Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Sticky Business

I got to thinking about food stabilizers today. You know the backlash about unpronounceable words on the ingredients lists of certains food products. I got to thinking about this while reading the ingredients list of a certain brand of commercial ice cream that I really like. The list states that the ice cream contains guar gum and carob bean gum.

And this got me to thinking about the xanthan gum that I keep on hand in the kitchen for certain sauces. The tiniest amount of xanthan gum in a tomato sauce can bind the water in the sauce and keep it from bleeding all over the plate. So what role do the guar and carob bean gums play in ice cream?

It turns out that these stabilizers, including locust bean gum, sodium alginate, and carrageenan, do the same thing for ice cream that xanthan does for my tomato sauce. They bind the water and reduce water mobility, so that when the ice cream goes through temperature fluctuations, there are no big pockets of water to form the large ice crystals that we don't like in ice cream.

These stabilizers are all naturally derived from various plants. So I wonder sometimes what the fuss is all about. If we can make a better product using them than we can without them, why not? Food for thought.

Monday, December 7, 2009

PM Day

You'd think that things would be pretty slow at the restaurant on a Monday given that we're closed to the public on Mondays. But Mondays are when things happen around here: deep cleaning, remodeling, repairs, plumbing, web site maintenance, server and PC maintenance and upgrades, reprinting wine lists, and so forth and so on.

And today's a pretty busy Monday. It's PM Day as it is every six months, the day when we do preventative maintenance on all our refrigeration equipment. We have two freezers, three refrigerators, and an ice maker that need to be kept up.

And we're just a small restaurant. Imagine the constant maintenance and repair that a big restaurant has to contend with. Worse still, imagine you're at a restaurant that is open 24x7, like the local pancake house or full service hotel. When do you get time to pull equipment out of service and work on it?

The scene at the restaurant is a mess at this moment. The ice machine is in about 25 parts, many of them in the pot sink soaking in de-liming agent. Calcium build up is a huge problem here in the Shenandoah Valley where we're sitting right on top of limestone. Our water is a mess.

Our small reach-in refrigerators are all pulled apart too. Keeping the refrigeration coils clean is a nightmare: as the fans pull air through the coil, the air brings grease into the coil and that acts like glue for any dust that might be in the air.

This is all the non-glamorous stuff that you never hear about on TV or read about in books and which they never teach in culinary school. Non-glamorous, but really necessary. Next time you wonder why we're closed on Mondays, you have part of your answer.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Apple Arrivals

We're in the heart of Virginia apple country here in Winchester, known as the Apple Capital, which might explain why I play in the Apple Capital Hockey League. Virginia is in the top five or six apple growing states which combined produce over 85% of our domestic crop. Virginia's on par with California and Pennsylvania, but behind Washington, Michigan, and New York. So, it's an important industry for us.

It's really pretty sad that in the nearly 20 years that I have lived here, I have seen orchards succumb to subdivisions and to overseas competition. And because of our idiotic labor laws, I've seen fruit hanging in orchards because we can't get enough labor to pick the apples. The system for bringing in legal migrant labor (mostly from Haiti, it would seem) cannot adjust to real-time needs of a crop that can be unpredictable.

But I guess what irritates me most is that our friends and neighbors labor all year to grow and harvest wonderful local apples and yet our grocery stores stock nothing but apples imported from elsewhere. That, and far too many people are unwilling to seek out the local apples at farmers markets and farm stands.

Are you one of those people who would go to the Mega-Mart and buy a Chinese apple? I'm asking you to reconsider that and support our local growers.

In 2009, I decided to keep a record of when which apples arrived in the local market. This is mainly for my amusement, but it will also better help me plan my menus in the future. These dates are approximate because apples do not always arrive in the market as soon as they are picked. And we grow other varieties such as Macoun, Spitzenburg, and Black Twig that did not make it into the market: 2009 was a bad year for a lot of apples.

June 26: Yellow Transparent. Despite the name, this is a really small light green apple and the earliest of all that we grow around here. It has the classic Golden Delicious shape with the faintest red blush on the top when fully ripe. Because of its burst of green apple malic acid, it's not a great apple for eating out of hand, while for cooking applications, it is very soft, so it is best used for sauce. Its primary distinction is that is early. And that's a good thing, because all our storage apples have been exhausted for a month.

July 14: Lodi. Lodi, as you can see, looks similar to the Yellow Transparent and it seems to be just a bit larger, firmer, and sweeter than the super tart Transparent. Lodi was developed to be a replacement for the Transparent, and even though it is slightly later than the Transparent, it is still a very early apple. I like it a lot better than the Transparent. It is best for pies and sauces and is not a great out of hand eating apple.

July 21: Tydeman's Red. Also known as Tydeman's Early, this apple looks a good bit like its McIntosh parent (x Worcester Pearmain). It's a medium-sized apple, larger than the small Transparent and Lodi, with a good crisp bite. Tydeman's is an OK early apple for eating out of hand, but I'm not crazy for it.

July 25: Summer Rambo. You might think that the name Rambo has something to do with the large size of this apple, but it's just a corruption of the name of this French apple, Rambour or Rombour. So far, it's the tastiest of the early apples. It's a fairly flat and often lopsided apple. As a green apple it is fairly crisp and is OK for eating out of hand. As it ripens, it softens and gets very juicy.

August 7: Ginger Gold. Ginger Gold is a Virginia apple, having been found as a sport in Nelson County after the devastation caused by Hurricane Camille in 1969. It looks a bit like its Golden Delicious parent (a probable cross with Albemarle Pippin and an unknown third apple). While it is well known around here as the best early eating apple and a yellow summer apple that tastes like a fall apple, Ginger Gold is primarily an early commercial canning apple. This is the first apple of the season that I will go out of my way to eat, being crisp, sweet, and tart. It also resists oxidizing fairly well, so is well suited to the restaurant kitchen where we have to worry about browning.

August 11: Paula Red. A mutation of the venerable MacIntosh, the Paula Red looks like the Mac and favors the Tydeman's Red, which also descends from the Mac. I like the flavor, but the texture is a bit soft for eating out of hand, so I like it better for sauce. Still, Paula's a solid summer apple with good acidity and sweetness, leaning to the tart side like a good fall apple. This apple doesn't keep all that well. It gets softer as it ages, so eat up.

August 15: Gala. Gala is a really small apple that is very firm and crisp and pretty distinctive in the market because of its yellow-orange cast. Sadly, it tastes only sweet and doesn't have that good acid necessary for balance, so I find it tiring to eat. If we could cross the firm texture of the Gala with the great acidity of the Paula Red, we'd have a fantastic summer apple!

August 15: Golden Supreme. This big apple looks like a Golden Delicious, but the flavor is not as good, though the texture is better. I find the very thick skins obnoxious for eating out of hand. This apple works very well, however, for cooking. The flavor is nothing special so it's best relegated to an early season pie and cooking apple.

August 25: Jonathan. Related to Esopus Spitzenburg, the Jonathan is a commonly grown apple in Virginia, being one of the first good red apples to market. Sweeter than it is tart, the Jonathan appeals less to me than the McIntosh, but it's a solid week earlier to market than the Mac. Jonathan is round and red with a fairly thin skin and it eats well out of hand, as I am demonstrating as I type. Also a good cooking apple.

September 1: McIntosh. The Mac is an old stand by and a pretty solid general purpose apple, medium sized and red with the telltale Mac green spot or stripe. You can see these characteristics carry through in the Tydeman's Red and Paula Red above. The Mac is pleasantly sweet and tart with moderately firm flesh and a moderately thick skin. I would like a touch more firmness to the flesh and a thinner skin, but all in all, it's a damn fine eating apple and a solid cooking apple.

September 11: Northern Spy. As you can see, this is a big green, oddly shaped apple with red highlights where the sun has hit it. Northern Spy (also spelled Spie) is a very firm tart apple with greenish flesh and a thin skin. I like it a lot for cider, pies, and for sauce.

September 12: Jonagold. If you couldn't guess from the name, Jonagold is a cross between the Jonathan (see above) and the Golden Delicious (see below). I like Jonathan as an early eating apple while the Golden Delicious is just OK for cooking in that it holds its shape well. Jonagold is just OK for eating out of hand, wanting to go a little soft with age, while it cooks about as well as the Golden Delicious. As you can see, it's a large apple that goes red over green.

