Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Fishin' Accomplished

Yesterday we had a super-simple dinner of zucchini soup (our friend gave us some of her squash, since ours perished) and penne tossed with local Roquefort-inoculated blue. I've been demolishing our entryway, since it's a way to make the place much nicer for very little money; so far I've spent under $100, since it's mostly been demo and then a bit of framing and drywall to clean it up. Tomorrow begins the mudding, and then some trim and fixtures in the new coat closet, and then it's up to my wife to paint it.

The zucchini soup was benefited from two ingredients that set it well apart from many an ostensible peer: grilled chicken stock and feta. I added a few pine nuts, too, for extra thickness, and it was a slurpable delight. A little pepper and a flourish of truffle oil gave it everything it needed to become a sublime transubstantiation of summer's most ubiquitous crop.

Tonight, after my family returned from the farmers' market with fruit and fish, I kept it simple since I am- to use technical parlance- wicked tiyahd. So I heated the soup, rubbed some of the über-fresh, sweet, fat scallops with salt, pepper, and pimentón, then gave them a good sear in the iron pan. Getting seafood this fresh makes all the difference; it's like eating a different kind of food. I made a pan sauce with kimchi juice and a splash of wine, adorned each plate with a pile of the just-finished new batch of kimchi, and that was it. Boo to the yah. There was leftover rice and beans, but we didn't even touch it. If you'll excuse me, there's some videographical entertainment waiting for me downstairs.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Yum Kippur

Today, being a day of atonement- and more saliently, a day in which Milo's school is closed- begged for some time-devouring activities to chew up the portion of the day in which I was the sole parent in charge. Copious swinging helped, as did some garden-checking (the rutabagas and black radishes are actually swelling a tiny bit! At this rate they'll be big and fat by Christmas, except for the whole not-growing-in-winter thing, so they won't). And since we had been the happy recipients of a big box of avocados from the gallery in Miami, I had an idea and figured that making ice cream is always a good hour-chewer when a kid is involved.

He was excited, to say the least, and not at all put off by the notion of a savory ice cream. For him, busting out the machine means good eatin'. And when I told him he could have it for lunch, well, that sealed it. So we puréed an avo with the kernels of one ear of corn, lemon juice, cayenne, cumin, salt, a drip of agave, and a little juice from a jar of salsa verde. Then I pushed it all through a tamis and spatulated it into the frozen whirligig for a chugging, adding about half an ear's worth of kernels as it spun.

And lo- it worked. Smooth, creamy (avos being basically all fat) and with a citrus tang, and a solidly earthy warmth from the spices, it made a splendid substrate for our homemade gravlax of Arctic char, sliced thin. To finish it off, I put a couple of chopped cornichons, some capers, pickle juice, parsley, kimchi juice, a little mustard, olive oil, and pepper into a jar and stick-blended it thoroughly. Once all blended, I strained it and then blasted it again with a bit of Ultratex 8 to make it thick and sexy, then spooned it around the scoops. Very subtle, complex, and interesting- this will make a spiffy appetizer down the road. The char has a lighter flavor than salmon, so it worked better with the delicate ice cream. The pickle sauce is excellent, and cries out to be used with everything from salmon on bagels to tuna, egg, or potato salad; shit, even a burger or a dog would get off on this, and there are a million ways to tweak it for best effect.

So that was lunch. For dinner, local grass-fed sirloin well-crusted in butter and with our homemade lardo grated on top. Freaking genius. On the side, fresh-dug potatoes roasted with fat cloves of garlic and lots of olive oil, and a green mash made from the dandelions I weeded out of the potato bed while Milo dug, with lemon, walnuts, ume plum, and truffle oil, plus a pan sauce made from the butter, wine, a pinch of flour to stabilize it, and some of the super-jiggly chicken broth I made last night. Good fall fare all around.

We drank another of the just-rediscovered bottles from the cellar in VT- a 2001 La Jota Cabernet Franc from our Napa tour in 2004. It's not bad, with good firm tannins and some layers between the grip and the fruit. Nobody's going to confuse it with a Chinon any time soon, but it has some of the same flavor profile, if a steroidally enhanced version of it. Another 3-5 years would serve this well, allowing the tannins to relax enough to bring the other facets into better focus.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


I was in Vermont on Friday going through the cellar and giving at least half of it to someone from an auction house. On the plus side, it's one of the few assets we own that has actually- and significantly- appreciated in value, so it's going to make us some much-needed cash. On the minus side, I parted with some special bottles of Bordeaux, some of which I've had for 15 years. Back during the first semester of grad school in 1994, I found a little working color TV in the alley behind my first Chicago apartment. So I looked in the free weekly paper for moving sales to find a VCR (remember those?) that would make the little 13" screen much more useful. By complete chance, the guy I called was also selling his wine collection; he was broker even than I, and had to move back to Austria in two weeks.

