Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Old School

Sometimes as a chef you have to go with your instincts and not confine yourself within boundaries, even if that means that you step outside of yourself a little bit. It's how we learn and how we grow. Honestly, I could probably formulate an elaborate passage in this blog in order to justify how I feel that my version of Hakka Cuisine could fit into our restaurant's theme of New Americana, and believe me that I would be up to the challenge, but that isn't what I'm here to do, so instead of trying to skew an idea for a special away from a more traditional or specific cuisine in order to mold it or blend it with another I simply allow the idea ring through without forcing it. After all, sometimes straying away from the path will get you even closer to the goal.

So with that said this week's special is decidedly Italian; closer to our former incarnation as El Greco than our current one, due mostly to my obsession with (the now trendy) unusual and cured meats. As chef of El Greco I implemented a menu item called "The Chef's Country Plate" that included old world items such as pates, Bacalao, and others, some of which were carried over to the Table 219 menu, like the Smoked Bone Marrow Butter that adorns our Hanger Steak.

One of my personal favorites was a little known preparation of Italian bacon called Guanciale, which is an unsmoked pork jowl that I cure in salt, sugar, parsley, thyme and black peppercorns for a week and then hang to air dry in the refrigerator for four more weeks. I know that some of you may be scoffing at the idea of eating jowls, but it isn't really any different than eating the belly of a pig - it even looks like what we know as bacon, as depicted in it's sliced form in the image here. So why use a lesser known ingredient instead of the great bacon that we have already been known to have? One word: FLAVOR!! The belly that traditional bacon comes from just doesn't have the uncanny richness that you can get from the jowl, especially the way that I cure it!!

So for the base of the sauce for this special I sauteed fine julienned strips of my Guanciale until they are crispy and then I added onions, garlic, white wine and some tomato water, a clear broth made by pureeing tomatoes that are strained through a very fine cloth that still contains all of the vibrant flavor without any of the pulp.

As stated before in other posts, I love making pasta by hand. There is just something about slowly drawing sheets of dough methodically through a roller; to me it's like long pulls from a cigar or savoring sips of wine.... I know it may sound ridiculous, but these are the things that I live for as a chef, despite how much easier it would be for me to just buy it from somewhere else. This time I went with pure semolina flour, extra virgin olive oil and eggs, rolled out and hand cut as fine as I possibly could, and finished with chopped curly endive and some Pecorino al Tartufo (an Italian sheep's milk cheese that is infused with chunks of black truffles). Here we have a bowl of something even more Italian that even the greatest of culinary trends would admire:

To offset my lack of an attempt at Americana Cuisine for my dinner special I offer this in it's place, and with the heat bearing down on Seattle in record temperatures, it's not a moment too soon either...

For this treacherous summer weather that was stolen from use by the East Coast, I can only offer solace in the best way that I know how: A Cool, Refreshing Drink!!!!

This week we are muddling fresh cucumber, mint and lime with sugar and vodka to give you The Cucumber Mojito!!

I know that this heat wave may seem like a penance, but with a cocktail like this in hand it will be more like a condolence!!

With Love,


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

K.I.S.S. Me Again

As some of you know, last Wednesday we participated in Farestart's Guest Chefs on the Waterfront (see last week's post for more detail), and I couldn't be more happy with the way that it went. I wanted to offer something easy and delicious, and most certainly and item from our actual menu, so we served our delicious Roasted Garlic and Bacon Deviled Eggs with Smoked Paprika and Sweet Pepper Relish. The praise was overwhelming.

I would like to say that Stacey and Nani (from our sister restaurant, Geraldine's Counter) were a great help, but truth be told they pretty much ran our booth on their own so my inflated chef ego could mingle with the masses and hobnob with my culinary peers, and for that, I am thankful.

