Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Alien Ingredient #9: Buddha's Hand

Call it Buddha's Hand all you want, but doesn't it look like a lemon and a squid got together in the walk-in and produced this alien-looking offspring? I've seen these crazy citruses (Citrus medica var. sarcodactylis) also known as fingered citrons on and off over the years in chef magazines and on the web, but just never had the money or motivation to try them. (Did you catch that Greek above? Sarco "fleshy" and dactyl "finger." Pretty appropriate, huh?)

Cutting open the Buddha's hand, the center is all pith, but the pith is more sweet than bitter, and perfectly edible raw or cooked—the cooked pieces that we infused in cream and strained out are delicious lemon candies. The rind has a bitter aftertaste to it that a standard lemon does not. The fragrance is more at Meyer lemon than standard lemon and the flavor is lemony with a haunting note of lemongrass.

With the rind and the pith being edible, I can imagine all kinds of wonderful uses for Buddha's hand citrons, from savory (sliced and sautéed to go with fish) to sweet. For my first foray, I infused half of this one into two quarts of heavy cream and made that into crème brûlée. The staff's verdict on the result? Awesome!

Vote: Price be damned, this is the best tasting source of lemon flavor ever!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Vegetarian Chef's Tasting

This is a tale about letting go.

Last evening, we cooked a 5-course vegetarian tasting on a relatively slow Friday night, slow enough to let me take photos, something that I was unable to do all during the fall when we were so busy.

I was really happy to have this opportunity to do a vegetarian menu. Getting away from the meat-centric menu really frees my mind, removes constraints about how dishes are usually prepared, and gives me freedom to just do what I am feeling.

I loved each and every dish on this menu and I think we did a great job of putting the ingredients that we have now in dead winter on a plate in a creative and inviting and (most importantly) delicious manner.

While we were very pleased with the end result, the journey in getting there wasn't all that simple. Some menus just write themselves; this one did not. Over the past few years of designing menus, we have come to understand that simplicity is better than complexity, flavor trumps presentation, and if it doesn't feel right, it isn't. In short, we've learned to let go of pet ideas if they don't fit. There's always another day, another menu, another opportunity to try out that new idea.

A potato cake. This menu almost got derailed by a simple potato cake. For some reason, the Ecuadoran potato cake called the llapingacho insinuated itself into my conscious brain and wouldn't let go. From there, it was an easy enough leap to a full Ecuadoran menu. Over five or six days of brainstorming, we found ourselves putting dishes on the menu simply because they were Ecuadoran, not because they highlighted our local ingredients and not because we had a flavor profile that we were trying to express in a finished dish. This is not the way to design a successful menu. If a dish doesn't speak to you as a chef, discard it and move on.

I finally heeded the warning bells that were gently dinging in the back of my brain and punted the whole Ecuadoran menu save for the llapingachos that sent us off seeking the elusive red herring. At this point, we freed ourselves to get back to highlighting our local ingredients such as Jerusalem artichokes, rapini, and Fairy Tale squash.

As the menu started forming, all of us collectively said about the same time, "I'm not feeling the peanut sauce on the potato cakes." So we struck the traditional peanut sauce and that freed us to strike the rest of the Ecuadoran seasoning (achiote and cilantro) and just to retain that singular characteristic of the llapingacho that makes it stand out in the world's pantheon of potato cakes: the grated cheese in the cake itself.

And that is the lesson to take from this menu: learning to let go is hard but necessary. Don't force it. Keep it simple and distill it to its essence. Feel it and do it.

And now on to the photos.

Jerusalem Artichoke Soup. We have a super abundance of Jerusalem artichokes in our cooler just now and they are a natural for soup. They bring an almost inimitable silky appealing texture to soup. The downside is that they can bring a dull and listless grey color to the party as well. To mask this, we added a tiny bit of roasted red pepper for an orange hue, but not enough to flavor the soup. Too much of a silky soup can really bore your tastebuds, so we had to bring some acid to the party, which we did in the form of a roasted red pepper and goat cheese mousse. The acidic goat cheese is just the thing to keep your palate refreshed. Paired with a lemony Spanish Albariño.

