Saturday, December 29, 2012

This Is What It's Like

A repost from a year and a half ago, still spot on, especially after last night's monster service at Fat Rice:
Whew. It's amazing the energy it takes to run a restaurant. Even more amazing is the energy it takes to run a restaurant at the same time as putting out 3 highly creative underground dinners. Add to that an absolute lack of sleep and, well, let's just say we're all very lucky no one lost their mind last week. For the past ten days, the Xmarx crew put out Chinese noodles and dumplings of the highest order--based upon extensive culinary research deep in the heart of Chengdu--under the guise of Flour and Bones. The food was solidly amazing, honest and nurturing, and on top of it all, they put out 3 of their deliciously inventive underground dinners on 3 of those nights. I only worked 4 of Flour and Bones' ten days, rolling noodles, making dumplings, expediting the line and contributing wherever I could to those 3 dinners, and I am absolutely beat. I only worked 10am-1am most of those days, and sure, that's a 15 hour day, but the rest of the crew was at it pretty much non-stop, basically only napping here and there when time (and mental state--you'd be amazed at how difficult it is to sleep in this state) allowed it.

This is what happens in so many restaurants all over the world, and it is at once evidence of a certain level of insanity, and of great passion; unhealthy yet so creatively fulfilling it's no wonder that those who get it do it. From the dishwashers in the back of the house to the line cooks to the top guy, these people are driven if crazy, focused though chaotic and the good ones, well, they have a way of squeezing the most delicate, balanced flavor out of what appears to be sack of stones and fish guts. I'd just like to pay tribute to these people--the ones who don't have book deals, the ones who don't have tv shows, the ones who don't have shiny new restaurants greased by the oil of celebrity. So, as I raise a shot of Jameson and an Old Style tall boy, here's to the chefs, cooks and kitchen crews that have each others' backs no matter what--those who grind it out everyday.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Old Tricks in the New Neighborhood, or, Hot & Seepless Nights

Busy times in the Food on the Dole world! I’ve jumped out of the wood-fired oven under the big skies of Montana and into the wood-fired grill on the mean streets of Chicago as I help Old Crazy Hair and the Xmarx crew open their first brick and mortar joint, Fat Rice in Logan Square. Yes, that’s me on the gorgeous wood burning wagon wheel grill, and I’ll be planted there as I consult with these guys and serve as sous chef throughout opening and the remainder of 2012. Tough, long hours as can be expected when opening a restaurant, but rest assured they are worth it as we work to bring Chicago some excellent and tasty food which, simply put, is Asian-inspired with a healthy dose of Portuguese influence. I’ll write in more detail about all this when my term is up in January and I’ve had a chance to: a) learn more about this vast and fascinating cuisine, and b) sleep/think. For now, read about Macau and the Portuguese role in the Age of Discovery 500 years ago, and you’ll be on the right track, historically speaking at least.

As for the food, the ship is helmed by the always intriguing Old Crazy Hair himself, Abe Conlon of Xmarx fame, and few are the times I have met a chef as passionate and intellectual about his craft. We officially open tonight, so come on by for some hearty, spicy, new food!

Fat Rice, 2957 W Diversey in Chicago!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Maybe We Should've Named Him Gossamer

The meat of my experience in Montana consisted not of beard-growing or gold-mining or bear-cooking, as most of my Chicago friends seem to think. Nor was I able to make a single stromboli for Jim Harrison as predicted by Old Crazy Hair (sadly, I was given the high hat by his secretary despite a promising letter of introduction). Rather, I focused on running a pretty amazing mobile wood-fired oven operation set up by my good friend Ryan LaFoley.

Three summers ago I made a shorter trip to Bozeman, MT to help Ryan out, as he had just built his first mobile oven. You see, he had this nasty habit of driving around the Union's 4th largest state and offering ranchers the free service of tearing down dilapidated barns--if he got to keep the wood and tin. Naturally, he had to do something with all that dross, and what better than to build trailers to house wood-fired ovens? He got hold of a Mugnaini fresh off the boat and mounted it onto a trailer, building up a mysterious-looking shelter around it. Was it a smokehouse? An ice-fishing hut? I'd be thrilled with either, though people were not disappointed when we rolled up, hit the switches Impala-style and opened the hydraulic side panel, revealing the oven and a beautiful cherry-wood prep table built by this monster of a craftsman who would soon put his talents into a second oven, and ask me to come to Montana to drive it around and build fires in it.

In March, I got a message from Ryan: "Want to pause your life in Chicago, move to Montana and work long hours for low pay and no benefits?" Naturally, I was intrigued. He'd bought a 1954 Chevy dually truck, painted bright orange and ready for some heavy lifting on a 1984 tow-truck chassis. Like any sane person, he flew to southern California to pick the truck up and drive it back the 1,200 miles to Bozeman, stopping along the way to load up another oven on the truck's bed. Once back, the plan was to build out another housing for the oven, and this time add some other cool bits and pieces to the picture. Not wanting to neglect the original oven, he needed someone to operate the second.
I flew out, and the build out began. Let me disclaim everything that follows here by saying that the design is roughly 0% mine, and that the only labor that came from my back into this truck consisted of me holding up a board to nail in when Ryan ran out of hands. Certain kinds of minds are capable of this sort of task, and his and my abilities are on the absolute opposite ends of this spectrum. You wanna feel like a chucklehead? Get involved in a building project like this with my skill set. It was damn intimidating.

THANKFULLY, my reason for being there was not to contribute to the fabrication of the truck, with the exception of a few practical suggestions here and there. Instead, I stood back, worked on some recipe development and organizational issues for the business, and just watched this beautiful thing come to life. In the end, the truck had the wood-fired oven, a commercial convection oven with a generator and propane tank to run it, a hand sink with a huge water tank, copious amounts of storage space, a tailgate section that can be converted to a wood burning grill spanning the width of the truck, support beams for a spit to be installed over said grill for the roasting of whole animals and misbehaving cooks, side panels that slide off and convert to pizza rolling tables, and a really bad attitude. The "Orange Marauder"--as (pretty much only) I came to call it--growls and spits when you start him up and makes all kinds of rough noises and draws all kinds of stares. But he cleans up nicely, and parked at the edge of the Bogert Farmer's Market or in the thick of Music on Main in Bozeman, or in the middle of a field, with absolutely no resources, not even water, where we cooked a multi-course, plated meal including fresh pasta for a wedding of 80 people, well, the old boy looks great.
Seems there is a proliferation of pizza trucks around the country these days, and I still cringe when people say "Heard you went out to Montana to run a food truck!" But it is a good thing--another step in a (mostly) positive direction of making good food accessible and not crazy expensive and at street-level. And definitely a great presence in Bozeman. And though my role in the birth of the Orange Marauder was most minimal, I'll always get a little jump every time I see an old farm truck rambling down the road in front of me.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Highway Runs Through It

My drive to and from Montana was as exciting as it can be. There is no drive in the universe that can remain constantly compelling, and the space between the tree-lined lakes of Wisconsin and Minnesota to the Badlands of South Dakota can be downright mind-numbing (though the Badlands are damn amazing and if that doesn't do it for you, the coffee at Wall Drug right on their outskirts, served by a giant Jackalope, costs a cool nickel). David Sedaris audiobooks go a long way to keep one awake; so does having a (well-traveled) cat loose in the car. But nothing keeps me more alert than the promise of some good--and often times trashy--road food.

