Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Clogs Abroad, October 11, 2010: Pressure Cooker

'Twas Brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves
And the mome raths outgrabe.
- "Jabberwocky", by Lewis Carroll,
from Through the Looking Glass & What Alice Found There

After three years of having all the answers, or at least knowing where to find them, I find myself in a world in which I know nothing: the tiny galley that serves "Victoria."

At least I know how to do dishes
, I think, as I wash up the few plates and cups left from a meagre passage repast of grilled cheese sandwiches washed down with instant lemonade. Although even that wasn't true when I came aboard Victoria in Tonga -- young Thomas had to show me the procedure of pumping sea water over the dishes, washing and rinsing with seawater and then dribbling a few drops of precious fresh water over each dish. I grew to love the slight salty tang that clung to cups, as though every chilled beverage were a salted margarita, every hot coffee a play on salted espresso caramel.

A wave hits the bow, the boat swishes her tail and tips (nautical terms) way over to starboard, the washed plates go tumbling off the counter onto the floor, then we tip the other way, and I have to hold on to the side of the sink as I climb uphill to pick up the dishes, which are now sliding along the floor past me, knocking against the base of the swinging stove. Okay, so one step toward doing dishes, one step toward the drawing board.

As I chase the dishes, I keep one eye on a pot of leftover stew on the stove. Of course, the pot on the swinging stove is level the whole time, which is why the floor isn't covered with a hot mess, and why my arms and face aren't covered with terrible scalds and burns. The beauty of a gimbal! I'd draw a force diagram of if I weren't so worried about the right-hook-left-hook waves we might take at any time, which will lift the pot off the stove and really change the timbre of the evening.

Nobody is particularly hungry tonight anyway: the seas really started to hunch up beneath us earlier in the day, and the wind is singing through the rigging. But what do I know? Nothing. Except that the boys are probably hungry, and it's my job to feed people, so let the stove swing, let the waves crash: I will bring a meal to the table. Okay, not to the table (more sliding, more mess, food all over the floor, cups tipping over, forks getting lost in the settee cushions, lots of yelling and holding on). I will provide the option of a hot meal to those willing to eat leaning in a corner, or crouched on the stairs to the cockpit.

And the stew really is just what the doctor ordered. I lean in the corner and eat before starting my next watch, grateful for the warm core as I creep into the water-filled cockpit every twenty minutes to check our course and scan the horizon when the waves lift us above the troughs. That's what food is for.

There is something liberating about knowing nothing -- without the context of previous experience (and consequence) I'm free to believe that any meal is possible on a small swinging stove in the middle of the open ocean. I look out at the heaving sea and try to determine whether the waves have flattened a bit, maybe the wind is down below 35. At least it isn't raining, right now. If the seas drop, I think, as Victoria rises up and up and up on a wave and I look around, holding on as we surf down into the trough, tomorrow I will make a large, hot meal and a hot dessert. Roast lemon pepper chicken and pear cobbler....What could possibly go wrong?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Clogs Abroad, September 13, 2010: Hearts of Palm

One ship is very much like another, and the sea is always the same. In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance; for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself, which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny. - Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

That can of palm hearts arrived earlier this year, a stowaway from another restaurant, one that had been closed: scuttled. I put it away on the top shelf of the Dead Stock area in dry storage, tucked behind a lifetime's supply of fenugreek. When Inventory rolled around, every 28 days, I put a small "1" in the Hearts of Palm row, month after month, just as I plugged in an astonishingly unchanged 4.5# of dried mint, left from the Greek menu of early 2008, and .002 of a 10# bag of Israeli cous cous, leftover from a failed black cod pitch, Cote d'Azur menu, Spring 2009. I finally used the cous cous in a fun little salmon special, the tiny semolina balls a jolly evocation of roe. The dried mint will be in dry storage until the end of time (thyme?), however, and the hearts of palm kept slipping through, until my last day at the Hi-Life.