September 18: Golden Delicious. What to say about this medium to large yellowish apple with the classic shape that so many people desire? It's fairly crunchy, holds its shape when cooked, and is sweet. Despite its popularity, I find it very one note and sweetly boring.

September 19: Empire. I always smile when I see Empires in the market because they are my eldest daughter's favorites and for good reason. Although they are small red apples with yellow green blushing, they are big on crunch and tartness balanced with sweetness. I like this small apple a lot for eating out of hand, which is not surprising because it is the result of a cross of the McIntosh, a great eating apple, with the Red Delicious.

September 22: Grimes Golden. Discovered in what is now West Virginia around the turn of the 19th century, this oddly-shaped green apple with russet blotching has good green apple flavor, but the texture could be crisper. The skin is a bit tough. It is one of the probable parents of the Golden Delicious.

September 29: Stayman. This good looking red apple often sports vertical streaks and is sweet-tart and very crisp. I enjoy eating it about as much as the Empire, which is a lot. It's often called Stayman Winesap or Stayman's Winesap, but that moniker begs confusion with the Winesap, a much later apple.

October 2: Red Delicious. While there are a lot of Red Delicious grown here for the canning industry, quantity does not make it a good apple. This thick-skinned yellow-fleshed apple tastes very sweet with almost no apple flavor. In its commercial form, it is just not very good, although I have tasted some earlier unimproved Reds that are a lot better than the beautiful tasteless junk that we grow today.

October 2: Cortland. I'm not a fan of this white-fleshed apple with just so-so flavor, especially in light of its thick skin and soft, mealy texture. If you look at the coloration of the apple hanging off the rim of the bowl, you can see the resemblance in this highly colored apple to its McIntosh parent (McIntosh x Ben Davis). In the less highly colored apples, you can see the common vertical striping.

October 10: York. You can recognize this large red apple easily from its roughly trapezoidal cross section. I really like eating and cooking with this all purpose apple. It has good crunch, good sugar, and good acid and probably best of all, it is a great keeping apple and the one that we resort to in March, April, and May while we are waiting for the new crop of Transparents in June. So named because it was discovered in nearby York, PA, this apple holds its shape in cooking well and is a great canner. One of my must have apples.

October 10: Fuji. Fuji is a big seller in Japan where it was developed as a cross between the Red Delicious and the Ralls Genet, an old French apple brought right here to Virginia by Thomas Jefferson. Appeal in the Japanese market stems from its round uniformity and its crunchy sweetness. That said, this apple doesn't interest me much at all. Although I like the crunch, the flavor could use a lot more tartness to be more useful in my kitchen.

October 24: Golden Russet. I wait very patiently all year for the Golden Russets to appear and then I take almost all the production in our local market. Oink. Oink. Some say they're not the prettiest apples with all that russeting, but I find them attractive. This old apple, from the 17th century most likely, is not even all that good to eat out of hand, being fairly mealy with a thick skin. But what it has is an excellent acid and sweetness balance that makes it great for cider and juice. This is one of my go-to cooking apples.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

By way of wishing everyone a Happy Thanksgiving, let me share the recipe for a bread pudding that you might want to include in your repertoire.

Notes: This recipe makes a half hotel pan (11.5"L x 9.75"W x 2.25"D). Actually, I only ever make full hotel pans, but this is as close as I can scale this for home use. For bread, I use 7 of the 4-ounce demi-baguettes that we use for table service. We grind all our spices fresh at the restaurant so they are very pungent. You may need to increase the quantity of spices if you are using preground spices. As with all recipes, season to taste.

Pumpkin Butterscotch Pecan Bread Pudding

pan spray
28 ounces hearty white bread, cubed
2 cups butterscotch chips
2 cups pecan halves
8 large eggs
1 cup white sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 pinch salt
1 cup pumpkin purée
1 and 1/2 quarts heavy cream

Preheat your oven to slow, 300-350F. Coat your pan with pan spray (not necessary, but it makes clean up a lot easier). Mix the bread cubes, chips, and pecans and place in the pan. Mix all the remaining ingredients save the cream, then when well mixed, add the cream and stir. Taste for seasoning and adjust to your liking. Pour the custard over the bread and press the bread down into the custard. Place the pudding on a sheet tray and cook until not quite set in the center. Let rest for 20 minutes before serving. The top will probably brown before the center is set. Once browned, cover with aluminum foil and continue to bake. My puddings generally cook for the final thirty minutes under foil. Cook time varies (there's no thermostat on my oven) but it takes about two hours total.

I hope you enjoy this recipe and from all of the staff here at the restaurant, we wish you a Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Goodbye Fried Green Tomatoes!

We have two seasons for fried green tomatoes, early July when the vines have set the first green fruit of the year and November, when we use all the fruit that we were forced to pick before the first frost back in October. And last night saw us cook the very last green tomato of the year. That always means that Thanksgiving is just around the corner.

Customers love fried green tomatoes so and I'm never sure why, but when they're on the menu, they sell like crazy. I'm OK with them, but they aren't something I would go out of my way to order at a restaurant, perhaps because I have cooked so many hundreds or thousands of orders in my life. Still, I can see how a crispy crust on a slightly tart fruit when paired with a bit of goat cheese and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc could be hard to resist.

I have been known to spoof fried green tomatoes from time to time as well. Just recently, we did fried green apples as a dessert: a real winner. And sometimes in the middle of winter when imported tomatillos are inexpensive, I'll put fried green tomatillos on the menu just for grins, and perhaps to quell that desperate sort of longing for warmer weather.

Anyway, goodbye fried green tomatoes at least until early next summer. We've had fun again this year, perhaps too much fun because I'm so done with cooking order after order. Now it's time to move on to brussels sprouts, turnips, kale, collards, celery root, and so forth. Soon enough I'll be tired of playing with these leaf and root crops and I'll be longing once again for fried green tomatoes.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Truth in Advertising

Here's a new one on me. We get all kinds of excuses why people need to cancel reservations, but never heard this one before.

"I need to cancel my reservation because my husband's being a big jerk!"

Monday, November 9, 2009

Turkey Wine

It's that time of the year when the phone starts ringing and the emails starting arriving. Everyone wants to know what wine to pair with turkey. Let me preface my answer with there is no single correct match; there are many acceptable matches; and that most people stress way too much about the subject.

And before I go any further, just let me state that Pinot Noir is the universal food wine. When in doubt, Pinot Noir.

Delving into the subject a bit further, you must realize that the turkey in itself does not drive the pairing decision, for it's about as mild a meat as you can encounter. Driving the pairing decision are all those myriad side dishes, some very aggressively seasoned and some very sweet or sweet and sour.

When in doubt, Pinot Noir.

With all the fruity sweet and sour going on at Thanksgiving, I like a wine that can stand up to the fruit. There are five categories of wine that I have paired very successfully with a full Thanksgiving meal and those are rosé, sparkling wine, fruity unoaked whites, lightly oaked light red wines, and fruit-forward reds.

Rosé. In general, rosé wines pair with a lot of difficult dishes; you'll find cranberry notes in many that will work well at Thanksgiving. And as most of these wines are made for immediate consumption, I like to empty my cooler of the remaining rosés of the current vintage at this time of year.

Sparkling Wine. Champagne is the LBD (little black dress) of the wine world. It's almost always appropriate and goes with so many things. But while Champagne works pretty well, the sweetness of a lot of Thanksgiving dishes may turn it a little sour or tinny, so I look to other more fruity bubblies this time of year. Now is the time to consider a gorgeous rosé Crémant d'Alsace, a sparkling Shiraz from down under, or a sparkling Chenin Blanc such as Vouvray.

Fruity Unoaked White. My preference in Thanksgiving wines runs to reds, simply because of the weather. Cold weather has me seeking a red wine. But I always have a bottle or two of fruity Riesling, Alsatian Pinot Blanc, or Gewürztraminer open for those who prefer white. These are all great turkey wines.