Somehow, any semblance of a fat-kid self-filter goes out the window when I'm on the road. Before leaving Montana, I took part in a beautifully healthy going away pot-luck full of food that came straight from the hostess's garden. I declared that in addition to the deliciousness, I was glad for the healthy lightness of the meal, as I was looking at roughly 2 days of straight up garbage ahead of me. On my way to Montana, I had a sublime roadhouse experience in the middle of South Dakota involving whiskey, beer and a perfect ribeye, details of which I wrote about upon arrival. When traveling by air, I invariably look for a Panda Express, a temple of sorts at which to worship the clumsily prepared ball of fried low grade chicken-like product covered in corn syrup they like to call Orange Flavored Chicken. Gross, I know, but I was thrilled when I read in Blood, Bones and Butter (great for the first two-thirds, at least, before it turns into a reader-as-therapist unloading of husband hating) by someone I hold in the highest regard, Gabrielle Hamilton (lest you think that last parenthetical comment was somehow partisan): "Our ritual meal of Wok Express fast-food Chinese at the airport before we will not see anything approximating Asian food--even such as this bullshit chicken broccoli on a Styrofoam plate--for twenty-one days was shared..." Hark! Someone else who cares about food slips now and then, too!

But despite the proliferation of the terrible little chains that have now replaced the wonderful roadhouses and diners that actually made home-made pie (rather than just calling it home-made pie) along America's roads, one can still find some gems if they avoid the truck stops. And in the road-food category, some chains aren't as evil as they may be made out to be by yours truly in pretty much every other post on F.o.t.D. True, I'll never touch a McDonald's (and please don't ask me to defend that statement or give a reason that hasn't already been spewed out into the universe by countless others--it's just a chip I've got on my shoulder), but I'll brake fast at a Culver's and get down on some fried cheese curds. And I'll destroy a sack of stupid little hamburgers at Shake and Steak despite their weird skinny fries. And the milkshakes at these places are a standard item each time I hit their drive-thru, despite the fact that we all know there is nary a trace of milk to be found in these thickened-by-strange-and-artificial-means-that-have-to-just-have-to-be-deadly-to-us drinks.
But the irreplaceable spots are those that don't have huge signs and websites and don't appear on many lists. And I'll admit, I spent some time compiling a list to post here. But I gave it some thought, and the thing is, a list is just what to avoid; these places have to be stumbled upon. And anyway, there are already great road food books and lists and whatnot out there already--if this is what you're looking for, you're already privy to these. But destination spots are not necessarily the best places for discovery (just take a look at Hot Doug's any day of the week--or any place Anthony Bourdain sets foot in). They may have great food, or great kitsch, but they're also going to be over run by those looking to buy the t-shirt or take the picture, or do whatever it takes to possess a small piece of the place, while forgetting to eat the food or experience the experience (you know, like those that take a picture of every painting in the museum but never think to look at what they're photographing; or those who take a picture of their food from every angle, post it to Facebook, and then check for likes and comments before taking the first bite). But the best part for me has always been rolling the dice on a place you know nothing about, a place that hasn't been seen on the Food Network, a place where you feel the slight tinge of discomfort that comes with being an outsider. And the only way to find these places are to drive past the exit ramp gas plazas. And take the back roads to get there--one of my favorite stretches of road in the country lies between Chicago and Canada, and was discovered by accident as I tried to circumnavigate a landfill of traffic a few years back. This route is full of supper clubs and roadside fruit stands and the occasional diner that does, in fact, make their pies right there.

Lest I cultivate the image of Wilford Brimley too much, I'll sign off, leaving you with the following: road food, much like diner food, is a hugely important part of any cuisine, like it or not. Without the advent of the automobile, and the need for tires, we'd have no Michelin Guide, and no lovely little European inns with amazing food. Nor would we have McDonald's, but let's overlook the sinister creature that has grown into. But here's hoping that all of us--especially those of us locked into awaiting the precious next restaurants in the metropolis--get out onto the road and take a shot at unearthing some of these relics.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Robert Johnson Was Spot On

The wind is blustering, voices and horns waft off of a busy Division street and my nose has stopped bleeding. The source of diesel fumes has changed from enormous Ford F-950s and the like to food service delivery trucks and I've got to start thinking about where I'm going to park again. And the guarantee of running into no one but smiling, healthy, tanned, white-toothed people as I walk down the street is long gone. I'm back in Chicago.

And I couldn't be happier. The question at the end of my stretch in Montana was relentless: "Are you excited to leave?" And the answer, in a does-this-glass-have-water-or-nothing-in-it kind of way was always "No, I'm not excited to leave--but I sure am excited to return to Chicago." Let it be known: Bozeman, Montana is a downright wonderful place to be. But as I wrote a month ago, I needed to be back in the city.

Out west, I learned a lot about what people eat when they aren't inundated with the newest, hottest thing on a daily (hourly?) basis by an onslaught of e-newsletters and--gulp--blogs. It was a fortifying break from being beaten 'round the head with preciously named new restaurants celebrating the next-new-trend-that-is-sure-to-stick-this-time. I encountered people that--get this--eat food to live, and perform the eating function as routinely as any other, and put their devotion and focus on other things, such as hiking, fishing, camping, raising children, drinking, etc. Gasp! The thought! But very refreshing. In a strange way, I kind of liked when people nodded politely and changed the subject when food came up. Not a whole lot of food/chef as deity out there, and it gave me a good amount of detoxification from the barrage of daily "food news" that is generated back home.

But at the same time, my tastes, spoiled by the city, grew anxious. There's only so far the best chicken fried steak I have ever eaten (and believe me, was it good--and I've spent my fair share of time living in the South) can go if there is nothing to contrast the round flavors it presents. I loved a bison patty melt I could get at a place called Aleworks--it even rivaled the one at Jeri's Grill--and spent many a lonesome cowboy evening saddled up to the bar indulging in that and some suds, but on my last evening there, a bartender I'd become friendly with said "don't worry--something tells me you'll be able to find this somewhere in Chicago." And I sat back, almost feeling patronizing for suggesting otherwise.

The point here is that my time in Montana highlighted the importance of contrast, or at least its importance to me. As much as I hate riding the El, and as much as the garbage tumbleweeds put me off, I kind of need that. The humidity in Chicago seems rough until your nose starts bleeding, hours at a time, from the dryness that is actually, somehow made drier when the whole state of Montana is on fire. Those same fires also make breathing smog seem, remarkably, somewhat safer. What I'm saying here is this: Montana is simply too good for me!