See, the thing about hearts of palm is that they are not delicious in the usual sense. Their production is labor intensive and wild harvesting kills the entire tree, thus the charmingly old-fashioned name "Millionaire's Salad". In their cannedness they hold the same promise as artichoke hearts, pickled asparagus, water chestnuts and baby corn: ingredients from a cocktail party appetizer, circa 1978, soon to be featured in a retro-fancy Bloody Mary at your local brunch joint. I rate hearts of palm on a different scale altogether, one that measures the satisfaction found from eating bamboo shoots in food court Chinese at one end, to the splintery split of a well-chewed tongue depressor or popsicle stick at the other. Given the chance, though, I'll eat them straight from the can, one after another, as though I were plucking and eating woody shoots grown in slightly brackish water. Were I to try doing that in the kitchen, I'd have to hide by the mop closet and hunch over the can, gobbling up the white spears, Gollum-like, before anyone could catch me at it. Embarassing. Which is why I left that can alone.

Tonight I'm staying in a palm surrounded enclave, almost a week after the stowaway can of palm hearts was finally cracked open, finally mixed -- by another chef's hands -- into a beautiful salad of frisee, red onion, palm hearts, out-of-season pears, hazelnut vinaigrette...a salad greater than the sum of its parts. Tomorrow I'll fly from Nadi International Airport to the really rather remote Vava'U Group of islands in the Kingdom of Tonga. Once there, I'll meet my Uncle, Aunt and their twin 11-year-old boys, Patrick and Thomas. With them, I'll sail from Tonga to Australia on SV Victoria, a beautiful 41-foot Lord Nelson cutter. In almost every meaningful way I've jumped ship from my life as a chef in Seattle. Tonight will be my last night spent on land for a long time.

As I look around, soaking up the green, no water in sight, I reflect that palm trees need not be eaten at all -- they are perfect for waving fronds in gentle tropical breezes. But perhaps that's part of the appeal of canned palm hearts: they are culinary reminders of vacations involving sand and salt, stowaways from sunnier climes. That can in dry storage was one of those lucky stowaways that escaped detection until discovery brought an element of delivery: to safety, to land, to Deliciousness. I hope to be so lucky.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Chef's Log, June 6, 2010: Summertime, Sort Of

The rain continued. It was a hard rain, a perpetual rain, a sweating and steaming rain; it was a mizzle, a downpour, a fountain, a whipping at the eyes, an undertow at the ankles, it was a rain to drown all rains and memory of rains…. “The Long Rain,” from The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury

At some point during the eight or nine years I’ve lived here, I fell in love with Seattle's deep purple and green palette, so different from the brick reds and taxicab yellows of New York City; a world away from Boulder’s cerulean dome and post-snowstorm white. This place is undeniably damp, though, and called the Emerald City for a reason – the vines and creepers would dismantle the Smith and Columbia Towers in a matter of geologic moments were they not cut back often. But as we near the Solstice and have enjoyed two sunny days since, I don’t know, mid-February? instead of Emerald City, Jet City, or Rat City, “City of Skies the Color of Old Sheets and Wet Newspaper” might better capture my rain-fatigue. There is light in the sky until after10 pm right now – we really feel the planet wobble up here – but instead of long shadows and hours of apricot twilight, the days end with a pearlescent glow: the sky a worn blue duvet, the sun a dying flashlight held up behind it.

There was a recent day of sunbreaks and temperatures in the high 60s that we celebrated with another wonderful dinner in the Crown Hill garden: whole chickens split Argentine-style and grilled (they looked like unzipped suitcases, or some odd species of reptile; the ribcage looked like the roof of a monster’s mouth), a simple salad of tomato and cucumber, a torn hunk of warm baguette with butter and I couldn’t resist putting a dollop of mayonnaise on my plate. We built a fire in one of those iron contraptions they sell at Fred Meyer, and angled the picnic table out of the smoke but close to the warmth, which made all the difference. After dinner we enjoyed strawberry-rhubarb cobbler, straight out of the oven, with vanilla ice cream and a small, strong cup of Italian-roast decaf. The sky dimmed and finally darkened around 10:30 and there was a sense of satisfaction derived not just from the delicious simplicity of the meal, but also from being outside and wringing every last drop of light from the day.

In a month, as the days begin to shorten again, we’ll have summery weather. Better for everyone if we just tuck the memory of last year’s scorching June away and go back to the Seattle mantra that the sun will come back after July 4th. Okay, that’s fine. But while the rest of the country is beginning to see the first of the summer produce hit the market, I’m propping up the new Menu with ingredients either frozen in the fields last year or shipped from warmer climes. While I love a little whimsy in my food, I think irony has an unpleasant aftertaste and avoid using it; the unintentional irony of having such flavorless pickings to choose from when designing a menu based on abundance and bursting sweetness is especially bitter.

