Eat


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

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I’m so glad I don’t have to work today. For meat and seafood, it’s top three in the worst days of the year. Why? Because two simple things, for 24 hours, become the all-consuming, must have dinner products.

Filet Mignon

Lobster

Why? Why is it that every year, around New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day, people feel the obligation to attempt the high risk maneuver of the surf and turf combo? I understand that it’s a special day for many people. I get it. I really do. HOWEVER, if this is a day where the gentleman of the relationship trots out his cooking skills to impress the lady, I always try to recommend something else.

It’s not because I want to discourage the man cooking a special dinner. Far from it. It’s the questions. All of the questions that people ask about how to cook their lobster and filets drive me up the wall. I want to say “If you don’t know how to cook it, please, for the sake of your relationship, do not attempt it for the first time tonight.”

I don’t say it.

Instead, here is a list of helpful answers to your Valentine’s Day queries about how to cook the best special surf and turf you can possibly muster.

“I need two filet mignons. How do I cook them?”

Alright. First, the proper pluralization of it is Filets Mignon. It comes from the French, meaning ‘dainty fillet’. What an adorable sounding name for a piece of meat. I just had a little chuckle at your expense.

Okay, now seriously. How do you want to cook them?

“Medium Rare.”

Are you saying that because you want to cook them medium rare, or because that’s what everyone says when they go to a steakhouse?

“Rare.”

Sear it in a SCALDING HOT PAN with a tiny bit of oil NOT OLIVE in the bottom for four minutes a side. Roll the sides so that you can give it an even texture. It’s going to be cold in the middle, but as long as you know that, it’ll be okay. Let it rest for ten minutes before you slice it so you can at least get a knife into it.

“Medium.”

Follow the steps for rare.  Heat your oven to 425. After you sear it, throw the whole thing in the oven for 10 minutes. Let it rest for ten minutes.  Slice and serve.

“Well Done.”

Seriously? Well done? Get a Petite Top Sirloin steak over here. I guarantee you won’t be able to tell the difference after you pull it out of the oven. Moreover, you will save approximately $30, which you can then use on flowers to make up for the fact that your steak is rendered flavorless and inedible. Sorry. $25 on flowers. $5 for a bottle of A-1. But don’t you feel so much better that you saved your money on that steak? Don’t forget to throw away the butcher paper.

***

All joking aside, it’s not that difficult to make a steak. It’s easier to make other steaks taste better than a filet, and you won’t feel the sting of your credit card digging into your hip as you wrench it out to pay more than you should for a steak. However, like a dutiful significant other, you’ve purchased a filet.

Let’s get cooking.

First, take the steaks out of the butcher paper. Look at them sitting there on the counter. Is one thicker than the other? Are you worried that one will cook faster than the other and then you’ll be left with two incredibly different degrees of doneness? Don’t worry. As the chef, you take whichever one is the less appealing, or whichever one comes out looking kind of funny.

That’s love.

Season the outside with salt and pepper. Rub all the surfaces, and let the steaks sit for about an hour at room temperature. Don’t start with a cold steak in a pan. That would be your second mistake, the first being purchasing a filet mignon rather than a flatiron or delicious, delicious ribeye.

Now, remember what I said about the olive oil? Don’t use it for steak. Don’t. It’s for your salad. It’s not for frying.  Turn your heat on to medium high, closer to the high side of things. No, you won’t burn your place down. You might get it a little smoky, but you won’t burn it down. When it’s pretty hot, grab your regular vegetable oil, and just put a  little less than a quarter sized drop in your pan. It’s going to smoke and bevel when you swirl it around. You only need just enough to cover the area where you will be searing the meat.

Is it smoking? Good. Put your steaks in the pan, at least an inch apart so they don’t end up steaming next to each other. Just let them sit. Don’t touch them. Don’t. Don’t touch them. I’m serious. Let them sit for at least four minutes a side. If there’s oil pooling at the bottom of the pan, you have too much in there. I told you to put less oil in there. Why didn’t you listen to me? Your steak isn’t going to get beautifully browned, and then your girlfriend is going to yell at you and then Valentine’s Day will be ruined! I will not be responsible for this. Do you hear me!?

