Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Not Exactly Kosher

The holiday season is a special time of the year to me. I grew up celebrating Christmas while my wife celebrated Hanukkah, and while neither of us practice our religious heritages we still enjoy the traditions that go along with them, combining the two whenever possible, like a Christmas tree decorated in the Hanukkah colors of blue and silver, or a modern menorah on the fireplace mantle surrounded by stockings, garland and baubles.

Last weekend we started a new holiday tradition by cooking latkes, potato pancakes made with egg, flour, grated onion and pan-fried in oil to represent the single day's worth of oil that lit a menorah for eight days until a new supply could be obtained, which is why a menorah is now represented with eight candles (and another one in the middle to light them). Traditionally they are served plain, with sour cream or with applesauce, but for those of us who don't follow the strict Jewish dietary guidelines a flavorful substitute for oil can be schmaltz, Yiddish for chicken fat. I took it a step further and cooked ours in duck fat and served them with Fage Greek-style yogurt and unsweetened applesauce on the side.

The result was so good it inspired me to create a dish to honor these final days of Hanukkah, in my own way of course...

I grated raw potatoes and rinsed them in cold water to remove the excess starch and wrung them free of as much water as possible which ensures a crispy exterior while keeping the interior from being pasty. I tweaked the recipe by slowly cooking finely sliced leeks in butter until soft before adding with a little egg and foregoing the flour, which makes it much harder to keep them from falling apart but allows our friends with the gluten allergy to be able to enjoy it (THE most common food allergy question I get these days). Like at home I pan-fried them in duck fat while pressing the mixture into a metal oval mold to help keep a refined shape.

I personally like to have both sour cream and applesauce with my latkes, but I also dislike any dish to be straightforward, so I nestled two latkes on top of a compote made from Asian pears cooked down in apple cider vinegar and sugar into what must now be my now signature sweet/sour condiment, and then finished them with tiny dollops of sour cream.

For the vegetable component I knew that cabbage would be a great accompaniment, and I have been wanting to find a place to implement an idea that I've had to braised red cabbage with a bottle of all natural red hibiscus cocktail mix that is only lightly sweetened with a touch of agave nectar. I have really been stuck on the apple/hibiscus correlation for a while now, and since apples are a common addition to braised cabbage I felt that it fell right into place here, especially in reference to the latkes.

As is often the case with me I credited the meat portion of this special as being the main focus when describing the dish just to keep with the way customers expect to hear it explained, but this ingredient is by no means an afterthought. Some lean beef belly had just became available to me from a Walla Walla farm called Thundering Hooves (I love that name...) and after a sampling I bought about 50 pounds of it; half for this special and half to be cured and smoked into beef bacon for a later use....

The bellies were smaller and leaner than you would expect, with a meat and fat structure that reminded me of brisket, a cut traditionally braised for Jewish holidays and special occasions, perfect for this kind of dish. And while braising is the easiest way to transform a cut like this into succulents pieces, in the right hands (i.e. mine), slowly roasting it would achieve a richer flavor with less fat.

I first rubbed the meat with kosher salt, not to make it kosher but to help draw out some of the blood, although it is the same technique and reasoning, minus the rabbi. I then sprinkled a generous mixture of Chinese five spice powder, freshly ground black and pink peppercorns, granulated onion and garlic, brown sugar and few other little secrets. I then slow roasted the bellies in the oven at 325 degrees for about 6 hours, using a spray bottle to mist the meat every hour with soy sauce to baste it with flavor and moisture. Once cooled and portioned I reheated the meat in a rich beef broth to keep it moist and flavorful.

In keeping with the holiday theme I have decided to offer holiday-influenced cocktails for the next three weeks. The only downside to such a dedication is that outside of a play on words (like a Grey "Goose" Martini), most holiday inspirations tend to be better as translations of desserts and therefore sweet, which I think isn't necessarily a bad thing due to our lack of dessert drink options. So here is the first of three holiday drink specials that can be drank as either an appetizer for the sweet-toothed, or as a dessert.

The first of my holiday trilogy is the Toffee Martini, inspired by a typical handmade gift made of caramel and nuts. I came up with a toffee flavored syrup by caramelizing sugar in water until it was a beautiful amber color and cooled it down with cream, water and a touch of bourbon vanilla extract. Once strained and ice cold I shook it with Absolut Vanilla vodka, Baileys Creme Caramel and a splash of Frangelico hazelnut liqueur before straining it into a chilled martini glass.

As a final note, while it isn't unusual for my to have a dessert special, it is unusual for me to have it finished on Tuesday after my busiest day preparing the restaurant for the week as well as the aforementioned specials, but this one is important, especially due to the celebratory nature of this blog entry.

Since I had some chestnut flour leftover from my Thanksgiving special and due to the lack of people who've actually enjoyed chestnuts during the holiday season I decided to make a Chestnut Mousse Torte by whisking cream with chestnut flour that I folded into a mixture of meringue, more chestnut flour and gelatin set over a crust of oatmeal, brown sugar, almonds, flour, ginger and cinnamon. To give it that true seasonal flavor I topped it with handmade egg nog ice cream and a fresh dusting of nutmeg as well as powdered sugar to symbolize a dusting of snow.

Happy Holidays from all of us at Table 219!!!

With Love,