ways. First, at the restaurant, we finely slice them, blanch them for about a minute or two, until they become very bright green, and then sauté them very quickly in olive oil and garlic, or in bacon grease with garlic. This is a decidedly new-fangled way of cooking them that would probably cause my grandmother fits were she alive.

At home and for the cooking class, I cook them in the classic Southern tradition with smoked pork. In a large pot, bring a couple of inches of water to the boil with your favorite smoked pork product. I used slab bacon on Sunday, but I would have used a ham hock or neck bones if I had them in the fridge. Let the water cook with the meat in it for 20 minutes or so to flavor it, then add the collards and cook to your liking.

I think an hour is the mandatory minimum, but they're certainly edible after ten minutes or so. When asked on Sunday how I knew that the collards weren't ready, I replied, "They don't taste like bacon yet!" Add a little salt in the beginning and then season again just before serving. Don't oversalt in the beginning because the braising liquid will reduce while cooking.

As for quantities needed, figure on one large leaf per person, unless you're inviting me. Figure on four or five for me.

Grasp the collard leaf as in the picture in preparation for ripping out the central rib, which is too tough to eat.

Rip the rib from the leaf.

Here you see the rib separated from a collard leaf. Give the ribs to the hogs, chickens, compost pile, or use them in the stock pot.

Stack the deribbed collard leaves one on top of the other. Slice the stack of collard leaves into halves, straight through where the rib used to be.

Slice the halved collard leaves into fourths, so that you can stack the piles of fourths for the next step.

Slice the collards into whatever size you like. Here, they're being cut en chiffonade, in thin strips.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Low Country Cooking Class

Recently I posted about how much I like to cook Cajun and Creole food. For my latest cooking class/dinner/party, I decided to tackle Cajun's cousin Low Country food, cuisine that's indigenous to the South Carolina coastal plain from Pawley's Island in the north, down to Savannah in the south. I haven't spent much time in this area, but as a Southerner, I have an innate feel for the basics of the cuisine.

Our menu was:

To keep this post from becoming book length, I'm going to give an overview here and deal with each dish on its own in subsequent posts. You can follow the links in the menu above to the article on each dish. And see the post entitled Grits 101 for the basics on grits.

The first thing to know about these dishes and recipes is that they are my own. I've tasted many versions of each of these dishes and these are my versions, informed by my sensibilities and the ingredients available to me in my locale. That is to say that I am treading on some sacred ground here: I'm not a native Sandlapper and I know that your grandmother makes the best version of each of these dishes. People have started small land wars over the "correct" version of shrimp and grits, for goodness sake. I have no wish to be involved in your little wars, so I make no claims about these dishes other than you will enjoy each and every one of them.

My shrimp and grits is made with very coarse grits from Anson Mills in Columbia SC. The all critical sauce for the grits is made from shrimp, shallots, green onions, Surry sausage, garlic, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, loads of fresh thyme, fresh parsley, lemon juice, white wine, and sweet butter. Sure, this is not how your grandmother makes it, but I love it.

I make my pilau in quasi-risotto style; well, maybe I should stop beating around the bush. I make it jambalaya style. I start with a mirepoix of onions, celery, and poblano peppers sautéed with Surry sausage, garlic, fresh thyme, and crushed red pepper flakes. To this I add Carolina Gold rice, tomatoes, salt, pepper, and chicken stock, stirring and adding more stock until the rice is done. I know others insist on having separate grains of rice; that's just not for me. Here's Randy chopping onions for the pilau.

Smothered Quail is what we would call in my family Fried Quail. This is my favorite way of eating both rabbit and pork chops. I dredge the quail in seasoned flour and brown all sides, then remove the quail from the pan, and make a light brown roux from the drippings and additional oil as necessary. Then I add water to make a gravy and put the quail back in and simmer until tender, about 20-30 minutes. Onions and pork products always help the gravy; yesterday we used Surry sausage. I seasoned with salt, pepper, crushed red pepper, and fresh thyme.

I can't eat anything cooked in gravy like this without rice (hence the pilau) and a big pile of greens. My preference is turnip greens (which we call turnip salad), but in the market on Saturday, we had nothing but collards, which also suit me fine. At the restaurant, we chiffonade collards, blanch them, and sauté them quickly in olive oil and garlic. But that just won't do for a good Southern dinner which requires long slow cooking of the greens with smoked pork products.

We ended the meal with a glorious bread pudding, puffed up to almost four inches in height. Here you can see Tim whisking the custard before we added the stale bread to soak. Into the mix went caramel, white chocolate, pecans, and the guts of a vanilla bean. Quipped one of the jokers in attendance, "A vanilla bean is what we use when we run out of vanilla extract!"

