Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Green Goddess Boddhisatva

I showed up at Kitchen on Fire on Sunday night at six thirty for knife skills class. During my Tuesday classes I've discovered I don't know jack with the knife and Mike commented once that I was "pointing at my food" , placing my index finger along the top of my knife. From his dry tone I could tell it wasn't good.

I knocked on the door and no one answered. I looked at the schedule, yep, 6:30, Knife Skills. Knocked again, no one there. Hmm. It was 6:30. Then 6:35. I was about to get back on my bike and go home, but I didn't want to. I'd been with the kids all day and needed a break. I was standing like an idiot in front of Taste, looking this way and that, as people sipped wine and laughed looking cool in the sunglasses. Finally I just sat down at one of the nice curbside bar seats next to all of them and figured I'd eat there. Since it is owned by the Kitchen on Fire guys, at least I'd sort of be taking class there, in a way. I ordered the Cuban sandwich.

The greatest Cuban sandwich in the world is made at Houston's in Martha's Vineyard. But this was tasty. Toasty baguette, ham, pork, mustard, pickle. It wasn't pressed all together and bound with the cheese and soft bread, like at Houston's, but it was very comforting. It was open and could breath, it wasn't trying to blow you away... This is what is cool about Taste. It's not Chez Panisse and doesn't want to be. Mike does not try to be Alice waters. He's Mike C for gods sake. He's into Transformers remember?

Then I got Zabaiglone, which is the world's coolest dessert. This was a test of Mike C's restaurant, to see whether it would be actually Zabaiglone, warm and made to order and served in a martini glass, or some fake pre-made custard.

It was real. Someone has just whisked the shit out of some eggs over hot water. It was ambrosial. Yellow, foamy, sweetened lightly with Moscat. The strawberries only distracted.

Then I went upstairs for the hell of it and Mike was up there all alone, prepping for a team building event the next day. I just said hi, told him I'd missed knife skills. But then asked if he needed any help.

"Sure, you can cut the corn off those cobs over there."

So I put on my apron and started cutting. Lucky for me, he critiqued my knife work. "Pinch it like this, wrap your fingers around it..." he showed me how to line the handle up with the fatty muscle at the base of my thumb, and line the whole knife up so it points staight back at the elbow.

We cut stuff up in the quiet kitchen. He made mango salsa, I washed several bunches of fresh herbs, shook out the water, then rolled them into a cone in two paper towels, so they looked like a big white ice cream cone. ("you can keep your fresh herbs like this for days, when the paper towels totally dry up, just do it again") It was cool to see a little behind the scenes, what goes into getting our kitchen ready for the Tuesday classes where we tear into all the nicely prepped ingredients and cook.

We made Green Goddess dressing together in the big blue food processor.

Side by side we minced a few bunches of flat leaf Parsely, lots of green onion. A small can of anchovy. Then in the machine we put all that, lemon juice, sour cream and mayo. ("If you want it lighter, more sour cream, heavier, more mayo")

It whirred until it was a beautiful mint green color with a light speckling throughout. He brought over the glass filled with plastic spoons and we tasted.

"Perfect." I said. Damn. This dressing is so incredible I am going to put down the exact recipe here. But you'll have to wait because Grilling class is tonight, and the dressing goes with grilled Romaine. But I have to say this dressing will change your life and you will spoon it in to your mouth like soup.

But the real treat was to cook with the chef, to get a few tips from someone who knows a lot, to experience the silent, patient cooking, no flames shooting up from pans. It was like Zen with the occasional crude sexual comment thrown in to break the Zen. But with a dressing like that at the end, I'll take that over transcendental meditation any day.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Kitchen on Fire Class #6 Let's Fry!!

Impressionistic Beatnik Blog Entry about Pan and Deep Frying Class

(read aloud to bongo drums)

woks filled with boiling oil
candy thermometers attached to side
don't go over 380 farenheit or you'll taste burning

won ton wrappers filled with nutella
Panko bread crumbs

fried food is nirvana
i slice a zuchini and take it through the three stages:
flour (shake it off)
egg (let it drip)
then the bread crumbs

drop...sizzle..whoooossshhhhhh.... Boiling
not the oil
oil can't boil
only the water inside your food being released makes the bubbles
in forty seconds it's brown and crispy

"oooh yes! make more" they love them
fried food is nirvana because it is crisp on the outside
but pure and steamed on the inside
a fried mushroom is contrast, paradox -

a fatty slick exterior, candy like crunch- guilty pleasure
but inside the locked and protected essence of the food, watery and pure
untouched by the grease if your breading holds

mike divulges his recipe for Rochester NY buffalo wings
"you gotta shake them up with the sauce, don't stir,
the shaking cracks the skin a bit so the sauce can permeate"

we gather around the plate of wings, almost glowing red with their
coat of sauce (Frank's Hot, KC Masterpiece and because brown sugar was not on hand, maple syrup)

we dip the hot wings in the blue cheese sauce (tonight it has feta, there was no blue)
and the combination in the mouth, the hot and acidic with the tang and cream of the dip, sucking the steamed up meat between the tight bones of the wing....

there is silence...

mike's face still red from getting popped with ferocious oil bursts
(who didn't dry this pan!!! there was water in it and it just forced it's way out!)

....but now all is calm

my fingers are sticky as i eat one after another, chasing these tastes as they pop and vanish in my mouth.