To that end, I'm going to write some posts on my time out there over the next few weeks. The nitty gritty of the amazing wood-fired-oven-on-truck and its build out. The drive there and back, what I ate and what I saw. The experience of cooking with few resources, in the middle of nowhere, for kabillionaires. And, of course, what comes next. So please, stay tuned, and feel free to contribute any of your experiences of this kind in the comments section. And go outside and hug an exhaust pipe.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Late Night, Maudlin Street

It's late in the night, and nearing late in the summer, and I'm writing this realizing that I've neglected my dear Food on the Dole for a dreadfully long time during my stint in Montana. I suppose I could blame my absence on the amount we've been working out here; I'm not joking when I say 80-90 hour weeks have, for the most part, been the norm. But no--that would just be too simple of a way to explain it.
 Thing is--and I know this from every minute I've spent in the industry--the closer I've ever been to food on a professional basis, the further away from it I feel.  In production mode, it can be so difficult to stop and understand and care for each bit of food in front of you, and I'm not saying no one does it, because there are many, many chefs out there who work more hours than I ever have, and do it better, and in a more caring fashion than I could ever dream of. During a stage at the great Topolobampo and Frontera Grill, I was blown away by the amount of care and effort and energy that goes in to every detail there--down to a walk-in freezer of cryovaced peak-of-season hand squeezed lime juice for drinks to the reach-in fridge explicitly for huitlacoche. The chef, yes, THAT chef, was there for each shift, tasting each sauce, making sure everything was just so for each service, and this drove home the point that sometimes, with great care and skill and desire, all these great things can be maintained in the food industry. All the care that a grandmother puts into that Sunday dinner can be translated for the masses. And there are examples of this all over Chicago, and all over the world.

But for yours truly, it can really be difficult to see the forest for the trees. Each day brings a conflict of the easy way, and the right way. Thankfully, I still choose the right way most of the time, or at least I think I do--otherwise these weeks wouldn't be 80 hours long. Taking time to think things through. To plan and prepare and use proper technique and do things like make sure the kitchen is clean at the end of each night, even if it is 2am and the sink is overflowing with an hour's worth of really nasty dishes and pots and pans and there are only two of us standing there looking at each other through bloodshot eyes just wanting to sit down, drink a beer and pass out. This little story is not designed to give me a pat on the back; instead, it confirms that I do love what I get to do on a daily basis. I keep getting kicked, and I keep coming back.

However, it is sometimes surprising to hear how poorly chefs--we who supposedly love food so much--actually eat in terms of quality. An article in the Wall Street Journal quoted Grant Achatz's fridge contents: "...sriracha sauce, Hellmann's mayonnaise, Heinz ketchup, French's yellow mustard. People think that because I'm a chef my refrigerator is filled with high-end stuff, but we're people. Good God, in my freezer I have crappy vanilla ice cream." My fridge here in Montana has, and has had statically for the past 3 months, plus or minus a bottle or two of ginger ale to mix with whiskey: a bottle of sriracha, a jar of mustard, a thing of fish sauce and some pickles. And definitely the obligatory Busch Light. And not much else. Of course, comparisons of me to Grant Achatz come to a crashing halt after refrigerator inventories, but you get the point.
And I'm spoiled. I have had some great meals out here in Montana to be sure; one at a friend's Bistro in Livingston during a Jim Harrison stalk session, and one at a saloon-y steakhouse preceded by several whiskeys. But the only meals--and I mean meals, not sandwiches thrown together with whatever is around, eaten in 15 seconds, standing over a trash can--I've really cooked were when I'm out camping and grilling a steak over an open fire. Which is one of my favorite activities of all time, bookended on both sides by whiskey and cigars, but it is kind of far away from the ideas I had when starting Food on the Dole, and the Salon.
I've come to realize that the reason I ever got into this industry is not to be the next big thing (obvious from day 1), and not to change the culinary world, either. Rather, I've come to realize that what I really want deep down is to nurture; to be somebody's grandmother. Ridiculous I know, but hey--to have a huge multi-generational family around a table of food I spent hours/days preparing? That's what it's all about to me. That's what my New Year's Eve Dinner Party is all about. That's what the Sunday dinners are all about. That's what the Salon, to a degree, is about.
So, to that end Chicago, as my term here in Montana comes to a close, I want you to know that am so ready to come home to you. But to be clear: I have absolutely loved my time here in Montana, and given the choice, I'd do it all over again. I've gotten to experience so many things I never would have in the city, I've met myriad wonderful people and I've been able to spend 3+ solid months of those 80 hour weeks cooking with one of my best, most talented friends in the world, and we still like each other. I've seen buffalo grazing a weak stone's throw from me, watched bald eagles fly above pelicans on a mountain lake, been in houses that make the Hyde Park mansions look like tinker toys, stood in some of the clearest, coldest rivers in the world fishing with nary a soul around, and have been able to become a part, however small, of the Bozeman and Montana community. I have to say--if you can ever make it out here for a visit, don't think twice about it. Just come.
But, I've allowed the city to seep deeply into my marrow over the past couple of decades, and thus, I'm ready to return. I need Argyle Street and Chinatown and Tacos Veloz in the worst way right now. I need the Music Box Theater and Reckless Records and Myopic Books. The Chipp Inn and Susie's Noon Hour Grill and Lake Michigan.

And most of all, I need my kitchen back.

So, here's a big cheers to Bozeman, Montana, and all the great things you've shown me. Now, I'll be ruined in the city. I know I'll long for silence and space while standing on a packed, sweaty el train. Every new precious pie and cupcake store that opens will make me ache for the feet-on-the-solid-ground-of-simplicity I've found in Montana. When I pass someone on the street, smile, and am denied eye contact, I'll be hit with nostalgia for the open friendliness I've found out here. And when I am that person who refuses to make eye contact, which is certain to happen, I'll know it'll be time to spend a few days in the open air outside of the city. I suppose I'll forever be afflicted by this ebb and flow of alternating desire for the city and the country, but hey--memories, mixed with hope, have always made the best combinations in my book.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Hey! This Ribeye is Medium Rare!

It's been a short month since those fried shrimp on that last warm night in Chicago. Not that it hasn't been warm in Chicago since--as I understand, it has gotten pretty hot--but you see, where I'm at, it's snowing right now. Chubby flakes falling from the Big grey Sky of Montana. But that's the great thing about the mountains, and it reminds me of growing up in Colorado--it'll be stunningly gorgeous tomorrow, and hey--the rough weather has given us a chance to let up on the build out of the orange beast that will soon be wood-firing pizzas for the good people of Bozeman and just relax a little bit and blow off some steam.

A bit about the drive out here: we made in two not-so-bad-at-all days, about 14 hours each, with a stop in Murdo, SD. Which was just what I'd pictured: howling wind flying down off the plains, dust devils swirling all over a really small town with a few paved roads and a few more laid with dirt and gravel. I wondered what the folks who lived there did for, say, supplies and groceries, and I can tell you with certainty that there was no local-organic-greenmarket (how many more buzz words can I get in here before they get Trademarked?) happening on Saturday morning. But we found what a city slicker might expect/hope to find in a place like this: a little joint called the Buffalo Bar and Grill, and I'm positive that I remember there being swinging doors to this saloon. It was here that I had one of the more outstanding steaks I've had in a long time.

Flashback: A couple months before, I went to a restaurant, a steak house in Chicago, you know, one of these {INSERT MAN'S NAME HERE}'s Steak House or {INSERT MAN'S NAME HERE}'s Crab Shack to be precise (though that is as precise as I will get). And I couldn't get over my bewilderment: how do these guys get away with this, day in, day out? I've got so many friends trying to open restaurants and the amount of work and effort and blood and money and tears they put into it is unreal, enough to keep me from thinking of a brick and mortar place of my own for a long while. Yet people pour into these steak houses non-stop, ordering ridiculously overpriced and craptastically overcooked steaks again and again. Bussers took plates from underneath people's forks while said forks were still in mouths, and I kept thinking of how much money the waiter (a nice enough guy, if you don't mind a wet cough for the duration of the evening) was going to walk away with that night, not to mention that year. All for a subpar food product and a manufactured atmosphere (though I will say that the lighting in this place was absolutely perfect--you know, as though each table has a really soft spotlight but you can't see where it is coming from--that was really nice). BUT that is neither here nor there. We'll save the vendetta for another time.

