Journal entries from September 2014

Brisket and Bourbon


"You're killing me!" Susan Orlean wrote to BBQ Pitmaster John Markus; she was on the other coast, which meant missing another spectacular dinner at his house.  

I, on the other hand, was more fortunate.  And as the evening approached, things got better. And better still.

"The Maysville guys are coming to cook," John wrote a week ago.  "Don't bring anything."  And then, in a final email a few days later he added, "They're bring bubbly, whites and reds, so don't bother bringing wine." What he neglected to mention was the Pinhook Bourbon they also had in tow.


It was an amazing meal.  It started with these oysters, cooked on hay, topped with brown butter and shallots.  I'm not a big fan of hot oysters.  Let me amend that: I've never been a fan before.  But these - briny Island Creeks - were perfect.  Hot shells, but inside them the oysters were still firm, just lightly warmed so that the flavors really popped. Amazing.


This is the chefs, Kyle Knall and Micah Mowrey, cooking chicken beneath a brick on the uberWeber.  (The largest Weber grill I've ever seen, it was a gift from Adam Perry Lang.)  The chicken, incidently, was remarkable; tender, smoky, and served with salsify.  It actually stood up to the brisket, which I would not have considered anywhere within the realm of possiblity.

Many different kinds of wood were employed in the smoking of the meat; John has an entire library of woods, and he can tell you why you want to use each one. We talked.  We nibbled cheese and fantastic Maysville-made charcuterie.  We sipped chilled tomato soup, still sweet, but with the slightest hint of tartness, a reminder that we're on the brink of fall. The light began to fade.


We sat outside - Indian summer - completely magical.  The food was so abundant it's hard to recall every bite. I remember smoked trout. That amazing chicken. Delicata squash, surrounded by leaves, topped with shards of cheese. And this wonderful tangle of flavors: 


extraordinary beans, all local,


And this, another vegetable medley: farro, herbs, salsify, carrots, and remarkably sweet beets.

Grilled peaches. And then, of course, the brisket, the deckle rich with fat, the flat smoked to a gorgeous ring:


Even now, two days later, I can recall the way the smoke infused each bite and how the meat seemed to literally melt when it was in my mouth. 

Afterward there were many desserts, including a chocolate concoction somewhere between pudding and mousse.  And then this, which pushed the entire evening over the top:


It was a perfect evening, at summer's edge.  A few months from now, when snow is covering the ground, it is this night that I'll remember. 


A New Favorite Fall Food

Bean in_out

There’s something perversely satisfying about a pile of decaying shelling beans. They don't look like much - all black freckles, and yellowing skins - but when you pull them apart you find shiny beans the color of pearls. 

In years past, shelling beans came and went with little fanfare. But this year's different: nearly every farmers market stall is bursting with fresh legumes. Fresh cannellini, fresh black-eyed peas…I've even seen fresh black beans. Somehow it was these sad-looking canary beans that captured my imagination. Native to Peru, where they're called mayacobas, they resemble especially buttery cannellini beans. Eaten raw they're reminiscent of tarbais, the traditional cassoulet bean. Cooked, they make a really wonderful dip.

A few notes: You want the ugly, slightly yellowing beans (they're the ripest), but avoid the slimy ones. When they're too far gone they start to rot. Be sure to use good olive oil; it's a dominant flavor in the dip. Add whatever fresh herbs you favor, but not so many that they mask the gentle flavor of the beans. Myself, I like the slight zip that comes with a small sprinkling of scallion and chives. 


Fresh White Bean Dip

1 pound fresh canary shelling beans, shelled


1-2 cloves garlic

Good olive oil


4 Chives

2 Scallions

1/4-1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar

1 lemon wedge


Shell your beans, making sure to discard any individual beans that are beginning to rot. Put them in a heavy pot, cover them with water,  bring them to a boil and then turn the heat down to a simmer for 30-45 minutes, or until they're completely tender.  Add salt at the end and turn off the flame. (I find that salting beforehand makes for a slightly tougher bean.)

While the beans are cooking, mince the garlic, chives, and scallions. Finely chop the parsley. 

