Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Winter Radishes

When people think of radishes, they usually think of the quick growing "spring radishes," like french breakfast, easter egg or tapering icicle type varieties. Easy to grow and easy to eat, usually eaten raw, they are juicy and crunchy addition to many quick snacks and appetizers. The world of radishes is far more extensive than these. Everywhere in the world, radishes of all shapes and sizes are grown and prepared in vastly different ways. The winter radishes all have one thing in common. They are very dense in order to survive harsh growing climates, and their flavor is much stronger than spring varieties. They are generally treated in one of two ways, braised until tender to mellow their sharp flavor, or grated and served as a condiment to highlight their strong and sometimes spicy nature.

Some of these radishes are known by many names. The bleeding heart radish or watermelon radish has too many monikers to list, but seems to be derived from one of the many softball sized asian radishes. It has a beautiful spectrum of color, and is sometimes thinly shaved raw to show it's beauty, but this radish is quite dense for such uses, and thin slices should at least be soaked in cold water before using them raw. It does maintain its colors after being braised, although the color does fade. There are also varieties that have all red skin and flesh, resembling a chioggia beet.

The so-called Spanish black radish is especially tolerant of cold climates, and unlike most winter radishes, it stores well after harvesting. It has a very strong flavor reminiscent of horseradish, and often used in the same way. This root vegetable is common among eastern European cultures. It can be grated and mixed with sour cream or rendered goose fat to spread on dense pumpernickel or rye. It makes a good pickle, or braised until tender with cream or butter.

The Chinese daikon radish is familiar to Americans, but there are many more giant winter radishes of different shapes and sizes. The Chinese probably love radishes more than any other culture, and as a result, they have cultivated the most variety. As with the black radish, it is usually either pickled, braised until tender and served as an accompaniment, or grated and used as a condiment mixed with citrus peels, herbs or chiles. The daikon is one of the most mellow, and a good place to start if you are trying something new with winter radishes.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Juiciest Seeds in the World

Pomegranates are one of nature's unique wonders. The name pomegranate is derived from Latin "apple with many seeds," and it has been given its own family in the plant kingdom. There are over 500 cultivars of varying sizes and skin colors, ranging from yellow and purple, to the more dominant pinks and reds. The seeds also vary in color from white to deep red, and from sweet to very tart. Their cultivation extends back into ancient times, probably indigenous to the fertile crescent and the cradle of civilization, but it is now grown throughout the subtropical regions of the world. It is a popular crop in India, China and Afghanistan, throughout the Mediterranean, and in North America, most commerical production comes from California and Mexico. The tree-like shrub that bears these fruits is often grown outside the subtropics as a decorative landscaping plant, with attractive foliage and a beautiful orange spring blossom.

The seeds are surrounded by a supple pod of juice, delightfully moist and crunchy at the same time. They can be applied directly to dishes both sweet and savory, simply scattered over grilled meats, salads, or desserts. Their juice is also made into sweet syrups and cocktail mixers to extend the juice beyond their growing season, which usually lasts from November to February. When choosing pomegranates, pick the largest fruits, which should be dense and heavy for their size. At the end of the season, the seeds will not fill the entire fruit, and there will be more white pith than fruit (as shown below). Pomegranates do not continue to ripen after being picked, but they do store well under refrigeration. At home, I usually eat pomegranates for breakfast with yogurt and granola, but at the restaurant, they find their way into most everything for a few months.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Cedar Planking

The aroma of cedar is well known and loved, and its uses are many. One of the most famous and delicious dishes of the Pacific Northwest is cedar planked salmon. Fillets of salmon are laid on soaked planks of wood and grilled over an open fire. The wood not only imparts a rich smokiness, but also protects the delicate fish from direct heat.

In Japan, they have their own traditions of using cedar to impart flavor into food and drink. Their natural resources are less abundant, so their traditions are more frugal. Thin slats of cedar are wrapped around marinated seafood, sometimes accompanied by mushrooms or vegetables, and baked or roasted to impart the flavor of the cedar into the individual parcels. This technique, being smaller, also imparts much less smoke, and more of the wood.

Although the tradition of the indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest is a delicious and effective way of feeding a large group of people, if you're having a smaller gathering, the Japanese technique is an effective way of serving individual portions without using a lot of wood or charcoal.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Croute au Fromage

In the spring, I started a composed cheese plate at Park Kitchen. For whatever reason, we had never really sold much of the traditional cheese plate you see on menus all over town, a few wedges of cheese served with fresh or dried fruit, compotes, nuts, crackers, et cetera. It also never really seemed appropriate to the menu at Park Kitchen. I blogged about that first cheese plate, the Tete de Moine, in the spring. Since then, I have been featuring domestic cheeses, but I am once again returning to the cheeses of Switzerland for the first warm composed cheese plate of the year.

The melting qualities of Gruyere are well known and deserved. It is made from unskimmed and unpasteurized cow's milk, with a fat content of 45%. Aged from eight to ten months in 75 pound wheels, the dense texture and cream content make it one of the perfect melting cheeses, with its fruity aroma and nutty characteristics opening up as it melts. Shaving the cheese on a wooden Swiss mandolin is certainly fun, but you can use whatever you have. The dish is reminiscent of the classic Swiss croute au fromage, which is a sort of open faced croque monsieur. I have added a few elements to the traditional bread, ham and cheese. At the base of the dish are caramelized onions braised in beer. On top of that is a piece of grilled bread covered with melted Gruyere slices. Then we saute some chanterelle mushrooms and toss them with fresh sliced ham, pickled pears and pickled mustard seeds. As with the original croute au fromage, this is a hearty cold weather dish.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Mount Hood Matsutake

Although we have tremendous bounty of wild mushrooms in the Pacific Northwest, the matsutake is not well known outside the gourmand community. We have a good harvest of tricholoma magnivelare, the white matsutake, around Ponderosa and Lodgepole Pines along the coastline and approaching the higher altitudes of Mount Hood and Mount Adams. I have also found them among Douglas Fir, Rhododendron and Salal. It is a beautiful mushroom to see in the wild, peeking up among the rocks of shallow mountain streams, in mossy groves, and beneath the mosaic of autumn leaves.

