Monday, June 30, 2008

Grilled Tuna, Asparagus, and Tomato Salad

Here's the first of the three recipes that I promised in my New PBS Shows post last week. The word recipe is quite overkill for the idea that I am about to dash off below. The following recipe serves two; I eat it frequently for lunch during asparagus season. Sadly, tomatoes and asparagus are not in season together, so that forces me to use grape tomatoes, which are a very good salad tomato and the only fresh tomato that we use at the restaurant except in August and September when the local tomatoes come in.

Grilled Tuna, Asparagus, and Tomato Salad

8-10 oz tuna
6-8 oz asparagus, blanched for 3-4 minutes
6-8 oz fresh tomatoes, diced
4 oz feta cheese, crumbled
juice of one lemon
extra virgin olive oil, to taste
salt and pepper, to taste

Grill the tuna to your liking. I like mine medium rare. At the same time, grill the asparagus. Cube the tuna, slice the asparagus, and add to a bowl with the tomatoes and feta. Squeeze the lemon over, mix well, and season with olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Biodiesel: Sorry We Can't Help Much

While I was cooking lunch today, I remembered a phone call I received some weeks ago from a friend who has launched a new biodiesel operation to recycle waste oil from restaurants. He called me to ask if we could store our waste oil for him to pick up and recycle.

Nice thinking. But, he forgot one thing. We don't own a fryer here at One Block West. When I bought the restaurant, the first thing I did was to remove the existing fryer.

One Block West food is fresh and seasonal and doesn't involve deep frying, so I got rid of the fryer to underscore my commitment to provide healthy food for my customers.

At most, we might produce a quart or two of waste oil a week. That's not going to generate a lot of biofuel, but it just might help our customers stay healthier.

Friday, June 27, 2008

June Wine Dinner: Linden Vineyards

Last night, we put on our monthly wine dinner, this month featuring the wines of Linden Vineyards, with special guests Jim Law and Shari Avenius. This is the fourth or fifth year in a row that Jim has been with us in June. I always look forward to this dinner because the wines are so great. I sincerely believe that Jim makes the best wines in Virginia and among the best in the country. It's always a pleasure to see if my food stands up to the test of his wines.

I'm very happy with the way that the dinner came off, the way the staff handled the dining room, the wine and food pairings, and especially the portion sizes. I think we finally managed to get them right. As chefs, we like to feed people and in multi-course dinners, we are sorely tempted to put way too much food on the plate. I would say that we put exactly enough food out last night and no more. It is always good to go away from a meal satisfied, but not bloated.

Here's the menu from the dinner. Discussion of how we arrived at the menu and notes on the individual dishes and wine pairings follow.

Grilled Prosciutto-Wrapped Hawaiian King Prawns
Lemon Balm Beurre Blanc
Sauvignon Blanc “Avenius” 2007

Caramelized Sea Scallop on Potato-Bacon Chowder
Chardonnay “Hardscrabble” 2005

Roulade of Lamb Tenderloin, Spinach, and Goat Cheese
Grilled Vegetable Hummus
Petit Verdot 2005

Grilled Bison Flat-Iron
White Corn Salad; Hardscrabble Red Demiglace
Red “Hardscrabble” 2005

Cherry-Chile Compote on Torched Pineapple
Late Harvest Vidal 2004

Menu Development
Some menus just fly off my pen and onto paper (yes, I write them out longhand), but this was not one of them. I started thinking about the menu some months ago, but nothing really came to me and so I put it off until Sunday, at which point I really couldn't put it off too much longer, to be able to order center of the plate proteins to arrive by Thursday.

I sketched out a very rough menu on Sunday, just trying to make some basic decisions about which proteins to order. At that point, I had some kind of ravioli with braised duck (either stuffed with duck or sauced with a duck Bolognese) paired with the Petit Verdot and veal brisket paired with the Hardscrabble red.

I wasn't happy with these because it put two braised dishes back to back in a summer menu and the pairing of veal and a big Bordeaux-style red would be a stretch. I could make it work, but the sauce I would have had to put with the veal would have obscured its delicate flavor.

Come Monday, I was so wrapped up in filming my forthcoming PBS shows that I forgot to call my meat and game broker to find out what he had on hand that might spark a creative idea for my menu.

Tuesday morning, because I had forgotten on Monday, I rushed to get an order in before the 9:30am cutoff for next day delivery. I managed to order the prawns and some rabbits and bison palerons for my weekend menus. At that point, I wasn't planning to serve bison for the wine dinner.

