Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Citrus City

Am I the only one who feels like the summer is slipping away like sand through my fingers??? I have so many ideas that I have to keep a notebook, allowing some concepts to sit on paper and mature like wine in a barrel or whiskey in a cask, waiting to develop or to be combined with another for the perfect plate.

Sometimes ideas are scratched out, sometimes they are seasonal-specific and have to wait until a chance at next year, contending with a whole new batch of inspiration like some bad reality TV shows. But I love my notebook; it's the journal of my journey as a chef, and a visually literal representation of my erratic mind.

I'm about three-quarters through this notebook that I started at the re-opening of Table 219, and maybe a third of the concepts have been used, but as I near the end of a season I find myself scrambling to use those ideas that I love before they have to make the "cut" next year.

This dish is one of those; a concept cast aside after a flurry of seafood ideas but too good to let slip away; one that embodies several aspects of my culinary heritage.

The idea started at the top-left portion of the page where I combine my favorite spice of coriander with fresh orange zest and juice to make a glaze over pan roasted chicken breasts by first simmering chicken stock with Walla Walla onions, ginger, garlic and bourbon, that is pureed and thickened to finish the bone-in chicken once it is cooked to order, basting with the glaze as it rests.

I then used the idea of stuffing local collard greens with a Cajun classic called dirty rice made with the "holy trinity" - onions, red bell peppers and celery along with handmade tasso ham, chicken andouille sausage and chicken livers to create a southern version of dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves, paying homage to El Greco - where my notebook left off...

As a balance to the sweetness of the orange glaze I used some locally grown chiles called "goat's horn" and "cherry bomb" that I de-seeded and blanched in boiling water to allow their fruitiness to come through without excessive spiciness. I blended the tamed chiles with softened garlic, scallions and fresh lime juice that I thickened and strained into a squeeze bottle to place little dabs of this refreshing condiment as a garnish.

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Before the summer ends I'd like to get a couple more of the sangria variations in, starting this week with the oxymoronic variety of white sangria.

To be honest, when I first heard about the idea of a white sangria it made even more sense to me than the original. The bright, crisp characteristics of a chilled Chablis makes me think of lounging pool-side a little bit more than any red counterpart, but that's obviously the American in me talking. Besides, what I did next will probably get me ousted from any future wine club.

I wanted to stretch the boundaries of what people think of as sangria, so I did a sort of word game. If a white wine has notes of grapefruit, then why not emphasize that with actual grapefruit? Then, if I like the flavor of fresh sage leaves with grapefruit, why wouldn't it work with the wine?

So I simply marinated summer fruits like nectarines, peaches, white grapes with freshly juiced and zested grapefruit along with some crunchy green apples to keep it all balanced!

With a little luck (or lack of inspiration...) I'll be able to offer one last variation this summer, maybe even an interesting rose version, before we start thinking about fall again.

With Love,


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mused Here

I'm not going to make any promises, but I think that this dish will mark the end of my little seafood run for specials. It's not that I have run out of ideas, I just like to offer a more diverse spectrum of proteins from week to week. The funny thing about it is that this is the idea that I came up with first, inspiring the string of dishes, but I had to wait on a new shipment of long plates in order to give it the proper presentation.

The inspiration came when I was sorting through a box of old pastry equipment; metal ring cutters, non-stick baking pads and this silicone mold that I used to bake mini cheesecakes in. It had been a long time since I had made anything with the mold, so it was like a new muse in my hands. Immediately the size reminded me not of the little cheesecakes and other tasty treats that it had formed for me in a dessert capacity, but that of perfectly cooked, medium-sized sea scallops, and from there the idea just snowballed.

The irony of the final product is that I initially wanted to use the mold to create little avocado mousses alongside pan-seared scallops for a natural pairing of shellfish with the subtle fattiness of avocado since it is subtle without overpowering the delicate flavors of the meat, but alas, I couldn't manipulate the avocado in the way that I wanted without it turning brown, so I went with a tried-and-true alternate combo with some of the great corn that is in an abundance right now. Drawing from one of my favorite specials last year I baked tiny flans by first shaving off the kernels from corn cobs and simmering both into a broth that I intensified by then pureeing the kernels and adding back into the liquid, giving me a rich base that was creamy without the addition of cream. To keep it light I only used whole eggs, along with a some moderate seasoning of salt and pepper to keep the flavors true. I slowly baked the custard in the mini-molds and firmed them up in the freezer just enough to remove.

