Friday, December 21, 2012

Vosges Rocks My World Sometimes

To say that the Artisan Foods movement is in full swing is an epic understatement; you’d be hard pressed nowadays to find any food, from cured meats to dried fruits, to a simple staple (or so we thought) like salt, that doesn’t have a bevy of artisanal versions on the shelves of your local fancy food store. From the weird to the wonderful, it can be a ballet of pleasures and perils as you experiment with artisan foods.
One artisan path most definitely worth venturing down is chocolate. Chocolate, it has been said, is like sex: even at its worst, it’s not that bad. So if you just close your eyes and grab blindly at a towering rack of chocolate bars on your next grocery trip, odds are you aren’t going to be horribly disappointed. But if you’re interested in some direction in your search, and you have an adventurous palate, allow me to recommend Vosges artisan chocolate bars.
First off, Vosges is responsible for, hands-down, the most creative, original, and thoughtful flavor combinations I have encountered in the chocolate bar world. While I can’t say that the actual, pure chocolate itself is my absolute favorite (for that, I’m a big fan of Tcho), the bars, as a whole, are far greater than the sum of their parts.
When you bite into the thin, delicate chocolate, you do taste the chocolate first: soft, round, and creamy milk chocolate, and mildly tannic dark chocolate, these set the canvas in your mouth for the additional flavors to begin to appear. Then, you begin to recognize notes of bitter, of heat, of umami… each bar is its own taste experience, with an impressive spectrum to choose from. The ingredients used to create said experiences range from the exotic and opulent Pink Himalayan Sea Salt, to dark and stormy stout beer, to a bit of “is this really in a chocolate bar?” wasabi. Despite doubts you may have, the bars are carefully crafted to achieve balance and harmony, very much in tune with the theme and feel of the text on the back of the bar, which includes the (admittedly unnecessary, but whimsical and sort of cute) instructions on how to properly eat the chocolate bar to best savor and enjoy it. You can also read about the creator, who did a stint with the Adria brothers in Spain, one of many experiences that no doubt inspired and shaped her palate and her artisanal hand.
Here are some of my tried and true favorites from Vosges; bear in mind this is just a small fraction of the collection of chocolate bar flavors and other assorted products they produce, but it’s a good start if you’re looking to try them out before heading into the more outlandish (yet consistently tasty) combinations, many of which I can guarantee you have not tried elsewhere. You may also notice some recurring themes and flavors in my choices; just rest assured Vosges makes products with far greater range than I have represented here.
is there anything it doesn't go with?

Mo's Dark Chocolate Bacon Bar: One of the many Vosges’ bacon-laced bars, I like the simplicity of this one, and the delicate smokiness from smoked sea salt and applewood smoked bacon. The 62% cacao is on the lighter side for a dark chocolate, but it provides pleasant, earthy undertones to bring out the smoke from the other ingredients. This was the first Vosges bar I ever tried, brought to me as a birthday present when Julia visited me in San Sebastian, so it holds a special place in my heart.

the original fake bacon
Barcelona Bar: Even simpler and more traditional, the Bracelona Bar contains hickory smoked almonds and sea salt in milk chocolate. The salt is more pronounced here, and of course complements the almonds perfectly. I should note that smoked, salted almonds are a common culinary alchemy that inevitably and inexplicably evoke the flavor of bacon. So essentially, the flavor profiles between this and the previous bar are similar, but definitely not the same; their juxtaposition illustrates the subtle differences that can alter a flavor profile completely. Milk chocolate and dark chocolate offer quite different backgrounds for their ingredients, and thus yield different experiences. Beyond argument, the flavors of salt, as well of those of bacon (whether real or imitated) clearly compliment chocolate.

hemp seeds: not just for hippies
Woolloomooloo Bar: Its hard-to-sound-out, harder-to-spell name is actually a suburb of Sydney, Australia, a subtle nod to the continent and intended to honor the aboriginal claim to Australia’s prized Macademia nuts. They accompany coconut and hemp seeds (yes, hemp seeds!) in this milk chocolate bar. The Macademia nuts, roasted and salted, are much more subtle than you might expect, allowing the uniquely nutty hemp seeds to shine through. Bonus: hemp seeds are packed with essential fatty acids that your body needs to make you pretty. Chocolate that’s good for your hair, nails, and complexion means you have endless justification to polish off a bar, right? Right?

volcanic salt: won't burn your tongue
Black Salt Caramel Bar: This 70% cacao bar is infused with burnt sugar caramel (think caramel but richer, deeper, and more all over your mouth in flavor) and black Hawaiian sea salt harvested from volcanic pools in the ocean around the islands. For me, the caramel takes the lead as it sets the backdrop for a faint nuttiness from the igneous salt, and the resounding dark chocolate accents the whole experience with pleasing bitter notes. This is another simple but brilliant combination that results in something delicious and elegant. You may notice that this is now the third bar to feature salt, affirming the creator’s affinity for its power in pairing with chocolate. Spoiler alert: it won’t be the last bar on this list to do so. 

stout suds
Smoke & Stout Caramel Bar: Alderwood smoked salt (there it is!), and some more of that burnt sugar caramel are now paired with an even creamier, richer ingredient: Chocolate Stout beer. This takes things to a whole other level, adding layer after layer of complexity and flavor, like wrapping yourself in down blankets on a dark and stormy night. I have always been a fan of booze in desserts; I think both are indulgent and ideal bedfellows when treating one self. This bar exemplifies that comfort and luxury in every sweet, earthy bite.

sanctioned cannibalism
Gingerbread Toffee Bar: Perfect for the holidays and as laden with nostalgia as it is with scrumptiousness, this bar combines toffee, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice on a backdrop of slightly dialed down, 65% cacao dark chocolate. Its flavor is delicate and refined, despite the congress of potentially overpowering ingredients. Indicative of the Vosges style, this softening of flavors seems to prolong the experience of what is designed to be, in Vosges words, “experiential chocolate.” Even if it does make for a milder bar of chocolate, it certainly makes for an enjoyable one.

