Wednesday, April 30, 2008
And as it turns out, you can find a large percentage of the One Block West staff at our favorite sushi bar on Sunday afternoons, when our favorite chef is behind the counter. And for our company Christmas party we had—you guessed it—sushi and just a wee little bit of Cava. Have you ever noticed how well sparkling wine goes with sushi?
My staff have more time to make the sushi bar than do I, mainly because I have to negotiate the maze of food likes and dislikes of my kids and my younger daughter will not countenance sushi. Sunday afternoons are the only time I get to spend with my daughters during the week and I'm not going without my kids. Yeah, this restaurant business is terrible like that.
Long story short, thirteen-year old daughter number one will try just about any food while ten-year old daughter number two has a list of dislikes that dwarfs her list of likes. Sound familiar? Last Sunday, daughter number two and a friend took off to the coffee shop for stale sandwiches, so daughter number one and I hit the sushi bar. I was going to call some servers to join me, but it was just barely 1pm, and they mainly don't get moving by that time of day on Sunday.
Let me digress a bit to explain how I selected this sushi bar.
My approach to any new sushi bar is the same. I walk up to the bar and greet the chef, all the while looking at the quality of the fish and the neatness of his station. I handle fish all day long, every day, so I can tell at a glance how fresh the fish is. If the bar and the chef pass the 30-second visual test, I will sit down and order. Otherwise, I will sit at a table, order some soba and never return.
Once at the bar, I ask for a single order of maguro (tuna). This is a test of two things: the quality of the tuna, naturally, but more importantly, the quality of the rice. So many places slack on the rice, figuring that gaijin can't tell the difference. If the maguro and rice do not pass muster, I order a bowl of soba and a beer from the server and call it a day.
Once beyond the maguro test, I order the saba (mackerel). I am looking to see if the chef pickles his own mackerel or whether he buys it already pickled. If this is successful, I move on to ordering tamagoyaki or tamago, the acid test of a chef's skill.
Like making a western omelet, making a Japanese omelet takes skill and practice. Anyone can make an omelet, but it takes a lot of experience to make a perfect omelet. I'm looking first to see if the tamago is made in house and then how well cooked it is. It should be just set with no browning. The seasoning should be just so. Often tamago is too sweet. And the layers should be tightly rolled.
Once the tamago hurdle is passed, the sushi chef knows that I know exactly what I am doing and I know that he knows exactly what he is doing. We're at a point of mutual respect. Next, I invite the chef to serve me what he will, asking for omakase onegaishimasu, literally asking him for the favor of entrusting myself to him. I also tell him that when I am ready to stop eating, I will order uni (sea urchin roe) as my "dessert." That way, he does not have to guess when I am finished.
From that first visit on, I never order again. After greeting the chef, I sit down and the food starts coming until I ask for the uni. Which is precisely what happened this past Sunday when my daughter and I sat down.
The first dish we were served was a plate of beautiful hamachi (yellowtail or kingfish, but most commonly called hamachi). I noticed immediately that we were favored with four slices of loin and four slices of beautiful belly, the prime real estate on most fish, the so-called toro.
I managed to eat one slice of each before starting to look through a knife catalog with one of the other chefs. I'm considering purchasing a yanagi (a sashimi knife) and boning up on my sushi skills, mostly out of professional curiosity.
When I turned back around to get another slice of sashimi, I found that sushi monster daughter number one had struck. The plate was bare. Although I pretended to be mad that she ate all the toro hamachi, secretly I was very pleased because this is only her third experience and previously, she had limited herself primarily to tuna and various less palate challenging maki. We went on to enjoy a two and a half hour lunch.
Afterwards, she said, "Tuna is still my favorite, then comes hamachi." But after a second of pondering that she said, "No, hamachi collar is my second favorite, then hamachi." Hamachi collar is the deep fried neck of the fish, an outstanding treat.
Even though I love sushi and spending time with my kids, there is something more sinister at play here. Deep down in my meanest core, I'm just preparing my daughter to be the most expensive date that little SOB down the street ever had. Kid, if you want to take my daughter out, you'd better man up and eat some sashimi and you'd better bring a couple of C notes with you while you're at it! You don't think she's paying, do you?
Monday, April 28, 2008
Customer reception was uniformly positive, one customer stating, "That may have been the best veal I ever had."
This is a recipe for chefs; you'll want to scale this down for home use and no doubt, you'll need to substitute beef brisket for veal, unless you have a really good butcher shop. Also, the techniques and presentation are for restaurants: you can either mimic them or not as you see fit.
Veal Brisket with Vietnamese Spices
For 20-24 portions:
4 Le Québécois veal point end briskets (about 16 pounds)
1/2 cup white sugar
1 cup soy sauce
1 bunch green onions
1/2 bunch cilantro, with roots if possible
1 yellow onion, sliced
4 stalks lemongrass, roughly chopped
16 star anise pods
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
2 cinnamon sticks
3 inch section ginger, sliced
2 Thai chiles
1. Heat a braising pan over high flame, film with vegetable oil, and sear hard both sides of each brisket, being careful not to burn the fond.
