Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Tasting a BIG Wine/Jean Marc

Next week, I am doing a wine dinner featuring wines from Montes vineyards in Chile. www.monteswines.com This event is in connection with the Pittsburgh Wine festival and I am being joined by Derek Stevens, Executive Chef at Eleven, and Alan Peet, Executive Chef at Casbah. We have worked out a simple menu that should showcase the wines. Of course, to write the menu I needed to become more familiar with the wines, taste them, consider them, wrestle with them, know them carnally. They were kind enough to send me a case or so to taste while I work out the menu. As you may imagine, there is little in life more exciting than having a bunch of free wines (and good ones at that) which you HAVE TO taste. I really believe that free expensive wine is easier to taste and appreciate than purchased expensive wine. Maybe I'm cheap.

I made it through the whites and Syrah rose over this past weekend and am currently working through a bottle of the Montes Alpha M. Huge wine. Giant. I wish I had a skillet-seared ribeye the size of my head crusted in salt and cracked pepper with some brown butter ramps on top. A chunk of cabrales and some dark fruit bread on the side. I ate some brats with brown mustard, the wine wiped them out. Some ham from the fridge with Uplands Farms Pleasant Ridge Reserve Cheese http://www.uplandscheese.com/farm.html, gone. This wine is a bulldozer.

Crazy enough, we are serving the Montes Alpha M with the dessert course. We will be serving a selection of five miniature chocolate preparations: hazelnut chocolate napoleon, dark chocolate tiramisu, white chocolate crème brulee, chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwich, and Mexican hot chocolate. It seems like fun to me to taste this rock star cock-swinger of a wine with a bunch of different chocolate flavors. So as I prepare to retire for the night, I decide to try some chocolate things with the wine to see how this will work out. I rummage around in the kitchen and find leftover easter candy from the kids' baskets. Cheap milk chocolate just washes away in the thick rush of flavor. A Reese's peanut butter egg, gone. But a couple of dark chocolate truffles from Jean Marc Chatellier http://www.jeanmarcchatellier.com are just the thing. The dark chocolate ameliorates the temperament of the wine, and allows some of the complexities of both the truffles and the wine to show through while reducing Alpha M's arrogance. After the chocolate is out of my mouth, the big wine seems softer, tamed and friendly. I like it best now, rounder and warmer. The braggadocio is tempered and true warm emotions filter through. Thanks Jean Marc.

I love to visit Jean Marc's shop. Every Saturday morning I take my beautiful and willful 5-going-on-22 daughter Zoe to riding lessons. We have a routine. As we wind though O'Hara Township we listen to the Saturday Light Brigade radio show. We get there, she rides Gypsy for a half hour, her teacher Erica way more patient than I ever am with Zoe's sass, and then we cruise to Sharpsburg to visit Jean Marc Chatellier's bakery. For about a year and a half I slipped in unnoticed, a complete stranger to the young women working the counter. Pittsburgh is a small town, the food scene even smaller, and I like to avoid being noticed as much as possible. I worry that I'll get caught talking to someone who needs/wants something from me or I'll be placed in a position where I'll need to give/do more than I want to. Call me a crank. It is what it is.

Finally my luck ran out, sort of. One morning Jean Marc peeked out from the back, probably a slow wedding cake week, and recognized me. We chatted for awhile and it turns out he loves to go to Mad Mex and really enjoys the Southwest wing sauce. This fact completely disarms me as I am a huge fan of the sauce, our worst seller of course, and have never understood why it is not more popular. If the French dude likes it (in the hierarchy of food-ness, French is always right unless Japanese are in play then then they win over the Frogs) then it is good, sales notwithstanding. I agree to get him a recipe, which I do a few weeks later, and we connect in a cheffy sort of way. I still have to pay for my croissants (best in the city) but Zoe gets a free treat now and then. I have yet to break it to Jean Marc that all Zoe wants are regular donuts and really dislikes his complex Napoleons but we'll get there.

