A Little About Me


I’m inspired by a piece I saw on BoingBoing (and about a hundred other media outlets today). There’s a lot of good stuff out there. People are doing things for their community, and finding a lot of cool bits of life to catalog and share, and this is one of them.

Remember when you were bored, or tired of everything, and you just wanted to create something that made your day a little bit more worthwhile? This kid did it out of necessity to alleviate being stuck in the doldrums of summer, and came up with something fascinating.

There’s a bit of greatness to come out of this- In addition to bringing the smiles to this kid’s face, and customers to this rarely trafficked East LA cornershop, the producers of this video have set up a website, and since my first viewing from four hours ago, they’ve raised $6,000 more towards putting this kid through college. It doesn’t look like the donations will stop at $25,000, either.

So, what am I going to do with my time? How will I showcase whatever it is that I want to do with the middling talents I cling to?

1) I can write. Sort of. I have the bad habit of not self-editing any more than quickly skimming these blog posts and changing a grammatical typo or restructuring a word or two. Overall, though, the end product of a blog post here is the direct result of sitting and typing until I run out of words to say, tied up with aMulligan Stew© Approved, Doogie Howser sanctioned ending. Somewhere in between, there may be a story, or there may be incoherent nonsense and internet babble. I don’t know. After I read them, I occasionally return to the scene of the crime to remember something, but I  rarely ever read old posts in their entirety to see how they come out.

2) I can cook. Sort of.  I mean, I know my flavors, and I know the dishes that I want to create in my mind, but I’m critical of my production. That’s not to say that I get down on it too much, but for where I am as a cook/chef/whatever, I sometimes feel like I’m underachieving.

I can sear a steak. I can cook a piece of fish. I can plate something that looks nice, and I guess I should be happy with that. If it tastes good, and if it looks good, that’s really all that matters. I try not to use those who have gone through similar experiences as a barometer for where I stand today, because back then, they were better than me at cooking, had more of the chef’s kitchen mentality than I did, and actually cooked a fair amount post-graduation in restaurants. This left me with an inferiority complex which I’ve mostly come to terms with, but I still wonder if I could hack it, or what could have been. These days, if I explain to people my trajectory in the foodservice industry, I usually include tidbits about how I came back from internships around the world with an ego that outshone my talents. When in that situation, you don’t see yourself for what you are. Such glaring perspective comes later, when you make the proclamation to those listening intently to your stories from behind the scenes of restaurants that you got out because you possessed a fire for the life that detracted from the food. You hear chefs talk about it all the time, from anybody who has spent more than a month in a kitchen who is willing to talk to you about what you once read in Kitchen Confidential.

 I never got too wrapped up in the trappings of working in restaurants. I was a passable outsider. Neither the strongest nor the weakest in the kitchen, I could do what needed to be done to promote a successful service. I could do what was asked of me. With that, I didn’t think I could hack it. I still had the lust for creating things with my hands, and the desire for tasting something new through the buzz of a third glass of wine, and to have the aromas and flavors float around in my mind as I relaxed after a few hard spent hours chopping, dicing, tasting, adjusting. I was content to experiment with my cooking from a place that was comfortable for me, someplace outside the time constraints and pressures that those who made it fed off of.

So that’s what I did.

Today, I’m content with where my skills are, and it’s easy enough to wow people with a strong flavor combination. It’s like watching someone break the tape on a lopsided hundred yard dash, leaving competitors in the dust. You see a small fragment of what got them there, and believe that the ten second snippet from start to finish is the greatest thing you could see or feel at that moment. It’s so much more. You go to a restaurant, sit down for two hours, have a couple beverages, some food that sings to the passion of your soul, and then you reminisce, but for those who do it every day, your dinner represents a drop in the bucket.

Planning a meal takes time. Gathering ingredients, pairing flavors, determining cooking methods, managing time- all of these factors go into making a meal, whether you’re in a restaurant or not. It’s easy enough to do it for a few people on a nightly basis, or a dozen people once a month, but for a dining room full of patrons with high expectations on a nightly basis, I would not care to be in that boat. I want to set up a special occasion with friends, discussing with them and fabricating a menu that we can create together. In continuation of my posting of a couple weeks ago, I want to make it happen.

I’m sitting, as I have been intermittently for the past three hours, with my recipe book to my right, the Gonzo documentary playing in the background, with the seasonal inspiration waiting to strike. I catalog my taste palate. I purposefully saved a spoonful of gelato from the other night because I wanted to remember the burnt peanut flavor and build from that.

I got ramps for the first time this season. Morels can’t be far behind. I just saw a dish with both, and asparagus as well. That’s coming soon. I have some nice eggs in the fridge that I’d like to use for cured yolks. I want to make pickles. Many pickles. All the time.

This is how it starts. With an idea. Now I’m looking for ideas for implementation, and execution, and of course, a few extra willing participants in making something stick. I want to start a Sunday Supper series, similar to how they do it at Nana, a restaurant just down the block.

I just want to share it, and I want to write about it, and figure out if it’s a viable model for something different, if not new.