Tuesday afternoon, once we got the line set up for dinner service, it was do or die for this menu. Brandon and I went out on the deck and started sketching ideas out, but nothing was coming, so we went in and tasted the wines for the dinner. Back out on the deck, we started hashing out the menu again.

I decided while tasting to put the bison on with the Hardscrabble red and I knew that I wanted prawns to go with the Sauvignon Blanc. I drink a lot of the Hardscrabble Chardonnay, so I knew as far back as Sunday that I was going to do some kind of scallop chowder with it.

That left us to find a basic direction for the Petit Verdot course and the Late Harvest course. My initial idea of duck (or perhaps wild boar) was based on my tasting of the 2002 Petit Verdot, the last bottling prior to 2005. I am really happy that I tasted the 2005 rather than relying on my memory of the 2002, because the 2005 fairly screamed "lamb!" at me.

For the dessert course, Brandon thought cherries and I thought raspberries, mainly because I have a cooler full of raspberries. There was never any doubt that we would do fruit. I let him sway me to cherries and was intrigued by the possibilities of his idea of putting chiles in the cherries as a counterpoint to the residual sugar in the wine. I lobbied strongly for dried red chiles because I didn't want any vegetal character from a green chile coming through in the dessert. I pushed for some pineapple to bring the cherries back towards the tropical flavors in the wine. Then Brandon had the idea of torching the pineapple like a crème brûlée and we were about done. I tossed some candied pineapple into the mix. This is a good example of how dishes come together.

At this point, the hard work was over and all we needed to do was to figure out the cuts of meat, cooking methods, garnishes, and plate presentations. That really is the easy work and we knocked that out in about 10 minutes. Once the primary component of the dish is set, the rest is just tweaking the dish to work with the wine. Because Jim's wines are so good, I always want to let them take center stage. Keeping this in mind, we worked to keep the food very simple and the flavorings fairly muted.

Grilled Prosciutto-Wrapped Hawaiian King Prawns
This is a straightforward dish to go with the classically Sancerre-styled Avenius Sauvignon Blanc. Because this SB is very ripe with a full mid-palate, I wanted a bit more substance to the dish so we brought the saltiness of the ham into play. These prawns are naturally very sweet, so the salty ham is an excellent counterpoint. Shrimp, for all its virtues, has very little fat and the one thing that a high acid wine needs as a foil is some fat. So, we provided our own with a simple beurre blanc made from the very floral lemon balm growing in the planter just outside the front door.

Caramelized Sea Scallop on Potato-Bacon Chowder
This Chard could easily be a white Burgundy. It's got a lot of well integrated oak that gives it vanilla and caramel flavors, but it's also got enough acidity to stay pretty well balanced. If ever a wine screamed out for a cream sauce, this is it. I love the interplay of smoked foods with oaked Chardonnays, so with smoke and cream on the brain, a bacon-laced chowder came right to me. I reduced the cream in the chowder to a very thick sauce and plated the chowder right under the caramelized scallop. I toyed with smoking the scallop or putting the scallop in the chowder, but I wanted the drama of sitting the scallop on top of the chowder and I also wanted that lovely layer of caramel on the scallop to play with the caramel notes in the wine.

Roulade of Lamb Tenderloin, Spinach, and Goat Cheese
I did it again! I made myself say "Wow!" I hate it when I do that! This was an amazing dish and one that I need to remember to keep in the repertoire. Butterflying the tiny tenderloins and stuffing and rolling them was a bear, but it was so worth it.

Once I decided to put lamb with the Petit Verdot, we arrived quickly at a roulade of tenderloin. I love spinach and goat cheese with lamb, so that was a no-brainer for a stuffing: all three ingredients have an essential earthy character in common. This Petit Verdot, for the same reason that it wants lamb, wants grilled vegetables: the grill smoke and roasted flavors work well with the earthy, leathery, dark fruit. It was an instant leap from grilled vegetables to grilled vegetable hummus as a garnish. I'm not conscious of the thought process in this transition; I merely wrote "grilled vegetable hummus" on the menu next to the lamb and that was that.

The hummus was in itself outstanding. I grilled and finely diced yellow squash, green squash, and eggplant. Then I slowly cooked a lot of garlic in extra virgin olive oil and added that the vegetables. Next, I made three different batches of hummus in three different flavors and consistencies: a very smooth lemony one, a medium smooth pimentón one, and a chunky tapenade one. I mixed all three with the vegetables for a variety of flavors and textures.