Light Red Wines. Because turkey is such a light meat, I don't want the wine to overpower it. This eliminates Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec and so forth from the running. This is the time of year that I love to serve a delightful Beaujolais, Pinot Noir, or maybe even a lightly oaked light red from Italy, such as Sangiovese or Nebbiolo.

Fruity Red Wines. Thanksgiving dinner is one of the spiciest meals most people will eat during the year; many dishes are loaded with cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. Another approach to selecting a wine is to complement these spices with a spicy wine such as a Zinfandel, Shiraz, Syrah, and other spicy fruit-foward wines or wines with soft tannins. I really like a fruity Grenache for its spiciness.

Oh yeah, when in doubt, Pinot Noir.

So what am I pouring at Thanksgiving? Lots and lots of choices of the wines I've discussed above so that everyone has something and hopefully so that people will try something new. And what's in my glass? Do you have to ask?

When in doubt, Pinot Noir.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Things of Beauty

Just looking at these gorgeous organic Hakurei turnips, how could you not be moved to want to try them? I feel blessed to be able to work with such gorgeous foods each day. Hakurei turnips are Japanese hybrids known for their sweetness, uniformity, and delicious hairless leaves. They're really tasty and I'm looking forward to serving these tonight as part of a vegetarian special.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Fall Chef's Tasting

I really love composing and cooking tasting menus for a lot of reasons. In building a cohesive menu from scratch, I have a strong sense of engagement and I enjoy and welcome the intellectual challenge. Also, I get out of the rut of cooking the same old crab cakes and filets mignons that pay our rent month in and month out. And I enjoy cooking for people who are willing to have their palates challenged. This frees me to not only show off the bounty of local ingredients with which we are blessed to work, but it also lets me serve delicious things that wouldn't sell well on the main menu, and it lets me experiment to a certain extent by taking some risks that I wouldn't under normal dinner circumstances. Did I also mention that this is how I like to eat? When I go out, I just want the chef to send out small bites every 20 minutes or so.

A lot of restaurants have tasting menus and many of them run a tasting menu for a fixed period of time, such as a week or a month or a season. Each tasting menu that we do is custom designed for a particular client. Even if we are doing tasting menus for multiple parties simultaneously, they will be having different menus. Admittedly it's a crazy way to run a restaurant, but then my sanity escaped to the ether some years back. But in this way, the cooking is very personal. I am cooking for a specific client and not just for anybody who walks in off the street and happens to order the tasting menu.

I don't post many of the Chef's Tastings that we do simply for lack of photographs. It's often too busy to photograph our work or because we're in a rush, photos for a certain course just do not turn out. Shooting macro shots by handholding in a busy kitchen on reflective stainless steel tables under really crappy fluorescent lighting is somewhat short of ideal, especially when I brace the camera against the table and someone down the line hip checks the table at the same time I'm shooting.

But the pace and karma Saturday night all aligned perfectly and I got some good shots, good enough for blogging, at least. Not great, but good enough considering the terrible lighting. They follow below.

I was pleased that the clients actually encouraged me to pair this menu with Virginia wines. Often I have to cajole some clients into letting me show off some of our local wines. The following is a highly seasonal menu, one that screams late fall, exactly what I was aiming for:

Chef's Tasting
Saturday, October 31, 2009

Crème Brûlée of Mapled Foie Gras
poached cranberries, bread crisp

Chrysalis Petit Manseng Virginia 2007


Fan of Tataki of Opah and Local Daikon
lemon zest, fleur de sel

White Hall Viognier Virginia 2007


Stone Crab Claws
parsnip purée, vanilla bean beurre blanc, salad burnet

Glen Manor Sauvignon Blanc Virginia 2008


Veal and Rabbit Terrine
quick-pickled local cucamelons; whole grain honey mustard

Swedenburg Pinot Noir Virginia 2008


Local Lamb Ribs in the Style of Peking Duck

Fabbioli Chambourcin Virginia 2007


Lightly Grilled Caribou Tenderloin
duck fat-sautéed matsutake mushrooms and sunchokes; dried blueberries; elderberry and truffle demiglace; local organic spigarello

Linden Claret Virginia 2005


A Study in Local Apples
Cheesy apple crêpe, apple granita, apple-kaffir lime compote, fried green apple with apple cider reduction; Kerrygold Ivernia cheese

Local Apple Cider-Calvados “Martini”

Crème Brûlée of Mapled Foie Gras. This dish started with a lobe of foie in the cooler that I needed to use and with the local Chrysalis Petit Manseng that I wanted to serve. Americans seem always to want the sweet wines at the end of dinner instead of as an aperitif, so I wanted to buck that by serving the sweet wine up front. I wanted to add some sweetness to the dish to work with the wine and initially I was thinking about brûléeing a slice of foie, and from there it wasn't a huge leap to crème brûlée. The maple syrup was almost an afterthought, mainly a liaison with the maple leaf garnish on the plate. To offset some of the richness, we just barely poached fresh cranberries in simple syrup. We served this warm out of the oven and I have to say that it was a brilliant dish.

Fan of Tataki of Opah and Local Daikon. I had a really clear piece of Opah that I wanted to feature and the first local daikon of the year just arrived in the farmer's market the morning of the tasting. I put a slight pickle on the daikon, for a salty and acidic counterpoint to the barely seared Opah. The flavor combination of the two and the texture contrast between the two were fine, but in the end, I'm not crazy about this dish or the presentation.

Stone Crab Claws. Stone crab season just opened so I wanted to celebrate that with this dish. I feel like I went out on a limb here a little putting stone crab claws on a parsnip purée. Garnishes are a vanilla beurre blanc and salad burnet. I felt the combination of the slightly sweet and herbal parsnip worked amazingly well with the vanilla and the crab. This dish is a winner and visually appealing too.

Veal and Rabbit Terrine. This is another one of my terrines; there's always one in the cooler. While I generally don't use liver in my terrines (because of knee-jerk customer reaction), I used the livers out of four rabbits along with a good splash of cream to bind this terrine. A touch of Cognac doesn't hurt either. Interior garnishes are black truffles, pistachios, dried cranberries, veal tongue, green peppercorns, and rabbit loin. Really a very tasty effort. I opted for the artsy photograph here so the interior garnish is tough to see; pity. In the foreground you see that our nasturtiums haven't given up the ghost yet and in the background you see the last of the local cucamelons, lightly pickled.

Local Lamb Ribs in the Style of Peking Duck. Selling ribs in a fine dining restaurant is an exercise in futility, a real pity because they are so good. We have to sell the ribs somehow, so they most often end up on tasting menus. I am a huge fan of braised dishes (slow-cooked with a little liquid) and especially of the style called red cooking from northern China. We rubbed the lamb ribs in garlic and five-spice powder and braised them with soy sauce, white wine, brown sugar, hoisin sauce, star anise, cinnamon, ginger, garlic, and green onions, then let the ribs stand in the braising liquid overnight. We pulled the rib meat and minced it, defatted the braising liquid and reduced it slightly (soy is very salty!), augmented the braising liquid with a little hoisin and sesame oil to make a sauce, then mixed the minced lamb with the sauce, bias-cut green onions, and white sesame seeds. We then brushed a crêpe with the sauce and stuffed it with the minced lamb. This is absolutely delicious and much more flavorful than duck done the same way.

Lightly Grilled Caribou Tenderloin. Caribou is a mild and delicious deer that under the best of circumstances is difficult to obtain, so I was happy to be able to get a little bit for this tasting. This dish is all about fall: lightly grilled caribou over a nest formed from local spigarello (a leaf broccoli) and filled with a sauté of just-dug Jerusalem artichokes and fresh matsutake mushrooms from Oregon. We finished this with a few dried blueberries and a demiglace augmented with local elderberry syrup and black truffles.

A Study in Local Apples. I'd be really remiss here in the heart of Virginia's apple country not to do a dessert of local apples. I had wanted to do a separate cheese course, but the menu was starting to get a little long so we combined the dessert and cheese courses into a single course. Cheese and apples, especially apple pie, is a natural combination at least in the school of traditional southern cooking in which I was raised. A big slice of sharp Cheddar (rat cheese as we called it) was a must with apple pie.