The Japanese have a great reverence for this mushroom, which has strong symbolic value in their kaiseki cuisine. For this reason, they will often pay twenty times our local price, and matsutake from around the world are shipped to Japan in October and November. At Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, I have seen matsutake imported from Oregon, Washington and Canada, as well as Turkey and China. The Japanese variety, tricholoma matsutake, has more of the brown markings on the cap that are seen on the stem in the photo. However, the texture and flavor are almost indistinguishable.

The smallest mushrooms are the most highly prized because they are relatively tender, and the veil is closed, making them easier to clean. Larger mushrooms become rather fibrous, sometimes to the point of being impossible to chew. It's firm texture and spicy cinnamon aroma make it ideal for charcoal grilling or poaching and serving in broth. In kaiseki cuisine, it is most often served with fish or vegetables, but I have also liked serving it with meats like duck, beef and chicken. Bourbon has also been a favorite accompaniment in recent years. If you have never tried matsutake, perhaps a restaurant is the first place to taste them. If you feel adventurous, I have seen them at several farmer's markets and at Uwajimaya in the fall.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Mysteries of Kombucha

The history of kombucha is hazy and speculative. This intriguing fermented tea is believed to have come from China and migrated to eastern Russia. From there it migrated back to the far east and across the Pacific to the United States. My initial interest in kombucha came from it's mysterious appearance, a large brown vat of bubbling elixir with a large whitish gelatinous cap floating on top. The name kombucha is actually Japanese for "seaweed tea," because the fermenting "mother" floating on top resembles seaweed or a sort of jellyfish. The Japanese do make a tea (actually a tisane) of kombu seaweed which has the same name, but the fermented tea beverage is called kocha kinoko. In Russia it is called grib, and in China it is called hongcha jun.

Folklore surrounding the drink claim it is a health tonic with many healing properties, though this has not been extensively demonstrated by testing. The main claim for this seems to be the presence of glucuronic acid, which is a compound used in the liver for detoxification. This drink received widespread notoriety last year when a national recall pulled the emerging product ($300 million in retail sales) from retail store shelves. It had been discovered that the unpasteurized product contained more than the legal limit of 0.5% alcohol. For more on the story, read this. However, many people who are drawn to the notion of its healing properties claim that the "living" beverage loses many of its magical properties if it is pasteurized.

Returning to my original interest in the wonder drink, I was fascinated by the thick layer of SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) floating on top. This is the same thing you see in raw apple cider vinegar, but it is far thicker, and while living, it always floats. This is the perfect environment for the aerobic bacteria developing on the top of the SCOBY, and the anaerobic bacteria bubbling away from the bottom. Maintaining the pH of the fermentation is critical. Below 2.5 it is too acidic to drink, and above 4.6, it is at risk of contamination by unwanted bacteria and mold. If your grandmother ever made you drink a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar before dinner, you might be interested in trying a more flavorful alternative to healthy digestion. Others just like the taste of a slightly effervescent tea.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Huitlacoche, Black Gold of the Aztecs

In America, the only people who have heard of corn smut are corn farmers. It is a pathogenic fungus that swells and distorts corn into large blueish-black kernels, and usually gets fed to the pigs. The USDA has spent considerable time and money eradicating corn smut. South of the border, throughout Mexico, the same fungus is an ancient delicacy. Since the days of the Aztecs, it has been deliberately inoculated by cutting the stalks so that the water-borne fungus would infect the corn, promoting the development of the highly valued corn smut. It is called by the ancient Nahuatl name, huitlacoche, which means "raven's shit." Ears of corn infected with this dark colored fungus nearly quadruple the value of the corn. It takes on a rich, earthy flavor, retaining notes of the original sweetness of corn, but with far more complexity. When simmered with garlic and chiles, or made into a mole, the corn smut is often served on quesadillas or tamales. Maybe corn smut and raven's shit are not the most inticing monikers, which is why some American chefs are trying the term Mexican truffle! Whatever you call it, don't just throw it to the pigs, find out what the Aztec kings were so excited about.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

McSweeney's Starts Cooking

In typical McSweeney's fashion, the San Francisco based publishers have entered the world of food writing with a rather unorthodox beginning. The first book from their newest imprint, McSweeney's Insatiables, is Mission Street Food: Recipes and Ideas from an Improbable Restaurant. This book tells the story of Anthony Myint and his wife Karen, opening a cart in 2008 in San Francisco's Mission District.

What is so interesting about that? Thousands of carts opened across the country after the economic collapse. In this case, a talented cook began by offering delicious late night food at dirt cheap prices. They twittered and they gossiped, the buzz spread, and so did their business. They eventually moved out of the cart and into a number of other iconoclastic restaurant formats collaborating with famous chefs in the community and donating proceeds to charitable organizations. Their book not only chronicles their madcap tales of how this all came to be, but shares many of their recipes with step by step photography. This is not a glamorous cookbook, but it is gritty and substantial.

The writing is sincere and silly. There are bold ideas that came from bold actions. Besides the sly commentaries and original page layouts, there is also a comic storyboard about how it all began. It is a very fun book to read or even peruse. At the end of the book, they list the four golden rules of a successful chef, after which you "reap your rewards." Once you complete the four steps, the authors have the following advice:

The night before you open to the public, take a shower and go to sleep early.
This will be the last time your life feels under control. By the time you wake
up, you'll already be a couple hours in the shit, no matter what time it is.
Equipment will malfunction, food will be compromised, and the first-aid kit may or may not be adequate...Congratulations! Your rejection of money, a social life, or any conventional form of happiness is now complete. You are a
successful chef.

There are laughs in many forms available in these pages. It makes sense that McSweeney's would be their publisher. In their own words, the authors had never written a cookbook, and the publishers had never printed one. Cookbooks are a very complex kind of book to produce, requiring not only an interesting story and good writing, but lots of photographs, recipes and recipe testing. This takes a considerable amount of time.

The surprising turn for me is how McSweeney's crew has begun their new genre with such hubris. They have also become the publisher of Lucky Peach, a quarterly food magazine conceived by New York celebrity David Chang and Peter Meehan. David Chang is many things. Like Anthony Myint of Mission Street Food, he is an opinionated, iconoclastic chef who started out by feeding people delicious late night food on the cheap. Like Anthony, he went on to open several other food service operations. Both publications have a collaborative spirit, with contributions from other famous chefs and food writers, and also a desire to bring fine dining concepts down to the proletariat price point.