As a contrast in both color and flavor I used an old favorite: black sticky rice from Thailand. It has a high starch content so I like to cook it similar to risotto - in this case with a vegetable stock fortified with ginger, cilantro and a hint of jalapeno and fermented black beans - giving it both texture and creaminess, but the final product is never completely black; just a very dark shade of purple.

Finally, in an exercise of both color and flavor, I created a simple sauce by blending freshly juiced carrots and whole green cardamom pods with a touch of champagne vinegar to offset the natural sweetness of the carrot. By just warming and not cooking the sauce I am able to retain the freshness of the juice and the floral characteristics of the spice.

The final presentation is just as stunning as I had pictured in my mind, with the flavors just as my tongue had expected!!

As a chef I enjoy going on many tangents with cooking because my experience has allowed me to do so, but as a budding mixologist I realize that I need to focus my thoughts in order to create a solid foundation, just the way I did in my earlier days of cooking. That being said, I feel I need to concentrate my cocktail inspirations into the classical theme with a twist even while my dinner specials run rampant. It's the only way that I can master the style.

So, over the next several weeks I plan to really focus on the variations of more common cocktails, starting with one very close to my heart....

Bourbon is big where I come from, and the general consensus is that if it ain't broke don't fix it, but bourbon has a lot of characteristic, giving opportunity to some great cocktails like the Manhattan, but I wanted to play into that notion and add a little spark by way of an elderflower liqueur called St. Germain that is very floral with some citrus notes, elevating a classic drink into something new while still staying refined.

With Love,


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Natural Beauty

I rarely repeat a special, primarily because the most enjoyable aspect of my profession is the strive to create something new, something better than the last; it is that aspiration to outdo myself that drives me to a higher level of cooking and makes me a better chef.

I was again inspired by yet another dinner on Vashon Island at Kurtwood Farms, where every ingredient that comprises the nine courses is grown on his 13-acre farm with the exception of salt, pepper, sugar, flour, wine and coffee (which they buy green from a coffee shop on the island and roast in a pan just before grinding and serving - OUTSTANDING!!!!). The most memorable things tend to be the simplest, like a mixed greens salad with their own cider vinegar, a poached egg on a crouton or the pickled cauliflower, because the focus is on the exceptional ingredients that they produce organically and sustainably, and are picked ripe and served fresh.

I guess that my chances for future visits could be limited after articles about both owner Kurt Timmermeister and chef Tyler Palagi (also of Spring Hill in West Seattle) appeared in the current issue of Seattle Met magazine (sorry, no link; you're going to have to pick up a copy of your own), but due to their exclusivity (not only do you have to be invited by someone who has been there before just to get onto the mailing list, but in order to make your reservation you have to write a short essay about whatever culinary topic he chose for that month) it takes a little more than just picking up a phone. Lucky for me I write me sum pretty good stuffins....
Which leads me to my next special: a simple preparation of heirloom tomatoes that focuses on the quality of the ingredient; a dish that I now feature anually, but with a few variations....

As before, my supply of heirloom varietals is inconsistent, but what I've used so far are Black Krim, Brandywine, Yellow Brandywine and German Green. To accompany them I stayed true to typical preparations like garlic croutons - made from thin slices of baguettes doused with butter flavored with thyme and garlic - and good extra virgin olive oil, but with slight variations like flaky Maldon sea salt (the snowflake of salt that dissolves quickly on your tongue), pink, black, white and green peppercorns ground to order, and a side of balsamic vinegar that I infused with fresh chopped basil by steeping them together all day.


Simplicity at its finest!!!

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Due to the tepid summer that we've had here in Seattle it seems that all of our local produce is on a month-long delay; my tomato plants are taller than me and without fruit. Finally, after tasting the watermelon for last week's drink special, it has the sweetness that I had expected in back early July, so in order to get what I want out of this summer I need to make haste!!

I had this idea for a watermelon flavored sangria last summer but too many other inspirations superseded it, and I assumed that I would be able to offer it earlier than this in order to try out other variations of sangria later, but you all know the old saying about assumptions....