Back to the Buffalo Bar and Grill--all I wanted was a ribeye, a whiskey and a beer. And that is precisely what I got. The plump little cook kept coming out into the dining room, smiling and chatting with people; I sunk the beer from the bar portion of the place next door and ordered another as I settled into the bourbon and steak--one of the better combinations know to (at least this) man. The steak was spot-on medium rare, just as I'd asked, and tasted of, well, grilled beef. If the Mayans picked THAT to be the big day in 2012, I'd have been happy as a clam to go. It was the perfect combination of desire, (lack of fabricated) setting and, of course, pure satisfaction, and when finished, I settled back into the soft booth seat and gave a satiated sigh thinking about how these folks pulled it off effortlessly. And then I thought about how that always makes the best food, and perhaps the best experience--not overthought or fussed about--just done well. And not well done like that place back in the city.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Fried Shrimp, Under The Stars

I'm lucky enough to have some great friends here in town who have packed me up well and are shipping me out to Montana on Thursday morning, complete with a bottle of outlaw bourbon and a homemade jug of sloe gin, both sure to chase lonesome Montana blues (if any) away in a flash. One of the things I've been doing in preparing for my voyage has been to hit places here in town that I won't have in Montana, and yeah, that's a lot of places, but there are a precious few that stand out amongst the rest. A top-notch--as always--meal at Lula Cafe last night, sitting in the coveted window seat (the new expansion looks great, but you know, I think I will always want to sit in the old part of the dining room); a pizza party of epic proportion (sure, I'm gonna be neck deep in pizza all summer long, but this is all about the people I was with, some of the friendliest and most giving folks I've run across in a long, long time); and of course, my beloved Jeri's Grill.

But perhaps the experience I'll remember most was a new one for me: a 4am jaunt to the Goose Island Shrimp House, after a going-away party, with a crew that of course included Old Crazy Hair. Walking in, the first thing I thought of was this scene in Weird Science. There weren't bottles of booze being passed around, and I don't recall any cigars, and I really don't know if there was any music. But man oh man, was it intense: loud and bright as all get out. We ordered a huge sack of fried shrimp, and some french fries; I drank my first 7up in years, and we headed across the street to the parking lot of Restaurant Depot, where, under what I'm told are stars, we dug into some really nicely done food and listened to the anti riff-raff elevator music playing beneath the awnings of the Depot on that mild night/morning. And that's what I'll take with me to the Big Sky country. What an experience. It's like Woody Allen says, "I love Manhattan because you can get Peking Duck any time of the night, even 4am. And I'll never get Peking Duck at 4am, but it feels really good knowing that I can." Amen.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Salon, Just Over 1 Year Old, Takes a Hiatus

Summer's coming, or is already here, or never really left, or whatever happened over the past six months in Chicago. We're in good position to start the craze of the new (outdoor) farmers market season, and rush headlong into applying smoke and fire towards copious amounts of meat. Naturally, for myself and Food on the Dole, this means we're taking a break to head to Montana.

It's been a busy, busy time for me since that first little Salon one year ago last March. And now, just as the last Salon guests of the season have left, we're going to take a little break and give the Salon a bit of a rest and rejuvenation period as I head out, for the summer, to work with my good friend Ryan in Bozeman, Montana on his wood-fired pizza business, with which he brings some of the best pizza you'll eat to remote (not to mention stunning) locations all around Montana.

If you follow Food on the Dole on Facebook, you may have seen some photos of the operation from a trip I took out there a few years ago to help in much of the same way. Aside from being an outstanding chef, Ryan is the kind of guy that drives around Montana, tearing down dilapidated barns for ranchers in exchange for the wood and tin they are composed of--the sort of old wood that gets re-purposed into gorgeous things such as door frames and bookcases and hydraulic trailers for pizza ovens. Pretty normal. Actually no, it's not normal. It's pretty outstanding, and it's the kind of thing, when this city boy is around it, that makes me feel a tad bit inadequate as I haven't the foggiest notion of how to tear down a barn, much less build beautiful things out of it. But hey--I'll leave that part to Ryan and focus on the food myself.
Since my trip three years ago, Ryan has expanded the operation by obtaining a second oven and mounting it on a truck. And not just any truck. This is a 1954 Chevy on a tow truck frame. It looks amazing, and the goal with this big beauty is to be a presence at the farmers markets/music festivals/whatnot in the area. And that is where yours truly comes in.
So, despite the challenges and hard work laying ahead in the upcoming months, this sounds like a pretty sweet way to spend a summer. If you haven't been to Montana, do so, and learn exactly why it is called Big Sky Country. Somehow, the sky is just bigger there. I don't understand why, and I suppose I don't have to--but I'll surely enjoy the stars and air and everything else up there this summer. And, I (not-so) secretly have hopes that somehow, just somehow, I'll run in to my hero Jim Harrison, who happens to live down the road. Fingers crossed he doesn't shoot at me.

As for the Salon, she'll go on a break while I'm gone. Perhaps Ryan and I will run an underground dinner now and then out there, perhaps I'll even be able to pull a few Salons off as well. But rest easy knowing that I'll keep writing and reporting on the usual F.o.t.D. experiences while out there, and that the Salon shall continue upon my return to Chicago. Best wishes to everyone for a great summer wherever you may be, and keep reading Food on the Dole/following on Facebook/following on Twitter to see what sort of food, cooking and eating mis-adventures I get into underneath that big sky out there.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Grumpy Cats and Pleasant Houses

We had a fairly epic jaunt of eating and (mostly) drinking the other day, starting down in Munster, IL at Three Floyds, where one can, after getting over one's aversion to strip malls and water towers, listen to Danzig at top volume while drinking several varieties of their top-notch beer (Three Floyds'--not Danzig's) and eating smoked meats. It's a great place, but of course, indulgence has to find a stopping point down there due to the long drive back. But since I was still all riled up once back in the city, and since we were kind of passing through the neighborhood, we stopped down in Bridgeport--a part of town I absolutely never get to for the simple reason that it's so far from me up in Lincoln Square--to visit a couple places that have been on the list for a while. Maria's Community Bar was recommended to me by my lumberjack/ham retrieving friend and yeah, it was great, and I wish I was in the neighborhood more to take advantage of it and its dark wood back room full of mannequin parts a guy spent the better part of our time there bringing in. It's got its fair share of super hipsters, sure, but what bar doesn't these days? And who cares when they've got a beer and cocktail list like they do, and still find room to serve Early Times Whiskey and Busch Classic and ask "are you sure?" when you order it?