I watched the hell out of this next video over the last couple days. It’s a call to arms for those who have some measure of skill and an insatiable itch to start a revolution from their range. Watch it, see if you catch the bug, and get back to me. I may not be able to do anything under a moniker, but it’s videos like the one up top and the one below that lead me to believe that there’s more that I could be doing with my free time, and with whatever measure of talent I may have. In any case, I think it’s time to push some boundaries.

Stagnation, Boredom, Conformity…The Time to Combat Complacency is Now.

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With the recent spike in warm weather, I’m sitting here writing with the breeze from outside flitting through my house. At a restaurant, with a seasonal change typically comes a recalibration of the menu, and a whole different set of inspirations from which to work. I’ve got a couple of ideas up my sleeve.

At work, when I’m selling someone a cut of meat, the weather plays a huge part in what I choose to sell them. There are the customers who have the idea that only a boneless skinless chicken breast will do, and I can see them coming a mile away. I don’t bother with them, as I’ve dressed down that topic many posts ago. However, if I look out the front windows to the store, a football field away, and see that the skies are overcast and full of rain, I’m going to lean toward the chuck roasts and lamb shanks. When the weather is cold outside, food cooked low and slow serves to comfort you when you can’t make it out to brush the grilltop off with your windshield scraper.

However, it’s 70 degrees outside. It’s still March. Global consequences notwithstanding, it’s excellent outside. Last night, we had a dinner with new friends that was a lightly cured gravlax with asparagus, potatoes, tiny pickled mushrooms, and cupcakes. We ate with the doors open. We laughed and shared bottles of wine, and even caught a whiff of a neighbor opening up their grill for the first time that year. It did feel like spring.

When we were in Seattle and it was nice out, we had a patio on the roof. We’d take our food upstairs, look out over the bay, and enjoy something from the grill, or just have a simple salad and some mussels. It didn’t matter what the food was, as eating outside gave an added dimension to the overall enjoyment of the meal that we were sharing. Nice weather puts a smile on your face.

Over the last couple of months, since our dinner at CRUX in the middle of a snowstorm, we’ve thought of ways to enjoy our dinners with friends. What would be the total experience?

People don’t have potlucks in the city. We know one couple who does, and it’s always great. They bring out the long table, usually have a crockpot, a big pot on the stove and some chicken or a pan of italian beef warming in the oven. When they have guests over, there’s anywhere from ten to thirty people, centered around the table, some off watching football or hanging out at the picnic table at the backyard, but everyone’s talking.

I get frustrated when I think that in the outer reaches of climate difference, (Upper Midwest for cold, Southwest for hot), people open their garage door, drive their cars in, and you don’t see them until the weather reaches a more manageable point. You miss an entire season. We’ve had our neighbors over during the winter, and enjoyed intimate indoor dinners, but I want to think bigger.

***

Our home has a strange set-up. We have a shared patio with three other neighbors on the second floor of a building. Essentially, it’s a converted warehouse where you walk across the roof to get to your front door. While strange, it’s also sheltered from most of the elements by two stories of brick on three sides, and a view of our downstairs cobbled courtyard on the fourth. This is the perfect place for setting up a community table.

We’ve wanted to get together with friends and have a large scale dinner for a while. The idea sprang from CRUX, where you sit down with ten people you may or may not know, share food, wine, ideas, etc. over the course of an evening. This doesn’t happen anymore. I want to bring it back.

With our set up, this would make it extremely convenient. Access to the seating area is given by our front doors, and we can move out of the elements if it begins to rain. Our doors will be open to friends, as each one of our apartments is filled with wild and esoteric works of art.

Art in Our House

Moreover, with the collective agreement of those who choose to participate, this also gives us access to multiple kitchens, ranges, ovens,  prep surfaces, and different methods of cooking. Each invited party would be responsible for a dish, perhaps centered around a theme, and it would be a great topic of conversation, in addition to the setting. Most of the people I work with have some background in cooking, or at least like to cook, and would bring something new to the table.

I don’t just want to do it for my own personal benefit. The idea itself is not new,  but the concept has so many possibilities. You get to know your neighbors, and know their friends. You open up your homes to one another, and get to see how they live. We are in the “Pilsen Arts Corridor”, set among galleries and independent shops, where color and invention merge. Who would think that tucked back in a corner of a nondescript brick building, you could find an event like this, with such limitless potential?

In the Neighbor's House

I envision a bounty of food with the sonic overload of knives on plates and the white noise of chatter through forkfuls of food. I think of a lively cocktail hour, and an evening discussing the artwork that appears on the plates and walls of our homes.
***

As a sidenote, I’m also inspired to do this because of my dad. One of his pet projects of installing Little Free Libraries in the community recently received major exposure on both All Things Considered and the NBC Nightly News. All the feedback I’ve read about this has been effusive, and I think that it can only serve as a positive thing for your neighbors to engage them with a small gesture of sharing something that you love.

I want to engage. I want to feel as though I belong to a collective of people who care about their food, and show interest in their neighbors and friends. I want to charge others with doing that as well.

