April 2010


Morels. Whatever purpose they serve, they have an endgame that is to fill my belly with deliciousness, and for that, I am grateful. It is a pity that they are not around during the fall, so that we may give thanks for them around our holiday table. Imagine the taste of a morel- woodsy, warm, satisfying, with a chestnut stuffing or something hearty and filling, while outside the snow falls or the wind blows, and here you sit with your turkey dinner and a bag of wild fungus made up with any manner of methods.

The best, of course is butter. Whenever I cook with mushrooms, I just put a pat of butter in there, or perhaps more if the mood strikes me, which it always does. Just sautee them up with a pat of butter, perhaps some greens, etc.

The other day, I was at the market, and I thought that all the morels had been wiped, after seeing a short run of them a couple weeks ago. Suffering through the same trial that I did with the ramps, I bought up a few batches of them, and cooked them up, not knowing when the next ones would come in. My surprise overtook me me when I realized that in fact there was a second run, due to the wet weather of recent note in the pacific northwest. Being that it is Seattle, April, and that we are in the throes of the great weatherwarp of the vengeful Volcano, Ejvoekkvufafullküll, I should have known. Good news is, being from Wisconsin, April showers in the woods mean a spike in the fantastic early spring appearance of forageable fungus.

***

One of my first experiences in the kitchen was at L’Etoile, one of the pioneers in the local foraging movement for restaurants. Every Saturday when I was working bright and early, I saw one chef wheeling a red wagon around the circumference of the Capitol Square Farmer’s Market. Looking back, I realize what an amazing market it was, where everything you brought had to be grown on your property, and there had to be a person from the farm representing at all times during market hours. This led to a great deal of local, seasonal produce that encouraged and influenced home cooks and restaurants alike to buy and cook what was growing out their back door. Asparagus in the spring, Strawberries came in june, raspberries, broccoli, tomatoes, sweet corn, apples in the fall, and every color of flower you could grow in our climate. I developed a fondness for gladiolas, and I wish there were more out here.

They’d come around, the foragers from L’Etoile, and one day, my mother asked them if they needed someone to wash dishes. She’d noticed that I was asking to help in the kitchen more now that I was getting curious about food, and the forager told her to send me over after the market was done. I’d do some prep work, some dishwashing, and get to taste a lot of what was going on behind the scenes of a nationally recognized kitchen.

The first day I went in, they had decided that the night’s dinner was going to be Carpenter’s farm rack of lamb with julienned winter garlics and morels. They set me up in the back, and I used all fourteen years of my kitchen knowledge to impress them. They went into the cooler, and came back with about thirty bunches of what looked to be scallions, and showed me how to cut them into thin matchstick widths.

“Slice down the bias, and make them angled and the same thickness all the way across. People will be paying $36 dollars for this entree, so we want it to look good.”

I started slicing, and five minutes later, through sheer meticulous, tongue-biting concentration, I had sliced five, and I’d done a pretty good job, in my opinion.

Bob came over. He was the executive chef, and was expediting the line.

“Would you eat these?”

“Um…I haven’t, but I would.”

“These are all uneven. I’ll put them back in the cooler and see if we can make a pesto for a one-off appetizer with them. How about the morels?”

He took my slipshod spears of winter garlic, threw them into a hotel pan and back in the fridge. He came back a minute later with a flat full of tiny brained mushroom caps, still full of mud at the neck.

“Take these on the fire escape, tap them off, trim them up, and clean them.”

So I did. Out the back door, for I was punished. I took a small paring knife, and flaked off the mud, trimmed a quarter inch off the bottom of each stem to get all the stuff off that nobody would want to eat, and then plopped it into a metal bowl. Occasionally, I’d find a strange-stemmed, not-quite-fully-unfurled oblong fungus, and those, I cut in half, splitting them from stem to tip. This is where my curiousity got the best of me.

I looked inside the morel. What’s inside? I know what white mushrooms look like with their gills, but I didn’t see any gills on these. I opened it up like a book, and inside lay the magical wonder of the forest tucked away.

There were bugs. Not just a couple, but dozens of bugs living inside this one mushroom. For a nerdy food-inquisitive teenager, this was awesome- like finding 20 dollars on the ground. I knew you couldn’t eat them, so I tapped them out over the railing, and put them in the  bowl.

I found out from someone out in the dining room that Cindy Crawford was in the house that night. She was doing a fundraiser in town for Leukemia in honor of her brother. As I washed dishes, I peered over my shoulder through the porthole in the swinging kitchen door. As I ducked out to the back bar to refill my cup with soda, I saw her, and she was beautiful and birdlike and she was eating the morels! The morels that I cut!

That night, I asked Bob if I could taste one. As service slowed, and I got through my last load of dishes, he came over with a few bites of lamb, some waffle fries, and a tiny dish of sauteed morels.

