Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Head Cheese

There's no denying that we love pork. In fact, pork is the only thing preventing me from eliminating meat from my diet. It is such a versatile animal and the meat is far and away the best of any animal. We go to great lengths to source awesome pork, including this year arranging with a local farmer to raise hogs just for us. Our first one came in last week and we were not about to waste a scrap of it, including the head.

Pork Head Cheese, Carrot-Dill Mustard, Cornichons
The head is covered in meat and after simmering away in a nice broth with bay leaves and peppercorns, that meat is fine, fine eating. Tony picked the meat and packed it along with diced and grilled heart for color variation (the heart is dark meat) into a terrine and then covered the meat with an aspic made from the cooking liquid.

And here you see the end result. As fine a piece of porky goodness as you could ever want. Customers loved it. We loved it more. Charcuterie: the reason I will never be a vegetarian!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Ten Tips from Living with a Chef

I really do like to cook at home, not that I am there very often to do it. Many of you, I am certain, will find that odd, a busman's holiday of sorts, no doubt. But I do. Cooking at home is very, very different than is cooking in a restaurant. At home, I come up with an idea, get all the ingredients together, and prepare the meal from start to finish, the proverbial soup to nuts, just like both of you reading this that still cook at home. At work, we spend all day preparing food to be ready to cook. Then we try to chill for a few minutes. And then we spend the next several hours assembling dishes and doing the final cooking, a very disjointed process that is nothing like what happens at home.

So I spend a fair amount of time in the kitchen at home doing what it is that got me into the foodservice business in the first place and that which I do very little of at work. As the king of the hill at work, how often do I really chop onions, mince garlic, and all the other little tasks that I do each time I am in my home kitchen?

I got to wondering what parts of work rub off on what I do in my home kitchen and because I am too close to the subject, I asked my wife Ann for a list of ten things that she has learned from me about cooking in our years together, things that she would like to pass on to others. She says:

1. For a great sear on anything, get your pan screaming hot.

2. When cooking shrimp, don't keep turning them over and over. Cook them once on each side, just like any fish.

3. To halve a whole bunch of grape tomatoes at once, place the tomatoes on the cutting board and put your hand over all the tomatoes and slice through with a serrated knife, between your hand and the cutting board.

4. Never be intimated to cook for a chef—they will eat anything—especially if they don't have to cook it! However, they WILL make fun of all your small cans and containers of food and your SMALL cooking utensils and say, quite obnoxiously, "Aww, they're so cute!" [guilty as charged]

5. Combine sweet flavors with salty ones and spicy ones. Don't be afraid to try any combination. I now use a lot more sea salt in my brownies and oatmeal cookies than the original recipes call for.

6. When cooking pasta, reserve some of the starchy cooking water to use in the pasta sauce. The starch helps make sauces creamy.

7. Use leftover fish bones, lobster shells, chicken parts etc. to make stocks for soups. Roast them all first ( I know...right?!?! Who knew?).

8. Presentation is EVERYTHING—even when making simple scrambled eggs!!

9. If the product you start with is awesome, cooking it in olive oil and seasoning with salt and pepper is generally the way to go.

10. One is not allowed to eat/buy a fruit or vegetable unless it's in season.

And there you have it. Don't forget number 4 above. I'm available!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Summer of Ice Cream

This summer we have been playing a lot with ice creams in all their forms: sorbet, gelato, frozen yogurt, and ice cream. We are using them a lot for our nightly tasting menus, mainly as components in savory dishes but also as digestifs or intermezzos.

For savory applications, first came a coconut-wasabi sorbet that we served with scallop seviche, scallop crudo, and salmon tartare, to much applause from guests. Then came a pickled beet sorbet that garnished a deconstructed chłodnik. And we're working on a sour cream, chive, and caper ice cream to garnish gravlax with.

The sky seems to be the limit with intermezzo sorbets as palate cleansers. Our mojito (lime, mint, and rum) sorbet has been extremely popular not only as a palate cleanser, but as a garnish for our bar drink called the Mojito Fizz. We're currently (pun intended) featuring a Campari and red currant sorbet as an entremets.

And then we have whole series of fruit gelatos and ice creams designed specifically for the end of the meal, such as the one pictured below: roasted strawberry, rhubarb, and balsamic vinegar gelato. In a similar vein, we've done roasted peach and apricot ice cream and blackberry-lime gelato. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the jackfruit-coconut sorbet that we made for our lactose intolerant guests.