I met some wonderful people, tasted a lot of great food and sipped a lot of great beverages, but to my surprise my favorite samples were the most simple offerings, like the Chilled Baby Octopus Salad from Matt's in the Market, the Hot Pastrami from Roxy's Diner, or the Pavlova "Shooters" from Starry Nights Catering, just to name a small selection of highlights. Normally I go for the over-the-top stuff, but it was evident to me that all of the chefs there with the best dishes focused on what they do best and allowed the ingredients shine as opposed to trying to outdoing someone else's food; if I've heard it once, I've heard it a thousand times:

Keep It Simple, Stupid

It is a statement that rings out through serious kitchens everywhere, basically saying that you should focus on building from a few, solid flavors instead of muddling a dish with a laundry list of ingredients. I am the first to admit that from time to time even I stray away from this philosophy of cooking every now and then, for good or for worse, but I never do it in a way that compromises taste for theatrics.

So this week, I embraced the KISS principle wholeheartedly. The second my produce purveyor mentioned those holy words "Heirloom Tomatoes" I knew what I had to do.

If you have ever strolled through a Farmer's Market and wondered "what is an heirloom tomato?" you can find more in-depth information here, but it doesn't stop with just tomatoes; you can now find varieties of potatoes, lettuce, beans, even melons such as honeydew (a nod to my birthday dinner at How to Cook a Wolf). To put it simply: pains have been taken to maximize flavor instead of a mass-market visual appeal, so really, you shouldn't have to do much with them anyway; to fuss with them beyond that would only mask the amazing flavor that has been painstakingly produced.

Though I cannot predict what varieties that will be available throughout this week, some of them should include Brandywine, Black Krim, Ida Gold, and Green Zebra. (I am growing a few of these varieties myself on my balcony, but I will never give up those!)

I just alternated thin slices by size and varietal on a long plate and dressed them with some fruity extra virgin olive oil, a medley of fresh cracked peppercorns and Fleur de Sel(the top layer of hand-harvested sea salt collected in France), served with a few herbed baguette crostini. A tribute to the simple beauty of nature and those who labor to keep it!!!

As a newbie to the Seattle area I am sometimes overwhelmed with the many summertime opportunities that this beautiful region has to offer, and I find myself falling behind on my to-do list every year. At one point I wanted to make plans to take the ferry over to Sequim, WA between Port Angeles and Port Townsend on the day before my birthday for the Lavender Festival since the final day coincided with one of my days off, but alas, too much too soon.

So as a tribute to the festival, as well as the glorious season of summer, I decided to honor the floral member of the mint family by steeping it in water, sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest. Once strained and cooled I stirred it with vodka and ice in a tall pint glass to compose a super refreshing summer cocktail sipper, the Vodka Lavender Lemonade!!

With the record high temperatures that are predicted for this weekend in Seattle an inevitable truth, I can promise that this vibrant cooler will beat the heat better than any shade that you can find!!!

With Love,


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Breaking Down the Boundaries

Despite being self-labeled an Americana type of restaurant, I sometimes like to blur those boundaries, and sometimes I downright crumble them. As I have stated in previous posts, American food can be anything these days because its definition is changing every day. For example, here in Seattle, Pho is as much of a staple of cheap eats as Chinese takeout is in New York City, but to me it was as foreign as a cheeseburger in the Galapagos. Now? I can't go more than a week without craving it, not to mention a regular dose of Korean food from the Kimchi Bistro next door....

My style of cooking is always evolving from each new taste that my adventurous palate takes me to, and part of being a chef is pushing beyond my comfort zone of flavors, textures and ingredients. One of my favorite influences is from Asian cuisines (another is Latin, which I plan to incorporate more of soon), and it is no surprise why. Cultures have integrated into this great country so well that we are now truly seeing the analogy of the "Melting Pot" come to fruition, and more reinventions of those flavor combinations every day.

What I wanted to do this week was steer away from our stereotype and instead focus on some light and new flavors, and (of course) take advantage of the season. Cooking is all about developing flavors, like building the foundation of a house, so I started a stock with some traditional Asian building blocks of chopped ginger, garlic and scallions sweated slowly in oil with Madras Curry powder and fresh curry leaves for a touch of Indian influence, and then I added corn cobs that I ran over a mandolin slicer just enough to break the kernels and release their sweet milk. After topping it off with water and a little coconut milk for body I left it to simmer for a couple of hours while I worked on the rest of the ingredients.