You've seen the photos of some of the husbands in the class at work, but none of the wives. And what were the ladies doing during our class? What they do best: playing the role of technical advisor from the back row! It wasn't really so, but I managed to catch them chatting while the guys were whacking and stirring things.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

That Table

All of us in the business have one: the name in the reservation book that makes us cringe, that table. You know the table. You recognize it when the servers all scramble to make sure that the party is not seated in their section.

These are parties that secretly I would prefer were clients of your restaurant rather than mine, but money is money and while we don't like the experience, we'll suck it up and take the money.

We don't have many such tables, but there are a few such as the one I'm about to describe. After a couple-year hiatus, during which I really thought that just maybe we had pawned them off on a competitor, one really heinous couple came back to dine with us recently.

Our issues with them start at the front door: they project an air of entitlement that you couldn't dent with a cutlass. They make it plain that they are superior to you in every way.

If that weren't enough to rub us against the grain, let us recite the litany of customer sins: they're cheap, they don't tip, they're arrogant, they monopolize all your time with dozens of questions about the menu especially when you're busy as hell, they want to customize every dish that they order, they find fault with everything, they will send back at least one dish every time that they dine because nothing is ever good enough for them, they're never appreciative, they run you constantly for this and that, and probably worst of all, they are campers: they will just never leave.

On top of this, I have a couple of personal reasons to be ticked off with them. The husband has very distinctive hair and once he sent back a dessert with one of his own hairs on it and proceeded to chew me out at the table when I delivered the replacement dessert. I should have thrown him out.

And the wife, she is a real card [substitute favorite noun here]. She once called in the middle of Saturday night dinner service and demanded to be connected to me. That evening, she was putting on a dinner party that was way beyond her ability to carry off and she wanted a special ingredient that she thought I might have and she wanted some advice. In the middle of Saturday night dinner service! Does her arrogance know no bounds?

In desperation to get off the phone, I gave her a couple of words of wisdom and told her I would give her some of whatever long-forgotten ingredient it was she was seeking. She never even said, "Thank you," nor has she ever acknowledged that I helped her out. Why? Because she expects everyone to bow to her every whim.

Beyond whatever we may think about such tables, they are poison in the dining room because they put the service staff in a bad mood and that has to translate to the other tables. Worse, the other tables seated nearby have to listen to the incessant griping.

When faced with tables like this, we just have to go into what we call "server mode." We do exactly what we need to do to take care of the table and nothing more. We don't try to engage them in conversation and I certainly don't visit the table, lest I might fail to bite my tongue. They get bare bones, efficient, robotic service.

Besides the income, I only see one benefit to tables like these. They give us all the chance to exercise our professionalism.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Roasted Red Pepper Hummus Soup

The other day I needed to make some soup for lunch and I didn't have any plan or fresh ideas, so I went into the cooler for some inspiration. The very first thing that I saw was a tub of hummus that I use for snacks when my kids come to the restaurant and are "starving."

Something clicked and the phrase "roasted red pepper hummus soup" popped into my mind. That's how a lot of dishes come to me: the thought just materializes, seemingly out of nowhere.

At this point, it was merely a matter of execution and I scrounged around the cooler and found some already cooked chickpeas, already peeled roasted red peppers, a couple of lemons, an onion, some pulled cooked chicken, and some chicken stock.

I blended the chickpeas and roasted red peppers with chicken stock. I sautéed the onion with some garlic, red pepper flakes, and a sprinkle of ground cumin, then added the blended ingredients, thinned the soup with chicken stock, added the chicken, and let it simmer for about 20 minutes. Once the onions were fully cooked, I seasoned the soup with salt, pepper, lemon juice, and extra virgin olive oil.

It was a tremendous hit with customers. We sold the entire three gallon batch in a hurry.

Clearly, you could make this soup vegetarian trivially. And the possibilities for different seasonings seem vast. No doubt you could make this at home in minutes with a jar of roasted red peppers, a can of chickpeas, and a can of broth. How simple could it be? Happy experimenting! This is a great idea to have in your repertoire.

And oh, by the way, I was talking the other day about those times when you think you've invented something in the food world, all you have to do is consult the Google oracle to see that you have not. Although I've never heard of hummus soup before, clearly lots of other people have.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Cajun Napalm

Some of you may know that I love to cook Cajun and Creole food. I'm not from Louisiana at all, but somehow I feel that it is in my blood. I've spent a lot of time eating and visiting in New Orleans and points south and west all over South Louisiana. I even speak a bit of the language. My first college French professor was a Cajun from Thibodaux on Bayou Lafourche, where I've been and eaten several times. But I gotta say that y'all speak some crazy French là-bas!

