Iron Works BBQ, Austin, Texas

March 23rd, 2009

I recently got to spend a few days in Austin, Texas. Frankly, Texas scares me a little. I know it’s an unfair generalization but I just worry they don’t get “my kind”. Everyone assures me that Austin is different. The conference was a bust (SXSWi) but we made the best of it. Not only did I try an conquer my fear of Texas (everyone was very nice, even to me) but no pig was safe — the order of the week was BBQ, lots and lots of BBQ.

We didn’t try every BBQ place there was but we did go to several, and one of the standouts was Iron Works BBQ in Austin proper. When you talk about BBQ in Texas you’re not just talking about ribs of course, there’s also brisket, beef ribs, turkey, chicken, etc. And this doesn’t even count all the sauce variations and sides. But for me, to give you full disclosure on my bias here it’s about the pork ribs. And I don’t want them doused in sauce. I want them dry, and then I’ll do my own saucing thank you.

Speaking of sauce, a lot of bbq joints insist on accompanying your food with a piece of wonder bread. To mop up the sauce? To fill up your belly? To use as a napkin? Mine fell on the floor on the way to the cash register. A fellow diner told me I could ask for a replacement. I demurred figuring that every available piece of real estate in my belly is reserved for meat. That’s actually a rule I apply often even beyond those times when I’m hunting for good BBQ. And while I should have tried some sides, this was my first BBQ of the week so I kind of went crazy with the meat.

I sampled the turkey first. Not as juicy as I would have liked but definitely not dry. The pepper rub on the outside was intense though it started out slow. One of my dining companions, Adrian, felt that by the end the pepper had kind of taken over his mouth. The turkey was decent but the ribs were very very good. The flavor was not over the top but it was definitely solid. If you wanted “bold” that’s what the sauce was for. But the flavor, while not in your face was definitely present, savory, smokey, and combined with the texture, the best way I can describe these ribs is “buttery”. I think I could have eaten a hundred of them. If ribs like this existed nearby in Seattle I would eat them once or twice a week.

I guess if there’s one key indicator of how good the ribs were, it was when I reached over to Jenny’s plate (my other dining companion for the week) to inspect some of her eaten bones hoping that she (like many people I know) was careless and left lots of meat in the nooks and crannies. No luck. She’s an expert. And yes, at the end I was dipping the bones in the sauce and sucking it off as if there was still meat on them. There wasn’t. But I hoped nobody would notice.

The Sweet Chemist

March 21st, 2009

Amidst the avalanche of press that my co-blogger is getting you might have missed the latest from Seattle Magazine calling her “The Sweet Chemist” and a “Rebel Chef”. I though she just liked trying to make excellent desserts, I didn’t realize she was rebelling. ;)

Check it out.

(Note for Seattle Magazine: how about posting the picture of the rebel chefs on your website so it’s bigger than a thumbnail. I promise it won’t cost you extra money, and it might actually make the picture informative cause you’d be able to see the people in it. OK. Sorry. Done ranting.)

taking back the slight…..

March 13th, 2009

Under no circumstances will I open the number 10 can of worms that is all that we in the industry think of Yelp.

However, nearly every establishment has received reviews that are unnecessarily negative/rude/absurd. No matter how unreal untrue unbelievable they are, they eat at us. So we do the only thing we really can. We take them back, turn them into jokes, and quote them to each other in our daily routine of kitchen jokes.

A pizza joint in the bay area has done us one more. They have printed these outrageous statements on T-Shirts. At Poppy we too have joked about having T-Shirts made with our own yelp slights.

On the list…

“Poppy hates children, and Poppy hates cake.”

“I would never classify the menu as New American………EVER!”

“If Ikea and a Tootsie pop had a baby it would be Poppy”

“Poppy isn’t even seasonal (oranges in winter!)”

“FAIL”

And on the list for Veil…..

“This is the worst asian fusion restaurant I’ve ever been to.”

“Veil is, umm, skanky.”