Food is all about contrast; textures, flavors and even color. During the summertime, I especially like to incorporate a contrast of hot and cold as well (see last weeks special). Here I composed a cool salad of julienned cucumbers, red bell peppers and scallion with fresh chopped cilantro and mint for some bright, intense flavor.

Working from the ground up I knew that some form of fish was destined for this dish, but I wanted to think outside of the box here. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE a nice piece of pan seared fish with its perfectly golden and crusty exterior while still moist inside, but that is really only possible with larger fish that are now very expensive, so I worked around that by halving a red snapper fillet and sandwiching the two pieces with fresh Thai basil, and then I wrapped them with a sheet of spring roll wrapper, which when pan seared and finished in the oven has an amazingly crispy crust while staying moist and flavorful inside!!

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In keeping with the theme of melange, I decided to try to reinvent (again) another great custom that we have adopted: the Margarita. With the summer months around us, there is nothing more soothing than the crisp bite of this refreshing cocktail, but instead of the tired old version with lime, I incorporated the tropical flare of passion fruit!

Now that our patio is open, please take advantage of the weather and sip one of these delicious cocktails outside while enjoying one of the best things that Broadway has to offer: People Watching!!

On a final note: tomorrow we will be participating in Farestart's Guest Chefs on the Waterfront, serving the wildly popular version of Deviled Eggs from our menu. For those of you who aren't familiar with the Farestart organization, it is a non-profit culinary school that teaches homeless and disadvantaged people a trade skill and helps with job placement, while also providing meals to many local shelters and community outreach programs. They are funded in part by hosting Guest Chef Night, a weekly event where local chefs donate their time and skill to work with current students to execute the chef's creative menu at the Farestart Restaurant, where there is a long waiting list for volunteers to help serve, clean, etc. I was fortunate enough to be invited as a guest chef last August, and yet again for GCOW, an annual fundraiser held at Bell Harbor's Pier 66 and Elliot Hall with tastes from over 70 of Seattle's chefs, breweries and wineries. All proceeds directly benefit their job training and placement program.

I am actually accustomed to these types of events since from early on in my career I was the go-to guy at the '21' Club for many similar fundraisers. Once I showed my organizational and food transportation skills I was included in more than a dozen of the events that they hosted while I was working there; one time I even traveled cross-country for a benefit in Los Angeles, where I met my wife Anna!

Needless to say, there is a special place in my heart and for contributing my time and resources to great organizations who turn it into gold by making a difference in the world that we live in. The more we give, the greater the reward, and my life is proof of that truth.

With Love,


Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Good Things Come To Those Who Wait

As you may have noticed by now, whenever possible I like to make things from scratch, but often it goes beyond the expected desire of a chef to make things by hand like pasta, sausages, or breads. More and more I feel the urge to push myself another step, even when the additional workload falls on my shoulders. I'll come in early, work on a day off, and research after closing to not only further myself and the restaurant, but also for the joy of creating an ingredient that many would buy pre-made without thought of how simple (and more flavorful) it would be to make it themselves. All it takes is some planning and patience. The problem is that I'm good with organization, but patience.... not so much. Blame it on a career of working in a business that demands food and decisions to be made as fast as possible. That's fine though; if I busy myself with enough projects, I tend to forget about them until my log surprises me by telling me that they are ready.

Saturday was one of those pleasant surprises. My log had reminded me that it was time to bottle our Housemade Limoncello. My, how time flies!! Modeled after the recipe that I made at home for my own supply, the process is actually quite simple with a little finesse: peel lemon zest without any of the white pith and steep it with 100 proof vodka for six weeks, then add an equal amount of simple syrup, and then steep for another six weeks before bottling. Sometimes additional aging in the bottle is required, as was the case for my personal attempt, but this batch was ready to go (due to cooler temperatures in my home than in our restaurant's kitchen, I bet).

Rather than just offer this as a digestif alongside our desserts I wanted to debut my version in a cocktail that I have been holding back for just the right time. I paired the limoncello with an equal portion of Rye Whiskey (a new favorite of mine) over ice with a few dashes of Peychaud Bitters, a Louisiana brand that has cherry, spicy and anise notes that is far less pungent than the obligatory Angostura type that we are used to tasting. Filled with ice and brightened with a topping of club soda brings this drink up to a whole new level!