It was heaven. I finally understood why the dish was 36 dollars, or more than I’d walk away with that night. Potato chips were great, but these waffle fries were amazing. How did they get the potatoes cut just so, when I couldn’t even cut a single strip of garlic to a specified width? What was the seasoning that made the lamb so good? (Rosemary) How did this all taste so good?

And the morels. I had smelled them all night in the pan as they were cooking them, and I noticed the residue of the sauce when I scrubbed each dish. All the plates had come back empty. I asked Bob how they did what they did.

“You get your pan hot, add a little bit of oil, and then the mushrooms. If you watch the pan, and you have it just right, they’ll start to sweat. You’ll actually see the dry mushrooms start to get moist and shrivel up, and the liquid from the morels will go into the pan. That’s when you hit it with a pat of butter, a bit of fresh herbs, and a shot of cream, crank the heat, and let it go. The rest will take care of itself. You’ve got the liquid from the morels blending with the cream and the butter, and all you need to make it thick now is just time. When it starts to boil and bubble, you’re just about ready. Don’t forget that. You’ll impress a girl someday.”

Who knew? 14 year old me was picking up tricks on how to impress the ladies from adults. Real Adults! Their hands were rough and their skin was flushed. Sure, they cursed like sailors after dinner service, and sat at the bar with their bottles of cheap domestic swill, but I was going to be one of them. I was going to speak their language, and I’d be able to give the secret handshake, with the nod let the other know that we were part of a small contingent of elite kitchen warriors. My first night, and already I’d seen a Supermodel, found a new favorite food, and gotten tips on how to impress a lady with my cooking skills.

***

Fast forward 16 Aprils. I am at the vegetable stand, and I think to myself on this gray, dreary Wednesday, “What can I do? I need something bold, and something that tastes good. I want to do something special, nothing boring.”

There they were. Morels. I had a little piece of salmon at home, and some leftover ramps from the pickled ones I’d done the day before (this would be the last of the ramps, I swore to myself). I didn’t even have to think of what to do.

“Give me some of those morels.”

***

I got home and looked at the piece of salmon. It was wee. It was small. I looked at it again, and didn’t really think it was so bad. About 3/4 of a pound maybe, skin off, pinbones out, maybe three inches across.

I opened the fridge. Got some garlic out, some shallot, a little bit of that tube of hot pepper paste that I need to use. I squirted a little on my finger. It was spicy. Squirted a whole bunch out into a bowl, a silver dollar’s worth. Chopped the garlic, added some oil, crushed some dried out thyme in there, sprinkled some salt and threw a couple pieces of salmon to marinate for a half hour.

I got my pan started, put a little oil in, and started trimming the morels. I was quicker and more efficient, knowing what to look for. My cuts were perfectly uniform, straight down the center with not a hair of a thick stemmed halfhearted nonchalance about it. I actually cared how these looked. Halved, they went in the pan, along with a turn of the pepper mill. A little shake, and then let them go for a few minutes.

My kitchen filled up with that fantastic aroma that lets everyone in the neighborhood know that you’re making a better dinner than they’re having tonight. I went to the fridge, and pulled out the ramp leaves, and threw them in whole. They wilted instantly, and added to the smell a garlic bouquet. I threw in a nice chunk of butter. Usually, with morels, I’d go to the fridge and grab whatever’s left of the stick that we use for toast, etc. We hadn’t had much toast lately. I used a fair amount of butter.

After it had absorbed, I took the morels and ramps out with a slotted spoon, and added a splash of white wine and vegetable broth to deglaze the pan. I turned it on high, and started scraping the bits off the bottom.

When it started bubbling, I added that splash of cream, and when that reduced down, it was ready.

I took out the salmon and decided I was going to make medallions with it. I wrapped them up, tied a green onion around them, and stabbed them with a rosemary sprig. In cooking, if you don’t have the right stuff, you improvise. No string? No toothpick? No problem.

Seared it on both sides, and spooned out the morels on the plate. The salmon went right on top, and that beautiful sauce was drizzled on the side.

I don’t cook in restaurants anymore, but what I gained from my experience was that restaurant quality food can be made at home, and with a little effort, it can taste, and almost look, like the real thing.

When I first moved out here, I was alone. An unfamiliar city, knowing only the handful of folks that I worked with and the lovely young woman I was seeing. It was the beginning of December, 2008, and for Seattle, that meant that I had months of cold, gray, rainy days to look out at from my post in front of the fish stand at the market.

I’ve discussed this period of time with her, and at that point, she never thought I’d go through with the move. When I did, I realized that even though I wanted to spend my time with her, she had already booked her ticket back home for the holidays, months before I even arrived.

Two weeks in the city, and I was on my own. Work, home, sleep, repeat.