2. Remove briskets from pan and pour off oil.
3. Add sugar to pan and cook to light caramel.
4. Deglaze with soy sauce and a quart of water.
5. Add the remaining ingredients to the pan and place the briskets over.
6. Add water to come about half way up the briskets.
7. Cover and braise until tender, 4-6 hours.
8. Remove meat to a hotel pan and chill.
9. Pass the stock through a chinois and defat. Reserve stock for service.
20-24 large cipollini onions, roasted
60-72 green onions, cleaned and trimmed at about 6-8 inches long
hoisin sauce, in a squeeze bottle
star anise pods
1. Slice a portion of veal (three slices about 3/8" thick, about 8 ounces) across the grain.
2. Reheat 4 ounces of reserved stock in a sauté pan.
3. Add three green onions, a cipollino, a squirt of hoisin sauce, and the veal to the stock.
4. Depending on the saltiness of the stock, lightly season the veal.
5. Finish in a hot oven, turning the veal once, until the green onions are cooked and everything is hot.
6. Reduce the stock over high flame as desired.
1. Fan the three slices of veal in the well of a large soup plate.
2. Garnish the top of the fan with the cipollino.
3. Drape the green onions over.
4. Place a whole star anise pod on top of the cipollino.
5. Broth over all.
6. Zigzag with hoisin.
Sunday, April 27, 2008
And Apple Blossom generally cannot arrive soon enough, given that our last day off would have been for our annual summer vacation in August. In short, we're exhausted and happy to get the final dinner service behind us and to kick off our week without customers. And what a send off we got last night!
Dinner service was truly nuts. The first ticket hit the kitchen at 5:00PM sharp, the first table having arrived 10 minutes early.* And for the next four and a half hours, the tickets were relentless.
*It's not good form to show up at a restaurant before opening hours. We generally keep the front door locked so that we can finish our server briefing before customers come in, but we left the door unlocked last night so as not to strand early arrivers outside in the pouring rain.
To put things in perspective, we only have 18 tables inside and at most times, we were cooking for no fewer than seven or eight of them, all night long. Fortunately and because of the incredible August-like thundershowers and downpours, we were only seating inside, so the twelve outside tables were missing from the mix. That would have been sheer chaos on top of chaos.
To compound matters, 90 percent of the entrée mix was on my station, the sauté station. When we plan a menu, we try to balance the dishes so that if they are ordered randomly, the dishes will divide equally among all the stations in the kitchen, balancing the work load among all the chefs. Not so last night. I got hammered all night long. Truth be told, I live for that, but at the end of a long, long week, I was exhausted. I kid you not that I was beat by the time the last entrée left the kitchen at 10:15.
But, it was a hell of a send off into our week of vacation!
Saturday, April 26, 2008
Thanks to all our customers who braved the heat and thunderstorms to come support us and Old Town at the wine festival! And, here's to a little GWI with friends!
Friday, April 25, 2008
Mussels with Parsley and Garlic; Mayonesa Verde
Shrimp in Escabeche on Rustic Olive Bread
Cavas Castillo de Perelada Blanc Pescador NV
The Blanc Pescador is a delicious, slightly sparkling vino de aguja that is a slam dunk with shellfish. I cannot eat tapas without eating mussels, so I made this dish of marinated steamed mussels for me. After steaming the mussels, I reduced the mussel liquor with garlic and parsley, then used it as a base for a light vinaigrette. The green mayonnaise brought a fresh herbal quality to the dish.
Tapas, at least here in America, are no longer totally the province of Spain, witnessed by this classic Peruvian escabeche of shrimp, shrimp poached in a court bouillon and marinated in a red wine vinaigrette with sweated carrots and onions, oregano and parsley. I love cold seafood salads when the weather turns warm and the weather just turned warm.
Wild Mushroom Canapés
Tortilla Española with Porcini Mushrooms; Herbed Goat Cheese Mousse
Cavas Castillo de Perelada Tinto Crianza Empordà 2004
Originally, the wine distributor wanted to place this wine near the end of the tasting, but it is a very light-bodied red with black and red cherry fruit, reminding me of a Burgundy or Sangiovese in weight and texture. I detected a slight smoky note in the wine and thought to amplify this by pairing it with mushrooms.
Canapés are a classic tapas form. I sautéed a big batch of Yellowfoot Chanterelles with shallots and thyme and topped grilled slices of baguette. For the tortilla, I riffed on the traditional potato tortilla that you will find in every tapas bar in the world. In my reworking of the dish, I rehydrated dried porcini, then strained and reduced the porcini broth to a few tablespoonfuls. I mixed this broth in with the eggs and lots of fresh thyme. I built the tortillas by layering potatoes, porcini, thinly sliced yellow onion, and local Everona Dairy Piedmont sheep cheese.
Paella Cake; Pimentón Sauce
Piquillo Pepper Stuffed with Spicy Chickpea and Olive Salad
Finca El Paso Monastrell Jumilla 2005
This Monastrell is a full-bodied, fruity red that can stand up to pretty much any red wine food that you can throw at it. I thought that the fruit would like a little spice to play against, so I spiced up the Piquillos del Lodoso just a bit.
The best part of a paella is the socarrat, the crust at the bottom of the pan, so I devised a way many years ago to get lots more crust. I make a basic paella, without the large meat ingredients, bind it with eggs and grated sheep cheese, form it into cakes, and crisp both sides in a pan. The inside is creamy and the outside is crunchy: irresistible.
We are well known for stuffing piquillos—I say they are the world's best sweet red peppers—with just about everything imaginable. Customers had requested bacalao, salt cod, picadillo dulce de cordero, sweet and sour lamb, and just about everything in our repertoire. I wanted to do something that none of the regulars had tasted before and I needed to keep this course vegetarian, so I made a salad of chickpeas, red onion, and green olives dressed with pimentón, olive oil, garlic, and chile paste.
