Friday, November 9, 2012

Brussels Sprouts

DuBois, PA Late Nixon Administration The benchmark, established at a Formica and chrome kitchen table in the real not Instagram early Seventies, is a bland, mushy bitterness, battered, green and soggy, throat-closing and frightening.  Common practice at 523 Burt Street DuBois, PA and at Grandma’s house the next block over on Reams Street (in retrospect, more an alley than a street but I think it has been paved since) was to cook a vegetable into complete defeat.  I can’t blame my family; it was common practice then in many households.  The mandatory splat of four or five sprouts on a Thanksgiving plate otherwise filled with happy, brown, carbohydrate-centric foods disrupted our turkey Zen, scratching the Polaroid holiday memory yet to be realized.  No matter how much gravy and bread awesomeness went into my mouth, I knew that the slow static warfare over the sprouts had begun.

Of course, I grew up and left DuBois primarily to escape vegetable persecution.  I avoided Brussels sprouts for many years.

The Occidental, Washington DC, 1986 During the peak of the al dente vegetable, the Brussels sprout was simply another veg. on the Enterementier station to blanch, shock, dry, and cut before service.  I’d trim the roots and outer leaves, drop them in boiling slated-‘till-it-tastes-like-blood water, and gamble on when to pull them out.  If not blanched long enough, the warmed but still raw cores would brown halfway through service, causing our hostilely narcissistic, compulsively abusive sous chef to throw them across the kitchen and screetchinlgy mock me.  If cooked too much, they’d dissolve into mush when they hit the butter of the finishing skillet before served on a plate of lamb chops with piped sweet potato puree and rosemary-scented jus.  This mushy mess would also end up decorating the wall over the dish station to cigarette-breath expletive-laden barrage of same Sous Chef. 

I can’t remember a day I got it correct.  The arrival of asparagus season, while presenting a separate set of issues, brought happiness to me that had nothing to do with the arrival of spring.  I received a six-month reprieve.

Berkeley, CA 1994 As I am exiting the Graduate program in the Chemistry Department, finishing my coursework and collect my consolation prize Master’s degree from the top Chemistry program in the world.  As an adjustment to my return to cooking, I picked up a cook’s job at Baywolf Restaurant in nearby Piedmont.  I liked the place, Mediterranean-California cuisine focusing on seasonal ingredients, local products, and tasty but accessible wines.  (Sound familiar Highland Ave?) It was fall, and even though everything gowns all the time in California, the East Coast rhythms of harvest and planting still showed through menus. 

Needless to say, it was Brussels sprouts time.  We served them with the duck that came off my station.  Before service, I’d sear them with a little reserved duck fat, season them with salt, pepper and fresh thyme, barely cover them with duck stock, and allow them to bake, self-glazing in the oven.  Unfortunately, while I now understand the idea, it was impossible to accomplish the goal without reducing the sprouts to mush.

Pittsburgh, 90’s After moving back to Pittsburgh, fusing with big Burrito, ferreting out a lot of awesome local farmers, and re-discovering my connections with the seasons, topography, and generally awesome mojo of this region, I undertook the project of Brussels sprout realization.  It seems to me, a fan of rapini, mustards, cauliflower, and any other Brassica that passes my way that I could grow to love the sprout.  Here are my findings:

  1. It likes the fat, preferably swine.  Duck fat and schmaltz are good, but butter doesn’t have the heartiness for it.  Olive oil is good if you want.  But why not lard?
  2. They need to be cooked thoroughly, but not to mush.  To that end, I quarter or half them as I clean them so that all members become approximately the same size.  This ensures even cooking.  The want to be well seasoned. 
  3. Brussels hate to be blanched and shocked and view it as an insult.  If you need to pre-cook them for service, better to pre-roast, or to cook them in batches and finish them ala minute with some fresh heat and seasoning. 
  4. They want a lot of flavor with them.  Salt them well.  They like a little acidity and the faint slaughterhouse porkiness of cured pig parts.  Black pepper, red pepper flakes, any dry, hot chili goes well.
  5. Don’t tell your kids that their name is Brussels sprouts.  I made this error and, if a time machine is invented in my life, I will go back and correct that moment.  “Broccoli Spheres” seems like it could work.

