Archive for September, 2007

Israeli Salads and the Vegetables That Populate Them

Thursday, September 27th, 2007

Israeli salad
From a geography perspective Israel can seem like a pretty terrible place. Hot desert, rainy rocky mountains, not a great place for agriculture. However, for years, the Israeli’s have “made the desert bloom”. This is not to say that there wasn’t agriculture before the state existed. But there’s no denying the Israeli’s brought a level of quality and productivity to the region that hadn’t been seen before. This is especially impressive given the general lack of water in the region. Much of the progress has been through technological advances.

Productivity alone would have been enough, but that’s not the best part. The vegetables in Israel are not just plentiful, they are among the best I’ve ever tasted. No Wholefoods in the U.S. carries vegetables that are as good on average as those found in the crappiest supermarket in Israel. The only time I’ve ever tasted vegetables in the U.S. as good was for a brief few weeks at a farmer’s market near Santa Cruz California. I’m sure that there are other examples like this but they are the exceptions here. In Israel they are the rule. The single best example of this is the Israeli tomato. It’s unlike just about any tomato you’ve ever eaten. You take one bite and suddenly remember that tomatoes are technically fruits. So aromatic, so juicy, so crisp, no mealiness, and tart almost savory flavor that is so strong it needs no accompaniment.

Israeli Salad

The single best application of Israeli vegetables in my opinion is the Israeli salad. In its simplest form it’s finely chopped cucumbers (no waxy seed filled yuckiness in Israel), and tomatoes topped with local olive oil (full of flavor), fresh lemon juice, salt, and possibly pepper. In more advanced versions peppers, cabbage, scallions, and herbs are added. Sometimes even garlic slivers. I make it often here in the U.S. using cherry tomatoes (they’re the most flavorful I can find), english cucumbers (they’re the most crispy and least waxy and seed-filled), and Lebanese olive oil I buy from the market. In Israel however, the tomatoes are so incredibly flavorful I often skipped the olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper altogether. The salad was already dressed from the tomato water. It’s often a competition to see who gets to drink the thin gazpacho-like “soup” that collects at the bottom of the salad bowl. It’s delicious.

Vegetables aren’t alone as fruit also shines in Israel. Of particular note is the citrus. All manner of Dr. Moreau like hybrid experiments find their way to the market in Israel. According to this article Jews come by their citrus cultivation honestly. It’s there I first tried Pomelos with their enormous thick skin protecting hundreds of little pearls of juicy grapefruitish goodness. The Israeli variety felt different to me than I’d seen elsewhere.

Strangely though blindspots do exist. Amidst all this citrus excellence there’s an odd lack of limes. They’ll sell you a green lemon and call it a lime but don’t be fooled. In years past Israeli’s were also particularly bad at producing a decent head of lettuce. Personally I avoid the average iceberg lettuce as it’s not much more than structured water from my perspective. That said, in years past, the Israeli’s appear to have mastered lettuce as well. Though I’m so busy eating tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers, I never do get around to trying out the lettuce.

Changing viewpoints

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

I am again out of the kitchen for a short while, traveling and eating for a week in New York and Chicago. A family trip has opened the doors, or simply swung them the opposite direction for me, putting me in the seat of the diner.

It’s interesting how much more aware of myself I have become as a diner as I progress deeper into my career as a cook. I have begun to analyze every reaction I have, from ambiance to seating, menu language to the font, the lighting to the servers clothing. Most importantly, I am aware of every reaction from the moment I can see the food arriving to my table.

I have often told those that would listen, that the experience of a diner all hinges on how strong a memory you create for them. As they walk away, they won’t know exactly why or how you did it, but they will leave with a memory imprint based the entirety of what you created. It is up to you to make it a lasting memory, the kind they retell to their friends, spreading the best kind of publicity, word of mouth.