In my head

March 12th, 2009

Wanna get inside my head?  Tune into the steady stream of constant thoughts of food that flood my world each day?

Then follow me on twitter!  @Deensie

I can’t promise it’s all food.  But since i think about food 90 percent of the time, it’s a good bet it’s mostly about food.  And a small taste of the life I lead outside the kitchen!

Smoked Fish, My People’s Cured Pork

March 9th, 2009

I won’t go into why it does or doesn’t make sense to follow dietary restrictions created by some dudes thousands of years ago. And even if God created them, I can’t explain why he would care if we ate bacon. (In fact, I might say that a loving and compassionate god would want his children to experience the joys of bacon on a regular basis.) Suffice it to say though, that for whatever reason, there are at least a couple of million people in the world who choose to keep kosher. And there are many millions more who observe Muslim dietary restrictions which also mean pork is out.

For the Jews, the joy of curing and salting meat is not foreign to us. If you’re confused, go have a real pastrami sandwich and see what I’m talking about. We’re not fucking around. That said, because of additional dietary restrictions, (the prohibition on mixing milk with meat) having cured meat, even of a kosher variety, for breakfast, is just not quite right. You need butter, you need cheese, maybe some yogurt, etc. It just doesn’t work. Enter smoked and cured fish.

My grandmother use to make carp for us. My dad (and I’m sure his father) eat/ate lots of pickled herring. My grandparents (and before them my great grandparents) ran a friggin’ fish market. (And they actually sold fish and not software.) And it took me trying sushi to finally realize the joys of smoked salmon and lox specifically. I was so thrilled to realize that this wonderfulness came from my peeps. And as much as I love lox (my fave is gravlax), and a nice smoked whitefish salad, I can’t help but miss bacon.

What is salmon bacon you ask? Oh, you didn’t ask. That’s ok, I’m gonna tell you anyway.

Salmon bacon is:

  • my people’s attempt at having a bacon substitute?
  • an attempt to create a new revenue stream by a kosher fish company in Massachusetts?
  • a delicious salty component in my breakfast bagel?

Before I answer, I should offer full disclosure. I’m told that some people mistake blogging for journalism and that being honest about your influences, biases, and sources, is key to being taken credibly. More importantly I’m told that some people mistake food journalism for actual journalism — and that’s just silly. (Although in many cases over the last decade I think people have mistaken the “news” we see on TV and in newspapers for actual journalism. So who even knows what’s what anymore.) But enough of that. I was trying to come clean.

Feel free to ignore my recommendations because:

  • I am always on the lookout for new kosher products that expand the selection that kosher kitchens can choose from when trying to create really good meals
  • Because the selection kosher food (especially cured meat) is so poor, I’m likely to like just about anything that comes my way in this category
  • The nice people at the Springfield Smoked Fish Company fedexed me some free lox. I asked them for it when i read that they were trying to make a new product called Salmon Bacon and they generously complied.

This new product is called “Brekfish“. OK. The name is wacky. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. Or does it. Actually, I think this name doesn’t matter that much. But the tagline of the product is “Salmon Bacon”. And I think that does matter. For some insane reason, I thought there would be some baconesque quality to the “bacon” and even though it was made of salmon, I couldn’t get the expectation of bacon out of my head. Salmon bacon does not in fact taste like bacon. However, once I got past my expectations I was free to enjoy it for what it was — a fryable, crispy, super salty, perfect addition to my bagel and cream cheese or bagel and egg sandwich. (In the faux Judaism that is Noah’s bagels – not good bagels – you would call that ‘bagel mit egg’.)

At first I was surprised at how salty the Brekfish was. Because I grabbed some of it almost straight from the frying pan and chomped on it. But in fact, I think it was not much saltier than some cuts of bacon I’ve had with nothing else. But it’s when the Brekfish is put in the sandwich that the magic happens. The couple of slices I fried brought my sandwich to life. The saltiness was muted and replaced with a smokey sharp counterpart to the smooth bagel flavor and eggy goodness. My bagel was some crap from the supermarket, but the salmon bacon made it delicious. Imagine what it could do with a good bagel. I dare to dream!

