Monday, December 31, 2012

The Beginning (and the E.N.D.)

“People have even made eating into something else: necessity on the one hand, excess on the other; have muddied the clarity of this need, and all the deep, simple needs in which life renews itself have become just as muddy.” – Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke

I will be brief as I have to slip into my clogs and head into work shortly. New Year’s Eve is one of the busier shifts in a busy restaurant’s year and I’d like to finish my list in time to slip into a party frock before midnight. Tomorrow morning’s frenzied feed will mark the end of the seasonal madness even as it signals the beginning of the New Year. The popularity of fried potatoes and eggs, washed down with a few Bloody Marys, epitomizes my feelings about going into a new year: Excess tempered by resolution, optimism haggling with experience.

The corridor between Thanksgiving and New Year’s requires focus and determination, energy, cooperation, vodka, and a good sense of humor. The jokes I make to the Expo about needing to push the rock up the hill, despite the high-wind warning and avalanche conditions, the silly puns we make from the names of prep items, the absolute hilarity of mislabeled containers, well, a little laughter goes a long way during the Big Push. Okay, but before I digress into an exposition on The Relationship Between Laughter and Flavor-Profiling, let’s tackle this New Year’s Eve Clog Blog.

The two things that interest me the most about Black Eyed Peas are, number one, they illustrate a Food Path, and, number two, they are considered “lucky.” The spelling of’s name (not to mention – are the periods meant to evoke the “eye” on the pea?) is another thing I find interesting about the Black Eyed Peas, and also, were I in the same green room with the group, I might have some questions about that Superbowl Half-Time performance.

Ah, digressions. At this rate, I’ll never get to work. The pepper jelly and the tomato-basil jam will remain unmade, a collection of separate ingredients sharing only an undetermined fate, rather than undergoing the transformation over heat into well-balanced accompaniments to the charcuterie. Also unmade: The mashed potatoes, the trinity, and the millions of gallons of stock. This paragraph is only here to mark the progression of my procrastination.

When a large population of humans is displaced, whether willingly or by force, the movement of the group across the globe creates a sort of Food Path (a term that is about as juicy and scientific as a piece of old bread). The Romans, with their vineyards and olive trees, forever changed the existing regional food in the entire Mediterranean basin. The Portuguese, and their consummate curiosity about What Lies Past the Horizon, opened up the world of spices and effectively Unblanded the Western World’s cuisine. And then there was the Slave Trade, which gave the New World peanuts, black-eyed peas, cucumbers and watermelons, and created a divisive element evident in pretty much every aspect of modern civil discourse. Things to think about for the New Year: how does the method of an ingredient’s incorporation into a cuisine – the way the ingredient arrived – affect the ways in which the ingredient is used and/or perceived? According to the source of all information in the world, Wikipedia, Sherman’s Yankees ignored the fields of black-eyed peas, even as they torched pretty much everything else, as they considered the pea nobbut animal fodder. And yet, two hundred years later, the humble sun-dried tomato swept across the culinary landscape, leaving a scorched swath of California Pizza Kitchens and Wolfgang Puck restaurants in its wake.

Was the Northerners' disdain one of the reasons hoppin’ john, a traditional New Year’s dish made from black-eyed peas, typically served with rice, greens and some kind of pork, was considered lucky? Because they were left alone? Our font of online information suggests that the peas, because they swell, symbolize prosperity, the greens symbolize money, and the pork, because pigs forage by rooting forwards, symbolize progress. The article also mentions that hoppin’ john is usually served with cornbread, but offers no insight into what the side dish might symbolize.

But the idea that food symbolizes anything is what interests me. Nicole Mones' book, The Last Chinese Chef, is practically an exercise in scratch-n-sniff reading, so clearly does she write about flavor and aroma. There is no shortage of symbolism in a culinary tradition as old as China’s – each ingredient is an element in a larger story; the completed dish has a clear narrative, a strong beginning, middle and an end, and the relationship between story and food is relatively easy to parse. American food is a mish-mash of different cultural markers and meanings  as a result of a bunch of pretty obvious factors that I don’t have time to analyze. 

But consider this. The black-eyed pea, as a legume, fixes nitrogen in soil, is extremely drought tolerant, is versatile and has a nice buttery flavor, and bees love its flowers – it’s the kind of crop you want to plant when you’re entering another year of uncertainty, or during a post-apocalyptic rebuild, or when you decide it’s time to start your own apiary. Right there we have practicality, hope, and ambition. Not a terrible set of words to start a new year with.

We had, for a minute, a Black-Eyed Pea Succotash on the menu. Served with molasses-braised short ribs, some mustard greens and sweet cherry tomatoes, the dish was a nice mix of traditional Southern cooking and the brightness of Pacific Northwest flavors.

Here’s a quick overview:

Sort and rinse the peas (there is a surprising number of pebbles in a bag of black-eyed peas).
Cook 4 cups of beans in lightly salted water for about an hour, or until tender. Drain and set aside.
While the beans are cooking, prepare your mise en place.
½ cup slivered garlic
¼ cup thinly sliced Serrano pepper
1 cup bacon, cut into lardon
1 red onion, brunoise
2 cups of corn cut from a cob (a bag of frozen corn is fine)
A handful of blanched haricots verts, cut into pencil-eraser sized pieces
10 piquillo peppers, diced (roasted red peppers are fine)
½ cup of apple cider vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Set the bacon in a large sauté pan and cook over medium-low heat to crisp up the cubes and render the fat.
When the bacon is a nice ruddy color and the fat is crispy, add the garlic and the serranos and gently cook them until the garlic is golden.

Push all that action to one side of the pan and turn the heat up. When the fat is lively, add the onions and corn. Toss, toss, toss. Saute for about 4 minutes, or until the onions will have lost their “raw” flavor. Add the beans. Toss, toss, toss. Add the peppers. Toss.

Combine this mixture with the cooked peas. Add the vinegar, about a tablespoon of salt and a nice teaspoon of coarsely ground black pepper. Stir and taste. Maybe a pinch of sugar if you feel like the spice and the vinegar call for it.

Serve with whatever you like – a braised pork shank, roasted chicken, short ribs, pork chops, a heaping pile of spinach – but be mindful of the New Year’s story you are telling – pay attention to the images each component on the plate evoke, because therein lie possible clues to your feelings about the New Year.  I hope those feelings are delicious.  

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Well-Set Table

...the beneficiary had no other way of showing his gratitude than proffering the commonplace words thank you, which are as often sincere as they are not, and the surprise of a little bow of the head not at all in keeping with the social class to which he belongs, which just goes to show that we would know far more about life’s complexities if we applied ourselves to the close study of its contradictions instead of wasting so much time on similarities and connections, which should, anyway, be self-explanatory.The Cave, by José Saramago

Somehow, in the past fifteen minutes or so, we've arrived again at the dusk-darkened door to late November in Seattle. Somehow, the 364 days since I last wrote about Thanksgiving have slipped behind me, taking with them the innumerable tasks required to keep the boat afloat, leaving behind another precious clutch of memories, lessons, adventures, and musings.

The past year was a good one for me. I contrived to see every member of my immediate family in the last six months, which took some doing as we've become a far-flung handful. The rewards for finding the time, money, and head-space for Family Travel are so much more than a pocketful of miles and a spent roll of film (film? what's that?). The opportunity to tell stories, to relive some of the more hilarious moments in our shared histories, the chance to connect to my past, my people…so important. We all betray similar mannerisms, and as much as the similarities occasionally blur the outline of Self, I hope I have finally grown up enough to be glad there’re a few people out there who automatically get my jokes, whether they like them or not.
In last year’s buttery Thanksgiving note I mentioned “family-born and family-chosen” – which in hindsight sounds a bit like a cryptic prophecy carved into a cave wall, found by an eleven-year-old heroine who stumbled into a Strange New World. And in some ways my time in Seattle feels sort of like an ongoing adventure in a world I am not from and do not always understand, which makes me all the more grateful for my chosen family of friends, and for my siblings, who are themselves stumbling upon cryptic prophecies about weddings or babies or successful careers.