I have wasted my life.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Before The Porn

There she was. Spread-eagle in front of me. I tilted the glossy pages to get the full picture of her. My mouth hung open, a little drool formed, as I thought about how she'd taste and feel when she was mine. In my mouth. ...And she could be mine couldn't she? She was looking at me as if she were attainable. She begged me to say her name, her whole long name, and I obeyed as I stared at her curled up by the fire, wet with anticipation. I spoke her name slowly, deliberately;

Slow-Roasted Spiced Pork Loin with Black-Eyed Beans and Tomatoes.

But she could be anyone couldn't she? She could be the buxom, bronzed glistening temptress that transfixed me last week;

Chicken Breasts alla Vendemmia.

Ah food porn. You know you love it and you know you buy it.

I do. Lots.

I have made exactly one of the recipes in Jaime Oliver's Jaimes Dinners, and it was fine. But the real reason I bought the book is because each Oliver book is basically a two inch thick portfolio of : "Jaime Having A Great Time Shopping Cooking, Eating, and Drinking With Me Handsome Mates." Jaime horsing around with the fishmonger. Jaime opening a thermos of soup while his buddies skate. Jaime laughing hyterically about something in the bakery.

Think of it not as sex porn, but Life Porn. In sex porn, you imagine yourself doing the acts depicted in the photo or film. In food porn, it isn't Jaime Oliver frolicking in a bed of organic lettuce, it's you.

I'm no Tipper Gore. I approve of food porn. It gets me excited about cooking and eating, and sure, it's a way to escape for an hour into someone else's perfect dining room table or to leave your desk of unpaid bills and walk the sun dappled streets of New York with Mario Batali, in search of the best Proscuitto. In orange clogs.

But yesterday at Moe's Books in Berkeley, I found a slim, dusty book sandwiched between used and remindered cookbooks. It has a simple black spine, is half an inch thick, and the cover has those swirly peacock feather watermark things that old antique books have.

In miniscule silver letters on the spine it modestly informs you of it's content: The Art of Good Living, by Andre L. Simon. It dates from 1930, is English, but feels and sounds as if it is from another world. A long quote is necessary I think, to convey the feel:

"The art of good living is above all a matter of appreciation, the appreciation of what is good...

It is perfectly true that we all have, and should cultivate, our own individual tastes in food and drink, just as in painting books and music. But, above all individual tatses, there are general rules which are the frame upon which hang individual tastes: when those rules are broken there are no individual tastes left- merely a nondescript heap of rubbish.

We do not dress in exactly the same way in summer and winter, at funerals and picnics, and we must also choose our food and drink according to the seasons of the year, the occasion and the mood of the moment. Variety and harmony are the essence of all arts, and the art of good living aims at avoiding monotony and clashes between colors, savours, and flavours.

...three of the most important factors when attempting to solve the problem of a perfect dinner, i.e.:-
1. What is the best food, and what are the most suitable wines available?
2. What is the weather likely to be?
3. What are the personal likes and dislikes, likely mood or expected dispositions of your guests?

Isn't that fucking great!!

I know it's a bit crusty, but to me this is refreshing. In these days of farmers market reactionaries (Eat only what's fresh and in season, all the time, and sustainable, and organic!!! no wait, BEYOND ORGANIC! ) as well as extreme health conscious folks eating things that should only be used to fertilize gardens or join together bricks, it's nice to be reminded what all this madness is for:


But wait. What is it all for?

Is it to be sustainable? Yes, Michael Pollan has taught us that in Omnivore's Dilemma. The price of being blinded to where our food comes from and it's real cost is tremendous. And true, he explores the enjoyment and social role of food and eating beautifully. But for right now at least, I've given my sweaty palms a rest, as well as my biceps, and put the three pound colorful food porn tomes away. The Art of Good living is dated for sure, and written for people for whom Polo means more than a shirt:

"If at home, one has to remember the limitations of one's cook, and choose the dishes which he or she has been most successful with on previous occasions."

What is different and useful about this point of view though, is that is has as it's raison d'etre, enjoyment. Pleasure. It talks about Wine not as a second thought to pair with the thing you want to eat, but as something which walks hand in hand with what's on the plate. In fact most of the book is given to wine, it's origins, varieties, etc. Not what to drink with the food, but what food to cook to go with your wine.

And there are no pictures of Andre Simon romping on the beach with his family grilling fish.

Better yet, there is my mental image of him, sitting in his London Townhouse, ignorant of the fires and bombings and war that was just around the corner, examining his bottles of Claret and Tawny Port, trying to anticipate the moods of his guests that evening, and whether they might clash with the Poulet Hongroise.

The first sentence of the book shows that he was not ignorant of things outside his drawing room:

"Like all arts, the art of good living has known many vicissitudes. Like all arts, the art of war excepted, it needs peaceful and prosperous times to attain any degree of perfection."

I hope he had enough of those times. I hope you and I do as well.

Isn't that what all this is for?

Monday, July 16, 2007

What I've Learned So Far

Yesterday I had fifteen people over for Sunday lunch. I made Posole with chicken, enchiladas stuffed with summer veggies and goat cheese topped with Mole sauce, and guacamole.

It was a milestone for me.

The idea behind starting this blog, as I wrote on my other one, Cooking My Ass Off, was to see if all these cooking classes and all my practicing in between could lead me back to France. I don't mean the actual food, but the practice of large Sunday gatherings with people, good times and good food.

Yesterday felt a little bit like France. To you, dear reader, it may not be much of a feat to do this. You may be able to throw together a great party without much ado at all. If so, you may not want to continue reading. But, if you are the kind of person who, like me, is filled with anxiety about these things, I need to tell you this: It was easy, fun, and the clean up wasn't even that bad.

Here's how i did it.