Whoa. Okay, deep breath. You didn’t touch the steak, did you? Okay. Good. Just treat it like a grilled cheese sandwich. After four minutes, if it starts to smell like it’s browning, try lifting a corner of the steak from the pan. If it releases easily, congratulations! You are cooking it right so far!

Is it not releasing from the pan easily? Leave it in there. Check it in two minutes.

Okay, it’s good and ready. Now, flip it. Let it stay there. Don’t touch it. Don’t. Just don’t do it. Four more minutes, four minutes, then roll the sides, then let it rest. Boom. Congratulations. Now you have a rare steak. Really rare.

Want a more medium steak? Remember what I told you earlier? Heat the oven up to 425. Throw the whole pan in there. Let it go for about ten minutes. Pull it out. Let it rest.

Want something well done? If you haven’t been listening up to this point, I simply will not tell you anything more than throw it in the microwave for an hour, and then throw it in the trash with your hopes and dreams.

***

Now, on to the lobster. Nobody knows how to cook a lobster unless you’ve done it on more occasions than a holiday or for a special night with the lady once in a blue moon. Still, you’ve got your lobster, and you have to cook it, right? Right. So, with that in mind, I will tell you how to cook lobster tails, skipping over the part where you have to kill them, because although I’ve done it on many occasions, I choose not to. There is something unappetizing about describing that process, so I’ll leave it out. Just get lobster tails, okay?

So you have your tails. If they’re small, (8 oz or smaller), take a barbecue skewer and spear them from flipper to front so they don’t curl up. Put them in a casserole dish. Boil a pot of water, salted, and pour it over the top. Let them sit for ten to 15 minutes. When they are good and red, pull them out, slice them down the back, and pull the meat out. I know you want a nice presentation, but I bet you also want a nice dinner where your date doesn’t hem and haw over how difficult it is to get the lobster out of the shell. Considerate cookers of the world, do them a favor and shell the meat.

Save the shells for stock. They make a good one. Either roast them straight away, or throw them in the freezer. I recommend roasting them until they are brittle and dry, just so they don’t severely stink up the freezer.

Now, let the meat cool down. You should have two half tails, split lengthwise, for each whole lobster tail that you got. Do you? Okay, good.

The meat is still tender. This is really important, as when most people get them and don’t ask the questions, they just throw it in a boiling pot of water, leting it curl and gnarl itself into a tiny ball of awfulness, once again wasting their money. Like throwing the steak in the oven, you can easily throw the meat on the grill, under the broiler, or into a warm pot of butter before serving, maintaining the flavor and delicate texture.

Did you get that? Don’t boil your tail.

Don’t.

Five minutes in contact with heat should do the trick, and by the time it is ready to go, you have everything timed out perfectly, and your date is salivating in a Pavlovian way over the wonderful smells that are coming from the kitchen.

“Hot Dog! I never knew you could cook like this, (fill in your name here)!”

I bet you didn’t either. You’re welcome. Now go. The dinner hour is fast approaching. Get your mind in the game, your butt in the kitchen, and make the best damned Valentime you’ve ever done.

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

Seriously? This is Art.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I look forward to it.

Microrestaurant Video 1 from Pouya on Vimeo.

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Here I am on another day off from work, with nothing to do but cook. It’s feeling more autumnal here by the day, but I can’t really let go of the fresh flavors of summer. The other day, I wanted to make a quick salad to go along with dinner, but I had no greens. I asked my better half if she was going to stop by the market on the way home, and if she’d be bothered to get some salad makings. I didn’t hear back for a little while, and dinner was fast approaching. I’d made a bread pudding earlier in the day, and I used the rest of the bread to do mini raclette/baguette toasted cheese sandwiches under the broiler.

