December 2011


It’s Christmas Night, and after a quick trip back home to hear my sister sing for the late night service and enjoy a brunch with my family, I’m back here with the cat, watching the football game. Less than 24 hours, and aside from a lack of a whole lot of time with the family, running from work to catch an early ride back home and changing into acceptable church clothes in the tiny bathroom in the back of the bus, I had my quality time.

I don’t go to church. I may not be religious, at least in the concept of listening to a pastor preach the same platitudes week after week. I have great respect, but severe questions for those in the church as I liken a Sermon a week to presenting a collegiate paper in front of a conference panel  every Sunday. It’s impossible to do well, and there are many who speak with a lackluster passion. Pastors, when speaking about the scripture, are by the book. The excitement, or introspection, questioning, leaves me often sitting in the pews, drawing on the program and writing things like “Ten Lepers Lepping”.

That said, as I write, it’s difficult. It’s difficult, when I sit down, to write when I feel inspired, so I don’t. Finding time once a week to write something of substance is pressing and tiring for me, and if I can’t grasp the scope, I just don’t write. For those who must come up with something, I have great admiration.

For them, Christmas is their Super Bowl. It’s one of the big days of the year for them. It’s where, for those who show up week after week, they speak to the members of the congregation with words that serve to inspire and get their regular churchgoers to think about what Christmas means to them.

As with last Christmas, I went to be with my family. I went to hear my sister sing. In a quartet out of the choir loft, she sang, and as I sang from the hymnal with the bass from my dad in one ear and the soprano from my mom in the other, I picked out her voice  singing the descant over the congregation below, and I smiled.

So what does Christmas mean to me? Well, our holidays aren’t punctuated by the Christmas Ham. Our family’s traditions are simple. When I was younger, we would go to the family homestead in Illinois, read some bible verses, enjoy an evening with my mother’s brothers, sisters and family, and have a meal punctuated with either Lamb and Yorkshire Pudding or Swedish Meatballs and a Scandinavian potato sausage which was known for its everpresence rather than flavor. (For those in the family who read this, we all look fondly upon our beloved Korv)

If we had our Christmas at home, there were only two constants, both of which have remained intact up to and including the Christmas of this morning.  The first tradition is that we would not come down the stairs to the tree until the vinyl recording of The Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing “Joy To the World” was put on the turntable at Maximum Volume.

That fanfare. What child would not immediately leap out of bed and rush down the stairs to the tree? I still love it. When I haven’t been able to get home for the holidays, I’ve been called early in the morning, and this song has blasted through the earpiece, punctuated with excited giggles on both ends of the receiver.

The second tradition is a simple one. Leading up to the holidays, we had a variety of things that we’d do to get in the spirit of the season. We would pull out our ornaments and bake cookies, sprinkle cloves and cinnamon in all things about the house, and open our advent calendars every day.

On Christmas Morning, we sat around the tree, opening our presents sometimes silly (dad on more than one occasion received a rubber chicken, which was promptly thrown in the rafters above the fireplace) and sometimes exactly what we wanted. When I was three, the only word I could spell was DILL. I wrote it on my Christmas list, and I received a giant bunch that morning. I cradled it, almost as tall as I was, and looking back, I think that my footie pajamas must have smelled delightful. It remains one of my most cherished gifts.

Just like that one story,  our stockings, they were hung by the chimney with care. When we opened them, there would be little treats, (there were this year), tiny joke gifts (this year, I got World Wrestling Mad Libs- sweet), maybe a deck of cards, but in the toe of the handknit stockings, the last thing we would pull out, would be an orange.

That’s it. An orange. I don’t know if I got excited because I love oranges. I don’t think that’s it at all. I got excited because I loved THAT orange. I knew it was there. It was simple, and it was just an orange, but it was my orange.

As I sit here writing after a brief yet successful Christmas, and you may still be sitting around the fire playing Scrabble with your family and friends, I am peeling and enjoying my orange. This holiday season, in all things, find your happiness in the little joys that this time of year can bring.

May you all have a happy and safe holiday, and if I don’t see you, a most excellent new year.

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I have a lot of canned goods and other things in the pantry, so I brought a piece of salmon home from work the other day to try to rid myself of some of them.

By ‘rid’, I don’t mean dispose of. I have a bunch of teas lying around, looseleaf, from my time in Seattle, and I don’t get the opportunity to drink my tea by the cup as much as I’d like. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve done an earl grey creme brulee and a green tea and coconut custard, but this week, I took some Makaibari Estate Black Tea and my salmon and made a modified gravlax with a cure of salt, sugar, valencia orange juice and zest, and a found airline bottle of vodka.

Here’s the quick recipe:

Citrus and Tea Cured Salmon:

1 piece Farmed Salmon (The extra fatty texture lends itself the best to curing. Also, it’s usually cheaper than Wild), approximately 12 ounces.
3 Tbsp. Kosher Salt
2 Tbsp. sugar
3 Tbsp. loose leaf black tea
1 orange, zest reserved
A shot or two of vodka, unflavored

Mix all your dry ingredients together except orange zest. Generously pat the mixture on top of the salmon. Juice your orange. Pulp is okay. Add the shot of vodka and pour it over the top of the salmon. Pat the orange zest into the salmon, and put it in the fridge overnight. The next day, flip it over, drain a little juice off, and put it back in the fridge. One or two more days in the fridge with the same flip and drain method, and you have a ready to eat salmon that is fully cured through the process of acidulation from your citrus and vodka.

When it’s ready, rinse the cure off, pat your fillet dry, and slice thinly at a severe angle. Congratulations! You’ve now made a spectacular lox. We have a disc of capriole goat cheese with peppers, and a bunch of triscuits. This will keep for about a week in the fridge. Enjoy it with a great bottle of wine, or as a breakfast accompaniment with eggs.