1. I made a list and a schedule. A few days in advance.
I sat down, and really read, not just skimmed, the recipes from Dara's packet (for the class that inspired what I made, see "Cooking At Dara's House" on my cookingmyassoff blog) After doing so, I made a shopping list and a schedule of when I would do what. This was on Thursday.

2. I made several things ahead of time.

I shopped, and boiled the chicken breasts on Friday. I shredded it off the bone so it'd be a cinch to add it to my Posole. I kept the boiling liquid as a little stock for the stew as well. Dara's Posole was vegetarian, but she'd suggested using chicken and I was gonna try it. I bought canned Hominy to save time and the soaking and re-soaking hassle. I even bought the avocados, just slightly firm so that by 12:30 pm on Sunday, they'd be ripe to smash into Guac.

I made the Mole on Saturday. Mole is unbelievable and you should steal this recipe. You end up with this thick red sauce, so deep red and complex (it has cloves, raisins, cinnamon, chiles, chocolate) it is hard to stop eating. Poured it into a Tupperware and forgot about it.

3. I only cook on the day of, what HAD to be cooked on the day of.
The enchiladas were simple. I sauted a huge amount of zucchini, summer squash, onions, shrooms, and carrots. (Sorry Mike C, I overstuffed the pan, major saute faux pas, so really I steamed them.) When they were soft I put a log of soft Chevre into the pan, stirred and cooked for longer. Don't do this in a non-enameled cast iron as I did though, it stuck like hell. I probably could have prepped these a day ahead, but I though the veggies would make the tortillas soggy if they sat.

Dara did not fry the tortillas first, but since Rebecca is from Texas and has the enchilada mojo in her blood, I let her assemble them. She pre-fried the tortillas, layered sauce on the bottom of the pyrex, then covered them when they were all in there.

4. Think of the people you invite over as ingredients.

It's tricky. You don't want just one set of friends, in the same way you wouldn't serve a meal of three different kinds of rice dishes, or six green salads. You want variety and compliment.
I had eight people over who were students of mine, actor kids who are now in college or have graduated from acting programs in New York or L.A. they are on the cusp of their twenties, which for me was exciting but also scary and lonely. So many open paths.

So I also invited some older theatre folks, directors, actors, who wouldn't be so olde farty as to have nothing to say to the kids, but might both be inspired by thier youth and also have some wisdom or connections to offer them.

A good idea in practice. But the highlight of the party was basically me with my ex students drinking mini Coronas in my back yard laughing about stupid shit we did in acting class.

But in theory, and for a few moments in reality, the recipe of friends was good. Maybe a little overpowering on the youth. Like Chili pepper or Cinnamon, certain ingrdients tend to overpower others, as simply part of their chemical makeup.

5. Set up everything before the guests come. Everything. Who wants to run around and wash forks or jog to the corner store to get ice while the reason you threw the damn party was to hang out with people you don't see enough.

6. Ask for help.
Rebecca worked her Tex Mex love on the Enchiladas. My nine year old daughter Faye made the guacamole which was fun for her since it had twelve avocados and I told her she could eat as much of it as she wanted. My six year old son Dash arranged the cookies on a giant platter. "Why are you crumbling the chocolate ones dude!" I yelled, panicked. "You'll see" he said.
He had actually made a giant face, and the face had an open mouth crunching cookies: thus the crumbs. Brilliant.

7. Taste as you cook and let others taste too.
At one point I bragged about how good the Posole was and let Rebecca taste it. "Mmm...great. But where's the Hominy." Shit. I had actually forgotten the ONE thing that actually makes it Posole, the f**ing big white corn kernals.

I had a great time. People were there who mean a lot to me. I was present enough to really talk with them and listen. They gave me ideas about what musical to do next year. they dragged me outside to take a few pictures with them. "Everybody bring your beers, we gotta get a picture of Winer and us with the beers." We did. A few pictures. A few beers. More enchiladas.
The crowd polished off a huge pot of Posole. It did turn out great, the toothsome hominy, the green grainy texture from the roasted pumpkin seeds blended in with the tart Tomatillos. Garnished with lime and cilantro. ( I posted directions by the pot so I wouldn't have to take each person into the kitchen and coach them through the assembly.)

9. Clean UP afterward.
This was actually fun. I put on Madelyn Peyroux, the house was empty, and while I cleaned up I could still hear the voices, and I was smiling and proud of myself.

Eating alone just aint the same.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Transformer 'R Us

"You're kidding right? Transformers? "

"No...It was awesome."

Mike C. told us that the first movie he has gone out to see, in over two years, was the new robot destruction fest Transformers.

"I used to play with those as a kid man, they were the coolest toys, better than Star Wars action figures, G.I.Joe with Kung Fu grip even."

People expressed shock that he did not see Ratatouille, the Pixar film, which, despite it being an animated kids picture has all the foodie types excited, at least in this neck of the woods where you can't swing a baguette without hitting an organic heirloom tomato. Then he went on to do his lecture about Saute and Stir Fry and I forgot the whole subject. Until last night.

I started thinking about Transformers, or rather about transformation. It hit me that transformation, more than anything else, really sums up what the process of cooking is all about. Not just for Ferran Adria in Spain making a foam out of cucumber or a filet mignon from a mango, but even the simplest things. Take class #3, Sauces; what is a vinagraitte but two very unlike substances, oil and an acid, beaten up together until their molecules are forced to emulsify.... transformation.

Crack a gooey egg in boiling water and see it transformed into a solid white saucer holding a still liquid golden center. Poached egg. Go back to my first Kitchen on Fire class, Stocks and Soups. Take water that has no flavor at all, and big bones, a few plain vegetables, boil it for hours and you transform that into the base of your Veloute sauce for the priciest entree on the menu.