And then there is my other family, or tribe, or People: the vibrant troupe of Restaurant Folk. While the work occasionally feels not unlike a Day in the Salt Mines, I will always – ALWAYS – be grateful to work hard with such great company. The moments of recognition that occur while traveling and seeing a young woman  refill the potatoes in the hotel buffet, her dreadlocks held back with a green bandanna,  or glimpsing cooks smoking in alleys, or overhearing bartenders and servers talk about their days – these moments are grounding, they remind me that I work within a world overlaid with a million different connections. The closeness of the connections in our Seattle Food World are sometimes a little too heavy on coincidence and timing – sometimes they're flat out weird – but with a group as varied as we are I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. As Saramago says, the connections and similarities are self-explanatory.

Late last month I also changed my own little family. Turns out that when you bring in a betta fish as charming as Lewis, you start to feel as though it may be possible to find a little more room in your life, your heart, and your schedule. Lewis was a gateway pet. So, eight years after we said goodbye to Rye, I adopted a dog. His name is Banksy and he is a good boy. The close-knit family of Seattle’s squirrels has never been more apparent or more annoying.

So….what am I grateful for this year?

Looking around the metaphorical Thanksgiving table and finding a kind of peace in the continuing presence of family and friends. 

And, finding that there is room at the table for one more, and one more after that, if everyone just skootches down a bit. 

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Deep

"Release the Kraken!" - Zeus, "Clash of the Titans." 
"Keep clam and carry on." - Ivar Haglund

If I could write in David Attenborough’s voice, I would start by saying something like, “The Natural World is full of surprises…” and then we’d all climb into a nimble, deep-water explorer sub and have a look around the dark depths of the world’s seas. Maybe we’d run into a giant squid. Probably not. Which would be okay because the sub is too small to carry a fryer, a bathtub filled with a spicy flour dredge, and the vat of dipping sauce required by such an enormous order of calamari.

But if we looked around on the seafloor, we would probably spot some clams and scallops. Which, believe it or not, are in the same family as the squid and octopus – the latter are the turned-inside-out version, with a more efficient Get Away Plan. Bivalves are the poor bastards without legs (but with a “foot”) who are delicious in so many preparations. Just throw them into a hot pan while they’re still alive and, voila! After they give up their savory ghosts, we can sprinkle some parsley on top and serve them with a nice hunk of bread for sopping.

There is an interesting (to me) confluence of themes occurring right now: I’m reading China Mieville’s Kraken, about a cult that worships the giant squid, written in Mieville’s modern-British- pattering-along-dark-hallways voice, while working separately on a piece about clams, a piece I hope to sell. When I referred to my McGee to find out more about clams, and learned that the family Mollusk includes not only scallops, oysters, clams, mussels, and abalone, but also the very mobile squid and octopi, I felt as though I was looking at a family album photobombed by cephalopods. But clams seem cooler now that I know who their cousins are. 

I work with many members of this family: cleaning clams, cleaning mussels (I will never eat another mussel again as long as I live, and if I am reincarnated as an otter, I will be a vegetarian), watching other people clean and shuck oysters, cooking octopi….In the course of my cooking career, I have fried up more squid bits than you could shake a stick at – well, you could shake a stick at the pile of squid, but I frankly don’t think you’d want to be within five miles of it – but my current restaurant doesn’t have a calamari on the menu. We do have many other animals present and accounted for, including finches and bats, both baked into flaky pastry crusts and served with a delightful dipping sauce and an arugula “salad.” Not really.

But this isn’t really about work. I could describe the ways in which a thawed, raw octopus resembles a dangling clump of old wet pantyhose, and how the legs shorten, tighten and curl up as soon as they hit the hot water.  I could provide recipes for steamers, clam pastas, chowders, and some appropriate accompaniments. But the conflating themes I’ve encountered are not so much about food as about how to write about the responsibility we have to our ingredients.

I can hear your eyes roll from way over here. But hang on, maybe you can help.

Recent food trends, like “nose to tail,” “local and sustainable,” and “free range,” all propound the idea that the closer we are to our food sources, the better. That’s great. Pretty obvious, really; very high “duh” factor. And I don’t want to sound cynical about trends that may, in the long run, illuminate (maybe even eliminate?) certain practices that will make our (your) grandchildren think us barbarians. What I want to do is figure out a way to write about the inevitable death of one thing to feed another without using terms like “carcass fatigue,” or sounding like a whiner, or making people feel bad about their cioppino.
One of the less tangible roles a chef plays in the larger community of farmers, butchers, fishermen and foragers is that of companion to matter that used to be alive along a path that respects the source, minimizes waste, and transforms an ugly process into a beautiful, nurturing meal. A cross between Virgil and Chiron, with a hint of Escoffier? Maybe.

And, in my world view anyway, one of the roles a writer has, one of his or her responsibilities to the world he or she seeks to examine, is to peer into some of the world’s darker corners and report back. (J. M. Coetzee’s book Elizabeth Costello examines that process, and mulls over the effects of all that abyss-staring on the writer.  Unsurprisingly, the guy who brought us Disgrace and The Life and Times of Michael K, leaves us feeling pretty uncomfortable around Ms. Costello.) Because I write about food and restaurants, I'm compelled to stare at bags of clams, and boxes of bones, and cases of bacon, and think about the proximal effects of slaughter, and to wonder whether others feel the weight of it, and if so, what are we going to do about it?    

Navigating these merging currents is good work for this time of year, because colder weather tends to steer me toward rye whiskey, a brooder’s quaffer. Though I think I should abstain, actually, and keep a clear head; beyond this place lie monsters.  

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Nobbut a Trifle

“You could talk to him about os and argos, suet and grease, croteys, fewmets and fiants, but he only looked polite.” - The Once and Future King, by T. H. White

I think it was no accident that the Opening Ceremony to the 2012 Olympic Games contained nary a reference to the cuisine of the United Kingdom. Which is a shame, really.  Although England’s culinary history is splattered with blots of Groaty Pudding and Frumenty, there are also the marvels of the Pasty Barm, Bubble 'n Squeak, and my favorite, the Befordshire Clanger.  The country also boasts world-famous chefs and cookbook writers like Nigella Lawson, Jaime Oliver and Nigel Slater – to name a few – who are changing the way the world approaches not just British food, but food in general. 

A nation’s cuisine is subject to the same evolutionary principles as anything else:  The way a physical environment affects food supply and a species’ willingness to adapt to the previously-thought-inedible are certainly two of the usual suspects.  (I imagine a sense of resignation felt by the first anteater, who may have saved her species from extinction, but still had ants climbing in and on her nose. “Ants? Really? Why couldn’t I be the Honey Crumpet Eater?”  It turns out the first anteater sounds a bit like Eeyore.) The United Kingdom’s cuisine is no exception:  A densely populated island with a short growing season requires a willingness to rely on canned goods and powdered foods, while a predilection toward going to war over and over again – and sometimes bringing some home with you – makes for creative handling of offal and leftovers.  As the British seem to lack the culinary curiosity exhibited by the French or the Chinese, there aren’t many marshy amphibian animals or housepets on menus (I can’t speak for Scots), but there are organs galore, stuffed into sausages or wrapped in flaky pastry.