Chris Ying is the editor-in-chief of both Lucky Peach and Mission Street Food. The $64,000 question in my mind is how this project ended up at McSweeney's. Dave Chang and Peter Meehan had published the Momofuku cookbook with Potter, an imprint of Random House in New York. They had originally conceived of Lucky Peach as a Food Network TV show, then as an iPad app. Somehow it ended up being a magazine from a west coast publisher that had never handled food writing before?!? It could be that a new generation of publishers, like the new generation of chefs, are willing to explore new media.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Oregon Wasabi

Over the course of this summer, I was introduced to the farmers of Oregon's only wasabi farm, Frog Eyes Wasabi. In fact, there are only four such farms in North America, all of them located on the Pacific coastline. This remarkable plant grows very slowly, taking over a year to mature. It requires the cool and steady maritime climate to stay healthy. This long growth cycle is part of the high cost of fresh wasabi, but as with so many great foods imported from other cultures, Americans have little understanding of wasabi.

The most widely used part of the plant is the rhizome, which we call wasabi root, and which few Americans have ever tasted. Sadly, most Americans have been to sushi bars serving blobs of green paste alongside their nigiri and maki rolls. This is powdered horseradish and green food coloring. It has a simple one dimensional nasal heat and no flavor or aroma. It is very cheap, but it is no substitute for wasabi. Real wasabi does have a spiciness like horseradish, but it also has a very complex vegetal flavor and floral aroma. These compounds are very volatile, and they dissipate within a few minutes of grinding them into paste. This is why wasabi is traditionally ground to order.

Although the cost of fresh wasabi is high, that is partly because supply is low, and supply is low because awareness is low. My friends at Frog Eyes are in their first year of production, and they are already having a difficult time meeting demand. We thought it would be fun for them to come to Park Kitchen and have a tasting menu with wasabi applied in different ways. I wanted to show them the potential of wasabi in cooking, so they could open up new ideas for their marketing.

The meal started with something familiar, oysters on the half shell, trout roe, and a granita of wasabi root. I hoped that the sight of the wasabi leaf, rocks and seaweed would invoke the feeling of being at the farm. From here, they tasted dishes using different parts of the plant, and pairing them with tomatoes, cucumber, tuna salad, beef and mushrooms. The main course was grilled ribeye with wasabi root butter, sauteed chanterelles, padron peppers, potcha beans, and a puree of wasabi leaves, which is a vivid emerald green with a bright spicy herbal flavor.

You may begin to see fresh wasabi on the shelves of Portland grocery stores like Whole Foods, New Seasons, or Uwajimaya. The rhizome is particularly hardy. You can store it in the refrigerator for several weeks and it will not deteriorate. However, once grated, the nuances fade rather quickly, so use it as soon as possible.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Guide to Summer Berries

The Pacific Northwest is home to some of the finest berries in America. Boysenberries, marionberries, jostaberries, gooseberries, raspberries, loganberries, chesterberries, blueberries, huckleberries, a person could get lost in the lexicon of berries. Here are a few notes on what the names mean.

  • Strawberry (fragaria) is widely known and loved. There are many cultivars, but are generally divided into "June bearing" or "ever bearing" fruits.

  • Blackberry (rubus) is by far the largest family of berries with more than 350 species. The most widely known cultivars are the 'Boysen', 'Marion', 'Chester Thornless', 'Triple Crown', 'Logan', and 'Siskiyou', to name a few. Oregon is the leading world producer of cultivated blackberries.

  • Barberry (berberis) is more widely known as the Oregon grape or mahonia. It is too tart to eat out of hand, and generally used for making jellies.

  • Raspberry (rubus) generally refers to the European red raspberry, but there are also golden, purple and black raspberries. These fruits are particularly perishable, with its fruit being very soft when ripe.

  • Dewberry (rubus caesius) resembles the blackberry and is a close relative. It is reminiscent of the raspberry, but ripening to dark purple or black, and not as fragile as the raspberry.

  • Loganberry (rubus x loganobaccus) is a cross between a raspberry and a dewberry. It is about the size of a raspberry with the color and flavor of a blackberry.

  • Tayberry (rubus fruticosus x idaeus) is a cross between a raspberry and a blackberry, more resembling a raspberry and being sweeter than the loganberry.

  • Gooseberry (ribes uvacrispa) is a very tart berry, either green or red skinned, with green flesh. It is very popular in Europe, but not as well known or loved in America. I personally love this berry and use it extensively every year. It has a very short season, usually the month of June.

  • Jostaberry (ribes nigrum x uvacrispa) is a cross between a gooseberry and a black currant. It is slightly smaller than a gooseberry with a very dark colored skin and flesh. It's flavor is more like the black currant, especially when fully ripe.

  • Currants (ribes) are small, tart, pea sized berries ranging in color from white, pink, red, and black. The tartness of the berries also varies. They are generally used for jellies, preserves, liqueurs and sauces.

  • Blueberry (vaccinium) is divided into "lowbush," which are regarded as wild, and usually very small, and "highbush," of which there are many cultivars, and the berries are much larger.

Farmers markets in Portland are bursting with a wide variety of berries all summer long, and many people in the Northwest are passionate jam and jelly makers. People also store the berries in the freezer and use them well into autumn. Although I have always loved berries, I had never seen the wealth of fruits we have here in the Pacific Northwest, so take advantage of them.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Back at the End of the Line

The cover story of Time Magazine this week asks the question, "Can farmed fish feed the world?" Bryan Walsh makes the case for the future of integrated aquaculture, but it sounds better than it really is. It seems ironic to me that he uses the same title as Charles Clover's 2004 novel The End of the Line: How Overfishing is Changing the World and What we Eat. In Walsh's version, farmed seafood is the latest chapter in human control of the natural world. In Clover's version, modern technology and a growing population have wiped out world seafood stocks faster than we knew they were there. Can they both be right?

Introducing Aquaculture

There is no question that seven billion people eating seafood cannot be satiated by the natural world. In Charles Clover's book, he first talks about the total collapse of the cod population in the once bountiful waters of Newfoundland. He then makes a nearly decisive case for the total collapse of bluefin tuna within the next decade. However, the limits of wild seafood fishing are already being supplemented. People around the world are already eating more farmed fish than they realize. As the techniques and efficiency improve, some of it actually tastes good, too. Over 90% of Atlantic Salmon is farmed, over 1.4 million tons annually, and more than 40% of the shrimp consumed globally is farmed.

