Sunday, November 22, 2009

James Beard Foundation

The James Beard Foundation was born in 1986, when Peter Kump bought the late James Beard's Greenwich Village brownstone at 167 West 12th Street, now the host site of guest chef dinners and classes to benefit the Foundation. It has since been a non-profit organization seeking to promote American culinary arts in wine and cooking, service, hospitality, writing and scholarship. Emerging in the same period as The Food Network, the Foundation has been enormously successful, with the exception of the embezzlement scandal of 2004 and 2005, which shook the reputation of the JBF. It has since taken steps to improve it's management and the scope of it's promotional purposes. The Park Kitchen team took to the streets of Manhattan to give New Yorkers an impression of what we do here in Portland. We set out to pair a five-course Oregon-focused meal complemented by crafted cocktails and wines. Our cocktails were prepared using House Spirits, and our wines were provided by Soter Vineyards. Many of us who labor in the craft of food and drink in the Pacific Northwest share the sentiment stated on House Spirits home page, "We are in good company."

The greatest challenge of an event like this, executed in another city, is that you are not using your familiar equipment, or the full resources of your staff and purveyors. At the Beard House, you also have no access to the facility until the day of the event. In order to execute a quality five-course meal, you need more than one day's worth of cooking, even if you are shipping finished products from your own restaurant to New York. In other words, planning is everything!

You are also serving eighty portions of each course all at once, so timing is crucial. Dinner started at seven o'clock. We served four hundred plates over the course of a three hour meal, which means cooking and plating a dish, mixing and pouring a cocktail every two minutes for three hours straight! The team that pulled it off tonight consisted of Shane Feirstein, our bartender at Park Kitchen, Scott Dolich, the owner of Park Kitchen, myself, Ethan Snyder, a Park Kitchen alumnus, currently sous-chef at Locanda Verde in New York, and Reed, our assistant bartender from Savoy in New York. Cheers!

Food Documentaries

The documentarians have finally turned their lenses toward the food system in America. In the last five years, there have been over a dozen well distributed documentaries about our complex food industry. In 2004, two films hit the theaters addressing different portions of today's agricultural system. "The Future of Food" focused on genetically modified crops, and the power of corporations over farmers, while the film "Super Size Me" focused on the consumer end, how the nutritional content of processed foods makes people sick, which is good for the economy! In 2007, a small independent film "King Corn," focused on subsidized corn, and the empires that have been built around this virtually free (through heavy subsidies), shelf-stable commodity. This year, three more films have been released, building the momentum of consumer awareness, but how much does the audience want to see?

Food, Inc. hits the Box Office Mainstream

Of all the food related documentaries, this year's "Food, Inc." directed by Robert Kenner is the most ambitious project of it's kind to date. The film reached more theaters and had a more far-reaching message than it's predecessors. It was greatly indebted to contributors like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, whose work has made them celebrity spokespeople for food reform. When I saw the film on Labor Day (several months after it's release), the theater was still packed! Robert Kenner set out to interview the powerful companies that run America's agricultural industry, only to discover an airtight lid of secrecy and intimidation covering up the details of how and why we spend less on food, but more on health care, than any other nation on Earth.

The film starts with marketing, showing how todays large companies advertise their food products using a pastoral brand image, the farmer with a red barn and animals outside, when this is not at all the scene of the massive factories where these foods are produced. Then we move toward the chicken industry, where some of the best questions in the movie are asked. A spokesperson for the National Chicken Council describes the origin of these enormous facilities, which is to grow a lot of food on a small amount of land, at a low price. "Now can somebody tell me what's wrong with that?"

Indeed, that is the question explored throughout this film. A Kentucky chicken producer named Vince Edwards has a small part in the film. He seems like a good-ole boy, everyday American, as he describes how Tyson has the process all figured out. "If you could have a chicken in 49 days, why would you want one that takes three months?" he asks. That's a good question. What he doesn't say is that these chickens live and grow in a place so unhealthy, many of them die of suffocation or stess, and if they didn't slaughter the chickens in 49 days, they would die soon anyway. Because they've been specially bred for large breast size and rapid weight gain, they have become mutants both physically and genetically, that eventually can't even stand on their own two feet.

It is amazing what science has done for the efficiency of growing chickens. In 1935, the average chicken at the market weighed 2.8 pounds (versus 4.9 pounds today), and took 112 days to raise (instead of 49), but how do we achieve that, and at what cost? Later in the movie, we hear from Joel Salatin in Virginia. As he butchers chickens in his open air processing facility, he tells the story of how the USDA tried to close his plant because it was unsanitary. After lab analysis, Joel's chickens had 133 CFU (colony forming units), while the USDA approved processing plant had 3,600 CFU, and that was after their chlorine bath!!!

The film talks about crops like corn and soybeans. Corn is another scientific success story. Back in the early 1900's, a farm could grow 20 bushels of corn per acre. Today, a farmer expects 200 bushels, and being so heavily subsidized, we have a lot of corn to sell. It ends up being used for things God never intended. We feed corn to animals like cows and farmed fish, who need certain cocktails of antibiotics and hormones to digest this food. We convert the sugars in corn to sweeteners that the body can not process in large quantities. One of every three children born in America today will develop type 2 diabetes!

Another portion of the film talks about the exploitation of labor, focusing on the world's largest pork processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina. This enormous facility is owned by Smithfield, butchering and processing 32,000 pigs every day!! Smithfield also operates the enormous plants in Veracruz, Mexico, where the swine flu epidemic outbreak began this year. For a closer look at how Smithfield emerged to control more pigs than its nearest eight competitors combined, read Jeff Tietz' article in Rolling Stone from 2006, entitled "Boss Hog," in which Mr. Tietz welcomes you to see the dark side of the other white meat. Food, Inc. focuses instead on the workers at these plants, many of whom are illegal immigrants, or workers shuttled from great distances to work here. The reasons are obvious. These are low wage, very dangerous jobs with high risks of illness. People simply can't work here for long.