These are just a slice of what Vosges has to offer, and they take things to all corners of the Earth and the palate; case in point, they make a milk chocolate bar with curry powder. Assuming your curiosity is piqued, you can feel comfortable narrowing down your selection amongst the dizzying array of chocolate bars you may soon see before you. In a potential sea of chocolate, you can trust that Vosges will be a beacon worth swimming to.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

In Defense of Food

courtesy of Benu

I had to pull this post due to its getting published elsewhere, here's the link;

In Defense of Food
(which I realized sounds like a ripoff of Pollan so I'll say aka In Food's Corner)

Incidentally, it's been expanded and polished, with the help of a special editing elf in Manhattan (you know who you are).

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Angus in Ohio

In 1984, a little, old lady in a Wendy's commercial asked America, "Where's the beef?" Little did she know that Certified Angus Beef had been offering an answer to that question since 1978. That was when the nonprofit organization was founded, in an effort to raise both the exposure and the bar on Angus beef production and education.

Anyone who has leafed through a Michael Pollan book or caught 15 minutes of Food Inc. knows that mistreatment of cattle and improper handling of beef exist in this and many countries. No one can deny that. However, our nation's response to sensationalism, even that which bears truth, is often predictably and equally extreme. Case in point, I know people who refuse to eat beef as a result of images or ideas that they witnessed in films, books, etc. because they accept that reality as exclusive. While anyone who has seen me take down a ribeye knows I am certainly not one of those people, I will admit that I harbored questions and even misgivings about the trip from cow to steak, and would have benefitted from some answers.

Lucky me to get my answers on a trip to Wooster, Ohio, invited by Certified Angus Beef among a slew of other chefs and media to participate in some meat fabrication and a trending/brainstorming panel. I will be honest, I wasn't seeing Wooster, Ohio as the most glamorous of locations (why couldn't the CAB headquarters be in Bora Bora?), but a free trip outta dodge and a stay in a nice hotel is... a free trip outta dodge and a stay in a nice hotel. Plus a chance to hone my butchery skills and learn from some killer chefs? I was in.

My plane landed in Cleveland and I met up with some more of the attendees: there was a Los Angeles-based journalist named Dominique, who had just turned 21 and had never been outside of California. This was her first assignment for a food website at which she had recently begun working, and I think she shared 11 words with the group all weekend. Rory, a boisterous chef slash TV personality with an enormous smile, currently owned a steakhouse outside of Amarillo, Texas; Rik, quintessential Texan jokester, owned 67 Sawgrass Steakhouse locations throughout the Southwest; and Craig was the Exec Chef at Cypress restaurant in Charleston (definitely worth checking out if you have a second).

A car took us to our first destination: Hodge's, run by Chef Chris Hodgson of TV Food Truck fame. There we enjoyed cocktails and an 8-foot wooden slab laden with tasty, little meat treats. This was the first of many reminders that we were here courtesy of Certified Angus Beef, and by God, we were going to eat a lot of it. There was a sweet and spicy, Asian-style, boneless marinated short rib that almost melted in your mouth. I immediately and ravenously devoured three before noticing the stacks of little plates and cocktail napkins to my left. Whoops. Grabbing a plate, I plucked a beef-wrapped chanterelle with mustard sauce off the wood block and popped it in my mouth like movie popcorn. Hellooooo, Umami! Next I spotted some skewered, grilled hunks of Angus off to my right and grabbed one of those, along with a tuna tartar on crispy rice cake (a canape presentation that I have noticed is gaining popularity). The skewered beef proved a bit challenging, as it was too big for one bite but also a little on tough side and hard to attack knifeless. Rory and I compared strategies: she sawed with her front teeth to cut it, while I threw caution and good manners to the wind, turned away to hide my next move, and crammed the whole thing in my mouth. Now out of view from the rest of the group, I gnarled the meat into submission like a wolverine. Despite its toughness, I must admit the grill flavor and seasoning still brought enjoyment to my palate... if not my jaw.

I reminded myself we were headed to dinner after this so I pulled back a bit and stuck to my Syrah. Shortly thereafter we were heading out the door for the short walk to The Greenhouse Tavern, where we would be dining. We were lead in the door and downstairs to a fantastic space: the basement level was the kitchen, with a section sparsely but attractively transformed into a 'chef's table' experience with two long wooden tables and a seating bar right up against the hot line. It was more than just an open kitchen; you were actually in the kitchen, but enough out of the way to simply enjoy the show. They started us off with a Shoulder Clod Carne Salada accompanied by a radicchio agro dolce. The sour and the bitter in the radicchio salad were a great offset to the velvety raw beef seasoned nicely with maldon salt.

