Reading the Fish Wrap: Picklemania

The new year brings with it new and exciting flavors and techniques. No, I’m not referring to Mark Bittman’s two most recent columns on Potatoes and Sandwiches. Instead check out Sophie Brickman’s piece in the New York Times about cooking in your microwave. I’ve been trying some of the less frequented buttons, so this was inspiring. Reviewing Nathan Myhrvold’s follow-up to his six-volume bible for the modernist chef, a slimmer edition for the modernist home cook, Brickman suggests we try frying parsley, steaming fish, and dehydrating fruit, all in the microwave. We most definitely will!

At the Washington Post, there’s a hilarious piece about the new tasting menu at Graffiato, Mike Isabella’s Chinatown Italian. Tim Carman builds suspense in the article by describing the chef’s (actually sous chef Adam Brick) ingredients as items that otherwise “would have been found rotting in the trash”–scallop muscle, beef tendon, fish tails. He then places this in the context of “whole animal cooking,” which makes sense to food section readers. But here’s the punchline: the chefs at Graffiato aren’t using “scraps” that come with the whole, they are just buying scraps. And charging $85 a pop for the tasting. What a racket.

Thanks, but I’d rather try the Post’s recipe for Polish Pickle Soup. Or what about pickle chips dehydrated in my microwave? Graffiato can buy my little pickle stems. I usually pitch them.

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A Vegetable in Meat’s Dressing

I’ve written about a certain spinach and steak salad here, a regular in my house. Recently I decided to make a side of broccoli that went beyond my normal steamed with a little butter, salt, and pepper. (I’m starting to understand why a bottle of sriracha sits in the middle of my table at all times.) This is all part of my bolder-flavors-in-2013 mantra. I took the broccoli and prepared it just as I would the steak for my favorite salad. I tossed the florets with sliced onions, garlic, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, Maggi, and pepper. I let it marinate before sauteing it in a large frying pan. I put the lid on for some gentle steaming and only stirred the vegetables occasionally to allow for browning. It was so successful that I can’t even remember what I served it with. Not bad for a vegetable side!

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Spice It Up With Thomas Keller

This is going to sound like a pretty obvious statement, but I just tried a recipe from Thomas Keller’s ad hoc at home and it was awesome. I had a taste for some Indian flavors, so initially I thought of dahl, but then I came across Keller’s recipe for lentil and sweet potato soup. I had a ton of aging sweet potatoes in my larder, so it didn’t take much convincing.

Start by slowly rendering the fat from a lot of bacon in vegetable oil–I did 9 slices, chopped. After about 20 minutes, add chopped onion, carrots, and leeks. Also add curry powder, and here’s where I improvised, some cumin and garam masala. Cook the vegetables on low heat for 30 minutes and then add 8 cups chicken stock, a bag of lentils, and a sachet of bay leaf, peppercorns, thyme, and crushed garlic. Simmer 40 minutes. I skipped a few of Keller’s fussier steps, like making a parchment lid and removing the bacon for latter crisping and garnishing, but I did boil the sweet potatoes separately with another sachet. This allowed me to keep them from overcooking and disintegrating into the soup–and making it too sweet! Finish with a little red wine vinegar and cilantro.

What is striking about this soup is just how much flavor it has from the get-go. To think it will only get better and more intense! Rounding out this meal: Thai chicken and rice from Saveur served with cucumber, chutney, and yogurt, and spinach sauteed with garlic and garam masala. And later in the week, I’ll roast come cauliflower with similar flavors. A great food week indeed!

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New Year’s Reading: Fifty Shades of Flounder

I’ve read some Gunter Grass, and even excerpted Local Anaesthetic here. I got my Thanksgiving stuffing recipe from him. Then a year plus ago New York Magazine mentioned The Flounder in a list of great food books. It seemed natural that I’d pick up a copy and now finally I have. This should be an interesting read. Here’s a sampling from the first pages:

I had studded the shoulder of mutton with halved garlic cloves, sauted the pears in butter, and bedded them on boiled string beans. Even though Ilsebill, speaking with her mouth still full, said there was no reason why it shouldn’t come off, or “take” right away, because she had thrown her pills down the john as the doctor advised, what I heard was that our bed should have priority over the neolithic cook.

And so we lay down, arming and legging each other around as we have done since time immemorial. Sometimes I, sometime she on top. Equal, though Ilsebill contends that the male’s privilege of penetrating is hardly compensated by the female’s paltry prerogative of refusing admittance. But because we mated in love, our feelings were so all-embracing that in an expanded space, transcending time and its tick-tock, freed from the heaviness of our earthbound bed, a collateral, ethereal union was achieved; as though in compensation, her feeling penetrated mine in hard thrusts: we worked doubly and well.

Eaten before the mutton with pears and beans, Ilsebill’s fish soup, distilled from codfish heads that have had the hell boiled out of them, probably embodied the catalytic agent with which, down through the ages, the cooks inside me have invited pregnancy; for by chance, by destiny, and without further ingredients, it came off, it took. No sooner was I out again–as though expelled–than Ilsebill said with perfect assurance, “Well, this time it’s going to be a boy.”

