Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Nice Shootin', Tex!

Believe it or not, we've already reached the end of January, right in the heart of winter. Now is the time for deep, hearty dishes that soothe the soul for when the days are short and the skies are dreary.

I have always loved Tex-Mex food; I still return to the same local chain from my childhood called "Tumbleweed" whenever I visit my hometown. While it is inarguably one of the most definitive American cuisines, I have always shied away from Tex-Mex despite these facts, perhaps due to certain celebrity chefs who have overextended the cuisine. Now is the time to break free from that reluctance.

Every since the last time I used ancho chilies, the mild, dried poblano, I have been in love with them. Not only do they have an amazing, complex flavor of raisins and tobacco in the same way that good wines do, but they also have a very low Scoville rating, the scale used to rate the heat in chiles, allowing those of us who can't tolerate a lot of spiciness to still enjoy the flavor.

I used this great chile along with a hearty beef stock as a cooking medium for beef brisket to make good on my promise from last week to showcase another one of my favorite cooking techniques: braising. By pureeing the dried chile pods with the stock before cooking the meat not only guarantees me a great sauce, but also infuses the flavor deep into the meat during the seven hour cooking process. After the meat is cooled I cut it into exact portions and strain the sauce, reserving it to reheat the meat to order.

Even more of a staple to southwestern cuisine than chiles is maize, or corn to you and me. Blue corn, a variety that dates back to before the European influence in the southern Americas at the end of the 15th century, is about 30% higher in protein than the commercial brands that dominate our country's agriculture. Though I've used it in a more traditional form by making tamales, I realized that it would be a great accompaniment to rich, braised dishes if cooked in the traditional Italian porridge-style preparation of polenta. I heated half-and-half with garlic and onion powder for flavoring before sprinkling in the blue cornmeal and allowing it to cook for a half hour or so. I cooled the mixture before pureeing it in a food processor to eliminate any lumps. Finally, to elevate the flavor that much more I finished the reheating of the blue polenta with a spoonful of creamy chevre goat cheese.

The mellow spiciness of the ancho really comes through when a little sweetness is present, but instead of adding sugar to the sauce I chose to saute seasonal broccolini, a hybrid of broccoli and Chinese cabbage, which also happens to be my all-time favorite vegetable. The natural sweetness of the broccolini really helps bring out the fruity flavor of the ancho chile, while its crisp stalks lend plenty of much needed texture to the dish.

Only those close to me know that last week my wife and I closed on our first house. Sure, we've owned our own apartment in the past, but this is our new home. We used the same husband and wife duo Larry and Lynette that helped us find our condo in Eastlake for our home search, and it's safe to say that we've couldn't have imagined better people to work with!!

After signing our final offer on this house, Larry (nicknamed "Eggplant", a.k.a. Edgar Plant) asked if I wanted a drink. Since knowing this man for nearly 3 years now, I knew that he had excellent taste in both music and booze, so I said, "Sure. Your choice."

He proceeded to concoct a combination of tequila, spiced rum and hot water swirled inside of a molasses jar. To be honest, I've never been fond of hot cocktails myself (cold beer is usually my preferred method of intoxication), but the unusual heating of tequila and spiced rum along with the complex molasses flavor really made an impression on me. So in tribute to another stage of my life I'm offering this drink special to those great people who've helped us get there, and for those of you who are adventurous enough to try this surprisingly delicious drink I offer you a 25% discount if you simply tell your server the codeword "eggplant"!

With Love,


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Touch of Sweetness

I love combining sweet and savory in a dish. For me, sweetness plays an essential part of balancing a dish by bringing together the five tastes, but a real treat is when I get the opportunity to incorporate pastry techniques as well.

I have more than my fair share of pastry experience, which I've flaunted in the past by making components like a roasted garlic whipped cream, a creme brule-style corn custard and a fresh tomato sorbet. I'm always inspired by the correlating techniques between the two culinary sides; the most obvious of my favorites are the slow braising of tough cuts of meat and the poaching of pears. Both transform the initial product into something different while imparting the flavors of my choice; if I didn't know better, I'd think it was magic...

 So for this week I wanted to focus on the pear poaching technique and save the slow braise for next week.