It made perfect sense that a chef would prefer Transformers to Ratatouille. At least a chef like Mike C. who despite his knowledge and skill is really still a kid in the kitchen, a very serious kid, playing around, transforming things into other, better things, searching always for new transformations.

That's also what our life is about, outside the kitchen. And it's not always pleasant or easy. My wife is transforming herself from a full time mom to a nurse, and the knowledge she's had to pick up has been astounding. She's metamorphosed from the overwhelmed student of ten months ago to someone who can put on scrubs, check a chart, witness someone having their trachea removed, and then go start an I.V. drip without batting an eyelash. We've been married for ten years. Ten mostly very good years. We have two fantastic kids. But our marraige, in spite of what we want it to be, has slowly transformed into something else, something we have to decide if we like or not.

Can we control the transformations that we go through, that our relationships go through? I doubt it. "Rough hew them how we may" I think our fates are set. Like Hamlet says, "the readiness is all."

Transformation can be a bitch. But without it, dinner would taste like crap.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Kitchen On Fire, Class 5

"Kitchen on Fire!"

Mike C. and Olivier Said obviously named their cooking school this for a reason.

"Kitchen on Fire", someone hollered as a portable burner went nuts and sprayed flame onto a kitchen towel. Mike C. was calm as he tamped it out with his hands. It was no big deal as there was high heat and flames jumping everywhere last night. It was the most exciting class yet: Stir Fry and Saute.
We were all jonesing to cook. It had neen two weeks since the last class as the 4th of July had cancelled last week. We got antsy toward the last part of Mike's lecture and people started fingering their aprons and sitting on the edge of their seats. Or maybe that was just me. The lecture was short as this kind of cooking is, in theory, simple and easy.
"So, pass in your homework if you did it." We put our two recipes on the main cutting board for him to peruse before the lecture. The homework was to get two recipes -one saute, one stir fry- and read them closely. This takes all of twenty seconds on theFood Network website.
"I hope this time when you read them you were looking at technique, yes?" We nodded and mumbled in agreement.
My stir fry was Chili Prawns, curtesey of Yan Can Cook, my saute was 2 Minute Calamari Sicilian Lifeguard Style, from Molto Mario. In looking at them, I saw a theme jump out that was echoed by Mike's lecture. "This cooking is FAST, it is HIGH HEAT, and it is LOW OIL."
The times given in my recipes were broken down to seconds.
Mike gave us the basic procedure before setting us free. (And this time, same as two weeks ago in the Braise class, there were lots of recipes in our packet, but we were not asked to follow them when we cooked.)

I jumped up before anyone else and grabbed two long Chinese Eggplants and a wok. I'd never been successful with a wok, and I've always loved that soft jelly like eggplant you get in Chinese restaurants, so my heart was set on trying it. Bianca, a fashionable mom from Piedmont, partnered with me and I began to chop. I was a little nervous about collaboration, but what the hell.
We prepped. Bianca searched the jars of sauces and mixed up a tasty little combo of black bean sauce and chili paste. We had our "finishing sauce". I sliced garlic, and confessed to Mike that I usually end up with lots of burnt garlic bits in the pan. "Do you put it in first with the oil?" he asked.
"Yes" I said.
"That's why... put it in with the eggplant. The veg will protect it."
The black steel wok started to smoke. A few squirts of vegetable oil. My two wok spatulas in the underhanded, salad-tossing position.
"Make it jump!" Mike said. "Don't do this in your wok..." and he demonstrated a bored, distracted, one handed stirring. Like someone stirring cream into coffee. "Pick up the food with both tools and jump it into the air so it hits as much of that hot pan as possible."
I was having fun throwing the eggplant and red pepper into the air, but it seemed like the pan was too dry so I added a little more oil despite Bianca's grimace. When the eggplant looked glassy, we tossed in our scallions, cilantro, toasted sesame seeds and a little chicken stock, and finally our spicy sauce, when we plated it up, it looked like something from a restaurant.

But honestly, it didn't taste that great. "We didn't taste it" I said sadly.

Mike is always remind us to taste as we cook, taste taste taste.....

We added some soy sauce and that helped. We put it on the buffet and moved on. I wandered around looking at people braving very complex things, Mango Beef and Garlic Green Beans, Fried Rice Cantonese Style.

We were encouraged to keep going. "Hey Guys, this is a TEST kitchen , so do something else when you are finished, just clean your station first....try something else."

There was a recipe for Mushrooms with Peas and Cream, in the packet, so I grabbed a bowl of peas no one had taken and started improvising on that theme. I sweated over a hot wok and conquered eggplant; it was time to saute.

I put a big hunk of butter in one of the wide Analon stick-proof saute pans. I slivered two velvety Shitakes. Chopped up two cloves of garlic, a shallot, the flowery head of a celery stalk. In went the garlic and shallot. Then the Shitake.

I was having fun. This is so cool!!!!!

Cooking freely in this bigass and badass modern kitchen with refrigerator drawers of fresh herbs, ziplocks of real vanilla beans and lots of cool liqours around to flambe with.

OOh, yea, I gotta flambe!

Wait, concentrate... The Shitakes were softening, so I removed them and the shallot/garlic. I put in a layer of peas. "Don't overcrowd the pan, or you'll steam or Braise!" -this was the oft-heard mantra of the night.

"If I see anyone using a spatula to stir your saute, I'm gonna take it from you!" Mike growled. Damn, I forgot that we are supposed to be practicing our food-flipping. I quickly got rid of my wood spatula, and started doing that cool-chef flip thing.