Did I mention best croissants in the city? Jean Marc, help me find a pastry chef for Eleven!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

God Hates Line Cooks

Years ago, after an especially vicious run of days filled with broken equipment, missing dishwashers, crazy-busy dinners, giant catering events, and extra-surly waiters, we at Soba came to the realization that God, in whatever form He/She/It exists, Hates Line Cooks. We are chosen to suffer, to live a life of pain and sorrow, our only recompense the glory of surviving. We make little money, work on our feet in pain over amazing heat, suffer burns and lacerations expecting of course to continue to function, and endure the verbal onslaught of the particular alcoholic, oedipal, insecure, anxiety-ridden, cokehead chef of the day. We are the Children of Dune.

Even as Chefs, the Wrath of God stays with us. We are expected to be charming, attractive, and brilliant. We need to be available to balance the books at 9 AM and coddle the food critics at 11 PM. How dare we leave the restaurant for a vacation or a date with our sainted spouses? Surrounded by the lascivious temptations of young girls (and boys) of the service staff, we should remain true to these poor sainted spouses yet, if we transgress, so much the better for the titillation of the waiting public. Make money for the investors yet give the guests the best ingredients and a lot of 'em. Why would we be left riven like Job except to be tested? God hates us, he tests us, and we fail so often, so easily, so obviously.

But to survive and succeed, this is so holy. To work the hardest station and be crushed all night on a punishing Saturday, knowing as you fly that each plate shines and that you are fast and sure and in control of every move and that the flavors are correct and the fish is cooked perfectly and the Asshole, Over-worked, Sleep-deprived Chef cannot find fault with you except with your choice of date for later on, that is Brilliant. Nobody who hasn't achieved that can ever understand. I have never broken an athletic world record or recorded a #1 song, but I sure enough outplayed Jeff Bubin and Trent Conry at the Occidental on a few tough nights. And those nights, I know, I beat the odds and the Gods and I glistened like a diamond shard in coal tar mud. I beat God at his own shitty game and rose out of His muck and won. I beat it. I crushed it. I ruled.

God Hates Line Cooks but, hell with him. We are the chosen and we build our powers on his hate. We are Supermen and Superwomen, succeeding AGAINST God's will.

God Hates Line Cooks but Tony Bourdain is the Devil.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007


This was forwarded to me by one of my suppliers. Corn prices and supply will be major issues in food over the next two years. (All caps theirs not mine, but not unwarranted.)
To break it down, rising oil prices have driven the government to subsidize ethanol production as an alternative fuel source. This has caused speculation in the corn market as funds are dispersed to underwrite the costs of building new fermentation plants. This will pull corn out of the food chain, or at least make it more dear, which will drive the costs of producing meat. It will also drive the costs of a lot of food manufacturing as corn is the base material for a lot of goods, most noticeably as high-fructose corn syrup. Soybean prices will ride with corn as a replacement in feed and other uses.

This is a frightening picture as chicken and beef prices have been on the rise and produce prices are already high as a result of the food crisis. The best solution is to become a non-tofu eating vegetarian and go live in the hills where you'll grow your own food. Pick a spot near a stream for a grain mill and some hydroelectric power. Arm yourselves and build a windmill and learn how to compost.

But really, this will be huge. If our food infrastructure is to change for the better, the time is now.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Spring Vegetables

At the restaurants, we buy a lot of vegetables from local growers. This being Western PA, the growing season has barely begun and there is little local to get. Peas are sown but not sprouted and everything else is started in a greenhouse or is still only being considered by the farmers. Wild ramps have just appeared but are not yet large enough to harvest and there are only rumors of morels coming down from the mountains. I have begun my pre-harvest ritual of begging for asparagus from the very few local asparagus growers in this region. Sometime three or four weeks from now I'll be driving out the farm early in the morning with a wad of asparagus cash to negotiate. We'll be looking for rhubarb, then strawberries. Soon, not yet.

This is a painful point, the place of almost becoming yet not being spring cooks. We ship stuff in by air from warmer climes where fiddleheads and asparagus have already appeared. I know it isn't sustainable but neither is waiting for true local springtime ingredients when the temperature reaches the upper 70's and our restaurant patios are full. How do I continue to justify roasted beets, squashes, and duck confit when my pasty winter nose is burnt by the spring sun? And of course I am impatient. I'm a chef after all.