When I was at the farmers market on Tuesday last week, I was getting some green tomatoes for fried green tomatoes. In the next bin were some green apples causing me to flash on fried green apples. I did an instant market survey ("Hey, what do y'all think of fried green apples as a dessert course?") and the conclusion was that it couldn't be bad, so I came back to the restaurant where Chris and I started to experiment with apple thickness, coatings, and seasonings. After a half a dozen samples we got it right. You see fried green apple under the cheese and the crêpe in the photo above. We removed the core of the apple and plugged it with a piece of apple so that the whole would be edible.

On the plate from left to right you see apple compote (Golden Russet apples) cooked down with local honey and kaffir lime, topped with a blade of vanilla grass. Then the fried green apple with the cheese wedge. The crêpe holds wedges of Empire apples roasted with honey and cinnamon, along with grated cheese. The crepe was warmed in the oven to melt the cheese, then topped with a bit more cheese. Under the fried green tomato you see a syrup that we make by straining and reducing local cider until it is syrupy. On the far right, you see a small serving of apple granita, made from 8 varieties of apples and almost no sugar. I'm really happy with the flavors, but the presentation is a bit monochromatic.

Local Apple Cider-Calvados “Martini”. I didn't want another dessert wine with this menu (remember, we started with one) and I had a couple gallons of local cider on hand in the cooler, so I mixed up a cocktail of cider, Calvados, lemon juice, vanilla syrup, and some bitters. The glass is rimmed with cinnamon sugar. The apple slice is from a sweet Fuji; the cider is naturally sweet so a tart apple would have been unpleasantly mouth puckering.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Turkey Time

Monday November 2, I was fortunate enough to be able to taste nine breeds of heritage turkey at Ayrshire Farm, which supplies many of our proteins here at the restaurant including chicken, guinea, pork, veal, and beef, not to mention outstanding organic produce. Frequent readers of the blog will remember that I have been to two other tastings this year, first chickens, then steers, and the results of the double-blind tastings have been fascinating, showing remarkable differences between the breeds.

This tasting, though it followed the same format as the previous two was just a bit different in that CBS Sunday Morning was filming a piece on Sandy Lerner and that I had the honor of being one of the "celebrity" judges, along with Anya Fernald, of Live Culture and one of the judges on The Next Iron Chef; Lisa Brefere of GigaChef; and Chris Edwards, chef of Patowmack Farm in Loudoun County.

One thing that home cooks might take away from this tasting is a conversation that we judges had while sequestered in a back room tasting our samples—with a TV camera, boom mike, and several still photographers clicking away. And that is that none of us are much in favor of roasting a whole bird. There is such a difference between the white and dark meat that they are best when cooked separately and differently. For myself, I like to take the breasts off, then brine and smoke or roast them. The legs, I want to slowly braise with bacon, wine, and mushrooms.

If you frequent the restaurant, you may notice that we often treat poultry (and by extension, rabbits) this way. You'll frequently see a lightly grilled breast of guinea or lightly grilled loin of rabbit on the same plate with a gratin of the rest of the animal, often braised with red wine, Virginia slab bacon, pearl or cipollini onions, and wild mushrooms.

I'm not suggesting you do this with your Thanksgiving turkey—no doubt all your guests are expecting the traditional whole roasted bird—but if you do get one of the heritage turkeys that we tasted, you might want to reconsider. They spend considerable time running around foraging and as a result, they have really muscular legs that you may find a little tough and chewy simply roasted.

We tasted Black, Bourbon Red, Chocolate, Midget White, Narragansett, Royal Palm, Slate, Standard Bronze, and White Holland turkeys, all raised identically at Ayrshire this year.

I found it interesting that we judges rated the Royal Palm highest (photo above courtesy of Wikipedia), while the rest of the crowd about 70 strong had a marked preference for the Midget White. I had the Midget White third on my card. I really liked the Royal Palm for not only the depth of flavor in the breast meat, but for the really intense dark meat. I don't want to speak for the other judges but I think we were all drawn to that delicious dark meat.

My hat is off to Ayrshire chef Rob Townsend for getting up at the crack of dawn and cooking not nine turkeys but eighteen, nine of which went into a gorgeous display in the dining room.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Given that it's a rainy and slow Tuesday, I'm playing with ideas for a tasting this weekend. People often ask me if I ever make food that is not good and the answer is not often, but today, I made something that was just not good. It sort of surprised me because when I imagine flavor combinations in my head, they usually work out. However, I was leery enough of this idea that I tested it out well in advance.

I was musing about fresh sardines today. And sweet and sour. And prosciutto. And the grill. Sweet, sour, salty, fishy: it sounded like a good start to a dish.

The idea was to debone the sardine and stuff it with a strongly sweet and sour mix including pine nuts and golden raisins, wrap the whole in prosciutto, and grill it. The execution was trivial and the possibilities for presentation were great: the proteins in the prosciutto shrink when heated and cinch the fish into a tight cylinder that can be sliced into rounds for presentation.

But the flavor! Yuck! The fish totally dominated the stuffing to the point where I could barely taste it and the combination of the salty pork combined in the worst possible way to produce wave after wave of revolting fishiness. Yuck!

Don't look for this on a menu any time soon!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Rockfish, Ed's Style

Last Thursday, we hosted the Richmond Culinary Guild at the restaurant for a 4-course luncheon. I really appreciate that someone would drive two and a half hours just to come to the restaurant. At the beginning of the luncheon, I demonstrated cooking the entrée course of the luncheon, Rockfish Ed's Style, in the dining room. Rockfish is what we here in Virginia call Striped Bass.

This very simple preparation that is a constant best seller at the restaurant has its roots in a pasta that I used to make for myself and for my friends. In short, it's a dish I've been cooking for decades now and I love it so much that I have given it my name, Ed's Style.

I'm going to give the recipe for a single serving below; scale up is in direct proportion.

Ed's Sauce

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 pinch crushed red pepper flakes
3 tablespoons dry white wine
1/2 cup peeled and seeded tomatoes
1 tablespoon non-pareil capers with a little of the brine
2 artichoke hearts, quartered
3 basil leaves, chiffonaded
salt and pepper to taste

Heat the extra virgin olive, garlic, and red pepper flakes over high flame, stirring every now and again, until the garlic starts to caramelize. Stop the garlic from overcooking by adding the white wine, tomatoes, capers, artichokes, and basil. Cook the sauce a couple of minutes and reduce to your liking. Season.


1 rockfish (or other mild white fish) filet
salt and pepper

Preheat your oven to hot, 450F or higher. Heat a sauté pan over high heat and film with oil. Dredge the fish in seasoned Wondra and place in the pan. Cook first on one side until it browns well, about two minutes, and then on the other side.

Place one serving of Ed's sauce in the bottom of a flat ovenproof pan and place the fish over this. Roast in the hot oven until the fish is just done. Serve immediately.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Market Shopping

I don't think it will surprise too many of my customers, especially the local ones who see me at the market, that I get the inspiration for a lot of dishes from seeing and feeling ingredients. Just last week, I was at the market when I spied some gorgeous tomatoes and very unique luffa squashes. I took them back to the restaurant with the vague idea that roasting tomatoes and luffa would be an interesting dish.

Only one slight problem, I'd never worked with luffa (Luffa acutangula) before. Grown them to maturity and made sponges from them, yes; eaten the immature ones, never. But, it's another squash, albeit a firm one, and so I didn't think I could go too far wrong by treating as any other firm squash. These luffa were sold to me by their Mandarin name, si gua. This photo is from another batch and these luffa are a little worse for wear, still I wanted you to see the product that I am blessed to work with.

Then later that afternoon, my fish delivery came in with some very pristine Atlantic Spanish mackerel, which happen to be migrating off the coast of Virginia right now. Mackerel is known as a dark, gamy, oily fish and undeservedly so. If you've ever eaten saba (pickled mackerel) at the sushi bar, you know that it is white-fleshed and although it has a strong fish flavor, it is delicious when extremely fresh. Mackerel do have a high oil content which makes them a delight to cook, for it is hard to dry them out. But the high oil content means that they go rancid quickly. Only buy from a trusted source. This little guy (2.5 pounds, 1.1 kg) was fat and pristine and yielded four nice filets. I don't skin mackerel; it has no scales and it is impossible to remove the skin anyway.