Grilled Banderilla of Potato, Olive & Chorizo; Picada
Albóndigas of Wild Boar Picadillo Dulce in Romesco Sauce
Ribas del Cúa Adras Roble 2004
The Adras is another full-bodied red, so I decided to throw some flavor its way. I've been making banderillas (anything on a small skewer, designed mainly to be eaten as a single bite) for years, but have only recently been designing banderillas to be grilled. These were a tiny local fingerling potato, a large queen olive, and a round of chorizo. The picada is a green sauce that I associate with the Basque regions of Spain (as opposed to France).
And here's the picadillo dulce that customers were clamoring for. The twist this time, wild boar rather than lamb, and rather than stuff it into piquillos, I formed it into traditional meatballs and slow-cooked them in romesco sauce, a roasted red pepper sauce. I wing my picadillo each time that I make it, but the basic idea is that ground meat is seasoned with garlic, herbs, onions, Poblano (green) chiles, sweet spices, almonds, white raisins, and made sweet and sour with brown sugar and apple cider vinegar.
Pinchitos Morunos of Wild Boar; Blood Orange Picada
Smoked Duck with Rioja Blood Orange Risotto
Finca La Emperatriz Rioja Crianza 2003
My first impression on tasting this Rioja was of orange peel, so I decided to emphasize that in the tapas. I boned out a boar shoulder, cut it into bite-sized cubes (pinchitos), and marinated it in various herbs, spices, blood orange zest, and olive oil. We then grilled little skewers of the pinchitos and drizzled them with a green sauce augmented with blood orange juice and zest.
The smoky flavors in the duck were a natural for this elegant and restrained wine. I used the same wine to make a risotto (yes, once very Italian, but increasingly well known throughout Spain) flavored with blood orange juice and zest. I actually had to add just a touch of sugar to tame the acid in the wine and orange juice. To serve, we placed a fan of duck breast down on the plate with a quenelle of risotto over.
Local Everona Dairy Piedmont Sheep Cheese; Dried Cherries; Membrillo
Cavas Castillo de Perelada Cava NV
With a sparkling wine coming last, I had to keep the sweetness down or the wine would come across sour. Here, I riffed on the classic French Basque brébis (sheep cheese) with black cherry jam. I didn't want the sweetness of the jam, so I substituted some perfectly balanced dried sour cherries, and then added a slice of quince paste for just a touch of earthy sweetness.
Monday, April 21, 2008
In recent days, this is a frequently asked question in the dining room. Fregola, pronounced FREG-o-lah or FRAY-go-lah, is a tasty Sardinian pasta that we enjoy for its nutty flavor. As you can see in the picture, it fairly resembles Israeli couscous, another favorite pasta here at the restaurant.
But there are two big differences between the two pastas. In the photo, you can clearly see that fregola is not a consistent color. The pasta bits are toasted after they are dried, changing the color and more importantly, yielding that nutty flavor that is so addictive. The second difference is that fregola is made from coarse semolina, so it has a good bit more rustic character than more refined pastas such as Israeli couscous.
I'm still exploring the boundaries of what you can do with fregola. I do know that it works extremely well in soup, softening without becoming mushy. I also know that when I boil it until it is soft, about 25 minutes, I can make a hell of a flan with it by baking it in a savory custard base. Fregola flan makes a dramatic and sensuous base for grilled and roasted meats.
A natural thing to try is to cook it risotto style and I have done so with outstanding results. It makes a great pilaf, a great ersatz tabouleh, an unusual biryani, an off-the-wall posole, and so many other things. I even substituted it in clam chowder in place of potatoes—yum!
The way that we most use it here at the restaurant is to cook it, chill it, and reheat it at service with a little butter and Pecorino Romano cheese. It's hard to beat this as a neutral foil for a roast or grilled meat.
Available on the web and at retail for $5-$7 per pound and well worth it. Yes, pricey in terms of pasta, but you can stuff a family of four on fregola for $6, a bargain by almost any measure.
Sunday, April 20, 2008
In anticipation of nice weather, this morning I put on shorts and a golf shirt, but quickly went for a pullover to ward off the damp and chill. I almost want a fire. Despite the rain's intrusion on my day off, the sound of it dancing on the tin roof as I sit here and type is very calming and relaxing—or is that the glass of wine at work? I have just poured a glass of fantastic Linden Hardscrabble Chardonnay 2005. Jim, if you're reading this, thank you for this Meursault clone made right here in Virginia.
As soon as I went for the pullover this morning thinking of a fire, I knew it was a soup day. Do you love soup? I do. There is something so comforting about soup. Truly, I know why you customers come in to the restaurant and ask for soup at dinner, even though it is not on the menu. I just wish you'd buy it when I take the effort to put it on the menu.
I had to go down to the restaurant this morning to get about three hours of work out of the way before my wife and kids return from grandma's. While I was there, the call of soup was so strong that I braved the pouring rain to stop in next door to Frédéric's café for a bowl of his mother's puréed vegetable soup.
And once back at the restaurant, I liberated a leek, some baby carrots, some roasted cipollini onions, a few less than presentable asparagus, an already peeled parsnip (now why was that in the cooler?), a couple celery stalks, some diced tomatoes, a potato, some garlic, a bunch of really wilted green onions, a bit each of thyme, basil, oregano, and sage, a big handful of parsley, and half a loaf of rustic olive bread. I wish I had some fresh bird egg beans or borlotti!
These things will accompany the chicken carcass that I cooked last weekend and that the kids have picked over all week. I'll toast the olive bread and place a slice in the bottom of a soup bowl, ladle the soup over, drizzle on a little really good olive oil, and shave on some Pecorino Romano.