He had an excellent collection, and I bought everything I could from him. In retrospect, I should have bought more, even selling my car, since I could have flipped some of these bottles right away for a big profit. I bought a case of 1990 Mondavi unfiltered Cabernet for $7 a bottle, and some big-name Bordeaux for next to nothing. Four of those bottles- for which I paid about $30 each- are now worth about $800 each. So notwithstanding the many intervening years in which I have mulled over what occasion would prompt the opening of these precious bottles, I decided to part with them.

Wine, after all, is replaceable, and most of the stuff I sold is wine that I don't enjoy any more. The top-notch Australian bottles- The Dead Arm excepted- are not going to be missed. The problem is that big-name Bordeaux commands the highest prices, and as a result my collection has now diminished from one bottle of Cheval Blanc to zero. The 1989 Palmer was another that it was hard to say goodbye to, and there were others (I'm talking to you, '85 Haut-Brion). But it's hard to argue when a mixed case of 1995 Bordeaux (Margaux, Cheval, Mouton, Cantemerle, Pichon-Baron, Pichon-Lalande, Haut-Brion, etc.) that I spent a grand on six years ago is now worth around eight times that much. These are hard times, and the art market is circling the drain. I console myself with the knowledge that this investment has performed handsomely and was bought low and sold high. Not all the way high, but far enough.

I saved some: the 3 bottles of 1989 La Conseillante aren't fancy enough to sell for much, but are utterly sublime. I still have my mini-vertical of Lynch-Bages ('82, '85, '86, '89, '90) and the '82 and '88 Gruaud-Larose, and a few others. The Rhône and Italy are still intact. I'm drinking a 2000 Ascent Syrah by Terre Rouge right now; it's making me almost regret all of the Cali Cab bottles I let go of, including the mixed six-pack of fine 1997 magnums that I had big plans for in another 10 years. And the Montelenas will be missed, without a doubt, as will the Sine Qua Non, not least due to its scarcity (but then again I kept half of the SQN stash; the dessert wines are good for 100 years, after all, and some were gifts). The Ascent is a Syrah, not a Cabernet, the second of two bottles we had socked away (I mentioned the first one here, right after we moved up) and it has an interesting sourdough toast thing happening which I normally associate with Burgundy; maybe it's the yeast they use. In any case, it's refreshingly lean and elegant for a Cali Syrah.

At the end of the day, this is a good thing. It's an exercise in non-attachment, and an opportunity to make some room for Burgundy, Barolo, and other miracles. My cellar didn't match my taste any more, and now it does. Moving forward, it will be a very different animal; there's a $15 Riesling I plan on buying a couple of cases of, since it will age well for a long time, and when the economy improves I'll be well-positioned to fill it back up with winners both cheap and dear. Having said that, though, I do hope that this will be the only time I call upon my collection to do anything more than taste magnificent with my dinner.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Pause That Refreshes

After a week of epic frustration, it's been pure luxury to have a day off, reveling in the clarity, aroma, and Proustian recall of early fall. I dug a good variety of the annual herbs, potting and soaking them well in advance of their imminent repair to the dining room where they'll sit basking in the waning sun shining through the big windows. The only hitch is that the radiator under the windows dries them out fast, so they need a ton of water if they're going to make it through the winter. This year's array is much more interesting than last: thyme, rosemary, chives, tarragon, curry, marjoram, za'atar, savory, and lemongrass. It should make for a richer palette for stews and the like. I also uprooted the verbena plant and hung it to dry on the porch so we can capture it for ice creams and such later on. Tomorrow it's time to make the giant pot of mirepoix and freeze it in individual bags.

Tonight's dinner was emblematic of the day: a return to autumnal simplicity and gratitude for a bit of rest. The stresses of life right now have not actually lessened- quite the opposite, in fact- but the key is to focus on the stuff one can actually control at any given moment. And that would be dinner.

A good local organic chicken- duly spatchcocked and rubbed with a blend of sea salt, smoked paprika, cumin, garlic, herbs, and pepper- got all roasty-like in the oven while I picked, washed, and spun a mixture of pan di zucchero and curly endive with garlic, lemon juice, brown mustard, and copious olive oil to make a wonderfully bitter-acidic-spicy condiment to the rich bird. There was some leftover sweet potato purée, and a bit of brown rice, so I combined them with an egg yolk, a bit of flour, and the rest of the spice rub to make little cakes which I browned in the (homemade) bacon fat left from breakfast. The bones from the grilled birthday chicken had been lurking in the fridge, so I threw them in a pot with the back from this bird and made a bunch of stock, some of which was lucky enough to form the bulk of a gravy I whipped up with the drippings once the chicken emerged from the oven.

