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.