Friday, July 31, 2009

A Whole Lotta Love

In the first post of this blog I talked about my friends Steve and Kolet. Steve read the blog and shared this thought:
"Recipes are the documentation of someone else's work. For those without any imagination or creativity, it's a way of re-creating a dish, not unlike paint-by numbers. You may think you are artistic, but we know the difference. Recipes are valuable as a reference tool, a piece of research for you to consider when you start to create your own dish. I have 100's of cookbooks, and have never duplicated a single one of any of their recipes. Hell, I don't even cook my own recipes the same way twice. Each new version becomes a refinement of the last attempt. Each time, trying to get closer to the perfection I see and taste in my mind. My current quest has been for the perfect homemade Pastrami. After 5 years of diligence, I will tell you I'm getting close.

Kolet reminded me about that time that you house sat for us in Fresno, and all you asked for was a box of cereal and a pot of bacon chili. When we returned home the box was partially full, but the pot of bacon chili was gone.

What a joy to be remembered by good friends with an association of good shared food."
God, I want some pastrami right now.

I did house sitting for Steve and Kolet one summer when we were in college. Most of my friends had gone home for the summer and I chose to beat the Fresno heat by staying in, playing with their dog Pischer, reading, and listening to music.

My soundtrack was a vinyl compilation of Warner Brothers artists titled "Superstars of the Seventies," featuring "Run, Run, Run" by Jo Jo Gunne, "Doctor My Eyes" by Jackson Browne, "Paranoid" by Black Sabbath, and Led Zepplin's "Whole Lotta Love."

I loved being in their kitchen; it was really interesting to spend time and examine how they stocked their pantry: which ingredients they chose and how much they stocked (seeing what somebody buys in bulk can tell you a lot).

The layout of the kitchen reflected their free-wheeling but practical sensibilities. They had a wonderful wooden counter on wheels - originally intended as a gurney, but happily rescued before ever put to that use. Kolet explained that the height of it was perfect for her to kneed bread dough.

So I made my first bread in that house. I made dark, rich, unleavened herbal bread and several loaves of pale, puny french bread. They looked anemic but actually tasted pretty good.

So I settled into their easy chair with Pischer beside me, and feasted on fresh bread while listening to "Whole Lotta Love."

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Art of Improvisation

The only time I ever worked in a restaurant kitchen was in 1975.

I was a dishwasher.

As a fledgling theatre artist, I moved to New York City to try out the bustling theatre scene. I was crashing on the living room floor of a college friend who tended bar at a downtown comedy club. One fateful night, the club's porter failed to show and I got the desperate call: could I come and fill in?

The club was The Improvisation. The Improv, as it came to be known, was the grandaddy of the comedy showcases. Nestled in the heart of Hell's Kitchen, it was a small, brick, two-room dive with a small stage shoved into the corner of the dining room. Off of the dining room was a galley kitchen manned by George, the self-proclaimed chef de cuisine,, the reluctant porter, "porter" being a catch-all for dishwasher, janitor, stock boy, etc.

George was southern-born and a mostly self-taught chef. He had enormous pride and a fiery temper. He was eventually fired for assaulting the owner with a chef's knife.

It was a lively place.

The Improv was a breeding ground for upcoming comic talent. It had nurtured stars like Rodney Dangerfield and Robert Klein (both of whom stopped in for guest appearances while I was there; both were amazing.). Richard Lewis was the regular weeknight emcee. Larry David, already an established comedy writer, was developing his stage persona. Richard Belzer, a comic's comic, was a local legend.

And three years before appearing on TAXI, Andy Kaufman rolled out his Tony Clifton nightclub singer. Clifton was a vile character that directly antagonized the audience to such a degree that I once saw him threatened by a guy in the crowd with a broken beer bottle. I heard Andy tell a colleague:
"My goal isn't to be funny, it's to get a reaction. If I get a reaction, good or bad, then I'm getting what I want."
He got a reaction, all right. The audiences got so hostile that no other comics would follow him.