Just as they won’t know that you took the time to hand peel each garlic clove rather than purchasing tubs of the prepeeled stuff, slicing them open to remove the pale green bitter center, they won’t ever realize that the dish could have been a bit better had it not come off the station of a hung over cook who is a little forgetful this day. They react to exactly what you put in front of them.

I have long known that it is up to me to preconceive their reactions and give them a dish that they will react to strongly and positively. This begins with the initial appearance of the dish, spotted in a servers hands paces away from the table.  The moments the dish sits in front of them as they reach silverware, each diner is absorbing as much with their eyes as they can, making predictions about the flavors, anticipating their experience.

The plating style is an outward representation of the chefs style. Is the food playful, modern, minimalistic, and even cliche, overdone, pretentious, unnecessarily decorated. All this is taken in within seconds of a plate even being on the table. Even the shape, color, condition of the plates is absorbed by the diner, aiding in creating expectations from the food on the plate.

Eyes scan the entirety of the dish, taking it in and looking for a starting point. They can begin by picking out small pieces of what looks tastiest, slowly building the larger parts. Tasting a bit of a sauce, picking up a tiny bit of grain, fingering a small chip of something, and finally beginning to cut into vegetable and meats/fish. If the dish is over constructed the diner will struggle with this starting point. They may not know it, but the initial struggle creates a negative emotional response that is carried through out the time they spend with the dish. However, this initial challenge can hint at the complexity of the dish, where as the experience becomes positive as they are rewarded for their strife.

Likewise, an under-constructed minimalistic plate can lead the diner to believe the dish is either boring, or simple in it’s perfection.  Their expectations are formed before a single morsel is in their mouths, and it is up to you to understand what your plates are suggesting, and present and experience equal to that.

As the food is tasted, these expectations are held against the flavors and textures. I have found that the most satisfying experiences for me, the diner, come from meals where my visual expectations match the flavor profile of the food itself.

Most important to me is of course, dessert. By the time the dessert menu’s are on the table, most diners have enough food in their stomachs that they don’t need any more volume to satisfy them. If their experience hasn’t been positive to this point, they are unlikely to want to go through the motions again of guessing from the words on the menu, creating expectations upon sight, and holding you to your promises made by both. Often with positive dining experiences, a person can feel fully satiated, leaving no desire for more.

I realize that a large percent of the diners I encounter won’t even open the dessert menu. I don’t have a single chance to give them a memory.

For those that do, I must know that I am battling the same things that kept the others from looking. The diners have reached limits, and I need to understand what drives them to choose something beyond them. The choices they make are now intellectual and emotional.

Most of the emotional triggers that prompt a diner to order dessert have to do with comfort and reward. A simple warm cobbler with vanilla ice cream, or chocolate anything will usually do. However, to reach beyond the obvious, I like to use nostalgic triggers to bring the same comfort to the diner. Because I cook in America, and most Americans have a shared history of eating specific things, I can understand a familiarity nearly every diner will sit at my tables with.

This isn’t a revelation. Chef’s have been reinventing the classics for as long as there were classics for this reason. People react to it. Do it well, and their reaction creates a lasting memory. And that memory is why I cook. I look at every evening as a chance to create a certain number of those memories, and I put everything I have into making each one something you can fondly hold for a while to come.

Everything we do as chef’s involves manipulation. We manipulate food into something larger than the sum of its parts. Understanding the ingredients allows us to manipulate the food into provocative cuisine. Understanding every reaction a diner has from the second they enter the restaurant allows me to manipulate your entire experience. As a diner I know that it is much, much more than the food on the plate that gauges the memories I leave with. As a cook it’s easy to forget that and see only what you are putting on the plate, forget that it is an interaction with another person that will elicit emotions and memories.

So for two more days I sit as most of you, a diner, reacting to everything. I will return to my kitchen in two days time, better prepared to cook for you, the diner.