Super-simple and traditional, and sublimely spot-hitting. When I was in Vermont, going through the cellar, I found a bunch of bottles I had all but forgotten about, so I brought them home since they're all good to go. Tonight's foray into the mixed case was a 2001 La Jota Petite Sirah; we bought it from the vineyard in May of 2004 on our last trip before Milo was born. (A word of advice to all the guys out there: go on wine-tasting trips with pregnant women. You have a guaranteed designated driver. It's pure genius.) I don't buy wine anything like this any more, but it's nice enough; there's some interesting spice sandwiched between the ludicrously opulent California fruit and just-softening tannins. Petite Sirah is notoriously dense and decadent, so it's what I expected, given what I remember from the tasting back then. We have one more; I'll try it in a few years to see if anything exciting happens to it as it relaxes. A bit too fat for chicken, really, but honestly there's still some pleasure to be had for me in these behemoths. In a way, it was perfect- heavy on the pleasure, light on the self-awareness. The way weekends were meant to be.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Brevity Is... Wit

I'm too tired to write much about our dinner last night; today was such a giant, frustrating waste of time that it has given me a new understanding of the phrase "wit's end." Those of you who stalk follow me on Facebook may have already read all about it, but suffice it to say that I drove 220 miles round trip to Brooklyn for an appointment that was canceled the very minute I arrived. There's really nothing more satisfying than making time, gas, money, and sanity evaporate in a big wasteful cloud all at once.

Last night, though, was the opposite. I picked up some more of the luscious line-caught swordfish and some corn and came home to try out our new shichirin that had arrived a few days earlier along with a box of binchotan charcoal. It takes a while to heat up, but once it does it's like your own personal volcano; strips of fish cook to perfection in a matter of seconds, and the vegetables get a delightful char as they soften. In addition to the fish, which I marinated in soy sauce, mirin, and agave nectar, we had the chicken mushrooms from Sunday's foraging trip (also marinated in a similar mixture for a couple of hours), two of our eggplants cut into batons and soaked in soy, garlic, ginger, nam pla, vinegar, and agave, and slices of sweet potato with salt and yuzu juice.

Apart from how nice it is to cook everything just so- and how much Milo loved it- once it gets cold we can do this indoors with a couple of windows cracked and not smoke ourselves out of the house. The charcoal burns so clean and so hot- next up is finding a good bowl to fit on there so we can have shabu-shabu.

Monday, September 21, 2009

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

Milo's birthday party was Saturday, and I kept it simple: grilled chicken legs and farfalle tossed with homemade pesto, feta, and cherry tomatoes. And cake. A vanilla cake with raspberry filling and chocolate frosting that had a bulldozer on it. Which I did not make. I don't do cakes. If you search very hard, you might find a blog or two out there that touch occasionally on desserts, but this ain't one of them. I make about three desserts, and I am OK with that because they are very good, and include pie and ice cream. Actually, I busted out a pretty badass pumpkin panna cotta for Thanksgiving a couple years ago, and have been known to make a sex-inducing molten chocolate cliché from time to time, so I've got that going for me.

Which is nice.

I've also got this wonderful family, without whom I would doubtless dine on nothing but sad bachelor sandwiches moistened with lonely, lonely tears.

I've been sleeping particularly horribly of late, so by the time dinner rolled around (or, rather, by the time I got busy and made dinner) I was fully beat. Also, there was lots of screaming- and a little crying- as a horde of kids rampaged through the house and after four or five hours of that most of my neurons felt like they'd been scoured with a wire brush. I had some grandiose plan for a fabulous meal that I was going to cook for all the adults who had come for the weekend, but it degenerated into a low-budget slasher production that verged on the comical.

It started off all right, with kebabs of cubed swordfish and hokkaido pumpkin from the garden (The two small specimens represented about a third of our total crop this year). I love the gradient at the edge of the squash, and the way they sweat when you cut them:

I relit the grill, still warm from lunch, and set them to doing their thing, surrounded by a bunch of our poblano chiles stuffed with polenta enhanced by the addition of parmigiano and water from the tub of feta I used to make the pasta for lunch. The peppers charred up pretty well, aided by slipping some maple bark through the grill to goose the BTUs of a flagging fire, and the fish cooked in no time. The problem was the pumpkin. I cut them too thick so they'd hold together when I skewered them, and they did, but they were much too big to cook through by the time all else was ready to eat. So I rushed back inside and dumped all the pumpkin hunks into a saucepan along with a little water and cider vinegar, and steamed them hard for a few minutes so they'd soften. Wet heat can be a wonderful thing sometimes.

We served it on a bed of steamed kale, and with a salad, and it tasted pretty good. The issue was visual, mostly; char-grilled peppers turn black, swordfish turns milky grey, and grilled squash that is then sloshed around in boiling liquid trades its sexy grill marks for a patina the color of an orange magic marker tip that's been carelessly dragged through a big area of black magic marker- by, say, a five-year old. So the resulting plate looked like something only a North Korean could love, and the ugliness was only accentuated by the ring of nasturtiums I hastily threw around it. I should have picked more, along with the lily pad-sized leaves growing from the one in the compost, and covered the whole damn thing with them.


Be honest, now- it looks like Wild Tofu Surprise™ made by your useless stoner college roommate when it was his night to cook, right? Perhaps after a long night watching kitchen gadget infomercials? Prepared shirtless, with that fucking Phish bootleg warbling the whole time? Of course it does.