When she returned after Christmas, I found out a little bit more about her family in the form of the gifts that she had brought back with her. There were Christmas cookies for me to eat, and holiday roasted pecans tied up in a bag with a neat little bow, and gifts from her parents, who after the holidays knew the basics about me.

The short story is that I went through the culinary school, cooked at some internships, decided that the hardened life of a chef was not for me, and came into a job as a fishmonger, which I’ve kept for the last six years.

She handed me two packages, each meticulously wrapped. In the first- The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.

Oh, sigh. For the six years previous, I had worked at Whole Foods, and in TOD, Michael Pollan had taken them to task for their participation in the big organic movement. When I first picked it up, I wasn’t hearing any of it. This was my company, and from an insider’s perspective, they were doing a lot of things right. I didn’t like someone badmouthing my company when I was working hard for them to promote what they set forth as Green business practices. I put the book down and didn’t return to it until I was presented with it as a gift.

I turned it over in my hands and decided to give it another shot. For the months of January through March, I saw the sun a handful of times, but it mostly stayed overcast at a constant 45 degrees with a chance of no rain. I stayed indoors, and kept the book closeby, reading it a few pages at a time.

Then, I forgot about it.

Then, I watched Food, Inc. (Different topic for a different time, but interlaced all the same.)

There’s Michael Pollan, and his radical farming companion Joel Salatin whom he spent chapters with, and a bunch of familiar faces and names that have been thrown around in the fight for the sustainable future of our food. I began to think about it again, and I came home and picked up the book.

Then I put it down.

Then, I got a library card and forgot about it altogether.

I read books. Lots of books. Novels, the History of the Amish Farmer’s Market in Pennsylvania, Burgess Meredith’s autobiography, Essays on the Big Lebowski. Devoured them all.

Last week, I read two books: Gene Wilder’s Autobiography, and a history of what it was like to live and work with Paul Newman, written by his ol’ pal, A.E. Hotchner. You may remember his name from the back of Newman’s Own Salad Dressing. That was a huge part of the book. He discussed how it was that they made their dressing in bathtubs, stirring it with the none-too-hygienic but story worthy canoe paddle, and the utter refusal of Paul Newman to compromise and use less than natural ingredients in their products.

Not only did reading this book inspire me to start making salads again after a multimonth hiatus, it encouraged me to pick up and read the last few chapters of The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

(One other thing that gave me a reason to write this was my cousin’s recent blogpost on Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Find his witty, insightful post at http://psoutowood.vox.com/library/post/animal-vegetable-haranguing-lecture.html)

It’s difficult for me to express in short order my philosophy on food, and when I try to engage people in conversation about it, it can end in two ways: I can either ponder and pontificate for a long period of time with no real resolution, or I can work in a roundabout sort of way, trying to explain myself without really saying much that people can relate to. There are all of these individual facets of what I believe in pertaining to food that fit into a puzzle, but who has time to put all the pieces together, especially if their conversation partner is as scatterbrained as myself at times.

As I was giving this last section of the book a try, I came upon an odd realization that Michael Pollan, as a writer whose books revolve around food, is just as curious as I am. As he hunts and stalks a wild boar, there are ethical questions as to the morality and true validity of what he is about to do: Is it that important for him to take the life of an animal by shooting it in the butt and wounding it, and is the primal sense of accomplishment from killing that animal really worth doing it yourself? It’s very difficult to distance yourself from those questions, unless, of course, you are a consumer who never sees that your dinner at one point had a face.

He points out that humans are, by nature, carnivores, and we’re designed to eat meat. We have teeth that are designed for eating meat, and the bodies that are streamlined and bipedal for mobilization on the hunt. Still, why did he bristle when he saw his grim smile in a picture hovering over a strung pig carcass?

What I took away from TOD was the peace Mr. Pollan took in presenting his book’s final chapter. It was a meal foraged by many hands, savored by many mouths, and reimagined by many pairs of readers’ eyes. I looked at the recipes and thought, “Hey, I can make that. Morels are in season. We’ve been making fresh pasta. There’s plenty of fresh, local seafood around here. Why not?” I try to eat locally, and what I can’t get locally, I at least try to get from local vendors, supporting local businesses, etc. With Michael Pollan’s book, Food, in this sense, is the vehicle for a bit of understanding into what it takes to be a conscious consumer. I don’t think about the clothes I have on my back, but if I look at the tag, I almost guarantee that one of them has some third world country on it where it was made. The next logical step for me asks, “If I have the knowledge on what to do to eat as locally, seasonally, and consciously as possible, how do I enact this in other facets of my life?” What do I do as an American to help myself to the lifestyle that we’ve all grown so accustomed to without subscribing to the manifesto of yet another huge industry? And where do I start? Clothes? Shoes? Do I just bike and walk more? Where do I begin?