Grilled Bison Flat-Iron
This was a really simple grilled meat dish designed as a foil for the delicious Hardscrabble Red Bordeaux-style blend. I seamed out the flat-iron steaks from the bison palerons (this was not a happy experience and is not something I am likely to ever do again!) and marinated them for 24 hours in extra virgin olive oil, garlic, black pepper, and soy sauce. Then we grilled them and served them over a fresh corn salad of grilled white corn, raw white corn, tomatoes, onions, and parsley.

I originally thought of putting the bison on polenta cakes, but because it was so warm out, we went with Brandon's idea of a cool and fresh corn salad. In hot weather, I find that a temperature contrast is always welcome.

Cherry-Chile Compote on Torched Pineapple
When pairing desserts with dessert wines such as the Linden Late Harvest Vidal, you must always keep the sweetness of the dessert less than that of the wine, or the wine will taste sour in comparison to the dessert. A great way to work with the fruitiness of dessert wines and avoid a lot of sugar is to use really ripe fruit with little or no added sugar.

For this dish, we sprinkled vanilla sugar (we store vanilla beans in fine sugar) over the pineapple, hit it with the torch à la crème brûlée for a glossy caramel layer, topped it with the compote of fresh cherries cooked down with arbol chiles, and put a few slivers of candied pineapple over the top.

The chiles added an interesting dimension to the dessert. The little bit of heat that they added to the cherries gave the cool, sweet wine a little fire to put out, making the wine seem all the more refreshing, an interesting trick if you ever need to pair food with sweet wine.

Hartley, you're right. A crisp cookie or tuile would have been appropriate here, but the humidity got the best of us. I made tuiles last week in similar humidity and they did not last an hour before they went soggy. I wanted to do a shortbread biscuit, but shortbread is impossible to do under humid conditions. So, I threw in the towel. In retrospect, I should have made some almond biscotti, but I had enough on my plate already in pulling off this dinner.

Enough. Off to break down the rabbits for tonight's menu....

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Good Cup of Coffee

Do you love coffee? I do. I really love the flavor of coffee and so it matters to me what kind of coffee I am drinking. I'd rather have no coffee than Maxwell House or Folgers. Am I a snob?

Maybe. However, I am convinced you can tell a whole lot about a restaurant by the bread it puts on the table and the cofee it serves. These are two areas that many restaurants ignore, buying on price or convenience, which is a shame. When I go out to eat and finish my meal with a cup of coffee, I want to say, "Wow! Somebody here cares about coffee!"

I am reminded of this because I just rolled in at this miserable hour and first thing, I brewed a pot of our house coffee. It's part ritual and part need. The ritual thing is easy: I'm on autopilot this early in the morning and I do things by rote; a pot of coffee (or increasingly more frequently, tea) just happens.

The need part is more difficult. I don't need the coffee per se, but running on fumes as I am now, that cup of coffee sure helps me get through the previous night's sales numbers more easily. Or so I imagine.

And the term "cup" is disingenuous. I drink my coffee black and straight out of a pint glass from the bar. I'm not too keen on 6 ounce cups of coffee!

By and large, customers love our coffee here at the restaurant. But there are some dedicated Maxwell House lovers who hate our coffee. And that's exactly what I was looking for when I chose the coffee for the restaurant: a coffee that would be memorable, a coffee that would force you to choose sides, not some middle-of-the-road-pleases-nobody coffee.

Years ago, I tasted hundreds of coffee samples over a few weeks in choosing our two coffees. And I bet you thought it was simple matter to pick coffee for a restaurant. Well, it is, unless you want to serve your guests memorable coffee.

For our standard coffee, I went with a blend heavy on Indonesian beans with a very full roast. Our decaf is a high quality, mainly Brazilian light roast that has really good flavor; you'll never know that it is decaf.

I also have two other tricks to ensure good coffee. First, I asked the coffee roaster to give me 2.75-ounce packages of coffee. The industry standard measure for a liter of coffee is 2.5 ounces and a lot of places cheat by using only 2.25 ounces. Also, I tweaked our machine to brew 28 ounces instead of the standard liter (about 34 ounces) about a full cup of coffee short. This ensures that we have a really rich and robust cup of coffee. Sure, it costs me more, but some things are just worth it.