Don’t forget the savory. With boiled potatoes or, historically, with millet. Our mutton–as always advisable–had been served on warmed plates. Nevertheless our kiss, if I may be forgiven one last indiscretion, was coated with tallow. In the fish soup, which Ilsebill had made green with dill and capers, codfish eyes floated white and signified happiness.

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Reading the Fish Wrap: Last Year, This Year

I read with some interest the top new restaurant lists from Pete Wells in New York City and Tom Sietsema in the D.C. area. I tend to stay local, so I need to try Rasika Westend, Seasonal Pantry, and Izakaya Seki. I don’t think I’m going to risk another meal at Mintwood Place. As a friend used to say, it would be really great…if you’ve never been to a restaurant before. I’ve been warned away from Rogue 24 by a local food writer, so mostly I’ll just keep going to Little Serow as much as humanly possible. It’s going to be a great year! Also, if you missed it, the Times had a great piece by Eugenia Bone about French truffles–where to buy them, why they taste smell so good, and especially whether all those truffle products are the real deal. Read It.

Photo by Jennifer Causey for MSL

However, the piece that I’d like to set the tone for my 2013 comes in the January issue of Martha Stewart Living. It’s a how-to for growing sprouts and microgreens. It’s as easy as a plastic take-out container, dirt, and seeds. And then there’s the grilled cheese sandwich with bacon, apple, and sprouts as well as an omelet with microgreens. Yes, I’d very much like to start the new year with these little buds and those simple recipes. You’d understand if you saw the dusty, dried-out rosemary plant in my window. So long 2012!

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What We Are Talking About When We Talk About Best

I’ve been hearing about Komi ever since moving to D.C. and always in a hushed voice with eyes widening for emphasis: This is the Best meal in town. I was skeptical after I saw the dining room, which I found underwhelming. But after a year of eating Johnny Monis’ inspired Thai food at Little Serow, I was ready to take the plunge into one of the most expensive tasting menus in town. Monis has earned my trust.

Eating at Little Serow is like riding the chairlift up a steep, glorious mountain, full of anticipation and thrill, and then flying down the powdered slope in a perfect run–exhilarating, cold and sweaty, mouth-watering, tear-inducing. And if you accept that analogy, allow me one more: Eating at Komi is like drinking a hot toddy later, popping a vicodin, and falling asleep in the hot tub.

Unfortunately, that dowdy dining room became my favorite part of the whole experience. The dozen or so dishes were, frankly, boring. The puff with lemon and caviar couldn’t top the latkes, creme fraiche, and caviar I’d had for breakfast. The fried-with-liquid-center spanakopita rivals the Trader Joe’s variety. The raw salmon in fish broth was dullsville–without brightness. The charred octopus and fennel had good flavor, but the tentacles were tough. Someone must have forgotten the promised truffle with the scallops, sea urchin, and crispy kale, because I couldn’t detect it. The pastas were also snooze-y–gnocchi with olive oil and Parmesan, pappardelle with lamb ragu. I enjoyed the famed roast goat shoulder with gyro fixin’s–”very Komi” we were told by our server–except much of it, like every single dish through to the lollypops at the end, was so salty my taste buds ached from it. I didn’t taste much else.

Maybe all this would have been easier to take if the servers didn’t practically call out “Ta Da!” as they set down each plate. Several times I thought they were going to scoop up the bites before I did, they were brimming with so much excitement. And, sadly, I may not have minded much if they did.

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The Critics Eat It, So You Don’t Have To

I don’t know who Jay Rayner is. I don’t recognize his face on the cover of his book. And yet I bought it based on presumed shared interests. It’s called The Man Who Ate the World: In Search of the Perfect Dinner. Rayner is the restaurant critic for The London Observer and in 2006 or ’07 maybe he decided to travel the world on his quest.

Spoiler: He never found the perfect dinner. In part, I think this was poor planning on his part. A man on such a conquest should not be wasting time in Dubai, Moscow, or Las Vegas. In 2006 El Bulli was the “best restaurant in the world” and Alinea was already climbing the charts. No Spain, no Chicago? That said, I appreciate his descriptions of these cities through the lens of food for that’s my preferred view, and I’ll never be visiting any of them. Not to my taste.

His trip to New York, then the best food city in the country, was a bit of a waste. He simply did an appetizer crawl of Per Se, Eleven Madison Park, Jean-Georges, Bouley, and WD-50. Fun, but no way to judge. What I did find amusing was Rayner’s night out with the Zagats, my employers at the time. Rayner experienced classic Tim Zagat. This exchange reminded me of when Tim asked me if we were hiring based on looks when I introduced him to a young, new editor (now an editor at Gwenyth Paltrow’s Goop):

We stand in the middle of Morimoto, a slick, buzzy Japanese restaurant, designed in shades of white, and [Zagat] mutters, as if to himself, “Look at them, they’re all so young. They’re all so damned young.” In another place he reacts with surprise at the sight of four women eating together. “It’s good that they have the confidence to do that.”