What I really want is a farmers' market. They don't even begin to open for a month. I miss the farmers I see regularly throughout the summer. After years of buying from them for my home and for the restaurants, good friendships have developed. I'll find out about their children and grandchildren, dogs that were puppies last fall, new plans for plantings, and thoughts on items tried last year and rejected this year. I'll ask around to ascertain who will go through the trouble to grow me fava beans this year. I'll find my garlic guy in his usual spot and rush to his table realizing too late that the garlic he has at this point is little better than what I bought from him and cellared last year. I'll buy it anyways.

At this point in the year, I also take stock of canned vegetables in my basement. I know that I am nearly done with tomatoes 2005, the year of the amazing crop, and am getting into 2006, not such a great year. My refrigerator pickles are nearly gone but I know I'll never finish all the jam and apple butter I've put up and those six jars of salsa verde actually scare me a little. I'll begin to think about the seasons, what I'll put up and when it will come ready, and what I want to get eaten soon. I'll do a lot of tomato sauce dishes over the next few weeks, trying to clear out shelves and jars in preparation for the summer. I do want to make rhubarb jam this year. I missed the whole season last year.

Finally, I visit my herbs. Of course the trusty thymes and sages have wintered over. They're supposed to. And the winter savory has survived it's fifth winter, duh. There are a lot of onion-looking plants in the herb garden, either onions sprouting from seed or flower bulbs gone astray. I'll eat one soon and find out. Garlic has greened and begun to grow and I know that my tarragon, veteran of four winters now, will re-appear as it has every year. I consider the tarragon the apogee of my gardening career. I have never gotten it to winter over and now I have the super-herb. But both rosemary plants are gone. They seemed okay a month ago but somehow in the spring freeze-thaws they got whacked.

But it all will come soon and by late July, the profusion of light and heat and fresh vegetables will overwhelm me and make me wish for a simple time when the choices were fewer and decisions easier. Instead of trying to figure out where to get something green, anything green, like I am now, I'll be wondering how we'll use up these three bushels of zucchini I had to buy because the smelled so sunny and warm they must taste great. And the buzz of the June bugs will ring in the dust. And I'll wish for winter, and the peace and introspection that brings. And so it goes.

Monday, April 2, 2007

An Essay From Earlier This Year

There is a reason that the emotions of Valentine’s Day are wrapped around food. Chocolates, breakfast in bed, candlelight dinner for two, a quiet meal at your favorite restaurant, these are all distinct gestures of love. This is because one of the most intimate acts possible is feeding people. What I cook, the dinner I craft with my hands and my mind and my mouth, goes inside your body. Think of that. There are few connections more intimate, more intense, or more fraught with repercussions as feeding and being fed. Cooking for your love is about as romantic as you can get. Really.

Cooking is the only art from where the creation truly becomes part of the recipient. Each atom in your body (with the exception of oxygen) came from food or drink that you placed in your mouth. From milk nursed as an infant to the junk food of adolescence to last Saturday night’s steak, you are what you eat. Your health is affected, your mood, your soul. And without love by the cook, food is simply nourishment. With love, it is beauty and life.

When we opened Casbah eleven years ago, we had an unusual problem in the dining room. People were getting busy. In the course of the first year, we had couples making out on the bar banquette, fooling around under the tables, and going all the way in the bathrooms. It seemed every weekend gave the staff another ribald story to titter about at the bar after work. Never in my life have I worked in a restaurant with so much action going on, the occasional cook and waitress making out in the stockroom notwithstanding. It could have been the excitement of a new, darkly lit, fashionable restaurant. It may have been the racy art on the walls. But I have always thought that it just might have a little bit to do with the fact that the Chef had fallen in love and was cooking with the passion and desire of the newly smitten. I was in love with her, and in love with the food, and in love with the world. I wanted everything I made to be perfect and everything she ate to be delicious. By extension, everything in the restaurant had to be perfect. People ate my love, and drank my love, and felt it bloom in their hearts. Some of them got frisky.