Next door was the big winner, though: Pleasant House Bakery. I saw one of the chef/owners Art Jackson in Maria's as we entered, bringing some hot pies over, which leads me to believe there is some sort of symbiosis between the two places, and how wonderful is that? For those of you in San Francisco, it reminds me of the relationship between Rosamunde Sausages and Toronado--two places scratching each others backs rather than a big fish eating a little fish. Pleasant House itself has a really cozy looking kitchen, and is quite bustling as well: co-owner and pastry chef Chelsea Jackson was back there rolling dough as Art was back and forth from the kitchen to Maria's to back in the dining room talking to guests, doing it all with the same kind of genuine warmth I described when writing about Chris Nugent at Goosefoot. The counter-service menu is simple, and more importantly, everything is absolutely delicious and it seemed to me all details are completely attended to on every order. Lovely, flaky crust, gorgeously presented around delicious fillings, and chips that make you see why the British call them chips--crisp little chunks of potatoes fried up and awaiting a good dousing of vinegar. You get a really good feeling in this place--and I suppose that's why they chose the name.

All in all, this brief Bridgeport experience was really quite outstanding. And I'm certain there's much more to the neighborhood, but what a nice little corner, down there at 31st and Morgan, with the Bridgeport Coffeehouse across from Maria's and Pleasant House. Beer, meat pie, coffee. The order's up to you.

Back up closer to home in West Town, we stopped and drank wine and ate those tasty little fried chickpeas and deviled eggs they do at Lush, then made our way over to the usual end-of-night-well, The Chipp Inn, where we met friends who had just experienced the El Bulli menu at Next. We shared our respective stories of the day of such different types of dining, and remarked at how great it was to be in a city full of people that provide these experiences, all over cheap drinks in the neighborhood bar. Strolling home, plans were made for the big Sunday dinner, which is becoming a tradition of sorts at the FotD headquarters. We'd roast a large chunk of pork belly (previewed below) nice and crisp on the outside, tender on the inside along with roasted potatoes and charred onions after a long intermezzo induced by antipasti of braised broccoli rabe, pickled eggplant and buffalo mozzarella with green garlic. That Sunday has come and gone, and boy was it good. I'll write more about it next time.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Year Later, An Updated Manifesto--and A Few New Salon Dates

When I started the Food on the Dole Salon one year ago--March 10, to be exact--I didn't have a clear expectation of what was to come. Four brave souls came to that first Roast Chicken Salon; we cooked together and had compelling conversation over a really tasty meal. As we grew over the course of the year, we were able to put on over 50 Salons, all told. That's two or three hundred different perspectives coming through the F.o.t.D. Headquarters, and I hope you all gained as much as I did through the Salon.

As we embark on a new year and approach an exciting new growing season (translation: soon there will be more than squash and potatoes available!), I'd like to tighten up the definition of just what the Salon is, and invite you all back--or for the first time--to join us, and find out first hand and in person what the words below could never fully describe. Current salon dates will always be listed at

What is the Food on the Dole Salon, you ask?
The word Salon comes from the Italian word sala--a large receiving room of an Italian mansion where, in the 16th century, people would gather to exchange ideas, facilitated by a knowledgeable and inspiring host. Ultimately, Salons took hold in France in the 17th and 18th centuries, becoming a center for ideas to form and spread during the Age of Enlightenment.

Full disclosure: the Food on the Dole Salon is not hosted in an Italian mansion, nor is it expected that we give birth to a second Age of Enlightenment. We're a bit less academic than that, and a main goal is to have a great time. However, just as poets shared words and musicians their music hundreds of years ago, the Food on the Dole Salon aims to be an important part of food as culture and thought, shared amongst as many perspectives as possible. Though we will be cooking a meal together, it should be understood that the salon is not a cooking class; instead, it is an intimate gathering, with food and cooking as our medium, hosted and facilitated by Chef Hugh Amano.

The Salon seeks guests who hunger to enhance their understanding of food, and seek a community rooted in a common thread of the recognition of the importance of food and sound cooking. In a forum of others sharing these desires, in an atmosphere free of exclusive notions, open to all viewpoints and the discussion of such, we will:
  • Cook a market-based meal together (please note that all diets are welcome and will be accommodated whenever possible);
  • Sit down in a byob setting, eat and discuss the food we made and food in general, issues regarding food, things you may be curious about or feel need to be addressed;
  • Help to create a community based on the joy of food, cooking, and the conversation and relationships they foster.
All topics are welcome in the natural course of the evening. I hope to develop a non-exclusive community of people who come from all sorts of backgrounds--I want to connect those of you who are experts in, say, theater, with those of you who keep bees. Those of you who eat regularly at places like Alinea, and those of you who visit tacquerias and hot dog stands on a daily basis. 6-8 seats are available at each Salon, and dates and cost will be made known through Food on the Dole ( I hope to see you soon and welcome you to the community of the Food on the Dole Salon.

Friday, March 9, 2012

I'd Love For You To Come, But You've Gotta Stay Here and Cure

Headed towards the Old Miss this weekend for a touch of relaxation whilst sitting outside whittling wood and letting the smoke from the fire and whiskey from the still soak in a bit. Naturally, before leaving, we decided to get a hunk of brisket brining for next week's festivities. Mind you, there'll be no green beer and no green uniforms (guys: white long-sleeved shirt under green short-sleeved shit, preferably with Cubs logo, girls: green and white striped thigh-highs, short shorts and green star antennae things). Just some really solid corned beef and cabbage--the kind you want to eat--and of course plenty of solid beer and whiskey to match. You know, like a normal day 'round the FotD headquarters.

The brisket came from the fatty cap end--though usually my preference for corned beef and most things brisket is the first cut/flat cut as it's a bit easier to drive, if you will. But in this case, I took what was available, and was reminded of an older friend in Boston, who told the story of his father courting his mother way back when. The father, a city boy, was finally invited to the farmhouse of the country girl's family for Sunday dinner. A roast was passed around and made its first stop in front of the guest. He looked at the slices in front of him, nervously pondering which one to take. He spotted the fatty piece, and thought that he'd be doing the most honorable thing by taking it, sparing the good, meaty pieces for the rest of the family, namely the father. Unfortunately, as soon as the serving fork touched the fatty piece, the father--watching in judgement with a farmer's hunger--sprang down upon the poor boy (verbally; the shotgun stayed on the wall) and let him know which piece he'd better not take. Heart racing, the boy returned the fatty piece and took another--any other--and watched as the platter was passed back through all of the children's hands to the father, who claimed the coveted fatty piece.

The moral of the story here? Fat is good. So is understanding who you're dealing with.

Anyway, the beautiful piece of meat scored from The Butcher and Larder is now in a really strong brine made of mustard seed, coriander, chile flake, allspice, bay leaf, clove, garlic, ginger and a whole lot of salt, pepper and sugar. I didn't use pink curing salts this time around, namely because I misplaced the ones I have at home (kind of scary) and have, as mentioned, the mighty Mississippi calling my name so have no time to get some; plus, I'd like to see the results of a nitrate-free brine. The color of the meat won't be electric pink like usual, and the flavor will be a touch more mild. But nonetheless, it will be delicious--and devoured.
Side note--why is it called "corned" beef? Well, as Harold McGee explains in On Food and Cooking, way back when, corn was a generic term coming from the same root--and meaning the same thing as--"kernel" or "grain". Thus, the grains of salt used to cure the beef were called "corn". And thus, the term corned beef came to life. Weird.