That reminds me of a former life in the software world about twenty years ago, when I was temporarily at Johnson Space Center in Clear Lake, TX, there was popular Cajun hole in the wall just past the Center on the curve of the lake. The servers took a shine to me and would drag me through the kitchen and force me to sample everything. By the time I got back to the dining room, I was too full to eat any more, but I had to order something and no matter what I ordered, there were always more things on my table than I ordered. I learned a lot from tasting those dishes and from the gazillions of questions that I peppered the cooks and the servers with.

Anyway, having cooked the food for just shy of 30 years now, I am so comfortable with it that I would have no problem stepping onto the line at any New Orleans restaurant and banging out the food.

What brings all this to mind is that Saturday, I had only a little bit of alligator sausage left, not enough to serve on its own, so like frugal cooks everywhere, I made it into soup, gumbo to be exact. And while I was making the roux (in a very big hurry, perhaps too much of a hurry), somehow it got me in three places on the lips and four or five on the cheeks. And I was reminded yet again why Paul Prudhomme calls it Cajun Napalm!

By all means, do make your own roux over high heat and don't be afraid of it. Just be careful, more careful than I was! Oh yeah, one other word of wisdom from the been-there-done-that school of learning, don't put your flour into wickedly hot oil as a lot of chefs do. What happens when you pour water into hot oil? It flashes to steam and explodes hot oil everywhere. If your flour contains a lot of water from the ambient humidity, things can go kaboom! Not good.

Epilogue, March 14, 2009: I posted a step-by-step roux making photo essay which you might want to see.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Idiot Fish

No, I'm not talking about the clown you have in your fish bowl that swims upside down and jumps out of the water just for fun. I'm talking about a fish from Alaskan waters, that FLF (funny looking fish) to the right. Photo courtesy of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center/NOAA.

While I really like the name Idiot Fish, I'm thinking that Caricature Fish or Cartoon Fish might be more appropriate. Doesn't it look like a caricature of a fish? The Chinese name which translates to Red Dragon Fish is pretty cool too. The official common name of this fish (Sebastolobus alascanus) is Shortspine Thornyhead. That's not terrible as the names of fish go; it's certainly much better than Salmon or Perch or Bass. It also goes by Rock Cod, Channel Rockcod, Shortspine Channel Rockfish, and Spinycheek Rockfish.

My introduction to this fish started innocently enough. I was at the Freight Station Farmers Market some time ago when Beth Nowak mentioned that her brother, a fisherman in Alaska, had sent her some Idiot Fish and that she would bring me one. And she did. And I cooked it. And it was really good. And she brought me another one to cook at the market yesterday during my fish cooking demonstration, hence this post today.

We don't see this fish on the east coast because they are prized in Japan and the bulk of the catch goes there, especially given that the Japanese are willing to pay a higher price. In Japan, the fish is called Kichiji (although properly that name belongs to a cousin, Sebastolobus macrochir, Broadbanded Thornyhead). There are about nine very similar species of Sebastolobus, many of which get lumped under the name Idiot Fish.

In Japan, the fish is generally served on the bone and is traditionally braised in soy sauce, mirin, and sake. Having tasted the fish, I can see how that would be very delicious. Idiot Fish is very high in oil content; in fact, it reminds me of Sablefish (Alaskan Black Cod) in that regard. The texture is not as firm and in my experience (two fish), you must handle it delicately and it wants to fall apart/melt. I think the Japanese have it right: filets are probably not the best application for this fish.

Sadly, the fish is becoming endangered, so I won't be creating a market for it at the restaurant. That's a shame really, because given its Japanese colloquial name of Kinki, can you imagine what recipe we might devise for it on our April Fool's menu? ;)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Fish, Anyone?

Thanks to everyone who came out to the Freight Station Farmers Market this morning to shop and to sample the fish that I was cooking. Beth Nowak (to the right) sells fish that her brother Jim catches in Alaskan waters and she supplied the samples that I cooked.

Beth gave me some Salmon, smoked Sablefish, and an Idiotfish to work with. Idiotfish is the colloquial name for any of several Rockfish/Scorpionfish that range from the northern US west coast up to Alaska, across the Aleutians, and down to Japan. More on Idiotfish in a subsequent post.

Idiotfish, also known by its Japanese colloquial name kinki, is a high oil (good omega-3 source), white fish. It has a fairly fine texture with an oil content similar to sablefish. It's very tasty and because of the oil can stand up to big flavors. Here it is as Pimentón-Crusted Idiotfish with Chorizo, Tomatoes, Olives, and Almonds.