I try not to internalize it too much. It’s a lot to process at once, but I want to become more conscious of my surroundings. I think I have the food part down. If you can sit down, make fresh food, support your local economy, enjoy it with others over a bottle of wine or a night around the coffee table, isn’t that all that matters? It’s the amount of thought that goes into the little choices like dinner that make things memorable, and make the lasting impressions that will serve as formative experiences later in life.

It’s the thought that counts, and the gift of that book left a lasting impression on me. Many thanks for allowing me to put my thoughts into words.

If you’ll remember, at the beginning of this blogpost, I mentioned that there were two gifts that were given to me. All that was known about me at the time by the parents was that I was really into food, and that I was a fishmonger. The first gift left me with the thoughts that you see here, and the second left its mark as well.

When I opened the small package, inside was a neatly wrapped bar of lovely smelling soap.

Yes, like everyone else, I’m falling under the spell of pickles. Ah, pickles- the latest fashion food to hit New York, one that rolls across the country like a vinegared wave of deliciousness that is salty like the sea, while when conditions are just right, can loft a surfboard made of cucumbers with a tiny beach bum made of garlic to a pedestal of freshness while we anxious eaters on the shore wring our napkins in anticipation of that perfect ride that culminates in throwing our arms around the well-seasoned rider, and getting a sloppy taste of a job well done right in the kisser.

Wow. That metaphor took a turn for the long-winded.

Moving on, I love pickles. I love pickles any time of day or night, and in any way. I love them on burgers, in a salad, with a beer, with delicious meats, and straight out of the jar. They add a snappy bit of pep to any spring or summer dish, and balance out a heavy meal with a pleasant bit of zest. Pickles are good for you, too. As someone who has never, and most likely will never subscribe to the Kombucha craze, pickles are the way of getting the health benefits of vinegar without having to fight through the “acquired taste” that people defend Kombucha of having. It is my own personal opinion that people fight through the taste and grow to an understandable level of palate acceptance in order to glean the homeopathic benefits of whatever it is that Kombucha has to offer. Knowing only marginal information about Kombucha, I make this claim knowing that it is factually inaccurate, but no amount of gentle prodding will get me to change my mind and try it. Why? Because food and drinks are supposed to taste good. You are supposed to enjoy your food. Savor it.

People will strive to acquire a great pickle. Friends have sent New York Half-Sours across the country longing for a taste of home. Japanese friends of mine have pickled everything from radishes to watermelon rinds. When I was younger, I read an article about the proprietor of a local hamburger joint who called the local newspaper in to publish a huge announcement. It turns out that after years of searching, our eccentric Burgermeister had found the greatest pickle to accompany his burgers, and he wanted a triumphant moment in the sun to tell the world that his dish was complete. He wanted to bask in the glory, and, yes, relish it.

Relish, you say? Why, what better to way to enjoy a food? You do know that there’s pickles in that there relish? (Seriously, there are.) Here is a list of things that I’ve pickled over the last few months:

Carrots
Beets
Escabeche (carrots, onions, jalapenos)
Cucumbers (baby English, Persian, Regular)
Garlic
and most recently,my own personal favorite- Ramps

Yes, Ramps. Wild garlic sprouts that appear only a few weeks out of the year. With the seasonal foods, (asparagus, ramps, morels, fiddleheads, berries of various derivations), I abuse my position as a Public Market employee to purchase as much of these as possible, and come up with every possible recipe for these items in the short window of availability that they give. In the last few weeks I’ve replaced garlic in all my recipes with ramps, putting them in risotto, making ravioli, tossing them with a coleslaw, flash searing the greens with morels and a hell of a lot of butter, wrapping halibut in the leaves, and a few other things that slip my mind, but recently, when I made my way through the Sunday crowd to my normal vegetable spot, I realized that I had become too overzealous with my spring culinary endeavour.

“You want ramps today?”

I had become that guy. Ramp Man. In the grand scheme of things, there are far worse things to be called than Ramp Man, but to have even the sight of me associated with one specific item, I had a market flashback back to my childhood, when I saw a customer of mine from the bakery on the street, and she called me out across the way as “Scone Boy”.

It’s a form of gentle ribbing, and I wanted to scream at them ‘I’m so much more than these ramps! Look at all the stuff that I’m creating! I’m not Scone Boy anymore!” It wouldn’t have done any good. Until the garlic spears came in, I’d be known as Ramp-Man. I could not be bothered to buy any until the moniker had all but washed away. I got a pear.

I went back to work, and a few hours later, a vendor walked by with two cases of vegetables. I craned my neck to see what was inside as they approached the counter.

“Can you send these to my folks in Leavenworth?”

“Sure.” I said. “What’s in the box?”

“Ramps.”

Crap. There were fifty bunches in total. Our vendor friend, it turns out, had grown up in Germany, where ramps were considered quite a treat. Now, as their parents had retired to the middle of Washington State, they were starting to have the craving for them, and had contacted the market to get some delivered. Being the dutiful market employee that I am, and wishing to help despite trying ever so (not that) hard to distance myself from the intoxicating plant, I agreed to help grant their parents their Springtime wish.