And of the comments I get about the coffee in the dining room, the vast majority are glowing. And the other customers, well they hate it. And that's OK by me: there's no sense in trying to please everyone. My mission is accomplished—nobody is ambivalent about One Block West coffee.

My 14-year old daughter just arrived—her summer job is helping here in the restaurant, one day in the kitchen, one day in the office, one day in the dining room—and asked, "Did you make a pot of coffee yet?" She's always drunk coffee: she started drinking espresso drinks as a toddler. I've created yet another coffee monster.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Sharp Knife is a Beautiful Thing

Most chefs are so used to having really sharp knives that when an edge gets a bit dull, it is a constant source of irritation. It slows us down, primarily, but it is also not nearly as safe. A sharp knife performs the necessary task; a dull knife does everything but and can wind up cutting you pretty badly.

We spend a good bit of time every day tuning up the edges of our knives on a steel. I have two steels, a big heavy diamond steel for serious blade work and a very slick lightweight steel for polishing and truing blades. Still, a steel does not a blade sharpen; it merely realigns and straightens the edge. And if you're not working with a good edge to begin with, you wind up steeling your knife very frequently.

A professional knife needs to go on the whetstone or polishing wheel with some regularity, at least twice a year if not much more frequently to rebuild the edge. After that, realigning the blade with a steel will keep it in tune until the next date with the stone.

Living out here seemingly in the middle of nowhere, we do not have access to all the things that big city chefs do, such as knife sharpening services. On the flip side, we're a lot closer to fresh produce than they are. So, it's been a long, long time since I've really had my knives sharpened.

Yes, I have beautiful Japanese waterstones in many grits in my workshop for accomplishing the task, but what I don't have is the time. And without regular practice sharpening knives, it becomes a tough task to do well.

So I was delighted when a guy came into the restaurant yesterday afternoon asking if we needed any knives sharpened. Yes, this happens regularly in big cities, but never here in Winchester.

After washing the blades post sharpening, I tucked into a side of snapper with my fish knife. What a difference! It reminded me that a sharp knife is indeed a beautiful thing.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

New PBS Shows

I taped two more shows yesterday afternoon in Harrisonburg for WVPT. I wonder if these shows are for WVPT Cooks or if they will air during a pledge drive, simply because we shot 15-minute segments rather than the usual 22 minutes.

I like shooting these shows because I can just show up when I am told, prepared for a specific length segment, and with minimal set up (mic check, white balance, lighting check) we start filming. It's better for me this way; I have enough to worry about in running the restaurant day-to-day. I understand how these TV chefs do it: there is no way that they can do the TV that they do without leaving the cooking at their restaurants to someone else.

The two segments we taped yesterday were both outdoors, using Tassie Pippert's really awesome outdoor built-in grill, the first outdoor segment that I've done in about three years since we last taped on the balcony at the WVPT studio overlooking the lake at JMU.

Even though we were under a shaded pergola with ambient temperatures in the low 80s and a nice breeze, the combination of the lights and the smoking hot grill made for a really sweaty experience. I tried to refrain from wiping the sweat off my face with my towel as much as possible. At one point, I got sweat in my eye: I hope that didn't translate on camera as I tried my best to ignore it. At least I wasn't wearing make up for this shoot, so nothing to run. ;)

It really takes a lot of preparation on my part to make these segments happen. I have to run through cooking the food in my mind and fit it to the allotted time frame and think about camera shots and sequencing, which is a bit difficult because I don't know how many cameras there will be and where they will be placed until I arrive on the set. I also have to worry about filling time while things are cooking.

You cannot exactly stand around and watch a piece of meat grill. Well, you can, but it makes for very boring TV. So I spend a lot of time thinking through these fills and so forth.

Also, I don't have a prep crew to set up for me. I cook the dish in my mind and I make a list of everything that I will need, right down to the towels with which I will hold the hot pan handles. But this isn't so different from what I do in the kitchen in setting up the line every night. What is different is that once I'm on camera, I cannot leave the set to retrieve something I have forgotten.

I cannot leave the set because we shoot live to video, which means if we are shooting 22 minutes of air time, we shoot 22 minutes of running video. The cameras never stop rolling once we get going. This minimizes production time and cost, because the only post production is merely to cut from one camera to another.

In years past, the video editing has been done on the fly in the control room as we were filming, a tricky business indeed (this is what they do for live events such as football games where they cut from camera to camera in real time). Live to video means there is no such thing as a screw-up: there are no retakes and no voice overs.