SPQR, San Francisco, Summer 2007 Invited to attend a 3-day potato conference at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley, I add a day at the beginning, rent a convertible Miata, and blast around the city myself checking out restaurants.  Of course, San Francisco in the summer is freezing in a convertible, but it was worth it on the drive up the coast and across to Napa.  I stopped in at SPQR, a tapas-style Italian place.  I ordered a couple of small plates and a glass of frizzante.  The mussels and warm salad were excellent, but the fried Brussels sprouts with lemon and white anchovies floored me.  A whole new wrinkle in sprout deliciousness!  It has inspred a sixth rule of sprouts:

  1. Fry them raw.  Quarter or slice them and fry them in nice hot oil until well cooked.  When you first want to pull them out, let them fry.  They are done when there is a lot of delicious Brownness, some really crispy blackness, and a little residual greenness.  Shake off the oil, season quickly, and eat them before your friends see them.

I hope you and yours have an awesome Brussels sprout season.  Following are two simple recipes if you want to give it a shot.

Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta

½         #          Piece of uncooked pancetta, diced small
1          ea.      Medium onion
1          Tbs.    Duck fat (you probably don’t have rendered duck fat at home so use your favorite oil)
3          #          Brussels sprouts
½         C.        White wine
Black pepper
Salt to taste (be careful)

  1. Dice ham into 1/8” dice.  Be careful and use a sharp knife as the ham has a very heavy texture in this state.  Dice onion small. 
  2. Trim hard root ends off Brussels sprouts.  If they are not small, halve or quarter.
  3. Place pancetta in a shallow pot.  Render. 
  4. When rendered, scoop out pancetta and set aside.  Add onions.  Place on medium flame and bring up to a sizzle.  Sauté/sweat onions until lightly browned. 
  5.  Add Brussels sprouts and wine.  Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer.  Lightly season with pepper.
  6. Cook with occasional stirring until Brussels sprouts are tender and cider is evaporated (20 minutes to half an hour).
  7. Season with salt only at the end and only if necessary.
Crispy Brussels Sprouts, White Anchovies, Lemon Vinaigrette, Parmigianino Reggiano
2       #          Brussels sprouts
12     ea       White anchovy filets
Oil for frying
Lemon Vinaigrette (see below)
Chunk of Parmigianino Reggiano

1)    Quarter or eighth sprouts. Discard ugly outer leaves and dark stem tips.   
2)    Heat oil in a heavy skillet or home deep fryer to 350۫º.  Fry Brussels sprouts in batches until dark brown on leaf tips. 
3)    Lift out with a slotted spoon or round Chinese strainer and place on paper towels. 
4)    Season with a tiny bit of salt immediately after frying.
5)    Arrange on plate.  Drizzle with vinaigrette.  Drape with anchovies.  Shave parm atop.

Lemon Vinaigrette
Zest and juice 3 lemons
1       ea.   Shallot minced
½      C.      Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

1)    Place lemon zest and juice in a stainless steel bowl.
2)    Whisk in extra virgin olive oil.
3)    Season with salt and pepper.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

New Year's Eve, Cops in The Kitchen

New Year’ Eve first appears in my memory as the sounds of cops in the kitchen.

I wake up on the couch, TV going and the ball already dropped.  The kitchen light is on and there are men's voices, barely muted for sleeping children and sleepy wife.  I get up and wander out to the clatter of cuffs and creak of thick belts.  Four or five policemen are standing there, my father one of them, loading plates with pork and sauerkraut from the oval aluminum crock from the oven. 

They take great bites, bits of kraut hanging in mustaches trimmed sharply above the lip.  Conversation is small, centered on discussion of the events of the night.  Smells of cigarettes, black leather, and Old Spice foul the sweet roasting softness. Bright yellow walls, color chosen to compliment Sears oak veneer cabinets and just-lighter-than-Army-green appliances, serves only to increase their presence. The color can barely get around the negative space the consume.  They all have guns, billy-clubs and saps, hanging by my face.  I wonder at them, whether they get used, and why and how. 

They eat quickly, in good humor, pile their plates in the sink.  They thank my mother, the more familiar of them hug her, and they all head back out on duty.  I can’t remember if any of them noticed me.  They have been in the house maybe five minutes.  In the stillness after they leave Mom shuts off the TV and ushers us to bed. 

Pork and sauerkraut is my tradition for the first food to be eaten in the new year.  It is eaten to bring luck in the coming year.  Both my Father’s side (Polish, Stanislaw Okinski became Stanley Fuller on Ellis Island) and Mother’s side (Maiden name Zemak,  Pennsylvania Dutch which means German) follow the tradition and until long after I left home did I believe that every person did the same thing.  Pork roast, cook long and low, with kraut and sometimes potatoes added later in the process.  In some families, sausage would be added, or even take the place of the roast.  I had no Italian friends (they lived in different neighborhoods than we), missing the delicious love of the Seven Fishes until I moved to Pittsburgh at age 27. 