If you read this, and you feel inspired to share it, go ahead. Take the idea of a community potluck and go with it. Have a backyard barbecue. Find a central location where you can enjoy a meal with many of your friends, and try something new. Open up your kitchen, your dining table, and put the shared fate of the dinner in the hands of your guests. Everyone brings something. You make the experience your own over the conversations you have and the connections you make over the food that you create together. You leave with the satisfaction of an evening well spent with new friends and faces, and return home with new ideas for your kitchen.

A Toast to Art and Food

Continuation of earlier posts:

Part 1

Part 2

***

So, where were we? We had just finished the Pretzel/Crab, and we were moving on to the next course.

COURSE 3: STEELHEAD- roe/beet/kefir/chrysanthemum

I’ve gone through a tumultuous relationship with beets, and I don’t know where I turned the corner. In school, I prepped 30 gallons of borscht, peeling each beet, leaving me with blood-stained hands. After that, I swore off beets for a long while. After about ten years, though, I came back around. I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was how they laid them out at the market in rainbow colored stacks of edible excitement. Maybe I saw a recipe somewhere, and I just had to have them. I remember bringing a bunch home, roasting them, sauteeing the tops, and falling for them all over again.

A lot of people dismiss them as muddy, and I can see that. However, with the right additions of flavor and a cooking method that leaves them with a pleasing texture, they can be enjoyed in any number of ways. We enjoy the root on salads or roasted alongside squash and other vegetables, and the greens are always great quick seared in a pan with the most minimal of seasonings, quite similar to all the other variegated greens.

Back to the third course, though. I figured that the preparation would be more than the borscht I had made 15 years ago, with equal or greater depth of flavor. The course proved my hypothesis correct both in preparation and presentation.

Here’s a closeup of the dish. What the chef presented us with was a smoked steelhead roe atop pickled beet with dried beet leaves dusted with malt powder and a light yogurt/kefir sauce.

When we were out in Seattle, I became acquainted with the men who ran the Bacon Salt/Baconnaise empire, and they passed me off a bottle of a malt vinegar flavored salt. We’ve only used it for seasoning potatoes so far, but with this dish, the lightness and pucker of malt vinegar dissolved into the crisp nothingness of the beet leaves.

The smoked roe, local-ish from Michigan, was a great centerpiece to the dish. Bright orange eggs with a light smokiness and pop seasoned the accompanying beet, and although I’ve smoked many meats and fish in the past, I still don’t know how the smoked roe was achieved. That’s another nod to the chef for putting the quizzical nature of the origin of flavor in my mind to ponder. The kefir and light chrysanthemum balanced the boldness of smoke, steelhead, and pickled beet in a sea of competing flavor strengths. Overall, the dish was one of our favorites.

COURSE 4: BLACK URCHIN- lime/cocoa/cauliflower

I’ve had great experiences with urchin before. Similar to an oyster, if you get a fresh urchin, tasting the fresh roe is reminiscent of the ocean; It’s briny, smooth, and lives up to its billing as the nautical cousin to foie gras. Conversely, bad urchin can be horrible. It’s so delicate that if it is frozen, which it very well might be, and thawed, it loses its potency and takes on a terrible after taste and texture. Recently, I went to a sushi counter at Mitsuwa in the suburbs of Chicago, and in my sampler, found some pieces with urchin roe. As I brought the piece close to my mouth, I inhaled the smell that I dreaded. It wasn’t fresh. Surprisingly, I didn’t immediately turn up my nose, as I was to give it a good try. When I put it in my mouth, I realized I had made a mistake. The urchin was amoebic and texturally unsound, filling my senses with dread and coating my tongue with an old fishy toothpaste. My experience with urchin was not to be repeated unless it was forced.

***

So far, at the table at Crux, we were three for three. First Course- simple. Second Course- Inventive. Third Course- Rock solid. Please, oh, please don’t make me regret trying the urchin again.

From the other room came the plates. They set them down in front of us, one at a time. Since there were two or three people serving ten, we had a little bit of time to stare at our plates and make sense of what was going on.

Everything’s there. There was a floret of charred cauliflower, and resting on top of that, largely untouched, lounged a lobe from the urchin shells that were hanging out on the tabletop, smoldering with a bit of vanilla pod. To complement the urchin, we had a supreme of lime, a bit of zest, cacao nibs as a second sweet/bitter combination, and, in the foreground, a swatch of  savory sea urchin whipped cream.

It’s always interesting, as I eat something new, to think about how the combinations of flavors came to be. Coming from the Midwest, where fish is flavored with either tartar sauce or lemon, I’ve come to understand that the combination of citrus and seafood works together. However, in addition to the sharp flavor influence of citrus on seafood, the astringency of a bitter cacao nib can also serve a similar purpose.