Yukon Gold and Two Onion Potato Cakes. Here are the llapingachos that started this whole menu, made from local Yukon golds with a grated three-milk (goat, sheep, and cow) cheese, green onions, and caramelized onions. To reiterate the cheese, we have sauced these cakes with a warm cheese and beer sauce, using the same cheese as in the potato cakes and a very hoppy amber ale to give the cheese sauce a touch of hoppy bitterness to keep it from being cloying. The green sauce is a green onion cream that brings a cool acid bite to counterpose the rich cheese sauce. Paired with Chilean Pinot Noir. This could have easily paired with a white wine, but the customer's preference is red wine.

French Onion Soup Bruschetta. Not really sure where this dish came from except that we were probably cold on the day that we brainstormed this and wanted soup to warm us up. This is an exercise in reimagining a classic soup. We took the soup and puréed it to become the sauce for the plate and put the onions on top of the croustade rather than under it. High cuisine? Not. Delicious? You bet. Paired with a medium-bodied, lower acidity Willamette Pinot from Yamhill-Carlton.

Rapini "Wellington." Again, I don't remember the genesis of this dish. With three of us throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks, creating dishes is a very crazy process. In any case, we decided to showcase our beautiful local rapini as a quasi-Wellington. I learned long ago that wrapping wet ingredients in puff pastry is a big fail, so we baked the puff separately and then topped it with the lightly bitter rapini, a duxelles of black trumpet mushrooms, and then a bit of herbed soft cheese to help marry the spicy earthiness of the mushrooms with the vegetal bitterness of the rapini. In the South, we always serve vinegar with our braised greens. The plate sauce of porcini stock and balsamic vinegar finished with a hint of cream (to round out the vinegar's tang) is a nod to that. Paired with a very high end Argentine Malbec.

Fairy Tale Squash Flan. Eat your vegetables! There's probably no more sinful way to eat your squash than as a silky flan flavored with cinnamon and maple syrup, and garnished with gianduia, crème anglaise, maple syrup, gianduia powder, a chocolate cigarette, crispy salted phyllo, and a pumpkinseed brittle flavored with pimentón and sea salt. Paired with a 10-year old tawny Port.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Alien Ingredient #8: Coquitos

These tiny nuts come from a palm tree native to Chile called the Chilean Wine Palm (Jubaea chilensis). I first saw them on an episode of Iron Chef, the Battle Coconut where Morimoto had that crazy looking Coconut Crab. They look like fun, so I ordered some from the produce company.

Even though these little guys (see the nickel in the photo for reference) come from a different palm from the coconut, they look and taste just like miniature coconuts. What you see here is already husked and cracked out of its outer shell and is completely edible. I snacked on a couple for giggles, er, research, and they are just what you'd expect.

When the coquitos arrived, I happened to be making some chocolate truffles and walked by the pan of ganache on my way to fetching the mandoline to see if I could slice these guys into rings for garnish—sure can—when I decided that the accidental dipping of a coquito speared on a skewer into the warm chocolate ganache might not be a bad thing. Mounds on a stick, anyone?

Vote: Fun but not again—their cuteness cannot overcome their exorbitant price, given that they are pretty much limited to garnish.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Alien Ingredient #7: Pickled Eggplant

Yeah, OK, I am a sucker for Asian condiments. I've tried gazillions and yet there are gazillions more to try. So when I saw these eggplants in the refrigerator case at the market, they just had to come back to the restaurant with me. I guess I chose them because of all the pickles I have eaten, none have ever been eggplant. It just never occurred to me that eggplants were pickled. And now I wonder why not, given that I pickle all manner of things including peppers, onions, green tomatoes, green beans, and okra.

But looking further into it, I see that pickled eggplants are common all over Asia. So now I feel kind of stupid, but then that was the point of this whole "alien ingredient" series: to learn, to play, to have fun. And these pickles are fun, too!

The eggplants are of a cultivar that I do not recognize, looking like tiny pickled green tomatoes. I am used to the Thai zebra-striped green eggplants, but these appear to have no stripes. In any case, the smallest are pickled whole while the largest appear to be quartered, with many simpled halved. They are very crunchy, perhaps just a tad too crunchy (quoth Alex, "I wish these were a little softer") and the brine is very aggressive in a salty industrial vinegar kind of way. I wish they had used a higher quality vinegar and less salt. The red chile is fairly mild as red chile goes. Of course, I am a chile head of the first order, so don't trust my judgement!