A common problem with brining a huge hunk of meat is the "where do I do this" conundrum. Tough to say depending on your setup at home--get a huge brining bag and set it in a pot in the fridge or, if you live in a place that hasn't been either warm or below freezing all winter, and hovers in the 33-40ºF range, set it on the fire escape, covered and weighed down lest the squirrels get in it. Me, I sealed it in a bag after removing the air, and made a little bed for it in a crisper drawer in my fridge, just in case of any blowouts or leaks. Corned beef is good; brining liquid all over the bread and Busch Light isn't. This 4 pounder will stay in the brine for about 5 days or so, then move to fresh water for a night, then braised low and slow. We'll eat some straight away, but for the big dinner, I love slicing the brisket nice and thick, then searing it on a cast iron griddle. You'll get a lovely, crisp and caramelized crunch that yields to the soft, braised meat below. At any rate, this isn't something that has to only fall on St. Patrick's day--brined and braised brisket is not only a tongue-twister--it's a year-round delight.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Simplicity vs. Fuss, or Big Cat vs. Catherine Deneuve

I just got back from a great lunch over at Sun Wah with the Big Cat, a friend and excellent chef here in Chicago. Over Crispy Pork and Chinese Broccoli with Chiles we talked about the importance of simple food, and perhaps more significantly, accessible food. Seems like at the same time that everyone is so hyped up about molecular gastronomy (a term coined in part by the great Harold McGee, who now laments its use as a marketing term a la Dr. Frankenstein), we are also so interested in the old-fashioned, simple foods, such as charcuterie and cheese and beer and roasts and actual vegetables. Which is a great thing.

I just watched an exceptional episode of No Reservations where Bourdain makes his rounds in Brittany on the northwest coast of France, making a similar observation, most notably in the case of the fascinating and inspiring chef Olivier Roellinger, who returned his 3 Michelin stars to pursue something that mattered more to him: "a more fluid, accessible and natural experience." Aside from his ascent into becoming one of France's great chefs despite a really rough start (he was beaten, nearly to death, by a gang of several people when he was 21, was in a coma for a bit, then a wheelchair for 2 years, and only then got into the food business), which is amazing on its own, Roellinger's story sparks interest because he is a chef at the top of his game, and he chooses to step away from the stuffy environs of perfection, white linens, and plating things with tweezers, and move into a neighborhood of dirt, pigs, charcuterie from said pigs, bakeries and pastry shops, spice merchants, and above all else, an inn with gorgeous yet approachable food. Which begs the question: is something more beautiful because it is inaccessible (think Catherine Deneuve), or does beauty come from the every day realness of something (a wooden table, the sea). I suppose it's far too complex to answer that easily, but I suppose at this point, I would take a lovely plate of Roellinger's well-crafted charcuterie with the Big Cat over a fleeting chance to wash Catherine Deneuve's car given the choice.


At any rate, the point here is that the inherent quality in something simply but lovingly crafted is always pleasurable. Last week, me and mine got hold of some very simple ingredients, and made a really great meal together--the kind of meal that, when created together, and the cooking is actually part of the event of the thing, is greater than the sum of its parts.
We found a beautiful striped bass and some mussels; sweet little parsnips and lovely treviso radicchio, potatoes and brussels sprouts. At home, I had a rich duck stock in the freezer from meals past, and some of that great ham from Tennessee that my Bounty paper towel friend brought me.
We cleaned the fish, and tossed its collar with some soy sauce, cane vinegar, sesame oil, fish sauce and chiles, then blasted it in the oven and served the hugely flavorful result over rice.
This was followed by mussels steamed in duck stock with that salty ham, leeks and celery sautéed in butter, and some crusty bread.
And to finish, puréed parsnips and potatoes with charred Brussels sprouts, a salad of the bitter treviso radicchio with apples, and an extremely crispy-skinned bass with an herb vinaigrette. None of this food is way out there, and none of it ranks high on the difficulty/creative list. But we found beautiful product, cared about it and each other, and had an outstanding evening preparing and eating it. We'd be in the $100 range in a restaurant for something that cost us $15-$20 to buy, but that's not the point. The value inherent in simple, well-crafted food and the pleasure in cooking and enjoying it is its own reward.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

One Coin, Two Sides

The culinary world is aflutter--as it has been every three months for nearly a year--with the release of a new issue of Lucky Peach, a magazine/journal/whatever put out by David Chang of the Momofuku {insert tasty food morsel here} Bar empire and Peter Meehan, formerly of the New York Times (where he wrote this excellent, much needed, and "man I wish I had the platform to go on this sort of rant" article) and co-author of Chang's great Momofuku cookbook. It's super hot, and if you're the sort of person who is on Twitter or Facebook and following others interested in food, surely you've seen them proudly flash photos of their copy like so many line cooks' tattoos. It seems to throw all journalistic sensibility to the hungry pigs: its highly decorated cover reminds me of the design ethic of the Garbage Pail Kids cards of my youth and the writing can border on the "how many times can we say f*** and s*** and get away with it" standard.

Oh, and it's absolutely wonderful.

Much of it is a direct line to the inside of a chef's/cook's/someone who just plain loves food's head. There's all kinds of crazy s*** going on inside there--the importance of toilet cleanliness, an interview with a cook on the south pole, Anthony Bourdain's thoughts on food movies and how they relate to life, death and sex (not always in that order). The inside is as busy as the cover. And it is red-hot popular right now. I missed the first issue, and went to see if I could get it from the publisher. Nope--it's out of print. Hmm. Maybe someone's selling it on eBay or something. They are! ...for upwards of $100. Ok. I can do without issue one. But the point here is that it's hot, and not only for the usual faddish reasons, though surely that has something to do with it. At the end of the day, this is a really fresh and solid food magazine--written for people who cook, who eat, and whose feet touch the ground once in awhile. I hate to say it, but I gave up my subscription to my beloved Saveur, because it so often lacked this quality. Something about it started to feel so unreal to me. Maybe it was around the time they started the "Real-Life Kitchen" section, showcasing the sort of high-end, Wolf and Viking drenched home kitchens that someone like me will never be in unless I've been hired to cook there (people actually get to plan the design of their kitchens?). Lucky Peach is down and dirty, and at the end of the day, it's accessible. Well done, guys.

On the flip side of the same coin is the extremely refined Gastronomica. Now in its 12th year, it looks at the world in every direction through a food lover's eyes. It can certainly seem a bit esoteric, and where Lucky Peach's design is a big vat of bubbling beef bones, Gastronomica's is a highly polished demi-glace. Essentially the same thing, but so incredibly not the same thing: the current issue features an article on an artist and a baker combining forces to document the place somebody (Natalie Wood, Dennis Wilson) disappeared from the earth using photography and desserts developed with sea salt made from the exact spot in question; a gallery of black and white mug shots of former food-service workers; a first-class essay by chef Edward Lee (yes, that Edward Lee) on a day spent killing pigs.

These two magazines arrived in my mailbox within days of each other, and until then, I didn't realize the yin and yang relationship they unwittingly have. I suppose they are both not for everyone. But I'd encourage you to forgo a couple of six-dollar coffees and drop the 12 bucks on either, or both, and check them out if you haven't.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Grace, a/k/a Goosefoot

Anymore, I'm not the type of guy who wants to go to a restaurant where much of the menu doesn't fall in the single digit range. It's not necessarily that I'm feeling the pinch of a soured economy (though aren't we all?). Instead, I suppose I just don't want to be impressed anymore. This is not to say I'm a curmudgeon who wants a bowl of gruel and a cup of tea in solitude before I gather my cane and cap and be on my way--on the contrary, each meal should matter in its own sense, whether it's prepared by a 3-star chef, or by some guy down the street. Lost in the current sea of chef-as-deity and food-as-gospel hype is the fact that if the love and generosity that should be in food is replaced with a love of celebrity and stripped of its story, we are in danger of losing what brought us to love food in the first place. At the end of the day, I want something that has some meaning, whatever that may be; something that says more about the skill, caring and heart behind the plate than it says about the chef's résumé, accolades or tattoo count.