I enjoy shooting live to video in that it is a lot more spontaneous and much more like doing a live demo, except that the audience is a bunch of cameramen or women, maybe a still photographer, and maybe a floor director. Doing it this way, we can film a 22-minute segment in about 45-minutes, versus the 2 or 3 hours it takes to set up shots, walk through them, and film a couple takes of each. I don't have a lot of tolerance for overly scripted TV.

Yesterday, I cooked three different dishes: Grilled Tuna and Asparagus Salad; Grilled Tuna with Edamame, Pickled Ginger, and Seaweed Salad; and Grilled Hawaiian King Prawns with Grilled Pineapple Salsa and Rum-Black Pepper Sauce.

I will post these recipes over the next few days. Stay tuned.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


Around one o'clock this afternoon, I was sitting around working on another sudoku when I realized that I was starving. My wife suggested going to Sweet Sunset Bakery, which was fine by me because they make great pupusas (on Saturday and Sunday only) and I hadn't visited with César Yong, baker extraordinaire, partner and frontman, in a long time.

A pupusa is essentially a filled tortilla, made by flattening a ball of masa into a disk, placing some stuffing in the middle of the disk, folding it over on itself, and patting it back out into a thick disk with outer layers of masa sandwiching the filling. Or, if you're a beginner like me, you flatten two balls of masa into tortillas, place the filling in between, and crimp the edges. This is strictly a déclassé method and not one to brag on in public.

Watching an experienced cook make pupusas is a fascinating experience, one that I first encountered at the Peruvian restaurant Pollos Inka in Herndon in the early 1990s. It only takes one try at patting out balls of masa into tortillas to fully appreciate the skill required. Many was the morning that I would bicycle over to the local taqueria (called imaginatively enough La Taqueria) when I lived in Texas, surely to eat, but I think also to marvel at the dexterity of Abuela Hernández as she made tortilla after tortilla in a rhythmic, almost trancelike state.

As an aside, she always took good care of me, probably because I was a young kid, the only gringo in the joint, and obviously fascinated by her skill. My dozen tortillas cost a dollar and rarely were there fewer than 14 in the wrapper. And there was always a big chunk of bacon in my frijoles alla charra for lunch.

Some ten years later, after my first initiation to pupusas at a Peruvian restaurant, I mistakenly thought for years that the dish was one of Peruvian invention. While I was researching the history of Venezuelan arepas (a quasi-gordita that that has been split and filled after cooking, ham biscuit style), I discovered that while Nicaraguans, Colombians, and Peruvians all make varying styles of pupusas, pupusas are perhaps the defining dish of Salvadorean cuisine.

Pupusas, after being cooked on the comal like a tortilla, are served with a mild white cabbage slaw called curtido (almost a fresh sauerkraut sans the salt) and a thin tomato sauce. Pupusas are not knife and fork material—dig in with your fingers.

Although pupusas can be stuffed with just about any filling, the most traditional are queso, frijoles, chicharrón (pork rind/skin/bacon), revuelta (a mix of everything), and my favorite, loroco y queso. Loroco is the bud of a Central American vine and reminds me a bit of broccoli in flavor.

And by the way, César and his partner are great bakers. To give credit where it is due however, I've seen César's wife Isabel in the back making the pupusas.

Sweet Sunset Bakery
37 W. Jubal Early Drive
Winchester, VA 22601

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Grumpy People

The restaurant business is generally very rewarding: it's an awesome feeling when everyone in the dining room is having a great time. Let's face it, that's why we do what we do, why we work when others celebrate, why we give up our lives for this business. So that others can have a good time.

But there are those days that try our souls. If you are or have been in the business, you know exactly what I am talking about.

Yesterday was one such day when the negative energy in the dining room was palpable. Both lunch and dinner were miserable experiences for my staff and me. All the tables, and there were many of them, were in evil frames of mind. They were rude, impolite, and two tables made me want to throw them out on the street.

Why is it that on some days, some customers forget everything they know about civility and about the Golden Rule? Why do they behave in a manner that, if they were my children, they would be grounded with no privileges for a very long time? What gives them the right, just because they are grumpy, to be total jerks?

And, finally, why is being a jerk so contagious?

To end this rant, I don't work sixteen-hour days so you can come vent your spleen just because somebody peed in your cereal. If you're having a day like that, just stay home. If you feel the need to act in a manner that would not be appropriate at my house, don't do it at my restaurant.