“Thank you so much. I can’t believe you know what to do with these. They’re so good, right? Do you want a few bunches to take home?”

How could I say no?

***

Fast forward to that night. I’ve loaded up my bag with all sorts of vegetables. We’re going to make a fresh pasta with some zucchini and pattypan squash, maybe throwing some fresh garbanzos in there. I don’t want to do ramps again. I really don’t. (Yes, yes I do.) There are four bunches in my backpack, and I can smell them through the zipper. Normally on the bus, I worry about the offending smell of my fishy sweatshirt, but ramps, as with truffles or durian, are one of those foods that have the unmistakeable aroma that drown out every other smell within a twenty foot radius. Thank God it wasn’t a durian.

What am I going to do with them?

I get home, check out what’s happening in my cupboards, make the pasta Mario Batali style (mound of flour, crack eggs until it looks like enough, stir, knead), and let it rest. I go to Google. I know ramps go well with pasta, and that Mario Batali has a great recipe for it (He did a good looking presentation at one of his restaurants for EarthDay with a ramp inspired pasta), but I want to do something different.

I read an article a couple weeks ago about Gramercy Tavern in New York, and the lengths they go to for great pickles.
I had nodded and bobbed my head in approval as I scrolled the article initially, and remembered something that Michael Anthony, their chef, had said:

“Ever since I’ve been here, we’ve made a couple simple vinegar pickles,” he said. “The last few years we’ve pickled an astounding number of ramps.

I went back and read it once more. I figured I didn’t have the time or money to invest in the Japanese nukazuke pots and accoutrements for the fermented überpickeln prevalent in kaiseki cuisine. Someday. What i did notice about the article was that he name-checked the number one name in pickles:

“We’re not trying to challenge Dave Chang for the best pickle plate in New York,” Anthony told me as we nibbled through more than a dozen pickles in the kitchen at Gramercy. “We’re trying to figure out how many cool pickles we can make, exploring how to introduce acidity to dishes in new ways. And finding discreet ways — and maybe not even all that discreet ways — to add them into dishes.”

Dave Chang. Dave Chang of Momofuku fame- the tiny restaurant in NYC that only served twelve people at a time, but left them with a fantastic experience? The same Dave Chang who actually put (and trademarked) cereal milk on his menu?

I’m getting his pickles.

There they are. The pickled ramps. The recipe is so simple- Trimmed ramps, salt, sugar, water, rice vinegar, seven spice powder? I’ve got this. Everything goes into the pot except the ramps. I throw some whole garlic cloves in there, and crank it up to a boil.

I wash, rinse, and dry my mason jars, the ones that I always have on hand for pickling, and put the trimmed ramps with about an inch of leaf at the end into the jar. I made the mistake of loading the jars too full with beets once before, and as a result, they stayed crispy and didn’t get quite so pickled. However, with the ramps, they’re quite wiltable, so I don’t mind too much if I overfill. I know they’ll get pickled somehow, even if I have to shake it like a paint can to get all that briney goodness to infuse itself into the tender stalks.

Wow. Four bunches of ramps (about 8 oz. of vegetable), fit in one jar. And there’s still room for the brine. It’s going to be spicy and good.

As a side note, when I first started jarring things, I wanted to start with a ginger peach butter. I called my mom to ask how to do it, as we’d always pickled stuff when I was younger, and like a boy, I never paid attention. We had row upon row, stack upon stack of beans, piccalilly, tomatoes, and corn relish in our basement pantry.

She told me over the phone, in no uncertain terms, that canning was dangerous unless you had the proper tools available for the job. It was a festering breeding ground for botulism and worse. She made me swear that I was going to do it the right way, and not wanting to have my stomach pumped over Peach Butter, I agreed.

I didn’t have a canning pot, but I used a regular one. Other than that, (Mom, if you’re reading, pay close attention to the next few words) I did it by the book. Wash, rinse, sanitize, sterilize, dry, can, rest, pray that it all turns out right. After three to four hours of work, I got four jars of peach butter. Yippee.

From that, I realized I probably wasn’t going to steambath any more peach butter or jarred vegetables. All that canning nonsense and noise is too much work. Here’s the big thing I learned about pickling that day: Pickles don’t have to be that complicated. When I pickle stuff now, I just want to eat it over the next couple of weeks. I don’t care if it can sit on my shelf, unopened and unrefrigerated for a year. That is the ultimate in efficient storage, but it certainly isn’t convenient when you’re boiling your hands in a steam bath trying to pick the last jar out of your spaghetti sauce pot without fear of it shattering because your mom has instilled the Midwestern fear of God in you.