If you recorded the Opening Ceremony, watch the Parade of Nations again. Look closely and you’ll see the British Olympians discretely knocking crumbs and pastry flakes off their outfits as they enter the Arena. No, it’s true.

I happened to be in Boulder visiting my mother when the Olympics began. I had been bingeing on a series of books about an 11-year-old chemist in post-war England who solves murders. Really, I was on an actual bender – staying up until 3:30 in the morning, gobbling the stories up like so many puddings and biscuits, waking with a headache and a vague sense of guilt, of chores undone, blogs unwritten. Absolutely delicious. I followed those books with the extremely delightful Geurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which is an epistolary description of the German occupation of the Channel Islands, complete with stories of monstrous war-time behaviour, stiff-upper-lippery, and the tearful evacuation of the children….of course, reading about the wartime evacuations of children makes one want to immediately poke one’s head into every wardrobe in the house. The nod to Britain’s contributions to Children’s Literature during the Opening Ceremony pleasantly underscored my fondness for the genre, even as it underscored my revulsion toward huge, inflated babies.

Returning to Seattle from Colorado’s dry heat is always a bit of a shock. Probably along the lines of how the desert athletes feel competing in London. I was watching some of the beach volleyball yesterday and didn’t envy them a bit, playing in the rain. Ugh. Seattle’s climate is much like London’s, although I suspect -- a suspicion based purely on Jane Austen's descriptions of characters rambling around for strawberries -- that their Junes are nicer than ours, or at least they were during the Napoleonic Wars.

The summer in Seattle is a week too short for us to host the Summer Olympics, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: things grow really well here. The astonishing amount and variety of purely incidental food is really quite something. The blackberries are starting to come out, as are the rosehips and the crabapples – all foods perfect for small batches of artisanal jams, great for gifts or simply served with a seared pork loin and some seared green beans. In about two weeks, the berries will be perfect for use in a trifle or a fool, both terms for a custardy British dessert hailing back to the sixteenth century – I’m sure they were making custardy desserts even earlier, but they didn't yet collect the recipes into Pamfletf Aboute Houfekeepinge.

(Etymologically speaking (haha!), it’s interesting to think about the words “trifle” and “fool.” My charming betta fish friend Lewis can use them in a sentence: “When you fool with me with that bloody paintbrush of yours, I flare my gill patches as a way of saying, ‘Hey, don’t trifle with me.’” Lewis is a bit wordy. And his gill patches are frightening, so I've stopped.)

Some recent hot weather was made even more memorable by the Blue Angel’s yearly appearance in Seattle skies. The planes practice for a week before Seafair, Seattle’s annual celebration of Fossil Fuel Consumption, screeching across skies, rattling the panes in my windows and putting my hackles up – if I had gill patches, I would have flared them, even though I actually enjoy the terrifying display and the eye-prickling dread the planes inspire within me. While the Angels practiced in the air, Elliot Bay’s placid water was crowded with Naval Vessels, which did maneuvers during the day and released thousands of sailors into Seattle after the sun went down. Trying to reconcile the cheerful, violent Military/Industrial War Machine with the cheerful, peaceful Parade of Nations is enough to addle one’s wits, but perhaps we can say they were both cheerful, noisy pageants and leave it at that.

The weather was warm enough to make the kitchen truly wit-addlingly hot. The Line Guys took turns reading the number on the thermometer stuck in our saucier’s sleeve pocket: “110!” “117!” "Oooh! 121!" Indeed, Saturday was hot enough to make me want to spout the old adage about one's ability -- or not -- to stand the heat in a kitchen, but experience has taught me that platitudes about heat (or fatigue) are among the last things the guys want or need. Easily digestible, cold, sugary food and a lot of water were much higher priorities, so I decided to fool around with a trifle.

Since we were still working, I didn’t add any booze to this recipe, but a slug of Madeira, Port, or Sherry are usually present in a trifle – the Scots call their version of this confection the Tipsy Laird, so knock yourselves out. Or don’t.

Recipe: Gingered Plum and Blueberry Trifle

1 Angel Food Cake, or Sponge Cake
1 cup Ginger Syrup (recipe to follow)
A ginger knob
2 cups pitted and sliced Plums, any variety
1 cup Blueberries
2 Eggs, separated
1 cup (for the syrup) + 4 Tbs Sugar
1 ½ tsp Vanilla Extract
1 cup Heavy Whipping Cream
1 small tub Mascarpone Cheese
A handful of any-flavor-berries and a few sprigs of mint for garnish.

Preparation time:  30 minutes or less, plus at least an hour in the fridge.
Serves about eight.

Ginger Syrup:
Peel a knuckle of ginger and slice it into coins, about $1.75 worth if your coins are quarter sized. In a heavy-bottomed sauce pan, combine the ginger with 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water and cook over medium-high heat until dime-sized bubbles appear on the surface. Strain, return syrup to pan. Note: ginger syrup is pretty delicious, so make more if you think you’ll be glad to have it in the fridge. This Trifle requires nobbut a cup.

While your syrup is coming together, slice the cake and press it into concentric circles around the inside of a serving bowl. This is an unlooked-for opportunity to pull out that crystal punch bowl that so disappointed when you were opening wedding presents – a Trifle is meant to be seen, meant to be a mottled mess of colors and layers; this recipe is the simplest Trifle construction, only three layers, a trifle of a Trifle in a stainless steel bowl – might as well have used a Tommy’s brodie. But really, if the spirit moves you, add a layer of jam, add another layer of cake, add a layer of jello (don’t), add a separate layer of meringue….add berries and slivered almonds to the topping. You get the idea.

Anyway, press the cake into the bottom of a bowl and set aside. By now your syrup is ready. And I’ve kept you here reading when you should have been slicing plums. So go do that and then combine the plums, berries and syrup in that earlier saucepan and heat just until the berries start to release some color.

While they’re doing that, separate your eggs. Whip 2 Tablespoons of sugar into the yolks and then add the Mascarpone cheese and the Heavy Cream and whip until light and fluffy. Whip the egg whites with 2 Tablespoons of sugar until stiff peaks form. Fold the whites into the custardy cream. I know that sounds like a lot of whipping, but I’m confident you’ll work out a system.

Okay, quick! The fruit is still on the stove! Ack! Pour hot syrupy fruit mixture over the cake. Then top with the dairy concoction. If you’d like to take a page from Nigel Slater’s book, go for “dramatic, billowy folds.” I went for more of an “I should probably get back to the Prep List” look.


Serve in bowls or on plates. It’s a Trifle, so you know, don’t expect clean slices. Garnish with a few berries and a sprig of mint, maybe a dusting of powdered sugar, though you may be accused of garnishing the lily.

Pass around the treats. Enjoy the summer. 

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Cold Comfort

“He hated summer colds. They were the worst.” – The Stand, by Stephen King

When I had an office job, the first tickle in the throat, the first messy sneeze, usually meant a quick call into the office and then a retreat back beneath the duvet. So the spread sheet wouldn't be finished, or a letter to a donor wouldn’t go out until the next day -- the news of illness was almost always received with “Stay At Home and Get Better.” None of my work fell onto other shoulders and the business was better because I decided not to play Typhoid Mary.

But restaurant workers are notoriously bad at staying away from work when they’re ailing. Partly because of lost wages, and no clear access to health care, and the sense that one is somehow failing the team – one is failing the game – the culture isn’t conducive to calling in sick. There is always a flurry to find another cook to fill the gap lest we run shorthanded, and the guys and gals of the Line often have an inflated internal perception of their own toughness, combined with a somewhat exaggerated sense of their importance (two factors that flourish in the petri dish of a professional kitchen’s ethos). They'll come to work with rheumy eyes and a cough sprung from a chest that sounds stuffed with hot cotton and steel wool. "No, I'm fine," they croak, as they struggle to stir the grits, and you'll go wash your hands for the five millionth time that shift, quaff a third packet of vitamin powder in water, and light a candle to the Kitchen Gods that you may be spared this affliction. Wash your hands again. 