For me, the most distressing part of the documentary is the exposition on politics. You really feel like the foxes are guarding the henhouse when you learn that many of the government agencies regulating these large companies are run by employees of the same companies they regulate. The film asks how Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court Justice, could be objective in writing his decision to prevent farmers from saving their own seed, when prior to his appointment to the Supreme Court in 1991, he had been a former attorney for Monsanto, who stood to gain millions of dollars by this ruling. Another Monsanto attorney, Michael Taylor, advised his company on GMO labelling before being appointed as FDA Deputy Commissioner for Policy. He now works for Monsanto again as a Vice President. These are far from isolated incidents, these companies have infiltrated every level of government. For a great article on Obama's appointments, read this.

The refreshing portion of the film doesn't take place on Capitol Hill, or Tar Heel, North Carolina. It takes place at Wal-Mart. One of the few large corporations to participate in the documentary, Wal-Mart realizes that public opinion matters. Their chief dairy purchaser decided to purchase rBGH free dairy products because the market demand was there. Gary Hirschberg tells the story of his company, Stonyfield Farm (organic yogurt), and his realization that he couldn't change the world by preaching to the choir. Wal-Mart is now one of the largest buyers of organic yogurt in America. How you spend your money may be more powerful than the vote you cast at the ballot box.

Ingredients puts roots into Local Soil

Ingredients, a well made film based here in Portland, examines the fifteen year resurgence of the farmer's market in America, and the re-establishment of direct relationships between restaurants and farms to increase the awareness and demand for quality ingredients. There are a lot of personal stories here, and the tone of this film stays refreshingly positive. Rather than scare the audience with horror stories of business-as-usual, it shows how courageous, intelligent people have overcome the obstacles of corporate economies-of-scale. There are stories from our recent past, when chefs like Jean-Louis Palladin and Alice Waters approached their farmers with new demands twenty five years ago. They wanted higher quality instead of lower price, and they were willing to pay the difference.

The film struggled a little over what to include and what material was simply too much. The food supply is an incredibly complex topic, and often hard to humanize. We have the good fortune of having a relatively healthy local agriculture. Oregon is recognized for its strong organic agriculture and farmer's markets, but even here the laws favor large scale industry that is lobbied for by a handful of powerful companies. One of the most personal themes is summed up by local chef Greg Higgins, "You can pay the farmer now, or you can pay the doctor later." As long as we have no common regulation between health and the food supply, the U.S. government and its agencies will never be able to keep the market healthy.

Let's not forget the Ocean's, though it seems everyone else has!

I saw "The End of the Line" during its opening week, the first major documentary on the depletion of the world's seafood. My girlfriend and I went to the only theater showing it in town, and we were the only two people there, a sad indication of awareness on this, the most vital front-line in the global war for resources. It was based on the book of the same title, by Charles Clover. This is the story of the globalization of fishing, and how technology that was developed since the Second World War has made the global seafood industry "a race to catch the last fish and name it's price." It is a heartbreaking indictment of wreckless capitalism across international waters and with complete disregard for legal catch limits.

The film opens with the collapse of the cod industry in Newfoundland, 1992. From there, it examines Professor Daniel Pauly's research about the decline of the global seafood catch. Most studies indicate that the complete collapse of global seafood is a mere 40 years away at our current rate of consumption. The inevitable extinction of the Atlantic bluefin tuna is another large part of the film. It covers the same material as the National Geographic special report, April 2007 "Saving the Sea's Bounty." As in their story, Mr. Clover interviews courageous whistle blowers who give their testimonies about corruption, secrecy and greed.

Some of the fishing techniques used to catch our seafood are brutally exposed. The destruction of bottom trawling, the enormous gill nets and purse seiners. "We are really too good at killing, " says biologist Ransom Myers of Dalhousie University. Unfortunately, we aren't very good at using what we kill. This picture shows a Mexican shrimp trawler dumping eighty percent of its dead by-catch back into the ocean. Only the shrimp will come to port.

Since I moved to Portland eight years ago, I wondered why the variety in the seafood market was so limited. I thought being on the west coast would bring the bounty of the Pacific Ocean within reach. I've come to learn that the leading cause is a lack of interest among consumers. Here in the Northwest, people love salmon. Most consumers are buying salmon, whether fresh or farmed, halibut and tuna. People think they are still buying local salmon, though our local habitat has been destroyed. The halibut is from Alaska, and no one cares where the tuna comes from. The price is still relatively low on Oregon's only sustainably harvested fish, black cod and albacore tuna.

In 2007, I gave an interview in Portland Monthly promoting anchovies. I always try to promote seafood that is underutilized. Education is very critical at the restaurant level, which Mr. Clover points out in both the film and the book. Throughout this year, I have struggled to buy anchovies for Park Kitchen. It is not because anchovies aren't being caught, it is because they are worth more as fish food than they are as anchovies. That is one reason why all the anchovies caught on the American coastline are sold to salmon hatcheries and tuna feeding pens in the Mediterranean and South America. If anchovies are worth $2 a pound, why sell them? They can be fed to farmed salmon and tuna which can be worth $15 per pound or $60 per pound respectively. Even though you must feed wild seafood to farmed fish, and it takes about five pounds of wild fish to get one pound of farmed fish, the market demand for these species is so high that these economies are actually possible.

Is there a Happy Ending?

Although these stories and images are often disturbing (probably because we realize that we have somehow participated, perhaps unknowingly, in a crime), this year's documentaries all point out that we have the power to change the system. However powerful the companies are, however large the system, profits can only be made when people choose to buy. As in the case of Wal-Mart and it's dairy purchasing, corporations are making decisions based on what you want to buy. McDonalds is one of the leading buyers of Marine Stewardship Council seafood, and they have increased their standards of sourcing humanely raised meats (much to the dismay of large scale American pork and beef producers, who rarely meet the standards). The FDA is even preparing to set limits on "nontherapeutic use of medically valuable antibiotics in agriculture." Seventy percent of the nation's antibiotics and related drugs are used on animals, to promote growth and prevent diseases caused by overcrowding conditions in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). The Obama administration would be reversing decades of agency policy, and would change the way animals are raised for consumption.