As I ate, my mind searched for answers to this dish, how it came to be, how the flavors played off of one another, and how it all fit together. It went something like this:

“Okay. Sea Urchin. Briny, yes. Seafood? Definitely. Add citrus. Citrus is bitter. Cacao nibs are bitter. Ah, yes, but cacao nibs are also toasted. Toasted. What else can be toasted? Hey, look at that. The cauliflower. It’s charred, so those things go together, but cauliflower’s real flavor is fairly mild. Oh, look. There’s the urchin whipped cream. Wow. It’s also really light.”

And there we are back at the lobe of fresh urchin. It looked fresh. It didn’t look or feel like its cellular structure had collapsed. It tasted like a fresh West Coast Oyster, which is to say, exactly like the sea. The flavor was both dialed up and brought down in waves by the contrasting accoutrements of the plating. The flavors came in waves, which for a meal celebrating bodies of water was appropriate.

COURSE 5: OYSTER- apple/hay/mustard

This was our extra course for the evening. No pictures exist of it, because it is an oyster, and we had reached a point where we were not only talking about how great the food was, but other things that peppered our lives with meaning. We were all at least a few glasses of wine into the night, and there was much crosstalk happening at the table. I heard “Gulf Oyster”, “Pickled Apple”, and looked down at my plate. Nestled on a bed of grassy stalks, there was one oyster, which I believed to be lightly smoked, on the half shell. tucked underneath the muscle meat was a tiny spoonful of diced apple and a bit of mustard seed. I do love the oysters, so I sent it straight down the hatch without thinking to take a picture.

To my knowledge, I haven’t had a gulf oyster before. I’m so used to the West Coast varieties that I didn’t know what to look for as I ate it, and didn’t have time to adequately reflect on the flavors. My recollection was that 1) I ate it too fast, 2)The gulf oyster is mild and earthy, and 3) the apples and mustard made it the dish that felt like it could be placed on a Midwestern Meat and Potatoes menu without too much quarrel.

COURSE 6: WALLEYE- grapefruit/vanilla/potato/brulee

Remember the post I made a couple weeks ago about how to fillet a walleye? This is why you follow the rules of properly cleaning and gutting a fish. It’s so you can have a finished product like this:

“What we have here is a Sous vide fillet of walleye with a crisp skin, tiny potatoes, fennel dusted with sumac powder, grapefruit, and balsamic vinegar.”

Sous vide. What a relationship I have with you. Mostly, I don’t understand it, but I get the basic idea of it. Long, low and slow cooking of meats that don’t necessarily need to be further tenderized- that’s how it goes. It goes by the principles of aquariums, wherein you place a sealed object in a water bath and warm water is circulated around your sealed protein to gently bring it up to an acceptable service temperature. When it is ready, all that needs to be done, if anything, is cut open the bag, perhaps finish it off in a pan or with a blowtorch to add a bit of caramelization, and put it on a plate. What you’re left with is a piece of protein that is tender, moist, as it has reserved all its own juices from cooking in a closed receptacle, and flavorful.

The walleye was no exception. Once again, subscribing to the fact that fish goes well with citrus, grapefruit, the entirely underutilized citrus, was paired with it for flavor. The crispy skin was added for texture, the potatoes for a fish fry complement, and the tart, woodsy sumac sprinkle on the fennel added another dimension of simple seasoning to a dish that was not in need of much to make it as comfort food.

As we ate, the most common exclamation was that people couldn’t believe how well the grapefruit went with the walleye. The conversation bounced back to the lime from the urchin course, and tangentially to how well the fruit went with any fish or flavor. Personally, I’ve prepared it with fluke and miso, and in a strange turn based on what i had in the fridge, with avocado, bacon, and monkfish. Both turned out exceptional. The walleye was lovely, but the standout was the versatile grapefruit.

COURSE 7: SHORT RIB- seaweed/egg/roots

OR

MONKFISH- seaweed/egg/roots

For the only meat course of the evening, we were offered Short Ribs. One of the great things about Crux was how they were able to accommodate diners with discriminating palates not only on short notice, but by adapting menu items to suit flavors that were well-tested enough to stand up to different proteins. My menu said “Short Rib”. The lady’s menu said “Monkfish”. As they came out, it was apparent that the base of the dish was the same, but the simple prep of the meat was the only difference.

My dish was Short Ribs with Sea Beans, a pressed pear with pepper with a cured egg yolk on top, fennel fronds, and a carrot top pesto.

Sea Beans, going with the theme of the meal, gave the course a dose of salinity. They don’t have a particularly descriptive flavor on their own, but they can be served fresh or lightly steamed, and have the texture of fiddleheads or very young asparagus.

The pesto also utilized an underused edible: The carrot top. As with beet greens, a lot of times, carrot tops are discarded. However, being that they’re the part of the carrot that gets the sunlight, the greens themselves have a great grassy taste to them that complements a pesto quite well.

I wish more people would give chlorophyll a chance.

Alongside the braised short rib, there was a pear. I understand just how hard it is to find an excellent pear, and this was a pretty good one. There was a little bit of black pepper on it, and a lightly cured egg yolk, done just long enough so that it was a bit salty, but still runny. Overall, it was a fancy steak and egg plate with a lot of added dimension. If anyone thinks that steak and eggs is primarily for greasy spoons, there is much to be learned about how to utilize your steak and/or eggs.

