Are you not Entertained!?


Living in Chicago in the midst of groups of friends working in the theater and restaurant industries, I’ve been fortunate to come across many opportunities over the years that have enabled me to enjoy some of the best nights out I could hope for. Keeping abreast of the trends in both is not an easy task, nor is it something that I can always indulge in, as a good meal or night at the theater is difficult to indulge in on a regular basis without breaking the bank of this working stiff.

It’s more of a special occasion thing- something to savor. When we go out to dinner, actually go OUT, I want to make sure it’s something that is meaningful and fulfilling, and that the experience is something that justifies making the effort to provide maximum enjoyment and value. If we’re out to dinner or at a show, the last thing I want to do is spend the money that I earn on an event  that I leave feeling unsatiated.

There are hosts of dinners and dates over the past few years that have been recalled as successes. Since I’ve returned to Chicago, the game has been stepped up. We’ve enjoyed our fair share of meals cooked together with friends, had evenings where we made homemade pasta as an activity, and explored Farmer’s Markets with family, making a summertime feast. The dinners out that we have shared have been documented and memorable, and we’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy evenings at Steppenwolf and Lookingglass thanks to our connection to those in the business of theater.

This past weekend was the opening night for Lookingglass’ show “Cascabel” at the Water Tower Works in downtown Chicago. I had been hearing about it for months, and was more than excited to go. A collaboration between Lookingglass and James Beard Award winning celebrity chef Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill,  the show was billed as an ‘unforgettable theatrical adventure [including a] sumptuous gourmet Mexican feast, world-class circus acts, and a tantalizing love story.’ 

I’ve been to Frontera, and I’ve done his other upscale restaurant, Topolobampo, and while I have enjoyed them, selling Mexican food as fine dining has always been a head scratcher to me. Comfort food? Yes. Fine dining? It remains to be seen. Much of the Mexican food I’ve eaten has been more about flavors that blend with the help of time, rather than your typical French-influenced fare that is finished a la minute. It is within the structure of what we have been fed as diners that we expect quick-fired service and five minute flavors that pop when they hit your palate.

From conception to execution, Rick Bayless made it implicitly clear that it didn’t have to be that way.

***

We arrived at the theater and milled about in the lobby. As we met with other excited theatergoers, we were greeted by costumed servers offering margaritas. As expected, the margaritas that we received were not your garden variety TGI Friday’s blender drinks. These were Rick Bayless margaritas. Uniformed waitstaff circled through the crowd holding trays of tiny spoonfuls of green chili guacamole with king crab, and a liquified queso fundido looking like a poached egg atop a sauce spiced with the flavors of chorizo.

When it was time, we made our way to the seats in the balcony, giving us a view of the stage and main floor. The central action of the play took place in the kitchen and dining room of a  Mexican boarding house. Bayless was there, back to the audience and moving deliberately between his prep table and stove, preparing dishes that would become themselves sensory plot driving characters in the story. At our tiny two person table, we had a bamboo plate with a green leaf package with popcorn spilling out the sides and a note that instructed us to be patient and wait until instructed to open.

Hm. Okay. Surely nobody minded if we nibbled a bit at the popcorn.

The set-up for the show seemed simple enough, and left all the performers to do what they did best. It was light on acting, heavy on performance, specifically that of the circus-arts variety. Tony Hernandez, an Artistic Associate with Lookingglass and Las Vegas based performer, conceptualized an evening of individual acts of daring acrobatics, contortionism, and quick change artistry interspersed with a show that awakened the senses and passions of performers and audiences alike.

As the house lights dimmed and the show began, Bayless was hard at work as the new cook in the kitchen, plating a dish that looked similar to what we had been poking and sniffing for the better part of 30 minutes before the show began.  We enjoyed appetizers of pork belly, grilled zucchini and huitlacoche on burnt toast, along with small wafers with jellied stars made from beets with whipped cream cheese and mushroom, explained to us as “from the cook, and he apologizes for burning the toast. The red item in front of you is not cherry jello, but it’s really good. You’ll like it. ”

The characters began to filter onto the set, and took their places at the table. Like any other family or close knit group of people, there was the usual bickering.  As the food was served, the maitre’d and de facto emcee for the evening introduced himself to the audience with a bit of banter, and invited us to open the presents in front of us, but not to taste immediately. He gave us an embellishedthree count, upon which we were instructed to deeply inhale the aroma of a pristine tuna ceviche. It was unique and a way to get us more in tune with all of our senses as the show went on. We were then instructed to take a bite.