While I was breaking down the mackerel, the whole dish came to me. Why not roast the tomatoes and luffa and season them assertively arrabbiata-style, then roast the mackerel to order on top of the arrabbiata sauce? If mackerel can stand up well to pickling, certainly it will stand up to an assertive tomato sauce.

Roasted Spanish Mackerel with Luffa Arrabbiata

This feeds four people quite well with a green salad and a glass of red wine. You can substitute other squash for the luffa. If you use a soft squash such as zucchini, reduce the cook time to about 15 minutes. You can substitute any of the mackerels or bluefish in this recipe.

2 small luffa
4 large tomatoes
4 cloves garlic
1 anchovy
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes or to taste
1/2 teaspoon salt
black pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 mackerel filets

Preheat the oven to very hot, 450F. Slice the luffa into coins about 1/4" (1cm) thick. Peel, seed, and roughly chop the tomatoes. Mince the garlic. Remove the backbone from the anchovy and chop it finely. In a roasting pan, mix the squash, tomatoes, garlic, anchovy, red and black pepper, salt, and olive oil. Roast the vegetables until the squash is tender, stirring every now and again. It took me about 40 minutes. Rub the mackerel with extra virgin olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place skin side down on top of the vegetables and return to the oven until the mackerel is just barely cooked, about 6 minutes.

For presentation, we put the sauce down in the well of a soup plate with the fish over. Then we spooned a tomato vinaigrette around the plate and a little on the fish and topped the fish with a small mound of local baby arugula dressed with lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Chef's Tasting, October 2009

Chris and I did a tasting last night that was incredibly ingredients-driven (as opposed to thematically driven or technique-driven). We literally threw this tasting together in the course of a couple of hours as most of the proteins were arriving late into the afternoon.

Tuna Flower—Sashimi of Hawaiian Pink Tombo. It's not often that I luck into a piece of 1+ Tombo (Albacore), especially the pink-fleshed kind. It was obvious on looking at the loin that we were going to do sashimi with it; to cook it would have been to dishonor the fish from which it came. We had a ball eating all the trimmings for lunch. The flower petal arrangement of Tombo is topped with lemon zest, green onions, and fleur de sel. And the center of the flower is a quick salad of orange and cucamelon, topped with a micro red Russian kale leaf. I didn't serve any soy with this because I didn't want to mask the fish and I didn't want the soy to fight with the Alsatian Pinot Blanc that I paired with the dish.

Truffled Day Boat Scallop in its Own Shell. Our FedEx driver delivered a huge sack of just harvested scallops from Massachusetts late in the afternoon. I like fresh scallops as sashimi, but I wanted a transition in this course from the raw first course to the cooked third course, so I seared the scallop on one side only and topped it quickly with a little black truffle butter refreshed with a couple drops of lemon juice. I paired this with a local Chardonnay that is amazingly Burgundian in style, high in lemony acidity with a round mid-palate.

Chesapeake Bay Sea Squab Meunière. I was fortunate enough to get some Northern Puffer (Sphoeroides maculatus) which I grew up calling Sea Squab from a dealer down on the Chesapeake Bay. These fish have always been regarded as trash fish on the Bay, but as a kid, I always enjoyed eating them. They have tenderly sweet white meat that is high in gelatin and they're definitely finger food. Whenever I see a batch of cleaned puffers, they remind me so of frog's legs that it always strikes me to cook them in my favorite manner as frog's legs: à la meunière, dredged in flour, sautéed in butter, finished with lemon and parsley. No, your eyes are not deceiving you. There are two whole fish in that tiny crème brûlée dish. I paired the lemony sauce with a lemony and crisp Albariño from Rias Baixas.

Terrine of Foie Gras with Calvados and Truffles. The one thing that the customer requested for this tasting was foie and what better way to do it than as a terrine? The great and frightening thing about a terrine is that there is no place to hide: it's all about the quality of the foie. Not a problem: I have the best supplier in North America. Five ingredients make up this terrine: foie, Kosher salt, white pepper, Calvados, and black truffles, all mixed and jammed into a terrine and slowly cooked in a just barely warm oven, then weighted and refrigerated. Terribly old school and amazingly delicious! Here is the terrine on a slice of savory pain perdu (French toast); cropped out of the photo is a dab of our Asian pear-Kaffir lime confit. I confess to handling the quality control of this terrine personally (and I saw Chris doing likewise). As a chef, I have to ensure that everything going to the table is fit to serve, no? Earlier in the menu, I would have paired this with a sweet wine; here at mid-menu, I treated it as the first meat course and so paired it with a local Pinot Noir, high on acid to work against the fat and smoky to complement the liver.

Veal Cheek en Diable. This dish was an exercise in finding a protein to pair with our amazing local bird egg beans and organic cavolo nero (lacinato, black Tuscan kale). I cooked the huge bird eggs until just tender, then started trying some pancetta in a sauté pan, to which I added the bird eggs and some of their juice. Once this started to come down, I added a bit more juice and a lot of chiffonaded cavolo nero. Once the kale had wilted, I swirled in a touch of butter to mount the sauce and seasoned the beans. On top of this, I plated a veal cheek, the most unctuous and best part of the cow. We braised the veal cheeks in white wine, leeks, and celery root until tender, then firmed them up in the cooler overnight. "En diable" refers to mustard: we rolled the cheeks in Dijon mustard and then in panko and browned them all over, then finished heating them through in the oven. I paired this ensemble with a deliciously fruity local Chambourcin.

Wild Boar Chop. The last few boar that we have got in from Texas have been really tiny, so we have a bunch of small racks on hand. I lollipopped a couple of nice chops and grilled them. They're plated with some peach butter that we made out of self defense when we were given a couple of bushels of local and not terribly ripe peaches, a swirl of celery root purée stiffened with a little local gold potato, chanterelle mushrooms, and some veal demiglace that we augmented with pounded black truffle, local elderberry syrup, white pepper, and lemon juice. I really like Syrah and Nebbiolo with wild boar. I would buy a bottle of Hermitage or Barolo if I were dining out, but to keep costs under control, I found a reasonably priced Australian Shiraz that lets the Syrah shine through, Rhône-style.

Apple Pie-Calvados Martini. The customers for whom we created this tasting have a very strong preference for fruit desserts and now being prime apple season, we have about a dozen varieties on hand in the cooler. This is a simple granita of apples that we cooked down with the barest touch of sugar and a cinnamon stick, then passed through a chinois. The trick to this very simple dish, as for the terrine de foie, is quality of the apples. The bulk are Empires for their tartness along with Grimes Golden for body and a couple of Staymans for flavor. We rimmed the martini glasses with cinnamon sugar, then filmed them with Calvados, added the granita, and drizzled over a bit of highly reduced local apple cider syrup. The remaining garnishes are a cinnamon stick and apple slices. Served with a double espresso and cantucci (tiny almond biscotti).

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Ribollita, My Way (con Anitra)

Now that the weather has turned cool, my mind has turned to cool weather dishes such as hearty soups, stews, and braises. And beans! There is nothing better on a cold winter night than a huge bowl of steaming white bean soup, a loaf of bread, some excellent olive oil, a glass of red wine, and someone to share it with.

Last weekend, I taught a Tuscan cooking class as a fundraiser at a private house and our secondo was a bowl of ribollita, Tuscan bean soup, my style. I emphasize my style because everyone's ribollita (meaning "re-boiled" or recooked in the oven until it crusts over in the style of cassoulet) is different and small land wars have been fought over whether ribollita contains, for example, tomato. Of course (Mario Batali, this means you!) it does not! ;)

My way, this time, involves duck because I love the richness and silkiness that it brings to the soup, and the way that its essential flavors complement the earthy neutrality of the beans. Add to this the classic white bean seasonings of thyme, rosemary, lots of sage, pancetta, and celery root and you have a soup fit for a king.

Of course, ribollita is a simple soup that you can make from canned beans and whatever vegetables you have in the refrigerator, but I'm aiming for something more fabulous, more restaurant worthy here. I'm going to give you the whole three-day process for the soup I made so you can see what pains we chefs go to build layers of flavors and then you should feel very free to use what shortcuts you will to get your soup on the table to feed your crew in the time and with the energy you have available.

