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.