As his overt silliness and the action of what was happening onstage faded into the background, there was a break in the action as everyone both onstage and off enjoyed the first course. I noticed that it possessed more balance than a homemade ceviche, and was much more delicate than the shrimp ceviche I had made two days previous in a bout of inspiration upon securing the tickets. There was sweetness from the passionfruit, and the flavors on the plate had been inactively blending and cooking in front of us the entire time we were sitting there engrossed in the show.

Over glasses of wine that we sipped as the action resumed, we saw two characters overcome with the flavors and passion of the dish itself, and the scene took flight as the tiny actress playing the daughter grabbed ahold of the chandelier and was lofted to the ceiling of the theater where she and her partner performed a trapeze act both impressive and unmistakeably seductive. I don’t know how I came to this conclusion, but it might have been when her flowing dress was ripped off to reveal a pair of polka dotted bloomers, much better suited for a high-flying act.

As the show continued, the wine and beer flowed, and a few more circus acts followed. Hernandez, a high wire performer, utilized a clothesline hanging in the corner of the theater as a tightrope, removing his sweaty clothing from a night in the kitchen and changing into a new outfit, one hanging on the line, complete with suspenders and a button-up shirt. A tiny young woman just passing through the boarding house for the night, after eating the food, took to the bath, wherein she performed a balancing act of contortion and hand-standery. An act like this defies description, but in awe of both her physical strength and how sensual she was able to make her performance, the audience was left with their mouths agape, salivating for what came next.

It was at this point in the show where we got the backstory that we were looking for. The proprietress of the boarding house, having mourned over a romance lost many years ago of a cook whose food instilled in her the sustaining passion of life, had not eaten a bite since. It showed. The actress who played her was a Spanish Olive Oyl who was nothing more than a string bean, lithe and limber. As the everpresent classical Spanish guitarist on stage strummed, she sang a mournful song from a second story balcony. Downstairs in the kitchen, the cook was preparing a dish that brought back a feeling in her soul long since forgotten. As she sang and mourned, the smell of chiles and searing meat permeated the air that was already thick with lingering aromas and pheromones.

It’s to the credit of Bayless that he plays off of the senses of the audience while they sit, eat, and watch the show. He’s not onstage to wax poetic in a monologue, but in the conception of the show, he is always onstage and comfortable in his movements, and he is as equal a player in the show as those who flip and fly through the scenery. He knows where to add the right ingredient to the mix to evoke reminiscences of memorable meals or feelings, and as a natural in the kitchen, going about his business with such precision, he does not draw too much focus away from the spectacle of the evening’s events. It’s a truly rare glimpse that you get as a viewer, seeing someone so skilled at work, yet with all else going on, you’d almost never know he was there.

As Bayless cooks, the you get a real-time update of how things come together. You may think you smell the sesame seeds toasting, and get a whiff of that sauce coming together. As you smell it, so does the proprietress, who recognizes the smell as the mole poblano that her long lost love made so many years before. In addition to the audience participation as goaded by the maitre’d and the actors playing the gardener and his wife whose talents can best be described as “Mouth-Banana juggling”, the line between viewer and active storyline participant is all but erased thanks to the sense of smell.

When the dish came to the table, we inhaled again as Bayless, the cook, begged and pleaded with the Señora to take a bite. Although we were engrossed in what was happening onstage, it didn’t look like many people wanted to wait for her. We took our first bites, and it was revelatory. Everything that we had smelled was there. Sesame seeds, tomatoes, tomatillos, the beef, the chiles, all of the spices, and the smooth chocolate that gave the sauce a satin texture. A few minutes before, we watched him chop a bunch of black kale, and tucked underneath our beef tenderloin was a little pile of braised black kale. We all knew and could clearly see that he wasn’t cooking our food directly. We might have just forgotten that there was a kitchen in the back making all of our food. If we can see it, we know it’s happening.

As we ate, we saw yet another amazing duo of gymnasts, who performed a routine of flips, handstands, drops, and the female standing on her partner’s head. Yep. Right on that dude’s head. Yow. This reminds me of another great thing about this show-the pacing and plot points are spread out so you rarely have food in your mouth when it falls open in utter disbelief. Which it does. Quite often.