Before we get into the recipe and procedure, let's talk about beans. The Mangia-Fagioli (the bean eaters, the Tuscans) use the best beans that they can find. Most make ribollita from the large white kidney beans called Cannellini or Cannelloni; Tuscan chefs to whom beans are important use the rare Sorana bean. Me, I use a bean that puts the Cannellini to shame: the Steuben Yellow Eye. This is a bean that does not break down, has a thin skin, and a creamy interior, just perfect for ribollita. Trust me, if the Tuscans had this bean, they would use it. It's worth your while to seek it out.

Day 1: Marinating the Duck, Soaking the Beans

Duck Marinade

4 duck legs
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
black pepper
extra virgin olive oil

Rub the duck legs with extra virgin olive oil, garlic, pepper, and thyme. Store covered in the refrigerator at least overnight.


1 pound (500g) white beans
water to cover

Wash the beans and pick through them to remove any debris and damaged beans. Most dried beans expand by about three-fold during rehydration, so cover them in plenty of water and leave on the counter to soak overnight.

Day 2: Making the Duck Stock, Cooking the Beans

Duck Stock, Part 1

marinated duck legs
2 bay leaves
water to cover

In a deep pan, cover the duck legs and bay leaves in cold water and bring slowly to the simmer. Skim any scum that forms on the stock, but leave the fat in the pan. Cook until the duck is very tender, about two hours. Remove the duck from the stock and place on a sheet tray to cool. Skim 1/2- to 3/4-cup of the duck fat from the stock and reserve for the next step. When the duck is cool to the touch, separate the meat from the skin and bones. Pull the meat into bite-sized pieces and refrigerate. Use the stock and the reserved skin and bones in the next step.

Duck Stock, Part 2

1/2- to 3/4-cup reserved duck fat
duck skin and bones
2 large carrots, roughly chopped
2 stalks of celery, roughly chopped
leaves from two leeks (save the bottoms for the soup), roughly chopped
duck stock from previous step

Heat your oven to hot, 450F. In an ovenproof sauté pan large enough to hold the duck bones and vegetables, heat the duck fat. Add the bones, skin, and vegetables. Stir frequently until the vegetables begin to caramelize. Place the pan in the oven and roast, stirring every few minutes until the bones, skin, and vegetables are well caramelized. Remove the vegetables and bones to a stockpot and return the sauté pan to the stove top over medium high flame and deglaze with a few ladles of duck stock, scraping to get all the fond (caramelized bits) off the bottom of the sauté pan and into the stock. Once the pan is deglazed, pour the stock over the bones and vegetables and add all the remaining stock to the stock pot.

Let the stock simmer for two to three hours, then strain the solids from the stock. Discard the solids and refrigerate the stock. Leave the fat on top of the stock. Not only will it be easier to separate it when it is solid, but you'll use it again to cook the vegetables for the soup.

Cooking the Beans

Drain the beans that you have presoaked at least overnight. Place in a soup pan and cover with fresh water. Bring up to a slow boil and cook for 45 minutes. At this point, add a couple of teaspoons of salt to the water and continue cooking until the beans are just tender. Turn off the flame and let the beans cool in their liquid. Refrigerate the beans in their liquid overnight.

Day 3: Finishing the Soup

Start by pulling the duck fat off the stock and saving both the stock and the fat. You'll need some fat for this soup and you'll want the rest for some other recipe, such as duck fat home fries.

2 quarts duck stock
cooked beans
reserved duck meat
1/2 cup reserved duck fat
6 ounces pancetta, in small cubes
1 celery root, peeled and diced
2 leeks, cleaned and diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
12 sage leaves, finely sliced
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 pound cavolo nero (Black Tuscan Kale), sliced into ribbons
salt and pepper to taste

Put the duck stock, beans and their liquid, and the duck meat in a soup pot over high flame. When it comes up to a boil, reduce to a simmer. Meanwhile, heat a large sauté pan over high flame. Add the duck fat and let it melt. Sauté the pancetta, celery root, leeks, and garlic until well wilted. Add to the soup pot. Add the sage, bay, thyme, and rosemary. Let simmer for 45 minutes to an hour for the flavors to come together. Twenty minutes before serving, stir in the cavolo nero so that it will just be cooked when you are ready to serve the soup. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove the bay leaves and rosemary. Serve with grilled crostini and lots of extra virgin olive oil to drizzle over the soup.

Sometimes I serve this as a clear soup. Sometimes I mash a few of the beans against the side of the pot to give the broth some body. Sometimes I add pieces of crusty bread to the soup and let it fall apart in the soup, giving it some body. And, I like to refrigerate the soup over night, then place it in an enameled cast iron casserole and bake it in a slow oven the next day for many hours, folding the crust back into the soup every hour or so in true ribollita fashion.

I've staged this recipe in three easy days of work. Of course, you could jam it into one; you could use canned beans and premade stock (or even water); you could substitute ham for the duck. I wanted to show you the full recipe so that you would appreciate how we go about doing what we do, but I certainly don't expect you to cook like this at home. I do hope that you will use this as inspiration to put a great white bean soup on your table for your family and friends.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Gourmet Magazine: Requiescat in Pace

1968. It might have been the summer of love or the year of all things psychedelic to some, but for me, 1968 was the year that I started reading Gourmet magazine on a monthly basis. I probably owe the writers whose prose graced the magazine a great debt, for no doubt, I learned a vast amount of vocabulary reading their works. I certainly owe them for their insight into food, cooking techniques, and cultures.

In those days, the magazine was the tale of two cities, New York and Paris, but to a kid from Virginia those places might have well been the moon. As a kid, I remember reading Along the Avenues (all things New York) and Paris Journal (ditto Paris) and wondering what it must be like to experience such things as I read.

Gourmet followed me through high school and to college where—it may surprise you to learn—that the small format magazine with its gorgeous food photos stood in stark opposition to all the copies of Hugh Heffner's finest laying around in the dorm. It was fitting to have Gourmet and Playboy on the same table, for Gourmet's photographers were the originators of what we now call "food porn." Many of the photographers, and Romulo Yanes foremost, are geniuses at what they do and I am happy that Gourmet provided a forum for their work. My life is richer for having looked at their pictures.

After I left high school, Gourmet went through a muddled phase in which it couldn't decide whether it was food journal or lifestyle magazine and yet the sparse food writing was often so brilliant that I couldn't stop reading it, despite the near decimation of the magazine after Condé Nast bought it.

Gourmet had an ugly period in which it became all advertising and little content in the early Condé Nast period, yet there was that one inspired article about kebabs in Afghanistan that kept me coming back month after month.

And in the last decade, Ruth Reichl had seemingly wrested the magazine back to a steady course and had finally made the magazine relevant again. The column Kitchen Notebook always spoke to my heart as a chef. Though it was not always so over the decades, in the last five years, I have looked forward to reading the magazine each month. Kudos, Ruth.

And now we must say goodbye. My profession dictates that I am not a great follower of the news and I learn much of what goes on outside my restaurant kitchen from my employees. And yesterday when one of my line cooks told me of the demise of Gourmet, I was in disbelief.

Gourmet has been one of the constants in my life. I'm 47 now and have been reading it for 41 of those years. I'm profoundly saddened by this turn of events in a way similar to when Julia Child died. I owe both much for my culinary formation. Requiescant in pace.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Cooking with Herbs Demonstration

I invite you to come see me demonstrate Cooking with Herbs at Blandy Farm, the State Arboretum of Virginia, in Clarke County on Sunday the 11th of October at 2pm. The demonstration is free and I will be providing samples. For more information, click over to the restaurant web site.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Camera Games

Just playing around with macro shots on the camera yesterday while plating a catering order. Raw off the camera converted to JPEG. Not bad for a 10-year old camera.

Chopped salad of onions, peppers, and cucumbers in Greek yogurt.

Pomegranate-Marinated Chicken Kebabs on Orange, Almond, and Golden Raisin Pilaf.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Craziness, Redux

I last posted about the semi-lunacy of taking in bushels and bushels of local produce and lots of local meats and in under 48 hours, concocting a menu using all those ingredients and serving it to 60+ people (see "Craziness"). It's not really as crazy an endeavor as it sounds: it is in larger scale what we do every day here at the restaurant—react to the fresh, local products coming in the door to create the dinner menu for the day.