Basic Math Skills

If there is one glaring hole in Bryan Walsh's optimism, the math doesn't add up. The United Nations says that food production must increase by 100% in the next 40 years to keep up with current demand. That is a startling statistic for seafood. The studies of professor Daniel Pauly are featured in Clover's book, where he finds that global seafood harvest is several years past its peak. That means next year, we will have less wild seafood than this year. However, even in the best possible examples, it takes 2 pounds of wild fish, ground up and fed to farmed fish, and in the end you only get 1 pound of farmed fish, which leaves the ocean at a net loss. So, as Josh Goldman, founder of Australis Aquaculture observes, "the question of what the fish will eat is central to aquaculture. We can't grow on the back of small forage fish." Indeed, since the more realistic conversion rate is 5 pounds of wild fish to produce 1 pound of farmed fish.

Just Add Water

Clearly, the big question is "Can aquaculture technology develop fast enough to keep up with demand?" It will certainly not be able to do so without using resources from the wild. We are learning rapidly which fish are effectively farmed, such as barramundi, tilapia and carp. They have good conversion ratios and their habitat can be effectively simulated in integrated aquaculture systems. Ultimately, the question will be answered by economics. For example, when I started my culinary career, fish like skate, monkfish and black cod were very affordable because they were relatively abundant and underutilized, selling for eight dollars a pound wholesale. Now, fifteen years later, those numbers have doubled. If that trend continues, in 2025, wild salmon could cost $40 a pound at the retail counter. Most Americans will not be able to afford that. In Bryan Walsh's closing arguments, he concludes "if we're all going to survive and thrive in a crowded world, we'll need to cultivate the seas just as we do the land. If we do it right, aquaculture can be one more step toward saving ourselves." Let's hope that step is taken in stride.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Pimientos de Padron

Padron peppers have taken America by storm. They originated in the municipality of Galicia, Spain, where they have long been a popular tapas dish simply sauteed in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt. They were first brought to the Pacific Northwest by Manuel and Leslie of Viridian Farms, and have since been grown by a dozen other farms on the west coast. In Galicia, they have a saying, "os pementos de Padron, uns pican e outros non," a rhyme that translates as "some are hot and some are not." Manuel and Leslie say that only one in twenty is spicy, but I find it to be more like one in seven!

At Park Kitchen, I like to cook them with all sorts of accompaniments, from chanterelles and cherry tomatoes, to gnocchi or octopus. They also make a lovely side dish for a pork roast or braised beef. Their size and mild heat are so versatile that they deserve a versatile presentation. You can find them at many farmers markets from July to late September or early October. They are quick and easy to cook, so give them a try.

Considering Dessert

I have enjoyed my subscription to Art of Eating for years. It is an opinionated quarterly, and a rare kind of food magazine in today's publishing world, a work of diligent food journalism that has thus far not diluted its content to the full color photography driving most monthly magazines. When I received the latest issue with several articles addressing desserts and pastry, it was as if Edward Behr and his team had peered into my recent thoughts on the sweet subject.

Mr. Behr himself wrote A Point of View in Pastry, describing the talents of Shuna Lydon. In writing about her work history, he is able to discuss the differences between east and west coast sensibilities regarding the final course. I like what he has to say about Lydon, and his observations of the craft. His conclusion particularly resonated with me. "A dessert has to fit the whole of the restaurant. It has to mesh with the savory part of the menu; the waiters have to be able to describe and sell it; the time between order and pickup can't be too long." As usual, his observations extend beyond creativity, and place it within the context of the logistics of a restaurant.

I started my career in cooking as a baker and pastry chef. Now, after many years of savory cooking, I am once again directing the pastry program at Park Kitchen. My perspective has changed, and my approach to desserts are more of an extension of the savory meal. I think this makes my menu more consistent, and the transition from savory to sweet is more seamless. I also set out to make the desserts complete without fussy garnishes and inedible decorations. I was inspired by influential pastry chefs like Claudia Fleming to make desserts as seasonally focused as the rest of the menu. So I was eager to read Mitchell Davis' well written article, Where is Dessert Headed? and see what he thinks of American desserts in the twenty-first century.

Mr. Davis begins by proposing that American tastes have evolved over the last half century, but "our dessert tastes are for the most part stuck at a five year old's birthday party circa 1952." I suppose this is true inasmuch as America loves comfort foods. He proceeds by asking the question "what makes a dessert great?" Is it innovation or is it satisfaction? It really depends on the audience. Mr. Davis describes a recent meal at the James Beard House in which Matt Lightner served his creative seasonal cuisine with mixed responses. Although Mr. Davis enjoyed the meal immensely, "it felt as though half the dining room was in rapture and the other half wanted their money back." This is usually the response to very personal creations. They may seem like a revelation to some, while being completely lost on others.

This is especially the challenge of restaurant desserts and pastry. In the restaurant industry, desserts are a loss-leader. The ingredients cost a lot, perishable fruits and fine chocolates, and the techniques require a lot of time and skill. The price of desserts rarely covers the cost of their own production. This is perhaps the reason why the world's most innovative pastry chefs have abandoned their posts, and in many cities, pastry chefs are becoming as hard to find as sommeliers. In Spain, Albert Adria, former pastry chef at El Bulli is now the owner of a tapas bar. In America, Alex Stupak, former pastry chef of Alinea, now owns a Mexican restaurant, and Sam Mason, former pastry chef of WD-50 is now a bartender. This seems to me to be at the heart of the question "Where is dessert headed?"