The most gracefully executed food and service I have had in a very long time came at Goosefoot last week. While I was there, I never wanted for anything--a big deal for someone who is always noticing gaps in service, disgruntled about how that takes away from great food, and likewise how poorly executed food comes out on the plate as a neglected child/CTA train.

The BYOB policy at Goosefoot (no corkage fee!) makes what would require a really special occasion necessitate merely a special occasion. As the $90 prixe fixe menu begins, you are gently surrounded by that oh-so-comfortable yet uncommon feeling that the people behind the scenes really know what they are doing. You let go, and put your full trust in the chef and staff, and to wonderful results. I could rehash the menu item by item and post terribly lit photos, but the thing is, the specifics of the menu just don't matter, and even if I was the sort to take photos in restaurants, they would never do justice to the other senses invited to the party while eating here (or anywhere). I will say this: you reach a point as a chef, where you think "okay, gee, I think I can season things pretty well, and I think I can cook things pretty well, and I think I can join harmonious flavors together pretty well." Then you go eat at a place like this, and you realize just what an underachieved chump you are. How many worlds apart this chef is from you. It's like being really good at basketball in high school, then Michael Jordan shows up.

The Chef, Chris Nugent, has the pedigree. I've eaten his food once before, at one of these huge events where several chefs from around town come and set up a table and plate a thousand small samples of whatever they want; his was the only thing I've tasted at one of these that made me feel as though I was in a restaurant--not standing around on grass surrounded by pulsing hordes. As I remember telling him then, the simple custard he'd made and served in egg shells made me feel as though I'd been "hugged simultaneously by the world's top 100 grandmothers." And this is a result of a righteously high level of skill--flavors and textures are put together with an incredible combination of finesse and nuance that is unparalleled by all but a rare few in the game.

A Goosefoot dish that stays with me was the Loup de Mer fish course; a dish that seemed to be seasoned by the acidity of delicate shavings of sunchokes, and enhanced by a instructionally proportionate swirl of fennel puree (by which I mean to say the amount of the puree, as with the ingredients in all dishes, appeared on the plate in appropriate proportion to its counterparts, letting you know how much to eat with each individual bite in a way that you would think happens more often, but just doesn't). The Chestnut Soup was an eye roller--not in the teenage girl sense, but the kind where your eyes end up in the back of your head. Texture almost becomes a flavor. Flavor becomes a feeling. A single sea bean brought brilliant salinity to a chocolate course. And nothing, nothing is wasted on the plate. Everything makes sense; every shaving, every tiny green, every aroma, texture and flavor appears on the plate to play its role and enhance the role of its counterparts. No superfluous, unnecessary ingredients thrown on just because.

A criticism I have heard about Goosefoot is that it lacks a certain level of "excitement", and perhaps creativity. Which is a predictable critique in an age where dining has morphed into spectacle and the form of celebrity trumps the function of substance. It is true that here one doesn't get the feeling that staff is snorting blow off silverware (or each other) in the back, nor suspect a chemist's lab of bubbling beakers transforming what was once food into a new element. But food of this caliber makes the experience memorable--and if not, it's time to find a new dinner date.

Most importantly, what sets Chris Nugent apart from any other chef of any skill level is his sincere genuineness. I've met him a few times before, and never has anything but a pretension-free kindness come from the man. This night, at Goosefoot, he was at each table, talking with every guest. Not the generic "hey how is everything"; not making us wonder "if this guy's out here drinking all night, who's watching the cooking?", but talking with everyone in a humble, thank you for spending the evening with us kind of way. He makes you feel at home. Which brings us full circle. As much as it is the food, it isn't the food. This experience was much more than an assemblage of (perfectly cooked, seasoned, plated and presented) carrots and beef on a plate. Behind it lay an authentic, sincere display of passion from a person to whom these adjectives apply as well. Yes, this was an expensive meal, the type of meal I don't indulge in too much anymore, but we can come across this passion in so many genres: fine dining, huarache joints, small & empty Vietnamese restaurants, and hopefully most often at home. And when we find it, we have to recognize, savor and share it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Forget the Oscars--Come To The Salon!

It's that time again--I've marked four new Salon dates on the February calendar! Click on the Salon name for tickets:

Rustic Italian Salon. Rustic Italian cooking is definitely a favorite style in the Salon! We'll focus on the earthy, hearty and (most importantly) delicious foods that have made peasant-style cooking the envy of all royalty. Come warm up with us in early February and BYOB some of those big, bold country wines. Dukes and Dutchesses, check your crowns at the door! Saturday, February 4 @7pm, $50.

Mid-Winter Market Salon.
Who knows what Puxatawny Phil will have told us by now? Perhaps we're in store for a long, brutal winter, or maybe some green shoots are due up out of the ground before too long. Either way, we've got a bit to wait for the asparagus and ramps to start poking up, so until then, let's use all the great, rugged produce we're able to get our hands on now! If you've ever wondered what to cook in the middle of the season of frozen ground in Chicago, come join us as we find all the hidden gems awaiting us in the market and we'll create a rich, hearty mid-winter market dinner together. Anything goes, and please note that this is not necessarily a vegetarian Salon. BYOB as always! Thursday, February 9 @7pm, $50.

No Valentine Required Brunch Salon.
All the hearts and cupids and arrows and whatnot can get downright annoying this time of year, regardless of your relationship status! Come take respite from the swirling strings and cook a tasty brunch with us in the Salon! We'll focus on some brunch classics and maybe explore some new terrain as well. BYOB as always, and I promise there will be no chocolate-dipped strawberries! Sunday, February 12 @11am, $50.

Vegetarian Salon.
Was George Washington a vegetarian? Well, we've never heard any debate on that subject, and it doesn't really matter. But I'll say this: in the Salon on his birthday, we're not about replacing meat with boring faux-meats. We're celebrating all the gorgeous vegetables available to us as we endure the depths of winter in several different preparations, letting each vegetable and grain be what they are--delicious and nourishing! Come explore the bounty in this highly market-driven Salon; based on what I find at the market, we'll prepare a full and delicious meal. The Salon is BYOB, please bring whatever you'd like to drink! Wednesday, February 22 @7pm, $50.

The Food on the Dole Salon is all about bringing your ideas alongside an empty stomach--all levels of cooking ability welcome, from newbie to chef! See you soon!

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Hokey Pokey

An excellent Salon last night; in fact, the picture of what I intended when starting the Salons. Folks from all walks of life and levels of cooking ability arrive, wine in hand, a slight bit of anxiety in the air about being in a foreign kitchen with strangers, not really knowing what's on the menu. Then, slowly, as wine is poured, and conversation begins; the oven turned on and the action commences, those layers of initial trepidation start to melt away; bonds, if not friendships are forged and people really start to cook with each other. Sitting down to the table with the menu we just created, the conversation continues, and the meal carries on long after the delicious food is consumed. And that's the spirit of the Salon--we come together in the name of spontaneously created, seasonally appropriate food, learn a few techniques and methods along the way, and construct a certain level of kinship with others joining us. It's a great thing, and it's made great by the people who attend. Me, I just facilitate it. And it's a joy to watch.