A Month In Israel

Thursday, September 13th, 2007

Damascus Gate

Now that the site is looking way better, it’s time to get back to writing about food (in theory the point of this blog — apparently mucking about with WordPress isn’t the main reason we’re here). I’m super lucky that we got to go to Israel for a month this summer and really live there. We were based out of Jerusalem and spent our time doing more living than touristing really. And of course, a major component of living is eating. Before you evaluate the food in the region it’s important to understand some context for how this young country’s history has shaped its culinary value system.

The modern state of Israel has only been around since 1948. The majority of its population is Jewish with significant percentages having come from Eastern Europe or North African and the Arab countries. There’s also a large Arab minority that’s both Muslim and Christian. The Eastern European Jews brought their culture and values, but if you look at Israeli culture today, especially when it comes to basic cultural elements like music and food, it feels like the region and Israel’s neighbors have influenced Israel’s population quite a bit. In fact, despite all the problems in the region, most people from outside the area can’t tell Jews and Arabs apart. And frankly, the food they like to eat doesn’t help much either in terms of distinguishing them from each other. Luckily, the food in the region is delicious. (Mental note: explore the possibility of middle east peace through some finding common culinary ground.)

In addition to the cultural mix, there are other key elements that dictate the menu. The regional ingredients are key of course. Olives and more importantly olive oil permeate almost every dish. The produce in the area is absolutely incredible and is foundational for food in Israel. The arab cheeses are key, as are the constant Israeli micro-experimenting with dairy products. Together they make an interesting dairy landscape. And finally, the geography itself makes itself felt.

Israel is hot. This past August hotter than hot (thank you global warming?). For centuries agriculture has been central to a large portion of the region’s society. And frankly, working the land in the region can be difficult. The middle of the day can be oppressively hot. Much like other areas of the planet with similar climates, lunch tends to be a big meal followed by a nap. Better to eat and sleep through the hottest part of the day than be out in a field braving the sun. And clearly a nap is required after a big meal. Of course this means that breakfast and dinner need to be lighter meals. Often breakfast and dinner can be indistinguishable from each other. However, the light meal is multi-faceted so it’s never boring. More on that in a later post.

Unfortunately much of Israeli society is moving closer to American eating habits. Proliferation of McDonalds’ and American breakfast cereals are the leading indicators for me of the local culinary habits getting diluted, but there’s still plenty pockets of goodness to find. We’ll spend my next several posts exploring some of the food in the area as well some of the great places we got to eat while we were there. Thanks for staying tuned.

Sourcing For You

Friday, September 7th, 2007

In an alternate universe much like ours, every chef not only stands in their kitchen cooking every single dish we order, but spends each morning shopping for each piece of food that sits on those plates that are lovingly and painstakingly crafted just for us. They test each ingredient, knowing where to find the best of everything so nothing sub perfect comes within a mile of our food.

The fact of our own universe here, is that this kind of attention takes time. The kind of time that cuts into personal lives, takes away from a chef’s family, friends, sanity, physical well being. Most restaurants order from a few purveyors, taking what ever those companies deemed satisfactory. And often, those companies choices are dictated by price and easy availability. So what ever is carried in the door on the hand truck is what ends up on your plate.

This same factor is much of what holds superior restaurants apart from the median. That time one could be sipping coffee is spent tracking things down, taking them into their kitchen and testing their quality. Working in kitchens where chefs have put in the time sourcing the best ingredients for their cuisine, a girl could become very spoiled. When reaching for flour at Lampreia, I might not even notice that the farina shipped from Italy is what makes our cakes and pasta’s taste that much better. While at The Fat Duck, it could slip by me that the reason the chef isn’t in the kitchen that morning is because he’s in the lab testing the starch content of 10 varieties of potatoes to find the best one for his chips.

It’s not enough to be a talented chef, to develop a stand out menu, and train your team to reproduce it. You have to log the hours finding your food.