America will always love apple pie and cupcakes. The classics endure for two reasons, because their flavors and textures are simple pleasures, and because they are affordable. Fine dining desserts require extravagant bells and whistles to entertain, whether they are the old world spun sugar cages and towering spires of chocolate sculpture, or the new world liquid nitrogen and high tech chemistry. They are less likely to have the endurance of the classics. Mr. Davis recalls his most memorable dessert, a simple "slice of lemon tart served unadorned" at the legendary restaurant of Fredy Girardet. Although that perfect simplicity might exhibit a certain sophisticated restraint, it was the conclusion of a $250 lunch that few can afford.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Outstanding in the Field

Twelve years ago, Jim Denevan had a vision. As an artist composing designs in sand and earth and ice, his energies are poured into the grand scenery of nature. He turned this creative vision toward hosting dinners at farms around Santa Cruz, California. While growing up, he spent time at his older brothers organic farm, and hosted one of his earliest alfresco dinners there. After a few years of cooking these meals himself, Jim assembled a crew and took the show on the road. He has published a cookbook with photos of their famous bus travelling the country, and recipes of favorite Outstanding in the Field meals.

For the past eight years now, Outstanding in the Field has travelled the country serving these dinners at farms and orchards, wineries, dairies and ranches, bringing people closer to the people and the products they strive to celebrate. Each dinner is now prepared by a chef from the region, and the travelling crew set up the now familiar family table stretched through these beautiful landscapes of American agriculture.

Over the past decade and across the country, this kind of farm dinner has become increasingly popular, and many others have begun hosting similar events. The hard work of our farmers and ranchers, cheesemakers and winemakers are once again being praised. It takes a lot of work to set up these dinners and serve great meals in rural settings, but if the guests take away some appreciation of the beautiful scenery and some insight into the origins of great food, its worth the effort.

This year, I had the opportunity to work with them at Cameron Winery, cooking alongside my friend and OITF alumnus, Troy Maclarty. He had spent the previous summer on the road with them. Our friends John and Teri at Cameron Winery have a beautiful property, and have hosted several special gatherings here, so we felt right at home cooking at the winery, which is all you can hope for at events like this!

Red Fruits of Early Summer

Sometimes the patterns of nature are a thing of beauty. In the early days of summer, the last of the strawberries and the first of the stone fruits take on a common motif of blushing tones. Raspberries and tayberries, which are a cross between the red raspberry and loganberry, blush with crimson ripeness, and the sweet and tart varieties of cherries come in a wide range of reds. The red currant is the first of the currants to ripen. The fruits of summer do not stay red for long before the berries and drupelets darken into purples and blacks. For a few weeks, the summer landscape is sweetly scarlet.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Calcotada Festival

I first saw calcots (cal-sohts), these intriguing spring onions at Barcelona's Mercat de St. Josep, also known as La Boqueria. The way they are grown and eaten is a particular specialty of the region. These onions (allium cepa) were originally grown in the city of Valls, in the province of Tarragona. Planted in the spring, then harvested in summer, the clumps of onions are separated and cellared, replanted in the fall, and then the soil is banked up around the shoots, just like growing white asparagus. This makes for a tender green onion with a thick, tall white neck. The onions are then grilled over a flaming fire, not the steadily glowing coals that are usually used for grilling.

For our Portland Calcotada, chef Scott Ketterman of Simpatica grills the calcots grown by Viridian Farms, using vine clippings from them as well. The exterior of the onion is deeply charred, and then they are served from terra cotta roof tiles with a dipping sauce of romesco or salbitxada, made from chiles, almonds, garlic and tomato.

To eat this messy delicacy, hold the onion up by the green tops and peel downward toward the root, wiping away all the charred exterior. Dip the tender, steamed white into the sauce and slurp them down with your favorite Spanish wines. Our celebration included drinking from the festive porron, a wine pitcher designed for pouring wine directly into your mouth, grilled butifarra sausages, and mongetes (Catalan white beans). We happened to be sitting next to some enthusiastic Catalonian's that made it feel all the more like we were in Spain for a day.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Green Strawberries

What is the idea behind using unripe strawberries, you might ask? Indeed, that is the question my farmers were asking two years ago, when I first started asking them to pick their strawberries after they had fully grown, but before they could ripen into the familiar blushed red jewels so widely known and loved. I first asked Leslie of Viridian Farms, and Dave of Creative Growers. Dave said, "What the hell do you want that for?" Not entirely sure myself, I answered, "Think of it as an early gooseberry."

Guided by the beloved tradition of using green tomatoes at the end of the season, and making verjus from the unfermented juice of unripe grapes, it seemed to me there must be some virtue to unripe strawberries in the days leading up to the summer solstice.

Last year, the green strawberries were glazed in a piquant gastrique and served with duck breast, toasted buckwheat, rhubarb and chard. This year, they are gently poached and pickled, and accompany a chilled salad of squid with raw kolrabi and agretti (a crunchy green plant of Italian origin). The salad is dressed with lemon, buttermilk and arugula oil. It is a nice mosaic of green and white, with textures both crisp and supple. Come try it soon, as green strawberries don't stay green for long.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Chartreuse and other Herbal Tonics

The history of Chartreuse liqueur is one of France's ancient mysteries. In 1605, the Carthusian monks of Vauvert, near Paris, produced an alchemical formula that had been developed through the Middle Ages, a tonic of medicinal herbs infused and macerated to produce an "elixir of long life." This medicinal recipe was sent to La Grande Chartreuse, the central monastery of the order, near Grenoble. By the year 1737, father Jerome Maubec had deciphered the formula, and production of the "elixir vegetal de la Grande Chartreuse" began. The liqueur was a potent 71 percent alcohol, starting with herbal notes, and a spicy, pungent finish. Conceived as a medicine, people were drawn to its particular flavor. The monks set out to produce a more approachable beverage. In 1764, Green Chartreuse was bottled and distributed at 55 percent alcohol. The distinctive flavor and green color was still derived from the 130 alpine herbs used in the original formula.

The Order of Chartreuse was dispersed in the years following the French Revolution, and production of their magical elixir was disrupted, but the secret recipe was preserved. By 1838, the monks began producing Yellow Chartreuse, a slightly sweeter tonic with an even lower alcoholic content of 40 percent, it's yellow hue derived from saffron.

A relatively recent addition to the Carthusian monks production is the Chartreuse V.E.P., which stands for Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolonge, exceptionally long aging in oak casks. The flavors and complexity of the elixir improves with aging, and this liqueur is intended to highlight those qualities.