Here's my basic procedure for chicken vegetable soup.
Make stock from chicken, leek leaves, green onions, bay leaf, parsley, ends of celery, and tough ends of asparagus.
Strain and defat stock; return to pot at simmer and slowly reduce.
When cool, pick the meat from the chicken and reserve.
Add the long cooking vegetables to the stock: potatoes, celery, onions, parsnips, tomatoes, etc.
Add the meat, herbs, garlic, shallots, and short cooking vegetables such as baby carrots to the stock.
Friday, April 18, 2008
While our snappers are red in color and customers call them Red Snapper, they are not true Red Snapper, Lutjanus campechanus, a highly prized and heavily sought fish found over rocky areas and reefs on both coasts of the US and in the Gulf of Mexico. Sadly, true Red Snapper is consistently overfished, so we do not offer it on the menu here.
When we buy snapper for our menu, we specify B-liners or Vermilion Snapper, Rhomboplites aurorubens, an abundant snapper whose fishery seems to be fairly well managed, at least as far as I can tell sitting here in the restaurant.
While we are consciously trying to sell B-liners because they don't appear to be overfished, other unscrupulous companies sell B-liners as true Red Snapper. This is simple profiteering—selling a less valuable species as a more valuable species.
Another contributing factor is that some fisherman call any snapper with red skin a Red Snapper. Such species include Vermilion Snapper, Lane Snapper, Mutton Snapper, and Silk Snapper.
Once such fish gets to retail as fillets, it is very difficult to determine what species is on offer, DNA studies aside. This is another reason I only buy whole fish.
Thursday, April 17, 2008
Her: "I'd like to book a table for dinner tonight for a birthday. And I have a special request."
Me: "Sure, what's the special request?"
Her: "Do you do special desserts for birthdays?"
Me: "Yes we do from time to time. What did you have in mind?"
Her: "Can you do a peanut butter pie?"
Me: "Unfortunately, I don't have any peanut butter."
Me: "We have some really nice desserts on our dessert list or perhaps we could make you something else?" [Yeah, like my 52-seat restaurant has a fully staffed pastry department standing around waiting to turn out confections with two-hour notice for those customers who fail to plan ahead.]
Her: "I don't know."
Me: "What time did you want to book the table?"
Her: "I'm going to call around for peanut butter pie."
Me: "Good luck with that."
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
He ordered our lunch ravioli special, filled with ricotta and organic pesto (made from both pine nuts and walnuts), and then refused the dish when it got to the table because it was garnished with pine nuts, stating that he had a nut allergy.
What if he hadn't seen the pine nuts and had eaten the ravioli?
What if he ordered a salad that contained no nuts, but the cook who assembled the salad tossed it in a bowl in which he just tossed a salad containing nuts?
What if the cook seared his tuna on the same flat-top grill on which he just cooked an order of hazelnut-crusted mahimahi?
What if the cook sliced his chicken with a knife that he just used to crush walnuts for a salad?
Why play roulette? And moreover, why do it in my restaurant?
Monday, April 14, 2008
While waiting to hit my shots, I was running through my mental checklists for tomorrow, including the prep lists for two magazine photo shoots. It was on the golf course that it dawned on me that in an amazing coincidence, both editors asked that I prepare dishes containing Surry Sausage, a smoked pork sausage from the S. Wallace Edwards Company in Surry, VA.
Customers love this sausage. I love this sausage. When I do demos in public using this sausage, people try to buy all the sausage that I have brought for the demo! It is that good. There's more information on these sausages in my January 2008 newsletter.
You'll be happy to know that even though I have to buy a minimum of 20 pounds at a time, you can buy smaller retail packages directly from Edwards at www.virginiatraditions.com. You want either item number 89, a 5-pound package, or item number 100, two 2-pound gift packages. These sausages freeze very well.
Sunday, April 13, 2008
I buy items in very small quantities and I change my menu daily, replacing the items that sell out with new ones, so I rarely have situations where dishes just don't move.
But I encountered just such a situation this week. A customer requested that we put a chicken dish on the menu for his group of 22 people. We rarely ever have chicken on the menu for the simple reason that it's what most people eat at home, and they are not coming to One Block West to eat what they eat at home. Or at least that's my rationalization for not putting an ingredient that I find extremely boring on the menu.
But, when I do put chicken on the menu (folks, I will not verb a noun and say "when I menu chicken"), say a roasted poussin or a tagine of chicken with olives and preserved lemons, it flies off the menu. A lot of customers perceive chicken as a safe option when faced with a menu that includes bison, wild boar, ostrich, squab, and sashimi. And I think that's what my customer was looking for: something safe for his guests.
Knowing that, I recreated a dish that I had in a private home in Burgundy: a freshly killed chicken stewed in white Burgundy with fresh herbs and vegetables from the garden behind the house, finished with some heavy cream. The grandmother that prepared this dish was justifiably proud of it. It was pure, simple, fresh, and clearly of the moment.
I gussied the dish up a bit for restaurant service. I braised bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs* in Chardonnay with leeks and a bouquet garni, then skinned and defatted the chicken when done. From the stock, I made a thyme-infused cream sauce. I poached tournéed baby carrots and haricots verts separately and roasted cipollini onions. At service, I reheated the chicken in the cream sauce and added the perfectly cooked vegetables at the last second to warm through. All the components were carefully plated in a large bowl, napped with the sauce, and garnished with fresh thyme. In short, it was a gorgeous, elegant, and tasty dish.