Last night's crew made a lovely red kabocha squash soup, garnished with black cumin and the squash's roasted seeds; a salad of so-strongly-flavored-and-delicious-especially-in-the-winter greenhouse lettuce, carrots, pomegranate seeds, crisp fried garlic and shaved winter cheddar; and a knockout "root cellar" risotto with golden beets, celeriac, garlic confit, lacinato kale and Gene's oh-so-tasty smoked pork rib belly. Well executed and certainly well enjoyed, it was a great meal, and a great night. As we look ahead to next Wednesday's Pasta Salon, I offer my many thanks to those who braved the cold last night and warmed up in the Salon, and I sincerely hope to see you all again.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Everyone Needs To Know How To Do This

My gastronomically demanding brother was in town over the weekend, which always sends me into a bit of a frenzy over eating options for him. He needs things to be great, but not precious; full of flavor but not stupidly busy; familiar but not commonplace. On top of that, there was a dismantling of our beloved Denver Broncos to be witnessed, which throws into the mix the inevitable need to secure a spot to watch said game, that isn't over run by thick-necked sports goons, has great beer, and food to match. A tall order for a span of time covering 3-4 meal periods. Gulp.

In the end, everything turned out great--he was satiated and returned to his food sanctum of San Francisco. The sports needs were met with a trip to The Bad Apple, a place we would have gone anyway because of their amazing inexpensive-relative-to-other-places-that-have-amazing-beer-lists beer list, a general lack of the sort of sports enthusiasts that produce caustic howls routinely every 30 seconds for oft-inexplicable reasons, and the top-top-notch burgers. But more importantly, on Sunday, we did what everyone should do now and again: we roasted a simple chicken. Here's how:
  • Get a good chicken, preferably one that knew--or at least saw--the out-of-doors at some point in it's life and lived a bit longer than 3 weeks.
  • Rinse it. Dry it.
  • Rub it with butter. Or, if sickened by Paula Deen's recent--and, naturally, quite profitable--revelation (or by Paula Deen in general), use olive oil.
  • Shower it inside and out with salt and pepper.
  • Cut a couple lemons in half. Put them in the cavity of the bird along with some herbs and possibly garlic.
  • Tie the legs together and tuck the wings behind where the neck would be to make a compact chicken that will cook evenly.
  • Put the bird on a roasting rack made of either metal or aromatic vegetables such as carrots, celery, onion and garlic.
  • Surround the bird with a few lemon wedges. Charred lemon is downright tasty on roast birds.
  • Put it in a 425ºF oven for an hour or an hour and a half. If you are taking it's temperature, do so in its inner thigh, and shoot for about 155ºF (as it rests, it'll hit the 165ºF the FDA has got you worried about).
  • When done, let it rest (uncovered unless you live in an igloo, or something like an igloo) for 10-15 minutes.
  • Carve it. Rub charred lemon on it.
  • Eat it.

Simple! It's delicious, and will satisfy the most demanding of your kin. A skill every decent cook should have in their arsenal.

Meanwhile, we move forward into a sold out Winter Market Salon tomorrow night, but have a couple of seats open for next Wednesday's Pasta Salon. Hope to see you there!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

On Top of Spaghetti...

I've just, just finished the last meatball from New Year's Eve. Here we are, 11 days and a freeze/thaw later and I've finally made my way through the meatballs I was worried I wouldn't have enough of that lovely night (though upon rolling and searing them off, I actually froze about a third of the mixture, which now awaits another tasty application). I've been trudging my way through them, not really eating much other than meatballs--not that there's anything with that--and admiring that particular quality that foods like this have of getting better as time goes by. They've gone in torta rolls for sandwiches, been eaten cold as I stood with my head poked in the fridge and served next to the remnants of the three color lasagna, also from NYE (and, incidentally, completely for the aesthetic of looking at the stratified layers of lasagna and squealing with delight at seeing different colors of pasta made from eggs, carrot juice and spinach rather than offering any huge flavor effect). But yesterday's incarnation was perhaps my favorite--boiled dry spaghetti in the last bits and pieces of meatball/sauce that was sitting at the bottom of the pan. I froze this most tasty and often discarded bit (not unlike a roast chicken's oyster or pope's nose, or that big piece of fat on a grilled ribeye) after harvesting the meatballs way back when, and finally pulled it out yesterday. Straight up spaghetti with meat sauce red checker tablecloth style. All that was missing was a basket of chianti.
To think, so much flavor could be extended for so long to so many people from a collection of beef scraps, pork shoulder, pork fat and salami. It all went through my grinder and was tossed with soffrito I made by slow, slow cooking onions, carrot, celery and garlic in a ton of olive oil and a bunch of parsley, fresh garlic and lemon zest. The meatballs were formed and seared in the trusty cast iron, then piled up in dutch ovens and covered with a slow-simmered tomato sauce and, for good measure, a dousing of that good ham stock. Perfect to throw in the oven as people are arriving and bottles are popping open--the meatballs will be ready when you are.

Now, as the first big, fat flakes start to fall snow globe style, I'm a bit anxious knowing that we're in for it for a few long months now. I'm looking at the snow accumulating on the empty branches outside, and find myself wishing I made more meatballs. Time to thaw that extra bit and get back at it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Whew!, or, Welcome 2012!

After a full 2-day recovery, I'm back on my feet and fully rebounded from the festivities of New Year's Eve! It was the kind of night when all of the usual happened: old friends mingling with new, tons of great food, booze and music, porch cigar smoking; and a few new traditions were born--melty raclette, a midnight Hall and Oates dance party, and this most delightful little trick.

After putting on a fancy parade of food last year (including my personal favorite--braised goat short rib tortellini in curry cream w/ mint harrissa), we returned to the simplicity of the year before that (Hoppin' John and fried Chicken) by rolling out spinach, carrot and egg pasta for a bunch of hearty lasagna to be accompanied by piles upon piles of meatballs made of beef, pork and a few salamis, braised in tomato sauce and ham broth. To offer some sense of lightness (because the cheeses, linguica, ham, pepperoni, homemade ricotta and unbelievably tasty raclette Old Crazy Hair brought surely weren't doing it), we cut up some chicory, red leaf lettuce, red dandelion greens and parsley and tossed them with pomegranate seeds, shaved fennel and blood orange segments, all doused in a sharp vinaigrette made from said blood oranges. We ate...and ate...and drank plenty. Several bottles of champagne (including a magnum for the big moment itself), wine and beer later, we found ourselves looking at 4:30am, munching lazily on lavendar sugar cookies, a bevy of delicious nuts and brittle, the occasional hunk of ham or meatball, nursing bravely poured glasses of wine or whiskey or whatever we fancied as the night came to an end. The next day would find most of us loafing around our respective little Hobbit holes, watching terrible movies and eating egg casseroles and bagel bombs so wisely made on the other side of the big night, as the year's first snow decided to flutter around us.

Now, to the year ahead! Here's to great food and drink for everyone, but more importantly, here's to the friendships that are bonded around said food and drink--whether it be gilded goat tortellini, or the simple, humble meatball. Happy 2012!