Thank you, all you wonderful customers. Most of the time you make me forget about the jerks. Just not today.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Kurobuta Pork—The Other White Meat. NOT!

You may have seen Kurobuta pork on our menu at One Block West; we've been serving it for a couple of years, ever since we found a supplier. And you've probably wondered what it is.

Let's start with the basics. Kurobuta refers to a specific breed of pig called Berkshire, after Berkshire County, England, whose seat is Reading, just west of London on the M4. The Berk is a distinctive animal, mostly black, often with white feet and sometimes with white on the face and tip of the tail. Berks have really coarse hair and a medium length snout which is notably shorter than that of the common white pig. I kind of like the big hairy ears that point slightly forward.

Let's flash back about 375 years ago to Oliver Cromwell's nasty little scrap with the Kings Charles. Legend says that while Cromwell's army wintered at Reading, the soldiers discovered (liberated without compensation?) a wonderful black hog, tales of which these soldiers spread after the wars. The Berkshire hog as it came to be known was renowned for its size and outstanding flavor.

Scientific studies have shown that Berkshires are genetically predisposed to produce short muscle fibers and lots of intramuscular marbling, important for both tenderness and flavor.

I won't forget the first time that we served grilled Kurobuta rack chops, for more than one customer asked me if I hadn't mistakenly put a veal chop on the grill. Yes, the meat is that noticeably different from modern factory pork.

A word about factory pork. Historically, pork had been America's mainstay protein source, grown on small farms and in back yards everywhere. After World War II, the tide turned and pork consumption decreased to the point where chicken replaced it as America's primary protein source.

Faced with this crisis to their industry, the National Pork Board responded with a marketing campaign to put pork on a par with chicken. At the same time during the 1980s, Americans became diet crazy and looked to eliminate fat from their diets. Breeders responded by producing hogs that were up to 30% leaner than the hog of a generation ago. And they also produced a pig that gets to market weight very quickly, not giving it sufficient time to gain flavor.

Now when you produce a pig with that little fat, you certainly reduce the caloric content, but you lose all the marbling in the muscle tissue. This intramuscular fat gives both flavor and juiciness, that succulence that makes eating good pork such an ambrosial experience. The net result of factory pork competing with low fat factory chicken: tasteless and dry pork.

On the other hand, factory farming has brought us a wealth of very cheap, very low fat product. I'm not going delve into the environmental consequences and the animal welfare aspects of confinement farming. These are natural side effects of the market demand for cheap protein. Without factory farming, a lot of people would be denied access to high quality protein in their diets.

Remember "The Other White Meat" campaign from the National Pork Board touting their low fat, healthy product? It must certainly go down as one of the most effective marketing campaigns ever. When the National Pork Board uses the term white, what they really mean is bland and lacking flavor and interest. That they have convinced the Wonder® bread- and flaccid chicken breast-loving Americans that pork should be in their refrigerators should, I guess, not come as any surprise, especially since we are at least a generation removed from people who have tasted small farm, slowly raised pork.

But if you let these same people taste the two products side by side, it is clear in study after study that people prefer the flavor and succulence of Berkshire hog to any of the commercial hogs. And we chefs, people who love flavor, are leading the way for Berkshire and other small farm pork by putting it on our menus.

So, how do we get from Berkshire to the term Kurobuta that we use on our menus?

In the 19th century, the British government sent some Berkshire hogs to Japan as a gift. In Japan, the hogs were named Kurobuta (黒豚) or black pig. The exquisite pork was and is much appreciated in Japan and Japanese growers have perfected the art of producing fine marbled pork in the same way that they have perfected Wagyu (cow of Japan) beef, known here by the regional appellation Kobe. I'm not clear on why Berkshire pork is marketed here in the US as Kurobuta, but it is probably an intentional association with Wagyu/Kobe beef, the world's most luxurious beef.

There are a couple of other factors involved in making Kurobuta what it is, besides genetics. Pigs deposit the fat in their diet directly into the muscle tissue, making their diet extremely important for flavor. This is one of the reasons peanut-fed Virginia pork tastes so good, and why the acorn-fed pata negra pigs of Spain are so amazing. Kurobuta pork is fed a very careful diet, one calculated to enhance the flavor of the meat.

The second factor in good tasting pork is the lack of stress on the animal. Undue stress causes the meat to be dry and tough. Berkshire hogs are raised in low-stress environments and typically allowed to range where they will, with adequate shade to keep them cool.