As the story progressed, the proprietress finally ate something and got a torrid case of happy feet, leaping to the center of the stage and giving a feverish flamenco dance atop the table. Flourishes and Dervishes never had it so good. Let it be known that if you want to convey passion with a distinctive Spanish/Mexican influence, get someone who’s really good at Flamenco. That’ll do.

The story was resolved! She ate! Her passion for food, life, and love, it was rekindled! As the theater celebrated with Oaxacan chocolate cake with a blood orange espuma and giant pastel communion wafers, we were entertained once again by the gardener and his wife, who in addition to juggling bananas with their mouths were also quick change artists, yet another unexpected and unique talent to add to the ever-growing list of new experiences for most of the audience. The gardener’s wife went through about three different changes, and the gentleman even got one stunning reveal of his own.

The show wrapped up quickly, with the cast dancing their way into the night and the audience left to finish their drinks and enjoy the tipsy company of a hundred other satisfied diners and theater patrons. Normally, a banner event like this wouldn’t be my scene, but for those who dine out and enjoy the theater on a regular basis, the ticket price, that of a hearty night out at any number of Chicago’s finer restaurants, is not overvalued. For a night of first class food and entertainment, it proves like the silken molé that blanketed my steak that a slow-cooked mixture of ingredients yields the most flavorful of results.

With Lookingglass Marketing Director Erik Schroeder and Chef Rick Bayless

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. 

As promised from a post of late last night, today, I did indeed go to the Tamalli Space Charros food truck. I’d like to say that it was an experience, and (spoiler alert!) the food itself was good, but I think the theme of the day centered more around exploring the city and walking around with my iPod. In addition to listening to a great interview with Craig Ferguson that spanned 2 hours, ranging on topics from chance encounters with Billy Connolly and Peter Cook to every sober comedian’s worst fear that it was the booze that made them funny, it was a well-rounded piece of nerd-journalism that was a welcome addition to my morning/afternoon trip around the downtown.

Now, where were we? Ah, yes. The food truck. Tamalli Space Charros was founded this past January by a trio of former workers at Frontera Grill with an emphasis on El Movimiento Estridentismo, or the Movement of Stridentism. A close cousin to the European Surrealism of Dali, Freud, and Breton, the Mexican Stridentism of 1921-1927 was a multidisciplinary art movement where  “Latin American poets, writers, journalists, photographers and musicians (but not painters) adopted aesthetic attitudes similar to those of the Futurists: they proclaimed the power of the future and the death of all things academic.” (1)

Whoa. So how does this translate to a food truck?

“We’re taking tamales to a new level, and to new audiences,” says the sombrero-clad leader of the group, who has asked to go by his character’s name, Aztlan Cardinal. The photographer and performance artist is speaking on behalf of the entire TSC Collective, a clutch of seven international artists who’ve appended their names to the Propeller Fund grant supporting the project. Their proposal outlines a “long-term performance art project addressing the interaction among body, food, machines, wireless poetry and the city”(2)

Did I see any of that when I walked up to the truck for my lunch? Nope. Still in its infancy, the truck itself was not looking particularly like a spaceship today. There was a fin running along the top painted with primary colors, and the truck itself was plain, with the look of brushed steel. Two things about this- one from my own musings on life and the future, and one life lesson that everyone should know: First, it’s not about fancy packaging (although the afforementioned sombrero and Luchadores mask was a nice touch). It’s what’s inside that counts. Second, and this may prove to be more important than the first- If movies and art have shown us anything at all, it is that if it looks like a spaceship, it’s probably not a spaceship. It’s either a Delorean or some guy in a Bigfoot suit, or some creepy combination of both. Looks can be deceiving. If this truly was an intergalactic messenger vessel of delicious tamales, this would be the perfect foil, wouldn’t it?

*Shakes fist* Woooouldn't iiiiiit!? (Yes.)

This week, I made the effort to check on their Tamale Spaceship website to see if they had a menu, so I could know beforehand what I was getting into. They did not, so I went in blind, again. Fortunately, I made it to the truck, and they had a menu for perusing. Take note, Chicago Food Trucks: Word of mouth is great, but having menus? A Must.

This menu resembles, but is not, the menu that I saw.