If you’re going to eat pickles, or make your own pickles, it’s far more simple than that. You need a base (vegetable of your choice), a preservative (vinegar works great), and a way to hold them. The hot water canner is not the only way. As I said, I use a mason jar. Or, if I’m not feeling it, tupperware. If they’re just grab and go pickles that you’ll eat in a week, there’s no need for long term preservation. The combination of refrigerator chill and old timey vinegar, killing anything that would want to hurt your stomach, makes for a perfect foil for food spoilage.

***

Now, I’m sitting at home, wondering what to do in a month when my pickled ramps are at their full potency. It’s going to be picnic season soon, and I might just take them up to the beach on the shores of Puget Sound and enjoy them on a crisp summer day, watching the windsurfers sail on by.

Peter Meehan’s Article on Gramercy Pickles: http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/15/grass-fed-relishing-gramercys-pickles/

Open up your fridge and look in the crisper drawer. There’s probably a bunch of garbage in there. On a recent weekday, I found the following: Half a bunch of languid celery, a bag of dried out baby carrots, two unused halves of onions, a bunch of dried thyme, and a bunch of beet greens.

When it comes down to it, your refrigerator is a reflection of your best intentions, and rather than throw things away, I was encouraged, as the Europeans are, to make a court bouillon.

To properly utilize all the ingredients that you may think you have little use for, the easiest way to maximize your productivity in the kitchen is to use what you have and preserve it. Cucumbers become pickles. Sugar, water, and lemon juice/zest become a granita to eat for a refreshing treat. All of the stuff in my fridge was about to become a flavorful stock.

Open your freezer. What do you see? Boxes with labels and ingredient lists a mile long. That’s not how it should be. If you’re ever encouraged by the great things you can find at the farmer’s market or at the grocery store- those peppers that shine and hold flecks of water, and the zebra striped tomatoes that could make a salad taste so delicious, BUY THEM. Use what you can. Save the carrot tops, the mushroom stems, the little bits of pepper and the nubby ends of onions and leeks.

These vegetables clearly won’t make it through the weekend. What can I do to extend the life of the produce to best suit my needs? Like a good game of chess, using all your faculties as a culinarily minded being, knowing that you have access to a freezer for preservation (assuming you can get rid of that box of fish sticks that, even with the best of intentions, you know you shouldn’t eat), think ahead. 99% of the people I know have access to running water and a stove. Let’s take stock of what we have, and make stock.

Take your medium saucepan.  Turn the heat on to a low-medium. Swirl it with a little olive or canola oil- whatever you have will be just fine. Remember all the vegetable bits you have? Separate them into soft, hard, and leafy bits. Onions and carrots are hard, peppers and celery are softer, and carrot tops are your leafy components. Got it? Great. Start Choppin’.

Onions and the orange part of carrots first. Just rough chop them into medium chunks. Sure, the more surface area you have, the more flavor you’ll end up with, but it’s not rocket science. This is going to be soup. Got a couple cloves of garlic? Good. Slice them thin (No need to juice them-Slicing yields a milder garlic flavor throughout). All chopped? Great. Put them in the pot. They should sizzle a little bit, but not too much. Give them a stir and coat them with the oil. Let them go for a couple of minutes, until they sweat out some of their water content and become glossy/translucent/whatever you want to call it.

Next, the softer items. These require less time to cook, so you can leave them in bigger pieces. Just a quick rough chop and into the pot. Little stir, leave them be for a few minutes on the low medium heat.

Last, the leafy bits. Celery tops, carrot tops? Got a little fennel frond? Some of those hard stemmed herbs? Chop the leafy bits up fine, and for the fresh thyme, just throw the stems in there for something to make your kitchen smell nice.

Throw them all in the pot and let them sweat until you smell the thyme start to aromatically bloom. Is it smelling nice? Great. Throw a little salt and pepper on there, seasoned just like you would a big tub of popcorn, and stir it all together. Let it go for a minute or two.

What you have in your pot right now should look just like what I’m thinking of in my head right now- a giant pile of sloppy vegetable bits. What you want to do now is get some water and cover the vegetables with it. Get them wet. You want to add enough water to cover the vegetable matter, and then enough so if you looked at it from the side, halfway up would be vegetables, and an equivalent amount of water would be covering it.

This is the hard part. Are we ready? Just let it go. Let it simmer. Let it get up to the point where it has just a few bubbles. If it looks kind of scummy, skim it. It’s not bad for you, but you’ll be proud if you can make it out with a relatively clear stock. The two ways that you end up with a cloudy stock are by having the liquid set on too high of a heat, or if there are a bunch of bits of vegetable detritus floating around in it for too long. Impress the friends with a lovely clear soup base. Keep it clear.