In a couple of days I promise there will be a post that redeems the execrable fail of this one.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Che Cozze

I always try to let the circumstances of a day inform the dinner that I make, incorporating as much foresight as I can in the from of procuring certain ingredients in sufficient quantity to feed whoever will be around. Then there's the amount of time I have to actually cook, and whatever the season offers in the way of things that are fresh and perfect from the garden. In the case of today, Milo's Grandmother arrived for his party tomorrow and it looks like we're one day away from a frost that will end the lives of a good portion of what we have growing.

Put simply, this summer has sucked balls (and not in the good way). We had cold and rain every day of June and most of July; real summer weather arrived in August and now we're back to seasonal coolness and rapidly shortening days. Yes, I know that bitching about the weather is about as useful as explaining radiocarbon dating to a young-Earther, but this summer has been a fucking wash. Literally. Almost all of the things I planted for fall are still stunted little babies- we'll have no turnips, rutabaga, or black radishes bigger than a thimble- and since I was away for a critical week there's no tomato sauce or grape jelly in the pantry for winter. Even if I had been around, we still would have had to buy most of what we canned. And our peppers are only just beginning to ripen, meaning that all of the lovely hot sauces I like to make may not happen at all this year.

I love our friends, and I like this place, but if this is the new normal I don't want to live here any more. I'm not living through full-force winters and then getting wet, chilly, useless barely-summers. No matter how perfect spring and fall are- and they are- it's not going to be enough.

So to make best use of the non-spicy garden, I yanked a pile of stuff to form a saucy substrate for a whole pile of mussels we got from the fishmonger. Onion, garlic, fennel, carrot, parsley, chioggia beet, celery, Roma tomato, thyme, beet greens, chard, and scallion all went in the big pot along with some leftover dashi from lasagna night and about half a bottle of cheap (yet tasty) Alsatian Riesling. It simmered while I washed and checked the mussels for aliveness, then dumped them in until they all opened. Meanwhile, a pound of spaghetti boiled, and then it all collided in a big bowl to great effect with a crusty local baguette on the side. Apart from how damn good it tasted, the best part was watching Milo figure out that this meal is all about the bread and the sauce; he quickly abandoned both bivalves and noodles alike in favor of diligent dippage. I've got some ideas about how to use that fact as a jumping-off point for future dinners, but for the time being this did just fine.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

All Nighter ≠ Increased Productivity

Yesterday I drove to NYC and back in one evening- showing the apartment, and having a nice dinner at the Good Fork with friends who are planning their own restaurant- it's nice to drive on empty highways, but arriving back home at 2 AM to find that I didn't have my house keys and thus was forced to "sleep" in the Pilates studio so as not to wake my lovely wife was not the ideal finale to a tiring day. On the plus side, I had put a comforter in the car in case I wanted to sleep in Brooklyn and there is a nice mat on the floor which doesn't make the world's worst bed. On the minus side, there's no no running water in the studio and I had left my toothbrush and paste in the apartment. In the morning, my breath peeled much of the paint before I made it outside.

While I was gone, though, my family went to the farmers' market and picked up our fish order, which included a couple of gorgeous Branzino fresh from the Aeolian sea. Local, no- but sustainably caught and very tasty. We conveniently had a bunch of egg whites left over from making Milo's birthday mousse, so I whipped them into stiff peaks and folded in a bunch of sea salt and herbs to make a good crust for baking. Thusly slathered, they went in the oven while I made a super-simple Ragout de Jardin™ of carrot, onion, garlic, celery, shallot, fennel, chard (and stems), and two kinds of kale sautéed in a bit of olive oil. I also steamed a celery root and some fresh-dug potatoes until soft, then puréed them with a bit of cream and yogurt until they got all silky and smooth.

The fish emerged from oven and crust with a delightful aroma and fleshy firmness; the salty skin lifted off like a lid to expose the perfect white meat beneath. I gingerly lifted it onto dollops of purée and garnished it with our home-grown bounty.

A little lemon-butter sauce might have been nice, but deglazing the vegetables with some wine gave them enough moisture to function adequately as a sauce of sorts- or at least an elegant foil to the fish. And the cream and yogurt in the purée added a nice heft to the sweet starch. There's another whole cooked fish left over, so tomorrow I might make it into a salad of some kind- either for sandwiches, or as a topping for crostini to embellish plate of greens. We had another bottle of the 2005 Longval Tavel- it's quickly becoming my wine of the moment, especially for these season-spanning meals; it's nimble and elegant- served cool, but not cold, it has enough skin and age to cavort expertly with heartier fare- or with food like this, which screams (shaking a metaphorical, impotent fist at the mute heavens) "IT'S STILL SUMMER, DAMMIT!" despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Milo's Birthday

The party will be on Saturday, but today was the actual day. So I planned a simple meal of his favorites, and yet which also allowed me to refine my favorite variations on a couple of standards. He loves lasagna (he used to call it "Za-zagna" when he was little, and the name stuck). Since I'm still tinkering with my version, I gave it another whirl that took full advantage of the season's bounty. The winning combination of veal and dashi has pretty much defined the dish for us- I've written about it before- so this time around what made it even better were two components that came from the garden. Christine made a big batch of roasted tomato sauce while I was in Miami, so I added that to some ground (humane, pasture-raised) local veal and let it simmer into a luscious sauce. The dashi, once made, I stirred into a roux along with a pesto made with roughly equal parts of curly endive and basil.