Strain the beans, saving the cooking liquid. Toss them into a food processor, add a splash of the cooking liquid and a good glug of olive oil and blend, adjusting the consistency with the cooking liquid. Add another good glug of olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Add just enough garlic for it to enhance, and not overpower, the beans. Squeeze the lemon wedge over the beans, add a quarter teaspoon of vinegar and taste to see if you want to add more. 

Stir in the herbs, adjust the seasoning, and serve with a little bit more olive oil splashed across the top. This is great with crusty bread or focaccia. 

Makes 4-6 appetizer servings.

Open bean



Notes from Portland: Take Three



A little image from Portland Feast, the fabulous three-day festival where the eating never stops.  This was around midnight, and although I couldn't capture it, those pigheads stretched out in a long, strange line. Different chefs did different things - all delicious. Best dish at this particular afterparty? The tripe and pork tacos served up by Brad Farmerie of New York's Saxon and Parole; the scent of those tacos wafted through the air, drawing everyone inexorably over. 

Other favorite dishes?  At the Sandwich event, Paul Kahan (Publican, Chicago) reimagined the gyro, filling it with eggplant, yogurt and fenugreek to memorable effect. Rick Gencarelli, of Lardo, made incredibly delicious pork and peach sliders - very smoky - with a tiny bit of cheese and a little frisk of arugula. I intended to take a single bite and ended up devouring the entire messily delicious thing. And at the huge High Comfort event I was stunned by Vitaly Paley's sweet and spicy fried chicken, which he served with a watermelon salad. 


This was breakfast one morning at Sweedeedee, which struck me as a fine place to begin a Portland day. Laid back - with rules.  You can't sit down until your entire party has arrived.  You get your own coffee. You bus your own dishes. And you get to weigh in on the music (real vinyl, played with a needle).  On this morning?  The Kinks. Loved that Andama bread. But what I loved even more was this amazing muffin, bursting wtih blackberries.


You can NOT leave Portland without stopping at Salt and Straw.  Kim and Tyler Malek (they're cousins) are reinventing ice cream. Tyler, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, works with local farmers, dairies and chocolate makers to whip up astonishingly delicious concoctions.

Icecream guys

My favorite flavors?  That pear, blue cheese number was amazing; like an afterdinner dish, frozen for all time.  Loved the apricot and hops, with its serious tang. And the freckled chocolate.... it's for grownups, not people addicted to candy bars. Kim says that after tasting their way through the offerings, half their customers end up with Sea Salt and Caramel.  My favorite too. 


The Portland Farmer's Market is a wonderful place. Pimientos de Padron everywhere.  This gorgeous okra.  

Flowers galore


Purple artichokes


A blue pumpkin

Blue pumpkin

And this incredible Galeux d'Eysines, which looks more like sculpture than something you can eat. (It apparently keeps well and has sweet, dry flesh that makes excellent pumpkin pie.) If I'd had any room in my suitcase, I would have brought this beauty home.  

Mottled pumpkin

Instead, I brought this powerful Basque pepper powder- which sits in my kitchen, reminding me of all the reasons to return to Portland.



Notes from Portland, Take Two

Kha nom tien

A secret space, hidden behind a door disguised as a bookcase. Could anything be more appealing? Longbaan literally means, "back of the house," and that's exactly where this restaurant is, hidden behind PaaDee, a restaurant specializing in Thai street food. It's a small, spare space - a few tables , a counter, two chefs working intently, barely looking up.


Owner Akkapong Earl Nimson and Rassamee Ruaysuntia seem to be in a kind of wordless trance, working together, silently tasting the balance of flavors, plating each intricate dish. They handed the first plate of their tasting menu across the table - miang som (above) - and it took me right back to Thailand.  This is Thai food as I have not experienced it in any other restaurant in America. 

We tend to think of the food of Thailand as hot, and chiles certainly have their place in the Thai kitchen. But this reminded me that my first impression of Thailand was herbs, dozens of them, dancing through the dishes, cutting through the flavors. And here it was again, one intense little bite: shrimp, chiles, orange, lime, roasted coconut, but hovering above it all was the forceful flavor of the betel leaf it was wrapped in, along with little jolts of cilantro, of ginger, of shallot. 