These are decisions that come from awareness and demand for change. Secrecy helps prevent the awareness, and low cost helps prevent change. People often say that they can't afford to make responsible purchases. The truth is that the cheap alternatives are an illusion that is making very few people very rich. Responsible purchases aren't making anyone rich except perhaps Mother Earth. They reflect the real cost of food, health and happiness.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Pig's Blood

When the weather turns toward the darker days of autumn, and the colder, wetter nights require more substantial fare, the menu at Park Kitchen often takes on a higher proportion of charcuterie and offal. My sous-chef, Will Preisch, was working on a creative rendition of grits made by pulverizing raw cauliflower into tiny grains, then simmering it in a puree of cauliflower. It looks like traditional white corn grits, but has the rich, nutty vegetal flavor of cauliflower. After some thought, we decided to pair it with blood sausage. Although I've served a variety of sausages at Park Kitchen in the last five years, I had never put blood sausage on the menu before now. In order to lighten the dish, it is garnished with a raw salad of shaved radish, burnet leaves, ground cherries for a little tartness, and a mustard tuile for crunch (not shown in the photo).
The composition of pig's blood is mostly water at 77%, with 7.2% albumin, 14.5% globulins, 0.3% fibrin, 0.2% fat and 0.8% other odds and ends. It is well suited to cooking, as the albumin and globulins coagulate at around 160 degrees fahrenheit. In traditional blood puddings, the blood is poached with cream and eggs, in addition to other solids for structure, usually cooked onions and bacon (and sometimes fruits or grains, depending on the region). What usually turns people off about blood sausage is the texture, which can be dry and grainy if there is not enough fat added, or loose and pasty if not sufficiently coagulated. To avoid these shortcomings, I decided to add some ground pork to the forcemeat to make it more like a sausage than a pudding.

Some people are a little squeamish about the idea of blood in their food. As is so often the case, fast-paced Americans have become very separated from their own food traditions. I remember hearing the stories from my own hometown of Kansas City, how their famous barbeque sauces were thickened with pig's blood, just as the French did with their rabbit civet, thickened with blood of the hare. In fact, for centuries throughout the world, blood has been consumed in various preparations for it's nutritional and symbolic value. According to God's law, it is forbidden in Jewish and Muslim cultures, although even religious nations have culinary traditions using the blood of animals, especially that perfect culinary creature, the pig. According to U.S. law, it is legal under Code of Federal Regulations, Title 9, Ch. 3A, § 310.20 "Blood may be saved for edible purposes at official establishments provided it is derived from livestock...and handled in a manner so as not to render it adulterated ..." et cetera.

In ancient sub-Saharan Africa, blood is drawn from wild animals and drunk raw for nutrition, while not necessitating the killing of a valuable animal. The ancient Spartans ate a "black soup" of pig's blood, called melas zomos. The Tuscan dish called roventini is a kind of pancake made from flour, eggs, and pig's blood, finished with parmiggiano-reggiano. Throughout western Europe, there are various sausages or puddings made from pig's blood; the Spanish morcilla, Catalonian botifarra, the French boudin noir, sometimes garnished with apples, the German blutwurst, the Polish kaszanka, usually containing buckwheat, the Irish drisheen, made from sheep's blood, cream, oatmeal and tansy, the Finnish preparation of mustamakkara, a blood sausage with ground pork and crushed rye, usually eaten with lingonberry jam. Swedish blodpalt is a potato dumpling enriched with blood, and Finland also makes a mykyrokka, a potato and offal soup containing myky, a dumpling of rye flour and blood.

One of the most famous recipes of France is coq au vin, the Burgundian dish of rooster stewed in red wine, which was traditionally finished with roosters blood that had been stabilized against clotting with a little vinegar. The Polish czarnina is a poultry broth enriched in the same way, with duck's blood and vinegar. These dishes may not have been found at every dinner table, but they have been popular enough to maintain traditions throughout the generations.

In the far east as well, the Koreans make soondae, the Filipino's make dinuguan, a spicy meat stew with pig's blood and rice cakes. In Viet Nam, doi huyet is a pig's blood sausage make with herbs and shrimp paste. The Thai's have a spicy curry mee, and there is the famous Taiwanese ti hoeh koe, a pig's blood cake made with sticky rice, then rolled in ground peanuts and cilantro, served on a stick!

Pig's blood cookery is nothing new to the world. All that is new is what people are doing with it. Elsewhere in Portland, Xocolatl de David has a wonderful pig's blood chocolate ganache, and Le Pigeon restaurant has served a very tasty pig's blood pappardelle. The well stocked meat counter of Laurelhurst Market often has blood sausage with whisky. Portland's culinary talents are exploring pig's blood. Maybe you should, too.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Counter Culture-Three Meals in Japan

The open kitchens in American fine dining are a relatively new concept. In order to increase the entertainment of its guests, restauranteurs began designing spaces that expose the action in the kitchen. This has been a long tradition in Japanese restaurants. We are all familiar with the sushi bar, but the Japanese ryotei seats guests at the counter of kaiseki tradition. On my most recent trip to Japan, I had three memorable meals at the counter, where the intimate interaction with the technique driven chefs exposes another layer of their skills.

Yoshihiro Murata received international recognition with his beautiful book, Kaiseki, the exquisite cuisine of Kyoto's Kikunoi restaurant. I always visit Kikunoi when I am in Japan. The service and style of the cuisine are very special. A kaiseki meal often begins with a course known as hassun (八寸), which is a presentation of many appetizers in a seasonal theme. The end of September hassun is presented in a cricket cage, with a sprig of hagi, Japanese bush clover. The cricket cage symbolizes the passing of summer's chirping insects. Removing the cage reveals the fall delicacies of barracuda sushi, ginko nuts, eel roe in mousse, grilled chestnuts, and other hors d'oeuvres, presented on a leaf of kuzu (arrowroot).

The kaiseki meal follows a certain progression, with appetizers followed by a clear soup, then sashimi, grilled foods, steamed foods, and so on. The beautiful lacquerware and seasonal motifs on the plateware are all a part of the experience. About half way through the meal, the chef uses a dish made by one of the greatest masters of twentieth century ceramics, Kitaoji Rosanjin. The dish imitates a painters palette, and facilitates six individual variations of texture and flavor. Here, the selections include (clockwise from top left) a terrine of mushrooms and ayu roe, duck breast with negi, braised satoimo (taro root), glazed scallop on a leaf of shungiku, asian pear and salmon stuffed with egg yolk, and a salad of shiitake and marinated shungiku (edible chrysanthemum).

