Sunday, April 19, 2009

Gilded Recession Pt. 5

Spring evokes a sense of light food fare in me. Maybe it's because the little lip of my gut has grown a bit more puffy over the winter months, as if it's gotten a few bad Botox treatments. Maybe it's because it's suddenly too warm to keep my oven on 300º for six hours. Maybe it's because there is external pressure to cook something light for the ones I love. Maybe it's because I'm tired of eating beef five nights a week.

Regardless of the reason, I feel the urge to eat lighter meals. I also feel the urge to dip into a different skill set of cooking, moving away from the New American cuisine and French-inspired foods of the cooler winter months. I used to be really into East Asian cuisine: Thai, Japanese, and a few different styles of Chinese.

It was many years ago that I first learned to appreciate the simple flavors used in these styles of cooking. It all began with a Thai restaurant – Lemongrass – that opened out by Lake Travis. I ate there several times a week, and eventually wasn't allowed to order dinner off the menu. The owner and chef, Ped (Bahn Pommavong), would make me elaborate meals, using his mad fusion skills. He was like the Herbie Hancock of Thai cuisine. He was a classically trained chef with a French background and was from Laos. This made for some interesting towers of food. He was doing things nine years ago that Uchi is doing now. This may account for my lackluster appreciation of Uchi's food. I felt that it was a rehash of some creativity I'd already seen; an expensive imitation.

Anyway, Ped spoiled my palate. Unfortunately, he decided to expand his business and opened up a second Lemongrass at Sixth and Nueces (the current home of Thai Tara). This dragged his business down and eventually led to the closing of both restaurants. The best thing about this was that my interest in the flavors, textures, and heat of Thai food had been piqued, and I was on the hunt to learn more about them. Then came Japanese food.

Actually, then came my Nipponophile period. I was hooked on anything and everything Japanese. I started studying Zen Bhuddism. Zatoichi and Kurosawa dvd's were strewn about. I cooked elaborate, multi-coursed meals that thoroughly annoyed and impressed my roommates. I cooked for them, and after a while they were like, "Dude. Really. What's with all these noodles and shit that tastes like seaweed?" Fuck it. I was on a roll. I carried a wooden miso bowl and chopsticks in my bag with me everyday. It was a bizarre period in my life.

I had all but forgotten the wondrous flavors of sesame and dashi and tamari over the past few years as I worked on Mother Sauces and foams and gelees. It was time to come home. Time to get back to those flavors that had made deep roots for my passion for cooking. Shaddley had invited Blackberry Shortcake and I to dinner down in North Buda. We seemed to all be on the same page about this meal and met at a centrally located South Austin grocery store that shall remain nameless.

This crew has been on the same high caloric kick over the winter months, and it was time to lighten it up a bit. In the maze-like aisles of this supermarket, wells of inspiration sprung up. There were some nice tatsoi greens and micro greens and baby bok choy lurking about in produce. The seafood case was stocked with fresh (never frozen) halibut. Wonton wrappers and bittersweet chocolate practically leapt into the cart as we passed. Scallops and eggplants and chicken - oh my! After a cleanup by the courtesy desk, it was off to Shaddley's kitchen.

To start, we had a nice, light, refreshing salad: daikon and carrot ribbons with scallions, tatsoi and micro greens tossed in a sesame-rice vinaigrette. Soaking the daikon and carrot ribbons in cold water makes them curl up and take on a more malleable consistency. This salad would also be nice with some soaked arame or wakame, if you're into that kind of thing. Paired with the Daedalus pinot gris, this was a crisp, and acidic starter; definitely not a belly filler.

Get your daikon.

After this wonderful salad, we moved on to the fish course. To celebrate the freshness of the newly in season halibut, we ate it raw. This course consisted of halibut sashimi and wild salmon and tangerine ceviche. Being a lover of raw meat, I found this course delectable. There is an amazing difference in the texture of a fish that has never been below 32º Fahrenheit. (I will be buying Shaddley and YogaMarketingBrownieGirl a whet stone or at the least a steel. Merry Christmas!) Everyone seemed to love the sashimi, and cutting it left a good bit of leftover fish scraps. In this economy, every little bit counts. Welcome to the new frugality.

Right before your very eyes you can't sashimi.