I doubt that either the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Obamacare, or the decision made last year by Seattle voters to provide sick days for employees, will effect a change in this department. Rather, we need to change the culture of the kitchen itself. Easier said than done. I decided to take the first step toward making change by staying home the last time I was ill. And while I was briefly chilled by unnecessary, but deeply embedded, guilt, I know it was the better decision.

As a child, or as person living in some sort of domestic partnership, being sick brings the pleasant feeling of being taken care of, a feeling that can either blossom into weeks of malingering or rally the patient into getting better faster. Nourishing the ill or depleted is one of food’s basic comforts and nothing delivers nutrients and rehydrates quite like soup, with the possible exception of certain jello suspensions. Single adults enjoy the dubious pleasure of taking care of themselves; with no one in the wings to bring me a cranked open can of Campbell’s, I decided to try my hand at a Chicken Noodle Soup so I'd be ready for work the next day. 

Back To Work Tomorrow Chicken Noodle Soup 

2 c egg noodles, cooked accordingly, drained, rinsed and cooled

1 1/2 c carrots, cut into chunks or coins
1/2 c celery, cut into half-moons
1 onion, chopped (into small squares)
5 cloves garlic, sliced

1 c white wine

1 c kale, coarsely chopped
1 c sweet potato (or yam), cubed

1/4 c olive oil

2 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs, generously salted and peppered

8 c stock

Salt and Pepper, Red Chili Flake to taste

Cook the noodles while you are assembling the rest of the mise en place. 

After cleaning up the veggies, put the trimmings into a small saucepan along with some water and simmer while the soup is cooking. This is your stock. If you have a freezer filled with ice-cubed stock, you can skip this step. 

In a heavy-bottomed pot, cook the carrots, celery and onion in olive oil over medium-low heat until the onions are translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and saute for another five minutes until the garlic becomes aromatic. 

Clear a space in the bottom of the pan and place the thighs skin-side down among the veggies. Don't touch them for about eight minutes -- you want the skin to brown and some of the fat to render out. If you're worried about the garlic burning, stir the veggies without disturbing the chicken. 

Deglaze with the wine. Turn over the thighs, cook until the wine has reduced by half. Add 4 cups of whatever sort of stock you're using and cook for 15 minutes. Remove the thighs and cut the meat from the bones. Add the bones to the stockpot if you're simmering it along with the soup. Return meat to soup. 

Add the sweet potato cubes and bring up to medium-high heat for about 10 minutes. Add another 4 cups of stock, cook dangerously close to a boil for 15 - 25 minutes. 

When the sweet potatoes are cooked through, add the kale. Taste, season, taste, correct. 

Put some noodles in a bowl and ladle the hot soup over them. 

Sit on the sofa with a blanket over your lower extremities. Plug in "The Fellowship of the Ring." Eat soup. Go to bed early. Feel better. 

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Important Dates

My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today. – Rabbit Proverb

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012 was an action-packed day off: I had tickets to the King Tut exhibit, I'd planned actual cooking in my home for friends afterwards -- a North African menu, to go with the visit to the Pharaoh’s tomb -- and, ambitiously, had also planned a late movie. 

So, after a trip to the grocery store and tidying up the house, I headed to the museum with my friend and her young son. As we walked over to the Seattle Center, I made mental lists of the prep I'd need to do as soon as we came back, worked out the firing order of each dish, and wondered whether I had enough wine. The mundane details of normal life.

The King Tut exhibit was at once a little bit like a fourth grade field trip (hadn't I seen all this before? In Denver? In the late 70s?), but it was also, at times, absolutely scalp-tightening. I was on the lookout for Curses, the Mummy’s Ghost, and Indiana Jones. The millennia separating the Now from the Then, the weight of all that time, cast the similarities in our cultures, the very human frailties, into stark relief. What will future archaeologists make of us?

Along the way, I sent my snake-infatuated friend a picture of an enormous, hammered-gold neck ornament with a winged cobra motif. “For protection,” I wrote beneath the phone-captured picture and pressed send.    

As we continued through the exhibit I thought about the menu ahead: minted yogurt, roasted cauliflower with currants and pinenuts, another nerve-wracking attempt to produce a decent eggplant dish, this one with tomatoes, parsley, goat cheese, and chickpeas….I thought about regional foods – dates, oranges, pomegranates and fava beans – and the similarities between the food of Pharaohs and the food of slaves. So much of the life of a pharaoh revolved around the preparation for his death. The carved vases for oils and unguents, the hieroglyphic protections, the carved figures that would spring to full size in the afterlife and offer protection (and company) to the god-king. I thought about the Arab Spring and wondered whether peace might be achieved through food. After all, the logical conclusion of any diplomatic process is breaking bread together, right?

I never once thought that the day really was winged-cobra protection worthy.

It was only much later, hours later, when the yogurt-garlic-cumin-coriander slathered chicken was resting after roasting atop olive-studded couscous, only then did I hear the news about the shootings in Seattle.

In writing about this I feel that I am guilty of a certain appropriation of other people's experiences. My friends, family and I weren't involved. People are shot in other parts of the city and, through either under-reportage or my somewhat lazy news-gathering habits, I hear very little about that violence. Beyond creating a certain somberness around the dinner table, yesterday's murders will not affect my life. In that I am inestimably lucky.

Egypt is a mess. Bombs go off in cafes in Baghdad, Syria continues its mad subjugation of its citizens, and Israel and Palestine remain an off-limit topic of conversation. In the time it takes to put milk in your coffee or pop the top of a PBR, everything can change. There may be a scalar difference between the violence wrought by a "mentally ill" cafe patron who targeted hipster musicians, and the tectonic shifts of culture and government on the other side of the planet, but to a victim's family and friends, orders of magnitude are irrelevant: their person is gone. 

So how do we cure the violence of the world? Through peace, love and understanding? Not a bad platform. Through food? A plate of orange segments and stuffed dates seems a hopelessly insignificant gesture in the face of true murderous intent, but maybe it's a start. Perhaps we really begin to move toward a more peaceful world by remembering to remember.

In good time, May 30th will coincide with Memorial Day, a holiday that does not ask us to weigh the worth of a life, but only to remember it. And so I’d like to take a moment to remember the victims and wish them a safe journey through the afterlife. Lest we forget, lest we forget. 

Monday, April 30, 2012

Road Trip!

"By noon, the lemon pie was a few smears of filling in an empty plate, and by one o'clock, all three pies were gone." - Mildred Pierce, by James M. Cain

The job is great – I received a promotion at the beginning of March, I love the people I work with, the gig is satisfying in a restauranty way: busy without feeling frantic; none of that drowning feeling people talk about on the Line. The apartment is tidy, the garden is going nuts – the arugula seeds are coming up so quickly I’m tempted to run a time-elapse photography experiment. There are crows building nests in the trees up and down the street. All factors that generate a sense of calm, of peace in the valley, which should contribute to a sense of peace in the present.
But of course, they don't.

Some of this discontent has to do with my current book queue – I’m gobbling up books about Getting Away From Here, which is one of those themes that always gets my blood moving:  oh, to tie one’s belongings in a bandana, grab a walking stick, and Go. Oh, to grab a stack of audio books, adopt a dog, buy a car, and Go.