Along with the salmon bacon, I got a couple of its cousins. The whitefish spread was super oily in a good way. It especially worked spread generously on my toasted bagel. But the lox they sent was superlative. Normally I’m not a huge fan of mild flavors, but this lox had a slightly thicker cut, and the best way to describe the slices on my tongue is ‘creamy’. Just lovely.

The number of food producers trying to innovate in the kosher food space is tiny. There are many cool products that could easily be kosher, but the producers don’t take the time. The market isn’t big enough, or at least they think this. And frankly, the folks who validate food as kosher are often perceived as not much better than an extortion racket to keep certain sects of orthodox Jews in the money. A local example to Seattle:

In February, Leah’s Bakery and Café, the only kosher retail bakery in Seattle, closed its doors. Leah’s had been providing the local community with freshly prepared challahs, knishes and kugels, as well as making sandwiches and soups, for 10 years. Owner Leah Jaffee sited chronic financial concerns as the primary reason for the bakery’s closure.
“We liked making those things, but it was sort of a community service, as far as profit margins went,” Jaffee said.
The bakery had always been a money-loser, according to Jaffee. But she said that the additional costs associated with new policies recently adopted by the Va’ad concerning fruits and vegetables pushed the enterprise beyond financial feasibility.
“I just couldn’t justify having someone come in and wash one head of lettuce for $20 if I was only making six box lunches,” Jaffee said. “That’s more than $3 per sandwich just for your lettuce.” — JT News, July 2008

That said, the folks at Springfield Smoked Fish are trying. And for that, I salute them. And for the fact that they’re succeeding, I thank them and recommend that you buy some of their fish. These small specialty producers need all the help they can get and should be rewarded with your patronage. I think that once you try their products you’ll keep coming back simply because they’re excellent.

p.s. Anyone who wants to open up a company that does nothing but try to emulate fantastic pork products and create gorgeous cured meats and sausages out of kosher ingredients (I think turkey comes the closest to pork in many cases) will get my undying love and numerous biased posts recommending their products on this website.

Yes or No?

March 8th, 2009

Last night I ate dinner at one of Seattle’s newest restaurants. After the meal ended, it came time to make one last decision.  To dessert, or not to dessert?

Now, I know this is hardly an original thought. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that nearly every diner in almost every restaurant ends their meal with this thought passing through their conversations. Perhaps the answer defaults to no, or better yet, yes! Perhaps you never speak of it. Maybe you don’t have the choice. But the questions lingers, and must be answered.

At a table nearby, someone knew my friend. They stopped by our table, conversed briefly about this and that, then brought us into their own finalizing decision. Should they or shouldn’t they?

It’s only natural that in asking a pastry chef if you should have dessert, you will hear a resounding “yes.” If said question was asked within walking distance to the desserts I myself create, it’s a safe bet that I’m going to attempt to steer you towards them. So off the decided party went, suggestions made, towards their desserts at Poppy.

But the question still remained for myself and my friend. Should we or shouldn’t we?

We discussed our options. Cheese at the restaurant we were at, or did they even have desserts? Where else near by would we find tasty sweets? We even briefly discussed McFlurries and Shamrock Shakes retrieved on the car ride home, or ice cream from the store.

In the end, I made the decision I almost always make. I chose no.

It seems contradictory, for me to focus most of my time and energy providing a part of your meal that I myself don’t choose to experience. Don’t think for a second this slips my notice. Instead, I grill myself, examine the series of thoughts, feelings, emotions that lead to my own constant “no.”

It is this constant resistance to the kind of closing experience restaurant offer than helps shape my own creations. In looking deeper into my own decisions, I look for qualities my desserts need to posses to entice the diner back into the meal. When the physical hunger stops encouraging fork-fulls of food into your mouth, what other part of the psyche can I tempt?

