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.