I hadn't accounted for any soups in this meal, yet I didn't think about all the fish scraps either. I found some shochu in the fridge, and this combined with water, scallions, fish scraps, ginger and garlic would be the base for a spicy fish broth that would segue to the seafood courses. After being strained and hit with a glug of soy, this broth was served in bowls and garnished with scallions and thai peppers (two things that look rather similar when sliced incredibly thin). YogaMarketingBrownieGirl, who declared herself a "Vata" had a hard time sipping this spicy broth. Most vatas I know have no problem with spicy food. ¿Ay, vata? ¡Odelay!

¡Ah, Vata, si, es muy caliente!

The next seafood course featured an oldie but goodie from my Nipponophile days: Asian eggplant with red miso. This recipe is as simple as brewing green tea. Saute or stir fry a couple of eggplants sliced on a bias until soft, mix three tablespoons of red miso, two tablespoons each of water and sugar together, and combine. The result will amaze you in its simplicity. Sharing the stage with this miso treat were seared scallops with a watermelon gastrique. The scallops were perfect, evoking the following quote from Shaddley: "Those scallops are like little balls of mouth orgasms!" Nuff said.


Finally coming out of the blue depths of three back-to-back seafood courses, we moved on to the entree. Tangerine and miso glazed roast chicken with brown rice and steamed baby bok choy. The chicken was as moist and tender as my eyes were the first time I saw Old Yeller put down. The glaze was flavorful but didn't outshine the flavor of the yard bird. You can't go wrong with either brown rice or steamed baby bok choy. Really. You can't! I don't even know which wine we had with this course. We always drink so much wine, and unlike the other food bloggers I saw at the last happy hour–thanks parkside! you rule– I don't scribble notes in little books. Maybe I should? Then I'd be one of their ilk. I don't know how I feel about that. Until then I'll rely on catch-all parenthetical lists of wine to get my point across.

Bok choy and bok ba gok.

We rested a bit after the entree. We all needed a little break. Besides, the ginger-watermelon ice in the freezer needed a little bit more time before it was broken into. We killed another bottle of something, and ate the ice. I was tired. Nearing the realm of spent. I noticed people were looking at me weird. Then someone spoke up, "I thought you bought chocolate?" Shit. Busted. Didn't they know I was tired? Didn't they see the line of spent wine soldiers on the counter (Apolloni Pinot Grigio (Willamette Valley, OR), Carabella Pinot Gris (Willamette), Daedalus Pinot Gris (Willamette), Apolloni Pinot Noir (Willamette), W.H. Smith Pinot Noir, Maritime Vyd (Sonoma Coast), Kerpen 05 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spatlese, Merkelbach 05 Urziger Wurzgarten Auslese)?!

I begrudgingly got up off the oh-so-comfortable couch and went back to the kitchen. I heated some oil. Made some ganache. I took the Nada Moo vegan-maple-pecan 'ice cream' out of the freezer. After cutting them in little thin strips, I fried the wonton wrappers. Fake ice cream, plus fried wontons, plus chocolate, equals crazy delicious. Everyone loved it even though it was made hesitantly on the fly. Nada Moo doesn't give me the nods like real ice cream. Dare I say that vegan ice cream may be an answer to one of my food issues? Not in public I won't.

I went back to the couch. Shit, I may have even closed my eyes. This meal was an excellent first step on the path to what has become a fruitful spring season of light eats. Shaddley, host extraordinaire, didn't even say "charcuterie" or "fromage" during the six hours of feasting that transpired. We still drank entirely too much wine, which in no way is a bad thing.

If there was lesson or moral to this story, it was certainly lost somewhere between sashimi and roast chicken. Maybe that is the moral of this story? Maybe adding an extra course of spicy fish broth so as not to waste some expensive seafood perfectly sums up the current state of the American citizen's recession-based mind. Maybe this new frugality will stay with us after the recession recedes. Maybe I'll find a way to straddle the line between excess and frugality that will fuel my passion to cook Bacchanalian feasts for minimal dollars per head. And maybe I'll be first the American President elected who was born outside of the States. Maybe.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Dear Reader

This has been an exceptionally busy month and my ability to set aside time to write has been near non-existent. I'm currently sitting in a greasy spoon in Burlingame, California, where I've just devoured a plate of biscuits and gravy and eggs and homefries. As a Southern boy I have a fondness for this very plate of food and must say that I was not let down by this West Coast interpretation. 

