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.