I have to say, however, that the little slices of raw porcini didn't really add anything; they seemed to be used as if they were truffles, and though porcinis are great, they are certainly not truffles. As we ate, the chef explained that the dish was inspired by an Italian recipe dating back to the 1440's, traditionally done with whichever meat was available, from beef to venison and any critter in between. It was elegant in its simplicity but markedly rustic and Italian.
Our next course was a pair of dumplings made from pureed beet, mascarpone, and breadcrumbs.
The texture of the dumplings, which were cooked in rendered Angus fat (nice), was so incredibly smooth and rich, like perfect matzoh balls had made love to sexy gnocchi. They were accompanied by a tangle of bitter greens and a poignant drizzle of house-made vinegar, both apt foils to the warm, rich bites of chewy, yummy cozy. When asked about the vinegar, Chef Jonathon Sawyer elaborated on their full in-house vinegar operation, where they play with wines, beers, and whatever they else they can get to sour in a bottle.
The main course was about as main as it gets: Pastrami Cured Brisket with Handmade Squash & Potato Knishes. The food was so packed with love you could taste it. Fatty, velvety hunks of brisket glistened and jiggled atop a pile, begging you to feast; the knish dough was light and airy and tasted of the old country (I owe this valuable palate to my grandmother), and it was complemented by its sweet, smooth autumnal filling.

Notice the beet & horseradish, a staple on every single holiday table of my childhood and a killer condiment to slather on your brisket, sharp and sweet. A few ramekins of Cleveland's own 'stadium mustard' (a solid brown mustard near and dear to the city's heart) were slid in front of us, and crusty brown rolls, still hot from the oven, were passed around for making sandwiches. HEAVEN. The color on the crust was so golden you wanted to frame it and hang it on your wall:

All in all, a truly superb meal. Cleveland has a strong ethnic identity in its cuisine, particularly that of Eastern Europe, as I'm told; Greenhouse Tavern prepared a meal tapping directly into that vein, and did so thinking seasonally and working creatively. What else can you ask for?
We finished the evening with drinks at the roof bar before boarding a bus (stocked with beer and wine of course) to carry us to Wooster. Our hotel was nice, and by a sweet-ass stroke of luck, I landed a suite.
The next morning we learned a bit more about the Certified Angus Beef brand. Selectivity and high standards were a big part of what CAB was putting out there, doing their best to highlight the people behind their operations: the ranchers and, quite often, the families who raise the Angus and run the ranches.
Then came time to get out hands dirty. We donned butcher coats and knives and went to work breaking down quarters of beef, first getting them into manageable pieces with hacksaws, then, with the guidance of C.A.B. meat scientist Dr. Phil Bass, worked our way down the cow, separating meat from muscle on all sides of the carcass.

We detached a few subprimals and were asked to work toward one cut in particular: the subscapularis, commonly called the Vegas Steak. This is an unmarketed cut of meat being explored by CAB to assess its value, if any, and potential marketability. Thus, we were then able to play around with some of our cuts in the kitchen, exploring various flavors and cooking methods in order to see what best complemented each cut. With the Vegas Steak, in particular, we found it needed to be cooked with fat, as it was extremely lean on its own. Oil and butter basting were not enough and still left the meat somewhat tough; even a particularly creative move, wrapping the steak in caul fat, left something to be desired. Then, of course, came the always handy cryo-vac marinade & sous vide: aaaand, of course, bullseye.
They served us a pretty dope lunch: eight hour-braised Angus shin over a creamy celery root mash, as well as grilled spinalis steak skewers, bathed in their garden's herb oil. Some ginger cake with fruit chutney for dessert plus a nice cup of coffee and I felt holiday good all over; I needed a stroll to walk off the meal.
Said stroll came in the most pleasant form of a tour through the Ohio countryside, at a local Angus Ranch. We met the owner and some of the club members (aka cattle), scoping out the feed operation and the pastures. I was truly impressed by the amount of time, thought, and energy that goes into keeping the cattle healthy and happy in every way. From the safety procedures (for the cattle's benefit, not the humans') to the gentle hand I saw, nursing a runt calf to health, it was every bit the responsible, honest farm I feel I can get behind when I buy my beef, be it at supermarket or bistro.
And I have to say, starved for East Coast autumn, I basked in the glow of the foliage, breathing in deeply of clover and birch as the cloud and sun streaked sky overhead incubated the world with pleasant warmth.