I get pretty annoyed dealing with lasagna noodles; it requires boiling a big pot of water, and then dealing with big, hot, slimy, crinkly noodles before they all stick together. Plus, the act of cooking them ends up knocking most of the crinkles off anyway, which is vexing in and of itself. So this time around, I just soaked them in a big bowl of hot water; in 30 minutes or so they were perfectly pliable and yet just tepid and fully intact. In a perfect world, I would have rolled out fresh pasta- maybe flavored with caramelized onions for some more depth and complexity- but store-bought served just fine. These were supplemented with some sunchoke flour for a nice silky texture. So I alternated layers of veal ragù and pesto-dashi velouté, and topped it all with fresh mozzarella and grated parmigiano. It baked up beautifully.

Originally I had planned to make some serious dark chocolate ice cream- something he loves a very great deal- so I did my usual thing: beat eggs and extra yolks, heat cream/milk mixture, vanilla, and vanilla sugar, pour onto shaved chocolate (Scharffen Berger unsweetened 99% cacao), temper eggs with the ganache, whisk over double-boiler until thick, then chill in the fridge. It set up so lusciously thick in the fridge that I asked him if it would be OK for us to have chocolate mousse instead of ice cream. He agreed, delighted, so that saved a whole step. I took some local raspberries out of the freezer, and cooked them with a splash of dessert wine left in the fridge, some maple syrup, and a little red wine until they were all busted up and gooey, then I strained the syrup into a bowl. After dinner, I scooped mousse into bowls, garnished them with strawberry slices and mint leaves, and served them. He was so excited to eat it that he didn't want a candle, but when he asked for seconds he decided that he did. Using the 99% cacao allows one to use the normal proportion of cream and milk and still have the mousse/ice cream taste fully dark. It's very grownup and sophisticated, and further proof that the kid really knows how to eat. And thus did he enjoy his fifth birthday.

Monday, September 14, 2009


It was a busy week, and it's good to be back; it's so clear, mild, and perfect here after the tropical heat and humidity. Despite the hard work, there were some good meals (and not a little time in the pool at my gallerists/hosts' house). Initially, it was just me staying there; the other artists arrived later in the week. I had one evening to myself, so I rummaged around in the fridge to construct a dinner. Finding fingerling potatoes, half a fennel bulb, some onion, shallots, cream, and a bit of old sparkling wine, I assembled it all into a decent gratin, seasoned with herbs from their back yard, making a salt-rubbed cucumber salad as well.

The next day, we (now numbering four) went to Hiro's Yakko-San in North Miami. It's a wonderfully authentic and unpretentious place, serving a wide variety of izakaya-style small plates. We had fried shishito peppers, triggerfish skin jerky, seaweed salad, spicy clams (with an insanely good sauce, which we refused to let them take away; we asked for rice to soak up the last of it) fried udon, kimchi, broiled mackerel, and a few other things that I'm forgetting, washed down with Kirin Ichiban and a good Daiginjo sake. Fantastic, and a welcome alternative to ubiquitous sushi-joint fare. As an example, take a look at the lovely seaweed salad:

The following night I offered to cook for them, since they had opened their home to me for a week and I wanted to reciprocate a little bit. So after closing up the gallery, we headed off to the WhoFo in South Beach to stock up on things. Hot, muggy weather notwithstanding, I was in an autumnal kind of mood, so I incongruously grabbed a bunch of the vegetables that we have in the garden now. It's a pity, really, that the big national chain is now precluded by its size from dealing with local suppliers in different regions; the produce looked exactly the way it would in any other branch. Had I not been there to work, I would have sought out the great local fish market and tried to find some produce as well. But such is life.

We ended up with some beautiful wild coho salmon, a flank steak, a turnip, a head of radicchio, brussels sprouts, and some sweet potatoes. Positively screams tropical, right? The one nod to locality was a bag of key limes. When we got back, I minced the salmon super-fine with their two cleavers (it's so much easier that way) and folded grated ginger, lime juice, soy sauce, fish sauce, and a little Bragg's into it and let it sit. I served it plain, with lime, and it was good. What it really needed, though, was soy sauce thickened with raw egg yolk and pooled around it like a little moat of awesome, but I didn't think of that until my now-normal bout of insomnia around 4 AM. Which, obviously, is the most useful time of night to have these thoughts. Since Tyler is pregnant, I cooked hers up like a little burger.

I cubed and caramelized the turnip in a pan, adding a few drops of vanilla when done, then chopped the radicchio and tossed it with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and set it aside to marinate. The brussels sprouts got a simple sautée with a strip of minced bacon, and then a quick steam with a splash of wine to soften them up. The sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into discs, went in the oven to bake with a good glug of cream and herbes de Provence. I once again raided their garden bed for arugula, basil, and oregano, which I made into a pesto along with a little key lime juice and some habañero mustard I found in the fridge and then rubbed all over the steak after I pounded it nice and flat. Then I rolled it up tight, pinned it with a wooden skewer, and put it on the grill with a cedar plank (not on the plank, but next to it; the wood caught fire and smoked the chamber up pretty nicely).