Perhaps I can play on your curiosity, or a sense of nostalgia. Maybe I can give you another experience to share with your companion, a reason to prolong the time with friends, or even just give you a worthwhile treat for your sweet tooth.

What ever it is, examining my own motivations as a diner helps me ensure my desserts are worthy of your “yes.”

Brioche

March 6th, 2009

Despite my title, I am not well versed in bread baking. It might even surprise you to hear that two days ago I baked my first brioche.

In working on a dessert based on the established combination “bread and chocolate,” I found myself in need of a loaf or two of brioche. At Veil, I used brioche often. However, when I needed a loaf or two to appear in my pantry, I made a call to Columbia City Bakery and had them deliver a few of their outstanding loaves with our daily bread order. When Veil started serving brunch on the weekends, I didn’t even need to do that, I just opened the freezer and pulled a loaf.

Ok, I was spoiled. With wholesale prices and the attitude, “they can make it better than I can and don’t my customers deserve the best,” I hid behind the fact that I had never tried my hand at the buttery bread. Or any bread, really.

You see, in Baking and Pastry School our instructor drove into our heads that there were two kinds of people in the pastry world; bread people and dessert people. There were 12 bread people in my class of 13. Can you guess who the lone dessert person was?

It’s not that I have anything against bread. Well, not any more at least. I suppose for some reason I held fast to my status earned alone in school. I was NOT a bread person. I even made ridiculous statements like, “bread and I have issues.”

And maybe we did. Maybe I lacked a certain patience that came with age. Maybe I had other things to master first. After all, you can only fit so many things in your head at once.

Last weekend, with bread and chocolate on the brain, and knowing that Jerry, having invested in hobarts, pullman pans, ovens, and a well stocked pantry would never let me buy brioche, I searched for brioche recipes. I consulted with Google, picked a recipe with pedigree, and turned all systems to “bread”.

I first set to the task of destroying the Berlin wall, tearing down the concrete barrier I had built so many years ago, wondering what I was trying to keep out in the first place. I measured, weighed, concentrated, gauged, and did a lot of guessing. And when I laid eyes on my first loaf of brioche, I beamed like a new mother, gently touching the golden glossy crown with my fingers, pressing it to my nose and inhaling deeply. Pride swelled inside me as I thought, “I made this!”

That was Tuesday.

Today I examined brioche 3.0, critical, concerned. Now that I know I can make it work, I won’t be able to stop until I know why it’s working, and how to make it to the best of my ability. This could be a very long winding journey, but I can say with confidence the trip will be filled with golden, yeasty rewards. And who knows what else I’ll unearth along the way. Maybe there is a bit of a bread baker inside me after all.

The recipe

L’Oeuf

February 27th, 2009

A local poet, Rebecca Hoogs, whom I have had the lucky aquaintence of for a few years now, printed this little gem of hers in the Stranger today.

Since the egg is a cornerstone of the culinary world, I thought you too would find beauty in this playful look at our lovely L’Ouef.

837b/1235761301-l_oeuf.jpg

Ghosts

February 21st, 2009

Last night, I drove by Veil.  You remember, that modern fine dining restaurant I worked at until last July?  The one that closed in September?

The papers said it was one of the first casualties of the economy.  A restaurant barely in in its third year, taken down by the tightening belts of the diners in the city.

I spent exactly one year at Veil, hired alongside Johnny Zhu, who left within weeks of me.  Our small crew, who predated our tenure by a month or so, stayed on until they got the bad news, at which point they scrambled to find a new paycheck.

Towards the end of my time there, it was clear Veil was ailing.  The ownership was doing all it could to keep their business floating.  The customers came in erratically.  Brunch service was added.  Sunday dinner service was cut.

I can’t imagine too many things sadder than watching your restaurant die.  It was hard to stomach as an employee.  Watching the numbers in the book read zero twice a week.  Seeing your cooks loose half their shifts and shake their heads at paychecks that won’t cover rent.  Checks that at times bounce.