Thank you for your patience and your continued support of my journey through this deepening culinary abyss here at the Life and Times of a Bearded Weirdo

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Sacrificial Lamb

Sometimes it takes a while to pull a plan together. Ruby had been pestering me for months for one of my "home-cooked meals." I wasn't exactly playing coy, yet I wasn't rushing it either. Not that cooking meals for my friends isn't a priority; it was more that timing was going to be crucial for what she was asking me to do. I can't recall whether the pestering began before or after I went to London. Her shattering her jaw in a tragic bike accident set back our engagement a month or so as well. 

You see, some of my friends really, really, really like food; others would eat dog shit if it were deep fried and conveniently accessible. Ruby falls into the first category. She has been to France, learned to make cheese there, and lent me Nourishing Traditions. I knew that cooking a meal for her was going to be a production, a multi-course feast of Bacchanalian proportion. Good times. There was a leg of lamb involved in the pestering. She was sitting on it, and I knew that it would be a while before I was able to devote the right amount of time and attention to such a piece of meat. 

The leg came from a Christian family farm out by New Braunfels: the Lamb's lamb. I really didn't want to fuck this up so the pressure was on. When I was finally able to devote the time to the leg and its bearers, I was excited to get to host a meal at my house. It had been since before my trip to Hampton that I had folks at my table. She delivered the little leg to me, and I let it slack. The day of our feast, I salted the lamb limb and let it sit for about eight hours. I spent the day thinking about how to do the courses, and what would be seasonally appropriate. 

I decided on five courses. Salad, fish, lamb, fromage, and chocolate. This being springtime and all, I wanted the meal to be light - yet filling. I needed to use up some ganache that was laying low in my freezer like a member of the witness relocation program, so I thought that a mousse would be a nice way to utilize these decadent leftovers. With the garden being sparse, I got my produce from the co-op, as well as the mahi for the fish course and some other odd and ends. Citrus was still in season, and I wanted to work that into all of this as well. 

There were to be four of us in all: Ruby, her boyfriend, Kyle D, Blackberry Shortcake, and myself. Kyle and Ruby brought some wine, and I was stoked to see the familiar yellow label of Vueve Clicquot make an appearance, as well as the Becker Vineyards Prairie Rotie. There was also some Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc, and something else that I can't quite recall. I was excited to meet Kyle D and realized later that I had heard several stories about him from our mutual friend Clifford. Austin is a small town in that regard, big enough to be another face in the crowd, small enough to suffer the perils of ubiquity. 

Our salad was rather simple. Arugula, dried cranberries, pecans and shaved Parmigianno Regianno with a white wine vinaigrette. The acidity of the dressing was crisp and refreshing, pairing well with the dryness of the Vueve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label. With a salad, I feel that simplicity is key. This is not to say that there can't be a multitude of ingredients or flavors, but rather a statement about the end result. Even when there are several levels of orchestration and harmonies going on, I'd rather the end result be more Sketches of Spain and less Concert for the Comet Kohoutek

Where's ya shava mate?

Continuing on with our small plate affair, we moved on to the mahi and sauvignon blanc. Mahi really is a wonderful fish, with one foot in the supple fish world and another in the dense, steaky red meat world. I wanted this course to be really simplistic in its flavors, evoking a real sense of the season. The mahi was rubbed with a little salt and pepper and paprika before being seared in clarified butter. Braised hearts of romaine complimented the little cuts of fish both in texture and flavor. The romaine hearts were braised in chicken stock, white wine with anchovies, garlic, shallot and thyme. To tie in the citrus, I made a grapefruit and jalapeño foam. Foams intrigue me. For such light, airy sauces, they can really pack a ton of flavor. This was a great example of this feat; subtle heat and intense grapefruit flavors complemented yet did not overpower the flavor of the fish.

Rabid mahi.

The lamb came out near perfect, medium-rare and full of flavor. I used some on-hand red wine to make a reduction with the pan jus which went really nicely with our heavenly meat. Some pan roasted fingerlings and snap peas tossed with garlic and chervil shared the stage with our unblemished lamb. The Professor had popped in and made short work of the leftover veg. Sometimes it is good to have vegetarians around. I am a big fan of lamb, and this was a rather fine specimen of its species. It was clear that this little guy hadn't had a hard life, which makes for a tastier mouthful. 

Still working on that new camera.

After the lamb, it was time for the fromage. Thanks to Shaddley, I'll probably never call a cheese course a "cheese course" ever again. We had three nice cheeses: Chaumes, Pure Luck's Sainte Maure (possibly one of the finest domestic goat cheeses), and some Stilton. To round out the plate there were some raw cashews, slice d'anjou pears and my homemade apple chutney. Yum. J'aime le fromage!

Who cut the cheese?