Lift up pan, angle it downward, away from you, and with a quick down and IN motion of the arm, your food (if things go well) with surf up the outer edge of the pan, do a 360 Tony Hawk spin, and land nicely turned over in the saute pan.

The peas were the right thing to have in the pan to learn the flip. "If you ever want to practice this at home, use a cold pan and some beans" Mike said. People were flipping everywhere, oil was spattering arms, chicken and onions were falling through the burners, but people were happy.
I added back in the shroom mixture, then squirted in some cream and white wine, tasted... more salt, then plated the peas.

They were tasty but too mushy.

I was having so much fun being a flipping showoff that I overcooked the peas. But the Shitakes still tasted great, funky and woodsy, so, no big deal.

I wandered around, tasted some incredible Mango Beef. Mike opened a drawer, slammed two big apples down on the cutting board and said "I never said you couldn't saute fruit right?"

The we all gathererd around the cooktop for a tutorial in FIRE!

He had an empty saute pan. He tilted it up vertically.

"Heat the lip, get it very hot. Remove from heat. Put in your alcohol. It has to be at least 40% alcohol to flame. Each ounce will give about a foot of flame. Do the math."
He poured in the tequila while his pan was removed from the flame. Then he put it over the fire doing a thing where he tilted the pan up, getting dangerously close to pouring the alcohol out, away from him. This allowed the burner to creep up the lip of the pan, and BOOM, catch fire with the liquid. FLAMES four feet high!!
"Then do the hibby hibby shake, until the alcohol is burned off." Until the flame was out, he just moved it neatly back and forth over the burner.

The rest of last night was a flaming blur as two other guys and I cut up the apples, sauted them in butter and flamed them with good rum.

Over and over and over.

Some brown sugar, a little ginger. Each of us taking turns doing the fire process. Heating the lip. Remove. Add Rum. Replace, and then tip away from you so the fire creeps over the lip and WAM. FIRE...... Shakey, shakey, shake.

Not only was this the most fun all night, three guys lighting things on fire and laughjing like goofy kids. When we plated the soft apples, and put a scoop of vanilla ice cream over it, it was f**ing incredible.

We all got high fives from Mike C, and everyone gathered around the plate and ate.
It was like Rum-Apple pie a la mode on a veranda in Trinidad or Tobago without any crust to interfere with the sugary goo factor, and the rum had left only it's sugar cane glow. Any bracing liqour taste was gone.

But really, it was just fun to cook that. And probably no accident that the most fun thing was the tastiest.

(p.s. Mike C. and Kitchen on Fire are putting together a DVD set, so if you want to get a much deeper feel for the classes and their content than I can give you, you may want to check those out.)

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Fame Whores Star Fuckers and A New Onion

Last night my wife and I ate dinner at Incanto's in San Francisco. I had been there a month ago with my dad and brother, and since then had seen the chef, Chris Cosentino, battle Mario Batali on Iron Chef. Cosentino lost, but only by a hair and looked about 10 times cooler than Mario, with his good build, and frosty blond mohawk and gotee. Mario -god bless the man he's my hero- looks like a chef. Cosentino looks like someone you'd see at Cannes by a pool with a cell phone.
But his restaurant is great. An Italian, Dante-themed place with nothing familiar on the menu. No meatballs, no marinara, no Carbonara, but lots of house made head cheese, tuna-proscuitto and roasted lamb necks. No Cannoli, instead you find olive leaf panna cotta softer than the divine thighs of Beatrice herself, and a plum crostata with a crust so soft, grainy, and flaky all at the same time that you'd swear the pastry chef had sold her soul for her talent.
So my wife and I ate there last night with the unreachably high expectations with which we all go to restaurant these days, expecting revelations and epiphanies in each course. Impossible. Like the Molto man said himself (in his latest glossy cookbook which of course I have) the opening of a new restaurant has replaced the opening of a new play as pure anticipated event.
Last night Mr. Cosentino himself was behind the bar, plating desserts and appetizers, his mohawk lay flat, and he was more relaxed than he'd been with the TV camera and the big red haired god of Guanciale cooking across from him.
Appetizers were nice but not ethereal. A grilled peach buried in a snappy salad of wild arugula, and the cured proscuitto made of tuna was nice and fishy but too salty even for me, which is saying a lot as I sprinkle salt on everything but ice cream. And I've tried that too.
We both had the braised pork shoulder which was fall apart soft, laid on top of thin gondolas of grilled eggplant, half a roasted tomato, bread crumbs. It was very good. Satisfying.
Then in walked Michael Chiarello. Chiarello of the Napa Style stores and all the TV programs of him casually whipping up great feasts in his modest Napa Valley home. Founding chef of Tra Vigne and dude behind the first big cookbook I ever really cooked from and ogled over, "Casual Cooking".
"There's Michael Chiarello", I said to my wife, trying to act casual since she is the one who informed me, in therepy, that I am in fact a "fame whore" . She's right of course. I confess I am a total fame whore. If you and I are sitting in a restaurant having a deep conversation and Mario or Thomas Keller, or Nigella Lawson walked in, I would totally blow you off mentally and be thinking about what that person is thinking and doing and saying because they are who they are and they are famous and they hold the secret of food wisdom somewhere deep within their sparkling personalities.
Hi, My name is Jordan Winer and I am a fame whore.
But God is testing me because I am always seeing famous people! Chiarello walked right up to me in his store about two months ago and started telling me about the salvaged cigar rolling blocks I was looking at. "Aren't these great? " he said with that big smile and casual tone, like you're in his house and he's welcoming you with a cold drink, "I found these in Germany, I keep cigars at the house so, this is sort of a conversation starter, if anyone can figure out what it is- they get a cigar."
And I actually bought one for 65 bucks. And it is a conversation starter.
Then the next week at Bouchon in Yountville, Thomas Keller walked bumped into me as I came in the door.
But last night I stayed focused. I glanced only a few times at Chiarello being led down into the hidden wine cellar. Chiarello slapping hands with the Maitre 'D.
The onions helped. Just on a whim, Rebecca ordered a side dish of "Suckling Cippoline" and I went with it, figuring it'd be those little flying saucer shaped onions, maybe carmelized with some Balsamic. Whip-ee.
But these were a modest revelation. The onions themselves were white and no bigger than garbanzo beans. They had their roots attached like tiny whiskers. Best of all, their green stalks were still on too, so they were a wonderful tangle of mermaid hair with the little glistening pearls of the onions hidden like jewels.
They were only sauted in oil, but they were the best thing about the meal. They crunched like greens and got caught in your teeth, and were so young a sprout that they only hinted at the mature onion heat and taste. We twirled them on our forks like pasta, stirred them into the braised pork juice on our plate. In a meal that cost 125$ bucks, I will remember most these onion sprouts which probably set them back 2 dollars. Perhaps that says something about Italian food. Or simplicity, or something.
Yes dessert was nice. The crostata I spoke of, with Honey-Lavender ice cream that was as deep as Purgatorio, and as soft, and blonde as the hair of Dante's beloved Beatrice.
But nothing was more poetic than the onions. With their roots in the underworld, and their sprouts heaven bent, I can still taste them now.
As we left, Chiarello was paging through the wine list the size of a phone book. He'd been there half an hour, and still no wine. What price fame...
I do have one regret. Not that I didn't go over and say high, or get an autograph, or thank him for inspiring me to cook this or that... I should have just approached him, as one eater to another, and suggested he order the cippoline. I hope he did.
From the point of view of the onions, we are all the same.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Solo Lunch, #3