Genepi and other Herbal Elixirs

Chartreuse is only the most widely known of these ancient medicinal infusions. All the countries of Western Europe produced such elixirs in the Middle Ages, and some have survived, though the recipes and brands have changed over the centuries. Throughout Southern France, many bright green herbal liqueurs exist today under the generic term of genepi (zhe-nay-pee). Genepi refers to any liqueur made of mountain flora or aromatic plants, and are often homemade, with no particular brand name or distribution. Some have no name of any kind, other than the generic term genepi. One of the better known liqueurs I have encountered comes from the town of Le Puy en Velay, a monastic town on one of the ancient pilgrimage routes of St. James of Compostella. It is called Vervain, named after its principal ingredient, verbena. Today, these elixirs are almost always comsumed for their spicy herbal flavor rather than their healing properties, but the stigma of their ancient origins remains intact, as do the magical compounds that gave them promenance to begin with.


For a few fleeting moments in mid spring, the elder tree blossoms with huge umbels of starry white flowers. Throughout Europe, this richly fragrant aroma is traditionally preserved in cordials, a simple syrup accented with a variety of flavors. My friends in Switzerland have an elder tree that yields their annual holunderbluten mit zitronenmelisse, elderflower syrup with lemon and honey. In it's simplest form, this is a refreshing spring and summer cocktail with gin, or a splash of soda. The famous French liqueur St. Germain is an elderflower infusion great for many other cocktails.

It can also be used to infuse cream for desserts, from custards, sabayons and panna cotta, to parfaits and jellies that go well with rhubarb, strawberries and other seasonal delights. Do not apply heat to the flowers, which will lose much of their heady citrus aroma and become very bitter. Allow the time for a cold infusion, and then strain and enjoy.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tete de Moine

Of the many outstanding Swiss cheeses, there is a special place in my heart for the Tete de Moine. Typically, mountain cheeses are made in large wheels of twelve pounds or more. The Tete de Moine is a small wheel, less than two pounds, made of raw cow's milk, and typically aged two to three months. It's name means "monk's head," and refers to the cheese's resemblance to the shorn heads of the abbey brethren after the first slice has been removed. Today, it is produced by cooperatives surrounding the town of Bellelay, and is sometimes called by that name.

The Swiss have a penchant for gadgetry, which is probably why I am so fond of their customs and traditions. A devise called a girolle is used specifically to cut this cheese into beautiful, thin ruffles. The cheese has a sharp and intense flavor, quite nutty and salty, with sweet fruity notes, so these light curls of cheese are an appropriate means of approaching it without being overwhelmed. I thought this unique appearance would be the perfect way to start serving a composed cheese plate.

Taking advantage of the early spring shoots and wild herbs, I thought it would be fun to imitate the mountain pastures where this cheese originated. The base of the dish is made of crumbled honey walnut cake, which is then covered with an assortment of foraged greens, wood sorrel, lemon balm, watercress, wood violets, miner's lettuces, and dressed with a sherry walnut vinaigrette. A few florets of cow's milk cheese and some fried strips of salsify for crunch, and a pastoral pleasure is ready to serve.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Vegetables for Dessert

For several years now, it has been my mission to make the desserts at Park Kitchen a natural extension of a vegetable focused menu. At first, this meant that instead of using tropical fruits in my desserts, as many restaurants do, I would utilize the natural sugars of the vegetable kingdom instead. You won't find pineapple and banana on my menu, but you might find beets, fennel, carrots, parsnips, or even sweet peas. As this repertoire developed, and I established a relationship with this new flavor spectrum, I gradually began decreasing the amount of sugar in my dessert recipes, and began adding salt!

I've never had much of a sweet tooth. I don't regard sugar as a flavor of it's own, and I think too much sugar tends to hide the natural flavor of other ingredients. I found that adding salt enhances not only the natural flavors, but also the perception of sweetness, without actually adding more sugar. Most people have experienced an extreme of this in salted caramels, something that has an awful lot of sugar in it, but the salt brings out the richness of caramelization. A salted caramel seems more satisfying because it's not just sweetness we taste anymore.
Now, I can focus on bringing these elements together in pleasing varieties of texture and temperature. This chocolate cake is served with a frozen parsnip custard, which is covered with a warm roasted white chocolate ganache, and sliced parsnips that have been poached in milk and honey. Roasted white chocolate tastes like dulce de leche, with all the caramelization and only half the sugar. It makes a nice bridge for the creamy parsnips and the rich dark chocolate. The alternating layers of warm and cold are refreshing and surprising.

Curds and Whey

It is always exciting to use culinary classics as the source of inspiration for a dish. For several years, I wanted to use the traditional Italian maiale al latte as a starting point for a spring pork entree. Pork is braised in milk, which provides the dual effect of tenderizing the pork by means of its lactic acid, and rendering the curds from the whey, with the addition of rich, caramelized meatiness. Delicious to be sure, but a sore sight of dark brown curds loose and floating in whey.

For the Park Kitchen version, we strain the curds and form them into gnudi, or dumplings bound with flour and eggs, and softened with some fresh cheese. The whey, which is so rich with umami, is lightened with a puree of leeks and scallions, giving it an emerald green hue. Leek is the primary accompaniment, tender slices of the white portion, the green being pureed, but also used as a garnish. Drawing further inspiration from European traditions, the leeks are charred on the grill, reminiscent of the calcotada festivals of spring, and the ash is then used as a sort of vinaigrette, while the inner portion is made into chips, which I call onion glass. The pork is exceedingly tender, although in cuts like the loin and leg, it is still moist and pink, which for some tragic reason, most Americans are not prepared to enjoy. I highly recommend venturing out. Although it is marketed as "the other white meat," it is classified as livestock, which is always red meat, and indeed, good pork is never white.

As for the Milk Itself

I've recently started buying Holstein cow's milk from Noris Dairy, which does not homogenize their milk, a procedure long known to cause digestive problems. It is distributed by a cooperative company called Eat Oregon First, which supply everything from local meats and seafood, to grains, dairy and produce. Their emergence into the Portland market is helping to bring small producers to a wider audience.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Discovering the Virtues of White Chocolate

White chocolate is a relatively new confection, first produced in the early twentieth century. I have never felt like it had much of a repertoire. Lacking cocoa mass or cocoa liquor, it has also seemed lacking in character to me. It also lacks the rich aroma of dark chocolate, usually being deodorized because its natural scent is considered too strong and undesirable. Having been stripped of so many of its best qualities, it has taken years for me to take interest in white chocolate.