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, George prepared his burgers served on English muffins, soups, honey fried chicken, barbecue ribs, and chili (!). Besides the standard bar fare, the menu stretched out a bit featuring a lot of chicken. There was Chicken Parmigiana, Coq Au Vin, and I would watch him bone chicken for his own Chicken a la George: boneless breasts sauteed in garlic butter with white wine and mushrooms. This was topped with swiss cheese and run through the salamander until brown and bubbly.

Although my focus was much more on my budding theatre career, he noticed and was flattered by my interest in his cooking. He started using me as a prep cook. I peeled and sliced onions for the onion soup and potatoes for the fries. I assembled and watched the chili (!!), and prepped the caesar salads. He taught me to make a roux, which was a base for all his soups, including his housemade peanut butter soup.

I left the Improv and New York after about 8 months, but not after grabbing the confidence to wield a kitchen knife, whisk a beurre blanc, and brew a wicked onion soup.

And as for Chicken a la George, I have been making that dish for the last 30 years, although it no longer bears any resemblance to George's original.

And I wish I had paid more attention to that wondrous sauce for the Coq Au Vin.

A lot of culinary seeds were planted during my time in that comedy club.

It also explains why my food frequently tastes funny.

Fish and Chips

Photo by Cynthia

I spied the kingklip proudly perched above the routine seafood while searching for last night's dinner at the local market. It looked pink and fresh and, never having tried it before, made it the catch of the day.

A quick Google search for kingklip revealed:
This tasty and versatile import has yet to win a following outside of ethnic markets

Kingklip possesses all the attributes that usually make a species a star in the U.S. market. With white, mildly flavored, firm meat, kingklip is a versatile fish that can stand up to grilling and frying as well as being chunked in a fish stew.

Yet the eel-like fish remains a niche product that is sold primarily to a Latin American market familiar with the fish from their home country.

Three varieties of kingklip are found in the waters of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and South and Central America. Importers prefer the golden and red kingklip, which tend to be larger fish and yield fillets of between 1 and 4 pounds. A smaller, black-skinned variety has a darker flesh, smaller fillet size and a coarser texture. It is not as popular as golden and red kingklip because of its less appealing meat color and texture.

“We don’t sell that much of it compared to other fish, since not everyone is familiar with king-klip,” says Tampa store Manager Lidia Vlahakis. “But our [Latin] customers do buy it regularly.”

Buyers of kingklip say it is similar to grouper, and demand for it often jumps when grouper are in short supply, as happened in late 2004 when the domestic grouper fishery was closed.

“We will bring kingklip in when grouper gets tight and the price for grouper starts to go up,” says Robert Pidgeon, director of purchasing at Inland Seafood in Atlanta.
(Note to self: kingklip is very popular in ceviche.)

We wanted to get a good taste of the fish itself for the first time out, so the seasonings were minimal. The filet was gently seared on one side in grapeseed oil and butter, then flipped and poached in white wine, butter and lemon. Sauced with the reduced poaching liquid, it was accompanied by a green salad (with Cynthia's luscious lemon and thyme vinaigrette) and a crispy sweet potato-mushroom galette.

The kingklip was sturdy but tender with quite a nice texture, and the flavor was...bland. This fish needs some bold strokes in flavorings and preparation to bring it to life.

The sweet potato galette, on the other hand, was a tasty surprise: paper-thin chips of sweet potato topped with layers of sliced onion and mushrooms, cooked to crispy in a saute pan over medium heat and finished with a kiss from the broiler.

Sadly, I didn't make enough for seconds.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sunday Brunch

Today's midday meal featured a lobster and scallop ceviche with muscato vinegar, sour orange juice, lemon and lime, anchovies, gooseberries, grape tomatoes, diced avocado, dried currants, minced garlic, shaved onion, and finished with dried pablano, red pepper flakes and Hawaiian coral sea salt.

The lobster tail and scallops were on sale and inspired the dish. I had the tart gooseberries, which I bought for a salsa verde in place of tomatillos (which actually are a type of gooseberry).

I started experimenting with ceviche after falling in love with one served at a local southwestern place. At first it seemed like the acid-cooked shellfish was simply a means to deliver the tangy, citrus-sweet juices and pickled aromatics. But letting the seafood linger on the tongue revealed a lush flavor.