The Michelin star review came out a few weeks ago, and Chicago was given its share of glowing reviews and awards. As expected, Alinea came out with three stars for its stellar presentation, service, decor, inventiveness, Charlie Trotter’s, the Chicago institution, received two, and a sizeable handful of restaurants received 1 star.

Seriously? This is Art.

Michelin stars were originally designated by the Michelin Tire Company as a roadside guide to assist in helping the vacationing French population find food and lodging that was worthy of pulling off the motorway and adding to the overall enjoyment of a trip. It has since evolved into a high-stakes Zagat’s guide, more about showcasing the inventiveness and consistent creativity of the restaurant and the chef to create a full-scale dining experience for its guests.

As I read through the list of restaurants that had been awarded stars and dispensations, I saw the same familiar names. Rick Bayless’ Frontera and Topolobampo, both great and consistent restaurants, were there. So were Graham Elliot, Blackbird, Tru, Moto, L20, and many others that I recognized. With the exception of Moto, most of these establishments tend to stay away from Molecular Gastronomy, but, at least in those that I’ve had the pleasure of dining, they tend to make the dinner more about the experience as a whole, rather than simply sinking in to the flavors of a dish.

In Japan, there is the concept of Omakase (お任せ), that equates to leaving it to the discretion of the chef to create your dining experience. Here, we have the tasting menu, where portions of everything are served, giving you little bites and inklings of what the kitchen is capable of, and on what concepts your palate is willing to pontificate.

Most of the high end restaurants, where you’ll be expected to spend well in excess of $100/person when all the wine is served, have a tasting menu. I’ve been through a few in my life, most notably at the French Laundry in the winter of 2001, and it really plays to the strength of the kitchen that so many elements come together in harmony while giving you the flavor that evokes a very specific, visceral reaction.

This explains why Ratatouille is an excellent movie, but so much more.

Food has the power to transform and transport, and on the menu and in reviews, no restaurant has been more successful this year, or more talked about, than Grant Achatz’ and David Beran’s Next. The concept behind the menu is seemingly simple: variations on a theme, with their concept and entire menu changing quarterly. Thusfar, they have been inarguably successful with menus, in order, from a concept of Paris in the year 1906, Thailand, and according to reviews, the most personal menu of Childhood.

Through the brilliant idea of a concept album per menu, the dishes and feelings are stripped down and rebuilt on a frame of nostalgia. Courses appear at your place in a gift wrapped present, a lunchbox (offerings of fruit roll-up, pudding, and a note from dad), on a beater (as Foie-sting, a foie gras mousse accompanying donuts), and my personal favorite, a painted plate with a fisherman’s scene, reminiscent of many a refrigerator drawing.

I haven't even eaten here, and I get nostalgic.

And like everything else on the menu, it’s all eatable. Edible.

***

Through Grant Achatz’ twitter account, I found a companion chef who is doing something that I wish more people could take advantage of. Brandon Baltzley, with a Chicago restaurant pedigree broader than his 26 years, has opened up CRUX. I stumbled on it while leafing through his blog, also a great read, and while still curious about what’s happening behind its doors, I’m fascinated by the concept.

CRUX is a micro-restaurant. Two nights a week, their culinary collective gets together in the concept of shared fate with ten diners, and puts on a ten course menu that they have created, also using variations on a theme. As I’ve followed him on twitter, and continued reading  his blog on the evolution of the menu and its components, I become more interested in how these dishes come to be, and how a concept like this, where chefs are allowed to cook what they want, how they want, in an atmosphere that is less outwardly manic and instead insanely creative existing between the mind and the plate at their own pace.

It is a concept like this that makes me realize why I take pleasure from cooking from the mind. Yes, in a restaurant setting, under the watchful eye of an executive chef or silent partner, you can turn out incredible plates of food. Unburdened by the constraints of stifled creativity, as you cook for someone on your own terms, you come to understand more about who you are in your own kitchen.

Read Brandon’s blog. Tell me that a Dungeons and Dragons themed dish isn’t one of the most creative ideas you’ve heard in terms of concept, presentation, flavor, and execution. It’s remarkable, the ideas that spring forth when brainstorming what your dinner could be.

A little more on shared fate: As a diner, you are putting your trust in who is preparing your meal. With the concept of CRUX, a restaurant on such a small scale, (10 diners at a community table in a dining room the size of, well, somebody’s dining room), there is little buffer zone between the diners and the chefs. The feedback is immediate, and the chefs trust that their diners will be honest and open with it, as in this capacity, it serves to better the reality of their true cooking. It is to the advantage of both diners and chefs to be honest and equal with one another so that they can leave the table with an experience unmatched, one that is exclusively and authentically that of those in the restaurant at that moment in time.

I haven’t been to Next. I haven’t been to CRUX. I don’t know if I’ll get the opportunity to go, but I’d like to find out more. As these concepts become clearer in the minds of their creators, I want to be aware of their evolutions. One of the largest oversights of the year, in many Michelin followers opinions, was that Next was not awarded a star. Some joked that maybe it was because the reviewers couldn’t get a reservation. Others said that it was because the reviewers didn’t know what to make of the menu. They said the same thing of el Bulli, unquestionably the most influential restaurant of the last 20 years, when it opened. Now it is the standard to which top restaurants are compared.

Baltzley has worked in Michelin-starred kitchens before, according to his bio. It may not be necessary for CRUX to be awarded a star. In the way that you get to share something so personal and intimate as your own cooking with a select few, the satisfaction of a meal well-served may be enough. It may just be that stripping the veneer off the modern restaurant kitchen to get back to the heart of cooking may bring about a change in the way we view our food.

I look forward to it.

Microrestaurant Video 1 from Pouya on Vimeo.

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