I think a large part of my impatience with this damn rain comes from the radical shift in Process that we began last winter when we changed the restaurant’s menu format from an exploration of the foods found in wine regions around the world and became a Seasonal American Grill. In the past three years I’ve Cheffed at the Hi-Life, I’ve brought up menus featuring foods from Argentina, Paris, Greece, Barcelona, the Pacific Northwest, Northern Italy, the Côte d’Azur, the Columbia River Valley, and Texas…. South Africa was conspicuously absent from the international wine region roster because no one wants a soggy newspaper-wrapped packet of fried calamari and chips. Also, Malay curries are muddy, and springbok is wicked tricky to source up here. In December 2009, following the sea change of two American menus in a row, we opened “Winter.” “Spring” ran from early March to late May, and “Summer” opened last Wednesday. You can guess where we’re going next, but I'm not ready to start writing "Fall;" I want to eat, drink and breathe Summer for at least a day or two before the lid comes back down.

The predictability of the new menu cycle is a fundamental difference in the game – menu development used to mean a few weeks of library visits, poring through regional cookbooks, a good amount of time spent online, many, many rough drafts of menus that had a seasonal bent on the regions’ food, and then a bit of a sprint near the end as we worked out the recipes, plate costs, verisimilitude and executability of the dishes in the real world, on the real Line. And then as soon as one menu was up, the cycle began again, starting with trying to figure out a wine region to “visit”, knowing that New Zealand, Chile, Lebanon, Stellenbosch, Upstate New York and the Rhine Valley were all off the table.

Leaving that rigmarole behind greatly simplified the menu development Process, but there was a new crop of challenges, foremost among them was that we were trying to test dishes that were wrapped around food that hadn't grown yet, let alone ripened and come to market. My first version of Serrano Stone Fruit Salsa featured Chilean nectarines that had all the flavor and juice of a jiffy-pack padded envelope. Pretty colors, though. A little cider vinegar and brown sugar, along with the Serrano’s clean hot bite, some diced red onion and chopped cilantro brought me within hailing distance of a flavor profile I could use. The next time I made the salsa, the only fresh stone fruit I could get my hands on was a white peach from, again, Chile. The flesh of the fruit was touchingly green, heartbreakingly tart, and had the snap of a Granny Smith. Difficult to imagine a fruit more different from the juicy, sensual succulence of a high summer local peach. I caught some deserved flak for even trying to use the South American fruit. So, until I start receiving the Good Stuff from Eastern Washington, I’m using frozen fruit from last year’s local harvest. You win some, you lose some.

A seasonal menu means also that we are more at the mercy of the elements. A windstorm wiped out a field of asparagus. The rainy weather in California means spot mold on the mesclun. Peppers and tomatoes are triple the price they will be in August as the Market struggles to supply the demand. Onions, onions, the very definition of cheap food for serfs and peasants, leapt from $12/50lbs to $50/50lbs. The ebb and flow of product and prices determines what I can or cannot put on the menu, or what I can perhaps only use for the hot minute the product is available: ramps are here and gone in a flash, sea beans and fiddlehead ferns are fun to feature, but I can’t order enough to meet the volume of the restaurant were I to put them in some sort of Summer Dish. I want cherries and apricots, but this rain is pushing the product later into the season.

Perhaps the greatest challenge I faced when we switched from regional to seasonal menus was the struggle to write the food. Writing a regional menu was always a bit like an exercise in pastiche we did in creative writing classes in high school – by writing in the style of Steinbeck, or Hemingway, or Bradbury, the young writer became acquainted with Voice, and once you can hear Voice, the path to finding your own is much clearer. Not necessarily easier, but clearer. Same rules apply to copying paintings, just brushstrokes instead of words. So, back in 2008, when confronted with a French menu due in two days, I needed only to use a French voice and zee food followed obediently. Now, after paring down the many voices that went into the Winter menu, refining and strengthening the notes that ran through the Spring menu, the Summer menu sounds like a cheerful, well-orchestrated chorus, the voices of Sous Chefs and supervisors ringing through as well as my own. And, as I watch customers knock the rain from umbrellas, strip off sodden hats and Gore-Tex coats that really should be in storage by now, and sit down to a summertime dinner of corn, peppers, watermelon, crab, and stone fruits, I can’t help but feel pleased that in a city with such a constant pitter patter of chefs’ voices, I can look out into a dining room filled with people listening to ours. Almost as nice as a sunny day. Almost.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Recipe #2: Nettle Tart With Goat Cheese