Aaanyway, I headed back to the hotel for a nap before dinner. The bus picked us up at seven and brought us back to the CAB headquarters, where dinner was being served off the Hodge Podge Truck, food truck of Hodge's where we'd had apps the previous night. The truck served up different cuts of steak in a variety of presentations, but the show stealer was a korean marinated teres major bulgogi, with sticky clumps of rice, and sweet scallions popping, accompanied by a few balsamic cippolinis... which seemed odd at first but the sweetnesses totally go together:
Props to the cooks for sure... especially considering one of their trucks had been stolen and found stripped a few days earlier!
We all ate several helpings of beef (yes, again) and enjoyed the bar, playing cornhole and watching the Giants destroy the Tigers in the NLCS. Needless to say, it was a swell end to a swell day.
Tuesday morning was spent in a live-tweeted discussion amongst the chefs and several of us media, speculating on coming trends, restaurant operations, beef (Angus & otherwise), the value of food, culinary schools, and a bunch of other topics. We enjoyed Angus cheesesteaks and steak salad (had to cram in one last beef binge, right?) as the trip winded down; then, bellies full, we said our goodbyes to the CAB crew and boarded the airport shuttle to promptly pass out.
The trip was most definitely enriching and educational; most importantly, it has helped to shape the way I will view beef, as a chef and as a consumer. And for the record, I absolutely must declare that the sample packages of hickory-smoked Angus jerky from my gift bag are shockingly tender and delicious. Bonus.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Don't be a chicken... think like a rat!

If you've seen Disney's Ratatouille, you may recall the words of Remy's idol, French super-chef Gusteau, repeatedly articulating the overarching theme of the movie: "Anyone can cook, but only the fearless can be great." LOVE IT. Truer words were never spoken in the kitchen.

I have encountered a great many people who assert their incompetence in cooking as if it were an unshakable handicap; they throw up their hands and simply live with it, eating frozen dinners and fast food and putting simpler-than-they-realize meals on an oversized pedestal. What these people don't know is that they are only limited by their own fear, most likely born out of past failures; and odds are, these past failures were born out of blindly following a recipe without bothering to understand why the recipe called for certain steps or ingredients.

Cooking, however, is all about the 'why.' Even with salt, the most basic and ubiquitous of ingredients, it is important to understand why you add it... and there are actually several reasons. First, it will offset other flavors, accentuating them; in a sense, it makes beef taste more like beef, tomato taste more like tomato, etc. Think of it like drawing paper: if you tried to draw a picture on black paper, it would be a lot harder to see, wouldn't it? White paper's contrast to all other colors allows you to add depth and complexity within your color, and that's exactly what you should be going for in your flavor.

Salt also absorbs the water out of foods (the scientific word to describe this function is hygroscopic), allowing you to replace it with flavor. If you've ever brined a turkey at Thanksgiving, you understand this. If not, listen up:


Start with enough water to cover your protein (pork chop, chicken, turkey, etc.), in a bowl or pot big enough to hold the water and the protein together.

Add roughly 3/4 cup of salt for every gallon of water; exactness is not crucial... once the salt has dissolved, your water should taste salty, but not so salty that it stings your tongue and tastebuds or dries out your mouth.

Now add WHATEVER YOU WANT: herbs, fruits, vegetables, aromatics, cinnamon sticks... have fun with it.

Bring it all to a simmer, then COOL IT in the fridge before you add your turkey. Salt doesn't dissolve properly in cold water, so getting your solution hot is important to make a solid brine; but then you also don't want to put your protein in lukewarm water unless you're trying to cultivate E. Coli or some other rid-raf.  

So once your brine is mixed and cooled, drop in your protein, refrigerate for at least 4 hours (or up to 24), then remove the protein and cook as normal, discarding the liquid. Remember that you won't have to season your protein as much as you would otherwise, and you should wait to season until just before cooking. Don't leave things sitting with salt or it will continue to absorb into the protein.

What happens in the brine (on a molecular level, actually) is that the salt absorbs the natural water present in the protein; but because the protein is submerged in water that you infused with other flavors, this flavor-infused water replaces the water taken out by the salt, so that you are literally filling the molecules of the protein with flavor. The same thing occurs any time you add salt to food. It assists in the blending of different flavors by breaking down the flavors of each individual food. Think of it like this: you have two large blocks of legos, one red and one blue. In order to create a block that has a unified balance of both red and blue, you need to disassemble each block first before you can combine them, right? This is what salt does; it disassembles foods and flavors in order to combine them.

Even on the most superficial of levels, you can understand the 'why' of salt if you pay attention: slice a lime in half and give it a lick; pucker up, buttercup? Now, sprinkle some salt on there and try again. You'll notice the acidity of the lime is a lot easier to handle with a pinch of salt. That simple, clear balance is one of the cornerstones of cooking.

So if something as seemingly mundane as salt can hold so much complexity, imagine what you can find out about a good piece of beef, or a summer tomato! Knowledge is power, and the kitchen is no exception. If you understand why you're doing something, you will be much better at it! So with salt, don't just blindly add it because a recipe calls for it. If it calls for two tablespoons, add one, then taste the food! If you feel like it's enough, then hold off; you can always add more later. Tasting your food often is the single most important thing you can do to make yourself a better cook. It will truly help you get a better sense of the 'why' behind each ingredient and step in a recipe, and it will give you the utmost control over whatever you cook.

Knowledge is power, yes; but what is power without the courage to use it? As Gusteau reminds us, "only the fearless can be great." You can read every book on food science, flavor, and technique, but if you aren't willing to press on, even in the face of failure, you won't succeed. I am reminded of a contest in culinary school, wherein one of the final challenges was to break down a whole fish into filets. It had been almost a year since butchery class, and I had been admittedly lax in staying sharp with the butchery of fish. When I finally brought my filets up to be judged, the chef stared long and hard at the result of my frustration. He paused, then said very slowly and deliberately, "I truly admire... the courage it took... to wrestle this fish away from the the bear that was eating it." Needless to say, I did not win the contest.