Currently, our Kurobuta pork comes from small farms in the Midwest who take great care with their pigs, but we are eagerly awaiting the fall when our local Berkshire piglets will be market size.

I should also mention that besides Berkshires there are other wonderful breeds such as Tamworth and Old Spot, that are well worth finding and eating.

My apologies for this opus. I intended for it to be a short "Kurobuta is great pork; eat it" piece. My inner storyteller got carried away.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Caul Fat—The Chef's Friend

I have a fondness for making and eating charcuterie: pâtés, terrines, ballotines, galantines, sausages, hams, and such. One thing you learn early on when making charcuterie is the kinds and uses of various kinds of fat: fatback, kidney fat, bacon, pork belly, and especially caul fat. It constantly surprises me the number of people in this industry that I meet who have never worked with caul fat.

Caul fat, as you can see, is a very thin lacy membrane that surrounds the viscera of animals. I generally use beef or pork. Lamb is also available. I highly prefer pork caul fat, unless I am working with beef.

Caul fat is indispensable when you want to contain and restrain a loose or rolled product. During cooking, the fat largely melts away, leaving you the finished product that you would otherwise have had to tie with string or bind in some other fashion.

Caul fat is excellent for making individual servings of a forcemeat. You can wrap the forcemeat in caul fat and the fat will help it hold its shape until it cooks and the proteins set up to hold it in shape.

Caul fat is even more excellent for restraining rolled meats, such as these boned saddles of rabbit stuffed with a Kurobuta pork forcemeat. Easy to roll and no fooling around with string. No unsighltly string marks messing with the presentation and no messing around removing the string from a hot product.

Caul fat can be very difficult to find if you are not in the trade. Hopefully you can find a good butcher.

June Bounty

I love June! I've been waiting all winter for this! Just look at the toys I have to work with!

From left to right, English peas; white, yellow, and gold beets; purple, yellow, and green snow peas; and a bounty of tiny squashes.

Now's a great time to be eating in the One Block West dining room.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


I have a fairly jaded palate. I'm around top quality restaurant food every day; I read a lot of food rags; we talk a lot of food; and, naturally, I eat out when I get the chance to see what others are doing. So, it is a rare day when something makes me go, "Wow!"

But this morning, I couldn't say "Wow!" enough to a dish that I have been mulling over in my head for a while, but have just got around to testing in the kitchen.

I made some sausage of Kurobuta (heirloom Berkshire) pork, the last of our local storage apples, sage, and various other seasonings. Then I boned out a saddle of rabbit (that is, I pulled the two loins off the backbone, leaving them joined together) and stuffed the rabbit with the sausage, rolled it, wrapped it in caul fat to keep the very lean rabbit moist, browned it all over, and roasted it.

Twelve minutes in the oven, five minutes resting, and "Wow!" It was so good that there was nothing left within seconds—I'm a greedy little pig. Happy Ed. Very Happy Ed. Wow!

Now appearing Thursday through Saturday, Kurobuta Pork-Stuffed Saddle of Rabbit, until I run out of rabbits. Come and get yours!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

It's 93 Degrees. What to Eat?

After a cool and rainy spring, things turned suddenly melt-your-eyeballs hot with breath stifling humidity Friday and Saturday. The meat thermometer in my pocket was reading 120+ in the kitchen during Friday night dinner service, a nearly nauseating experience. This happens every year, but just for a short period in late July to mid August, not the first of June, for goodness sake (with apologies to the Bard for omitting the apostrophe after goodness).

The first thing I did Saturday morning was make four gallons of gazpacho, figuring that when it's hot as blazes, a cold bowl of gazpacho is just the ticket. But I also did something entirely crazy: I made big pot of Venison Stroganoff.

Why? Because I had a bunch of venison in the cooler that I needed to cook. My game broker knows I am a sucker for off cuts of meat and he sent me a box of vension on the cheap, just to gauge my reaction to it, to see if he should bring it on and sell to other chefs.

To be fair, when I bought the venison, it was cool and rainy and I had no idea the weather would turn so dramatically horrible. Anyway, the deed was done Saturday morning and I ended with a vast pot of silky braised venison and fresh porcini mushrooms just waiting to be finished at service with sour cream and pappardelle.

Before dinner service at our staff meeting, I was joking with the servers about the Stroganoff. We were all joking that if it were a snowy day in January, the dish would sell like hotcakes. And we all agreed that I was crazy to put it on the menu because there was no way in hell that it would sell, no matter how good it might be (and it was excellent).