My father was a police officer in DuBois when I was a child.  He invited all the local police, City as well as from outlying Sandy Township, and the few Staties with which he was friendly, to stop by our house for pork and kraut.  Police cars would fill little dead-end Burt Street, and everyone would hope for a better new year in that tiny kitchen.  We kids would have some too, a little bit before bed then full steaming plates for lunch the next day, added insurance I suppose. Seemed to work for me. 

I still keep the faith.  And, like Steeler fandom, I am devoutly indoctrinating my kids. Attached is a good approximation of my recipe (family cooking lost to us already).  Start it at 6, you’ll be sure it will be ready by midnight.   And if you are working, as I and many of my friends will be, share it with your co-workers.  They need the luck too.  
Pork and Sauerkraut
I make pork and sauerkraut every New Years Eve make sure that there is a batch in the corner of an oven at the restaurant as well as in my house.  Everyone needs the good luck it brings to eat pork and sauerkraut for the first meal in the new year.
1          ea.        5-7# piece bone-in pork butt
½         C.        Brown sugar
½         C.        Salt
½         C.        Black pepper
2-3       Tbs      Dried thyme
1          ea.        12 oz dark beer, Porter or Stout
3-4       C.        Cider
At least 2 # sauerkraut
2-3       #          All-pork sausage, hopefully Serbian Kielbassa, cut into 1” chunks.
1.     Mix sugar, salt, and pepper in a mixing bowl.
2.     Place pork butt in a deep baking dish with room around.  Rub cure mix into meat on all sides. Place in baking dish with fat side up.  Let pork butt cure in refrigerator overnight.
3.     Scrape excess seasoning from pork butt.  Remove pork butt from dish.  Rinse dish.
4.     Return pork to baking dish fat side up.  Season top well with dried thyme. 
5.     Pour beer and cider around pork.  Cover and place in a 325° oven for 4-6 hours. The pork butt is ready when the bone pulls out of the meat easily.
6.     Add kraut and kielbasa.  Allow to cook for another 30 minutes.
7.     Eat at 12:01 January 1 for good luck all year.

Monday, November 21, 2011

It's another Tequila Sunrise...

“Not Thanksgiving At All” Steak and Jalapeno Quesadilla
The morning after Thanksgiving I have no desire to eat the leftovers.  By the end of Thanksgiving evening, I have spent a great portion of discussing, planning, shopping for, cooking, and complaining about the dinner.  My skin smells like stuffing, turkey repels me, and I drank probably half a bathtub of Beaujolais Nouveau and whatever Alsatian-style whites Jen, my sister-in-law with exactly the same tastes in wine as I have, has brought.  The film coating the kitchen matches the film over my eyes, and as I start the coffee, I think about brunch.

In addition to shopping for the big day with all its Brussels sprouts, flour, and butter nonsense, I throw a couple of items in the cart so I can start my day after the Day consuming completely differently tasting food.  This year, I will be making a little item I developed while opening Mad Mex # 11 in Willow Grove, PA (Philly suburb).  

Most non-restaurant people don’t know that it is eminently important to drink until the wee hours after the first real day of business at a new restaurant.  It builds camaraderie and relieves stress after that 18-hour day.  The best part is arriving back at work the second real day of business after four hours of sleep to attack another 18-hour day.  To celebrate surviving this long, stressful, and hung-over day, it is again important to drink tequila until the wee hours. 

The Sunday morning after these two long opening days greeted us with the inconsiderate feature of a brilliantly sunny morning and a lot of work to do.  The opening team needed inspiration.  It was important that I make a rich, flavorful, greasy breakfast that was achievable with the ingredients on hand yet did not really taste like Mad Mex food.  I grabbed a flat of eggs, an onion, some jalapenos, and some flank steak and got to work.  The following is a reconstruction of what occurred that morning.

1       #          Flank steak
1       Tbs.    Dijon mustard
1       Tbs.    Salt
2       Tbsp. Olive oil
½      ea.      Stick of butter
1       C.        Medium sliced raw onion
1-4   ea.      Jalapenos, sliced into rings
1       Tbsp.  Mexican Oregano, dried
2       tsp.     Cumin, ground
2       tsp.     Salt
8       ea.      Eggs
More butter
4       ea.      10” flour tortillas
1       C.        Shredded Monterrey Jack Cheese
Salt and pepper
Sour Cream
1)    Prepare Guacamole.  Reserve.
2)    Place steak in a bowl.  Add mustard, olive oil, and salt.  Allow to marinate.
3)    Heat cast iron skillet over high heat.  Sear steak until crusty on the outside and a gentle medium in the center, about 140°.  Set aside and allow to rest.  Return skillet to heat.
4)    While steak is cooking, melt butter in a medium skillet over medium heat.  Add onions, peppers, oregano, cumin, and salt.  Cook with stirring until onions soften but do not become soggy. 
5)    Heat comal (flat cast iron skillet).
6)    Slice beef across the grain.