In spite of this failure, or perhaps because of it, I have made it a mission to never be intimidated by butchery. At the end of the day, it's less about following a step-by-step process, and more about feeling your way in the dark. The key to butchery is understanding how the animal is put together, where the meat will slide off the bone easily, and where it needs a bit more assistance. Recently, I wanted to prove this (as much to myself as to anyone else), so I decided to forego the consultation of my butchery notes from culinary school and just try to wing it. I bought a whole chicken, brined it, dried it, and slapped that baby on the cutting board. It had been four years since I had deboned a chicken from head to toe, but fearlessness was all I needed.

I worked carefully but confidently, using my fingers as much as my knife. At first I made only small incisions and pulled gently on bones, paying close attention to how the meat and skin behaved as I manipulated them. But by the time I was halfway done, I was moving quickly and making broad knife strokes, yanking sharply where I knew I could, and massaging gently where I knew I had to. I am completely aware at how dirty a lot of this sounds, but we all know food is sex anyway, so get your mind out of the gutter.

Before I knew it, I had a big, floppy, whole chicken, completely free of bones. I stuffed it with sauteed eggplant and sweet potato, then set out in the next challenge: trussing it. 'Trussing' is just a fancy word for 'tying' when it comes to roasts and other meats. There is, of course, a very specific process to "properly" tie a roast that we learned in culinary school; I did not remember it. I just sort of muddled my way through it, doing my best to be patient. Upon completion, it wasn't as pretty as it could have been, but it got the job done:

At this point, it was ready to roast. The entire process had been accomplished by the seat of my pants, not by following a set of instructions or a demonstration. In fact, I'm pretty sure I deboned the bird in the exact opposite order of that which was taught to us in school. Regardless of the 'how,' I was able to get it done by paying attention to the 'why' as I explored the meat. (I know: That's what she said.)

Into the oven at 350 for about 45 minutes and it was ready to eat:

Not too shabby, right?

So if you're still reading this, I implore you: go out, buy a chicken, and TRY THIS AT HOME. Even if you completely fail, chicken's not that expensive: buy two or three if you need to! You can google it first if you'd like, or check out a book, but try relying on your own sense of touch and exploration as much as you can. It's essentially the age old "Teach a man to fish..." situation. But believe it or not, you can actually teach yourself... if you are fearless.

Gusteau wouldn't lie.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Changing Industry

Your career, in a very visible sense, is really a tiny microcosm of your life. You grow, evolve, and mature with each new experience and span; and hopefully, you learn from it, becoming wiser (incidentally, a serious relationship is also very much the same microcosm... but i digress).

As I have grown and evolved in my career as a cook, I have also had the great fortune to be smack in the middle of an industry that has gone through some dramatic and wonderful changes with me. In the last five years, food in this country has become its own celebrity. Its television has seen the MTV trajectory to stardom, acquiring a second channel to catch the overflow. It has even seen multiple international Movements, championed by activists like Alice Waters and brilliant scientists like the Adria brothers.

(Okay, if you're a biochemist at NIH you may chide me for that last example, but take it easy.)

It has been so fun to grow as a cook within such an exciting context. Even when I was in Spain, literally at the center of the recent molecular gastronomy movement and living in a suburb of one of the best food cities on the planet, I was not fully aware of how lucky I was. My time in SF directly thereafter also couldn't have been more serendipitous: to be in a city so obsessed with food, in a place that gets some of the best food and wine in the world, how could I not soak it all up like a thirsty little sponge? I have not spent a day without exquisite food in almost five years, mostly because I have surrounded myself with it, both intentionally and, admittedly, by wonderful, wonderful luck.

Now, as I am at a point in my career where I am beginning to see a more crystalized vision of what I want and where I'm headed, I have begun to delve deeper into an industry that is also changing, and very much for the better.

Catering used to be, in a word, uniform. Twenty years ago, you could go to twelve weddings in a year, and at each one you could bet your sweet ass you were getting a green salad and a choice of severely subpar chicken, steak, or salmon. Banquets and other events were grayscale and predictable. The thing is, nobody really cared that much because you didn't go to a wedding or a corporate event for the food. And yes, you may have gotten lobster when it was fancy or had some outside-the-box whatever, but the point is that standards were low.

But now, food has gotten sexy. Sexy can be slutty, dirty sexy, like short skirts and tube tops and lots of makeup (hello gravy fries, greasy pepperoni pizza, and bacon cheeseburger, you look delicious!); but it can also be jaw-dropping and classy, almost leaving you speechless. However it's done, food is no longer satisfied with being unsatisfying. It's been given some attention and knows it can make you drool, and it feels good about that.

Suffice it to stay, the standards in catering have been raised accordingly and significantly; companies and chefs are starting to treat food the same way restaurants do, with the same TLC and imagination. It's fun, it's exciting, and at its best it's exhilarating. Best of all, not everyone is doing it just yet, so there's still a sliver of unchartered territory to play around on.

Knives in hand, I'm still moving forward and loving it all.

(by the way, the photo at the top is courtesy of catering company CuisineStyle and chef Pamela Keith, based out of south SF. and it's badass.)

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Frying: The Sluttiest Cooking Method

It's no secret that fried food is... what's the word? Oh yeah; DELICIOUS.