Just like last week I pureed and strained fresh, seedless watermelon, leaving me with its pure flavor that I used to sweeten a blended red wine in place of the plain white sugar that is used to balance sangria. To create the true myraid of flavors that is sangria I first marinated chopped pineapple, green apple, peaches, and orange slices in the same cherry brandy that I infused for the Cherries Jubilee cocktail, giving each bite of fruit a little more punch than wine that they are served with. 

Enjoy these little tastes of summer while it lasts!!!

With Love,


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Tropical Storm Tomato

Now that we're into August we are reaching the pinnacle of the summer vegetable season. Favorites like beautiful corn, vibrant greens and Walla Walla onions are abound, not to mention one of my personal favorites - the majestic tomato.

With the resurgence of heirloom varieties in the last several years it's hard to beat their flavor unless you grow them yourself, and the list of different types seems to keep growing. This time of year I usually start off with a gloriously simple tomato plate with a rainbow of slices with sea salt and good olive oil, but lately I've had this idea brewing in my head like a tropical storm, and the more I thought about it the bigger it became, until the tomato plate was put on the back burner for next week because I was just too damn excited to make this one.

My idea entailed an entree-sized gazpacho dish paired with seared tuna similar to the yellow watermelon version I made last year, but far more refined and with more traditional ingredients.

The best way to make gazpacho is to keep it simple, let the ingredients shine on their own. Since gazpacho is made up of raw ingredients, if you don't use the best ingredients the taste will fall flat. That's why I use heirloom tomatoes for mine; they have the best flavor, and since I don't cook them even tomato purist - who believe that a good, fresh tomato should only be eaten as is - can't scoff.

In order to keep the tomatoes as fresh-tasting as possible I had to first cook my base ingredients of chopped garlic and Walla Walla onions in extra virgin olive oil early enough so that they could cool down naturally before adding them into the mix. For the tomatoes I chose a unique yellow variety known as "Lemon Boys" due to their vibrant color and medium size. I blended the stewed garlic and onions with the fresh tomatoes with simple additions like 25 year old sherry vinegar, kosher salt and white pepper and passed the soup through a fine strainer to remove the leftover seeds and skin, leaving me with a velvety-smooth soup with the perfect balance of natural sweetness and tart.

Traditionally speaking, other ingredients like cucumbers and bell peppers are added into the gazpacho base, but I like to keep them separate, even going as far as creating a cucumber mousse by pureeing seedless cucumbers with cream cheese and a little gelatin before putting the mixture into my trusty iSi whipped cream maker to make a light and airy foam that I sprayed into large ring molds and froze to allow the gelatin to quickly set. Then I removed the rings and allowed them to defrost, resulting in delicate little clouds of goodness.

I chose Ahi tuna again because it is best served seared, or just cooked on the outside yet still raw on the inside, and unlike other fish that isn't sushi, most people can appreciate it served cold. I took it a step further and used its deep red color as a play on ham by marinating it overnight with more familiar flavors like soy sauce, brown sugar, onions, garlic and allspice before lightly smoking the loins.Then I carefully cooked the sides of the tuna with a propane torch instead of searing them in a pan because 1 - I didn't want to lose the subtle smoke in the cooking process, and 2 - I didn't want to burn the sugar that was leftover from the marinade, not to mention the fact that it kept the meat from drying out the way that any portion of cooked tuna can get.

To finish the dish I garnished it with some finely diced cucumbers, red bell peppers and red onions around the mousse and placed a scoop of handmade tomato-basil sorbet on top of a nest of fresh, living pea sprouts for added crunch and decor.

Another undoubted symbol of summer is the colossal watermelon, and since I referenced it in my entree special I thought it would be fitting to use it as a main ingredient for my cocktail special.

It's hard to imagine a more refreshing summer cocktail than the mojito (though I have a few ideas up my sleeve for future use...), let alone a better concept that is open for interpretation and revival. I can - and have - come up with virtuously endless combinations of this favorite, with each one being better than the last. For example...

I start with the true base of the cocktail by muddling fresh limes wedges and mint leaves with ice to break them down and release their oils before adding Bacardi rum (anything better and people complain that they "don't taste the alcohol"), fresh watermelon puree that I strained to keep it smooth, and topped it off with a splash of club soda to brighten it up.

With Love,