I got up to the counter, and sure enough, there was a smiling man in a Mexican wrestling mask, cape, and sombrero, who greeted me with a friendly “Hello, amigo. What can I get you?” For his sake, I’m glad that Chicago food trucks have not yet embraced cooking on site, because with that cape, it would soon be curtains for his outfit of choice for the day.

I ordered the two flank steak tamales and black mole  with sesame seeds. In addition, they also had Mexican Coca Cola and Jarritos. In hindsight, I should have ordered one, because although there wasn’t too much heat to the dishes, a tamale with meat and a heavy sauce will stick to your ribs, and all you’ll ever want is a bit of refreshment. I know nothing on a day such as today that would be as refreshing as one of those drinks, but alas, I wasn’t thinking.

Today,  they were parked on Clinton and Lake Street underneath the Green Line El stop. This, my Chicago and non-Chicago friends, is where the French Market is. I’ve been wanting to check it out for a while, but it’s a little bit out of the way if I’m walking. Since, however, it was right there, I decided to take my tamales and go in search of a fresh fruit accompaniment to my meal.

The French Market itself is not unlike other markets such as the Reading Terminal or my beloved Pike Place Market, but with music blaring and $50,000 meat cases cranking out chill, it all felt a little sterile to me, almost too clean. With the markets in which I have worked, I love that people bring their own goods, and that they set up their wares on sawhorses with planks and plywood tabletoppers. This didn’t have the same feel to me, and for a French-style market, the meat and seafood selections, once again, were sorely lacking.

(They were selling Farm-Raised Vietnam Swai as Sole fillet. Gross.)

However, upon wandering past the fresh pasta dunk-tanks and soulless, everpresent Teriyaki stall, tucked in the back corner, I found Frietkoten.

It’s a Belgian-style fry shop. They serve them in cones. With sauces. Game on.

The cones themselves are huge, and it’s $4 for a petit and $5 for a grand cone. With it, you get a cup of mayo and a cup of ketchup, and for 75¢ extra, you get one of their many sauces. I chose a green tomato and chili mayonaise, which didn’t remind me of anything but a mayonaise with a slightly more acidic tang to it.

So the sauce wasn’t great, but the fries now had their choice of not three, but four dipping sauces thanks to the mole (By the way, not the best combination). With my petit cone of fries, my two cups of mayo, ketchup, mole, and tamales, I made my way over to a standing table in the corner, and snapped this shot.

Not too shabby. The fries, which on the sign the owners painstakingly reminded us from multiple angles that they were fried twice, were twice fried, and a bit of alright. Piping hot, just a little bit of salt, and much better than any other fries I’d randomly pick up on a day off, they hit the spot. The spot after that was hit with my two tamales, which were moist with that bitter chocolate sauce tinged with a hint of tahini.

At that point, I wished I had a beer. While at Frietkoten they do serve Belgian beers from a bottle as well as two taps from Two Brothers and a hard cider or two, as I looked up from my pile of starch and meat, the counter just seemed too far away.

Oh, that cider sounded good, though.

***

As I walked back through the downtown with a wrestling match of dueling cuisines in my belly, I thought what a great city this is to have little places like a Euro Fryshack and, improbably enough, a Lucha/Charro style tamale truck. I’m fortunate to live in a city where things like this pop up all the time, but more than that, I realized that the scope of your culinary creativity is only limited by how far you are willing to go to achieve it. How many sauces will it take before people start coming back for the fries? Is it the masks, the tamales, or a combination of both that is going to set this business afloat? It’s that kind of entrepreneurial spirit that makes me want to seek out and patronize places such as these, and if the idea and the food are both good, they’ll get me as a customer.

Check out the links below for more on Mexican Stridentism and the Mexican Food Truck experience. Also included is a fantastic slide show about the Tamalli Space Charros’ story. The pictures, while worth a look and a chuckle, prove that there is more to a tamale than meets the eye.

(1)  Mexican Stridentism- What Is It?

(2)Here’s Your Art. Now Eat It.

Let’s talk about the direction the blog may take. I’m looking for feedback regarding how I’d like this place to be run.

I have a lot of things that I want to say about food, but lately, I have pressing issues on my mind that revolve around how we eat, what we eat, how we treat our bodies, and whether or not the food we eat is safe. More than simply posting things about what I have for dinner, I want to start having some more conviction behind my writing.