So those of you reading this that were involved in those private and not so private trysts at Casbah all those years ago, I am glad to have helped you get lucky. And to any children who are a product those wild nights, you are almost of the age where you will begin to fall in love. I hope those once wild parents of yours give you the benefit of the doubt and let you revel in the bittersweet ecstasy of new love when you stumble into it.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Chicken and Dumplings for Mary

Veuve Clicquot Champagne

Chicken and Dumplings for Mary

When I really want to make a nice dinner for Mary, I don’t roll out the foie gras and caviar. I make a big pot of old-fashioned chicken and dumplings. Making the chicken stock permeates the house with delicious warm aroma making everything seem soft and comfortable. If you want to make a large batch of stock, freeze it in pints or quarts and keep it on hand for future projects. Nothing is better than having some good chicken stock in the freezer for a quick soup.

3 or 4 bone-in skin-on chicken breasts
Chicken Stock
2 C. Diced onions
5-6 ea. Cloves garlic, sliced thinly
2 C. Diced carrots
1 C. Celery, sliced into half moons
1 C. Celery Root, peeled and diced
2 # Red Bliss or small Yukon Gold potatoes, quartered
2 Tbs. Chopped fresh thyme
Salt and pepper

1) Place chicken in large pot. Cover with chicken stock and bring just to a simmer. Cook until chicken is just done. Remove to a plate and allow to cool.
2) Add all vegetables and thyme to stock. Season well with salt and pepper and add more stock if necessary. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Cook until vegetables are done.
3) While vegetables are cooking, remove chicken meat from bones and shred or dice large. Add to pot when vegetables are cooked.
4) Spoon in dumplings while keeping pot at a simmer. When completed, allow to simmer for a few minutes. If broth becomes too thick for your taste, add a little more stock. Personally, I like it thicker. Also, check seasonings. Pepper and salt make a world of difference in a simple dish like this.
5) Scoop out two bowls and eat in front of the fireplace with some champagne and some crusty bread.

Chicken Stock
5 # Chicken necks and backs (a whole chicken or various pieces and parts work well enough)
1 Large onion, peeled and chopped
1 Carrot, peeled and copped
2 Stalks celery, chopped
3 Head garlic, split crossways
1 tsp. Black peppercorns
1 ea. Bay leaf
Lots of sprigs of fresh thyme

1) Place chicken (organs are good too but not livers!) into stockpot.
2) Place onions, carrots, and celery into pot.
3) Place garlic and herbs in pot. Cover with cold water to 1” above ingredients and place pot on stove.
4) Bring to a boil and reduce heat to a minimal simmer. Skim fat and foam immediately! Cook 2 hours at a low simmer, skimming fat and foam regularly.
5) When done, skim fat and strain through a coarse mesh strainer. Strain again with a fine mesh strainer.

6 ea. Eggs, brought to room temperature
¼ # Butter softened to the point that it is partially melted (one stick)
1 ½ C. Flour
(2 Tbs. Chopped fresh thyme or rosemary, optional because I skip this when I want my small kids to eat them and don’t want to freak them out with green stuff.)
Salt and pepper

1) Whisk eggs lightly to break yolks. Add butter and incorporate well. If the butter is not very soft and beginning to melt and the eggs are not room temperature, this will be difficult to do. There may still remain little pieces of butter in the eggs. This is okay.
2) Add flour and seasonings and stir in gently. Do not over-work the dough. It should be soft and sticky, a little thicker than a batter but not as tight as a soft dough.
3) Place a small amount of dumpling dough onto a spoon and scrape two or three dumplings into the simmering pot with another spoon. When the dumplings float, allow them to cook a minute or two more. Remove and taste. If the dumpling falls apart, add a little more flour and stir it in gently. If the seasonings need to be adjusted, add salt and pepper.
4) Continue to scrape dumplings into pot. I like to make them the size I get when I scrape 4 or 5 off a large tablespoon.
5) Bring back to a simmer and allow to cook for a few minutes.

