Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Taking the Easy Way Out

Before I get into this week's specials I want to make sure that everyone knows that this Thursday, April 29 is Dining Out for Life, an annual fundraising event where 30% of sales from participating businesses (like ours) goes to Lifelong AIDS Alliance and the fight against illness and hunger in our community. We urge you to make your purchases/dinners at one of the businesses involved, even if it isn't ours.

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As much as I love the bounty that this time of year begins to offer, there are a handful of ingredients that I can only use once a year despite availability because they are not only pricey, but also a pain in the ass to prepare, like pearl onions, English peas, and the bitch of them all - fava beans. Not only do I (and our customers) have to pay for the inedible shells, but in the case of the fava, each bean needs to be peeled individually in addition to shucking them from the pod. Fortunately for me (and our customers), a little complaining has paid off.

During a delivery last week my produce purveyor, Aaron pointed out that fava beans were around, and after my expletive-filled rant about time and money, Aaron offer the idea to try fava leaves, suggesting that they are "all of the flavor without any of the hassle".

After some research I found that they have become popular in San Francisco due to a high volume of crops around that area, and they can be served raw in a salad or sauteed like spinach; either way yielding the same, full flavor of fava. Due to their obscurity I wasn't able to guarantee that I would be able to get the fava leaves in again, so after experimenting a little bit on my own I found a base for my special, as well as a sigh of relief.

I wanted to make a thick puree, so I started by sweating onions and garlic in olive oil to which I added not only the picked fava leaves, but I also pureed the stems in a blender with some half and half that I strained before adding to the mix to draw out as much flavor as possible without the final product coming out chunky. Once the leaves were wilted in the enriched cream I quickly returned the mixture to the blender along with a few cooked potatoes for a thicker, silkier texture. As soon as everything was completely homogeneous I quickly chilled it over ice to ensure that the bright green color stayed intact.

To accompany the fava flavor I decided to go with the mediterranean ideal that has been associated with it, so I chose another legume as a playful sort of irony to pair with it: the scarlet runner bean. Named after the color of flower that it often yields, these are probably the largest that you have ever eaten, swelling to just over an inch in my kitchen, but not before imparting more flavor by simmering them for over three hours in a combination of vegetable stock and Ras el Hanout, a North African blend of spices containing cardamom, clove, cinnamon, coriander, cumin and other spices. I love cooking dried beans this way because it imparts the flavor throughout, not just on the surface.

I've had an idea in my notebook for quite some time now to stuff pork tenderloins with figs, and I felt that there would be no better combination than with the flavors of this dish, and if I was going to take it that far, I might as well add crumbled Gorgonzola cheese to the stuffing as well; you know, for good measure.

Lately I've felt that my background in pastry has been advantageous in this quest for new and different cocktails; that my experience in both sides of the kitchen (sweet and savory) gives me an edge over the usual mixologist, both in creativity and experience, and I think that this drink proves it!

Instead of the boring staple of simple syrup that some bars even buy (it's sugar and water!!!) I wanted to make a different version consisting of brown sugar, water and a fresh vanilla bean to end up with a component that is much more complex than something most people are used to. I used this to sweeten a passion fruit puree into a perfect balance of sweet and sour, and once combined with Bacardi rum (my favorite mixing rum) and poured over iced this drink has nuances that will float on for days!!!

With Love,


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Taste of the Season

As the days grow longer and the temperature begins to rise, the signs of spring spark new life into everyone and everything. It's times like these when the seasons truly change where I rub my hands together in anticipation of the coming bounty like some culinary villain plotting my attack to take over the world, but it isn't money or gold that I'm after - it's that next great dish!

As certain ingredients come into season I now have to anticipate how I'm going to use them because some have such a short window of availability when sourced locally, which allows for ultimate freshness and natural ripening. Case in point: Asparagus. Since we only have a month or two of true asparagus season here I have to implement it as much as possible without exhausting the customers. I don't plan on featuring it every week (except for our vegetable du jour), but I want to show it's versatility as much as possible while I still can.

Like this week's special, for example; I wanted start the season off right by showing two very different ways to use asparagus, one of which is less common...

In order to emphasize contrast with this special I chose to first use white asparagus, which is the same as "green" asparagus but as the spears shoot up, farmers cover it with dirt so that it grows without sunlight, thus preventing the plant to produce chlorophyll (responsible for the green color) and yielding a more subtle and tender version. Famous for my soups (as any good chef should be), I simmered the white stalks with onions and garlic that were softened in extra virgin olive oil and a couple of peeled potatoes that, when blended, helped create that silken texture without adding cream that I am known for.