Here are a few topics that I’m working on, with the collaborative help of some guest bloggers:

1) Nutrition- Moving forward with how we eat, what can we do to ensure the health of what we put in our bodies? There’s a lot of information out there about what people can do to gear up for the perfect summer swimsuit body, even more about what they can do to look better while feeling better, but there’s also a lot of garbage media out there that consciously enlists people to continue shopping at McDonalds. While places like McDonalds now offer “healthier options” for menu planning, the reality of it all is that there’s still a Fruit and Maple Oatmeal that purports to have fresh apples and raisins (fresh raisins, btw, would be grapes), yet from multiple reviews with pictures, actually has neither, in addition to as much sugar as a latte (32 grams of sugar-over one ounce in a total of 9 ounces of oatmeal. That’s44% of the calories derived from sugar, not to count other carbs).

Here’s one of the offending articles about it.

I’ve asked a friend to speak more about what people can do if they either have little time to cook, or if they have little skill in the kitchen. Throw that together with pointers on how to exercise, eat and drink right, and stay healthy, and you’ve got a formula that is best suited for healthy success.

2) Health risks posed by the food we eat. Yes, I’ve been watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, and as you know, a large part of the series is sculpted around sob stories of those people whose family members have terrible heart problems and have contracted diseases due to intake in large quantities of poor food choices. Yes, it’s made for the audience to sympathize with the plight of those who are overweight and hating it, or those who live their unsatisfying culinary experience at the drive-thru, but this is the second series of the show, and I don’t believe, in ANY market in the United States, that it would be hard to find someone who is directly affected by and willing to share their story of the failing health of one or more family members because of what they eat.

3)Back to Seafood. Since I’m woefully out of the loop at the moment with fresh seafood at my fingertips, I’ve asked a couple of people their opinions on the state of Sustainable seafood practices, and specifically, the outcry for better public safety assurance of Japanese/Pacific seafood harvesting.

4)Although my cooking is usually a joyous occasion (I put on music, I dance around the kitchen, throwing little dustings of flower everywhere), sometimes I get stuck in a rut. Even though I work in a grocery store, I walk through the aisles after work looking for something to bring home, and I don’t feel particularly inspired by anything. That’s why I’m looking forward to having the Muffin Man shoot me a blogpost about some great things that he’s doing in the kitchen. He’ll either do that or muse about great things that he’s thinking.

I guess that’s about all I’m capable of thinking about right now. Hopefully, there’s a bit of inspiration in this, and through reading and patching these testimonials together, I can come up with a compelling few weeks of posts, and get a groove back of writing for the joy of cooking, and not simply the job of cooking itself.

I think that it also helps, as I’ve been talking about with a few people, to have some fresh voices being heard, as sometimes I find myself flaming the internet seas to nobody in particular and getting riled up about stuff that I’m still not even sure many people are reading and enjoying, let alone responding to.

Speaking of fresh voices, how’d you all like that guest post from P. Soutowood last week? Last night, he did a short speech at a Pecha Kucha night in San Diego, and wrote a little bit about it on his blog today. Here’s the latest post from Handmade, all about sharing a little bit of himself and breaking a little bread at the same time.

***

So, where does this leave me? I don’t really know. It’s certainly an exciting jump off point, for parts and diatribes unknown. Please start leaving comments, so this blog can show a little bit of forward progress. I know it’s asking a little, but I’m eager to branch out, and more than that, find out what people think is valuable information that they’d like to hear. I guess it just comes down to figuring out how to engage people who may or may not read this blog.

Where should I go? What should I write about? What things would you be interested in hearing about? Let me know. Leave a comment, and I’ll get on it. Sometimes, it just takes a kick in the pants to get started. Not a big one, but just enough that you take that first stutterstep forward.

Thanks.

I didn't have an image to put in the post, so I just went with baby hedgehogs.

Yesterday was the second 12 hour opening of the Copper River Season, from 7 AM to 7 PM up in Alaska. We’re fortunate in Seattle to get the direct flights loaded up with the finest fish, and this morning’s batch was spectacular.

The second opening gave us a fair amount of fish, and the sockeyes look awesome. You’re not going to get a fresher fish anywhere in the country unless you go catch it yourself.  Moreover, the Alaskan Salmon Fishing Industry has been evaluated and certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, an independent Third Party who monitors catch limits, methods of fishing, and environmental concerns surrounding commercial operations. Read more about it on their website, with a link at the end of this post.