*Yes, I said thighs, which have all the flavor in the chicken. Don't get me started on boneless, skinless chicken breasts—the Wonder® Bread of the chicken world. That's a topic for a rant and this post is not a rant.
In honor of the grandmother whose name I have forgotten, I named the dish quite simply enough Poulet Grandmère and it appeared on the menu thus:
Chicken Stewed in White Wine; Served with Baby Vegetables in an Herb Cream Sauce
The result: we sold none of the 20 portions I prepared. Of the 50-plus entrées ordered that night, zero were chicken. As I mentioned above, we never strike out with chicken. After dinner service, I went back to my desk to ponder this.
I came to two conclusions. First, people were likely put off by the French name of the dish. I'm guessing that they wouldn't venture to pronounce* it or they read only the bold type and didn't understand that poulet is chicken. Second, if they read the description, they may have been put off by "stewed," thinking it too homey a dish for fine dining.
*How do you learn to pronounce things if you don't try? When faced with a menu item I cannot pronounce (Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, etc.), I ask my server. Then one of two things happens. The server says, "I don't have a clue!" and we all have a great laugh. Or, the server and I go back and forth until I get the pronunciation down. Either way, the pronunciation does not stop me from ordering.
Sitting at my desk, I made two changes to the menu for the next night, thus:
Chicken with Baby Vegetables
Chicken Slow-Cooked in White Wine; Served with Baby Vegetables in an Herb Cream Sauce
And the result? Fourteen portions sold. And you thought that all we chefs have to do is worry about cooking!
Saturday, April 12, 2008
I'm really happy today because although I have received a couple of phone calls over the last couple of days asking if we were buying, these are the first morels that I have in hand. Yesterday's 80+ temperature no doubt helped things along and these morels were just picked this morning.
These in the photo are local black morels (Morchella elata), very small in size. The big blondes (M. deliciosa) will come later. There were several large black ones in this batch, but they disappeared!
My aunt and uncle made a rare foray to the big city from their house in Wild Wonderful, West By God (West Virginia for you non-locals) and happened to be sitting in the dining room when the morels arrived. I stuffed the two biggest morels with crab meat, dipped them in egg wash and then in flour, fried them, and sent them to the fam. The remaining large morels accompanied them home. My aunt is a great cook and I know that they will have an outstanding dinner.
The remaining small ones are going on tonight's special board. Our season here will last two to three weeks, weather depending. We'll switch to morels from our forager in Oregon once the local supply dwindles, just to extend our season. The ones we get from the west coast are most often what they call grey morels. These are actually just a color variant of the common or yellow morel (M. esculenta).
To clean morels, brush off any dirt and cut off any part of the stem that is tough. Slice the big ones open and make sure that they're clean inside. Although I have seen people wash morels in water, I'm not a fan. I think it hurts the texture.
The season is upon us. Eat up!
Friday, April 11, 2008
Charmoula, often transliterated from Arabic as chermoula, is the green sauce from northern Africa: Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. The basic theme is a lot of cilantro, a little parsley (3:1 ratio), olive oil, lemon juice, a bit of garlic, and that's about where the commonality in recipes ceases.
Each cook adds his or her own touches to personalize the sauce: ras al hanout, cumin, green chiles, cayenne pepper or paprika, onion, lemon zest or preserved lemon, and so forth. Ras al hanout is another can of worms: it's a blend of many spices such as cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, paprika, cayenne, black pepper and so forth and so on ad nauseum. You think charmoula recipes vary? You should get into a "discussion" someday about the definitive ras al hanout mixture!
This whole thread reminds me that I bought some gorgeous cilantro at the farmers market this morning to accompany my dinner special: Huachinango en Mojo de Ajo (whole roasted red snapper with garlic paste). I'm thinking that charmoula might just be a great finishing touch, but I think we'll call it salsa verde.
Thursday, April 10, 2008
The best cut of beef for braising (besides the shin) is a small (about 4 pound, 2 kg) roast from the shoulder. It sits between the shoulder blade and the neck and is called variously upper blade roast or top blade roast. My butcher calls it by the French name paleron. By whatever name, it has outstanding flavor.
In the trade, specify NAMP 114D. This brochure shows the full shoulder clod broken down into primals: the paleron is the roast labeled 'c' in the photo.
The roast comprises two long, flat steaks sandwiching a layer of connective tissue. Generally in grocery stores, the roast will be skinned and split horizontally (removing the cartilage) into what are called flat-iron steaks or upper blade steaks. These flat steaks are best grilled like any other steak.
Sometimes the roast will be sliced vertically into small steaks (often called petite steaks) with the connective tissue in the center. Although you can grill these, this is really a braising cut. What makes this cut ideal is that with long, slow braising, the connective tissue melts into unctuousness.
Back in 2005, I published a recipe on the restaurant web site for braising these petite steaks.
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
This conversation reminded me of the early days of working with our lamb supplier. Their butcher clearly had never worked with racks before. We would get in racks that were not well frenched (to french a rack is to clean off the rib bone tips for presentation—this is the standard rack you're used to seeing) and the chine bones would still be intact, preventing us from cutting the racks into chops. With much persistence, our lamb supplier got that corrected.
These two instances remind me just how difficult it is to find anyone who knows how to cut meat anymore. It's a sad state of affairs when I know more about it than the people cutting meat for me. In an interesting coincidence, just after I got off the phone with my game supplier this morning, someone from a brand new butcher shop came by the restaurant and left some business cards. Wouldn't it be nice to think that they know what they're doing? The cynic in me says it would be naïve to think that. We'll see.