White chocolate must contain a minimum of 20 percent cocoa butter, but I usually require about 30 percent to achieve the results I prefer. It must contain no more than 55 percent sugar, or other sweeteners. There are many cheap white chocolates on the market, which have tarnished its reputation, but the key to using white chocolate effectively is by controlling the ratio of cocoa butter and sugar to bring out qualities you like.

One of my favorite ways to bring depth of flavor to white chocolate is by roasting it at 250 degrees for about 10 minutes. The cocoa butter caramelizes, and the resulting flavor is like dulce de leche, but less sweet. At that point, it can become a ganache, an ice cream, a powder, a frosting, or grated over other components.

Another useful characteristic of white chocolate and cocoa butter is its high melting point. For example, you could use olive oil as a solid at room temperature by melting it with a small percentage of cocoa butter, and then watch it thicken as it cools. This allows you to create textures that wouldn't be possible at certain temperatures.

I will soon be able to get white chocolate through Classic Foods that has not been deodorized. By also using high fat white chocolate, I have found some ways to make white chocolate interesting by extending it's normal boundaries of fat and aroma. More to come...

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Future of Fresh Fish

Several weeks ago, Scott and I met with Rick Goche, a local fisherman with a family business centered in Coquille, Oregon, near Coos Bay. He has fished albacore and salmon for over twenty years. Since the salmon fishing has become increasingly restricted in Oregon and California in recent years, he is very concerned about maintaining quality with the albacore catch. We were very pleased last year when Provvista Specialty Foods started carrying Rick's albacore loins quick-frozen in vacuum bags. Why would we be excited about frozen fish, you might wonder? Let me explain.

Ever since I moved to Portland in 2002, I have been confounded by the seafood supply here. I was dazzled by our abundance of remarkable farm produce, orchards, vineyards and ranchers raising everything from rabbits and lamb, to beef cattle and buffalo. Yet here, a mere eighty miles from the Pacific Ocean, there was a bleak supply of fresh seafood. Year round, we all see the same limited supply of salmon, halibut and Yellowfin tuna. Yet these are not fished year round, and rarely from local waters, unless Alaska and Hawaii are to be included in our locale. Most people, especially sushi lovers, don't realize that they have been purchasing previously frozen fish for years.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. In the world's largest fish market, where a single Yellowfin tuna can average over $30,000 (a new record set in January was $396,000 for an enormous Bluefin tuna), the frozen-at-sea trade is by far the largest and most consistent was to maintain quality. When a single fish can fetch that much money, you'd better believe they are going to protect their investment. Despite our romatic notions of a fish that has just been pulled from the ocean waters, pristine red gills and deep clear eyes, what more often happens is that it takes a day or two before that "fresh fish" even makes it to the market in Portland. But why? It's not just the ninety minute drive from the coast!

In today's world, seafood can only be considered in the global market. Unfortunately, what this means is that if the currency exchange is better in Asia, they will likely buy most of our Dungeness Crab, or if the demand for salmon and king crab is greater in Japan than it is in America, they will buy most of Alaska'a catch, as they have for decades. Portland is not a big city, and it is not a coastal city. It is much easier to deliver large quantities of seafood to San Francisco or Seattle or Vancouver, and that is often what happens.

This problem is compounded by the ignorance of the consumer. If you go to the fish counter of Whole Foods or New Seasons, you will find far more seafood from the Atlantic than the Pacific Ocean, if they even bother to label its source. For all of these reasons, the question you should ask when buying "fresh fish" should be how well has it been handled in its fresh and highly perishable, highly vulnerable state. Is it better than that of seafood that has been frozen at the peak of its freshness, and delivered with no further handling damage to its final destination?

Back to our meeting with Rick. Rick is working with Provvista to be proactive about seafood. They are gathering quotes from restaurants to determine how much albacore they might buy this summer. Most of Rick's albacore is canned by his company, Sacred Sea. This is a high quality product, but we'd like to get more fish in the raw. Whether we can get it fresh or frozen, we are trying to find a way to keep the quality high, even when the supply is low. I have a feeling that the marketing stigma of frozen fish is going to change in the next few years, and where seafood is concerned, the handling of the product from the ocean to the kitchen will have to be better understood by the consumers.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Jerusalem Artichoke, a Troubling Misnomer

From Thanksgiving to Easter, these delicious tubers are waiting to be discovered by many hungry Americans. Delicious as it is, Helianthus tuberosus suffers from an image problem that has lingered for four hundred years, a bad name. If there is a reason more people aren't cooking them, it can only be the ridiculous name Jerusalem artichoke. Being neither from Jerusalem, or in the family of artichokes, or having a "choke" of any kind, this is the name most often used. Centuries ago, when this plant first arrived in Europe from its native soils of North America, it spread in popularity, especially in Italy and France. The Italians called it girasole, meaning sunflower. After all, helianthus is a wild sunflower with edible tubers produced in its root stalks. Sometimes, the plant was called girasole articiocco, an archaic word for artichoke, whose taste it resembled.

When the Jerusalem artichoke was introduced to England, the British felt the need to "correct" the name from girasole (gee-rah-so-lay) to "Jerusalem." That name spread throughout the English speaking world, and back to its native land, where it has been called Jerusalem artichoke for centuries. The French made the same mistake, naming the tubers topinambour, after the Brazilian Indians, the Topinambas, who had never even seen the plant. Gratefully, after all these years, the name is changing. I call them sunchokes, and this is a name that chefs are using more and more often. Perhaps the better name would be sunroot, if only people knew what you were talking about!

Whatever you call them, grow them, cook with them, eat them. They are a very productive plant, needing little care, producing a pretty summer flower and a delicious winter food. Like potatoes, there are many varieties that all cook slightly differently. There are red skins and brown skins. The globular, protuberant Stampede is an early harvest variety, while the more tubular Fuseau varieties are somewhat easier to use. They are starchy with a nutty, even mushroomy flavor to me, and a touch of sweetness. Also like potatoes, they make marvelous fried chips, they can be baked or roasted or poached. Sunchokes are delicious with simple accompaniments like nut dressings or salsas. On the menu at Park Kitchen right now, we have one of our simplest soups. We roast them with their skins on, and puree them with vegetable stock and olive oil, then pass the puree through a fine sieve. The soup is rich and creamy, complimented with honey poached pears and hazelnut crumble.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Incredible Ice

Ice cubes don't normally catch my attention. A few years ago, I was in a shochu bar in Japan with my boss, and we were served some mugi shochu on the rocks. I guess I should say, on the rock!! Glistening in our highballs was a single, perfect cube of ice, chilling the shochu and only slowly melting into it. We were very impressed. At the end of our meal, we ordered a whisky, which this time was served with a perfect sphere of ice. This is exactly the kind of thing we like to take away from our culinary trips and bring back to our own restaurant.