Just check on it every five to ten minutes. Skim a little off the top if it’s foamy, turn down the heat if it’s bubbling too much. After about 30 minutes, turn the heat off. Strain the vegetables out. They’ve had all their still valid nutrients extracted, and they have you to thank for extending their life to have a little bit of meaning. Pack up the liquid in a Ziploc in your freezer. One sandwich bag full of the stock is a good base for a soup for two. Take it out of the baggie when you’re ready to use it, and put it in a saucepan on medium heat until it’s thawed. Then, add a bit of broccoli, some cream or milk, and some cheddar cheese. Taste it. Adjust the seasoning of Salt and Pepper if you need to, and then puree the whole thing. It’s an easy dinner, utilizing all the ingredients that you thought you’d have to throw out.

Have a loaf of bread that’s really hard? It’s still great for dipping. Slice it, brush the sides with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Put them in the oven at 400 degrees for ten minutes while your soup is cooking. You just made croutons that taste great and go well with your soup. Best part is, you’re not being wasteful.

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Look in your trash can. What do you see? In terms of foodstuffs, there are two primary items that are in your trash can right now. I’m pretty sure I don’t need to look to see what they are.  You’ve got packaging- Frozen pizza boxes, empty yogurt cups, beer cans, milk cartons, etc., and old food that you never got around to eating. Working with the old food before it goes moldy is key to cutting down the waste, both organically related to what you’re putting back in the landfill, and economically. The money that you throw away instead of putting back into your freezer is stuff that you could funnel away for a lazy Sunday afternoon at the park, buying iced creams and corns on the cobs from that weird guy. Bruised apples can make applesauce. Buy a porkchop or a pull a bratwurst out of the freezer, and have a great, quick meal with it. Think twice before you give up on your food. If you can make something healthy and nutritious, and or delicious, it’s a sure sign that it hasn’t given up on you.

It’s another lovely day off in Seattle. The sun is somewhat shining over the mountains out my window and there’s the faint buzz of seaplanes landing on Lake Union. I’ve taken it upon myself to write more, and with this blog, a bit more of what goes into the dinners I create can be shared with those who want to know.

First off, it needs to be said that in no way am I one who will go the healthy road completely by choice. Butter’s just too good. Cheese is delicious. However, going through school, it was always stated that one needed a bit of something green on the plate to go along with your starches and your steak. Growing up in the Midwest, you got a lot of the meat and potatoes, but I was fortunate enough to have the mother who made it her personal charge to prepare home cooked meals from scratch on a nightly basis.

Set the table by 5:45. Food on the table, and we eat. Always a vegetable, always something prepared with thought and a fair amount of health to it. When you have only one mouth to feed, it is easy to let the conventions of healthy eating go by the wayside, but when you’re charged with making sure that your children grow up healthy and strong, the staples of milk, whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables, and healthy meat products should always weigh on your mind.

I was fortunate. In conversations with others about food and food for thought, it often comes out that not many people had the experience of a sit down meal with their family five or even three times a week. The term soccermom became prevalent, and grab-n-go injected itself into the American vernacular with a pervasive grunt. Food was an afterthought. We didn’t have the opportunity to take time, relax, go over the day’s events, and relish the company of others over a delicious meal. It was the prepackaged, over the counter dosing of Modern American snack food turned meal replacement that got our families out of the loop on keeping themselves healthy.

The invention of the Food Network came along, and people started praising the likes of Rachael Ray, Alton Brown, Emeril, etc. etc. While there’s a great place in my heart of hearts for how the network turned people on to cooking, the people I’ve looked up to in terms of breaking barriers for me are Alice Waters, Jamie Oliver, Mario Batali, Julia Child, Eric Ripert, and a tiny frenchman by the name of Jacques whom I met in his basement cafe in Menton, France on a late night in 2002.

We were staying in a small hotel on a Cooking School trip along the coast in the Mediterranean, about five miles from Monaco and steps from the Italian border. I’d never know when I was going to experience this type of food and living again, so I resolved to say yes to everything. Upon getting to the town, after a detour-ridden trip through the Alps which involved snowcovered switchbacks, abandoned ski villages, and a whole lot of housemade cognac, we pulled into Menton at 9:30 at night. We asked the concierge, Bob, where we should eat. The town was all but closed, and he directed us to a small bistro where they served a steak frites which resembled horse lung and wet shoelaces for 5€, but for the next night, he gave us reservations at a hole in the wall run by a madman.

Here’s the pitch: The restaurant is run by one man who happens to be the owner, the chef, and the waiter. He serves ten customers a night, and he serves them what he wants. He speaks no English.

Perfect.

There are four of us who make it, and we trudge up graded back streets, through covered stairwells interlaced between highwalled sandy buildings where someone’s got to live, but in the foreign darkness, remain silent and mysterious. We settle upon an unmarked door, and walk in. We’re at the top of a landing, and we walk down a rickety staircase to the sublevel where we come across a room maybe 15′ by 15′. Two tables, one set for four and ready for us. There are a couple of pans clattering through a kitchen door, a short burst of what I can interpret with my six months of 7th grade french to be expletives, and, after about a minute of silence, a small round head pops out, beckons us to sit, and we do.