I think Alex summed it up fairly well: "Sort of like eggplant kimchee."

I am going to try these in two cooked applications. I think that they would be pretty damned tasty in a curry and tossed into Thai fried rice.

Vote: these are fun and addictive to munch on. We'd like to try putting up our own this summer because we know we can do a better job.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Paean to a Pen

This week I was going through some of the thousands of photos that I've taken over the years and suddenly it struck me that there was a Sharpie in many of the photos. That got me to thinking about how this unsung and unglamorous pen is a staple of every restaurant kitchen and that Sharpies rank right up there with knives in terms of importance to chefs. In fact, I've never seen a chef's knife kit that didn't contain a couple of Sharpies. And we have them all over the kitchen.

I use them to label anything and everything. They write prep lists and cross items off prep lists. I use them to manage my ticket rail, crossing off the courses as they are fired and as they go out. I kind of freak out if I get into dinner service and there's not one in my jacket pocket. They are hanging by string in convenient locations in the kitchen—so they don't grow legs—especially near the freezer.

In case you think I'm alone, check this out.

We use them to label all kinds of stuff from our pantry staples

to the sauces and garnishes we use on the line.

They hang around all over.

And my jacket never wants for one or three.

They even go where I go (and claim what I own).

David Lebovitz, eat your heart out!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Don't Be Ignorant

We have a new international grocery here in Winchester, VA and that's a great thing for the many foodies who have heretofore had to drive at least an hour in towards DC to satisfy their habits. We are very lucky to have this store here in town; it's the first East Coast outpost of a chain that until now has only opened locations in California.

The staff and I overheard a table comment the other day that they are not impressed with the store, concluding "It's only Mexican."

This broad-sweeping generalization really irked me (read "pissed me off"). This knee-jerk reaction to the customers who frequent the store which is located in one of the two major Latino neighborhoods in Winchester is ill-informed at best. One of the things that I really like about this store is that very few of the other customers look like me. I've met Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Malaysians, Filipinos, Koreans, Jamaicans, all manner of Africans, Mexicans from almost every state, and scores of Central and South Americans in this store. And everyone is asking everyone else, "What do you do with that?" It's a fantastic representation of the melting pot that is America and the antithesis of spoiled white-collar Winchester.

Looking through the aisles, you'll find produce, dry goods, and frozen goods from dozens of food cultures, everything from Chinese steam buns to Jamaican ackee to Nicaraguan fruits.

To dismiss this bounty as Mexican is ignorant. To dismiss the Peruvian, Nicaraguan, Brazilian, Honduran, Costa Rican, Mexican, Argentinian, Panamanian, Chilean, Venezuelan, Colombian, Salvadoran, Ecuadorian, and other customers as Mexican is doubly ignorant.

Don't be ignorant.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Alien Ingredient #6: Dragon Fruit

I've known of these so-called dragon fruits for a very long time and I've seen lots of them around before, but none of them have seemed ripe enough for me to ever want to buy, until now. Spending some of my formative years in Texas (and specifically, crawling the bodegas and mercados), I have a good bit of experience with cactus fruits of many types, so I had a good idea that the hard bricks I had seen before were not ripe. This particular one was bright red and yielding, good signs of ripeness. Here you see it in comparison to a 48-count navel orange.

It turns out that I have grown the cacti that yield these fruits without ever connecting the dots—mine never fruited. The fruits are often called pitayas (pitaya blanca, Hylocereus undatus, with white flesh, and pitaya roja, H. costaricensis, with screaming fuschia flesh) and come from cacti that originated in Mexico and Central America, cacti that we often lump together under the common name Night-Blooming Cereus. They really do bloom at night (and for one night only!) and when they open, the white and cream blooms are spectacular and particularly fragrant.

The flesh of the fruit is white with small black seeds. Unlike the seeds in prickly pear (Opuntia spp.) fruits (tunas in Spanish), these seeds are small and barely noticeable when you eat them. Based on my experience with other cactus fruit, I was expecting to have to separate the seeds from the flesh and then make candy, agua fresca, sorbet, or jelly with the flesh. This fruit is very pleasant to eat from the rind with a spoon and is firm enough to dice for a fruit salsa. The firm but yielding flesh tastes first of pear (without the granular stone cells) and finishes with hints of strawberry and kiwi. It is not particularly sweet, just delicious.