Once the roulade was done, I sliced it up and set a piece on top of a sweet potato round, then scattered sprouts, turnips, and radicchio, finishing with a little pan-deglazement action involving wine, cream, and minced herbs. It turned out pretty well, despite the geographical/seasonal inappropriateness.

Friday night we went to a BBQ at some big collectors' house; it's an annual event and they invite the entire Miami art world. Last, on Saturday night, after the opening we went up to Red Light, a hip café in a semi-dicey neighborhood where the food is playful, heavy on local ingredients, and well-executed. I, being in the mood, had both mussels steamed with wine, garlic, and herbs AND shrimp in a thick, sweet, tamarind-inflected coconut curry that I could have just eaten by itself with a baguette and called it a night. It's the kind of place- along with Hiro's- at which I would surely become an instant regular if I lived down there, and it's another reason why I love to stay with people rather than at hotels; it's the quickest way to find all the cool places that tourists don't go to. It's also particularly nice when one's hosts are kind enough to treat at both venues.

For dessert I ordered a scoop of carambola (star fruit) sorbet for us all to try, and it opened up a whole bunch of interesting ideas; there's a slight smokiness to it that got me excited, and it did some pretty special things with- of all things- the Bandol rosé I was drinking. I've done some fancy eating in Miami before- Nobu, and a few of the schmancy "fusion" joints that are all over the place- but these two are so much more satisfying for their humility, conviviality, quality, and affordability. I like the city even more now than before, and hope to get back there soon- but next time with the family. A week- even a busy and exciting one- can feel like a long time to be away.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Try A Little Tenderness

I'm heading off to Miami today for a show- I'll be gone a week- so here's the post of the ridiculously off-the-hook steak we had the other night to tide you over until I get back. It's a perfect example of how the simplest ingredients can attain perfection when they're properly sourced, grown, and prepared. In this case, a seriously badass steak and a bunch of just-picked vegetables. Sounds pretty average, right? But oh, what glory.

One last quick play for immortality before all the details: please click here, find "Cookblog," (still holding at #3) and award me the number of hats that you fell this humble effort deserves. I'm going to predict that you're feeling generous, and elated at the prospect of reading about one of the 3 best steaks I've ever eaten, so you'll vote 5 hats and then rush back to read all about it.

We went to Chris and Sirkka's house for dinner, bringing the raspberry tart from the last post and a couple of bottles of wine. Chris had been to Fleisher's earlier and came back with one of their amazing dry-aged top sirloins. We wandered out into their garden- outperforming ours by a long shot, as usual- and figured out what to eat with the meat. We settled on a purée of celery root, turnip, and potato, a shaved beet and fennel salad, and braised turnip greens with collards and bonito shavings. For the beets and fennel, we shaved them on a mandoline, and then kneaded them with salt until they gave up copious liquid, followed by a thorough rinsing, squeezing, and dressing with ume and brown rice vinegars, olive oil, and soy sauce. This salt-kneading results in a texture that's half-crunchy, half, silky, and it's sublime. The quality and freshness of their vegetables made it an eye-opener.

Now, the steak. Here's Chris showing that it was in fact just about as big as his head:

We used the slow-sear in butter method to get a serious crust on this slab o' joy, then removed it to a cutting board. It was at this moment that I was seized by an impure thought of extraordinary magnitude: they had some of my lardo on hand, so I grated it on top and let it melt in to all the crevices of the maillardy madness:

A sprinkle of truffle salt, on the meat, a quick pan sauce of red wine deglazing the buttery pan and thickening for a minute or two, and we got down to business:

This combination of food was for all of us one of the best things we've ever eaten. The astonishing steak, the sweet, creamy, complex purée, the earthy, slightly smoky greens, and the half-pickled beets and fennel- perfection. A bite of meat with a little sauce and salad was honestly one of the all-time greatest bites of food in my life so far, and easily as magic in its own way as the ethereal Wagyu we had at Alinea in June.

The moral of the story is grow your own, and buy humanely raised, grass-fed meat from local farmers. With some gentle interventions, you'll eat the best food in the world.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Baking Man

Q: What's better than 40,000 filthy hippies in the Nevada desert?

A: A raspberry mocha custard tart with a red wine glaze.

Don't believe me? Check this out:

Now, if you haven't yet, please go here, find "Cookblog," (currently at #3) and bestow upon me some hats. Allow me to suggest five as a nice round number. Your appreciation will make a difference, and I thank you for it.

As I said, the family went berry-picking yesterday, and returned with a big bucket of raspberries (including some yellow ones). Raspberries pretty much need to be put on a tart after baking, since they turn right into jam if cooked even for a second, so I thought about what to put under them that might show them off to good advantage. We had some chocolate milk in the fridge, so that was the jumping-off point for a custard. I beat 6 egg yolks with some vanilla sugar, then added a glug of the sticky fortified Australian muscadelle that's been sitting in the door of the fridge for an age now. In a saucepan, I heated the chocolate milk, a shot of espresso, a bit more vanilla sugar, some raw cocoa powder, and some 5-spice, then tempered it into the yolks. This mixture got a good whisking in a double boiler until thick, then I put it in the freezer to cool and thicken further. I blind-baked a crust, then cooled it as well.