A few weeks ago I read William Vollmann’s Riding Toward Everywhere, which informed any decision to begin freight train jumping (I’m going to pass), and is a powerful mediation on the pull we feel to Get Out of Here, even though there may be nowhere – or Everywhere – to go. I recommend it, especially for reading on a train, though Vollman sometimes seems as ragey as a broiler cook.

Right now I’m reading Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley. I don’t know how I missed this one for so long – we had a pinkish hardcover on the shelves in the living room of the house where I grew up, there was a dog on the cover. Pink cover!? A Dog in the story!? Seems I should have gone for that one long ago. But there is, occasionally, a peculiar magic to finding and reading certain books, almost as though the universe were a talented bookstore employee who picked just the right book for the moment, just the right balance of humor and angst for the existential moments, just the right blend of mystery and Siamese cats for Sofa Saturdays (for younger readers, a “Bookstore” was a shop, sort of like where you might buy sunglasses or IPad covers, but the shop sold books, which were physical objects of paper and ink). I’ve always appreciated this about the universe. In fact, the mysterious congruence of outside idea with internal musing makes me want to write a recommendation card for the Cosmos help with reading selections – With its vast black spaces and dim frozen reaches, who would have expected the universe to make such a perfect suggestion? But “The Elusive Mrs. Pollifax” was just what the doctor ordered! I will take Cosmos’ recommendations again!! 

Anyway, Travels with Charley is such a book. Despite my relative happiness in this place and time, I still want to Go Away from Here. I want to pack up a camper van and hit the road, I want to watch the countryside and see the changes in landscape and weather. However, this impetus doesn’t share Steinbeck’s curiosity about the America he writes about, or Vollmann’s escapist need to leap onto trains in the middle of the night.
I want to go on a road trip for the pie.

In the very early eighties, my father and I took a Trailways bus from Boulder to North Carolina. Memories of the trip east are mostly of the fabric backing the bus seat in front of me, but I do remember stopping at numerous truckstops and in each one, there was the rotating display of pies. I also remember realizing I’d forgotten a hair brush and so arrived at my grandmother’s house with an astonishing occipital nest that had to be cut out before dinner was served.

Returning west in the passenger seat of a used Volkswagon, I spent most of the trip reading The Book of the Dun Cow (With its numerous references to both Chaucer and the Bible, how could this young reader NOT become an English major?! Cosmos’ latest suggestion was a real salad bar of despair, but not without some interesting characters and action.), and watching the hawks atop the telephone poles along the way. But every four hours or so (possibly a slight exaggeration), my dad had suggested stopping for pie. And I, with my hair neatly brushed in a way that mostly concealed the gap where the knot had been removed, agonized over apple a la mode, lemon meringue, PEACH, sometimes even Sweet Potato, which seemed exotic and homey at the same time. If desire is the root of all suffering, then those early confrontations with rotating pie cases filled with delicious choices was Hell.

Jump forward twenty years, and my friend Lesley and I are hurling along the snow-choked highway between Seattle and Park City, Utah. Somewhere along a highway in Idaho, when we realized ours were the only tracks in the snow that was starting to come down sideways, we stopped for pie. Fast forward four years and I am driving west from New York City, across Ohio, alone in a Penske truck, and I am stopping for pie. Maybe more than I really should have been, actually.

So what is it about the road trip and a slice of pie? Is it the sugar boost that will keep you going until your blood sugar crashes and so do you? Is it the variety of flavors slowly turning in a special display? Is it that one so rarely intersects with truckers – the folks who spend their lives driving Away from Here – that a slice of pie in an Idaho truckstop feels like a communion? A slice of romanticism, with a crust of nostalgia so flaky it nearly falls apart before your fork touches it, filled with your heart’s secret delights?

Perhaps it’s all those things and more. We have a special place for pie in our National consciousness, and food magazines insist that pies are the next cupcakes. (Although it seems Hostess fruit pies, and McDonald’s apple-lava pies, both models of the portable piece of pie, have waned in popularity.)

There is something about pie that suggests Home, too, both a call to return to the nest and also a reason to never leave it in the first place. Maybe the restless longing for another place can be quelled by a decent slice of pie filled with local fruits. Lesley’s pies are amazing, possibly because she really enjoys the process: rolling out the dough, crimping the edges, and she uses fruit from the trees in her back yard -- both the filling and the latticed dough over the top are delicious reminders of Hearth and Home. Maybe that’s why we romanticize the hobos drawn to pies cooling on the windowsills of a pastoral, mythological, possibly extinct America – they want a taste of Home.

Back when I wrote menus at my old job, I was struck by the narrative force of the road trip. We were doing a Columbia River Valley menu and, somehow, the menu items seemed to have a real chronology, as though we were driving along the curving roads through Eastern Washington and down into Oregon. The pie from that menu, Blueberry Lemon Meringue, was not everyone’s favorite. It had a very short shelf life – really meant to be eaten in one sitting, I suppose – and the filling was a little bit “leaky.” That said, with summer almost upon us, and the urge to escape pulsing through veins, pulling us from our boring, if necessary, daily routines, I offer you the recipe as a way of finding a modicum of contentment in the here and now.  Or at least as a distraction from flipping through train time tables and road atlases.

Blueberry Lemon Meringue Pie:

Approximate time to make: 1 hour. Serves between 8 and 10 slices.

The Crust:                                                          
1 1/4 c flour
1/4 t salt
1 t sugar
3 oz cold, unsalted butter 
3 - 4 Tbsp icy cold water

Combine everything but the water in a food processor. Pulse until crumbly. Add cold water while pulsing until dough just holds. Turn out onto a table, shape into a disk. Using a floured rolling pin, roll the dough out, drape it over the sides of a pie dish and crimp the edges. Dock the bottom with a fork. Bake at 350 degrees for 11 - 15 minutes, until golden. Set aside.   

The Filling: 
1 1/4 c sugar           Combine the dry ingredients in a sauce pan. 
3 T flour                  Stir in the water. Heat until bubbly and and thickening.
3 T corn starch
dash of Salt
1 1/2 c water             

3 egg yolks                                 Beat yolks until they are ribbony. Temper them with a few drops of the hot filling.
zest of one lemon                      Mix in the tempered yolks, bubble, bubble, bubble. Stir in butter and zest. 
2 T unsalted butter                   Stir in lemon juice. 
3/4 c lemon juice                       Cook over low heat until the mixture is quite thick: maybe 5 mins more. 

1 heaping cup of blueberries         Scatter the berries across the bottom of the cooked crust. Pour hot filling atop.

The Meringue:
whites of 5 eggs                               Combine egg whites, vanilla extract (vanilla bean would be pretty, too), 
merest drop of vanilla extract        cream of tartar and beat until soft peaks form.
dash of cream of tartar
4 tsp granulated sugar                    Add sugar one teaspoon at a time until stiff, shiny peaks form.      

 Spread the meringue across the pie filling and seal to the edge. Make dramatic swoops and whirls, try to make it tall and gorgeous. 

Bake at 325 for 15 minutes. Finish for a minute beneath a broiler for a real truck-stop look.

Let cool for at least an hour before cutting. 


Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Slippery Slope

“A taste for the miniature was one aspect of an orderly spirit." – Atonement, by Ian McEwan

“Tell me again why you hate the word ‘slider’?” I asked my friend the other day as we narrowed down our dining choices to a Happy Hour that also had Trivia and a decent whiskey pour.

He made a face. “Because it’s a phonetically gross word and sounds like something you’d order at TGI Fridays that has oysters and mayonnaise in it.”

“What if they were called mini-burgers?” I returned, “Or burger-bytes?”