French fries, mozzarella sticks, fried chicken, fish and chips, potato chips, doughnuts, jalapeƱo poppers, and on and on and on. Dropping something into hot oil until it's crispy and golden brown is a near-guarantee to make it even tastier than it already was. This even applies to non edible objects: Nobu has deep fried otherwise inedible eel bones, turning them into a crispy, beautiful garnish. Following this logic, I'd imagine you could take a Timberland boot, bread it, deep fry it, and get 4 out of 5 Texans to love it.

It does make sense; fat is something our body is evolutionarily conditioned to find appealing, as it is very high in calories and thus packed with usable energy. That's why we sometimes crave specifically fatty foods, and why adding butter to something is akin to giving it wings and a harp. Think about hangovers: when you're really hungover, your body is at its worst, completely in crisis mode and in need of repair. You crave things like bacon and eggs or chilaquiles because your cells need some serious, energy-packed fuel if it they're going to have any chance of rebuilding themselves. A salad, nutrient-dense as it is, just isn't going to cut it; you need FOOD.

That all being said, knowing the science behind why something tastes delicious is probably the furthest thing from your mind when you're ravenously shoving that ninth mozzarella stick into your mouth. Especially because it's more than just the fat in the frying process that's making it sooooo gooooood. Fried things are also crispy crunchy, and quite often belie a soft, squishy center. All of these things combined are the reason functioning members of society went so far as to deep fry butter. And win an award for it. It just goes to show, there's not really much that you can't conceivably fry: doughs, batters, eggs, meat, cheese fruits, vegetables, breads, ice cream... I wasn't all that far off with my hyperbolic Timberland idea. Moreover, frying is often a great way to repurpose an already finished product. Roast chicken on Monday night, for instance,  can become fried chicken tenders on Tuesday.

So when I had a bunch of leftover risotto this past weekend, Julia suggested I turn it into arancini, which are Italian risotto fritters, typically breaded and fried. Ceci and I had plans to hang out around the house on Sunday, so I knew a cooking project, especially one that ended with fried treats, would be a very welcome activity. Plus, the standard breading procedure is a much easier (and cleaner) task with two pairs of hands, so I was happy to have the help.

The batch of risotto, which I had coincidentally cooked for Ceci and myself a couple days prior, was a particularly fantastic one, and a great start to the arancini. It was cooked with a homemade corn stock made from sweet summer corn, finished with a tart, juicy Sauvignon Blanc, and brightened up with plenty of lemon zest and basil; there were kernels of fresh corn in it as well, little morsels of sunshine and sugar that burst as you chewed. It was like candy made from sunshine.

I put Ceci to work forming the risotto into tiny cakes. It's a bit tricky, because you need to be delicate in order to keep the risotto intact, yet still squeeze them in your cupped palm with enough force to compress them into solid parcels. If you ever made sand cakes at the ocean's edge when you were a kid, you know what I'm talking about. While Ceci shaped cakes, I prepped the rest of the ingredients (rice flour, a whipped egg, and breadcrumbs), got some oil into the Le Creuset, and brought it up to around 350. I also threw together an admittedly peculiar-sounding sauce, comprised mainly of sour cream, chipotle in adobo, and the tiny remainder of a scallop-fondant/shallot/Sauv Blanc cream sauce I had served with the original risotto. I know that sounds like little more than "Stoner's Delight" sauce at first glance, but the flavors worked beautifully together: the fondant sauce was salty and umami-rich, the chipotle and adobo had earthy heat, and it all swirled to harmony amid cool, rich sour cream. It was seriously chronic.

Side by side, Ceci and I made a little assembly line: first, each cake was coated with rice flour to absorb moisture and form a waterproof coating around the risotto. Next it was dipped in egg, then rolled gently in breadcrumbs, and placed on a baking sheet to wait. As Ceci finished crumbing the last few cakes, I checked the oil temperature. It was a little lower than I wanted and would take a minute to come up, so I decided to take advantage of the lower temp while it lasted. I picked a few of the nicest looking basil leaves from a bunch I had in my fridge, and gingerly dropped each one in the oil, ensuring they had enough space to prevent crowding. Delicately flipping them every now and then, I waited until most of the bubbles had stopped forming around them, then plucked them out one by one, laid them on a paper towel to cool, and sprinkled them lightly with kosher salt. The result of this process is actually quite beautiful: the basil leaves end up resembling stained glass in the way they catch the light, and their crispy texture is ethereal, melting in your mouth. The frying completely redefines the basil and it is undeniably awesome.

Now I had a fancy-shmancy garnish and my oil was ready to go. Looking like little crab cakes, the 12 aroncini were lined up beside the stove; I shallow fried them in batches of six to make sure each had its space, as crowded frying leads to soggy treats. The aroncini took only a minute or two on each side to get perfectly golden brown, looking like the very epitome of 'fried.' To take things to the limit, I topped half of them with lumps of fresh mozzarella, and smeared the other half with a creamy dollop of Teleme, then finished them all in the broiler till the cheeses got brown and bubbly. Good god, it was sexy. Some torn basil and slices of sweet tomato from our garden, and we were ready to get DOWN.