I am currently hunting for a product called Agar. A hydrocolloid derived from seaweed, this gelling agent is a staple in Asian cuisine and has been adopted by vegans and vegetarians alike. Rather than the soft melt in your mouth set of gelatin which we are used to, Agar sets up stiff and brittle. At low levels, this gel will crumble in your mouth pleasantly. At high levels, it’s a solid brick. I learned at The Fat Duck, to take this solid brick of gelled (and tasty) liquid, place it in a blender, and puree it. The gel doesn’t release any liquid, but the molecules break apart to the point that it takes on the fluid quality of a liquid. Thus, we make a fluid-gel.

The beauty of using this method is that you can take any liquid you want and create a soft sauce-like texture for plating. Imagine I want to include the flavor of brown sugar in a peach and yogurt dish. I can make a brown sugar creme anglaise and sauce my plate with that, but I am adding the additional flavors of the egg and cream. However, if I make a fluid gel, I could simply dilute the brown sugar with water to achieve the precise flavor I want, set that with agar agar, then puree it. In doing this, I have the advantage of presenting just the flavor of brown sugar, clean and free of anything else.

Hypothetically.

My problem has come in the fact that the Agar I have been testing tastes like seaweed. My “clean and free” flavors have all been tasting a bit briny. Gross, you might think, and you are right. It is gross. I’ll admit I was spoiled while staging at WD-50. I simply opened a jar and tasteless, neutral flavored agar came out.

My first Agar purchase was from the company L’Epicerie. This has by far been the worst of the lot, emitting a strong odor as the package is opened. I was so taken back by the foulness of this particular agar that I called the company. I was told repeatedly, “well, it comes from seaweed, what did you expect?” Then I was informed that they only sell to the finest restaurants and purchase the finest ingredients. Clearly the agar was fine, it was me that was a bit off.

Since then I have tried various sources, many asian markets in the international district, and various health food stores. One of our specialty purveyors was helping us source this product, and bought an entire case of the first stuff they found. Unfortunately, it tastes like seaweed. It’s a tough call. They sourced it and bought it at our request, but they fell into that trap of mediocrity mentioned above. They took the first thing that came through their door. No matter how guilty I feel, I can’t do the same thing and let it into mine.

Five Years of TastingMenu

Thursday, September 6th, 2007

This past August TastingMenu quietly celebrated its fifth birthday. Even though much celebration hasn’t transpired on the surface, we’ve been busy behind-the-scenes getting the site refreshed to suit our goals for improving the site dramatically.

The last year has been one of transition for TastingMenu. We moved (mostly) to a new platform – WordPress, and we welcomed Dana on board. WordPress is great, and Dana brings a fantastic new dimension to the site. However, even with the move to the new platform the site has still been kind of scotch taped together. Posting photos has been hacky with using flickr instead of having our albums and photopages like before. And huge components of the site still haven’t moved over to WordPress.

Today is the start of fixing all that. The first and most dramatic improvement is the brand new design (have fun finding the heat lamp). I feel like TastingMenu had a decent look and feel for the first couple of years, but the state of web design rapidly eclipsed my meager design abilities and TastingMenu has looked not as good as it should. If we’re going to have a kick ass blog about restaurants a crappy design is clearly unacceptable. This is where Jenny Lam, one of my partners from from Jackson Fish comes in with a completely new aesthetic that finally brings the site into the modern age. We want TastingMenu to kick ass and that means down to the last pixel. Jenny has certainly knocked it out of the park.

Walter Smith, my other partner over at my day job, has also taken a few cycles to build us a new photo management system that will make its debut next week. That too creates exactly the user experience we’ve wanted forever. (Yes, I was shocked too that not a single WordPress photo management plug-in did what I wanted.)

I wish we could roll all these changes out at once including moving every page, post, and photo on the site into the new templates and technology at once. That’s unfortunately not going to happen. This means that lurking in the archives of the site you’ll run into plenty of old design presentation. You may even run into a couple of broken spots. For this you have my deepest apologies. Oh WordPress, where were you five years ago?