7)    In skillet, add a generous knob of butter.  Crack 2 eggs into the pan.  If you desire, poke the yolks so that they cook solid.
8)    While eggs are cooking.  Place a tortilla on the comal.  Sprinkle with cheese.  Allow to melt.
9)    Place onion and pepper mixture across half the tortilla.  Add some beef.  Add two eggs. 
10)Fold and remove from the griddle.  Cut into thirds and serve with guacamole and sour cream.
11)Repeat steps 7 – 10 until everyone is fed.  Hopefully, one of these bums will have made you a Tequila Sunrise.  Sip it as you cook.
3       ea.      Avocados
Juice of 2-3 limes
1       ea.      Large clove garlic grated on a microplane grater
¼      C.        Chopped Cilantro
1-2   ea.      Diced ripe tomatoes
Salt and Pepper to taste

1)    Peel, seed, and dice avocados
2)    Add everything else.  Adjust seasonings.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

You Too Can Write a Book Review!

John Allison of the Post Gazette asked me to write a review of Adam Gopnik's newest book, "The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food" Sweet!  Nothing more fun for an amateur writer than to criticize in print a professional writer!   When I got the book, the first advance copy I of my life, anxiety set in.  "I agreed to read this book, intelligently assess it, and deliver an engaging written review.  All in a reasonable amount of time." 

Turns out, getting the book read presented the biggest challenges.  Two active young children, a busy and growing restaurant company, a professional spouse, and silly things like friends and sleep all conspired to keep me from finishing the book.  After getting through a dozen or so pages over the course of three nights reading in bed, I switched to reading on the couch.  I covered more ground but at the cost of having to drag myself up to bed at 4 AM. 

John would send gentle e-mails, checking on my progress.  Still not much past halfway through the book, I assured him that the review was progressing well and I just needed to do a little more work.  I assume that this little lie to an editor surprises nobody.  I look forward to a time in my life where I have an opportunity to deliver immense lies camouflaging catastrophic delays to a really powerful and frightening editor. 

Finally I finished.  I mostly dug the book.  In reading it I saw the reflection of a lot of my thoughts on current and future food trends.  Gopnik's dissertation on the birth of the modern restaurant out of the same social changes that drove the French Revolution engaged me.

But most of all, I developed an incredible jealousy of his life.  How is it possible?  Traveling the world, dining at brilliant restaurants, cooking for his family in NYC, chatting with hot French food revolutionaries like Zoe Reyners, being brilliant and well-educated, and seeming to have a blast at it all.  Amazing!  By what accident of birth did I miss that all?

Anyhow, here's the review.  I haven't seen a check for it.  When I get it, if I get it, I plan to use it all to buy Cognac.

Gopnik Review

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Discovered While Cleaning the Attic

I delivered papers as a boy, beginning at age 10 with a route of 29 customers and quitting right before I turned 16 with somwhere over 140 - all the customers that got the Courier Express in my small home town of FallsCreek, PA. I amassed this formidable empire by absorbing the other paper routes as kids got sick of them. Sure, I spent hours after school (evening route) trudging through slush while avoiding the group of thugs that resided across town. Of course I smelled like ink every day, and my hands were stained black. But I had cash, free flowing tip money. And when those Christmas cards started showing up, look out!

Here I am pictured with my younger brother, whose route I absorbed soon after this picture was taken, paper domination global.

If you can read the text, I'd like to inform you that while Chuck still digs motorcycles and I, obviously, continue to be an amateur writer, we have moved past our shared interest in D+D.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

From last October's newsletter

October 2010

“Never Give an Inch”

My favorite novels are ones that tell stories of passionate and alienated anti-heroes trapped on a quest of their own design. Single-mindedly pursuing a ridiculous goal whose purpose lies in opposition to all their best interests, they neglect everything except that which is eminently material to the cause. The goal is true, and noble, and there is no question that it must be achieved. On the Path, those of lesser vision fall to the side, or are discarded. Great personal injuries occur, often leading to death at the fulfillment of the quest, or just before. But most of all, our hero’s wracked torture as he watches everything close stripped from him, trailing away in fish-eyed confusion, broken and torn by his mission, is the meat that keeps me turning the page. “Will he come to the conclusion that he is wasting everything?” “Will he die in his pursuit?” “Is there any compromise that he can fashion to achieve his truth and stay human?”