This is the season for hamo, a seawater eel from Osaka Bay and the Inland Sea. It is larger and leaner than the freshwater eel unagi, but it is more seasonally celebrated. The many small bones are impossible to remove, so they are cut into tiny, edible pieces by a heavy knife known as hamokiri bocho. The sous-chef, Maruyama-san, told me his hamokiri cost about 400 dollars. He uses the hamo no honekiri technique to make the proscribed twenty cuts per inch (issun ni nijyuyon hocho).

A proper Japanese meal consists of shokuji (食事), serving rice, pickles and miso soup, which come at the end of the meal. Maruyama-san presents the rice course in an okama, an old fashioned earthenware pot that fits into a charcoal stove. Of course, a kaiseki restaurant will enhance these simple dishes with their own style. On this occasion, the rice has been garnished with uni and nori, and the white miso soup is pureed with yurine (lily bulbs).

The next meal would be my first time dining at Hisao Nakahigashi's famous restaurant, Sojiki Nakahigashi. It is a very small restaurant, and the seats are often booked several months in advance. Although the Michelin Guide only rates the restaurant with one star, it is one of the hardest reservations to get in Kyoto. The clever name of his restaurant is an indication of the chef's tsumigusa (foraged, or freshly picked) cuisine. The word sojiki is a creation of the chef, but it suggests "eating leaves or grass." There is a more subtle suggestion that it is an apothecary cuisine, of sorts, and it was this inclusion of wild and bitter flavors that I found fascinating.

The chef presents his hassun course on a leaf of satoimo, and garnished with a shaft of susuki, one of the seven flowers of autumn. In the glass dish is a wonderful salad of figs and white miso, a variety of nuts include chestnuts, a ginko nut stuffed with egg yolk, and broiled mackerel stuffed with walnut (amazing). There were also some tsukudani-style dojo, a small eel-like freshwater fish often caught in the rice paddies!

The chef's dishes are often composed of contrasting textures and sensations. He always offers seasonal variations of his koi zukuri, carp sashimi served with a salad of dozen vegetables and herbs, toasted sansho peppercorns, the famous natto made at the nearby temple of Daitoku-Ji, and a sherbet made of daikon! Alternating bites of the fish and veggies, dipped in the spicy sansho, the salty natto and the cool, refreshing sherbet stimulates all the senses, the tingling sensation of sansho gradually dissipating into the cleansing sherbet. It could be regarded as Nakahigashi's gargouillou!

The chef preparing a wonderful broth to serve with his rich line-caught hamo and ginger jelly, green beans, tomato and yuzu. The balance was perfection, acidic yuzu complemented by the rich and smoky eel with tomato, the brightness of ginger, and the slight bitterness of the yuzu peel. Over the chef's shoulder, a shaft of rice is tied to a paper-folded lightning bolt, a shinto symbol of respect for nature. You can also see his charcoal stove behind him with the okama inserts.

This is me enjoying a refreshing, crunchy salad of green beans, thinly sliced myoga, spaghetti squash, and purple chrysanthemum, with a dressing of sesame and white miso. This fresh and light course with its firm textures was a nice little intermezzo.
Another small course in the meal demonstrates several levels of the chef's genius. He does an exciting job of pairing his courses with a complimentary sauce, or in this case, a beverage. Fresh kyoho grape juice is served alongside a small salad of poached and peeled plum tomato, a salty and bitter pesto made of ayu (a small, sweet-fleshed entrails, a dab of hot mustard, and a slice of pepper served with its blossom. The dish was a marvelous combination of flavors, and I noticed that the glass was cut from the base of a European wine glass, an incredibly subtle and clever connection to the grape juice. The chef often uses several parts of the same plant in his dishes. In this case, using the pepper and its blossom. In another course with sweet potatoes, he also braised the leaves of the plant.
After the shokuji, which the chef serves unadorned (just plain white rice), the chef scrapes the sides of his okama for a special treat. The rice crust that has caramelized to the bottom of the pot is called okoge, a crunchy snack that is fun and tasty with the toasted green tea served after the meal. This reminded me of my days in Switerland serving fromage fondue in earthenware pots. When you reached the bottom, the cheese had caramelized into a layer that you peeled off and pop in your mouth. They called it la religieuse.

The meal at Sojiki Nagakigashi is always concluded in the same way, cold coffee, burnt sugarcane candies and a rare, unsalted cheese from Shiga Prefecture. It is such a little known product that many of my Japanese friends had never heard of it. This was really an inspiring meal for me, reflecting a style of cooking from a mostly bygone era.

Once I returned to Tokyo, I had my first three star dining experience. Chef and owner Toru Okuda of Koju has received a lot of accolades for his small Ginza restaurant. As would be expected from a three star restaurant, the service was great and the glassware and plateware were beautiful, but his style was unique and very classy. The plates were mostly rough and unglazed ceramics, and the glassware was sleek and modern. It made for a nice contrast. The first course was grilled abalone, sliced and served with lime and salt. This is one of the chef's departures from traditional Japanese seasoning of wasabi and soy sauce. Very minimal to let the natural flavors shine.
In the sashimi course, the chef invites the diner to evaluate the flavor of lime and salt against wasabi and soy. Two pieces of each cut are offered for comparison. There were four types of sashimi. Two cuts of tuna, the chutoro from the highly prized middle section of the belly, and akami, the familiar deep red loin section, squid (which is always one of my favorite sashimi items in Japan, but something we rarely see in America), and madai, a sea bream which the Japanese regard as the king of fish, served here with the skin. I found that the tuna was best with wasabi, while the other two were best with lime and salt.

Here, chef Okuda slices barracuda rolled with matsutake and grilled. You can see that there is no bar or counter between the diner and the chef's work table. It was as if he were on the other side of the dinner table, a very open design which requires impeccable cleanliness and technical finesse at all times, a lot of fun to watch.

This is the yakimono, or grilled course, decorated with autumn leaves of maple and magnolia. The rolled barracuda, unagi served both shirayaki (unseasoned) and kabayaki (glazed with sauce), accompanied by ginko nuts and tatami iwashi, a toasted cracker made of tiny sardines, dried and pressed into thin sheets. Beautiful and tasty! This was one of the few glazed plates used in the meal, with the shine and color imitating the autumn leaves garnishing it.
Japanese kaiseki always gives a very strong impression of time and a connection with nature that I adore. As is always the case with something so seemingly simple, it requires an enormous amount of work to make something so minimal into something so rewarding.