Here’s the monkfish version of the dish. Two diners got this one, a double tail of monkfish roasted on the bone. I loved the short rib, but once again, another great mark of a restaurant is if they make you want to try everyone else’s food. Since my lady couldn’t try the short ribs, I was content to leave her to the full enjoyment of her monkfish.

COURSE 8: CARROT- broken

I didn’t know what this was going to be. It’s a carrot. And the description? It’s broken. Interesting and curious.

It was a sorbet. The palate cleanser of the meal before the final course. It was served, mine in a tiny dish the size of a coaster, and hers in a giant bowl. I dig the individuality of the vessels as we enjoy our meals. It adds a uniqueness to each person’s experience. Even though we are all receiving the same courses, how we see them plated in front of us is what really makes it special.

We were given a quenelle of carrot cardamom sorbet that was bright and refreshing. The top, in this picture seen dangling over the edge of my plate, was candied, and the root was pickled. Once again, a mix of sweet, light, savory, and the bite of vinegar made an appearance, and once again, it hit the mark. As with most sorbet courses, the bites were the perfect size, and at this point in the meal, one bite of each (maybe two for the sorbet, because it was quite good) was all I needed .

COURSE 9: Sponge- orange/carob/buttermilk/darjeeling

The night was cold and we were about three hours into a meal tucked away in the back room of a gallery where there might as well have been a fireplace going. We were all feeling filled with conversation, wine, food, and little side conversations on how we’d stay in touch sprung up on different sides of the table.

Last course coming. Out from the kitchen came our hosts with our desserts.

“Thank you all for coming tonight. For our last course, we have a carob sponge cake with a buttermilk darjeeling gelato and an orange cream.”

The cake wasn’t a slice, but in fact a tiny sponge that was moist and had absorbed a lot of the lighter carob flavor. Alongside that was a quenelle of a buttermilk darjeeling gelato, as promised, and the spoonful of orange curd. The sharpness of the orange (was it a whole orange curd?) really woke me up from the thousand flavor evening that I’d just experienced, and the gelato was mellow and soothing. I’ve done custards flavored with black tea, and this was another variation on a theme, one that I continue to enjoy to this day.

***

The plates went back to the dishroom licked clean, and we were all invited to mill about as a gallery reception was taking place directly afterward. We chatted with our fellow diners for a bit, and I got to speak with those responsible for the dinner. The source of the phantom meowing, we had discovered, was a tiny serval kitten about two weeks old, and as the dinner hour waned, he was passed around from person to person, enjoying all the attention and smells of seafood that permeated the warm, inviting atmosphere.

Between the room, the diners, and the imagination and creativity of the chef, the dinner will never be the same twice. In talking with the chef, I realized that it’s a 72 hour marathon of menu planning, product acquisition, prepping, and service that make an event like this come together, and each experience, each weekend dinner is different. They may share some similarities from week to week, but it gives the chef the impulse to create and adjust from service to service. As with all those who have a passion for things that come out of a kitchen, the ideal situation is to cook your food, and cook it your way to those who can appreciate it. If it is a success, it rests on your shoulders as a work of art that you can be proud of. If it misses the mark, there’s always room for improvement. It is the constant pursuit of innovation and invention that drives those who cook to create flavors and menus that challenge diners’ palates, and it is the willingness of those who dine to entrust those palates to the chef that enables the creativity to flourish.

If I cook for you, all I ask is that you eat and enjoy yourselves. That’s what the Crux really is. The thought that goes into each successful dinner service yields a deconstructed idea of what the chef really wants to put out there. There is the idea of a finished product. Strip it down. Build it back up. Adapt. Taste. Adjust. Try it once. Try it twice. Retool it. It’s a constant state of recreation. The menu will never be finished. It might be similar to something you’ve tried in the past, but it will never be the same. Isn’t that fascinating? Isn’t that the way you’d always want to eat?

If you’ve read my blog before, you know that through food, I have tried to find a better understanding of why we eat the way we do. I cook at home four to five times a week, and the meals that I make together with my lady are shared as we sit down and eat at the same time, in the same room.

I understand that most people don’t do this anymore. We eat on the run, or when we go out to eat, we sit and critique what’s on our plate while keeping to ourselves. We can relay our night out to our friends, but often, it’s more about the idea that you can tell them what you did rather than relive the experience with fondness.

For weeks, I’ve been thinking about eating at CRUX.  I’ve followed the Twitter account of both the chef and the restaurant, I’ve looked at menus, followed what’s happening on the Facebook page, and nothing that I’ve done has come close to the replicating the total experience of being in the moment around a table with ten strangers with whom over the course of a three hour meal you have become familiar. The concept of of familiarity, broken down, is to become well-acquainted on a family footing with someone who enhances your comfort level. The easiest way for me to accomplish that with some sense of ease is around a dinner table. In their efforts to create an evening of intimacy and curiousity, the table was set for an evening exploring the unknown.