After a moment of consideration he conceded the first but named the latter “too nerdy, something someone in khaki pants would order in a robot voice…” That’s fun to imagine: a forty-something c0dem0nkey ordering 'burger-bytes' and then returning to his or her table in rusty robot mode, moves perfected in 1987 but hardly ever busted out anymore, except during weddings.

But I digress...

The actual etymology of the word “slider” being used to connote a beef-and-bun-combo is a bit murky, but various sources online suggest that it comes from the Navy – a greasy burger slides into the bun (a greasy burger will also slide right off the griddle if the ship is in high seas) – and then there is the White Castle “slyder”, a small burger that certain movie characters will go to great lengths to attain.

Oh, but what’s in a name? I like sliders because they’re like the dishes in doll houses, and the tiny labeled cans of food for the doll house pantry – their tininess fills me with a kind of glee. Sliders also share the appeal of Wimpie’s burgers – there are heaps of them! – and the delight that comes from popping something into your mouth –jalapeño poppers, for example, or popcorn shrimp. The smallness of a slider creates the dizzying feeling of being gargantuan, like the giant at the top of Jack’s beanstalk. “Rahr!” one says, stomping around, thirty feet tall, “Rahhr!” Pop, pop, pop, in go the tiny burgers.

Broiler cooks make similar noises when their grills are covered with orderly rows of tiny little patties. “What do you think of sliders?” I asked one during my in-depth research for this clog-blog. “Aaargh! Graaarl!” he said, the vein in his forehead pulsing in time with the printer’s regurgitative noises. He summarized his remarks with, “Get out of the way! I need more fries!” So there you go.

Happy Hours have swept through restaurants across the country, cutting down the growth of American cuisine and leaving behind a cadre of bitter chefs overlooking a bristly field of chicken wings, iceberg wedges, nachos, and of course, sliders. The theory behind a good Happy Hour menu is that it gets “butts into seats” and that “everyone else is doing it.” But, it also spins the restaurant employees into some of the least happy hours of their lives, as cooks scurry around plating food that may be delicious and tiny but does very little to promote the chef’s vision or the “real” cuisine of the house, and servers slosh $5 Cosmos and Appletinis all over their aprons while trying to smile through the haze of Jägermeister fumes.

In a recent issue of Washington Restaurant Magazine, a trade rag that has some interesting articles, Rick Braa talks a bit about the pros and cons of a good Happy Hour – a menu period during which restaurants typically lose money, a trend grown more alarming in these difficult economic times:

“…during pre-recession times, happy hour business accounted for only 12% of evening sales at a large, upscale casual restaurant. During this post-recession period, however, that number has risen to 20%, indicating that more diners are ordering the bargain options instead of those profit-driving items from the dinner menu.”

One of the problems he lists is the predominance of smaller plates on happy hour menus that, by dint of the fussiness in plating, hit kitchens in labor and food costs. About sliders he says,

“Hamburger sliders take nearly as long as a hamburger to plate and there are typically three of them!”

In our restaurant, we serve two on a plate, but the point remains that the slider is double the trouble of a burger when we sell 75 of them in two hours. They are tasty, though.

But does a delicious slider compel a customer to return during dinner hours to try some of the “actual” food on the menu? Probably not. Spending trends suggest that diners who have flocked to the Happy Hour mode tend to stay there, leaving the dining room open for customers who prefer cloth napkins to paper, metal flatware to plastic sporks and finger-food. And when there is cross-over between the menus, when a customer can try the mac-n-cheese and a beet salad for 50% off what it costs for dinner, there isn’t really a compelling reason to pony up the extra cash for the same food a little later in the day.

So what does that leave us with? The Grim Hour? The Grin-and-Bear-It Hour?

A walk along First Avenue, past restaurants that opened on the strength of their dinner menu and the Chef's name, and failed in a matter of months, seems to support the notion that “butts in seats” is the number one factor in restaurant success, and that, over all, a good Happy Hour will bring people in. Whether they return is not the immediate concern – they are here now and we will slide food onto their plates as long as they keep ordering it. Keep the money wheel turning.

I think for me, Happy Hour is a chance to try a restaurant’s atmosphere. A good Happy Hour menu will get us through the door, and we can ooh and aahh over the candles or sconces, comment on the décor, look at the dinner menu, and decide whether we want to come back for more time in the actual restaurant space.

There are other factors, of course: the dice-friendliness of the countertops or tables, the servers’ Seattleyness (a killer), the quality of the fries, the quantity of the nachos...but if someone starts calling sliders “burger-bytes” and sells them with miniature robot accoutrements, they’ll have a customer for life.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Notes From the Prep List: Snacks

Coup de feu: The alteration to a joint (charring) when it has been subjected to a too lively heat. This expression is also used in professional cookery for the hours devoted to serving up. – The Larousse Gastronomique

The eating habits of cooks are abominable. Most line cooks prioritize their set up, their mise en place, and ignore their bellies until long after service, when they are burnt-out husks of their former, more charming selves. To compound the stress, most of them came to work slightly dehydrated and unfed. It is common knowledge that a hungry cook is a surly cook, so the importance of a snack before service cannot be overstated. As we’ve just come through February, a hellish month for a restaurant that fancies itself a purveyor of French Quarter style fare, the Line is almost always in one circle of hell or another, some of the cooks swirling through Limbo, others straining against various chains of Rage, nobody eating anything but their own spleens. If they do eat actual food, it’s usually something that can be eaten while squatting down, leaning against the reach-ins.

It’s not terribly different off the Line. Most of my meals eaten at work are small bowls of rice and beans, sometimes with yogurt and tomatoes. Or grits and collard greens, when greens are on the prep list. Basically, the food must be room temperature or a tiny bit warmer, and one must be able to get it down one’s gullet in less than a minute. I remember the fried egg sandwiches my mother made when I was a child: delicious with just the right amount of salt and pepper, Roman Meal slathered with Best Foods, messy enough that we stood over the kitchen sink and ate in great hurried bites, the yolk running down our chins and arms. Just so, the breakfast sandwiches I wolfed down while hiding in the mop closet before the tickets started churning up from the printer on Saturday or Sunday brunch shifts. Just so a bowl filled with whatever I can easily grab from the steam table: a scoop of mashers with a ladle-full of lamb ragu, a six-hour old biscuit. Sandwiches, scrapings from the bottoms of salad bowls, corn mush and collards: the diet of a yard dog. Though, sometimes there’s a misfire from the line – an actual menu item! With garnishes and everything!

The other night when I was in the Ladies’ room fixing my bandana, a woman asked me what my favorite thing on the menu was. I stuttered for a moment, trying to think of the last time I’d had anything off the actual menu – I couldn’t say, “my favorite is tepid scraps and drippings;” she’d have thought me an orphan. Finally I recommended the Court Bouillon, a tomatoey seafood dish with just a whisper of Pernod, served with a rouille-smeared piece of toast, a dish I imagine eaten in the dining car of a train out of Nice, bound for Marseilles by morning.

Which is to say, there is a connective culinary thread leading to bouillabaisse, the classic dish of Marseilles made with fish we’ve never heard of in this country, a dish supposedly invented by Venus who wanted a night out and so threw a little soporific saffron into the dish when she prepared it for her husband. Oh, Venus.

But really, even without introducing the Greek versus Roman pantheon of Gods, we’ve reached a muddle here, surrounded by silent double ells and French cooking terms.

Had the woman in the Ladies’ room pressed me by saying, “But isn’t Court-Bouillon a somewhat generic term used for any aromatic liquid in which meats, seafood or vegetable are cooked?”

I would have replied, “What gives – do you have the Larousse Gastronomique Ap on your phone?”

“Yes,” she’d say, and then after considering the glowing rectangle in her palm, she’d say something like, “but why do you have tomatoes in your preparation? They are a New World food, not found in French cooking until relatively recently. Certainly not something VENUS would have had in her pantry.”