I used to have a bag of chick peas in a cupboard that I used as pie weights for this kind of operation, but Milo found it and took them for one of his nefarious experiments, so they were gone. I ended up looting his jar of change which he had carelessly left out and spreading a bunch of the coins on a sheet of parchment to hold the crust flat while it cooked. Mess with my garbanzos and I'll steal your allowance. You have all been warned. Custard onto crust, then berries arranged on top, and finally a glaze of the last drops of of sweet wine, red wine from its fridge door neighbor, strawberry jam, black pepper, a little more vanilla sugar, and ume vinegar all simmered together and then strained. I put the finished tart back into the fridge to let it set up until it was time to go to dinner. For the story of that perfect meal, you will have to wait until tomorrow.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Sneak Preview

OK, so I have no idea how I ended up in a blog popularity contest with the most popular food blogs in the world, but I'll take it. If you haven't already, and you are so inclined- on the basis of, you know, liking this blog- please click over there and lavish me with hatty appreciation. If I can get my traffic to a respectable level, it will be ever so much easier for me to wrangle some attention for this book that I'm writing. And thank you for your support; it's very gratifying.

I spent all day at the ceramics studio, since we're about one bisque kiln away from firing the big one and I'm on a mission to get that done as soon as we can. today was pretty productive, not least because the family dropped me off to go berry-picking and I was stranded there all day. I made 16 things (8 bowls, 8 plates) plus a not-too-shabby geodesic teapot. Here's a shot of some of the last batch, freshly bisqued and ready for glaze:

There are a bunch more, and more to come. It's funny- I'm obsessed with ceramics right now, and yet I'm lucky if I can carve out half a day every two weeks in which to make them. It's so interesting, and relaxing at the same time; if I had the time I would take a year and completely immerse myself in it- and then maybe another year to learn wheel throwing. Part of it is the long delay between the fabrication and the finish firing- it keeps me in a more or less perpetual state of unfulfillment, since by the time the kiln fires I've begun a new batch of stuff. In any case, this batch will yield something like 8 pieces each of ten or so different shapes, each glazed differently. And I have big ideas about what I'm going to serve on them.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Shameless Pandering

Some kind soul nominated this here blog for an awards-type competition. So if you like what you read here, why not click over and vote (come on, gimme 5 hats) so I can build enough traffic to get a book deal for something that I'm working on. I have no idea who nominated me, but thanks. Not sure what the deadline is, so be skippy. If I win, I will send you BACON.

Tonight, continuing our sojourn through the superb seafood I picked up yesterday, I marinated a pound of scallops in kimchi juice for an hour or so to give them a little firmness and a slightly ceviche-esque acidity. While they sat, plump and quiescent, soaking up tangy complexity, I peeled a huge red potato from the garden, halved it lengthwise, and pared those two halves into approximate cylinders which I sliced into discs about 3/16" thick, and then steamed until just tender. Next up I made a batch of pie crust, but since we only had the local white flour with all the germ intact, it ended up a slightly more rustic version than the usual; it held together OK, but didn't have the elasticity that my idea really called for. In any case, it worked out all right.

The idea was pretty simple: alternate slices of scallop and potato, season, roll, and bake. And that's just what I did. The scallops, cut in half, ended up abut the same thickness as the spuds. I melted a little butter with a clove of garlic, a small spoon of pimentón, thyme, and olive oil, and brushed the dough with it. I also dribbled more over the finished stacks just prior to rolling them up (I made two, each about 7" long). A little pinching to repair holes, some crimping and gentle compression, and into the oven they went.

While they baked, I made a simple ragout of good-looking stuff I picked in the garden today while I puttered around and planted hardy lettuces and greens for fall and winter salads. Leaving aside the grotesque injustice that the weather has been so far- summer literally started a couple of weeks ago- there's no denying that it's been just perfect lately, with crystalline blue skies, beaming sunshine, and temps in the 70s. So I got motivated to try and grow something, despite the humiliating fail of so many of our crops this time around. The ragout was a gently sautéed (in the rest of the butter-oil blend) mix of onion, carrot, fennel, celery, chioggia beet, potato trimmings, cherry tomato, herbs, garlic, summer squash, and corn (these last two did not come from our garden).

It's a common refrain here that I rarely have enough time to make things the way I want them to be, since I can't normally start making dinner at lunchtime- which is pretty much what it would require. So I make the most of an hour, sometimes two, and think of many of these dishes as rough drafts, filing away the better results for another time when I can go crazy and take a week off from all other duties just to cook. Other people call this "Thanksgiving."