I thought the gloves would be the easy part. We have two pairs that we use to stack wood in the shed behind the restaurant, a space that used to feel like a back yard but now, with the condos surrounding us with a fifteen foot high cement retaining wall, the space feels much more like the bear enclosure at the zoo. When the cooks split wood before service, the solid thunk-crack of the axe hitting wood echoes along the wall. It’s kind of a lonely sound, or maybe just evocative of the early morning silence of a post-snowstorm Colorado morning, and the meditative solitude that descends like a dome around any repetitive, physical task. Shoveling snow, raking gravel, pulling weeds. All tasks that require stamina, and gloves. But, I was hasty when I grabbed two of the gloves from where they were stuffed into the “v” of supporting beams in the shed’s roof, looking like nothing so much as a haven for Black Widow spiders, and found myself in the kitchen with two right-handed gloves and only 23 minutes in which I could run this experiment. It turns out that nothing is easy with nettles. Well, this recipe is pretty easy, actually.

Nettle and Goat Cheese Tart with Fennel-Frond Honey and Coarse Salt
1 T butter
1 medium shallot
Nettles, however many you can stand working with, up to a pound (pre-blanched, pre-picked weight)
2 eggs
2 cups heavy cream
½ cup crumbled goat cheese, or whatever cheese you happen to have dying in the refrigerator door.
One scant batch Basic Pie Dough
½ cup honey
1 Tablespoon chopped fennel fronds
2 T coarse sea salt

You’ll Also Need:
A sauté pan
One 9-inch tart pan with fluted edge and removable bottom
A big pot of salted, boiling water
A big bowl of ice water
A decent Knife

Put sauté pan over medium-low heat. Put butter into the pan. Slice the shallot into rings as thick as a plastic poker chip. Put shallots in pan with butter. Make sure the heat is high enough to “melt” the shallots, but not so hot that they will burn while your attention is elsewhere.

Set a large pot on the stove over high heat and bring it to a boil. Have an ice bath handy.

Put on gloves and confront the nettles. Consider and dismiss the feeling that you may accidentally kill someone with this folly. Look at the clock, think about the mountain of paperwork that still awaits before you can leave for your weekend, not to mention the towering wall of chicken that must be prepped and soaked in buttermilk for Sunday’s wildly popular Family Style Fried Chicken.

In batches small enough to ensure the greens are submerged (and thusly disarmed) in boiling water, push the nettles into the hot water. Pull them out a couple minutes later and “shock” them in the ice bath.

Scratch at the three or four red spots that have appeared out of nowhere on your hand. Wonder if your throat is closing. Watch the pizza cook strip a basil stem and feel a profound desire to be using that friendly, versatile herb, with its heady aroma and willingness to add deliciousness to whatever dish it is added to. Try to name the tune the pizza cook is humming, so happy is she to be working with basil. Look at the clock.

Pull the blanched leaves from the stems and coarsely chop the greens. Add them to the sauté pan with the shallot. Toss, toss, toss. Add salt and pepper. Toss.

Discard blanching water, which, by the way, is the color of marsh water. Clean up your area and assemble remaining ingredients. If you haven’t already made your pie crust, now is the time to rummage through the shelves in the walk-in until you find a small, leftover chunk of dough.

Scatter a bit of flour on your cutting board and roll the dough out. Drape over the sprayed tart pan and make it pretty. Using tongs, put the greens and shallots into the pan, making sure they are evenly distributed across the base of the pan.

Beat eggs with cream. Season with salt and pepper. Add cheese to this basic custard, and mix slightly – you want some of the cheese to be carried with the liquid, but you want some of it to stay on top, too, both to provide a strong “net” of proteins and fats across your tart, but also because it will brown and look really pretty, adding to the tart’s evolving appearance of edibleness. Pour over the greens, shaking the pan ever so slightly to make sure the liquid gets into all the nettle crannies. Put your tart on a baking sheet and slide it into an oven, 350 – 375 degrees – if it’s hotter, watch it a little more closely, but it should all work out. It’ll take about 35 – 40 minutes to bake. Check it after 25 mins.