Ironically, the best pears for poaching are hard pears, and it's very difficult to get under ripe pears while they're in season. Since that's the case, the Bartlett pear is the most firm when ripe, so I peeled, halved and de-cored a selection of these and then slowly cooked them in water, brown sugar, star anise, fennel seeds, fresh ginger, and pickling spice, which contains coriander, cloves, bay leaves and a little dried chile. I cite the pickling spice ingredients because they end up lending the most interesting notes of flavor to the finished pears, especially with the savory application.

Pork is one of the best mediums for sweet and savory contrasts since it is relatively neutral in flavor and pairs well with fruit and other sweet preparations. Texture is always an important factor, so I went with thick cuts of pork tenderloin that I then slightly pounded with a meat mallot before breading with breadcrumbs made from the leftover sourdough loaves that we use for our famous French toast.

To tie it all together I made a bed for the pork by sauteing finely chopped napa cabbage with onions, garlic, parsley and sage,. Then, for the final touch, I reduced an already strong pork stock with freshly chopped ginger that I had slowly cooked in a little sesame oil. To create a unique sauce I used this stock to make a quick emulsion by whisking it into egg yolks with a hand/immersion blender (one of my favorite tools) to give me something that is frothy and light, yet rich with flavor. A little pinch of shallots pickled in 25 year old sherry vinegar rounds it out to help balance the richness.

After nearly 100 posts I have to be honest and say that I'm sometimes surprised that I haven't already offered an idea for a special where I think now would be a "no brainer". I guess my skill has matured, especially behind the bar...

Another great seasonal citrus that has a limited season is one of the first inspirations of my young, budding career. I can still vividly remember the first time that I bit into a ripe kumquat, and the idea of a citrus fruit that you can eat entirely without worrying about the bitter pith made my creative juices explode. Now, I have a new muse with this cocktail angle, and I failed to take advantage of the kumquat's season last year, though I don't plan to make the same mistake again...

This time I chopped up some kumquats to infuse in vodka while I used the remainder to make a simple syrup by simmering it in a mixture of equal parts of sugar and water. The cooking process of the simple syrup mutes the flavor in the same way that canned vegetables taste dull. Fortunately, the preservation property of the vodka retained the fresh flavor (hence the name).

We shake the two over ice and strain the mix into a martini glass that is garnished with a few rings of that mysterious fruit.

With Love,


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Globe Trotting

I'm not big on New Year's resolutions, or at least in the way that most people make them. The type of resolutions that I like to make improve my life in a different way. For example: this year I have resolved to try as many different independent coffee shops and pizzerias as I can. Not the healthiest of choices, but I bet that I'm in the 99th percentile of resolutions achieved for 2011.

At least I have my ongoing resolution to become a better chef as a redeeming value. In the last year I've made good on my resolution, studying the lesser-known flavors of the world - from Scandinavia to Kashmir and Indonesia, anything beyond the trendy cuisines that you'll find on nearly every corner these days.

I came across this one recipe for an authentic Sri Lankan curry paste that really helped me understand the way countries influence each other, like a beautiful game of connect the dots across the map. As I contemplated this week's special this recipe came up, and I felt that it would fit perfect with some seasonal ingredients and a different technique that I've been wanting to try.

The curry paste recipe consisted of coriander, cinnamon sticks, cloves, cardamom, coconut flakes, and dried chiles among other things (including dried, ground rice), so I stayed true to it but used some Latin American chile instead, like the Ancho and New Mexico variety because both are large, signifying a mild heat but with a lot of flavor.

I don't offer many chicken dishes for a reason; most chefs believe it to be a "throw away dish", something you do to appease the indecisive or apprehensive, so I can stretch the boundaries by using the Sri Lankan curry paste as a marinade to liven up the generic stereotype. Since I already get HUGE chicken breasts for our brunch menu I realized that I could split them lengthwise and trim them to a perfect portion size before pounding with a meat mallet. I rolled up the meat with the paste and twisted the ends tightly to expedite the marination process while awaiting your order.