We found the clever plastic molds they use to make these show-stoppers. Since then, Portland bartenders have continued to impress me with their innovative ice. This time, it is by incorporating flavors into the ice that become released into the drink as they melt. Laurelhurst Market's bartender, Evan Zimmerman, has a cocktail with smoked ice cubes melting into Tennessee whisky and sherry. Beaker and Flask owner, Kevin Ludwig had a clever coconut milk ice cube melting into tropical splendor. Next time you're making cocktails at home, don't overlook the ice.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Understanding the Fifth Taste

Last week, I was asked to give a lecture at Young's Columbia on food pairings with sake. One of the topics that I discussed was the presence of umami in sake. This portion of the lecture evoked the most interest, and I was surprised that even among professionals, this term may be recognized but little understood. I decided to describe umami and try to clarify some of its elusive magic.

The Primary Flavors

There are five primary flavor profiles of taste. Two of them are metabolic, salty and sweet. We need these compounds for our bodies to function. Two of them are protective, bitter and sour. These tastes were originally used to determine whether our food was safe to eat. Many bitter flavors in nature are toxic, and sour often indicates a high presence of bacteria. We've learned to overcome those primordial associations, and these flavors are now a part of a more sophisticated palate. The fifth taste has always existed, but we've only come to recognize it in recent years. This fifth taste became a buzz word in the media about ten years ago, but it is still poorly understood. It is called umami. This term was created from the Japanese words umai, meaning "delicious," and the suffix mi, meaning "to taste." So, this new flavor profile that we just identified after thousands of years of civilization is termed deliciousness! It seems incredible that we could have overlooked that as a primary flavor profile.

There is a reason for this long-standing oversight. This delicious flavor is not as simple as the other primary flavors. We know that an apple or a pear is going to be sweet, and we know that a lemon is going to be sour. This is obvious to us. Umami describes a flavor that we are genetically designed to crave. These flavor compounds are called glutamates, and they are the most abundant amino acids in nature. (Technically, glutamates are the salt compounds of glutamic acid, which is the root of umami. I am going to use the terms interchangeably.)

This compound is present in everything from tomatoes and cheese, to mushrooms and seaweed. Even a mother's milk is abundant in glutamates, which should give some indication of how deeply rooted our genetic disposition is. When our taste buds detect glutamates, an electric impulse goes straight into our brain, and our brain says, "This is delicious. You want to eat more of this." The reason for this is that these glutamates are rich in amino acids that are ready for our bodies to metabolize. They are ready to use, and they take less energy and facilitate more of our biological functions than other compounds.

Synergistic Effects, or Sodium and Salinity

Without getting too technical here, the strength of our disposition toward glutamates becomes even stronger in the presence of other compounds. Inosinates in proteins, and guanylates in cellulose make the effects of glutamic acids and succinic acids even more desirable flavors. This is where sake comes in. Sake has a special relationship with umami rich foods. These flavor compounds create a synergistic effect. We all know this when we grate cheese on our spaghetti with tomato sauce, or when we make miso soup with mushrooms. The reason sake resonates so well with food is that it has a link to umami flavors, which are the most abundant amino acids in nature.

Of course, tasting is always subjective. We all like what we like for different reasons. However, next time you are going to have some barbequed pork ribs, instead of just opening a bottle of pale ale, try a rich junmai instead. The next time you are going to have a bowl of spaghetti alla carbonara, before you open a bottle of chianti, try a good yamahai. When you want to shuck some oysters on the patio, before you chill your muscadet, chill a gingo instead.

Wine in particular has a much higher acidity and sodium level, which inhibits these synergistic effects. This is one of the reasons why you don't drink wine with caviar. It tastes too metallic and salty. Vodka is the traditional accompaniment for a good reason. It has no acidity or sodium. For the open minded oenophile, try a blind tasting, and let your tastebuds surprise you.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Animal Husbandry

I take great pride in sourcing our products at Park Kitchen. This will be our third year of buying pork from Chris Roehm at Square Peg Farm in Forest Grove, Oregon. Chris pulls up in front of the restaurant with his pick-up truck on Wednesday morning, and we carry in a split hog to our wooden six foot work table. Last week's half pig weighed in at one hundred fifty two pounds, counting the head. This is the first pig from Chris' latest breeding cross between Berkshire and Chester. The meat is a proud burgundy red, as good pork should be, and the fat marbling makes this pork worth the premium price we pay for it.

I have a lot of good things to say about the animal husbandry at Square Peg. Chris has some happy pigs on his farm. They have open pasture most of the year, a diet of certified, local organic feed, and something you don't find on many small pig farms these days...piglets!! Chris breeds his own pigs rather than simply buying weaners from a commercial breeder. Of course, it's hard work mating and farrowing large animals. He has tried both methods, and found that breeding allows him to keep his animals in a steady and sustainable manner. He has more control over their heritage and their health from beginning to end, and a constant herd of animals keeps his income steady as well.

I could say more about why I like doing business with Chris. suffice it to say, it feels good when you collaborate with people who share your philosophy about responsible agriculture. It takes time to build relationships that work for the restaurants needs and the farmers means. Finding that balance and forming great relationships is worth the wait. If you'd like to know more about the life of Square Peg Farm, go to Chris' blog and see for yourself.

The Art of Farm Living

How rewarding is it to render the labors of farm living into works of art? Of course we all appreciate a well made wine, a delicious pork shoulder, fresh eggs and cream. At Big Table Farm, the art of these products goes a step further. Thanks to Clare Carver, we can see the art of farm living in their creative wine labels and various paintings from scenes on the farm, from chanterelles foraged in their wooded hillside to the birth of a new calf. Thanks for sharing a glimpse of the farm with us.