Dash out of kitchen to talk about the menu with the two new servers. File some paper work on the new guy you just hired. Return to kitchen in time to help set up the area for the chicken prep. Push away sense of despair always brought on by the open box filled with sticky pink body parts and get ready to play Race the Clock with your A.M. Sous, a game that makes the chicken thing a lot more fun.

As you’re cutting backs from breasts, think about what you want to serve the tart with. I believe there is a strong narrative element to food, and that indulging in a little bit of free association while you’re making something new contributes to the overall gestalt of the dish; I find the images that burble up from the subconscious consummately interesting, if a bit elusive and hard to consistently convey on busy nights. So, a nettle tart with goat cheese. Fun to think about goats eating nettles, and that a trace of their flavor might find its way into the goat’s milk, and from there into the cheese. Honey and goat cheese are nice together. All rough rock wall, and long wooden kitchen table, spring time, hearth, home, rough patches smoothed over with a little sweetness. The honey is a bit like amber, and it would be fun to suspend something that looks like insect stings, or little green needles, in that clear medium, next to the rich opacity of baked cheese. Nice to use some of the lightly anise-flavored fennel fronds. Chopped into pieces as long as a pencil lead, mixed into the honey. And then a tiny scattering of coarse sea salt, to add flavor, but the tiny shards also bring to mind shattered glass, which is fun on a nettle dish.

Interrupt this reverie to check the tart, which is done. Explain to the pantry cook how you’d like it plated: on a small round, with half an ounce drizzled frond honey and a very small scatter of salt crystals, some of which should barely run into the honey. Direct her to the first aid kit when she mentions that she has a screaming pain in her wrist from where she rubbed it with a towel that may or may not have come in contact with the raw nettles. She’ll be fine, but given that the work place is fairly dangerous to begin with, what with all the fire and knives, you might feel a little bit tired from introducing the added risk of stinging weeds. Make a light quip about next week’s special featuring poison ivy pesto.
Put up a slice of the tart for the servers to try. Try it yourself. It is delicious.

Serves eight.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Not Nettlesarily

We were lucky and had a warm, sunny day about a week ago, warm enough to grill some meats and eat outside in the Crown Hill garden, a space transformed by the completion of the mother-in-law cottage built during the past year. I was, as always, grateful to the point of giddiness to be fed by my friends. Cooks love to be fed. We passed the potato salad as the sky darkened and dabbled with different blues, the indigos and Prussians and cobalts of the clear Pacific Northwest sky at twilight. There was a brief interruption in our conversation about the New Normal – babies have started arriving in my little circle and our Sunday Suppers now feature much less wine and much more coo – when one of the neighbors strode through the backyard and over to the table and asked whether it would be alright if he harvested some of the greens growing in and around the gravel filled pit that forms one corner of the yard, which is still a bit raw from the construction.

After a friendly chat he shoved his hands into some gloves as he walked to the back of the yard and then yanked out the greens and pushed them into an enormous bag, larger than a California King Pillowcase. I went back to my potato salad and watched one baby discover a dangling thing that bounces and chimes, watched another baby take a spoonful of chicken and rice, and calculated that if he stuffed the bag full he might achieve a cooked yield of about two quarts. Not even. Six cups. But while you need a lot of picked greens to feed a family, anyone who has ever planted kale or chard in a two-person garden knows the plants produce and produce and produce until you can barely imagine ever again eating another slice of chard and ricotta tart with a drizzle of fireweed honey, or having another helping of pancetta flecked kale with garlic and a splash of sharp cider vinegar.

In any case, he had his work cut out for him because the greens he was pulling weren’t the friendly kind. They were nettles.

With the insouciance of the armed and dangerous, Stinging Nettles cover hillsides and thrive along roadsides and near the hidden brooks that spring from the granite Cascades. Some intrepid campers have been known to gather and boil nettles in their chipped blue enamel pot, tucked into the coals of the camp fire, to be served with fresh caught trout fried in drippings left from the morning’s breakfast of Dutch oven biscuits and boarbelly. Or, even better, why not take some of those leftover biscuits and break them up into the belly fat, maybe with a foraged spring onion and half of a windfall wild apple, and stuff the split, cleaned fish. Roast, and finish with a tablespoon-full of nettle pistou. I forgot my gloves so I will watch you cook from over here.