Before I get started, I have to give a big thanks to the ladies from Preserve Frederick for all their help in coordinating logistics: amazing job! And both the front of the house crew and back of the house crew did fantastic jobs, letting me move from the kitchen to the dining room at will and greet and mingle with our guests. Great job everyone! Service was amazingly smooth!

To recap, last evening we held a sold-out farm-to-table dinner for the benefit of Preserve Frederick in conjunction with the Piedmont Environmental Council. The net proceeds will go to Preserve Frederick for the publication of next year's edition of the Buy Fresh-Buy Local guide, that connects local producers and consumers of agricultural products.

From the restaurant perspective, I've been leading the fresh-local parade for the past seven years and I am happy to have been able to help raise funds to publish a guide that might help our local producers connect with other restaurants and the general public. Who knows? Maybe we can convince other restaurants to keep their money here in our local economy.

After triaging all the food that came in the door, the cooks and I started sketching out ideas for using the products and dealing with issues such as feeding 60+ people with 7 pounds of pork. Here's the final menu that we ended up with after receiving the final donations at around 2:30pm before the dinner:

Gazpacho with Crispy Squash Cake

Gratin of Natural Chicken in Mustard Sauce

Thai Beef Salad

Puerco con Mojo on Corn Cake with Tomato, Tomatillo, and Groundcherry Salsa

Irish Stew with Butternut Squash Purée

White Chocolate, Pecan, and Roasted Apple Bread Pudding with Crème Anglaise

Gazpacho with Crispy Squash Cake. We made a fairly traditional tomato gazpacho with lots of diced vegetables for garnish, including yellow, red and green peppers, beets, and corn. If the beets are very young and sweet, you can use a lot; if they are very earthy, they will dominate. These were very earthy so we had to use restraint. We flavored the soup with lots of sherry vinegar and a healthy dose of Tabasco.

With the soup, we served one of our famous squash cakes: yellow squash grated and cooked for three hours in heavy cream with garlic and basil and bound with pecorino romano and bread crumbs, chilled, formed into cakes, and fried.

Gratin of Natural Chicken in Mustard Sauce. Needing to feed 60 people from 5 chickens (albeit huge ones), we had to take the chicken off the bone and stretch it. We poached the huge Corn Rock Cross chickens; poached a traditional mirepoix of leeks, carrots, and celery in the chicken stock to further flavor it; then reduced the stock with heavy cream and added a final liaison of Dijon mustard. After mixing the chicken, vegetables, and sauce, we baked it under an herbed breadcrumb crust. This is one of the key tricks of the professional kitchen: cook everything separately to the point where it is perfectly cooked and then combine all the ingredients. I wouldn't expect home cooks to do this (and dirty that many pans) but this is how we get our chicken perfectly tender and our vegetables just done.

Thai Beef Salad. What to do with chuck and sirloin steaks and how to stretch a small amount for a crowd? With chuck, you either have to cook it a little or a lot. We went for a little, first marinating the beef in a touch of the salad dressing, then grilling it to medium rare, chilling it, then slicing it and removing the nasty bits. This we mixed with a julienne of carrots, sliced green onions, mounds of Thai basil, cilantro, a few cherry tomatoes and lots of dressing. The dressing is lime juice, brown sugar, kaffir lime, fish sauce, and local first-pressing canola oil. We served this over some impeccable baby greens that were picked just before the dinner. Kaffir lime is not typical in this salad, but I have a lot on hand that I need to use.

Puerco con Mojo on Corn Cake with Tomato, Tomatillo, and Groundcherry Salsa. We had only 7 pounds of shoulder, bone-in at that, to feed a crowd, so we knew we were going to braise the pork and pull it. We braised the pork in a classic Cuban mojo of sour orange juice, cilantro, oregano, garlic, and cumin, then shredded it and mixed it with a Cuban-style arroz verde (green rice) and a salsa of cherry tomatoes, peppers, local tomatillos, and local groundcherries.

We shaved a lot of fresh corn, just picked in the afternoon, mixed it with local poblanos (these were way spicy!), garlic, and Virginia cornmeal from which we made delicious little pancakes on which to serve the pork.

Irish Stew with Butternut Squash Purée. I cubed four legs of lamb and stewed them in Petit Verdot from Jefferson Cellars as the base for this "stew." It was non-traditional in that while I did stew the lamb, I sautéed the accompanying carrots, celery, and onions, and roasted local Yukon Gold and Kennebec potatoes with rosemary. After straining and reducing the lamb stock, I bound it with a classic beurre manié, and mixed it into the meat and vegetables just before service.

For the butternut purée we peeled, cubed, and roasted the first butternut squash of the season. We then mashed them and seasoned with a touch of butter, nutmeg, salt, and white pepper. Roasting small cubes of squash to the point of slight caramelization yields a depth of flavor that you cannot get by other means.

White Chocolate, Pecan, and Roasted Apple Bread Pudding with Crème Anglaise. I think that everyone who ate this bread pudding will all agree that it was the best that I have ever made; it was pure money! The key is using premium products: our fantastic baguettes, local Jonagold and Empire apples roasted with cinnamon and local honey, white chocolate, toasted pecan halves, a little (about two gallons) 40+% heavy cream, a couple vanilla beans, and dozens of local Rhode Island Red eggs. Besides using the best quality ingredients possible, the other trick with bread pudding is knowing when to take it out of the oven. If you let it set up totally in the oven, it's overcooked, still good, but not money!

Thanks to the following farmers for their kind support of this event:

Echo Ridge Farm
Freight Station Farmers Market
Hardin Natural Chicken
Hedgebrook Farm
Linda's Mercantile
Marker-Miller Orchards
North Branch Farm
Richard's Fruit Market
Virginia Lamb

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Many of you know that I'm willing to take on some crazy challenges. My latest is a fundraiser on Thursday September, 24th (already all sold out) for the benefit of Preserve Frederick in conjunction with the Piedmont Environmental Council which will use the funds to publish next year's edition of the Buy Fresh-Buy Local guide, a listing of sources for local agricultural products for use by us chefs and the general public. It also lists restaurants with a commitment to local products and that's where One Block West comes in.

Starting yesterday morning, local farmers started dropping off vegetables and proteins here at the restaurant and more items will come in today and tomorrow. My challenge is to feed 60+ people a delightful menu on Thursday from items, many of which I haven't even seen and don't even know about yet. Crazy? Just slightly, but my cooks and I will carry it off.

Stay tuned later this week for the menu that evolves from this lunacy. So far, we have the following items to work with:

yellow squash
green peppers, yellow peppers, red peppers, Habañeros
butternut squash
pole beans
cherry tomatoes and regular tomatoes
salad greens
leg of lamb
natural chicken
pork shoulder
various cuts of Angus beef

Thanks to the following farmers for their kind support of this event:

Echo Ridge Farm
Freight Station Farmers Market
Hardin Natural Chicken
Hedgebrook Farm
Linda's Mercantile
Marker-Miller Orchards
North Branch Farm
Richard's Fruit Market
Virginia Lamb

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Not All Beef is Created Equal

Yesterday, I attended the second beef tasting at Ayrshire Farm, a blind tasting of New York strips of 10 steers of differing breeds. I rarely eat beef (it's nothing political: carbs, vegetables, and seafood keep distracting me) but we serve a lot here at the restaurant and I want to serve the best that we can. Many many years ago I became disillusioned with the USDA grading system and went with small producers who don't grade their beef but who produce top-quality meat. In the last year, I have been buying from Ayrshire Farm and filling in with other grass-fed beef as necessary. Ayrshire is still ramping their production. I am hopeful that we may be able to source all our beef from them in the next two years.

Although I hear from customers routinely that our beef is very good to the best that they have ever tasted, I wanted to take advantage of this tasting to put the beef that we are serving in perspective with a lot of other solid breeds.

The ten steers in the tasting were either raised at Ayrshire or purchased from nearby farms. All were finished identically at Ayrshire and all the strips were cooked identically. We tasted the numbered samples blind and rated them on flavor and texture. After that, we tallied our scores and then among the 80 or so tasters, we determined which breed rated highest on our collective scorecards.