Here's a piece of salmon (it looked like the tail of a red salmon, but the species doesn't matter) in a red Thai curry with Thai basil and kaffir lime.

Not shown are several dishes including a chowder made from fish stock (from the bones and fins of the Idiotfish and the skin of the Sablefish), smoked Sablefish, parsnips, leeks, onions, Yukon Gold potatoes, bay leaves, thyme, and heavy cream.

Beth was handing out a series of recipes that I developed for her many, many years ago. Ask her for a copy next time you're at the market, if you want tips on how to cook fish. It also goes through standard chowder procedure at length.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Cauliflower Mushrooms, Etc.

We just received the first shipment of the year of cauliflower mushrooms (Sparassis crispa) from our supplier in Oregon yesterday, a day late because he wrecked his truck on Monday, foraging on Mount Hood. That's one of the things that you learn when dealing with small suppliers: they're absolutely focused on getting you the best quality product, but they're people too and their lives do intrude on their businesses.

We've been unable to get product at times because of illness and surgery, problems with children, and any number of the same problems that you and I face on a daily basis. Working with small suppliers is definitely not like calling an 800 number at 10pm at night and having a truck appear at your door the following morning. But warts and all, I wouldn't have it any other way. I like buying from small business owners who are invested in their businesses.

As you can see in the photo, cauliflower mushrooms come by their name for pretty obvious reasons. You can see that they range in color from almost white to the color of egg noodles, with very curly texture to more egg noodle-like texture. The pastry tube gives you a good idea of the size. Although they grow a lot larger, these small ones are the best tasting and least chewy.

Almost nothing smells fresher and more alive than a box of fresh cauliflower mushrooms. When I opened this box, my entire kitchen smelled of pine forest, primal and alive, and better than any air freshener ever concocted. There might also be a hint of cucumber in the fragrance.

Part of the reason for the fragrance may be because they grow on the roots of trees, mainly pine and spruce. It may also be because they are generally loaded with spruce needles, if collected in a spruce forest, so they need careful cleaning. Separate each of the egg noodle-shaped pieces from the tough stems and wash well. Water won't hurt cauliflower mushrooms.

When first faced with these mushrooms years ago, I let their form dictate their use. They look like egg pasta, so I treated them like egg pasta and I have been very happy ever since. And because they are slightly cartilaginous, they hold their shape just like pasta; that is, they don't wilt like other mushrooms. And like pasta, they have a very mild, non-mushroomy flavor, albeit with a touch of pine.

Cauliflower mushrooms are one of my favorite of the edible mushrooms. As my sous chef said last night when tasting the vegan special described below, "I love these mushrooms!"

Last night, a customer booked a table and failed to mention when booking that he is vegan. Fortunately it was slow enough that I could go to his table to talk with him. He asked me if we had any tempeh, seitan, or tofu. No, we don't stock these items, especially without warning. As a rule, I don't play games with meat substitutes. I create vegetarian dishes that proudly feature vegetables rather than meat wannabe products.

As the conversation unfolded (and it was truly like peeling the layers off an onion), I discovered that he doesn't like tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and spicy food. Poof, there went 98% of my standard vegan repertoire. And of course, our vegetarian special, Sweet Potato Risotto with Braised Arugula, was not vegan, not even close.

After hearing the litany of foods that he couldn't or wouldn't eat, I finally asked him in desperation what he would eat, figuring that to be a much shorter list. He started by saying pasta, beans, rice, and salad. A little more prodding from me got him to exclaim that he loves mushrooms. Armed with that, I went back to the kitchen and started to doodle on the back of a menu with my sous chef.

We started with a pasta with roasted artichokes, roasted cipollini, and braised broccolini. We discussed adding various mushrooms and then I remembered the cauliflower mushrooms. Why not scrap the pasta and use the cauliflowers as egg noodles in the "pasta?"

So, we pan-seared quartered artichokes and whole cipollini and put them in the oven to roast, while we blanched broccolini. Into a sauté pan went extra virgin olive oil and about four ounces of cauliflower mushrooms. Once they had cooked a minute or so, in went the artichokes, cipollini, broccolini, and some garlic. We finished it with a splash of white wine to finish braising the broccolini, salt, pepper, and fresh parsley.

I couldn't help but think how good this would be with some sun-dried tomatoes, crushed red pepper flakes, and a swirl of butter to finish it!