And get down we did. There was so much going on, from the sweet, lemony risotto, to the crispy, salty breadcrumbs, the creamy sauce, simultaneously tangy and spicy, and sweet summer flavor bursting from the tomatoes and wafting from the aromatic basil. We ate outside in the garden and it just felt like summer all over; and it's about god damn time since summer arrives to SF about 3 months late every year.

I highly suggest trying this out the next time you have some leftover risotto, whether you made it yourself or it came out  of a foil swan. All you need is an egg, a pint or so of breadcrumbs, and some flour (rice flour is great, but any flour should work). It's easy, and the results are good, good stuff. Who knows, maybe a little home frying will lead you to explore your sluttier side...

Friday, August 24, 2012

Service to a Smile

I remember this one episode of The Cosby Show, wherein Vanessa announces, out of the blue, that she has been engaged for like six months. She brings her fiancee, Dabnis Brickey, to dinner to meet Cliff and Clair, and of course, hilarity (as well as a choice array of Cosby-faces) ensues. In his eventual and inevitable man-to-man conversation with Dabnis, Cliff waxes poetic on dinner service:

Cliff: Do you have a favorite food, something you really LOVE?
Dabnis: Oh yeah, on occasion, I enjoy a nice, juicy steak.
Cliff: Steak! Steak, there you go! You got a steak. Just imagine you got a porterhouse and no white lines in it at all. Now, what would you like to go along with it?
Dabnis: Uh, some crispy potatoes!
Cliff: No problem! Now, you got mushrooms, you like your mushrooms.
Dabnis: Yes, sir.
Cliff: You can smell it, can't you? Smell the potatoes?
Dabnis: Yes, sir!
Cliff: Smell the mushrooms!
Dabnis: Yes, sir!
Cliff: Sauteed!
Dabnis: Yes, sir!
Cliff: MMM, boy! Huh?
Dabnis: Yes, sir!
Cliff: All right, now, I'm going to present it to you, right? I go over now...I don't get a plate, I take the garbage can lid, and I turn it upside down! After taking it off the garbage can, I take your steak, your potatoes, your sauteed mushrooms, and I give it to you! Not too appetizing, is it? It's in the presentation. THAT'S how she brought you over here, "on a garbage can lid"!

Oh, Cosby Show, with your infinite wisdom and your family-friendly, primetime-appropriate comedic situations. Cliff Huxtable makes an excellent point here. No matter how creative, delicious, and well-executed a dish may be, it can all be brought down by bad service; conversely (did I use that correctly?), an average meal can be elevated by great service. 

Now I know that 
on more than one occasion, I have been guilty of underemphasizing the role service plays in one's dining experience. I have definitely made the assertion that at the end of the day, it's all about the food, and essentially that's all that matters; which I still assert is eighty percent true. But "eighty percent true" is like "four fifths pregnant" or "more or less dead." In all honesty, how something is presented makes a big difference in how it's received.

I suppose my often exaggerated underplay of service stems from personal exposure to its own exaggerated importance.  Having cooked in a few different Michelin-starred kitchens, I've had a behind-the-scenes look at just how much goes into service and presentation at the highest levels; and the fact that I spend all of my disposable income eating out, I've had many a front row seat to the dinner theater that is service at its highest levels. Only at the ballet will you see more graceful movements as your table is crumbed, your water glass refilled, your fork, knife, spoon, plate replaced, napkin refolded, and chair adjusted. For me, it can become overkill; my shirking of the importance of service altogether is basically a knee-jerk reaction to the overkill. I can remember a recent dinner at a fine dining restaurant where the service was so overattentive that it literally made me uncomfortable. I couldn't look in any direction without seeing a tuxedoed man hovering, waiting to refill my water glass after every sip or slightly adjusting the position of a share plate, assumably to maximize the ergonomic flow of the food on our table.

I know that these standards didn't form themselves, and I assume there are plenty of people out there who enjoy such painstakingly detailed attention; at the risk of generalizing, these often seem to be the same people who completely ignore those serving them, and look at their server only if necessary to express dissatisfaction with something. I, on the other hand, have a hard time not saying 'thank-you' at least once or twice when my water is refilled or my plates cleared. Maybe it's because I know I have the potential to turn restaurant tabletops into Hiroshima in the way I order and eat my food; maybe it's because I have been a server. I'm not trying to make any claims of good character on my behalf, nor will I admit my tendencies as character flaws. And therein, as the bard said, lies the rub.

Service is, at its essence, a connection between people. And because every person is different, that connection has the potential to be very different depending on who you're serving. This, of course, leaves a seemingly infinite gray area covering what constitutes good service. For that reason, restaurants  have handbooks, Michelin has checklists, and servers at the highest levels are impeccably trained. But at the end of the day, proper procedure can only go so far. Most diners would agree that their most memorable good service experiences were based on a great server, not an appropriate number of place setting changes. I think this gets forgotten more often than it should; again, this may be due to those out there who prefer their dining help neither seen nor heard, but in my opinion, all the pomp and circumstance is little more than that.