Everything disappoints, except food.

1. You find out your oldest buddy is actually a homophobe when he gets a few pints in him at the baseball game and starts calling fans of the opposing team "Cocksuckers", and congratulating them on their timing, "hey you're in town just in time for Gay Pride Day!"
2. Your wife never reads your blog, once.
3. I find myself getting pissed off at my kids in the same fucked up, scary way that I my own dad did when I was a kid. At nothing for chrissakes.

Yes you might have a bad meal at a restaurant. You might cook yourself something bland, but then it's the cooking then isn't it, not the food?
Back to the Monterey Fish market. We should all eat more fish, especially from places like this. The place is no bigger than the average bedroom because they only stock what is seasonal and sustainable at the moment. I nod at the bearded wildman who gave me the wonderful anchovy lesson (see "Song of the Anchovy") I notice some beautiful Skate wings, cut in glistening half spans. The striations are gorgeous, so rippled you can see these things flying slow motion in the sea. It's 6.95$ a pound, easily the cheapest thing here.
Once about a decade ago, again in Boston at a little hidden away restaurant that Wendy my food guru and hero took me to called Sage, I had Skate ravioli with sage-brown butter and I have never forgotten it. I'm not adventurous enough for ravioli yet, but I buy half a wing.
"Anything else" the kind blonde haired fishmonger asks.
"Yes, tell me how to cook it."
After a short giggle, she says "you can saute it, maybe some brown butter, if you like capers, a a little garlic..it's a mild fish so it's gonna pick up any flavors you use..."
Cool. I stop in at the Monterey Market, greatest veg/fruit spot on earth. I buy green figs. I get house made bacon from Magnani's cut superthin. I don't know the plan at this point but I feel it's all heading somewhere coherent.
I get home, the skate has a thick piece of cartilege in the center, then thins out to just a blade at the edges.
I wrap the figs in bacon and put them on the grill. Can't be kosher. Oy.
Ack! My wing is sticking to the saute pan? Not enough butter? Pan not hot enough? Should I have dredged the flesh in a little flour? Now that I'm learning stuff, when I make mistakes I can at least have some options flash in my head of where I could have goofed. Progress?
I cover the pan and go get the figs. The bacon has crisped and stuck itself to the figs which look on the verge of exploding. They've gotta be hot inside.
I put my wing on the plate with the caper berries and garlic bits. I cut into the wing.
Huh? The knife won't go through it..
Duh. There is a totally flat but tough web of bone and cartilige in the exact middle. Of course, how else would they do that flying thing. I discover the easiest way is just to scrape the meat off both sides of this, against the grain and I end up with an ugly pile of meat. Cool, all its bones stay inside the cartilege flapper! This stuff would be perfect for stuffing into pasta...
Ugly, but tasty, is has a shellfishy quality, like a Lobster mated with a haddock and came up with this grey tasty stuff.
The figs are so outrageously sweet I have to drizzle some balsamic on them to balance that with the smoky sweet bacon.
Yes it would be nice to share this with someone. Everything is better shared of course. With that same friend who I went to the game with because he's probably the truest most faithful guy I know. With my dad who inspires me with his love of eating and improvisational cooking, with my wife who is probably my biggest fan in the world.
Maybe next time.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Dara's House #2, Fermentation