Gnocchi with Rapini, Squash, Braised Chicken, and Figs

8 ea. Whole chicken thighs

1 bu. Fresh thyme

½ C. White wine

1 qt. Chicken stock

¼ C. Olive oil

1 Tbs. red pepper flakes

3-4 ea. cloves garlic, sliced thinly

1 # Rapini

¼ # dried figs, sliced

1 ½ # Fresh gnocchi (frozen)

¼ C. Grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper

  1. Preheat oven to 325º
  2. Heat a large, high sided skillet. Season chicken thighs generously with salt and pepper. Sear, skin side down, until the skin is well-browned. Turn legs and brown the second side.
  3. Place whole thyme sprigs over chicken. Deglaze with white wine. Add chicken stock to cover.
  4. Place in oven and cook until thigh meat is tender, about 45 minutes. Remove and allow to cool. When cooled, remove liquid and reserve. Separate meat from bones and reserve.
  5. Heat a large skillet on medium-high heat. Add oil, pepper flakes and garlic. After a few seconds, add rapini and toss. Season with salt and pepper, add figs, and cook with tossing for 5 minutes or so. Add reserved chicken.
  6. While the rapini is cooking place gnocchi in pot of boiling salted water. When done, drain and add to rapini mixture in pan. Place pasta pan over heat, add a little of the chicken braising liquid, and bring to a simmer. Serve in pasta bowls with crusty bread, top with Parmesan, and serve with crust bread

Rosemary-roasted Chicken Breasts, New Potatoes, Garlic Pan Broth

4 ea. Whole bone-in chicken breasts

2 # Small red bliss potatoes, halved or quartered

1 ea. Large onion, diced large

6 whole heads of garlic, all cloves peeled and whole

¼ C. Olive oil

1 bu. Fresh rosemary

2 C. Chicken stock

2 Tbs. Butter

Salt and pepper

  1. Preheat oven to 500º . Place a heavy cast-iron Dutch oven with lid inside while pre-heating.
  2. Toss potatoes, onions, and garlic with olive oil. Season well with salt and pepper.
  3. Season chicken breasts on both sides with salt and pepper.
  4. When Dutch oven is very hot, place potato mixture in Dutch oven. Place half the rosemary sprigs on top, then chicken breasts, then remaining rosemary sprigs.
  5. Close lid and cook for 45 minutes without opening. Gently shake Dutch oven occasionally to move potatoes around.
  6. When done, remove chicken and potatoes to a platter. Place Dutch oven with onions and garlic on a burner. Add chicken stock, bring to a boil, and simmer until reduce by ½ to 2/3.
  7. Remove from heat, stir in butter, and serve with potatoes and chicken. A crispy, simple salad of iceberg lettuce and mild blue cheese goes nicely with this dish.

Family Meal

Nothing can engender more controversy in a restaurant than Family Meal. For those unfamiliar with the term, Family Meal or Staff Meal is the dinner prepared by the kitchen to feed the staff before dinner service. Too often, it is cheap, poorly prepared, insufficient, and/or downright disgusting. Nobody wants to be the one to make Family Meal. It usually falls to the lowest ranking cook. When I first worked at the Occidental Restaurant in Washington, DC, it was me.

A shelf was set aside in the walk-in cooler for all the leftover mise en place, bits of vegetables a little old for service but not too bad to eat, a pile of grilled steaks from last night’s banquet that didn’t get served because the host didn’t account for the Indian family, lettuce beginning to wilt, poached bits of fish trim, yesterday’s bread, and, on Monday, a big bucket of cracked eggs left from Sunday’s brunch service. My responsibility was to convert these bits and pieces into a suitable meal for forty to fifty people. It had to be presentable enough for the raging and abusive Sous Chefs. It had to be filling, satisfying the brigade of Salvadoran dishwashers that frugally ate their one meal a day at the restaurant. It had to have vegetarian options for the two servers who, stridently vocal, didn’t eat meat and haven’t eaten meat in 11 years and have a right to a meal without meat. It had to taste good or I’d risk the ridicule of the senior cooks, which at that point was everyone. And, ideally, in the Chef’s eyes, it should cost nothing and take no time away from my set-up, itself a formidable task.