The next bite is like the yin to the yang of the miang som, tender rice noodles wrapped around a a sweet filling of coconut, shrimp, radish, peanuts chiles. Irresistible, and once again, the dominant note is herbal. 


A couple of oysters, laid on rock salt, with a chile jam, shallots, a few herbal little leaves.


After the complexity of the first few bites, the clarity of beef and oxtail broth, the flavors clean and fresh. Ringing through it all is the green taste of the herbs.


Tuna in a complex configuration of figs, chanterelles, zucchini and garlic tossed with a sauce tasting strongly of grilled cherry tomatoes. But it is the mint that pulls this all together, marrying the flavors.


Ora king salmon, with such varied flavors it is impossible to keep track.  Pomegranate, finger lime, salmon roe, torch-crisped peanut candy. Again, the herbs - shallots, dill, Chinese celery, lemongrass, basil, dill- rush through the dish sounding their high triumphant notes.

After these complex dishes, there's a short respite, an easygoing bite of sweet, garlicky fried chicken. 


And finally a curry: mussels, scallop, hearts of palm, dates.  And more herbs: basil, betel leaves and on the side, the clarion freshness of cucumber relish.




There were desserts too - a soybean panna cotta in ginger broth, followed by a little "cupcake" of concentrated coconut.  Spooning up the last of that, the woman at the table behind me sighed.  "I lived in Thailand for two years," she said, "and I haven't had anything like this since I left there."




First Notes from Portland (more coming.....)


“Go to Ox.”

I heard that so often while I was in Portland it made me skeptical. It can’t be that great, right?

Wrong. This is the most amiable restaurant I’ve been to in quite a while. It’s not just that the food is straight up delicious, the service sweet and the room casually comfortable. Somehow an aura of happiness permeates the place; I can’t imagine anyone going there and not having a good time.

And the food (like that intense little cup of tomato bisque at the top) really is wonderful.

The dish I remember with the greatest clarity is this spicy braised beef tripe laced with little threads of octopus. The combination sounded odd to me, but once you taste it you think - how come I've never had this before? The octopus becomes little jolts of texture tangled in the luxurious softness of the tripe. And that mint aioli underlines the flavors in the most attractive fashion. I could have stopped right there and gone home happy.

But that would have meant missing the chowder - a signature dish. And for good reason. It’s a tour de force of flavor and texture, two kinds of clams in a briny creamy soup enriched with smoked marrow, which you scoop from the bone until it runs crazily through the soup. What keeps the dish from going over the top are those jalapenos, green heat zinging right through all that richness.

There are other wonders to begin: homemade ricotta, baked in balsamic brown butter and topped with a rich mushroom mixture. Fantastic steak tartare. Grilled salmon belly (it has been a memorable salmon season in this part of the world), with tomatoes.... But this is meant to be a meat-centric restaurant, and they have the big manly grill up front to prove it. The menu is indeed a carnivore’s delight.

The ribeye is wonderful.

Rosemary lamb
and the lamb shoulder chop arrives with a burning spear of rosemary perfuming the air. But in the end it’s the vegetables that really knock you out.

 Whole artichoke, roasted in the coals.

Grilled onions with walnuts, bits of beet and blue cheese.

 Local beans with charred romesco sauce.



Cauliflower with golden raisins and peanuts.

The wine list is worth noting too: varied, beautifully chosen, nicely priced.

Portland's a food-obsessed town with great markets, fantastic sandwich shops, memorable ice cream (Salt and Straw always has a line for its fascinating concoctions) and some of the best Thai food in America.  But should you happen to be there, I can only echo what everybody says - go to Ox.



Ffish Custard?

A single bright orange salmon roe doesn’t amount to much. But when it bursts into the mouth it dissolves into something primal - both sweet and salty - the taste of life itself. 

But imagine if the roe stayed intact. Imagine that you could barely chew it. Now imagine that chewy rubber married to dates, almond meal, milk and rosewater. If your imagination can stretch that far, you're eating ffish custard. 