Obviously, that doesn't mean I want my porterhouse on a garbage can lid. All I'm saying is that I want my food's deliciousness to be the first and foremost priority. Beyond that, there are any number of combinations and contexts within which I can enjoy said food. The lighting, the table surface, and the side on which a server stands to refill my wine glass are not hugely consequential, within reason. Don't get me wrong: I can appreciate efficient, attentive service and the positive effect it has on the dining experience; a dinner at Meadowood last year was one of the better meals I've had in my life. I just get frustrated when it seems that more importance was placed on wall art and linens than on the food; if you have to get one thing spot-on, I think we can all agree that the food is the bullseye to aim for, no? Once you've got that down, go nuts with service.

Better yet, do something different with service! We've all seen white tablecloths, a lengthy parade of course-appropriate utensils, and the shamefully stuffy men's jacket requirement. I know I'm speaking from a California state of mind, but wouldn't you rather be pleasantly surprised by your service than predictably satisfied? To take things out of abstractness, allow me to reference State Bird Provisions, a relatively new restaurant in SF. They hype has started to build about this place, and let me be the first to say, it's legit. I had the good fortune to eat there a few weeks before it was named 'best new restaurant in the country' by Vogue, which I believe was its first major national accolade. Not only is the food fantastic (I must specifically mention the life-changing, house-made garlic knot topped with melted burrata), but they have a very original shtick: dim-sum style service. You can order off the regular menu, or you can wait for one of the trays circulating around the dining room to make it to your table. These trays contain off-menu dishes created literally moments before, utilizing elements from the menu plates integrated with other ingredients and put together in real time. It allows the kitchen flexibility and utilizes the maximum amount of product, while creating an exciting and unexpected bevy of options for  diners. Though it may sound gimmicky, it's not; in fact, it's brilliant. State Bird has created a totally unique dining experience, centered on outstanding food and bolstered by original service.

I'm also inclined to mention the impending wedding of my brother and his fiancee to further illustrate my point. Due to the restrictions of outdoor seating for dinner, Jamie and Kristin discovered that their original plans for dinner service and menu could not be accommodated. Alternatives were presented, and the final decision, forced by restrictions, came out even better than the original plan: I am absolutely thrilled to say that dinner will be rack of lamb, served family style and carved tableside! Does this not sound absolutely phenomenal? How many weddings have you been to where dinner was dry chicken breast or overcooked salmon, served in rehearsed unison and looking straight out of a 1980's playbook? The table is beautifully decorated and your water glass is on the correct side, but actually eating the food just makes you sad. Granted, dinner is not supposed to be the focal point of a wedding, and yes, I have a unique perspective when it comes to food, but you have to admit, wedding meals are often shitty. We can rest assured that, at the very least, Jamie and Kristin's wedding dinner will be one that stands out in everyone's memory; and isn't that something everyone wants at a wedding?

Admittedly, I suppose that all you can realistically hope for when eating out is a smile, extra ketchup when you need it, and a prompt check drop. Beyond that, the spectrum is vast and varied; and somewhere between a garbage can lid and polished silver platter lies a very memorable dining experience. But one thing has been repeatedly proven: diners will tolerate poor service in order to get amazing food; the converse (still correct?), however, is certainly not true. As long as that remains the case, I believe things are right in the restaurant world.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Dirty Mac & Cheese (spoiler alert: no sex stuff)

If you want an inside glimpse of any person's inner child, you need only catch them eating at the end of a rough day. Eyes closed dreamily, perhaps sucking on a giant spoonful of peanut butter, making gutteral noises of pleasure; it's not always pretty, but it's honest.
Rough days make us, as humans, crave comfort, and comfort is conveniently located in... delicious food! It's a good system. Just what type of food usually depends on who your mommy was. Odds are, at least one of your absolute favorite foods is something your mom made just so, or even something packaged she served you; not necessarily anything complicated or complex, just a dish she made for you on the regular that you absolutely loved.
For me, it's quesadillas, roast chicken (that's probably a popular mom fave for many), and good, old mac & cheese (another likely front-runner).
So when I got home this evening at the end of a particularly shitty day, I was all about some mac & cheese. As I collected my ingredients and equipment, which included a glorious United Nations of at least nine different cheeses, I came to realize that we were out of AP flour. I had been hoping to make a creamy, extra-gooey mornay as the base for the mac & cheese, and flour is a necessary ingredient to do so. Upon deeper exploration of the pantry, I encountered a few different whole grain flours. Why not? I perused my options and went with buckwheat flour.
My roux was a bit more finicky than usual, as a result of the whole grains and the difference in gluten content of the buckwheat, but with a little finesse and a fair amount of milk, I whipped that shit to smooth, thick, luscious, bechamel beauty, one like I had never seen before.
The whole grain buckwheat added texture, color, and flavor that completely altered the appearence and flavor profile of the sauce; it was actually really pretty. I decided to go with it: I added crispy diced bacon, cacao nibs, a pinch of chili flakes and a little cayenne, then finished with sliced green onions. I grated cheeses into the pan willy nilly, from Pecorino, to Cowgirl Creamery's Fat Bottom Girl, Machego, herbed chevre... whatever I could forage from the cheese drawer (which, in our refrigerator, holds great riches). I used orecchiette for my "mac," their tiny, al dente pockets filling up with ooey-gooey molecules of cheesy comfort.
I called it "Dirty Mac & Cheese," and it was sensational.
That's the best part of cooking; every roadblock or wrong turn is an opportunity to try something new and create something original. Necessity is the Mama Celeste of invention... or something like that.