To accentuate the soup I needed to offset the creaminess by hand-making a sausage that is full of flavor by creating a sausage that is inspired by types of Hungarian sausages known as Kolbasz. I wanted to come up with something unique, though, so I retooled the flavors of those sausages to come up with a rich and flavorful version that was also easy to make, and since pork is the typical medium for sausages I decided to go a step further and make mine from freshly ground wild boar because it can stand up to the addition of rich ingredients like paprika, smoked paprika, alderwood-smoked salt, allspice, garlic and my own personal touch: amber beer.

I added a few more tastes of local ingredients by sauteing the sausage in a confit of spring onions and garlic with some local purple fingerling potatoes, and (as long as they're still available) more of those black trumpet mushrooms that I absolutely love from last week's special. For that contrast I spoke of I topped the soup off with an unusual preparation of green asparagus by shaving it finely with a vegetable peeler and keeping it raw like a salad, which I dressed with a vinaigrette of white truffle oil, shallots, garlic and champagne vinegar and tossed with finely grated Parmesan cheese to accentuate the subtle earthiness of every ingredient.

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As before, I am still pondering the great use of beer as an ingredient in a cocktail, but the problem is that many beer enthusiasts consider using a quality beer as a mixer akin to using Louis XIII to make hot toddies. Though everyone knows the euphemism that "in order to make an omlete, you have to break a few eggs", I'm not going to win over any beer fans by shaking drinks with Chimay, so I continue by treading lightly...

A shandy is a lesser-known cocktail first invented in the UK that originally consisted of a combination of beer and ginger beer or ginger ale, though lemonade is also used sometimes, so I thought that if I could use these same flavors, I could come up with a more intriguing version that might spark some interest. Then, once I spotted one of our only two taps of beer, I realized how this was going to pan out:

Instead of the ginger ale I made my own version using fresh ginger and fresh lemongrass simmered in water and sugar to end up with a flavored simple syrup that I turned into a liqueur by infusing it with Skyy vodka. Once ordered, we pour a couple of ounces of this liqueur along with a splash of soda water (just like a homemade ginger ale) that is then topped off with Juju Ginger Beer from Left Hand Brewing Company to complete the trifecta of this drink.

Unfortunately this is the last batch of Juju Ginger that we are going to serve since Left Hand has discontinued the "pony kegs" that our beer system can hold... but that only means that you have to look forward to a set of new draft beers (and maybe new beer-influenced cocktails) coming soon!!!

With Love,


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Start of the Beginning

Just before I reached my boiling point of inspiration regarding winter vegetables the produce gods have given us an early present. I have come to realize that due to the weather here in the Pacific Northwest the introduction of local spring vegetables tends to lag compared to more southern states, but this year we seem to be off to a good start (knock on wood).

We aren't quite ready to offer fresh peaches or nectarines, but expect to see offerings of asparagus (we currently have Washington state grown right now, with local farms probably next week), fava beans, English peas, etc. coming soon, but for now I'm going to make the most of some of these new and interesting ingredients, and that is why this description may seem like I have devised this special backwards...

I have always wanted to do a take on twice-baked potatoes, but I have never really given it much more thought than that until a recent produce delivery from Frank's Produce when I received a sample of an odd type of potato called a "red thumb" that was larger than a fingerling potato (duh) but with a red skin and a pink flesh that has an earthier flavor compared to the more common varieties. Though the unique size and shape had inspired a more elegant rendition of the twice-baked potato it was the earthy flavor that made me think of elevating the concept with a mixture of cream, finely grated parmesan and a drizzle of our new brand of white truffle oil that has a more deep and complex flavor compared to what we have previously used.

The next component is an ingredient that has just come into availability from local farmers in the last few years: a strand of broccoli rabe that has purple flowering heads. Aside from being beautiful it has the same slightly bitter taste as regular rabe, but this particular harvest from Full Circle Farm seems to have thinner, more tender stems. By quickly steaming it in butter, onions and garlic oil it's bitterness is a great counterpoint to the richness of the other components...

I have been deeply pondering how I could introduce black trumpet mushrooms to Table 219 every since I had them at Anchovies and Olives early last month, but with a price tag of $12 per pound - more expensive than the average of our menu items - I wasn't sure how I could get away with it, but at the last moment that they were available and still reasonably priced I struck black gold; by sauteing a modest handful with onions, garlic and butter I could make a sauce by adding cream, a little parmesan and some mushroom stock made from leftover shitake mushrooms I was able to showcase the black trumpet's buttery flavor and velvety texture in a way that is still reasonably priced.