"This...is the mother."
Dara picked it out of the bowl with a chopstick. It quivered and dripped into the bowl that it lived in. As it hung there, it unfolded new layers. Dara peeled back a membrane or two.
"What is it?" I asked. Dara explained that Kombucha has been consumed for a couple of thousand years, first in China. She explained how this dripping culture turns tea into a brew full of vitamins, minerals, enzymes and organic acids, and since the sugars are digested -fermentation- a range of amino acids, probiotic microorganisms, and lots of other good things get created.
"But what is that?" I was talking about the thing she was still dangling in the air. It was brown and about a quarter inch thick. It looked like a rotten slice of fish, or a squid that had been opened and left in the sun for a week. Alan looked over at me and cracked up. I think he was transfixed by the weird gloppy thing too. It was me, him, his 25 year old daughter, and one other student, a six foot tall hula hoop teacher named Rosie who eats only raw food.
"Okay, this is a SCOBIE" Dara said. "A Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast" The Scobie was freaking me out. It was alive. I couldn't look away.
"Did you bring any beer tonight?" Alan asked me. I didn't. The last class I'd seen him at was Indian Cooking and we'd both brought six packs. I think we were motivated to do so by the class before that -my first at Dara's house- "Sunday Chicken Dinner", we had both been a bit thirsty during those two hours we sat and watched Dara cook.
"No...but wait, beer is fermented! I should have brought some!" It was starting to dawn on me that fermented foods were everywhere and ranged a lot wider than weird veggie stuff that extreme hippie types eat. Think Wine. Vinegar. Beer. Dill pickles. Soy sauce.
Alan laughed. I was glad he was in class tonight, this is starting to become a little family here.
Alan is a very young 55 years old. Slightly graying short cropped hair, very good shape, alert and intense eyes. When I first met him I had the feeling he was maybe a Zen monk or a professor of Biology, or perhaps a furniture maker. At the Indian class I found out he was a plumbing contractor from a story he told when the subjects came up of health and food. These are the only two subjects we talk about at Dara's house. Mostly food. I think that's why we all come here, so we can obsess about food and feel completely normal.
He said he'd been called to someone's house about a clogged toilet. "So I went into the bathroom, checked it out," he said in his very deliberate, soft spoken way, "and then they asked me what they should do, and I looked at them and said 'you've gotta change your diet' ."
Somehow the thought of a plumbing contractor telling a client they should change their diet was so wrong and so right at the same time, we all laughed.
It was a night of revelations. Mostly good. The exception being a soupy drink called Amazake made from a rice grain treated with something called Koji. I think it needed more almond milk and a whole bunch more sugar. Though it is "an excellent energy boost as the rice is broken down into soluble complex carbohydrates" according to Dara's thick recipe packet, I probably will not ever have it again.
But damn, her fermented crunchy veggies, a pink Kim-Chee sort of mixture of beets, cabbage, turnips, onions, carrots, ginger and garlic were amazingly tasty! I had seen them sitting in their open jars in her *cool tiled pantry a week ago at the last class and was surprised at how yummy they were. A little like those tiny pickled veggie things you sometimes get beside your sushi.
I almost didn't come to the class because I thought, how good can the actual sit down meal be on fermentation night? Are we going to light the candles, pour the wine and then linger over plates of yogurt and Saurkraut?
It was actually great. Dara let me fry the Uttapam on the griddle of her immaculately white, 1940's, Okeefe and Merrit stove*. These are tasty little Indian pancakes made from a rosy batter that has red lentils in it. And the main starch of the night was Potatoes with Mustard Seeds and Onions, a yummy long cooked dish that made the whole house smell like an Indian restaurant.
So we put the almost mushed potatoes on top of the Uttapam and topped that with fermented Coconut Chutney which had chunky bits of chickpea in it, as well as coriander and cumin, and that was the main dish of our feast...along with a simple salad of cabbage, dill, cucumber and lemon juice, it was supremely satisfying.
Though the conversation did veer to long braised oxtails and recipes for shortribs, we ate the vegetatrian faire with gusto. That's the interesting thing about fermented stuff. Fermenting gives foods layers of funkyness and mustiness that approximates -for me- the richness and layers of a meat dish. The Uttapam had a sourness that needed those rich potatoes, and the rich potatoes needed the lemony tang of that chutney. Each one of those elements alone had no super "wow" factor; all three together became incredible.
The same could probably be said for the people seated around any dinner table. Put things together, watch what happens. That's cooking I guess, and socializing.
At the end of the night, a night different from other nights at Dara's because we ate by 8:30 and were snacking and tasting constantly... she gave us two jars of veggies for us to ferment at home in unopened jars left out.
And in a Ziplock bag, she gave us a juicy piece of her Mother.
Oh my god.
My Mother is sitting in my fridge, waiting.

(! Check out Dara's site, thesagetable.com
*also, I had mistakenly called the stove "yellowing" with age in a previous entry on my cookingmyassoff blog.... not so....
*and yo, I had called this crazy little mini kitchen she has, with a sink, jars, a cute little window, blender, a "closet" in that same entry.... I really gotta pay more attention to detail...
it's more like a little butler's kitchen or prep room you see in old houses in New England.)

Monday, July 2, 2007

Song of the Anchovy

(Solo Lunch #2)

faced with another dog day afternoon
I wandered into Monterey Fish Market
where among majestic fillets in pink and gray
and salmon that could wrestle me to the ground

I saw a hundred fish each no bigger than a finger
all in an abalone shell
staring blankly up
too small to have scales their skin as silver as mercury
the lowly anchovy

do I have to clean those I asked
unless you want to eat guts the bearded fishmonger said
he looked liked he'd just backpacked the sierra with bare feet
here I'll show you how

and with a pair of regular scissors
the best kitchen tool he said
he snipped off the head at a slant
snipped the stomach
as deft as an Italian tailor
and with two motions of thumb and index
removed guts and spine and spread the fish into two fillets

even the handful he put on the scale was too many
I bought about twenty for $2.28

brought them home with dreams of frying
but first I snipped and cleaned till I had a neat pile of triangular heads
like a little pile of of old Roman coins
eyes still very clear

improvising I
tossed them into a pan to marinate in
olive oil salt garlic
and some sherry vinegar infused with chipotle and rosemary
and I did the dishes

later outside on the grill
very careful to lay them across the bars or they would have fallen through easily