As opposed to the other long cured items that I am currently working on (like Guanciale and our own aged apple cider vinegar) there is one culinary tradition that is still very common in kitchens today and yet very quick to prepare, in comparison: Duck Confit. Originally meant as a means to preserve the meat, the preparation involves curing the legs and then cooking them slowly in their own fat, but these days its flavor is so popular, we can't hardly keep it around.

We have it shredded in a couple of items on our menu now, but I wanted to serve it whole, so I crisped a finished leg, skin side down in a non-stick pan in the oven. A classical pairing for duck is cherries, and it is no coincidence that this dish came to be during the rise of bing cherry season, but cherries can't simply be added like vegetables, so I decided to incorporate them into a sauce with caramelized shallots, thyme and a mild beef stock as a base. With some good cooking wine and a little time reducing (and some secret ingredients that I cannot disclose - that's how great this sauce came out!), the foundation was set.

To balance the subtle sweetness of the cherries I sauteed some local, organic wild arugula, and instead of the traditional "starch" that you find on most entrees I went with a cold Herbed Goat Cheese Flan, because 1- I love the correlation between hot and cold, 2 - the herbs (thyme, chives and parsley) really work well with duck and the sauce, and 3 - the slight gameyness from the chevre goat cheese plays well with that of the duck. (and no, I'm not BSing you about this; a lot of time and lack of sleep goes into working out these combinations of flavors!)
I am really happy with they way that both of these specials have come out, and I truly believe that the time that it has taken to make them really shines out, but I can speak from a certain knowledge that in due time, the best has yet to come ;).

With Love,


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Happy 4th!!!

I have to say that July is my favorite month. It isn't only because it is the month of my birthday (the 20th, if you're interested), but also due to the fact that summer and all of its glory is in full swing, launched off with a bang early on for our Independence Day.

July also gives us a lot of my favorite ingredients: a variety of great greens, corn, cherries (I have a great sauce planned for these babies this month), apricot and other stone fruits... Every year I feel like I have more ideas than I do the time in which to use them.

For this week, I wanted to do something rich in concept, but to steer clear of the traditional, heavy sauces that are common with many comfort food dishes, so I went with a play on Chicken 'n' Dumplings, where the chicken is actually the dumpling!

To make the dumplings I ground fresh chicken breasts and then pureed them with cream, eggs, tarragon, parsley and thyme into a smooth paste (known as a mousseline) and cooked them in simmering water by tediously squeezing the mixture through a pastry bag in one hand and snipping them off individually with scissors in the other.

The sauce was something that I have been working on for some time, inspired by the Potato, Chorizo and Manchego Omelet (my personal favorite) that we offer on our brunch menu. I took the rinds and scraps leftover from the wheels of Manchego that we use and I slowly simmered them into a rich broth that I used as the foundation. To incorporate a taste of the season as well as flavor and crunch I added sauteed scallion with local, organic kale and char-grilled corn kernels. I topped it all off with finely shaved Manchego cheese and presented it in one of my new bowls (Dinnerware = Chef Porn).

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It's funny that when I contemplate American Comfort Cuisine I am often amazed how far that concept can now be stretched, and how quickly each generation has adapted and integrated traditions outside of their own cultural backgrounds to make them new parts of their friends and families lives. A case in point: Sangria.
I like to think that Sangria is like a new version of the casserole for our times; everyone has a different recipe or ingredients that they like to use, various potency and sometimes types of wine (Sangria means bloody, but even I have been known to make the bastard rendition: a White Sangria...), so for this week's drink special I made my basic style of Sangria by marinating red wine with Pineapple, Green Apple, Watermelon, Oranges and Brandy (expect a variation or two this summer).

Regardless of approach, the tradition still rings true; Sangria is just another punch that we can socialize over, share tastes and smiles, and enjoy our time together, and I can't think of a better way to celebrate than that.

With Love,