It was sad in part because Veil held so much hope for me as a pastry chef.  The dining room was modern and absolutely stunning, stark white, veiled and back lit with pinks and ambers.  It set the stage for me to bring striking modern presentations, creative flavors, new textures.  When I returned from my stage at WD-50, it was clear I needed a creative outlet, and Veil was the first place I took a resume.  It was the only place in Seattle I knew I’d have the freedom to do exactly what I wanted, no compromises.

When I drove by last night, the sun was setting, casting pinks and ambers through the windows, a ghostly reminder of the light that once illuminated Veil.  Everything is there, the marble communal table, the Philip Stark chairs, pots, flatware.  The tables sit as if in wait for their next service.

It gave me chills, seeing the empty restaurant left exactly as it was the last day it was alive, a for sale sign the only indication this restaurant wouldn’t be opening that evening.  I pulled over and pressed my nose against the glass, watching the sunset color the restaurant one last time, my memories casting shadowy figures in the kitchen, ghosts striding through the dining room.

It made me sad.

Creating within a format

February 18th, 2009

Once upon a time, I was ambitious enough to teach a 3 part series on plated desserts to a group of enthusiastic amateur cooks. After all, it’s the heart of what I do, I should certainly be able to translate that into a class.

I believe I gave it a good go, discussing plating styles, trends, contrasts and compliments of texture and flavor, pastry chefs to know.  I taught the recipes as building blocks, breaking the recipes into 3 categories; main components; secondary components like sauces and compotes; and garnishes.  For the last hour of the last class, we laid everything out, and the students took plates constructed plated desserts from the building blocks we created.

During one lecture, we touched on the creative process by which a dish is brought to life.  Every dish has to have a starting point.  It can be a fruit in season, a particular flavor you want to work with.  But often, the dish is being worked within some kind of loose format.  There are many.  You can set your boundaries within classic dishes, a season, a holiday, a culture.   We focused on the format of nostalgia, discussing traditional desserts that have been turned into plated desserts in fancy restaurants.

The students each chose a dessert they craved as children, begged their grandma for, hoarded pocket change to purchase at the corner shop.  We discussed the rules of this dessert, physical and emotional, then broke each dessert down into little pieces.  Then with their new found knowledge of how to construct a plated dessert as if the components were lego’s, they build imaginary plated desserts from their favorite childhood treats.

The example I used to walk the students through the process was T.K’s coffee and donuts.  Today in the New York Times food section, this iconic dessert was used again as an example.  This time, however, the format it exemplified was that of turning breakfast into dessert, a trend seen on dessert menus of late.

Within this format, there is only one rule; you must create a dish that the diner will recognize in some manner as breakfast.  Depending on the cultural ties, this can vary.  At The Fat Duck, a dessert mimicked  a plate of full English, a breakfast of tomatoes, eggs, bacon, baked beans, and toast.  Using the locked format of breakfast, Heston was able to stretch elements in very creative directions, introducing the diner to bacon and egg ice cream.

Most desserts are either built to appear like a breakfast, with flavor and ingredients swapped, or build to look like familiar desserts, with ingredients most commonly found in breakfast.  An example given of the former, a toad-in-the-hole made with caramelized brioche, a ring of white pannacotta, and a spherical yellow mango center.  Where as the latter may be exemplified by a pannacotta infused with the flavor of a breakfast cereal, an oatmeal creme brulee, or one of my favorite textural components, caramelized rice crispies.

I believe that tightening your boundries often forces you to be more creative.  In order to keep the dish recognizable with in a format, you don’t have as many directions to take it.  You end up inverting in a way, finding the depth of the integral parts, focusing rather than expanding, pulling and pushing at the same time.

What part of your breakfast would you translate into a dessert?  And before you say “bacon” read the last part of the article calling bacon out as the skinny jean of the dessert world, super trendy, sexy when right, but oft ill applied.