If you have a local butcher shop, do your best to support it, before nobody understands how to cut meat any longer.
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
If I recall correctly from those years of studying Old French and its precursor languages, the term mesclun comes from the south of France (from Langue d'Oc [Occitan] mescla from Old Occitan mesclar from Latin misculare) meaning mix. You'll note the similarity to the Latin in the modern Italian word for mesclun: misticanza.
In years past, mesclun referred to a mix of baby salad greens harvested in the wild, a mix with a lot of character and interesting, often bitter greens. In recent years however, these greens have undergone refinement and cultivation even in France, and while the French mix is decidedly richer in bitter greens and interest than the American mix, both are generally less interesting than in years past. In the US in particular, mesclun has seen a real dumbing down.
True mesclun contains greens, herbs, and sometimes flowers that are highly perishable and perishability is not a good trait for greens that have to travel the breadth of the US and still have some shelf life. Moreover, the American palate generally does not warm to bitter greens, so the so-called commercial mesclun mixes are now largely mild lettuces.
This isn't all that bad because we now have access to much more interesting lettuce mixes all year long than we had fifteen years ago. So, if mesclun is dumber, lettuce has gotten smarter. And I think more producers are owning up to the truth: most cases of greens that I see are labeled Spring Mix.
The best way I know to have great mesclun is to grow your own. In the years before chefdom, I used to collect interesting seeds from everywhere I went and I would create my own mixes. Stored in the freezer, the seeds would germinate well for many years.
After the exchange with the customer last week, I really didn't think any more about mesclun until I went on my produce company's web site (I can't wait for local lettuce season!) last night to order some salad greens for today. There on my order sheet was Lettuce, Mesculin Mix.
The word mesculin struck me immediately as a typo. But in the business, we hear it frequently enough. It's a really dumb, long standing, late night produce order joke: "You got any mescaline?" Stupid cook humor.
I have my doubts that mesculin is a real word. In Googling about the web, I found a couple of references that state that mesculin is derived directly from the Latin root without the intervening Occitan transformation. (You don't believe everything you read on the web, do you?) But I never could find any substantiation of this, nor could I find mesculin in any dictionary including the OED. (But my OED doesn't contain mesclun either—Oxonians, next time you get to 'M', it's time.) If anyone can document that mesculin is a real word, post a comment.
Monday, April 7, 2008
So said a customer to me on Saturday night in reference to the vibrant green sauce on her grilled veal skirt steak. While this sauce is good, mighty good, I might not give up my firstborn for it as this woman seemed inclined to do. Still, it is a simple and marvelous complement to any grilled meat, which is its role on its home turf in Argentina, where it is on practically every table and where grilled meat (asado) is practically a sport.
The first time I ever encountered chimichurri, I thought "this is nothing but a slightly modified Piemontese salsa verde." This shouldn't be surprising because Argentina was settled in large part by Italians. Like its provincial Italian forebear, chimichurri is a roughly chopped sauce. But, unlike salsa verde which often uses hard-boiled egg yolk as an emulsifier, chimichurri separates easily.
In Argentina and now throughout South America, each cook's sauce is slightly different from every other and if the truth be told, each time a cook makes the same sauce, it is different: a reflection of mood and ingredients on hand. Certainly, I never make the same sauce twice. My ingredients are fairly classical, though more sauces than not contain oregano and fewer contain cilantro. And shallots are a nod to fine dining: rough sauces would contain only garlic. Suit yourself.
Here's my rough starting point:
3/4 c red wine vinegar
1 bunch of Italian parsley, destemmed and roughly chopped
8-10 sprigs cilantro, destemmed and roughly chopped
2 large shallots, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 t black pepper
1/2 t salt
1/2 t crushed red pepper flakes
3/4 c extra virgin olive oil
And here's my rough procedure:
Chimichurri is not a smooth sauce. When I have time, I pound the solid ingredients out in a mortar and then add the oil and vinegar and season to taste. When I am pressed for time, as Saturday, or when I am making a big batch, the big VitaMix blender comes to the rescue. I might have used the RobotCoupe instead, but it was dirty.
When using a blender, make sure not to overblend. I add the vinegar, the rough chopped parsley/cilantro/oregano, and the rough chopped shallots and pulse the blender just to break the ingredients down into a chunky sauce. Then I mix in all the rest of the ingredients by hand and season to my whim.
Now on Saturday, after mixing up the batch for dinner, I thought it needed more bite, both from acid and from spice, so I added a couple extra tablespoons of red wine vinegar (I was going to add lemon juice, but the vinegar was at hand and the lemon was not), another big pinch of black pepper, and a larger pinch of crushed red pepper flakes. After it sat for an hour, it certainly got better, but I thought it needed more salt, so I added an extra pinch.
What I am trying to illustrate here is that recipes are merely guidelines and that ingredients, mood, circumstances, and the phase of the moon all influence the end product. At some point in your cooking career, you have to liberate yourself from recipes and cook by feel. Chimichurri is a great place to start.
Like some of us chefs, chimichurri gets better with age. Better to make it a day ahead. Refrigerate if the Health Department is looking over your shoulder.
Saturday, April 5, 2008
So it wasn't until we were packing up that I noticed the pan of sweetbreads in my cooler, untouched. It's been a long time since I've run sweetbreads on the menu. In the best of times, they sell only slowly, which is a real shame for they are superb eating. Even if we don't sell them, they won't go to waste. The staff will make short work of them.
As I was putting the pan back in the walk-in, I thought it was really a shame to go through all the hard work—soaking the sweetbreads in many changes of cold water, poaching them, peeling and cleaning them, and weighting and pressing them—and then to have nobody order them.