I would look around the small tiled room and wonder what I’d gotten myself into. Would someone come looking for me if I didn’t reappear soon? I should have just recommended the Lamb Sliders.

I’d rally and say, “Well, if you know all that, then surely you also know that tomatoes were also known as pommes d’amour. Which, I’m pretty sure Venus would have had.” Ha ha! A real zinger. I turn to leave.

She would not relent, however. “This sounds a bit more like a Court Bouillon à la Créole. Which I had while visiting Martinique.” She’d light up like an IPad at the memory of her trip through the Caribbean.

“Sure, sure,” I’d say, wishing I were in the Caribbean and not in the ladies’ room. “It’s probably one of those dishes that evolved while French ships were plying those waters. You know the French,” I’d say with a specific sort of shrug, “zey will build cuisine anywhere.” And I’d slip out of the conversation with a passionate craving for a Vietnamese sandwich.

“But wait,” she’d call after me, “what about rouille?” she is typing her palm and peering at the results, “It’s not in here!”

“Hmm. That’s odd.” I too would have thought that rouille would appear in the Gastronomique. But no.

“Listen,” I’d say, feeling a peculiar benevolence descend upon me as I left the quiet of the ladies’ room and reentered the chaotic noise, heat, and frenzied activity of the kitchen, “That’s on my prep list. You can watch. It’s basically just a garlicky emulsion with some smoked paprika and piquillo peppers. Any pepper will do, though. You can use it like mayo, or drop a dollop into your soup.”

I’d go back to my prep table. “Here, watch,” I’d say and set up the Robot Coupe. “One cup roasted garlic, ¼ cup raw garlic, ¼ cup lemon juice, 1 cup piquillo peppers, 1 Tbs paprika – use the smoked kind, it adds a certain je ne sais quoi – 1 Tbs salt, 3 yolks...” I hit the switch, the mixture swirls around turning a nice reddish color – as the origin of the word “rouille” is “rust” the transformation provides a certain etymological satisfaction – “and then drizzle in a quart of canola oil. Unrefined extra virgin olive oil won’t emulsify the same way – something about lecithin – so don’t use it.” We would have two quarts of rouille now, enough for a Legion. "Cooking this at home, I’d wrap the recipe around 1 yolk and 1 ½ c oil."

The stranger would thank me for my time and return to the dining room. I'd think about combining a little rouille with some leftover fried chicken, wrapping some bread around it, and having a snack. By now, in this elaborate prep cook fantasy, the line cooks would all be staring at me.

“Fresh rouille, guys! Who wants a sandwich?” I’d ask cheerfully.

And all of them hungry and tired, all of them raise a hand.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Liver and Onions

"Stanley slowly peeled an onion. He liked eating them one layer at a time." -- Holes, by Louis Sachar
"Is it possible to fall in love over a dish of onions?" -- The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene

The Duck and Pork Terrine, buttoned up in bacon.
One of my favorite things about prep work is the way the projects lull me into a reverie about the past, about food in general, and the underpinnings of a life spent in the Industry. The grisly tasks especially, like prying pig cheeks apart from a frozen, 60 pound mass of them in the bottom of the back sink, or searing duck livers in a rondeaux sitting on a knee-level flame, one arm thrown up before my face to protect myself from spatters –the grisly tasks especially encourage a wandering mind.

The terrines are perfect examples. We make two different types: Duck and Chicken Liver, and Pork and Duck (that one has pistachios and is wrapped in bacon). The name “terrine” refers to the vessel in which the mixture is cooked – and because it is a French-style offering, the mixture could be just about anything: finches with raisins, goldfish and chanterelle, horsemeat and black walnuts. You name it. Grind it up, put it in what is, for all intents and purposes, an elongated meatloaf pan, cook it or not, and call it a Fancy Appetizer. Pairs wonderfully well with wines from the Côtes du Rhône.

Both terrines are time-consuming processes, but the liver terrine leaves me with bits of ground liver in my hair and smeared across my cheeks. Globs of it spatter my glasses as I pound it through a fine-mesh sieve. When I leave work after making the liver terrine, I am followed home by cats; the next day there is a feline cotillion on my front stoop, so many cats that I wonder if they are bearing an invitation for me to attend Dogwarts School of Seeing-Eyed Dog Trainers. (A girl can dream.) As messy as it is, however, this Fancy App is also fairly simple:

Liver Terrine
5 lbs duck livers
5 lbs chicken livers
Salt and Pepper
Olive Oil to cook

1 ½ c chopped shallots
2 Tbs minced garlic
1 c Madeira
1 c Brandy

2 lbs butter, cubed
1 c heavy cream whipped into soft peaks

You will also need:
A large saute' pan
A Robot Coupe, Cuisinart, or, God help you, a Food Mill
A 24” Terrine, sprayed and lined with Cling Wrap
Some Fortitude

(Please note the batch size of this recipe; home cooks should scale back.)

Heat the oil in the pan. Meanwhile, blot any blood from the livers (dry flesh sears better) and liberally sprinkle salt and pepper across the organs.

Carefully place the livers in a single layer across the bottom of the pan. This should be pretty fast and furious – you want a nice brown exterior, with a bit of rose left in the center of the liver. When you are satisfied with your sear, transfer the livers to a large mixing bowl.
Add some shallots and garlic and sauté gently for about two minutes. Deglaze with some of the booze. Let this reduce until the bubbles are the size of quarters. WATCH CAREFULLY.

Spatulate this mixture into the mixing bowl with the livers.
Repeat process until all your livers are seared, all the garlic and shallots have been sautéed, and all your booze has been reduced.
 Throw the butter on top of the meat, etc. in the mixing bowl.
As the butter softens, set up your Grinding/Pounding Area. I like to have the full mixing bowl on the left of the prep counter, the Robot Coupe (Robo Cop) in the middle, and an 8-qt. cambro cradling a chinoise on the right. I also make sure there is a place to set the liver-filled chinoise down as you transfer the finished mixture into yet a third container. You’ll work out a system – you just want to avoid introducing any grainy bits of the ground mixture into the container holding the finished mixture.

In stages, grind the liver mixture, transfer it into the sieve (chinoise), wrap your arms around the base of the cambro and smash the hell out of the mix with the base of a 6 oz ladle to push it through the fine metal mesh. Careful! This is when the liver dance really starts to get messy!

Repeat process until all the mix has been grounded and pounded.

Wash face and change apron.

Someone, you or a kitchen elf, should have already whipped the cream and lined a sprayed terrine with plastic.
Fold the cream into the smooth liver mixture. Taste to correct for salt. Some people add a drizzle of Truffle Oil at this stage. I do not.

Pour into the lined terrine and wrap the plastic over the top of the loaf. Label, date, refrigerate.

After it sets for at least 24 hours, serve in slices with a drizzle of fancy olive oil, some North Atlantic grey salt (kidding! Any large crystal salt is fine), a dollop of dijon and crustinis. A tuft of salted, oil-drizzled herbs, especially chervil and parsley, is nice with this. Makes approximately 110 portions.

See? Piece of cake.

During the course of the terrine's preparation, I snack on bits of seared livers and, without fail, the flavors of iron, earthy-nuttiness and Mailard caramel take me back to suppertime, circa 1978: Liver and Onions. Whether in the Poseys' house or down and across the way at the neighboring Kugel household, Liver and Onions was a dinner fixture, at least twice a month during the good times, and I have a very clear recollection of putting it down as my "Favorite Meal" during a Fourth Grade Survey.