Nettles spill across the pages of books, as well: Rabbits creep through nettles, looking for does in all the worst places; Swedish fiction is practically overgrown with their spiny stems and leaves, and, although it’s been a while, I seem to recall some sort of nettle encounter in a Thomas Hardy novel, maybe Jude falls in a patch on his way home. You wouldn’t name a child Nettles, unless the poor creature was an orphan left on the Fens, raised by foxes and a blind one-legged soldier. And even then you might go with “Heather” instead.

Another book, the peerless On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, by Harold McGee, has this to say about nettles:

Nettles (Urtica dioica) are a common Eurasian weed that has now spread throughout the Northern Hemisphere. They’re notorious for their stinging hairs, which have a brittle silicate tip and a gland that supplies a cocktail of irritant chemicals, including histamine, for injection when skin meets needle. The hairs can be disarmed by a quick blanch in boiling water, which releases and dilutes the chemicals.

Well, that sounds delicious. I read on:

Nettles are made into soup, stewed, and mixed with cheese to stuff pasta.

Sure, and yet, I can’t shake the feeling that nettles are only to be eaten either at or right after the end of the world, a delightful post-Apocalyptic dish of spiny weeds boiled in brackish water with a good amount of gravel and a nice turn of coarse-ground ash.

And then there is this entry in the cheerful Greens Cookbook, by Deborah Madison and Edward Espe Brown:

These prickly greens are usually volunteers in the garden that make themselves known with their sharp, surprising sting when you are trying to weed. They are a wonderfully strong green herb with great nutritional value. Boiled in water, the stinging properties disappear, and the broth is rich, smooth and an astounding shade of green. The taste is hearty and deep and does, in fact, give the impression it could sustain one through an otherwise foodless winter. Use nettles in moderation – 1 or 2 handfuls for 8 cups of water. Nettle broth itself, with the addition of a few potatoes and cream, makes a robust and tasty soup. Soups made from the broth of boiled nettles have been known to support the lives of at least two saints – the Irish saint Columba and the Tibetan, Milarepa.

Those two saints might be surprised to find themselves in the same sentence, brought together by nettles. I imagine they both had some other things in common as well. Sackcloth and soot spring to mind. And of course, nothing says a good time like “an otherwise foodless winter.”

But I am intrigued by that “astounding shade of green.” And I remember the amazing soup I had of nettles and pork at last year’s Cochon 555, and the stewed nettles I’ve enjoyed at the same garden table from where I watched the harvest. And, given how much I’ve enjoyed my own little ravioli on the menu right now – a mix of cheeses and basil with no added histamine, maybe for Friday, I'll put together a neat little pasta packet of goat cheese, currants, roasted garlic and nettles. Seems like a good start for the dioica curious. Nettles are everywhere, all over Seattle, in soups, pestos, and pastas. On roadsides and riverbanks, vacant lots and backyards. I think I’ll give myself a dare and put some nettles on the chalkboard for Friday night. I’ll wear gloves and take notes.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Recipe #1: Dogs' Breakfast

"...said Dingo-Yellow-Dog-Dingo,"... I've made him different from all other animals; but what may I have for my tea?" -- The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo, Just So Stories, by Rudyard Kipling.

What indeed, O Yellow Dog?

Typically Yellow Dog, and his friend Big Black, had biscuits for tea, and elevenses, and midnight snacks, crunched up with doggy gusto. Breakfast was kibble with gravy, dinner was kibble with gravy and chunks. Delicious. But then there were those days when the big green bag yielded nothing but a handful of corn nuts and a quarter cup of greasy crumbs, the days when our New York economy, or the ferocity of the winter storm, or the laziness of a Sunday morning meant an improvised meal.

Were I to put the Dogs' Breakfast on the menu, the text would read something like, "Creamy Pecorino polenta with whole roasted tomatoes and two eggs, sunny side up." Maybe add a hunk of the brilliant house bacon my Sous Chef cured last week...maybe bring in a hearty rye bread to serve, toasted, on the side, with a knuckle of imported butter. That my father uses the term to describe a bad hand of cards is a good reason why I shouldn't menu the item; the heart quails at the thought of a customer reading the menu and wondering whether the Chef was offering roadkill, or something even worse. Dogs aren't picky.