Fruit & Vegetable Compression

Over the past few years, several cookbooks have hit the shelves detailing the techniques of "sous-vide" cookery. Although this is a huge topic of it's own, I want to address one of the simplest techniques that can be applied using a vacuum sealing machine: compression. This is not really an accurate term to describe what happens, but for the sake of familiarity, I will address it as such. Certain vegetables, like cucumber and tomato, and certain fruits, like watermelon and apple, are very porous, with thousands of hollow little cellulosic bubbles of air. Their textures are light and sometimes crisp. The compression technique simply employs vacuum sealing these foods with a flavored liquid. No cooking is required, just vacuum sealing! What happens inside is not really compression. All the air in those porous cell walls is EVACUATED from the fruit and the bag by the vacuum created. The liquid in the bag then floods into these cells and creates an entirely new texture; an opaque persimmon sealed with lime and salt becomes translucent; a crisp slice of watermelon sealed with olive oil becomes dense and substantial.
This first picture shows a very interesting crab apple from Queener Fruit Farm in Scio, Oregon. It is enormous in size, larger than a red delicious apple, with a russet skin and a beautiful, marbled red and white flesh. Tommie & Peter say it is called the Russian Giant Crab. It's not terribly delicious in the raw, but it does maintain it's beautiful color when cooked. That got us to thinking about how we might transform it into something delicious.
We peeled the crab apple and sealed it in a bag with some of Tommie's apple cider, lemon juice and salt. After about 20 minutes, all of the once porous cells have filled with liquid. The once light, crisp and bland flesh is now bright, succulent and flavorful. Now, we can use it to create interesting contrasts of texture and flavor to garnish duck breast with buckwheat noodles and porcini. The last picture shows the garnishing ingredients of Spitzenburg apple, curled green onion, calendula, and compressed crab apple with red currant preserves.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Japanese Cookbooks

On my most recent trip to Japan, I scored some great new cookbooks. As I was thumbing through them (from right to left), a few notable differences struck me. Cookbooks and magazines everywhere have become more dependent on photography to atract buyers, but the photos and the page layouts were very different in Japanese books, and they tell us a lot about how we differ as a culture and as cooks.

Seasonal Beauty at Kikunoi

This beautiful book hit the shelves in English just weeks before my first trip to Japan in autumn of 2006. The chef, Yoshihiro Murata is the third generation chef of the family restaurant, Kikunoi. The book is divided into four chapters addressing the four seasons. The innovation of the book is that it often has a full page photo of his dishes with a description of its inspiration and meaning on the opposite page. It also displays the beautiful dishes and lacquerware that kaiseki is often served in, and how it is presented to the guest. All the recipes are presented at the end of the book in the appendix, not that the recipes are less relevant than the pictures. Murata-san is a very talented chef. The photography of the book is stunning, but the strength of the book lies in the stories that accompany his dishes, revealing both his innovation and purpose. Japanese cuisine, and especially kaiseki, is a highly seasonal and symbolic art whose meanings are often lost on foreigners. Kodansha (講談社) has been publishing in English for years, and are very experienced in translating for a foreign audience. I am greatly indebted to the chef and his publisher for the timing of this release, just prior to my first tour of Japan.

Two Books from Bunka Shuppan (sorry, in Japanese only)

This is chef Toshio Tanahashi's only recipe book, Shojin, Vegetables are Genius (精進、野菜は天才). I have enjoyed shojin ryori before I bought this book, but my appreciation has deepened tremendously since. Shojin is devotion cuisine, the vegetarian fare of the Buddhist temples. Although humble in origin, it is the predecessor of the tea ceremony and kaiseki cuisine. The chef ran a restaurant called Gesshinkyo out of his home in Tokyo for many years (read more about him here), named after the temple Gesshinji in Kyoto where he apprenticed. The publisher, Bunka Shuppan Kyoku (文化出帆局), like many in Japan, have been publishing books with step-by-step photography, showing how the recipes are executed, not just what they look like at the end. The page layout seems especially appropriate for Japanese cooking, since there is a great appreciation for appearance in the presentation of Japanese dishes. The book is divided into twelve chapters, and the pages reveal a few dishes from each month, as well as instructions and photos of technique, the appearance of the raw ingredients (shokuzai), and the ritual devotions of preparation. The most famous example of this is the chef's use of his ninety minute morning meditation to grind sesame in his mortar for the daily gomadofu!

Another great book from Bunka Shuppan is Grass, Leaf, Root (草 菜 根), by Hisao Nakahigashi. The chef is very famous for his foraged ingredients and his organic renditions of kaiseki. The name of his restaurant in Kyoto, Sojiki Nakahigashi, gives an indication of his style. Sojiki means "to eat grass," but the first prefix suggests that these grasses and leaves are medicinal. That is to say, his restaurant is like an apothecary. Indeed, one of his most defining characteristics is the presence of bitterness in his food, which people often associate with medicines, and his use of the whole plant in his dishes. If you are served sweet potato, it would probably be served with its greens, and the same would be true of peppers, carrots or lotus. If you are served a small fish in one course, you are likely to have it's roe or innards in the following course. The chef says his mentor instilled this approach-his mother. He does not seek the finest ingredients in the country, rather he has a great connection with local products. Only lake and river fish are served, local meats, wild vegetables, and he is intimately attuned to changes in the seasons. If the beans are tender in early summer, and starchy in early autumn, they are used for what they are instead of being discarded for the next prized commodity. And people respond to his cooking...the restaurant is often booked several months in advance! I like this book, because it features many forgotten ingredients that people want to remember, and the photography often shows the chef foraging or working with the farmers who supply him. These connections have become very popular in American cookbooks, but here the connection goes a little further to the source.