Well, it wasn't all flowers and unicorns. It was clear to me that despite our long evening of feasting, the mousse didn't have enough time to set up properly. Maybe I didn't beat the egg whites long enough? Either way it was delicious, albeit a bit fallen. To take decadent to the next level, I made banana scallops with a bacon caramel sauce. This is one way to use failed bacon toffee - melt it down with heavy cream. The combination was divine, and something I will do in the future for sure. Playful and delicious. 

Fallen mousse looks sad.

After our five course food extravaganza, we rested. Despite all of this food, everyone seemed to be comfortably full, which is nice on a warm night. I'm glad that we waited for this meal. I would have hated to rush the lamb. If I had, the meal would have been kept silent. Meals like this are very special, a time for new and old friends to rejoice in the simplicity of life; the little things. Bonds are formed over glasses of bubbly, and a good sauce can both capture and encapsulate the essence of a season. Life is beautiful and so are you.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Hold the Mayo

After a perfect Saturday of tacos, walking around Lady Bird Lake, and hiking through the greenbelt, Blackberry Shortcake and I went to the Food Hole to get some provisions for a light meal. She had suggested artichokes, and being that artichokes are her favorite food, I was all for it. It feels good to serve someone their favorite food, and we had yet to have any artichokes in our meals together. 

I had a wild hare and decided to make mayonnaise from scratch. For the first time. I was using the recipe from Fergus Henderson's The Whole Beast. It failed; I became frustrated. The instructions in the book–though whimsically written–just weren't that clear. I felt like the young kid in the obligatory scene in those old movies where he finds out that his hero, the Champ, or star quarterback was a fraud, or doper: "Say it ain't so, Champ, say it ain't so?"

I thought maybe it was the immersion blender generating too much heat, so I tried an ice bath and a whisk to cool down the oil. Nothing. Just a big messy bowl of olive oil and egg yolk snot. I gave up. We enjoyed the artichokes, cheese, and charcuterie nonetheless. Those things really are amazing, and I am intrigued about who first thought it was a good idea to eat the spiky things, and how many people suffered from the choke before figuring out to remove it. I mean, really? 

It was just the day before that by chance, on a lovely South Austin walk, that the Shortcake and I had stumbled upon two bolted artichoke plants. The plants were huge, unwieldy looking things. Having gone to bolt, the artichokes that remained on the plants shot skyward on long stalks, standing erect like proud phalluses in the afternoon shade.  The Shortcake was excited to see the very plant on which her favorite food grew (if we could just find that damned elusive taco tree, we'd be set), we had been talking about them shortly before coming across these fine specimens, which made the discovery somewhat surreal. Whoa. I love when things like that randomly happen. It feels like things are synching up; destiny unfolding. 

I slept on the failure of the mayonnaise. I woke up way later than I ever would on a Sunday. I ate, had some coffee. There was work to be done in the garden and I was intent on knocking it out. After finishing my greenthumbery, I sat and relaxed a bit. I started thinking about the failed mayo, just sitting in my fridge. It taunted me like a beating heart beneath the wood flooring. It was getting to me. I cleaned the whisk and bowl and set out to beat this shit into submission. Nothing. Still nothing. 

The information age is good for many things. I sought out a use for this spent mess. Perhaps there was a custard, or bread that needed over two cups of olive oil and three egg yolks. After a few videos I realized where the mayo failed in the first place. I never let the emulsion happen with just the egg and mustard. That is what suspends the fat. Ah ha! There it was. An answer, a hypothetical answer, but an answer all the same. Start over with one yolk, some mustard, and some salt, form the emulsion, then very slowly add the failure. The website said, "I heard if you... but I've never tried it." I've tried it. It worked. 

Miraculously, the one egg yolk held all of the failed mayo. Now I have over twenty ounces of mayonnaise and a sore forearm. Understanding the origins of my failure shed light on the recipe itself, and knowing now the technique needed, it makes sense in its whim. I also have the feeling of satisfaction that comes from the tenacity to overcome adversity through deliberate and dedicated action. 

Of course this was resuscitating mayonnaise, not climbing out of a canyon after cutting off my own arm, but I was really going to be bummed if I had to pour out all that spensive olive oil, and fancy egg yolks. After all, we are in a recession, right? Wasting that much food seems rather bourgeois to this ignorant pleb. And just like that kid in the old movie, I was vindicated; my hero, despite his transgressions, came through in the end. The curtains close, the lights come up, goodnight.  

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