Customers always want to know what sweetbreads are. They're one of two glands, the long and narrow thymus from the neck, or the plumper and rounder pancreas from near the stomach. This batch I have now is some really prime pancreas glands and the large ones such as this give us many more cooking options. Although they can come from several animals, we always serve the very mild veal sweetbreads. They have a very mild veal flavor with a creamy texture that makes them one of the world's great delicacies.
I plan to slice them into roughly centimeter thick slices, dredge them in flour, and sauté them with a bit of pancetta. Then I will deglaze the pan with a bit of shallots and white wine, and finish with a touch of veal demiglace and butter. The sauce will go over the sweetbreads. Those that are brave enough to order this dish will be happy indeed.
Friday, April 4, 2008
Last night was one of those magical nights in this business when we were very busy (on a normally slow Thursday night when it was pouring rain and sleet) and yet every table came out to have a good time. The happiness in the dining room was palpable even in the kitchen.
It was also a special night because one of our regular tables returned. This couple live in New York state, but winter in Florida. Each year for the past four years, they have stopped at our restaurant on the way back to New York. And we anticipate their visit each year.
Does four visits in four years make you a regular? You tell me. We know their names; we know them by sight; we know about their business and their children and grandchildren; they have their table; she tells the server, "Ed knows how I want my steak." And each year, she asks for an extra napkin and water goblet and she folds the napkin into a beautiful rose and places it the water goblet.
This year, I was so busy that she brought the rose into the kitchen and gave it to me along with a hug. All four roses are displayed on the shelf in my office like trophies, as reminders of why I am really in this business.
This business, as hard as it is, can be extremely rewarding.
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
Today I picked a dish from a highly respected magazine for professional chefs. I'm not naming names because it is not my intent to embarrass anyone. I'm not picking fault here either: this is only an exercise in thinking about my menu. Each chef has different ideas about his own menu and my comments here are about my menu, not about the menu from which this dish came.
The dish in question is entitled "Chardonnay Poached Maine Diver Scallops with Lobster Roe & Fava Bean/Squash Blossom/Ramp Succotash." I don't know whose title this is; certainly the magazine editors could have taken liberties with it. Also, I suspect that the accompanying photo was done in a studio and does not represent how the chef would have plated it.
The photo shows an oval plate holding three bay scallop shells. Those shells have a succotash of fava beans and yellow corn down, with a couple of red pear tomatoes and a poached sea scallop over. The three scallops are curved around a squash bloom draped like a discarded petticoat on the plate next to a puddle of orange sauce. Over the top of all is draped a poached green onion.
My initial reaction to the photo and to the title is that there is way too much going on in this dish. My constant mantra for my chefs is "Simplify. Simplify. Simplify." I think most young chefs go through a phase where too much is not enough. Only with experience comes the ability to step back from a dish and question each ingredient so that you can distill it to its essence.
My second reaction is that the dish is very hard to carry to the dining room and very hard to eat. From a server's point of view (which far too many chefs ignore), the scallop shells are resting on bare plate guaranteeing that they are going to skate around the plate as the server goes to the table. Where the chef put them is not where they are going to end up. A favorite trick of mine when working with scallop shells is to put a dab of mashed potato on the plate to glue the scallop shell in place.
From the diner's point of view, first there is the issue of this poached green onion. It surely must be cut to be eaten, yet there is no real estate on the plate where the customer can cut it. Second, I wonder how the customer is going to cut the scallops and the tomatoes without rocking the scallop shell boats.
Visually, the green onion adds confusion to the plate and the tomatoes stand out for being much larger than the succotash that they accompany. The sauce and the scallops might look a lot better if the sauce draped the scallops. Again, this is personal preference as are all these points that I make.
From a composition point of view, I don't understand what the tomatoes contribute to the dish. The squash bloom doesn't seem to add anything either. And, if I had lobster roe in hand, I'd probably serve it with lobster and not scallops. Moreover, if you have ever eaten a ramp, you know that it is an excruciatingly garlicky affair. Do you really want to pair a very subtly flavored Chardonnay-poached scallop with a hugely garlicky ramp?
But my biggest problem with this dish is its blatant disregard for seasonality. Let's review the availability of the ingredients in my area:
Scallops—mostly year round, unless the fleet has fished its quota
Tomatoes—August and September
Favas—May and early June
Squash blooms—late June through frost
Corn—mid-July through late September
In our area, there is no way that the spring ingredients can be at market at the same time as the summer ingredients.
Finally, one of my cooks posed the question that you are no doubt kicking around: "What would you do?"
Here are three off-the-cuff ideas:
1. Stuff the squash blooms with ricotta and scallop roe and lightly tempura them. Use the squash blooms as a base for the scallops with the sauce over the top. Garnish with micro-arugula to cut through the richness.
2. Purée the favas and put them down as the base for caramelized scallops (rather than poached). Put the sauce over and garnish with tiny fiddlehead ferns, small morels, and bits of crispy ramp.
3. Use a fresh corn (or even corn and baby Lima bean) risotto as a base for the scallops and sauce with a chunky vinaigrette of fresh tomato and cucumber. Garnish with small or micro-basil.
This offers a little insight into my philosophy of cooking, which is different from other chefs' philosophies. But that's one of the beauties of this world: different strokes for different folks.
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
You probably need some background to understand what I'm talking about. Modern tomatoes are bred to be uniform in size with a thick skin, and picked dead green and rock hard. That way, they pack into standard containers and ship easily with less bruising.