Reference Books and Everyday Cooking

Of course, it is not only celebrity chefs books that people want to read. I am always drawn to the detailed Japanese reference book. Whether it is about food, architecture, motorcycles, or electronics, the Japanese people have a penchant for diagrams of the smallest detail. This book published by NHK from their Today's Cooking series (きょうの料理), gives great instructions for the classic Japanese repertoire, more washoku than kaiseki. Photographs demonstrate techniques often hard to explain in words, from peeling a chestnut or cleaning fresh bamboo shoots, to simmering mackerel in a miso glaze. None of the techniques are very difficult, but the pictures reveal the simplicity of the steps and the beauty of the ingredients. Regardless of the level of difficulty, all these books have one common thread, an intuitive understanding of seasonality. The readers of these books have a great understanding of the seasons, and their Shinto heritage and traditions weave together these ingredients in a kind of story we may have once had, but have now forgotten.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Before the Rain Came

Sometimes the most delightful moments of the year are also the most fleeting. The melon season in the Northwest is such a fleeting moment. This was a devastating year for melons, as Anthony & Carol Boutard at Ayer's Creek Farm called it quits on their beloved charentais crops, and the heavy rains that came the first week of September wiped out everyone else. Like other late summer fruits, such as the tomato and grape, heavy rains oversaturate the fruit and cause splitting and diluted flavor. I bought the last of my local butterscotch melons from Creative Growers in that first week of September.

I managed to get a small salad on the menu before the season ended. It was a salad of melons and lemon cucumbers with house cured lardo and prosciutto, pine nuts, green coriander dressing and wood sorrel. I originally ran this dish as a special with Anthony's Sweet Seduction grapes, but later decided to leave them out, so the rich, tender melon could shine.

I had just begun curing and hanging lardo and guanciale (pork jowl) for the coming fall and winter. Wood sorrel (oxalis montana) is a wild herb that I have been foraging this year (the rains which brought about the end of melon season have ushered in the local chanterelle, pictured below with wild wood sorrel), and I now cultivate it at home as well. It is not a true sorrel, but has a similar herbal sourness. I find it a little more approachable than sheep sorrel (rumex acetosella).

Anthony shared his reason why they won't be planting melons again next year. He couldn't deal with the heartache anymore:

"Sadly the warm nights over the last week (8/9) have reduced the sugar content of this years crop. They are good, but not the usual sublime confections. On average, we harvest between 25 and 30% of the melons. Last year the quality was very high. In this planting we may not even pull off 5%... Good melons have a corky webbing on their skin, those lacking the cork are inferior and not worth picking. Most of the field is smooth skinned."

Anthony also recalled the old market farmer who said you only plant melons for five years before you never want to see them again. Ayers Creek Farm held out for eight years!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

A Brief Note to the Vegetarian

I suppose it was only a matter of time before the many special diets of Portland discovered my love of vegetables, and willingness to accommodate their needs. That day has come, and not without it's effect on Park Kitchen. I hope everyone will understand the need to implement some guidelines to help the restaurant facilitate these requests.

The first guideline is proper notice. It is not a universal tendency of special diets (whether vegetarian, pescatarian, lacto-ovotarian, vegan, celiac, kosher, or whatever) to surprise the kitchen with a laundry list of special requests, but it is the lion's share. I certainly sympathize with dietary needs, but without some notice for special preparations, the diner does not sympathize with my desire to serve a quality experience. Many of my colleagues in town simply print on their menu "substitutions politely declined," which is not an inflexible policy. However, there is little that can be done by any kitchen on a busy Saturday night at 6:30 pm, while we are cooking for 60 other paying guests who have ordered from our menu.

The second guideline is price. There is a very simple equation for a successful restaurant to produce a great dining experience. The kitchen invests an enormous amount of time preparing food that will be served to many guests. When special requests are made, a disproportionate amount of time is spent for a very few guests. As of this week, we will begin to charge a supplement for work that must be done beyond our menu to accommodate special diets. We welcome your business, and we want to cook for you, but it must be fair for everyone.

You might be surprised to know...

I also want to briefly address two widespread misconceptions about vegetarianism. First of all, there is the inaccurate belief that chefs of fine dining restaurants don't understand or sympathize with a vegetarian diet. For those of you reading this blog, it may surprise you to know that I was a vegetarian for many years, Naomi Pomeroy of Beast was a vegetarian for many years, and so was Jason Owens of Laurelhurst Market, to name a few.

I think a great many vegetarians are acting under the assumption, regardless of the philosophy motivating their diet, that being a vegetarian will save them money. Nothing could be further from the truth (unless you are one of the many undernourished vegetarians who believe that a diet of starches will suffice). If you go to the grocery store and look at the price per pound of ground beef, and then look at the price per pound of lettuces and tomatoes, you will quickly see that the American Farm Bill is heavily subsidizing commodity meats, while nutritious vegetables carry a more accurate cost. Although I probably spend more on vegetables than most restaurants, I will list two months of expenses at Park Kitchen as a percentage:

May 2009

07% Dairy
22% Dry Goods
11% Fish
30% Meat
30% Produce

August 2009

07% Dairy
16% Dry Goods
07% Fish
33% Meat
37% Produce

These examples illustrate several facets of the restaurant. Of course, our fish expenses are usually lower than the average restaurant, because we choose to serve lesser known (albeit delicious) seafood like anchovies, sardines, squid, octopus, albacore and black cod, rather than expensive seafood like halibut and tuna. Also, our meat expenses are lower than most because we butcher whole animals in-house. It is also more common for produce expenses to be higher in the summer, during the peak of vegetable abundance. However, at Park Kitchen, I am proud of the fact that any month of the year, our combined produce and dry goods expenses always outweigh our combined meat and fish expenses. I challenge any restaurant in town to compete with that record.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Quelites and Halophytes

Why I want you to eat more weeds

My grandmother was an avid gardener. I remember fondly how she would rattle off the common names of the weeds in her garden. They had such charming names like chickweed, lamb's quarter, sow thistle, goosefoot, sheep sorrel, and pigweed. The entire barnyard was represented. For years, I thought she would just make the up the names to entertain me. In Mexico, there is a generic term for all these weeds. They call any edible weed a quelite (pronounced kay-lee-tay). These plants have been eaten for generations, the pigweed is amaranth, the goosefoot is quinoa, two of the great indigenous staples of the Americas. Other quelite plants include purslane, epazote, huanzontle, spearmint, chamomile, dandelion and nettles.

This summer, I have been buying weeds from two farms, Ayer's Creek Farm and Dancing Roots Farm. Anthony & Carol Boutard sell a quelite mix at the Hillsdale Farmers Market, and Shari Sirkin at Dancing Roots graciously delivers amaranth, quinoa and purslane by the pound. If you've been eating at Park Kitchen this summer, the truth is you've been eating weeds all along.