Unfortunately, in life, things do not get tidily wrapped up in 427 pages. The hero rarely gets to give everything for the one true holy thing. There are PTA meetings to attend, spouses and children, and it’s nice to keep a friend or two in pocket. This dilemma, the fractured interface of the ideal of the perfect restaurant with the compromise of reality, is where we, the Chefs, find ourselves. We believe in our vision; for the dish, for the concept, for the kitchen, for the restaurant. And the requirements of our trade make sacrifice a fundamental theme. We truly bleed for the craft, and sacrifice our backs and friends and weekends, and thrive in a milieu where the truest yardsticks are pain. How many hours spent over the stove, how wickedly scarring the burns, and how many screaming attacks survived are strung like black and jagged pearls along life’s string. The quest strips us, breaks us, isolates us, and we follow it through the darkness for our light at the end.

But the light is never to be found. Every day begins anew. No matter what the achievement of yesterday; covers served, excellent sauce, perfect medium rare, rocking service, today winds a new clock and sets it to tick. Yesterday’s masterpiece is gone, washed down with wine into the organic soup of life. Today we begin anew to bang nature’s raw products into form and flavor to please our eyes and tongues. When finished, they fly from us, never returning as we turn to the next plate. And so go the days and weeks and seasons and years, continually trying to accomplish the goal of assembling perfection amid the erratic beauty of this earth. The stone is rolled up,

But we believe that we can. That we will. That we HAVE to. And that if you don’t like it, then f__k off and go away and leave us to our mission. Because if you can’t be there with me, then I’ll do it myself. And for the hours of sweating, cursing, and screaming, we find the occasional bits of beauty and that keeps us moving forward.

That, and off color butternut squash humor.

But there is no redemption. A good chef believes that he or she is right, completely and without question. And this right needs not be questioned. To competently lead a disparate group of young men and women into the stressful pressures and conditions of service, they must be prepared to execute the commands of the chef. To question, to disobey, is to slow down the machine and break the flow. And without the flow, there is chaos. And chaos is the enemy of the restaurant. Only by applying incredible organization and control can the endless details of the evening’s dinner service be executed.

Chefs are jerks by definition. A chef is an egotistic creative control freak, usually with a neatness fixation. He has little patience for fools and no time for drama. Play your part, carry the weight, and step in line. This does not make for a great personal life as these traits carry into relationships with friends and family. Even with other restaurant people, the chef is alone. Between the competition with other chefs (don’t even try to deny it, every last one of you), the master/student relationship with the cooks, and the flirty yet distrustful connection to the servers, there is a quiet place where the Chef sits alone, even in the center of the room.

But we have no choice and love it. We grow, and adjust, and develop some ability to step back from the quest and breathe

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Stone Soup for Chef in the Garden

Making this on PGH Today Live in the AM (9/22/11) then 10 more times for kids @ Dilworth Traditional Academy for Chef in the Garden Thursday and Friday. I love the story and can't wait to tell it! Sharing, community, working together, and just a little sneakiness.

Stone Soup

1 ea. Stone, clean and hopefully sterilized

2 # Potatoes, diced

1 C. Lentils

2 ea. Bay leaves

1 C. Diced onion

1 C. Diced carrot

1 C. Diced Celery

3 ea. Garlic cloves, sliced

1 ea. Small bunch greens (mustard, kale, chard, sliced/chopped)

2 C. Green beans snipped and cut

4 C. Diced tomatoes

1 C. fresh cut corn

Whatever fresh herbs are available

Olive oil

Salt and pepper, very important

Splash of olive oil.

1 ea. Baguette, cut into chunks

1. Place stone in pot. Cover with water and season well with salt and pepper. Perform this act in full view of poor, hungry villagers.

2. Make a fire. Begin heating pot on fire. When first villager comes to question, describe the soup that you are making and that it would be delicious if only you had a few potatoes. When villager brings potatoes, dice them and add them.

3. When second villager arrives, describe how you are making Stone Soup and that it will be delicious, and that all you need is a few lentils. When villager brings them, add to soup. (Be careful to inspect the lentils for rocks before adding.)

4. Continue to suggest ingredients as villagers arrive. Add in sequence. Allow pot to simmer all the while. Chat with villagers. Relax around the fire.

5. Stir occasionally.

6. When olive oil and fresh herbs have been added, remove from fire. Ask if anyone has a stale chunk of bread. Cut it up to fit in bowls. Pour soup over bread. Serve everyone!