Then somewhere along the line, somebody puts these green rocks in a closed environment and pumps the container full of ethylene gas (hence the term 'gas tomato'). This gas causes the physiologically unripe green tomato to turn into a flavorless red rock. Then your grocer piles the rocks onto the produce shelf for you to buy.
The restaurant trade is partly to blame for this situation, since many restaurants insist on a rock hard tomato that slices well for burgers. All they want is some color and a thin slice. Flavor be damned.
Customers know that I insist on very ripe, flavorful, local tomatoes that we can only get in season, because they do not ship. The other 10 months of the year, we use canned tomatoes and grape tomatoes, which have made amazing strides in the last 10 years. The grape tomatoes we've been getting this year, with the exception of one batch, have been excellent and worth putting on our menu.
Next time you're tempted to buy a red rock, keep on walking.
I have studied many, many of the great cuisines of the world and I bring those influences to bear on my menu. You should not be surprised to find an Indian dal paired with your local Virginia lamb chops. Nor should you be surprised to find a classic Thai fried rice paired with grilled Hawaiian king prawns. Nor should you be surprised to find a braised pork shank on a bed of silky Anson Mills grits and paired with wilted mustard greens. I can cook downhome Southern with the best of them.
I like to think that as I have matured as a chef, I have come to value simplicity in my food. My approach is clearly market driven. Those baby carrots that I found at the market this very morning will be on tonight's menu, although I haven't yet thought about how. What I do know is that there is very little that I as a chef can do to improve on beautiful, sweet, baby carrots, so I won't do much to them or mix them with a bunch of other ingredients. That's what I mean by simplicity.
In addition to local ingredients and a menu that favors simplicity of flavor versus complexity, I also reach out to find great game, amazing seafood, and artisanal products. I have an awesome game broker, several seafood suppliers, and countless suppliers of amazing ingredients ranging from hams and smoked sausages to honey to handmade cheeses. And from these people, all of whom are invested in their own small businesses and who have a profound respect for quality, I buy the best. My conversations with them never revolve around price. It's always a question of what's the best product you have right now.
As for the menu itself, it changes every day in response to what we have in stock and what we find at the markets. The composition of the menu itself is half first courses (appetizers in US restaurant-speak) and half second courses (entrées), with a balance that is about equal between seafood and game/meat. We always have or are happy to custom craft vegetarian offerings.
You can view typical menus on the restaurant web site.
On a personal level, blogging fulfills my need to write; I like to write. And after a stressful day, venting on the blog can be therapeutic. Also, I continue to meet fantastic people and other bloggers from all over the world. Many customers read the blog to stay apprised of the goings on at the restaurant. Other people from all over the world read to learn about food and to see recipes, even though they'll probably never visit the restaurant. A bunch of chefs are lurking out there, reading about my tribulations and knowing that we all face the same issues; for them, I am a something of a spokesman. Others read to get an inside view of the restaurant business, living the life vicariously through the Web. For all these purposes and others as yet undiscovered, I blog.
So, now that I have tackled the question "Why One Blog West?", here are other questions that I am asked very often.
Why is your restaurant named One Block West?
Where did you train?
What kind of food do you serve?
What kind of knives do you use?
Do you really shop locally?
How do I sell to One Block West?
Do you cook at home?
In general, I'm looking for a long-term relationship and a commitment to deliver product year-round or all season long, as appropriate. If, for example, it is the end of July, and you happen to have two bushels of cucumbers that you want to unload because you planted too many, I'm not going to be terribly interested. But, if you want to bring me nasturtium blooms, leaves, and seeds all through the summer, I'm going to be happy to do business with you.
And, I need delivery. Running my restaurant takes all my time, so I can't get away.
Also, if you sell meat, understand that it is very rare that I can take a whole animal. Part of my commitment to freshness is that I don't have a big freezer. If you can't sell me cuts of meat in quantity every week, it's going to be tough for us to do business. Not impossible, but tough.
By all means, if you have a great product that you think would fit with our menu at the restaurant, come in and chat. Bring a sample if you can. Even if we can't do business, I'd still like to meet you.
One Block West indicates that the restaurant is located a block west of our main pedestrian mall in Winchester, Virginia. It's a catchy name and one that helps our many guests locate us.
Really, I do shop locally and I was into farm-to-table before the phrase ever came into common usage. This recent locavore trend is something that I have been doing forever.
Freshness is paramount for great flavor and so I try to source as much as possible locally. I also like the connection between grower and restaurateur—it’s a symbiotic relationship and we’re both striving for excellence. I also like that if the ingredients are not organic, I know exactly how they have been raised and treated. And, my restaurant is helping to create a market for the products that our local farmers raise. Buying locally is good for all of us.
You can find me shopping at our local Freight Station Farmers Market when it is open, in season Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. I also do cooking demos at this and other local markets throughout the year to show customers what they can do with the products that they purchase at the market.
In addition, we grow herbs and edible flowers in our window boxes, planter boxes, and on our deck.
Here's an idea of what we source locally:
Meat—lamb, some Kurobuta pork, hams, bacon, and sausages
Poultry—pastured chickens, organic chicken eggs, quail eggs
Dairy—cheese, some cream
Wine—lots and lots
Foraged items—mushrooms, wild asparagus, pawpaws, ramps
Grains—cornmeal, flour, grits, pasta
Vegetables, Fruits, and Herbs
Other—honey, shiitakes, maple syrup, root beer
We receive a lot of phone calls from people who want to sell us local goods. This is the subject of another FAQ.