I was also intrigued by a ceviche produced by Sam Talbot for an episode of Top Chef a couple of years ago, which was selected by one judge as his favorite of the whole season.

Clearly ceviche is a platform for creative expression of fresh and full, but subtle flavors. It's a great summer dish, so I have a couple of months to play with the concept before the chilly weather arrives and we lose our appetite for cold fish.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


Chili is just maybe the first dish that I ever made.

I actually was never fond of chili growing up. When my mother made chili she served a limpid bowl of ground beef floating in a tepid broth of stewed tomatoes and canned kidney beans, which were topped with some powdered spices from a packet. Served as the occasional super-saver supper, Mom would notice my turned-up nose and say "Someday you will long for a bowl of your mother's chili."

Of course she was right.

Salt of the earth that she was, Mom was never much of a cook, but in retrospect I am astounded by the fact that as a single mother of three and working a full-time job, she managed to pull together a home-cooked, sit-down dinner every night. She did take full advantage of the time and cost-saving measures available: dinner was usually a simple, pan fried or oven baked protein accompanied by a canned or frozen vegetable with a simple starch or salad. The occasional Chinese dinner was Chun King chow mein from a box, and we were well-acquainted with Chef Boyardee. Being Catholic, Friday meals were usually fish sticks or Kraft macaroni and cheese.

She did try to stretch out now and then, usually on weekends. Armed with recipes clipped from the Sunday supplements, she tried such exotic treats as the cool wedge and ambrosia salads. She became fond of chicken breasts that she topped with a tablespoon of mayonnaise and then baked.

Then there were the casseroles. There was no collection of ingredients that she believed could not be redeemed by the addition of canned mushroom soup or onion soup mix - maybe both. Tuna Surprise? I'm not surprised. The last straw was a vile concoction featuring chicken, peaches and potato chips that even Mom wouldn't eat.

And the chili. While I still am not drawn to the watery, bean-soup style, I have been constantly brought back to chili as the ultimate comfort food. Once living on my own, chili was the first recipe I looked up in Joy of Cooking. Chili was the dish that made me want to cook with all fresh or home-prepared ingredients: fresh tomatoes, onions and garlic; dried beans soaked and simmered; chopping fresh meat.

I ordered chili in restaurants everywhere. I was amazed at all the different dishes that called themselves chili. There were diner chilis that all tasted like Hormel, chilis with beans, chili without beans, and chili with spaghetti. Deer meat chili, rattlesnake chili, and veggie chili. Sweet tomatoey chilis, savory herbal chilis, and of course the blistering, how-hot-have-you-got witch's brew chilis that can peel your paint.

Some dear friends, Steve and Kolet, once hosted a backyard get together and the main event was chili. I was knocked over by the rich, smokey taste of that chili. Kolet told me that as she began to prepare the chili for the party, she discovered that she had no ground beef. So, she grabbed a couple of pounds of slab bacon, ground them up like hamburger and put that in the chili.

It was fantastic.

I spent the next couple of years futilely attempting to copy that chili. It was much later that I realized the true lessons of that day were of spontaneity and inspiration.

Which brings us to tonight's chili, made from ingredients on hand:
  • 1 lb ground buffalo meat (yes, we had buffalo in the freezer)
  • 1.5 lbs skirt steak, coarsely ground
  • .25 lb Mexican choritzo
  • 15 oz can of fire-roasted diced tomatoes
  • 1 can pinto beans
  • 1 cup leftover homemade ancho chili sauce
  • 1 red onion
  • 1 Vidalia onion
  • 6 garlic cloves
  • 2 bottles dark Mexican beer
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • Random dashes of: cumin, ground coriander, ancho powder, sweet paprika, smoked paprika, chipotle powder, garlic powder, onion powder, thyme, oregano, ground cinnamon, espresso powder, cocoa powder, turbinado sugar, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, lime juice, salt, pepper.
Despite all the window dressing, I'm back to my Mom's ground meat, canned tomatoes, canned beans and powdered spices.

It's good to be home.