***

Earlier in the week, I had made a short visit back home to Madison to visit with friends who have been overseas. The one night of my short stay, we visited another restaurant that I’ve been meaning to try for a long time, 43 North. It’s run by an old culinary friend of mine, Nick Johnson. Formerly of Restaurant Magnus in Madison, he has since moved his James Beard nominated talents a couple blocks up the street, and we were fortunate to dine with a new acquaintance in his company.

Over the course of that meal, I remembered that the joy of dining is taking pleasure in those with whom you are surrounded, but also in entrusting those who are preparing your meal with the fate of your palate. We subscribe, as a culture, to flavors and textures that are simple and pleasing, hence the trends of pesto, sun dried tomatoes, etc., but with balance and inventiveness come the meals that leave lasting impressions on the senses.

***

On the short ride back to Chicago, I found out that two tickets for Friday Night’s pop-up dinner had just become available from a post on Twitter:

RT @brandonbaltzley: Cancelation of three for this weeks bodies of water dinner @glryprovocateur . Reserve through cruxrestaurant@gmail.com

Bodies of Water? Set to the music of Isis? I had read recently that they were able to accommodate diners with a variety of preferences, but since this dinner was from the looks of the menu going to be mostly seafood, I figured it would be the best opportunity to get my feet wet with the restaurant. The theme of Bodies of Water? Intriguing hook. In quick order, I went about making a reservation for two for that Friday Night.

When Friday came around, our pleasant 50 degree weather had changed to 6 inches of snow, which by then had devolved into the sludge. We made our way up to Gallery Provocateur, the site of that night’s dinner, just before 7, where we were greeted and led through the gallery to the back room. The walls were covered in artwork of sea monsters, Cat-eyed vixens painted on handbags, and various tattooed hides stretched with leather string.

The table was set for 12, with dripping candelabras and a large television in the background playing a silent documentary about undersea life with a cuttlefish scurrying along the sea floor. Scattered alongside the handwritten menus and embroidered napkins were tiny glasses with live fish flitting around.

For the opening few minutes, we remained quiet and reserved, both mesmerized by the wonders of the briny deep and slightly hesitant to introduce ourselves to our fellow diners. As bottles of wine were opened, everyone began to relax, and after introductions and a collective pondering over where a phantom cat was meowing from, we were ready to begin our meal.

***

Continued Part 2

Continued Part 3

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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.

As I posted on the Facebook Page the other day, I bought some really bad fish.

I didn’t mean to, but I saw an opportunity to get some frozen mahi bits, and I jumped. $3.49/lb? Sure. I know it’s the tails and trim, but how bad can it be? I just wanted to make some tacos.

Usually, for fish tacos, I’ll buy some fresh stuff (tilapia-about all it’s good for), or frozen shrimp (95% of the shrimp you buy is flash frozen anyway, so they have a good market for that going). This, however, looked too good to be true, and chances are that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

An onion is an onion. Sadly these days, a tomato is a tomato, and all the other things you put in your tacos really don’t matter if you get them from one place versus another. The filling, however, the meat of it all? It matters. It matters big time.

I purchased a 1 lb. vacuum sealed pack of Mahi Mahi pieces (product of Peru?) from an unnamed, pirate themed grocery store, and kept them in the freezer until I was ready to use them. I figured that since we had such nice weather, when the lady’s mom was in town last week, we could have some refreshing fish tacos.

We never got around to having them, because we cooked a couple of nice dinners (fresh sockeye, polenta, and steamed artichokes, and homemade pizza), and went out a couple of times (tapas and the Purple Pig), but I’m so glad that we didn’t serve the fish to her. What was so bad about it? What could possibly cause me to turn up my nose at fish, one of my favorite additions to any meal?

I should point out that the gorgeous piece of striped bass that we had on Martha’s Vineyard was in the company of the madre, and to go from that to this as a great seafood memory would have been unacceptable. I shot my lady a text as I was getting off work, asking her to thaw out the package of mahi in the sink so that I could prepare the tacos for her upon my return.

When I got home, the mahi was under running cool water in its plastic package- So far, so good. I prepped the peppers, onions, and a good simmer sauce to flavor the fish, as I knew it wouldn’t be top quality, but would still take well to a sauce.

Helpful tip of the day: With frozen fish, you want to cook it to a degree of doneness that is almost if not fully cooked through. You have little to no idea of the process it goes through before sealing and shipping. Here’s what I found:

With the vegetables sweating in the hot pan, I opened the package. It instantly smelled like someone had left an open can of tuna out on the counter overnight. I can understand but not agree with the smell, (looking back, the fish had been frozen, partially thawed, and frozen again) and it can usually be addressed with a rinse under cool water to remove the excess liquid in which the fish has been frozen. That’s what I did.