And this turned out fine- certainly from a flavor point of view it delivered handily. Even Milo said "This is such summery food!" As he ate first the crust, then the potatoes, then the ragout. He doesn't love scallops. In his defense, cooking them properly done up like this was impossible; something to think about will be how to keep them medium while getting a good brown on the crust. (Once he turns five, though, I'm going to expect better of him). Possible variations include thinner layers, perhaps with more different ingredients for color and texture inside. But the white on white look kind of worked, and the colorful vegetables set it off pretty well. There are lots of ways it could go. We drank a 2005 Domaine de Longval Tavel, which is just wonderful; it may even be a little too assertive for this food, since the age and the tannins (it's pretty dark for a rosé) make it maybe more of a BBQ chicken kind of wine, but the extra power it had did help it get into all the nooks and crannies, scouring some interesting resonances out of the shellfish and vegetables.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Another Plate Of Food

Among other things, I got some Arctic char from our weekly primo fishmonger. Monging fish is hard work, evidently, so he was late for the delivery, but I still managed to get dinner together- though not without less elegance than I had originally imagined. Char is pretty mild, salmony hue notwithstanding (it often comes off as a bit of a letdown, flavorwise, since it looks so much like salmon) so I gave it a goose with a rub of miso mixed with kimchi juice and a pinch of brown sugar which sat on the fillet for about an hour while I washed greens and prepped other things.

I peeled, seeded, sliced, and salt-rubbed the cukes, then let them sit and cough up some water for a bit. Then I rinsed them, squeezing out all the water, and dressed them with soy sauce, sesame oil, and a drib of yuzu juice. I had obtained a fat handful of greens from thinning the radicchio, so I sautéed them with garlic and olive oil until wilted. A beautiful bag of shiitake and oyster mushrooms from the market today went in a pan with guanciale and garlic and got a hearty caramelization followed by a deglazement with white wine, soy sauce, and sherry vinegar. I served it all on a bull's blood beet leaf, with some purslane to garnish. The quick marinade did wonders for the fish; while it didn't firm up much like with a longer cure, the delicate umami richness of the miso did permeate the flesh and make for some pretty great bites. The mushrooms were ridiculously good.

With a bit more time (the story of my life) this could have been something really special. The red garnish is a julienne of our first cayene pepper, meticulously de-membraned and seeded to get the heat to a perfect level. As it was, the best bites involved rolling up a bit of everything inside the beet leaf. Next time, I'll brine them like grape leaves and make it official.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Let There Be Lens

I didn't have a ton of time yesterday, so I convection-baked chicken thighs with a spice rub and put them on top of polenta with some roasted Roma tomatoes (roasted alongside the chicken) and a salsa made with more tomatoes (Roma and pink Brandywine) plus red onion, cucumber, lemon juice, and poblano broiled until the skin blistered and came off easily. I had thought about going the chiles rellenos route, but the wife is not eating cheese right now. I could have stuffed the peppers with polenta, but only thought of that after they were fully blackened and not so structurally integrous. So I made it into a vaguely deliberate pile and called it dinner. And it was good.

Today I had a little more time to mull over the steps that lead to dinner, so I coaxed a little more richness and detail out of the various components. To begin, more Roma tomatoes, since they're going off like plump fireworks every day now. (Tomorrow I will go buy a big box at the weekly market in town to supplement our crop and get to canning sauce for the winter). This time around I baked them like before, but with thyme, copious olive oil, and a fat clove of garlic cut in half. So the top halves half-dried and caramelized, and the bottom halves confited. Once done, I removed the thyme stems and blasted all the rest in the processor until it was all lovely, smooth, and thick. Here are the before and after pics, because it's now actually worthwhile for me to take pictures:

While all this tomatoey erotica was transpiring, the pressure cooker was working its barometric magic on some local organic navy beans, water, and a mirepoix of our guanciale, fennel, onion, carrot, parsley, and celery. "Why, it makes its own broth!" you might say, and you would be right to say it. Freaking awesome. Getting the quantity of the water right is the trick, so that when the cooker is opened it's neither a soupy mess nor a stuck, blackened disaster. Usually I like to err a bit more on the watery side, and then simmer off the extra liquid while I finish up the other things.

In this case, the other things were puréeing the tomatoes, toasting some local sourdough to a bean-supporting stiffness (I have fully fallen off the bread wagon lately) and mincing a grab of parsley. And thus: crostini as dinner. I had thinned the midsummer plantings of rutabaga, daikon, and black radishes- all woefully underdeveloped due to the awful weather; it'll be a miracle if they reach a decent size before the season ends- so I washed and sautéed the various greens with garlic, lemon, and olive oil for a bright, fresh, crunchy counterweight to the rich, creamy beans and deeply savory-sweet tomato sauce. Also elegantly balanced was our beverage: a 2003 Ada Nada Barbaresco "Valeirano" that's every bit as good as Mary describes it here. We bought it from her, and I fear that we may be down to our last couple of bottles. It's my kind of wine; decadent yet austere, wise beyond its years, and tannic enough to improve over another decade or two (not that it will have the chance).

Other People's Gardens Are Better Than Mine

The first of the month brings a new article, this time about edible landscaping and such.