I have had a sprouted bean salad on the menu for a few months. This may be the most nutritious dish on my menu right now. The summer version has cucumbers, hazelnuts, quinoa grains and raw greens (chenopodium quinoa), and anise hyssop (a delicious summer herb). The quinoa and hyssop come from Dancing Roots Farm. I serve the salad on a plate sauce I call fromage fondue, a fresh goat cheese rendered into a sauce by melting it with cream and emulsifying it with olive oil. The salad is dressed with a preserved lemon vinaigrette and garnished with a snack I call quinoa crunch, basically a tuile and deliciously addictive.
Lambs quarters (chenopodium album) are a close cousin of quinoa. It has a number of common names, like "fat hen." It can be used in the same way. Young leaves can be eaten raw, more mature leaves should be lightly steamed or braised. In Michoacan, they gather them as they begin to flower, breaded and fried and served with mole.
My summer fruit salad of peaches and blackberries is accompanied by pecans, purslane, and goat's milk feta from Juniper Grove. This firm and briny feta is perfect with the fruit. The Chester blackberries and purslane come from Ayer's Creek. Purslane (portulaca oleracea) has a succulent, fleshy leaf on a sturdy, but edible stem. Depending on where you live, you may see it at the market as verdolagas, its Spanish name. This salad is dressed with a peach brown butter vinaigrette. You can order seed from Territorial or Johnny's.

One of my favorite weeds to cultivate is nasturtium (tropaeolum majus). The entire plant is edible, the seed pod, the leaf and the flower, it is beautiful and very easy to propagate. The seeds can be salt cured like capers, and the leaves have a peppery arugula flavor. I serve it with a smoked sturgeon salad, smoked and thinly sliced with raw zucchini, pickled shallots, and red currants, on a red currant conserva. This dish is inspired by Swedish cuisine, although I really thought about the intertwining of the thin ribbons of fish and zucchini, and just designed the accompaniment around that idea.

Perhaps my most popular summer salad is the refreshing beet and watermelon salad, with pickled watermelon rind, amaranth (amaranthus retroflexus), dried chile vinaigrette and grated Redmondo, a firm, aged goat cheese from Juniper Grove. The beets, amaranth and chiles are earthy and savory, the watermelon and sweet rind pickle are juicy and fruity, the cheese is only mildly salty, and mildly firm. It could be my kind of dessert, though no one has ordered it that way.

What about the Ocean's weeds?

Anyone who knows my cooking knows that I have been strongly influenced by Japanese cooking. I have often used seaweeds in my dishes with seafood, tomatoes, cucumbers, or mushrooms. It can really cover a lot of ground. In more recent years, I've learned about salt tolerant plants, or halophytes, foraged along the coast in salt marshes and rocky cliffs. Some of these plants are now cultivated, like agretti (salsola soda), also known as barba di frate (Monk's Beard). This plant has a pleasant texture, slightly crunchy, a little sour and slightly bitter. As with most halophytes, it is good with seafood. I serve it sauteed with pattypan squashes, baby octopus and arabbiata sauce, which is Italian for "angry" sauce, defined by a healthy hand of garlic and chiles. You can order seeds from Seeds of Italy or Johnny's (It is actually not the same plant as saltwort or okahijiki, as it is known in Japan, but similar enough to be used with the same treatment).

Another halophyte that I use on the menu is marsh samphire (crithmum maritimum), which has many names (salicornia, sea beans, glasswort, criste-marines, pousse-pied, as well as marketing names like sea asparagus or sea fennel). This plant is usually foraged along the coast, and it is naturally very salty. At Park Kitchen, I blanch it in boiling, unsalted water before using it in seafood salads, or with potatoes and vegetables. Many people love to pickle it, but I personally have never enjoyed the flavor of halophytes in vinegar. Our sea beans are being served with a chilled salad of grilled razor clams, tomatoes, peppers and creamy, new crop fingerling potatoes.

One of the most mysterious plants on the menu right now is ficoide glaciale (mesembryanthemum crystallinum), which originated in southern Africa, and has been popular among the French chefs of haute cuisine for many years. It was then that I first encountered this plant in a French cookbook. Not surprisingly, the only place I know that sells seed is La Societe des Plantes (If you can't read french, you may have trouble maneuvering this site). I buy this special vegetable from Viridian Farms, who are the only people outside of California that I know who are selling it. As you can see in the photograph, its leaves are covered with cell walls filled with water. It is sometimes called ice plant or glacier lettuce, very crisp, crunchy and refreshing. Texturally, it reminds me of watermelon. I serve this with salmon and a rice porridge made with sesame and sweet walla walla onions, accompanied with a salad of cucumbers, wakame seaweed and ice plant. Then the entire dish is sprinkled with furikake, a sesame and spice mixture full of textures, colors and flavors. It is also great in textural salad presentations.

And why am I eating this?

Early in my cooking career, I happened upon many a book about herbs and medicine. Samuel Thayer's "Edible Wild Plants" and Euell Gibbons' "Stalking the Wild Asparagus" were probably the first big inspirations. In fact, it all started over a bowl of Grape Nuts cereal when I was a young lad, and I saw Euell Gibbons on a tv commercial. He seemed so cool by the campfire, gathering weeds and berries and eating the same breakfast cereal that I ate. Wow! He was James Dean and Gandalf in the same moment.

Once I started cooking as a professional, I encountered the book that brought all these ideas together and inspired me at a very formative time in my career. I was cooking at a french restaurant, and my chef introduced me to this book (now out of print) by Michel Bras (and it was in this book that I first encountered the plant ficoide glaciale, page 220). He describes the inspiration of foraging for ingredients, and using unusual plants for their unique flavors. His plating style was very clean and classic, simple yet elegant and mysterious. Back in 1996, I think this book more than any other singular influence inspired me to become a chef.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson!

The 23rd annual International Pinot Noir Celebration ended today with a whirlwind tasting panel at Park Kitchen. Jancis Robinson, the renowned author, educator and Master of Wine, was this year's IPNC host. She finished her weekend with the Oregon Wine Board tasting over fifty wines in less than three hours, judging their character and ageability.