Vote: yes, please! But not at $3.99 each!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Alien Ingredient #5: Banana Flower

We were all super excited to get into this banana flower. It looks cool and exotic for starters. I have seen banana flowers for sale before at the big Korean supermarkets, but they have never looked like they were in good condition, so I always passed on them. And interestingly enough, I have never been to a Thai, Vietnamese, or Cambodian restaurant that featured them or I would have tried them out already.

After boning up on our banana flower prep skills on YouTube—who says the Internet is not a great thing?—we peeled this flower down to expose the flowers/immature bananas at the base of each petal.

And then we kept on peeling until we got to the tender heart that we split with a knife. After removing the fibrous core, we put a fine chiffonade on the banana flower and put the bits in acidulated water to keep them from oxidizing.

The taste of the raw flower was of bitter banana rind. We were hoping that blanching would help eliminate the bitterness. Not so. This dish of Banana Flower and Shrimp Curry looks great, but none of us could get beyond the bitterness of the banana flower.

Vote: Two thumbs down. We'd eat it if another chef brought it to our table as a special treat, but we won't be ordering any for ourselves. Major let down.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Alien Ingredient #4: Epazote

"Looks like a Chenopodium, doesn't it?" I asked myself when I bought this bunch of epazote the other day because it sure looks like one of the herbs in that family, like the lambsquarters (C. album) that we have growing all over the back yard.

Funny that I should think that. It turns out that epazote was until recently classified by taxonomists as a Chenopodium, the same family that contains quinoa (C. quinoa). This native of southern Mexico, Central America, and South America has been moved from C. ambrosioides to Dysphania ambrosioides, for the one of you who actually cares about this kind of stuff.

I've long known of epazote, principally from reading in my Mexican Spanish-language cookbooks and in the Foods of Mexico by Diana Kennedy. I've also heard that it grows as a weed around these parts, but I have never encountered it growing in the wild in any of my foraging expeditions.

Epazote has been available for years from my produce company, but their price for it has always been prohibitive. And I have seen lots of dried epazote at various tiendas about town, but when I try a new herb, I want to try it fresh. Now that Food Maxx has big bunches of it for cheap, I brought this big bundle to the restaurant to check out.

It's a strong herb for sure, reeking to heaven of shoe polish, kerosene, and other scents that would warn most humans not to eat the stuff. The word "noxious" comes to mind. The taste of the raw leaf is a lot milder and not all that offensive. Blanched in water, the medicinal and industrial flavor comes right back. Sautéeing it doesn't help either. It is clear that a little bit goes a long way. And I read that the younger leaves are less potent than the older. The presence of panicles of flowers on this bunch would argue that this is pretty mature epazote.

Traditionally, it is used for its carminative (anti-flatulent) effect when cooking black beans. I will certainly add epazote to my beans in the future to see how it changes the flavor, but I don't have high hopes for it. I suspect that it is one of those things that you either grow up eating or you don't eat at all.

Vote: Mom, do I really have to finish all my epazote?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Alien Ingredient #3: Culantro

It's not exactly accurate that I've never used culantro before; many years ago, a local farmer brought me three tiny leaves to play with, leaves that were much smaller than these. He was trying to grow it for me, but apparently, the herb is very tough to germinate and doesn't really care for our climate here in Virginia. Nonetheless, I wanted the guys on the crew to play with this cilantro-flavored herb from Mexico and Central America that often goes by its Puerto Rican name, recao. I've also heard it called sawtooth herb, a name that it comes by quite naturally as you can see in the photo.

Culantro and cilantro are almost interchangeable in cooking, but culantro is more pungent. I like culantro for cooked applications because the leaf is a lot sturdier. It is especially at home in the sofrito (seasoning base) called recaíto that is the basis for a lot of Caribbean and Central American dishes.

The rest of this bunch went into the various dishes for which we use cilantro.