I suggest gently that this might be a generational thing, that in the twenty-first century young women eating together is not exactly worthy of a stop on a sight-seeing tour. “That’s what I’m saying,” he replies. “It’s good to see.”

Later, at Buddakan, Tim yells in Rayner’s ear, “A girl could get pregnant on the way to the bar here.” It brings it all back. Rayner has a few jabs for Wolfgang Puck, whose restaurants spread, “like some multi-drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis,” and Anthony Bourdain for once remarking that the most important ingredient in sushi is the rice, but Tim Zagat really seems to be the scene-stealing supporting actor–he is quite a character.

Another spoiler: Rayner eats best in Tokyo and in New York. But the search for the perfect dinner continues. I’ll be looking for it at Komi tonight.

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Party Like It’s 2002

There are many suggestions flying around for grand meat centerpieces and hearty stews for these holidays, but it seems to me that we just did the big sit-down-dinner thing. And many of those turkey eaters will be back for seconds. I lean more towards the latke crowd, oh, and thanks New York Times for the obvious brilliant idea for blini and caviar. We’ll be doing both of those, but first a dinner that’s a bit of a throwback.

It’s the early aughts; you’re at a corporate holiday party; you’re holding two martini glasses, but so is everyone else. That’s right, it’s time for a potato bar. Your guests get a bowl and a fork and each man creates his own supper. We’ll start first with super creamy, slightly salty, vaguely peppery mashed potatoes. Then there will be the toppings! For starters, bacon bits, chunks of kielbasa, scallions, garlic butter, roasted vegetables, creme fraiche, cheese, and maybe some of the caviar. If it looks good at the market, there might even be little roasted lamb chops.

You can go classic, vegetarian, indulgent. Everyone is pleased, I hope. We shall see. P.S. Definitely still offer salty martinis. Some things are never dated.

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Minibar Now Half As Good For Twice the Price

It was with no small amount of glee that I read Tom Sietsema’s pan of the “new” minibar. My first experience two years ago at Jose Andres’ exclusive table for modernist cuisine was definitely three-plus star. But my second visit, earlier this year, was a big disappointment (turns out it was also a bargain). Judging from Sietsema’s review, many of the menu items have remained the same–every dish he mentioned, in fact, I’ve had–so what exactly makes Andres’ minibar new?

Well, it looks different for starters. Diners change rooms for opening drinks and closing desserts. And the picture in the Post looks like a room out of the Jetsons with the performance kitchen encircled by white lounge-y chairs. The other difference? This now solidly (barely?) two-star experience, will cost you a bit more. Aside from stomaching a jacked up per person rate (from $150 to $225), diners must choose from one of four drink pairings ranging from $45 (non-alcoholic) to $200 (what Jose would drink). For four, Sietsema paid $1800.

Perhaps the cobwebs are just starting to collect on a concept past its prime (and you could say that Andres is doubling down on it, but really he’s just asking his diners for that kindness). Maybe other chefs are doing it better. Maybe Andres is spread too thin. After such a scathing review, I have to wonder if the reservations will be so hard won. It’s already a bit less exclusive. The new minibar is double the size (four  seatings of six per night) and double the price for a lot of soft, sweet, barely there foam. Sietsema concludes: “Dinner at the second Minibar is like watching a bunch of trailers when you’re hungry for a movie.”

Oh, one final New thing at minibar: According to Sietsema there were numerous service issues, something that I’d never experienced. Needless to say, Jose Andres is not pleased. One day the spell Jaleo seems to have over Sietsema will be broken. That is the only review I’ll enjoy more than this one.

Conclusion: if you’re going to make silly plates from casts of your hands that make it look like you’re God offering food to the hungry, you’d better get it right. Or give it for free.

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New Year’s Resolutions Involving Pork Belly

I suspect that this is common: Often when I’m grocery shopping I zone out and go on autopilot. Flowers, apples, spinach, Muenster, and at the meat counter, hot Italian sausages (for pasta sauce), chicken thighs (for soup), and skirt steak (for salad). Last week, as I waited daydreaming for assistance, I took a closer look at the wares on display. And, boy, am I glad I did. At my Whole Foods I found beautiful pork belly, something I’ve never seen un-cured or -cooked before. Despite having no idea how to prepare it, I didn’t hesitate.

I quickly found there is a blogger who has cooked her way through the Momofuku cookbook, so I followed her direction. I put a little crosshatch on the fatty side, covered the whole thing in salt and pepper, and put it in the fridge overnight. The next day, I roasted it low and slow in my toaster oven–nearly three hours at 250 degrees. For the last ten minutes, I turned up the heat to 400 degrees. I let the belly rest before slicing and served it wrapped in lettuce leaves with creme fraiche, cucumber, sriracha, and a mild kimchi. It was awesome. Notes for next time: a little less salt in the dry brine and a bigger piece of belly, thanks very much.

This exercise was so much fun I think I’m going to dismantle my autopilot and try to make something new each week this year.

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