With that being said, the price is already starting to drop. Where it started off at a price of $29.99/lb for pretty much everyone in the market here, the price for the second opening has already seen a drop of Five dollars per pound. Start getting your grills ready, because it’s going to come in quick, and it’s going to be great.

Soy-Miso Marinated Salmon with Green Bean Salad

2 lbs. Copper River Sockeye Salmon Fillet

2 TBSP White Miso Paste

2 TBSP Soy Sauce

2 TBSP Rice Vinegar

1 TBSP Brown Sugar

1/4 c. Canola Oil

2 tsp. Sesame Seeds

1 Squirt Wasabi paste

Green Bean Salad

1 Handful green beans, trimmed.

1 box cherry tomatoes, halved

1 TBSP White Miso

1 TBSP Mayonnaise

Splash of soy sauce

Splash of rice vinegar

1 finger fresh grated ginger

2 cloves minced garlic

sesame seeds

1 green onion, sliced diagonally, thin

For the Salmon: Take all the ingredients for the marinade, aside from the sesame seeds, and whisk together. Put your salmon fillet, either whole or cut into four pieces, in the marinade, and let it sit for at least a half an hour. Before you put it in the oven, it should have a dark, caramel color on the surface, and the marinade should just be penetrating towards the center of the fish. As a note, pat the surface relatively dry before you put it in the oven, as excess marinade will burn.

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

For the green beans, get a pot of salted water to a boil, and throw the beans in until they get nice and green, about two minutes. They should still be a little crunchy, but after you pull them out, run them under cool water until they stop steaming.

For the dressing, just whisk all the ingredients together. It’s simple, fast, and delicious. (It’s also very healthy, shhhhhh!)

Add the tomatoes. Toss it with the dressing. Instant Salad.

For the salmon, place it Skin side UP in a baking dish, and put it in your preheated oven for about six to eight minutes. The skin should be nice and crispy, and as a chef’s hint, if you take the back of a knife and wick away any excess moisture, that’ll help it along. For added technique and a nice presentation, make some light diagonal slashes in the skin with a knife, as if you were making slashes in a loaf of french bread before baking.

Here’s the big secret to finding out if your fish is done: Take a fork, stick the tines in the fish, and wiggle it around. If it flakes, it’s done. On the sides, you should see the fat starting to sweat out the sides. That means it’s perfect. The marinade will keep it moist, and you’ll end up with a great dinner.  Slice a little bit of green onion and garnish over top for a fresh finish.

Serve it with some steamed jasmine rice, or get a quick box of couscous at the store, and you have a healthy, well rounded meal that is excellent, filling, and a taste of where we call home.

Marine Stewardship Council: http://www.msc.org/track-a-fishery/certified/pacific/alaska-salmon/alaska-salmon-1

 

 

Remember Iain? Of course you do. Well, this week, I made a pizza for his blog project. I know Wisconsin would be the easiest pie for me to tackle, but according to those who live up there, stuff just isn’t ready. I still have to wait a little bit for ramps, asparagus, berries of all kinds. It’s okay. I just didn’t want to make a turnip pizza.

anyway, I thought about what pizza I’d really like to make. With Iain’s completion of Pennsylvania, I decided to do a little companion puzzle piece. A little bit of Googling pointed me to New Jersey’s favorite foods.

Maybe I’m one of the only people to realize this, or maybe I just remembered because Zach Braff wouldn’t shut up about New Jersey for a few years and probably mentioned it, but New Jersey is the nation’s leading supplier of eggplant. Also known as the Garden State, New Jersey is the birthplace of the Tomato Pie, with Trenton staking the earliest claim to the recipe.

Tomato pie is a pizza with the toppings in reverse. Crust-Cheese-Topping-Sauce. It ends up looking like a stuffed pizza. The tricky part for this pizza is that the Trenton style of tomato pie is thin crust. There’s no place to hide the sauce. Just goes right on top with no retaining wall on the sides.

***

I needed things. I knew I had, in the fridge, my basil pesto from last week. That was going to be the base. Brushed on as a thin layer directly between the crust and cheese layer, it was my way of saying to New Jersey that even though people may only remember them for being dirty and giving the world the idea that only greasy, fried Italian things come from the shore, that underneath it all, there’s a tiny patch of green that I know is there, and it makes everything alright.