Of course, pinot noir is Oregon's most celebrated wine, but the panel examined Chardonnay and Reisling as well. It was among the aged whites that I was most impressed. We tasted some surprising dry reislings from Amity 1988 and 89, and enjoyed Chehalem's 96 Reisling and 97 Chardonnay. With vintages spanning from 1979 to 2006, I have to say that after tasting little more than a dozen wines, I could only judge the quality of my intoxication! Indeed, it does take a professional to evaluate, or even be able to taste so many wines in one sitting.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Nocino, Midsummer's Day

It was five years ago that I tasted nocino for the first time, the Italian liqueur made from green walnuts. I was the sous-chef of an Italian restaurant in Portland, and we were buying salt and olive oil from Jim Dixon. He also makes his own nocino at home. It was rich and bittersweet, nutty, of course, but something dreamy, something full of mystery.

You'll find nocino throughout northern Italy, but it is still relatively unknown here in the States. I wanted to learn as much as I could about it, and make my own. As good fortune would have it, my neighbor across the street has a grand old walnut tree. I climbed into the branches with a basket, and after a few twists and scratches, had plenty of nuts to flavor some spirits.

The green walnuts are traditionally picked on the eve of the Festa di San Giovanni. This is Midsummer's Day, the 24th of June, and the time of year when the walnuts are starting to reach their full size, but have not yet started to harden. The shell and the nut inside the husk are still soft and white. I quartered the nuts, mixed them with sugar, some cloves, cinnamon sticks and lemon peel, then covered them with alcohol. According to the tradition, the mixture should be stored with exposure to sunlight for forty days, then filtered and drank deeply to honor the dead on All Soul's Day, November the 2nd (and throughout the winter months).

While I was researching different recipes, I noticed a trend. Many of the American recipes are pretty straightforward, simply covering the nuts, sugar and spices with vodka. The Italian recipes use grappa or grain alcohol. This facilitates a stronger flavor infusion, because of the higher alcohol content. Toward the end of the process, they add a simple syrup to dilute the proof of the liqueur and adjust the sweetness. I have certainly experienced the effectiveness of this method of infusion in the making of limoncello. Just to be sure, I made both recipes on the same day (St. John's Day, of course) to find out once and for all which renders the finer result.

For now, we wait. There will be a toast at my house on All Soul's Day. Come on over.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Let Them Eat Grass

A Home on the Range

This Sunday, the Park Kitchen team took a field trip just south of Scio, Oregon to meet our friend Joe Schueller at his ranch. Joe started Rainshadow el Rancho in 2001, and we have been buying pigs and rabbits from him since 2006. Joe has been working hard on a poultry processing plant for the last few years, and it is finally operational. We all wanted to take a closer look at his work on the ranch.

Joe keeps a diverse population on his ranch. He has a small herd of buffalo, a warren of rabbits, a few sheep, cornish hens, chickens and ducks (both layers and meat birds) and turkeys. During the construction of the processing plant, Joe's hogs have been raised on his neighbor, Claude's land. When they come back to Rainshadow, they will rotate on the pasture with the other animals. He has over 140 acres of pasture, and this is the primary diet of his animals. During our tour, Joe mentioned the writings of Joel Salatin from Polyface Farms, author of "Pastured Poultry Profits," as an inspiration to his own model of pasture raised farming.

There are a number of hatchling coops near the house. They stay under the lamps for the first three weeks before they go into the pasture. Then the chickens and ducks live in portable huts that are moved every day, so the animals have fresh grazing, and the manure is evenly dispursed. The animals are rotated in the pasture as well. The chickens will eat the bugs out of the manure of the larger animals and help to break it down, layering the nutrients in the soil. Once the soil is healthy, the environment is favorable for the growth of nutritious legumes like clover and lupine, dandelions and bluegrasses. This is the lifeline of the pasture. Once this harmonic balance is achieved, just letting the animals graze naturally perpetuates the pasture, which minimizes the cost of nutrient grain feeds, antibiotics to combat illness and malnutrition, and drugs to accelerate growth and weight gain.

The laying hens and turkeys have a more permanent residence, grazing under Joe's orchards of apple, cherry, plum and asian pear. The birds seem very happy there. Their eggs are delicious, and a bargain at $5 per dozen. This year will be the first for his Black Star chicken layers and Ancona duck layers. I'm looking forward to his first year of duck eggs and meat birds.

If you build it, they will come.

Joe began building the poultry processing plant on his ranch after twenty years in construction contracting. Joe said this was one of the most difficult projects of his life, in large part due to the difficulties of securing skilled workers for a small, rural project. After $600,000 worth of headaches and more than three years of work, Joe can process his own chickens, ducks, turkeys, game birds, and rabbits. Small growers and distant neighbors can bring their animals for custom processing as well. Today, small processing plants (less than five hundred head per day) are increasingly rare, but a great asset to everyone in the area.

This is Joe's wife, Karen in the doorway of their processing plant. The first room contains the funnels seen here for bleeding, as well as the scalder and plucker machines for poultry. When we were here, Joe had not yet acquired the wax tank for duck processing.

The poultry enters the cleaning room through a chute from the centrifugal plucker. The hangers hold the poultry by the head and feet, and the belt turns around the processing table. Then they enter the chill room, followed by bagging, weighing and freezing (unless they will be shipped fresh). With the plant running at 40% capacity, Joe said the electricity bill is about $450 per month. The economics of the small processing plant are challenging, but they cover the real cost of processing meats. Unlike their large scale competitor, the CAFO infrastructure is usually funded with tax dollars, and so is the waste treatment. Guys like Joe aren't using your tax money to sweep costs under the rug.

An Exceptional Breed

Joe has been raising rabbits, and they have always been outstanding. After a suggestion from a friend at OSU about cross-breeding, they have become the finest rabbits in Oregon. By cross-breeding three commercial breeds (Californian, Satin, and New Zealand), he has cultivated a rabbit that has good weight gain and a finer bone structure, which means a meatier rabbit that costs less than most of the competition. You can see the dressed weight written on these rabbits are all over 3 1/2 pounds! As with most of Joe's products, quality is high and prices are competitive.

The mighty buffalo roam in their own pastures. This is an entirely different scale of animal. There is about one bull for every ten cows, and right now Joe has a bull near 2,000 pounds! The average buffalo weighs about 1,200 pounds and dresses out to about 600 pounds of meat. It's nice to see the buffalo returning to American pastures. It's a rare sight, but Joe has a rare vision, and it's exciting to watch him bring it to life.