He speaks no English. My French is on par with Brad Pitt’s Italian in Inglourious Basterds, or would be with a little formal training. Through a series of wild gestures, I interpret that on the menu tonight is a Pocketwatch lamb foot, duck chest with moonshine (pantomime of drinking from a jug), prawns with moonshine (once again, from the jug), and a word I can understand, Cassoulet. After a few minutes of back and forth and feverish awkwardness, I manage to convince him that anything he brings us will be great.

He brings slices of cauliflower frittata. He brings a small, simple flatbread. He brings a tiny dish of olives and pickled garlic. He kisses the ladies on the cheek, turns up the music on his cd changer. Inferring that we were American, he hand selects Michael Bolton to serenade us through the night.

He brings out a roseflower and orange blossom aperitif that he has made himself. He fills the white wine. He sings to himself when he’s in the kitchen. And around the table, we talk. It’s fellowship, fun for us, and it’s the total experience as we take tiny bites of our appetizers.

The courses come out, and they are simple art: A lamb shank, blanched white bone from being in the crockpot overnight, and a slow drizzle of demiglace. Four Head-on prawns in a pool of whiskey sauce with a sprinkle of fresh parsley. We’ve gone to the shore at Nice that morning and hauled in the nets with fishermen at 5:30 A.M., and they looked and tasted as fresh as we imagined our catch to have been. A frenched breast of Magret Duck with a crisscross pattern seared into that thick layer of fat that crisps up so nicely. The plate is so white underneath the deep brown of the charred checkerboard. And the cassoulet. A crock of white bean porridge with pork shoulder, a confit of duck leg, and a sausage that I’ve seen at the market that morning alongside the fresh mackerel.

Dessert is satisfying and simple. There is a trio of Melon sorbet, a Chocolate Mousse, tiny chocolate ice creams with palmier, and a tarte tatin, something that’s become a mainstay when I want a good dessert- Three ingredients: Apples, sugar, and pie crust.

He brings it out, and sets the tart in front of me, gesturing with the outstretched palm to wait just a moment. He disappears into the kitchen and brings back a tiny copper saucepan that has a faint flame kissing the rim. Feigning fright, he teeters around for a moment with the flaming pot before leaning over between me and the young woman next to me, kissing her on the cheek, holding the pot six inches in front of my face while pouring flaming calvados onto the tart itself. He returns and dresses it with a dollop of whipped cream, fills our glasses with cognac, and gives the table a sly wink as he disappears back into the kitchen. We eat while he washes dishes and sings to himself.

After we finish, we sit with our espressos knowing that we’ve had a defining meal. Looking back on it, it never seemed to be anything too much more than a few ingredients tossed together. Nothing flashy, nothing spectacular, but just well prepared food made memorable. We manage to get a little bit of history out of our host and chef that night, and he says that he had worked in Paris at Michelin starred restaurants, but after a while, he couldn’t stand to answer to anyone but himself for his success, failure, and ultimately, destiny. He just wants to do what he loves, and do it his way.

***

That’s what I hope this blog can be about. Simple food made memorable. Fresh ingredients, nothing flashy, and it’ll be done my way. Recipes be damned. Cooking should be about experimentation, and curiousity, not precise measurements and timestamps on a roast. The food is ready when it’s ready. If it needs more of something, give it more. It’s all about the taste and adjustment to making something that you find ultimately fulfilling. For me, this is what I’m after. Something fulfilling and worthwhile that I can share with not only those around me who choose to dine and enjoy the food and accompanying friendship that I have to provide over a meal at our coffeetable, but those acquaintances and friends of mine who dare to try something like this on their own. It can be easier than you think. Just be aware that it’s not always about the food.  Three ingredients make a mean dessert, and anyone can do it. With each little success that I have in the kitchen, at least I can say I did it my way.

I’ll tell you what kind of stuff I put in the food, and if you like it, do it. If you want to use something else, use something else. Ask, and don’t be afraid that you can’t do it. If someone like Jamie Oliver can break down healthy food to the point where he can, in five days’ time, teach 1000 people how to cook a stirfry, I hope that I can at least get one person to try a creation of their own.  That’s the one thing that I try to impress on customers who come by my shop every day. They can cook. We discuss what kind of vegetables are in their bag, I recommend a fish to go along with it and how to prepare it, tell them that it’s going to work, and then tell them to come back and let me know how it turns out. That’s the beginning of a relationship with food that I want to have, and one that I want others to share. It’s easy, it’s hopefully somewhat healthy, and I’ll always try to have something green on the plate.

A little bit of this, a little bit of that. You know, Mulligan Stew.