The version that Yellow Dog wagged and waited for was more of a stirred affair, based on a recipe I learned as a child when conditions in our western Colorado mountain home were similar to those experienced 23 years later in NYC: the big green bag under the counter was almost empty and a store run wasn't in the cards until the next trip into Town, and if the snow didn't stop falling, well, at least we had a nice stack of firewood, and the dogs had a big jar of cornmeal and a shaker can of Kraft Parmesan. The many-legged throng in the kitchen when my mother made this for the dogs' breakfast was the canine equivalent of the excitement felt by Seattle foodies when a celebrity chef opens a new house in their neighborhood.

Here's one for the recipe box:

8 c cornmeal
16 c water
4 eggs
ripped up bread heels of whatever loaf is left
a nub of cheese
crumbs from the bottom of the dog food bag
ketchup or jarred spaghetti sauce

In a large saucepan, bring the water to a boil. Stir in the cornmeal. Ask the dogs to leave the kitchen. When the cornmeal has absorbed most of the water, step over a dog, stir in the eggs, the bread and the cheese. Tell the dogs to leave the kitchen. Divide the mixture between two medium sized stainless steel bowls and chill. Leave the dogs in the kitchen staring at the refrigerator door. Chill, stirring at least once every seven minutes, until the dogs' excitement becomes greater than your worry that the mixture will burn the roofs of their mouths. Sprinkle the crumbs over the top of the dish for crunch, garnish with a generous dollop of ketchup or sauce. Push through dancing dogs with bowls and place on floor. Serves two.

Both of them loved these meals, possibly perceiving these occasions as something special, possibly wondering which had been the Good Dog to deserve such a treat. I like to think so.
After Big Black died the time I spent with Yellow was a little bit blurred, distracted as I was by the dwindling size of my pack. When I found out on Wednesday that Yellow Dog was gone I thought about his speed, his joy at flight, whether he was tearing through the North Woods of Central Park or running with Black and Bear along the paths of Magnuson Park, or eating his food too quickly. I remembered his grin and his furrowed brow, and I wonder whether he and Black are enjoying a proper Dog's Breakfast now, rolling delightedly in offal that must really stink up Dog Heaven. I hope they have a bath and a biscuit before I see them again.

Monday, January 18, 2010


"And one day he took flour and water and currants and plums and sugar and things, and made himself one cake which was two feet across and three feet thick." - "How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin", Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling.

Kipling has been much on my mind lately. Mostly because I've been musing on the possible long term effects of reading The Jungle Books and Just So Stories during early childhood moral compassing -- is it a good thing to identify with a cat who walks by himself? with a boy raised by wolves? Vain questions for a different blog. So, pushing the cat to one side, I read again about the Parsee and his cooking stove and his knife and his very shiny hat. And his cake. Two feet across and three feet thick. That is an impressive baked good.

The conspicuous absence of eggs or any leavening points to the cake being an extremely dense offering, as well. I'd like to posit that eggs (separated, the yolks combined with half the sugar, the whites beaten madly with the remainder until stiff peaks form, and then carefully folded into the rest of the batter) fall within Kipling's casual "...and things..." Possibly omitted because he didn't want to write a story about How the Meringue Got its Loft, or didn't want to explain the callouses on the Parsee's hands, there as a result of whipping egg whites by hand and using what sounds like a very dangerous cooking stove. Really, who could blame ol' Rudyard? But he did mention currants, and I have to concede that, more than tigers and mongeese and white seals, more than whale's throats or yellow dog dingos, the Parsee's Currant and Plum Studded Torte is Kipling's darkest thumbprint on my skin.

Currants showed up in different stories over the years, and they were almost always described as plump little berries, food for shrub hopping birds, or the main ingredient in jam. For a girl who ate her weight in chokecherries every summer, currants represented all the potentially tannic treats the world held in store. Currants sounded European and sophisticated, an impression reinforced by the first time I saw a cluster of the bright red berries: I was twelve, picking out a dessert in the cafeteria line at my father's office outside of Vienna. I was fresh from reading a Garfield comic in which he ate a whole fish and pulled out an intact skeleton and so I tried to eat the currants like that, popping the entire stem into my mouth. Disappointing showing. Too tart. Wipe tongue with napkin. Ignore grown ups' embarassment and feed a tiny piece of ham to the wasp climbing on the bottle of Riesling that sweats in the middle of the outdoor table.