Dana and I (and Walter and Jenny) want to thank you for your patience through all the changes so far and the ones to come. We promise they’ll be worth it when the site runs smoothly, looks great, and features tons of new posts and photos.

Thank you!

Slow go

Monday, September 3rd, 2007

Starting a new job was once a fun exciting venture in my eyes.  I thrilled at meeting new people and learning new things.  Lately, however, I have come to realize how much I dislike starting new jobs.  Call me a homebody, but I like the familiarity of a kitchen I have worked in for an extended period of time.

The first week is bad, but it’s the second and third week that are the worst for me.  In week one you are run through everything at least once, forgiving yourself if it takes an hour to complete a task.  But week two and three I really start to struggle.  Each task still involves hurdles, takes way too long, and I stop giving myself so much room for failure.

Just weighing out a recipe seems to be painful.  Each ingredient must be found, and can sometimes involve quite a hunt.  I knew where the sugar was last week, but I used all of it and don’t know where we store the back up, if there is a back up, and all the while scold myself for not having enough forethought to check on this to get a bag on the next delivery.  Then I go through the same process looking for butter.  And do we even have pine nuts?  Should I bother looking or just run to the store?

These past few weeks I have been spending most of my time doing research and development.  There is not a big need for my presence in the kitchen during service yet, so I have been coming in early in the morning with the kitchen all to myself, and testing ideas.  Honestly, it’s not something I have really done before.  Sure, I’d bake a test cake or two at Eva if putting a late summer fruit coffee cake on the menu.  But the humility and simplicity of the dishes I served there didn’t need anything close to research and development.  I just knew that serving that coffee cake with caramelized cinnamon ice cream would work, and a simple fruit sauce would easily dot the plate.

These days, however, the dishes on the menu are a big step away from the my first tries.  The concepts stay true in my head, but finding a starting point is a bit more difficult.  We are playing with a peanut butter and jelly tart that started out as a dish for a trial at a different restaurant.  I made the same dish, which had undergone a few adjustments, and the chef and I tasted it.  Then we tore it apart.

The dish originally began as a sandy crumb crust with a strawberry pate de fruit strip set over the top.  It was garnished with peanut butter powder, peanut butter ice cream, fresh strawberries, and a brown sugar anglaise.  In it’s 4th incarnation, the dish is now based around a concord grape curd, set over a peanut sablee ground with peanut oil and frozen to set.  The peanut butter powder remains, but the ice cream was forced to stay in it’s original place on the menu, sitting atop a chocolate sauce and some crunchy peanut butter fuilletine crumble.  The new plate is dotted with concord grape poached sour cherries and muscavado gel.

I tested a few different ice creams, like brown bread ice cream made with honey and toasted bran, puffed wheat sorbet which tasted exactly like honey smacks, and toast ice cream, which tasted like toast.  A generous amount of time went into balancing each of these frozen components, extracting the flavor the title described in a tasty manner.  Each of them was pushed off the plate after tasting, not being found to enhance the dish as much as we wanted.  Finally, we agreed that the plate didn’t really need an ice cream at all.  We would let the concord grape curd be the center of the plate, and rather than make an obvious tie to the peanut butter and jelly concept, we would list the components and let the diner make the conclusion.

This dish should appear on the menu soon.  Right now I am still working on the texture of the concord grape curd so it is stable enough to handle.  No simple curd would work here, I want to be able to slice the curd and transfer the entire piece to the strip of sablee.  I watched Alex do this at WD-50, and I know what he used to stablize it.  However, the company told me that I would have to order a 50 pound bag if I wanted a sample.  So I am working on something that will work for us.

So the 3 weeks I have been hard at work haven’t amounted to much that you can see on the menu.  Working for what feels like failure after failure can be daunting.  I am sure I’ll feel differently when these dishes are on the menu, and I can smile and put all my effort into recreating them, knowing they are exactly what I want them to be.