In two minutes their skin has crisped to the grill
so they made a sound like a breeze as I peeled them off
their flesh now smoky gray and their skin
caramel gold blackened in spots

I arranged them on a large yellow plate
and showered them in lemon juice
Crystal Hot Sauce

this was a meal as quiet and serene as being the first one on the beach after the sun comes up
and hearing your feet squeak in the sand
I could describe the salad but for gods sake it was a salad

Respect is due the might anchovy!
who at the size of a child's finger
carries more unctious flavor
than a million marine giants
ten times the price per pound


Song of the Anchovy

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

paella for thirty

june 19

Last night at Kitchen on Fire, Kevin from the local shop, The Spanish Table, threw down a raucous Paella fest for thirty with five wines and a huge paella pan you could curl up and sleep in.
Things I learned about this mighty Spanish staple:

-it's esay, takes two hours no matter how big the pan.
-yes you need the special pan
-the more fat and bone on your meat, the better. Think chickhen wings and drummettes, split.
-saffron is for the flavor, not the color.
-the color comes from the paprika and the smoked pimenton
-smoked pimenton would make dog doo taste great. get some
-if your fishmonger sells you clams wrapped in a plastic bag, he's an idiot. Open it and put them over ice when you get home.
-once the rice goes in, DO NOT STIR. It aint risotto.
-it's really hard not to stand around a four foot wide paella and stare like an speechless idiot
-the pan is also called a paella.
-spanish wine is f**king amazing. (the aperitif was a litely bubbly Avinyo Vi D'Aguilla 2006, like something a bee would pollenate, a wine "with a prickle")
-paella can be made with anything (though i'm skeptical about this, but Kevin insists any leftovers can be made into one)

Mike C the Culinarian Barbarian made a garlic Aioli that was f**ing outrageous, we spooned that over the brick-red slightly wet paella, or just dipped baguette slices into it. The yellow chiffon colored stuff was mouth puckering and sat really well with the smoky fishy, saucy paella. I learned something about this mayo too; don't use too many yolks. there were only four in the whole big bowl.

The highlight? All these random strangers spread around the giant kitchen spooning this stuff down, opening up stubborn mussels, mumbling excuses for getting a third plateful (they were small plates). Then leaning on the cuttingboards talking with one or two people that were now a little more than strangers. Trading stories of learning. ("Before I met Mike, all I did was stir fry!")

buttermilk is king

June 19th

This morning my son Moe and I made Buttermilk Biscuits from page 794 of the James Beard American Cookery Cookbook.
Lately I've discovered that Buttermilk tastes really good. I made ice cream with it too. It's a little hard to tell when it goes bad because it is sour to begin with, but otherwise it's just like milk except with flavor. Where the hell has it been all my life?
Things i wanna try with it: Cold soups, like buttermilk-cucumber gazpacho maybe.
Try buttermilk ice cream, about one part to two parts regular cream or half and half. It's not for everyone. The first batch I made i actually had to trash because it was too sour, so don't be afraid to sweeten it.
Pancakes, of course, and biscuits, go all in with it.
Buttermilk, even my corner liquor store has it , so someone is using it. You feel a little Little House on the Prairie at first, but you'll get used to it.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

June 17th

baby octopus stew

The whole thing started for three reasons; leftover marinara in a jar. A craving for baby octopus just because they look so cool. And an appetizer I ate about six years ago in Boston's North End in a little place called Limoncello.
(The appetizer was just a few of the cephalapods stewed in a tomato broth with garbanzo beans, pretty minimal actually, but somehow unforgettable.) So here's what these three things created yesterday:
I put some olive oil in a hot pan with some garlic and onion. When that smelled perfumey, I tossed in the marinara, let that hiss for a sec, poured in some white wine from the fridge, a little of the strangely rose colored octopus boiling water. (I had boiled them for about 40 minutes with a wine cork floating in the water to tenderize 'em) Added a few chunks of potato I had sneaked into the boil, half a can of cannelini beans from a can with some of their oozy liquid.
I Let it simmer. Put in six or seven of the majestic but tiny eight legged wonders (with their legs curled up in the coolest way, their grape shaped heads cocked back, devil may care).
Simmered. Seasoned with pepper, red pepper flake, some sea salt my son had mashed up with oregano, a stray fennel frond I found at the bottom of the drawer.
I ate it right out the pan, a la Calamari's (also Boston, also North End, Hanover street. No plates used there, only shining 9 inch all-clads)
Oh I Forgot- squirted olive oil over it at the end. It was SLAMMIN! The octopus were not chewy at all, just sweeet little pieces of sea candy. You gotta do this. The octopus probably cost me three dollars. Try eating it out of the pan too. Go outside if there is any sun .
Enjoy. (I ate it alone too. i gotta confess, Cooking for yourself rules! )

Saturday, June 16, 2007

School's out and i'm a chef now.
I teach drama at berkeley high school. Usually in the summer I act in a play if i can. And in fact i was cast in a musical but at the last minute decided to ditch it and follow a deam i've had for a while; to really learn how to cook. Not only that, but to actually cook large meals for guests in my house, which is something that has always terrified me. So i just started a series of cooking basics at Kitchen on Fire in berkeley. each tuesday another piece of basic cooking territory is covered. Last tuesday it was Stocks and Soups.