I picked up the following- Provolone (mozzarella uses the same curd as what becomes provolone. Plus, sliced thin, it’s easy enough to place in an even layer on the pizza), tomatoes for sauce, onions, garlic, and baby eggplant. I thought about getting a large one, but these were about the size of a juice glass, and we only had to have enough for one pizza. Also, parmesan cheese for sprinkling.

Conspicuously cut to not show a label, but I really made the Pesto. Really.

So, I came home to my standby pizza dough rising in the oven. I sliced the eggplant into 1/2″ thick rounds, breaded them in parmesan breadcrumbs and egg, and fried them. Setting them aside, I made the sauce. Onion and garlic, sweat in olive oil for five minutes. I added some leftover capers from a few nights before, and a can of seasoned tomatoes, just because it doesn’t have to be great. Just sauce.

Sauce cooked down, reduced until it was pretty chunky with little excess liquid. That’s when I hit it with the immersion blender. After blending, it thickened and reduced pretty quickly. Instead of a runny sauce, I had one that I could dollop onto a pizza. The consistency was great, and the sauce was not going to run anywhere.

I rolled the crust out, and pinched my way to a vaguely jellybean-shaped crust. I took all the pesto and spread it across the crust, layered the provolone, and put the eggplant parm on top. Two small eggplant yielded about 16 small slices, which fit the pie perfectly all the way down from Hackensack to Cape May.

Adding the sauce, I used the eggplant as a natural barrier for spills, and it seemed to work out fine. By the time it was sauced, the makeshift marinara had thickened up to a paste.  It worked so well. With a flourish of grated cheese, it went in the oven for 25 minutes at 425.

It turned out perfectly. As it was in the oven, I got a call from my lady friend, who said that she was bringing guests over, and she hoped that there was enough food. I looked at the pizza, which while filling seemed deceptively small in surface area, and immediately grabbed the other dough ball in the fridge. The oven was still on, so I didn’t have to worry about anything but making enough food to feed everyone.

Pizza number two, the other one, was what I had in the fridge. Orange peppers, capers, kalamata olives, a little sauce, feta, more provolone, roasted garlic. Into the oven it went, and I was happy when it came out and everyone was able to enjoy more than a couple slices of pizza.

I enjoyed both pizzas, but the Jersey Pizza held a special place in my heart. I did it to help out a friend, to feed my household, and to utilize the fresh bounty of a state not normally associated with freshness. Here’s my pizza. I hope you enjoy looking at it as much as I enjoyed making and eating it.

New Jersey-Now available in Pizza!

Don’t forget to check out the 50 State Pizza Project at: http://www.the-muffin-man.com

You’ll be very happy you did.

A few weeks ago, the lady and I were down at the Market, and we decided to pull in to the Zig Zag Cafe for a drink. First, a little word about the Zig Zag. If you’ve ever been to Seattle, specifically the market, the secondary attraction behind the market is the Pike Street Hillclimb. The lowest level is the Waterfront, where you can find such gems as the ferry terminal, Ivar’s Acres of Clams, Ye Olde Curiousity Shoppe, and the Seattle Aquarium. The Third Level is, of course, Pike Place Market, home of delicious fish at the foot of Pine Street, the first Starbucks, and DeLaurenti’s Fine Foods, an Italian Market hosting Mario Batali’s dad’s Pancetta, an impressive selection of olives and European Chocolates, and great looking, authentically Italian-named cafe staff.

Right in the middle lies 150 steps leading between the levels, and on a patio with a fountain, you can find the Zig Zag. The guys buy scallops and salmon from me, and I’ve always meant to go down there for a drink and an appetizer to show a little bit of support, but that day seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Look at this guy, will ya? This is a bartender. All others, take note. In addition to the wisely chosen seafood selections on the menu, they have a bartender, Murray, who has been named by many governing bodies as the best bartender in America. Playboy, bestower of gentlemanly titles, and the more professionally sanctioned Tales of the Cocktail c0mpetition/gathering that took place last week in New Orleans. As we’re constantly on the search for new cocktails, ones that are no-nonsense, Zig Zag is an uncomplicated stop on the tour of Seattle’s spirit walk.