Still, that’s a lot of bread.

We’re in a new place, and I still haven’t figured out why, even with a smaller fridge, I’m not able to fill it with stuff that I can grab and use to make stuff on the fly. We’ve got a couple of stores close to us, including my home store, so it’s not really a big thing. Being impatient as I am, I hopped on my bike and rode down the street to pick up some arugula from the produce market. I haven’t had arugula in six weeks.

What’s arugula? It’s a veg-e-table.

I hadn’t been to this produce market yet, and when I got in, I was surprised by how much they had to offer. I scoured the greens. Turnip, collard, kale, escarole, bibb, romaine, but no arugula. It’s a sure sign of a first world problem when you get grumpy over the lack of spring mix and microgreens in your local grocer’s produce case. They did, however, have dandelion greens- a little bitter, but for the salad I was making, I thought it would be refreshing. I picked out a bunch, along with a lemon for a fresh dressing, and biked back home.

Dandelion Greens on a sunny afternoon

By the time I got home, I checked my phone, and the lady had said she picked up some herb salad mix, so the dandelions were relocated, temporarily, to the back of the fridge.

On my days off, I get bored. I’ll go exploring, but for the most part, I’ll stay indoors, watch the television, plop around on the internet. Now that it’s about 3 p.m., I’m getting antsy. This is how it usually goes. I think it’s time to make some food.

***

Dandelion Green Pasta Filling:

1 bunch Dandelion greens, triple washed, trimmed of stems

1/2 yellow onion, small dice

4 cloves garlic, sliced thin

1 T. salted butter

salt, pepper, oil

***

Pulled out the dandelion greens from the fridge and tasted them just now. They are unbelievably bitter. For the greens to lose their bitterness, I may have to cook them down considerably.

***

Pan on the stove. Low heat to sweat the onion and garlic. And… into the pan they go. Little salt, little pepper. So far so good. It smells pretty nice in here. After ten minutes they seem to have become tender and fragrant.

***

Spin the greens to get rid of the moisture. I thought of maybe soaking them in milk? Nah. I don’t think that’d be the most productive use of milk.

***

Okay. In the pan with the greens, all chopped up like they are. Let em cook. They’re looking vibrant.

***

Ten more minutes in, and they’ve lost some of that green, but the cooking has taken a lot of bitterness out of them as well. I don’t have any cheese, but I don’t want to mask the comfortable level of bitterness that I still have going for the green mix. If I were to choose a cheese to go inside, it’d be a pecorino. The nutty sheep’s milk and texture would go along nicely. I think I’ll get a small wedge of it tomorrow, and serve it up on top, maybe in curls.

***

Okay. I’m going to need some pasta dough here. Trusty Mario Batali Pasta Recipe, take me away.

***

I have a new cutting board. It’s all wood, of heavy stock, and it sits atop my prep rack, good for cutting stuff and kneading things. I know it’s anti-utilitarian of me, but I don’t really want to get it too dirty just yet. I fabricated the pasta dough using the well method (only way to go) inside a mixing bowl, and then turned out the sloppy mess onto the board for kneading. After about five minutes, I covered it in plastic wrap and now I’m letting it sit for another 30 minutes before taking it for a ride on the pasta bike.

Two eggs and some flour

(For more information about how to make your own fresh pasta, consult this blog entry.)

***

Okay. Pasta dough has rested, now on to the bike!

***

Just got done cranking the pasta dough and filling them up. Filled pasta is a lot of work if you don’t have practice. Out of a half batch of dough, I had enough filling for 22 tortellini, approximately 4 servings by Euro Standards, maybe 2 by American standards. Perhaps tomorrow night, I’ll make them for diner, with a light butter sauce with basil and crushed pecans.

A bunch of tortellini

***

A final thought: An afternoon project is something very fulfilling, especially if it’s something that I can eat and share later on. I’m glad I had the opportunity to share the process with…the…internet. I’m even happier that I get to share something that I’ve made with my lady for dinner.