I can’t remember how I came across Rare Cooking, a blog that recently featured this dish. Dreamed up by two PHD students with an interest in archival oddities, Rare Cooking chronicles their attempt to translate early American recipes into something that might actually taste good. Recently, they found a recipe for something called ffish custard, likely at least two hundred years old, and decided to whip up a batch. 

There’s a critical humility in their approach: if an old dish sounds terrible, perhaps  we’re wrong.  Is there another reason why we no longer eat it? Can early American cooking teach us "new" flavors?

There’s only one way to find out: make the dish. In the case of ffish custard this required a bit of guesswork. The recipe called for a pound of almonds, the roe of a pike, dates, milk and rose water. That’s it: mix it together, strain it, and pop it into the oven. 

To impressive result, Rare Cooking decided against the straining step. Check out their result (and the comments) here



So Brave


Paula Wolfert has always been one of my heros.  She has the best palate of anyone I've ever met, and her cookbooks are meticulously researched, beautifully written and completely reliable. I've been cooking from her books since I first discovered Couscous and other Good Food from Morocco in 1973.

But now she's doing something even more admirable: going public about the fact that she has Alzheimer's, talking about the problem, raising money for research.

She is wryly funny about the problem.  "It's great to see you," she told me last Sunday at a fundraiser in her honor in Sharon, Connecticut, "although I probably won't remember it tomorrow." 

It was a wonderful afternoon.  The event was organized by Serge Madikians of Serevan Restaurant, who catered the lunch.  This is what we ate:


Amazingly delicious smoked lamb, cooked by our host Ken Tyler.  Mr. Tyler, who is one of the world's most famous art printers (he started Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles), turns out to be as good a cook as he is a printer. "You trying to take credit for my lamb?" he asked Serge (standing to his right).


Unusually tasty coleslaw, with cauliflower, jicama, cranberries and chayote in Arakh vinegar.


Sweetly sour roasted carrots withe pomegranate and spinach.


Eggplant, mint, labenah





Sumac-sprinkled feta with local tomatoes. 

The food was fantastic. The speeches were moving. But the highlight of the day had to be the chance to wander through Ken and Marabeth Tyler's beautifully simple house, a showcase for their remarkable collection of art. Looking at a lovely little Hiroshige hanging over the bathroom sink, I had this thought: I bet Paula will remember this. 


A Better Bird

Guinea Hen

Full disclosure: this was a gift.  I ordered some steaks from DeBragga, and when I opened the box I found this guinea as well. 

It didn't look like much - a scrawny bird, feet still on, very long wings, its deep red flesh glowing through the skin.  I threw it into the refrigerator thinking, "I'll deal with you later."

Truth be told, I've never cooked a guinea hen before.  So I went onto the Debragga website, where I read this:

"The meat of the guinea fowl is similar to chicken but higher in protein, lower in fat and intensely flavorful. These guinea hens – more moist and generous than regular chicken! – are raised on Mauer Farms in Bloomville, New York, in the heart of Delaware County. As part of the Catskill Watershed Management project, these birds are raised in a way that protects them as well as the land they live on.  These fowl are fed a custom blend of grains and corn supplemented with seasonal greens.  Antibiotic- and hormone-free, they are humanely raised and handled at every step, finishing with a unique air chill process that preserves them to cook up crispy skinned and juicy every time."

Okay, I thought, I'll cook it like chicken.  And then, looking at the bird, thought I ought to do a little bit more. So I cut off the feet (saving them for soup), washed the bird inside and out, dried it well and let it sit in the refrigerator for a few hours.  Then I made a blend of mustard and butter, gingerly pried up the skin and rubbed that onto the flesh.  I preheated the oven to 400 degrees.  I put an onion into the bird's cavity, some carrots and onions into the pan, spread some butter on the bird, showered it with salt and put the pan into the oven for about 50 minutes, occasionally basting the bird.

Then I made a quick pan gravy: I added a cup of chicken stock to the juices in the bottom of the pan and boiled it down until it had thickened into a suace.  

It was, hands down, the most delicious bird I've ever cooked.  Moist. Flavorful. Completely wonderful.