I patted it dry, and it still had a lingering, if not overpowering fish smell. Still, not the type of smell that would automatically put it in the unsalvageable category. I threw it in the pan, put the simmer sauce on it, and let it go for a few minutes. It turned firm and opaque quickly, and still gave off the smell that puts people off of cooking fish at home. Usually, when I was working at Pike Place, I’d tell people to start with fresh fish, and combine it with flavors that would leave a reminder of a pleasantly seasoned dinner, rather than a sorrowful evening with a less than stellar fish. I should have taken my own advice.

Still, I knew it was safe, just unbearably mediocre. After cooking it for about ten minutes, we put it in the taco shells, and had ourselves a chow. Unsurprisingly, it was bad. It just tasted of commodity fish, and I imagined that this was the taste that people who live in food deserts associate with fish, the frozen, tinny, unsatisfying flavor of the leftover bounty of the sea, thus turning them off seafood for life. That was the sadness running through my brain as I ate the tacos.

I asked my lady how they were.

“They’re good.”

Oh.

***

When we were finished and cleaning up, I asked her again.

“Well, they were okay, but the fish wasn’t really that good. I didn’t want to say anything because you made them.”

Yes, I made them, but in preparation, I didn’t do anything wrong other than purchase the wrong fish. I like that I can make the distinction between bad food and bad preparation, but I don’t like it when someone feels obligated to tell me that something was good when it clearly wasn’t.

The tortilla is sad. All he wanted was a friend.

We talked a little bit about the fish, and after a while, I remembered something from my days of ordering fish in Seattle. Every other day, we’d get emails from companies that were giving deep discounts on stuff that we wouldn’t even consider. They had prices for 2600 cases of things like “Salmon for burgers (Read:scraps, trim, and scrapings from the carcass) for 49¢/lb. Mahi “Nuggets”, I think, were 99¢/lb. At any given moment, there are opportunist Fish brokers out there trying to sell companies on stuff that’s sitting in cold storage at a dock in either Miami or Los Angeles that nobody in their right minds would ever buy. Nobody except the bargain fish hunters. I can now exclude myself from that group.

With fish, my professional opinion is to stay away from the following in the grocery store:
Pink Salmon-Yes, it’s wild. Yes, Wild salmon is good for you. It is the least nutritious of the wild salmons, and what they use to make salmon loaf out of. If it says Pink salmon on the label, it’s not the most fulfilling.
“Bits/Nuggets”- See the entire post right here. It is made using the leftover tails and necks of fish that are going to be portion cut for frozen fish anyway, largely due to lack of case appeal, freshness, and ability to sell. Unless you can see the whole fillet in the package, stay away. Many times, portion cuts are taken from larger fish such as halibut and swordfish and cut into smaller pieces so you can’t tell just how spindly of an animal you’ve put in your cart. 40+ pounds on a halibut is bordering on too big, and on anything larger, your quality will go down.
Swai- Innocuous whitefish that has slipped into the scene over the last couple of years and is now being marketed to consumers. It used to be sold to Chinese restaurants as the whitefish option, and it has appeared on menus as deep fried fish. It doesn’t taste like much, but it’s no cod, halibut, sole, or even tilapia. This species of freshwater catfish comes from Southeast Asia. Nothing in the previous sentence leads me to believe that grocery stores are doing their part to ensuring that they’re selling swai as a healthy, safe fish.

***

Hey, you get what you pay for, and you learn from your mistakes. Every so often, I have a slip-up, and I buy some garbage. Please, learn from this, and don’t buy garbage fish. Sometimes at the market, you’ll see something, and they’ll try to pass it off as a good value, but more frequently these days, it’s something else entirely.

A Continuation of  Straight from the Vine(yard) pt. 1

***

Where were we? Ah, yes. About to make a dinner. This was the bounty that we had to work with:

It was quite bounteous, the bounty

If I get stuff at the Farmer’s Market, as a general rule, I don’t mess with it too much. The salad that we made really didn’t need a whole lot of fancy bells, so we spun the greens, chopped up some snap peas, and incorporated some fresh herbs in there. We had picked up a Maple Balsamic Vinaigrette at the market, with which we lightly dressed the salad. We sliced a loaf of french bread, boiled the potatoes and tossed them with a chive compound butter, and grilled the scapes with a simple olive oil, salt and pepper coating.

With the fish, I really didn’t want to mess with it at all. I patted it dry and took it out of the fridge, salting and peppering the skin and the flesh. In one of the cupboards, we found some cedar planks, so those were soaked, and within an hour, we had loaded our simple fish, topped with fresh dill, and put them on the grill.

Over a lower flame, for about fifteen minutes, the fish cooked on the covered grill. By the time the smoke wafted in to the kitchen, everyone was ready to eat. Granted, we had been snacking on smoked bluefish spread the entire time, but we were ready to sit down and enjoy a great meal together.

The Madre had made a sangria with bits of rhubarb, which was chilly and refreshing, and with a toast to a wonderful day on the town and a surely lovely evening to come, we ate. As people who have had a delicious dinner are prone to do, we then played the hit game, Apples to Apples.