I also couldn't help but think how lucky this guy was not to be eating a salad for dinner. Vegans, vegetarians, and others with restricted diets, please do us the courtesy of calling ahead and letting us know about your diet before you spring it on us in the dining room. You'll be happier and we'll be happier.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Guinea Hen

Tonight, local guinea hens begin their run on the menu, until they are exhausted. I have 16 hens from Haskins Family Farm in Middletown, Virginia. Photo courtesy of JoePhoto from

Chefs love guinea hen because they're small enough (about two pounds) to roast and they don't tend to dry out as do pheasants, which is very important for restaurant service. They're also really versatile birds; anything you can do with chicken, you can do with guinea. Customers love guinea hens because they taste more chickeny than chicken. Ask my kids about guinea, if you have any doubt.

Domesticated from birds in the pheasant family that call west Africa home, the average guinea is a good looking black bird with tiny white circular spots all over, making it look silver from a distance.

They're kind of fun to have wandering around the yard—they're hell on bugs—but they have an idiot cackle that can drive you nuts after a while. That cackle makes them pretty reasonable watch animals, though. Nobody surprises you if you have guineas around. But, if you've ever tried to move a flock of them out of the way so that you could move your truck, you'd know they aren't the brightest of creatures.

Here's your daily dose of trivia: a young guinea is called a keet.

Bob and Mary Haskins sell their products including eggs, chickens, guineas, and Berkshire pork at various locations including the farmers market on the Old Town Mall in Winchester on Saturday mornings. You can reach them at

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Chefs and Corn Dogs

Last night, I went to the Monday Night Football game with some friends—Ouch! That Steelers run defense is for real!— and once we got into the stadium, somehow the talk turned to food, which is a little odd, because we just finished tailgating in the parking lot and were well and truly sated.

One of the guys started talking about how nice a corn dog would be with his beer, and then he turned to me and said, "I guess since you're a chef, you don't eat junk food." And this, just after we finished downing tequila-lime chicken wings and pizza roll stuffed with Reuben sandwich ingredients.

Is that how the rest of the world thinks of us? I know that almost nobody will invite a chef to dinner because the food couldn't possibly be good enough. Did you know that most good chefs are omnivores? And that we appreciate any food that we did not have to cook? And that on our salaries (our lack therof), a free meal is a free meal? And that on our day off, the last thing we want to eat is restaurant food?

Come on, I'm the guy who used to spoof corn dogs on our tapas menu by dipping diminiutive Surry sausages into blue corn and Hatch chile batter, frying them, and then serving them with local maple syrup.

So, yeah, that corn dog with my beer sounds just great!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Duck in Kriek

I've always claimed that there are very few original inventions in cooking and anyone who claims to have invented a dish is probably fooling himself. I know that the vast majority of times that I have a novel idea, I can go out on the internet and find that someone has already had that same idea. Here's a case in point.

A customer sent me an email recently stating that he had a bunch of kriek in his basement, asking if I had ever cooked with it and what he might do with it. I answered that I had used it various ways over the years, mostly in desserts. Kriek-macerated fresh fruit is wonderful and kriek makes a great sabayon. I also answered that right now, I feel like braising duck in it with dried sour cherries, shallots, and thyme.

Let me digress to say that kriek is a Belgian beer spontaneously fermented with naturally occuring yeasts. After the primary fermentation, sour cherries are added, causing a secondary fermentation. The beer is dry, a touch sour from the wheat added to the barley and from the native yeasts, and it picks up color, flavor, and aroma from the cherries.

The dish I was seeing in my mind was kriek-braised Moulard duck legs with grilled Moulard duck breast, bacon-roasted Brussels sprouts and chestnuts, and a sauce of the reduced braising liquid augmented with demiglace. Unfortunately, our sprouts are about three weeks away from being ready. I did find some celery root in the market, but not a vast quantity, so I thought I would purée it and stretch it with potatoes.

After I had featured the dish on the menu this past weekend, I got curious. I've never braised duck in kriek before nor ever encountered it, but I couldn't imagine that I am the first to have ever done it, so just for giggles I typed "duck kriek" into the Google oracle to see just how often it had been done before.

The second hit was from a beer dinner in San Francisco that featured:

Duck Braised in Hansens Kriek

Slowly cooked Duck Legs With Shallots, Thyme, Dried Montmorency Cherries

topped with a Duck Kriek Demi-Glace on a Bed of Celery Root Potato Puree

with Milk Poached White Asparagus

This is identical to what I thought of, less the asparagus.

So to the chef who a few years ago took the trouble to call me to let me know that I had ripped off one of his dishes, I say get over yourself friend. I'm willing to bet that hundreds of people did it before you.