The ten breeds were Angus, Dexter, Galloway, Belted Galloway, Hereford, Highland, Piney Woods, Red Poll, Shorthorn, and White Park.

I have to say that all the samples I tasted were excellent and I would not have been disappointed to receive a steak from any one of these steers at a restaurant. But about halfway through the tasting, there was one sample that was so clearly good that it blew all the others away. In fact, I have only had one steak better than this in my entire life and that was in 1981. What I learned from the previous chicken tasting is that my palate often seeks different textures and flavors from others, so I wasn't at all confident that the steak I rated the highest would find favor with the other tasters.

When we got to voting, however, it was clear that the steak that I liked the best was the overwhelming favorite of everyone there, getting more than double the first place votes of the nearest competitor. And the winner? You see it in the photo above, courtesy of wikipedia.org, the Scottish Highland, the very same beef that we serve here at the restaurant. And now, I think I have our beef in pretty good perspective.

Friday, August 28, 2009

You Know It's August When....

You know that it's August when you have more tomatoes than you know what to do with. I want to show off some of my outstanding tomatoes, tomatoes that you could eat tonight at the restaurant were you so inclined. First, here's the artsy magazine cover shot of some of our organic cherry tomatoes in all shapes and sizes.

Next, here is a top view of some of the haul from the market this morning. You see the lemon-shaped tomato at the top that is called imaginatively enough Lemon Tomato? To its left are two Pruden's Purples and to the right is a Caspian Pink. Just below it are two unindentified round red tomatoes. To the right of the Caspian Pink are two tomatillos, not even tomatoes but pretty nonetheless in both green and purple forms. The large red and yellow tomato below the tomatillos is known by many names including Old German, Pennsylvania German, Mr. Stripey, and Big Rainbow. To the right are a few black cherry tomatoes. Just below that is a very interesting fuzzy lemon yellow tomato called a Peach Tomato. Continuing clockwise you see a yellow plum tomato and then a Red Zebra, the small red and orange striped tomato which looks amazingly like the Green Zebra, none of which I have this year. Above the Zebra you see the pink Brandywine and flanking it, two green cherry tomatoes and an unidentified round red and yellow tomato.

Feast on!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Nepalese Bell Pepper

You know why I love going to the farmer's market? Because sometimes I run into something that I've never seen before. Check out these small peppers that Seed Savers lists as Nepalese Bell Peppers. They are about as interesting looking a pepper as I have seen in years, almost hat-shaped. Here they are on a three-year old plant (yes, some peppers are perennials in their native habitats) that overwinters in the greenhouse. These peppers are starting to ripen into their orange phase and ultimately they will go red-orange.

Here are two green ones that fell off in transport. They are very thin-fleshed peppers and the bottom of the hat is very mild. Up around the stem and seeds, however, they have a good spike of heat that lasts several minutes. We're thinking that if we had enough of these little guys, we'd stuff them.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

2009, Summer of the Beet

I'm starting to get something of a reputation for cooking one of the world's most humble and underappreciated foods: the beet. And I'm fine with that. I'm especially fine when I visit tables and I hear the common refrain, "I hate beets, but..."

I grew up eating beets directly from our garden, so I never understood why people dislike them so until I was a teenager when my family ate at a Holiday Inn, probably because my grandfather who had terrible taste in food wanted to eat there. The beets on my plate were disgusting and the rest of the food wasn't much better. My parents explained to me that they were canned beets, something I had never eaten before. Gross. I understand where you beet haters are coming from. Now I ask you to put aside your hatred and read on.

Back to the present and our annual Harvest Dinner this past week when we celebrate the hard work of our friends Gene and Beth Nowak at Mayfair Farm by putting on a multicourse vegetarian menu using only the produce from their farm. It's our way of thanking them for supplying us in good weather and bad, year in and year out.

I was determined to put on an entirely new menu this year, largely because we have the same devout customers attending from year to year and I wanted to show them some new dishes. Because this summer of 2009 has been abnormally cool, we have been blessed with fresh baby beets all summer, and this is unprecedented in my lifetime. To have baby beets coincide with the height of summer produce (corn, peaches, tomatoes, peppers) season just doesn't happen and I wanted to take advantage of that.

As I mentioned at the start of this meandering post, I'm getting a reputation for beets. It's not intentional: I assure you that I am not proselytizing for beets in any way. It's just that I cook what I like and I like beets. I like beets a lot. And so do our customers.

My Baby Beet, Goat Cheese, and Walnut Salad is the simplest thing to make and it is so delicious that customers actually decide to come to dine with us based on whether this salad is on the menu. I quote a customer's email to me: "If I wasn't already married and there had been a preacher in the house, I would've married the beet, walnut and goat cheese salad." This seems a bit extreme, but there is no denying that this salad is one of our top five most popular appetizers ever. Beet haters: understand that this is a beet dish so popular they'd be after me with a noose if I suddenly stopped making it.

Each year before the Harvest Dinner, the speculation starts about the menu. I always keep this menu a secret because I want to surprise everyone. On market day before the dinner, I see everyone peeking in the back of my truck to see what I am taking back to the restaurant. And people will have been bugging Beth for weeks about the menu. There was no hiding that I was serving beets—a very significant quantity of beets. And so I knew that in no way could I put the beet, goat cheese, and walnut salad on the menu because that would be what everyone expected.

In the end, I had three really neat ideas and couldn't make up my mind what to put on the menu, so I did a trio of all three ideas, which you see here. On the left is a beet chutney, more properly called as my Indian friends would remind me, a beetroot pickle. In the center is one of my goat cheese truffles, in this case with roasted figs and roasted beets, rolled in crushed walnuts. On the right you see BBQ beets, about as inspired an idea as I have had in a very long time. Its genesis lies in a conversation that one of the cooks and I were having during a brainstorming session on the deck. He was talking about a dry rub of brown sugar and pimentón for something and somehow I got the idea of making it into a sauce for beets. The result: primo!

Several people asked for the recipe for the beet chutney and here is my recreation as best as I can recall, scaled to human size, rather than the 100-person batch I made this week.

Beet Chutney

2 pounds beets (two nice bunches)
1 tablespoon mustard oil
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 yellow onion, finely diced
1 poblano chile, finely diced
1 green Thai chile, finely minced
3 curry leaves
2 tablespoons ginger, finely minced
2 tablespoons garlic, finely minced
6 green cardamom pods
6 black cardamom pods
2 teaspoons fenugreek seeds
1 tablespoon ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup rice vinegar
3/4 cup brown sugar
salt and black pepper to taste

Well, isn't this a prodigious list of ingredients? If you cook a lot of Indian food as I do, you'll have all these ingredients already. If not, there's no time like the present to start!

Cut the tops off the beets, leaving about an inch of stem attached and place the beets in a single layer in a foil packet on a sheet pan, and then roast the beets in a medium oven until tender when pierced with a knife. For golf ball or smaller beets such as those shown above, this will take a half an hour or so. Let the beets cool in the foil packet until they are cool enough to handle, but still warm. Wearing gloves, slice the stems off the top of the beet and squeezing the beet gently, slip the skin right off. Trim the root and dice the beets.

Next, heat the mustard and vegetable oils in a heavy bottom pan big enough to hold the beets, until the oil is almost smoking. Add the mustard and cumin seeds and cook until they really start popping, like popcorn. Quickly add the onions and cook until the edges are starting to brown, then add the rest of the wet ingredients: the poblano, Thai chile, curry leaves, ginger, and garlic. Cook a few minutes longer until the onions are nicely caramelized.

At this point, add all the remaining dry spices, the brown sugar, and the vinegar. Mix well. Add the diced beets and turn the flame down. Let the mixture simmer for 20 minutes or so to come together and until the mixture is almost dry. Adjust the sweet and sour balance with more vinegar or sugar as necessary. Adjust the spice level to your taste. Correct the salt and pepper seasoning.

Although you can serve this immediately, it is much better if it cures in the refrigerator at least for a day and preferably for several days.

Variations. I often use tamarind instead of vinegar and frequently I add a dried fruit for sweetness, such as golden raisins. For texture, sometimes I will add lotus seeds.