With all the hype surrounding Murray’s drinks, the menu looked like someone had opened up your grandfather’s liquor cabinet and started pouring at random. All sorts of the so called medicinal liquors were there, as well as strange whiskey/bourbon/grain alcohol combinations. The main difference between Murray’s drinks and the drinks of everyone else (it is important to make that distinction, because there’s now officially Murray, and everyone else) was that this was a drink with purpose. It didn’t have floral overtones that lingered on the palate. It was, simply put, an original strong drink with balance, which is sorely lacking in all bars these days.

You can go to the speakeasies of the world and they’ll be able to make you a sling, or a punch, or a fizz, or a flip, but the drinks that they invent are with a twist. I don’t want a twist. I don’t want your take on something, because I’m not going to leave your bar thinking that I really needed to try the rhubarb syrup mixed with celery bitters. I just want to leave thinking “Hey, that was a damn fine drink.”

And drink, we did. Just one. Mine had a name like “Drunken Sailor with a Rusty Nail”. While it was akin to ordering an unfortunately named Pancake breakfast at the IHOP, the drink was uncomplicated, straightforward, and strong.

Enough about the drink, though. Alongside the drink, we got a small bowl of mixed green and black olives cured in oil, toast points, and a small bowl of hummus. In the dimly lit back corner of the restaurant, it looked like something was green in our hummus.

I looked closer, and it was fresh basil. It went so well with our cool drinks. I went up to the chef when I saw him come out of the kitchen, with my compliments.

“Yeah, it’s really simple. We just take our dried garbanzos and make the hummus from scratch, then add fresh basil at the end.”

Sounds simple enough.

Went home, bought some stuff, tested it, and here’s my recipe:

Hummus

1 lb. dried garbanzos

1 Small can or jar of tahini (8-10 ounces)

Olive oil

Salt

1 Lemon

Water

Fresh basil

***

Soak the garbanzos overnight. Next, drain them, fill a large pot with water and simmer them for about 2-3 hours over low heat. You can use canned garbanzos, but I like the texture result with the dried.

When you can pull one out and mash it with the back of a fork, pull the pot off the heat, draining the beans.

Grab your can of tahini, open it, and pour the whole thing in. Add a few swirls of olive oil and a generous pinch of salt, starting at 1 tsp and making your way up from there if you so desire it. Then, mash. Mash like you’ve never mashed before. Even with a hand blender, the hummus still had that rustic look. I don’t have a food processor, but I don’t particularly want one, either. Taste, adjust. Maybe put a little bit of black pepper in there.

Now, take your lemon and zest it. Zest it right into the hummus. Don’t be shy. Lemon is the vehicle with which you get the flavor to make your hummus burst with…hummusy goodness?

Yeah.

So zest it.

Then, juice it. Put all that juice right into the hummus and mix it thoroughly. Taste it again. Is it too thick? Add a little bit of oil. Too rich as well? Add a little bit of water. All the flavor’s there. You won’t dumb down your hummus by thinning it with water.

Then, the basil. If you have a plant, pull some leaves off of it, stack them on top of one another, roll them up, and slice it like you would if you were making those cinnamon rolls that came in the poppin’ fresh tube. Slice it into thin ribbons, so it looks like a swirl when you slice it. Congratulations. The culinary term for this is ‘chiffonade’, and now you can do it in the splendor of your very own kitchen!

Put the hummus in a bowl or on a plate, sprinkle it with a bit of paprika, some more lemon zest, maybe some sesame seeds, and that fresh basil. A perfect summertime treat!

If you choose to use canned garbanzos, I will not frown. Just like canned beans, they’re actually very healthy and a well cared for canned product. It’ll also save you about a day of prep time. As I mentioned, the texture of the hummus will be a bit smoother, but some people like that. For a hummus that resembles the tub that you get at the store, put it into a blender and hit whatever button it is that blenders have to make it smooth.

As you may have noticed, I didn’t put any garlic in there. Some recipes call for it, and some don’t. I read an article in the New York Times last month (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/16/dining/16united.html) that discussed the flavored hummus craze at length. If there’s one thing about this hummus that’s good, it’s that you can use it as a base for creating any number of delicious flavored hummi in your future.

Lastly, if you’re looking for a quick, cheap and easy accompaniment to your hummus, take a pack of corn tortillas, brush them with oil and cut them into wedges, sprinkle them with salt, and put them in the oven at 375° for 8 minutes. They’re about ten times as delicious as Doritos, much healthier because they’re baked, and a fulfilling way to make a snack at home.

One of the World's Biggest Plates of Hummus

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