The next morning, we took a drive across the island to the scenic (aren’t they all scenic towns on MV? Here, I’ll answer for you. Yes. Yes, they are) Edgartown, one of the oldest whaling ports on the Eastern Seaboard. All of the houses lining the marina were glorious Captain’s residences appointed with picket fences, rose gardens and Widow’s Walks. We bought ice cream and cupcakes along the way, and as the sun slumped lower in the sky, we walked out to the lighthouse, one of a handful on the island, with a history that went back to the days of Mickey Rooney as Lampy in the wondrous tale of Pete’s Dragon. (That was a documentary, right?)

One of many shingled houses in Edgartown

Thankfully, no Whaling wives were walking on our self-guided tour.

Uncle Greg and the Lighthouse Attendant, looking at something important.

We came back to the house that evening, with boutique cupcakes in tow, and had some Grandma’s Pizza trucked in from Long Island. I’ve never had a pizza called that other than out on the East Coast, and it turns out to be a Long Island staple that over the last years, has made its way into and been co-opted by Brooklyn pizzerias. It’s a rustic, Sicilian style pizza, topped with olive oil, crushed tomatoes, chopped garlic, and a smattering of mozzarella cheese. So, yeah. Old style. Great for reheating, and gives the family from Long Island a little nostalgic flavor of home. Pretty good stuff.

The next day, we spent some time on the beach, far away from the prying eyes of high society, wherein we collected rocks and bits of shells, sunned ourselves (the setting of “roast” on the sun is a degree of doneness that my Midwestern Scandinavian skin will gladly accommodate), and schlepped back to the house for some salad, cheeses, iced tea, pasta, grilled leftover vegetables, and smoked fish. As Aunt Carol put it, “nobody on the island is eating like us right now”, and to be honest, I had to agree with her.

The next morning, we woke up and took ourselves for a day in Oak Bluffs. We walked among the shops, picking up a couple knickknacks and gewgaws along the way. as we were waiting for our dinner reservations at a local brewpub, Uncle Greg and I took a quick walking tour of the Methodist campgrounds, an early settlement of picturesque “gingerbread houses”. Originally, small lots were leased for Methodist retreats during the summertime, and over time, the empty lots were replaced by these tiny but intricately detailed summer homes of which over 300 exist today.

Also, while we were waiting, we made our way past the oldest operating carousel in the United States, complete with a Brass Ring. Granted, the horses looked like this:

and if that wasn’t enough, there was this other reminder of childhood ambition gone wrong:

but just as Something Wicked that way Came, something Big was around the corner.

It was a delicious dinner at the local brewpub. We had two woodfired pizzas, delicious fresh calamari with a spicy remoulade, and the best fish and chips either of us had ever eaten. I’ve eaten a lot of fish and chips in my day, and this was the freshest, simplest, lightest fried cod I’ve tasted. When you eat a steak, a lot of times, overall success of the steak eating experience is gauged on toughness, flavor, and degree of doneness, but rarely freshness. A sear on the outside and cooking anywhere over a medium will mask whatever freshness the steak is lacking fairly well. With fish, though, it’s easily identified, as for lack of a better term, the aroma will tell you straight away what’s fresh and what’s not. Most people, as smell is a huge part of sensing and enjoying a meal, never get past the initial whiff of a dish as it comes to the table, as fish is consistently served in landlocked areas at less than ideal freshness. For this reason, fish in the Midwest is ordered more seldom, mostly because of the smell. I wonder, then, knowing that fish can indeed arrive to the Midwest at almost optimal freshness, just how many pieces of prime seafood sit in someone’s walk-in cooler because people have been turned off by the smell.

The fish here smelled like nothing other than the waves lapping at the beach. Breaking into it to let out the steam, still, nothing was too overbearing. After that, the flavor of the fish, needing nothing so much as even a squeeze of lemon, left me feeling fully satisfied.

Our last day was spent at an Alpaca farm, where we walked through barns filled with animals that looked and smelled like both hipsters and how we’d imagine Falkor from the Neverending Story to present himself.

Hipster

Falkor

We petted them, picked up some hats and woolen items for friends and family, despite our judgment for winterwear being clouded by the 90 degree heat, and moved back to the house for a day at the beach.

That night, we went back to Vineyard Haven, home of the Ferry Terminal and Carly Simon’s Midnight Farm shoppe, for dinner. We walked around the town, saw the famous Black Dog tavern, and wound down the evening with burgers and a march along the side streets, pondering an idyllic life among the tourists and locals.

The next morning, I packed up my gear and went back to the airport for a flight back to Chicago in time for work the next morning at six A.M. The lady, staying with the family in Connecticut for another five days, dropped me off at the terminal on her way back to the ferry, and away I flew through the clouds.

Martha’s Vineyard is a delight. If you’re not in the thick of tourists wading around looking for Ice Creams and Island hot spots, you realize that time slows down, and you can actually relax under a sky of blue and a sea of green and also blue. If you ever go, take it slow. Enjoy your time away from the city, and go as far off the map as your vacation can take you. Sometimes staying at the far tip of an island can feel like you’re at the end of the world, ready to fall off into the ocean. Just remember that if you fall in, there’s still room to enjoy yourself. 

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