This reminiscence is spurred forward by the almost unbearable onionyness of the back kitchen. As this is (ostensibly) a Cajun-Creole house, we go through about 50 gallons of Trinity – onions, green peppers, and celery – a week. Also, everything is cooked with garlic, and garnished with chives or scallions, or fried shallots. Or fried leeks. So the prep list is usually heavy on the alliums. It is interesting that lillies, the flowering cousins of onions and garlic -- are so heavily perfumed: Victorian ladies living in a tannery town.

On the really bad days, when the list dictates filling a 22 qt container with diced onions, and another one with sliced onions, along with 12 qts of green onions, and 20 pounds of shallot brunoise, the kitchen fills with fumes and we weep as though watching “War Horse.” We gasp and stagger and clutch at our faces. We are inconsolable.

The smell comes from sulfuric compounds that the onion pulls up from the soil – “sweet” onions are grown in less sulfury areas. These sulfuric compounds are held in storage areas and can only be released if a certain enzyme turns the key. This enzyme is released when the knife cuts through the onion’s skin and damages the enzyme’s storage vacuole– think of a jailor who, finding his office destroyed by an unseen, terrifying force, rushes from cage to cage, freeing the sulfuric monsters within…There’s something about this that reminds me of “The Chronicles of Riddick”…. Sure, we could have probably helped our cause by chilling the onions first, but we didn’t and now we are in the grip of a terrible alliumic sorrow. 

The sulfuric stink is so different from the pleasure derived from a whiff of onions cooking in butter, a smell I associate with comfort and warmth, hearth and home. (Listed as one of my "Favorite Smells" in the same Fourth Grade Survey, along with Thunderstorms, Lilacs, and the Pads of a Dog's Foot.) If you are running behind in your preparation for a dinner party, get the onions started in butter and your guests will walk into a home redolent of promise. To achieve really good caramelization, go low and slow for a while to “melt” the onions, then bump up the heat – a little – and don’t stir very often. 

Liver and onions is one of those dishes you don’t see on menus very often anymore. This could be because the liver is the body’s filter, and to be good it needs to come from an animal that wasn’t pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones during its short trip from birth to butcher. Also, I don’t like tasting the nasty metallic flavors of adrenalin and fear hormones that flood the creature’s system as it nears the end, flavors much more apparent in the liver than in the flesh. Abbatoir terroir. But, better livers can be found if one cares to try. In Seattle there are enough small butcheries, not to mention a certain prediliction toward better food, that finding a plump liver from a happy calf who died while laughing over a slice of blueberry pie is not outside the realm of the possible. Once in hand, I’d dry the organ, season it and set it aside. Then I’d start the onions in butter and get changed for company. As the calf’s liver is not the only liver to be tended to, I’d also make a martini.

When the onions are almost done and company had arrived (more martinis), I’d sear the liver over a pretty high heat, quickly on each side. Serve with caramelized onions, a simple salad, buttered bread, wine, and stories about shared history. My favorite flavors.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The New Year

“So that’s winter too!” he thought. “You can even like it!”     
 - Moominland Midwinter, by Tove Jansson

We could hear shots from where we stood on the ridge that ran through the mud flats. As the late afternoon dusk gathered in the damp yellow weeds and the wind drove another volley of raindrops through the tangled banks of wild roses,the bushes bare but for clusters of red and black hips that rattled and swayed, we could see the flock of ducks rise from the estuary on the shores of Skagit Bay. More shots.

The five of us convened on the path and weighed the pros and cons of continuing toward the rocky “haystacks” that rose from the Bay, or returning to the car and from thence to La Connor for a beverage and a snack. The rain drops spattered across my glasses refracted my already terrible low-light vision into a series of star-tipped bluish blurs. But I wasn’t necessarily ready to head in – the fresh air was delicious and I felt as though the sticky winter joints in my brain were loosening up a bit with the walk. And the shots were far off and not aimed toward our little group, probably, as we'd left our pet duck, Waddles, back at home. We continued along for another hundred yards and passed a low-lying field strewn with silvered logs, as though a giant hand had flung a handful of twigs from the water inland. To our right, we could just see the water of the Bay, to our left, the muddy fields of Skagit Valley stretched to the base of the Cascades.

The hunter approached along the isthmus, a mallard dangling from his left hand, his Labrador close by his side. The duck looked soft and terribly broken by the shot and long fall. Floppy. The dog was having trouble restraining herself from putting the duck’s head in her mouth. She was a young retriever.

In another era, one in which duck hunting was more for provisioning and less for semi-idle sportsmen, I’d like to think the dangling duck would have been roasted, served with rosehip compote, a stuffing of farro and roasted parsnips, and accompanied by a wine as clean and mineraly as a goblet filled with cold, wet stones.

Farro is an interesting grain. Also known as Emmer Wheat and sometimes mistaken for Spelt, Farro was cultivated by humans in the Near East, through North Africa and Europe until the heyday of the Roman Empire when durum and other bread-making wheats took the stage. McGee posits that Farro was probably the second grain to be cultivated, after Einkorn Wheat, the offspring of a chance mating between Goatgrass and Wild Wheat, which was the result of a blind date set up by Cattails. Farro is enjoying a renaissance right now, appearing on menus and in Farmers' Markets everywhere. The nuttiness of the grain is a great foil to roasted meats or fishes, and it takes to the addition of cranberries or tree nuts quite well.

I looked out at the muddy fields and continued musing while the others chatted with the hunter. He had been surprised to see us out there.

In a few months, the flat, wet fields will become vast squares of color as the tulips come up. As the weather warms even more, the Skagit Valley will yield tomatoes, peppers, greens, onions, potatoes – pretty much all the produce we’ll use in the restaurant this spring and summer could come from one of these farms. And then next fall, we’ll have squash and root vegetables, again, from the same farms. But right now, at the closing of the year, the fields are empty and bare but for puddles reflecting watery blue light.

The hunter walked back to the parking lot. We waited a moment to put a bit of distance between our little group and the man with the dog (and the gun) before heading back to our car. The sky darkened into the gloaming, the rain picked up. I was glad I'd worn wool.

As we walked, we talked about New Year’s Eve plans, what our Januarys will look like, what we wish for ourselves and our families for this next year. I thought about what I had planted in the past twelve months and what might, with some pruning and care, become a source of sustenance. The projects that need to be finished, and others that have yet to be begun.

I also thought about the work week: There isn't a busier corridor for a restaurant than the week connecting Christmas and New Year's -- a very Merry Isthmus! This is the week during which the differences between working in a kitchen and working in an office become more glaring. It's a flat-out run for much of the week, and the containers of prepped items vanish almost as quickly as I can make them. While there is no real danger -- except to my sanity, my hands, and my lower back -- the feeling that we are under attack never really goes away. (It's actually pretty fun.) But I am a fool to make plans for New Year's Eve, as wonderful as the evening sounds my Prep List will almost surely begin the peculiar, predictable stretch toward infinity as the night grinds along. Most likely I will be pulling 60 pounds of semi-frozen pig cheeks apart and dusting them with curing salts until 11:50. While my friends pour Champagne, I will crouch among the linen bags and dry goods, changing from my messy whites and sticky clogs into hose and a dress.

The walk drew to a close and we piled into the car and left the mud flats. The drive back to La Connor took us past farmhouses that were the very archetype of cozy: Warmly lit windows, a sense of community and preparedness for the long hunker ahead. I could almost smell the bread baking, the duck roasting. The farro over a slow simmer on a back burner, stirred occasionally with stock added as necessary.

As we drove into town, I realized that no matter how the actual New Year's night plays out, I am going into 2012 with a feeling of promise, as though the year ahead were a prepped field yet to be planted. I'm looking forward to the growth.