Vote: As long as culantro is a lot more expensive than cilantro, we'll keep on using cilantro.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Alien Ingredient #2: St. Germain

Elderberries: we're surrounded by them. We even have a guy who supplies local elderberry syrup to the restaurant. So with all that, you'd think I would be up on elderflowers and their potential. Not so.

I've been reading a lot about St. Germain over the last year: I get a lot of trade magazines and many of them have articles on the resurgence of the classic cocktail and the use of all kinds of specialty liquors, liqueurs, and bitters. I keep seeing cocktail after cocktail featuring St. Germain, an elderberry flower liqueur just launched in 2007.

We don't have a big bar program at the restaurant and so I don't get to play with all that many new drink ingredients. And I live in the Commonwealth of Virginia, a lovely control state where the state has the liquor monopoly. What this means is that we restaurants (Bar? Bar? You can't have no stinkin' bar in the antediluvian Commonwealth!), especially those of us not located in the major metro areas, can have a hell of a time getting specialty beverages such as St. Germain.

In fact, I think I tried about a year ago to acquire some St. Germain, only to be confounded by the Commonwealth. For giggles I tried it again last week and was surprised to find it on the standard price list, not the special order list, and was even more shocked to find that our local ABC store had it on the shelf.

Maybe those of you who frequent the ABC store already knew this, but I did not. It's not like we hang out down there with a restaurant to run and all. Also, we just cannot walk in down there and buy liquor. We have to phone or fax the order in and then go pick it up at least 24 hours later. So, we have no incentive to visit our friends at the local ABC store and thus are the very last to know what is in stock.

Long story short, a bottle arrived at the restaurant and I cracked the top. Wow! Now I knew what the fuss was about. This liqueur has a gorgeous perfume of passion fruit, pears, dried peaches, and dried apricots, but mainly of passion fruit. I could definitely work with this.

I can see lots of dessert and sauce applications for this liqueur. How about a splash of it in a fruit salsa, or crème anglaise, or crème brûlée? But mostly I can see excellent cocktails and I devised one that is still unnamed.

1-1/2 parts vodka
1-1/2 parts St. Germain
1/4 part Campari
2 dashes orange bitters
1/2 part fresh lemon juice
1/2 part simple syrup
Float of prosecco

Rim a chilled martini glass with colored sugar (this cocktail is tart). Shake all ingredients except the prosecco and strain into the glass. Float prosecco on top. Cheers!

Vote: Bartender, hit me one more time! A must-have for our bar and our dessert menu.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Alien Ingredient #1: Dwarf Truffle Peaches

Dwarf truffle peaches. The name was enough to get me to order a jar of these sight unseen. I mean seriously WTF do peaches, truffles, and dwarves have to do with each other?

These come from Italy where they pickle the immature green fruit that they thin to reduce the fruit load on the trees so as to increase the size and flavor of the remaining peaches and/or so as not to overload the branches to the point where they might snap.* After pickling, they are packed in a truffle oil. This jar contains a full kilogram of product and a good liter of nice tasting truffle oil. In fact, the biggest win of this product may be using the truffle oil to flavor dishes long after the peaches are gone. I can already imagine browning spätzle in it or dressing green beans in it.

[*The original text, quoted from manufacturer's web site read: "any unripe tiny green peaches off the trees at the end of the season". There aren't unripe green peaches on trees at the end of the season.]

The peaches are the size of very large olives and are very crisp all the way through. The pit is undeveloped as you can see in the photo, so the whole thing is edible. The pickle cure is a bit vinegary but also a bit sweet. The peaches themselves are very crispy crunchy in a pleasant way. You wouldn't want to eat more than a couple of them (nor most other pickles) but they will make neat garnishes for charcuterie plates and would definitely make quite the upscale martini garnish.

You gotta love the label that looks like it was cooked up on somebody's home computer and printed on his ink jet printer. How sketchy!

Vote: pretty cool product packed in an oil that may be more useful than the product itself. We like these cute little guys.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Index to the 2011 Series

During 2011, twice each month, on the first day and the fifteenth, I posted about what had happened at the restaurant since the previous post. The whole series gives a picture of a year in the restaurant business. This is the index to the series.

2011 was a crazy year that saw three of the worst months in our history and five of our best months ever. It started horribly in January and ended with a horrible December that saw no holiday parties and very sparse bookings for New Year's Eve. But on balance, 2011 finished up about fifteen percent from 2010 and the improved cashflow let me perform long-delayed renovations.