Would I spend $30 for one of these birds again?  To be honest, it seems like an extravagance if it's just for us. But for a company dinner? Absolutely!  These are truly terrific birds.  






Things I Love


Hand Harvested Salt

Am I crazy?  Maybe. This salt cost $12 for 4 ounces.  But I love the way it looks skittering across the top of a fried egg - or just about anything else - and I love the way it feels in my hand.  I love the taste too - like a mouthfull of arid ocean.  

Jacobsen salt is taken straight from Oregon waters.  Which is exactly what it tastes like. One bonus: the stuff is so expensive that you end up using it very sparingly. 



Things I Love

Two Interesting New Zealand Discoveries

Why isn't anyone in America making a product like this?  What we have here is wasabi powder, made of dried and colored horseradish, which passes for the more expensive (and difficult to grow) wasabi. 

Purewasabi, produced by a former policeman (hence the name), is real wasabi root, grated and mixed with a bit of lemon juice. It's a wonderful spread for sandwiches, great mixed into mayonnaise or added to scrambled eggs.  I'm only just starting, but I'm sure I'll come up with dozens of uses for this really delicious stuff. 



I don't usually bother bringing olive oil back from a trip - it's too heavy, and the possibilities of breakage too real - but this Rangihoua stopped me cold when I tasted it on Waiheke Island, a half hour ferry ride from Auckland.  Pressed a few months ago from Picual olives, it tastes like no other oil I've encountered. People often describe Tuscan oil as peppery, but this one goes beyond that.  To me it tastes very much like watercress, with a serious bit of bite. Intriguing.  And delicious.



Two Bits of Paradise


Otahuna Lodge, just outside Christchurch, in New Zealand.  The grand Victorian, built in 1895 by Sir Heaton Rhodes, has been beautifully preserved (and is now owned by two American men). Every room is gorgeous. 

I came upstairs, after a long, luxurious dinner, to find the curtains drawn, the sheets turned down, and a fire blazing merrily in my room (this one, in fact). It made me feel like a character in a Victorian novel.


In the morning I looked outside to find sheep grazing, the daffodils just coming into bloom.


Should you arrive in time for a late lunch and ask for something simple - say a little salad - this is what you are likely to get:


with just-baked bread and that amazing New Zealand butter. IMG_4345


An hour north is the Waipara Valley, where they're growing incredible grapes, making fantastic wine. In the States the wine we get from New Zealand are mostly Sauvignon Blancs - and they're impressive. But I've become extremely attached to the Chardonnays I've been drinking here, and the Pinot Noirs.


One of the best afternoons I spent in New Zealand was at Black Estate, where you sit in an understated room, overlooking vineyards, mountains in the background, and eating the most delicious food. There's a pleasantly casual air about the place that makes it feel not like a restaurant, but the home of a really good cook who's invited you for a leisurely lunch. We started with this plate of charcuterie:


And this smoked New Zealand salmon served with seaweed-flecked bread.


And this irresistible little pot of pork rillettes:


Pie is very big in New Zealand, and this duck and leek pie was the best I've had here. Two days later I am still thinking about it.


There was also great gurnard (a firm-fleshed fish) in a sauce lightly laced with Pernod, sitting on a pile of mashed potatoes and celery root, surrounded by Brussels sprouts.


Truth to tell, I ate everything on the menu, which included these fantastic noodles in a gingery broth with beef that simply melted when you put it in your mouth:


a salad of foraged greens:


and this rich cheese tart made with aged Gouda (a great many Dutch people ended up in New Zealand, so they do extremely nice things with Dutch cheeses) and leeks. 


And finally this dense, rich, thick chocolate tart - with creme fraiche.


A note on the wines: I loved all the Black Estate wines I tried, but I'm especially partial to the Netherwood Chardonnay which made me think about Chablis.  It has a fresh mineral quality that tells you there's a lot of limestone in the soil, but what I like best is that each sip reminds you of the clean, invigorating New Zealand air.

Black Estate is - as they say in France - worth a detour. 



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About this journal
Where am I eating? What's for dinner tonight? And what books have I been reading? For a look at what's going on in my life lately, take a look at this journal, which I try to update on a regular basis.