Theoretically, my morning counterpart would set me up for Family Meal. But as busy as he was with prep and lunch service, he’d usually leave me little help. Usually, none. He’d leave me nothing prepared for staff, little mise en place for my station, and scant notes about what was needed for either. Demoralizing at first, my survival of this situation made me a nearly indestructible line cook. I began to arrive early, working off the clock for a few hours to get my prep done. I drove myself to get faster, becoming more efficient in my work. Finally, I’d take items home and prep them there. An especially daunting item was the daily production of perfect lemon, lime, and orange segments, at least a pint each, as well as hair-fine lemon, lime, and orange zest, blanched, 1 cup each. Picking thyme was a good one to take home as well, because it is a slow and delicate process, and because it was a favorite piece of mise en place for other cooks to ‘liberate’ from my station.

Once I developed a program where I was consistently ahead on the menu mise en place, I began to turn more attention to staff meal. I’d toss out a simple meal one day; salads with focaccia pizza, and then use the time to prep the next day’s meal. Two ingredients that were perennially on the Family Shelf, squash guts and greens stems, were always a challenge. Squash guts were the remnants of yellow squash and zucchini that had had their yellow and green exteriors shaved off with a mandoline for vegetable spaghetti. This was the most despised ingredient, always present, always flavorless. Greens stems were the stems and heavy leaves of greens, often Swiss chard and rapini, that were unsuitable for ala carte service. These two vegetable parts danced with each other in my meals. I’d try to get the texture and flavor of the greens to balance the bland sogginess of the squash guts. This dance occurred in pastas, risottos, casseroles, soups, and on pizzas.

Pasta was and is a Family Meal favorite. Cheap, fulfilling, and easy, we always kept a big sack of dried inexpensive penne for Family Meal. Everything can become a pasta. Chicken hind quarters were usually in abundance as we butchered whole chickens for the chicken breasts. Occasionally we’d pull all the beef, veal, and pork trim out of the freezer and grind it up for meat loaf. The two days worth of Family Meal this provided was a godsend, giving me a whole day off of Family Meal to catch up on ala carte mise en place.

Of course, what I learned through this process, in addition to how to plan my production days in advance, please entirely disparate groups of hungry people, and keep up with a ridiculous load of prep responsibilities; was to cook, really cook real meals for real people. The process of preparing plates of food in a fine dining restaurant is assembly and production. We make this sauce, pre-roast that meat, pre-blanch these vegetables, then, to order, finish the sauce, re-heat and slice the meat, and re-warm the vegetables in butter and season it all. It is the only way to produce hundreds of plates a night, and I was learning that skill every day at the Occidental. But what I also learned every day was cooking at a more fundamental level. I made stews, soups, and casseroles. I roasted, grilled, and barbecued chicken hind quarters every way imaginable. I cooked dinner, placed it on the stainless steel table in front of my station, and stood there prepping my station for dinner service. Each member of the staff then filed by and filled their plates, commenting on what I had presented them. They would comment after too, mocking or praising, sometimes both at once.

I fed the people. At 3:45 PM, every day, I was the most important person in the restaurant, especially if some particular tasty treat had wandered onto the Family shelf. If Family Meal was especially bad, I’d not be invited for beers after work and the chefs would scream at me and everyone would complain. If really good, I might get a smile from the pretty redheaded waitress named Sara that I knew I never had a chance with. But it was immediate, the pain and joy. And intimate.

Two meals, simple and quick to prepare, are adaptations of Family Meals I have made. Both are chicken, and you can actually use the leftover Rosemary-roasted chicken to make the Gnocchi dish if you like. One might even get you a smile.

Gnocchi with rapini, squash, braised chicken, and figs

A white Burgundy, such as a true Chablis or an unoaked American Chardonnay such as 2006 Ponzi Chardonnay Wilamette Valley

Rosemary-roasted chicken breasts, new potatoes, garlic pan broth

Icardi Barbara d’Alba ‘Suri Di Mu’ 2000