Ironically, the final note to this dish was is what most people expect to be the primary focus of inspiration - the meat, but I had deliberated for many hours to come up with a "main ingredient" that far exceeds the expectations of the accompanying components:

I decided to take boneless, skinless chicken thighs and stuff them with a mixture of cream cheese and fresh oregano, thyme and parsley in the style of a Chicken Kiev, but instead of a breading I went with thinly sliced prosciutto ham to wrap each one to not only act as a tie but to also infuse the rich and salty flavor into each bite.

Another champion of the early spring offerings is rhubarb, a sour plant similar in structure to celery but is actually a member of the buckwheat family. Traditionally it is served alongside of strawberries in the form of pies, and due to a massive surplus, strawberries are dirt cheap right now.

I wish that I could say that I had foreseen this a couple of weeks ago when I started infusing rum with chopped rhubarb, but the truth is that their seasons tend to overlap, hence the classic combination. I already knew that I was going to combine them into a version of the classic mojito, but what I didn't know was how well the rhubarb rum was going to turn out!

The traditional concept remains the same by muddling mint with ice, but instead of adding lime and rum I used the sour rhubarb rum to take the place of both, and to replace the simple syrup used to sweeten the drink I simmered strawberries down with just a touch of sugar before straining and cooling, and once all of the ingredients were combined I topped it off with just a splash of club soda to lighten up the mixture.

With these exciting times, I can't wait to show you what's to come next!!

With Love,


Wednesday, April 7, 2010


My obsession with noodles is almost as unyielding as my obsession with pork, though unfortunately the elation is somehow not doubled when the two are combined. Nevertheless, some people search a city for the best burger, or the best pizza, sandwich or taco, but my quest has always been Asian noodles.

Let's just say that my childhood in southern Indiana lacked the right influences (the closest Chinese restaurant to my home was called "You-a-Carry-Out-a"...) , but once I landed in New York City I began devouring lo mein like a culinary locust. Similar to the west coast's chow mein but with thicker, chewier noodles, lo mein became a staple in my diet that even surpassed the super-fast food of the infamous NY pizza slice.

My noodle exploration here in Seattle began even before my wife and I had moved here during our initial "scouting" visit, and believe it or not, a good noodle was a requirement. Fortunately we found Seven Stars Pepper in the International District that had hand-shaved noodles and a great sauce, which was different to what we were used to but are still a favorite of ours, but we still missed that familar style of the lo mein, so being a chef, I have been trying to make them myself, but these are the skills of masters.

It has taken me a lot of time and a lot of practice (as it should) but I have finally come up with a style that is close to my ideal shape and texture. The key is to roll the dough as much as possible in order to work the gluten in the flour, with the added secret ingredient of what is know as lye water - a mild solution of Potassium Carbonate and Sodium Bicarbonate (baking soda) that also helps give the noodle its bite.

Due to my adamant desire to create interpretations I decided to use these noodles as a base for a traditional Chinese dish: Peking Duck.

You don't have to be from Beijing to be familiar with it; due to the rich, crispiness of the duck and the sweet hoisen sauce this dish has easily found its way into the American palate, but for noodles I had to take a different approach. I started with whole ducks that I broke down into quarters and cooking them separately. First, I slowly cooked the legs in their own fat until they were tender in a technique known as confit, but the breasts need far less time, so I scored the skin to allow the excess fat to render out but kept the meat raw enough to be sliced and cooked to order. Once the meat had been removed I used the bones to create a flavorful stock that I used as a base for my sauce along with ginger, garlic, spring onions, hoisen sauce, mushroom sauce (a vegetarian alternative to oyster sauce), soy sauce and some rice vinegar and fresh lime juice to balance out the sweetness.

For texture I added fresh, chopped red and green cabbage along with julienned carrots just at the end so they retain their crunch, and for that extra umami touch I even used the obligatory Asian ingredient of shitaki mushrooms before I topped the whole thing off with some refreshing slivers of spring onion greens.

Since last Sunday was Easter I thought that there is no better time than now to break out my Swedish Fish-infused vodka; after all, there evidently isn't a better way to celebrate a man rising from the dead like some candy!!!!

All jokes aside, this cocktail idea was born as a joke about our server and bartender extraordinaire Tommy Hedrick, aka Tommy Love's obsession with Swedish Fish, a type of winegum candy similar to gumdrops.

So last month I began the infusion of Swedish Fish candies and vodka without any clue as to how I was going to incorporate it into a drink, but then I realized that if I was going to do it, I had to do it all the way, so I simmered even more Swedish Fish in water to create something similar to the standard bar condiment simple syrup that usually just consists of sugar and water, and once both were strained, poured over ice and topped with a bit of club soda the drink was surprisingly drinkable with the taste of.... Swedish Fish!!

If you are a fan of this candy then I can guarantee that you'll love the drink, but if you are unsure just remember this: if we are as obsessed with it this much, then what will happen to you?

With Love,