Roasted Strawberry-Rhubarb-Balsamic Vinegar Gelato
What new flavors will we dream up? Nobody knows for certain.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Insalata Caprese: a Food Nazi's Take

Most of you reading this post will be familiar with the classic summer salad called Insalata Caprese and won't need a reminder that it is the quintessence of summer.

An Insalata Caprese from the Summer of 2012
This classic salad says a lot about me, the way I cook, and the way I approach food. For better or for worse. Customers (my wife even) call me a Food Nazi especially when it comes to this salad. My dictionary says a Nazi is "a harshly domineering, dictatorial, or intolerant person." I'm going to own most of this.

When it comes to ingredients that I eat and that I serve to my customers, I am totally intolerant of all that is bad. Bad quality, bad flavor, bad technique, and so forth. But then, I like to think that this is why people come to dine at One Block West. Because it absolutely matters to me what I serve and what you eat. If that makes me a Nazi, so be it. This does not embarrass me. In fact, I wish more of us cared.

What sets me off on this mini-rant is that seemingly every restaurant in town has Insalata Caprese on the menu right now and has for months. Are you kidding? Field-ripened tomatoes are still some weeks away yet, even now in mid-July. These restaurants, including many who should know better, are doing this why? Because we let them. Worse, we abet them. We order the gross crap that they call Insalata Caprese and we reward them financially for doing it.

Are we so far removed from our farms that we do not know that we have awesome tomatoes only during August and September (in our part of the world; you may have a different season where you live)? Are our standards so lax that we accept rubber mozzarella made in an unnamed factory some weeks or months ago?

Our standards must be compromised. What else can account for our letting restaurants foist junk off on us?

Think about this glory of summer. It is a dish where the chef has no place to hide. If the ingredients are not the best, then it all fails. When the ingredients are amazing, the result is ambrosial and greater than the sum of the parts. Warm, never refrigerated tomatoes of deep flavor and mouth watering acidity. Tender basil so perfumed that the kitchen smells of an herb garden. Mozzarella so tender and warm, just having been stretched. Sea salt. Cracked pepper. And green herbaceous unfiltered extra virgin olive oil that tastes of freshly pressed olives.

And when I have all these ingredients at their peak, then this dish goes on the menu and only then. It's a short four- to six-week run for sure, but it is a heavenly time indeed. When you see this dish on my menu, you should order it, if only because you know the stars have all aligned. That time is coming and I can barely contain myself, like the bear waiting to gorge on the salmon spawn that will surely start at any time now.

And you must know that as much joy as this salad brings me each year during its fleeting appearance, it also brings me much sadness. I become sad because so very few people order the salad after I have gone to the trouble to ripen each tomato just so, after I have picked the best basil, and after the cooks have stretched the nightly batch of mozzarella.

Why is that, do you reckon? There are several reasons, but it comes back to the question I asked earlier. Are we so lax as to accept inferior versions of this salad? Yes we are. And as a result, inferior versions of this salad have become ubiquitous and that ubiquity fosters contempt: "Not another Insalata Caprese!"

I care deeply about this salad as I do everything I cook, eat, and serve. I care to the point of being called a Food Nazi. And I wonder if my caring really matters to anyone other than me.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Deconstructed Chłodnik

Chłodnik is a Polish cold beet soup along the lines of a cold borscht (борщ) that comes to my mind each year when the first beets arrive just as the weather is turning miserably hot and humid. You can see the shockingly pink soup in all its glory in this post, garnished with hard-boiled egg, dill, and diced beets.

In very recent days, we have done a deconstructed version of this soup for our nightly Chef's Whim tasting menu, a version that customers have raved about.

Traditional chłodnik (where "traditional" means "what my grandmother used to make" and varies quite naturally from person to person) is roughly made from beets, sour pickles, cucumbers, dill, and some form of tart dairy product, such as buttermilk. That said, it's a soup and I'm certain that very few cooks follow a formal recipe and each batch will contain whatever ingredients are at hand.

Deconstructed Chłodnik: Dill Pickle Soup with Pickled Beet Sorbet

For our tasting, we pulled the soup and the beets apart. Our soup is Greek yogurt, cornichons, cornichon brine, water, cucumber, dill, and just enough honey to tame the vinegar and yogurt. Once it comes out of the blender, it almost tastes like a refreshing dill pickle soup.

The beets we roasted, pickled for 48 hours, and blended very fine with the pickling liquid and then put in the ice cream machine to make a sorbet.

Final plate up is the yogurt soup base down in the bowl, then we scatter around chopped cornichons, chopped hard-boiled egg, dill fronds, and smoked sablefish. In the very center, we place a quenelle of the pickled beet sorbet and top that with a cucumber-tasting borage flower from my garden.