Given the roller coaster ride in 2011, I have no idea what to expect in 2012 as we start our tenth year at this location, except for more of the same.

January 1: New Year's Eve redux, trying to close the 2010 books
January 15: First snow of 2011, 2010 books closed, root vegetable tasting, new lunch menu, Valentine's menu planning, IRS woes, head line cook leaving

February 1: January worst month ever, escalating shrimp prices, Valentine's menu set, new cooking classes set, searching for new line cook, wine dinner canceled
February 15: Valentine's redux—"brutal," chef's tastings, cooking classes, staging line cook candidates, seafood vendor goes out of business

March 1: First local green veg of 2011, new lunch menu published, dining room renovation starts
March 15: Cooking classes start, new table top purchases, new table linens, dining room reconfiguration, South African wine dinner

April 1: April Fool's menu, taxes and more taxes, more renovation, tasting dinners
April 15: Food show, new chocolate, new menu covers, first morels, cooking classes end, new chairs arrive, new divider built, anticipating our annual vacation

May 1: Spring rains, asparagus and morels, dining room painting commences, Apple Blossom Festival, annual holiday
May 15: Recovering from annual vacation, prom/graduation/Mother's Day trifecta, deck opens, asparagus!, dining room painted

June 1: Rain, rain, rain!; busy-busy pre-Memorial Day; softshell crabs, English peas, strawberries; French class visits; Glen Manor Vineyards wine dinner; hypercaffeination; phone scams
June 15: Softshell crabs and asparagus are done, cherries arrive, dining room ceiling painted, wine list renovation, public demonstrations, planning for Linden wine dinner

July 1: June a fantastic sales month, produce company imposes minimum order, why dishes sell—or don't, Linden dinner redux, holes in the dining room walls, planning for garlic dinner, summer vegetables arrive in the market
July 15: Corkage fees and etiquette, lunch just dies, the health inspector visits, it is pickling season, peaches and corn arrive, local rabbits and lambs, electrical wiring

August 1: 100-degree forecast as bad as a blizzard forecast, it is hot in the kitchen, garlic dinner redux, shell beans arrive in the market, squash crop fails, tomatoes arrive, we respond by making fresh mozzarella daily, tweaking the menu
August 15: Business is on a roll, bad year for tomatoes, battles with the City, the dining room makeover is completely finished, Budweiser gets thrown out

September 1: Hurricanes and earthquakes, oh my!; annual Harvest Dinner redux; telephone data line woes; new coffee cups; public demo in hurricane rains
September 15: Leaves are falling on the deck, deluges of rain kill business and the grape harvest, Duck Dinner, new local beef turns out tough, more rabbits, first cassoulet of the year, ceiling collapse in the newly renovated dining room

October 1: Trees are starting to turn color, we get snubbed at Taste of the Town, drastic lunch menu changes, cool weather halts seafood sales, preventative maintenance, bar renovation commences, butterflies and hummingbirds stop in during migration, working in the dark, possible meals tax increase, Barrel 27 wine dinner
October 15: Crazy busy during leaf season, Around the World in 8 Courses, Balloon Festival weekend, another ceiling collapse, rude customers, hurry up and bake cheesecakes, exhaustion

November 1: Accademia di Cucina Italiana dinner; Quickbooks woes; short of table linens; overcooked risotto; sheer exhaustion; snap frost; celery root, collards, sweet potatoes and daikon appear at the market; dishwasher woes; hatchet job review; snow is forecast and really happens!
November 15: Business falls off a cliff, negative cashflow, new sculptures for the walls, wine list renovation, lots of chef's tastings, dishwasher woes get worse

December 1: Thanksgiving week redux, open or closed for Christmas Eve?, chef's tastings, dishwasher is fired, bar renovation is complete save for delivery of bar stools, unemployment hearing for fired dishwasher
December 15: Business is awful, no holiday parties this year, starting to close 2011, fired dishwasher denied unemployment, scramble to publish New Year's Eve menu, bar stools delivered and bar is reopened, line cook resigns, prep cook promoted, photoshoot, planning for staff Christmas party