Dinner started early and I noticed each ticket had a venison on it, and then dinner became a full on rush for ninety minutes and the venison orders starting stacking up, far outselling every other dish.

So, question for you. It's 93 degrees and 95% humidity. What are you going to eat for dinner?

Go figure.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Garlic Scapes

A friend who lives right next to the restaurant raises garlic on a little plot here in town. And every year when his garlic starts sending up bloom shoots called scapes (photo, at right), he cuts them off brings them to me.

If you leave the scape on the garlic plant, it will put its energy into the scape, which will straighten out over time and produce tiny seed-like bulbs. If you cut the scape, the plant puts its energy into growing the bulb, the part that most of us like to eat.

But to eat only the mature bulb is to miss two other very edible stages of the plant: green garlic and scapes. I should mention that there are two kinds of garlic in the world, softnecks which do not produce scapes and hardnecks (including rocamboles) which do produce scapes.

The curly scapes are tender with a mild garlic flavor. I dice them and make risotto from them, slice them and stir fry them, cut the blooms out and use them as another vegetable in mixed vegetable sautés, add them to the myriad green sauces that I make, and so forth and so on.

If you're lucky enough to grow your own hardneck garlic or know someone who does, by all means, avail yourself of this spring bounty.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Preserved Lemons

Here at One Block West Restaurant, we use a lot of preserved lemons, mostly in tagines of lamb or chicken. Whenever I've mentioned them in my recipes and in the monthly newsletter, customers have always been curious what preserved lemons are and where they can buy them.

As for what they are, preserved lemons are basically pickled lemons, lemons that have been brined, in the same way that you would make dill pickles, without the dill, naturally. This photo shows from left to right a fresh lemon, a lemon that has been curing for about two weeks, and a lemon from a batch I made about a year ago. Notice that the lemon that is still curing is starting to go soft, but it is not quite soft enough to eat. And that the lemon I've had in the cooler for months has lost its color, which is expected.

As for where to buy them, I don't know of any place. Sure, they're available to the trade in 10 kilo buckets, but even I don't need that many preserved lemons at the restaurant and you surely don't. Fortunately, preserved lemons are trivial to make and you should try it. I don't see how you can screw it up.

You'll need lemons to preserve and extra to squeeze for lemon juice to top off the container, a non-corrosive (plastic or ceramic, for example) container, something to weight the lemons down and keep them under the surface of the brine (such as a couple of plates), and salt (we use kosher salt).

To begin, dip the lemons to be preserved in boiling water for a few seconds, mainly to dissolve any wax coating on them. Wipe them to get all the wax off and cut off the stem. Then, as in this photo, slice in half vertically, leaving the two halves attached at the stem end. (How you slice the lemon is immaterial. The entire point of the exercise is to let you pack the lemon with salt. This is how I slice the lemon. Do what feels right to you.)

Then, I rotate the lemon ninety degrees around its vertical axis and slice it again, this time from bloom end to stem end, leaving the halves attached at the bloom end and slicing through the stem end. I do this simply because having the lemon quarters attached at both ends seems to keep the lemons whole longer, not that this is in any way important.

In the past, when I have quartered lemons, leaving them intact only at the stem end, I have noticed that they tend to fall apart more frequently as they age in the brine. Again, it doesn't matter, mainly because you will most likely dice the rind before cooking with it. A pickled lemon is a pickled lemon no matter what shape it's in or how you slice it.

This final photo shows a lemon ready to be packed with salt. Put a layer, say a centimeter or less, of salt in the bottom of your non-corrosive container. Pack each lemon full of salt and place in the container. Add any herbs or spices you want. (I always throw in a cinnamon stick and some fresh thyme. Why? I dunno.) Then top off the container with lemon juice (I save the brine from one batch to use with the next batch, boiling it between uses) and place a couple of plates on top of the lemons to keep them fully submerged beneath the brine.

At this point, I put the lemons on the counter and check them once a week. They take four to six weeks for the rinds to soften to where I like them. At this point, I transfer the container to the fridge and start to use the lemons.

You can use the whole lemon, but I generally just dice the rind for my tagines, couscous and other dishes. The reason for this is that my lemons are generally full of seeds and it is a nightmare to remove them and still have any flesh left intact to dice. So I peel the rind off the flesh and pitch the flesh.