For the "starch" component I decided on what I consider the "trifecta" of chef influence. Michel Richard, one of the most influential chefs of our time and considered the Godfather of modern Californian cuisine, publicized a technique that he created by cutting potatoes into the size of rice and cooking them like risotto, a technique later expanded on by one of my early influences, Ming Tsai, who implemented the technique with sweet potatoes to suit his "East meets West" culinary POV. The "trifecta" is finalized when I realize that while Chef Tsai's version is rich in possibilities, the sweet potato lacked enough starch to simulate a true risotto, so I meticulously cut sweet potato into long julienned strips with a mandolin and then chopped them with a knife into the "rice" sized shapes. I cooked the leftover pieces in coconut milk, some light beef stock and a touch of saffron-infused honey to build on both the Middle Eastern flavors of the chicken as well as accentuating the sweetness of the "yam". Once cooled I pureed the mixture into a smooth paste and stirred it into the raw "rice", giving me the right texture and mouth feel but not any of the heaviness attributed to traditional risotto.

Since I'm using a spicy component with the chile paste and a sweet component with the "risotto", there's no other choice but to add some bitter greens to bridge the dish and balance the flavors. Being in this season and in this region, there's no better option than the mixed organic braising greens from the local Willie Greens Farm that I love to lean on for any complimenting element to my dishes. I know that I sound like a commercial for them, but there really isn't a local farm that offers as wide of a variety of organic vegetables as they do. I would mention it more if I wasn't so worried about being repetitious...

I simmered the winter greens mix on top of chopped onions and garlic that had already been softened in olive oil to allow the natural water to leach out and steam itself, concentrating the flavor even more, bringing the dish into a perfect Zen-like balance.
Whenever I ask my produce purveyor "What's new?" this time of year I get the same ol' answer..."Beets, turnips, kale, and citrus." Sounds pretty standard, until he reminds me about Meyer lemons.

Meyer lemons are a cross between a mandarin orange and a traditional lemon, yielding a sweeter lemon with a darker, thinner skin, but there is a short window when this fruit is available. While I figure out other potentials for this hybrid I might as well go with the "why didn't I think of that" idea: a Meyer Lemon Margarita.

See? The winter doesn't have to be all cloud and gloom. There's a burst of sunshine with every sip!!

With Love,


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Nude Sunbathing

This Christmas was exceptionally special for us because not only were we able to spend it with family (my mother's side), but also to get out of Seattle and into the Florida sun, first in the Fort Meyers/Naples area, and then down to Miami and the Keys with my friend, Greg.

Though the temperature wasn't as high as we were expecting (not by a long shot), it was exciting for me as a chef to be in a whole new region of local ingredients. I had my list of culinary demands mentally prepared even before my feet left the plane: conch, shrimp, grouper and Florida lobster. Like any holiday, we ate ourselves silly, and aside from my standing rib roast on Christmas day we pretty much stuck to a diet of seafood.

Once back it seemed that I had seafood on the brain, and since I had the New Year's Eve menu already set before I left for Florida I felt that there was no better way to start the year than with a dish like this.

With fennel in season I decided to do one of my favorite pairings by cooking it with lobster shells and other aromatics to create a warm winter broth that's full of body and flavor but not rich or heavy to give a much needed break after a December full of eating (and drinking).

I'm a dumpling maniac, whether it's encased in pasta like last week's ravioli or on its own, or gnudi, Italian for "nude". To make these I used a medley of Pacific cod, shrimp, scallops and calamari ground up and pureed with a little cream and egg to help keep it smooth. I folded in freshly chopped chives and chervil to add more flavor and mirror the anise infused into the broth by the fennel, which was also used to poach the mini marshmallow-sized dumplings.

To accent the "stew" I steamed diced white and yellow (aka rutabaga) turnips ahead of time only to be sauteed to order with butter, onions, garlic and shredded rainbow swiss chard, adding to the dish like the way some would use potatoes and spinach, but with the turnips you get less starch and a mild radish flavor, while the chard doesn't wilt down like spinach would, offering more heft and sustenance. 

It doesn't take long for any transplant to Seattle like me to learn to (em)brace for the upcoming cold and rainy season, only I choose to forgo the hoodie and go straight to warm alcohol to help shield me ;)

With any winter comes the obligatory common cold, and since there's no cure for it the next best thing is a soothing Hot Toddy filled with that miracle worker, bourbon! But to enhance the complexity of the bourbon I decided to use 100% pure maple syrup instead of the traditional honey, and along with hot water and a squeeze from the clove-studded lemon wedge all you have to do choose which top shelf bourbon you prefer to have with it!!
Hey, at least you have something to look forward to if you get sick!!
With Love,