And then, years and years later, I was a pantry cook at a spot on the Hill and lo and behold, currants! But different: dried and much sweeter; these were the Parsee's currants, these would be able to hold up to the extremely long cooking time a cake that size would require. I ate them all the time, in pastas and salads, loving the little sweet yin they brought to a salty spicy yang. The difference between the two kinds of currants seemed strange, but nothing that was going to keep me up at night. Since then I curbed my currant use, recognizing them, and nuts, as a comfort zone I had to leave if I wanted to grow as a chef.

That said, we do use currants in our oatmeal, and on our roast chicken. So, about every month I'll check in an order that includes a five pound bag of currants, or at least that's what it says on the invoice; the bag itself reads: "Currants. Contains: Raisins." Reading that I was at first reminded of another restaurant, long ago, where we had an ice cream container full of "Raisons" on the dry storage shelf. I never peered beneath that lid, figuring that it was up to me to find my own whys. But then, confronted with a bag of fruit that threatened to steal the sweet romance and mystery of the currant and replace it with the dreaded Halloween non-treatness of the raisin, I wanted to find out why. I wanted the raison.

A short trip to wikipedia held the answers, including the taxonomy, but the answer in Russ Parsons' How to Pick a Peach is much more charming:

"...currant fruits have nothing to do with currant raisins, which are made from the tiny Black Corinth grape, and if you say Corinth with the accent of a New York produce dealer, you will understand the root of the confusion. These are sometimes called Zante currants, which alludes to the Greek islands from which these grapes were first imported."

So there it was. The Parsee's currants are wee dried grapes, the currants used for jam are, um, currants. I recently used some White Currants on a Special and they had the plump transluscence of fish eyes. While I love Black Currant jam, I'm still not sold on the naked berries, unless ... a sweet dessert play on Salmon Roe Nigiri....rice pudding, red currants, wrapped in carmelized seaweed...but I suspect, O Best Beloved, that not even a rhinocerous would touch such a treat.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Chef's Clog, January 17, 2010: This Temperate Winter

Most of the winters I've spent in Seattle are damp and dark affairs, with dreary waits in the drizzle for a bus that smells like damp wool and old Gortex. Typically I nod off, as the bus lurches through a darkness as dense as the one I'd ridden through 12 hours earlier, and suffer fitful visions of 1,243 egg shells being crushed beneath the feet of the cook dancing madly next to me. I wake suddenly and stagger off at Broadway and John.

Last year's winter was thrillingly snowy. I loved almost every minute of it. But this winter, the forsythia is already beginning to bloom. And the shy yellow flowers, peeking from between the spindly arms of the shrub, are messing with my menu.

Winter food is winter food because it's supposed to wrap us in a warm layer of fat, because evolution decrees that intelligence comes with near nakedness. The ingredients are pulled from the ground, or the freezer, or the summer harvest put up on pantry shelves. Nothing from trees or vines, except for kindling, because winter food requires slow cooking over a sustainable fire: as darkness comes earlier, the warmth and light from the cooking fire keeps the saber toothed cats at bay; 11,000 years later, the pot of stew Ma set to cook hours earlier is simmering over the hot iron stove and Pa is knocking snow from his boots, back from checking the livestock. Slow cooking too because the ingredients are tougher, harder to coax into edible form without a little liquid and fat. Shoulders and briskets, stews, hocks, potatoes and wrinkled apples. Thick gravy and copious amounts of cream. Bacon fat biscuits and berry jam.

Here's a menu item: Short ribs braised in porter over mashed potatoes with slivered Brussels sprouts. That's a reasonable winter offering. And as the East Coast continues to be bitten by storms, I can imagine those Chefs are using a lot of sausage and butter with their roots. But here in Seattle, in the middle of January, when I write my Specials I want to include tiny fronds of watercress or chervil, the fronds planted in a white bed of parsnip and pear puree; they would look like tiny green tendrils poking through the snow, an effect blurred but not obscured by the placement of a pancetta-wrapped tenderloin and some poached garlic slivers.

This temperate winter is making me impatient with roasting and baking. I want to pick and eat and grill over a short, hot fire. I want tiny green shoots and radishes the size of a marble. I want to bite the heads off of baby lettuces. I am voracious for spring.