Try A Little Tenderness

I’m heading off to Miami today for a show- I’ll be gone a week- so here’s the post of the ridiculously off-the-hook steak we had the other night to tide you over until I get back. It’s a perfect example of how the simplest ingredients can attain perfection when they’re properly sourced, grown, and prepared. In this case, a seriously badass steak and a bunch of just-picked vegetables. Sounds pretty average, right? But oh, what glory.

One last quick play for immortality before all the details: please click here, find “Cookblog,” (still holding at #3) and award me the number of hats that you fell this humble effort deserves. I’m going to predict that you’re feeling generous, and elated at the prospect of reading about one of the 3 best steaks I’ve ever eaten, so you’ll vote 5 hats and then rush back to read all about it.

We went to Chris and Sirkka’s house for dinner, bringing the raspberry tart from the last post and a couple of bottles of wine. Chris had been to Fleisher’s earlier and came back with one of their amazing dry-aged top sirloins. We wandered out into their garden- outperforming ours by a long shot, as usual- and figured out what to eat with the meat. We settled on a purée of celery root, turnip, and potato, a shaved beet and fennel salad, and braised turnip greens with collards and bonito shavings. For the beets and fennel, we shaved them on a mandoline, and then kneaded them with salt until they gave up copious liquid, followed by a thorough rinsing, squeezing, and dressing with ume and brown rice vinegars, olive oil, and soy sauce. This salt-kneading results in a texture that’s half-crunchy, half, silky, and it’s sublime. The quality and freshness of their vegetables made it an eye-opener.

Now, the steak. Here’s Chris showing that it was in fact just about as big as his head:

We used the slow-sear in butter method to get a serious crust on this slab o’ joy, then removed it to a cutting board. It was at this moment that I was seized by an impure thought of extraordinary magnitude: they had some of my lardo on hand, so I grated it on top and let it melt in to all the crevices of the maillardy madness:

A sprinkle of truffle salt, on the meat, a quick pan sauce of red wine deglazing the buttery pan and thickening for a minute or two, and we got down to business:

This combination of food was for all of us one of the best things we’ve ever eaten. The astonishing steak, the sweet, creamy, complex purée, the earthy, slightly smoky greens, and the half-pickled beets and fennel- perfection. A bite of meat with a little sauce and salad was honestly one of the all-time greatest bites of food in my life so far, and easily as magic in its own way as the ethereal Wagyu we had at Alinea in June.

The moral of the story is grow your own, and buy humanely raised, grass-fed meat from local farmers. With some gentle interventions, you’ll eat the best food in the world.

Baking Man

Q: What’s better than 40,000 filthy hippies in the Nevada desert?

A: A raspberry mocha custard tart with a red wine glaze.

Don’t believe me? Check this out:

Now, if you haven’t yet, please go here, find “Cookblog,” (currently at #3) and bestow upon me some hats. Allow me to suggest five as a nice round number. Your appreciation will make a difference, and I thank you for it.

As I said, the family went berry-picking yesterday, and returned with a big bucket of raspberries (including some yellow ones). Raspberries pretty much need to be put on a tart after baking, since they turn right into jam if cooked even for a second, so I thought about what to put under them that might show them off to good advantage. We had some chocolate milk in the fridge, so that was the jumping-off point for a custard. I beat 6 egg yolks with some vanilla sugar, then added a glug of the sticky fortified Australian muscadelle that’s been sitting in the door of the fridge for an age now. In a saucepan, I heated the chocolate milk, a shot of espresso, a bit more vanilla sugar, some raw cocoa powder, and some 5-spice, then tempered it into the yolks. This mixture got a good whisking in a double boiler until thick, then I put it in the freezer to cool and thicken further. I blind-baked a crust, then cooled it as well.

I used to have a bag of chick peas in a cupboard that I used as pie weights for this kind of operation, but Milo found it and took them for one of his nefarious experiments, so they were gone. I ended up looting his jar of change which he had carelessly left out and spreading a bunch of the coins on a sheet of parchment to hold the crust flat while it cooked. Mess with my garbanzos and I’ll steal your allowance. You have all been warned. Custard onto crust, then berries arranged on top, and finally a glaze of the last drops of of sweet wine, red wine from its fridge door neighbor, strawberry jam, black pepper, a little more vanilla sugar, and ume vinegar all simmered together and then strained. I put the finished tart back into the fridge to let it set up until it was time to go to dinner. For the story of that perfect meal, you will have to wait until tomorrow.

Sneak Preview

OK, so I have no idea how I ended up in a blog popularity contest with the most popular food blogs in the world, but I’ll take it. If you haven’t already, and you are so inclined- on the basis of, you know, liking this blog- please click over there and lavish me with hatty appreciation. If I can get my traffic to a respectable level, it will be ever so much easier for me to wrangle some attention for this book that I’m writing. And thank you for your support; it’s very gratifying.

I spent all day at the ceramics studio, since we’re about one bisque kiln away from firing the big one and I’m on a mission to get that done as soon as we can. today was pretty productive, not least because the family dropped me off to go berry-picking and I was stranded there all day. I made 16 things (8 bowls, 8 plates) plus a not-too-shabby geodesic teapot. Here’s a shot of some of the last batch, freshly bisqued and ready for glaze:

There are a bunch more, and more to come. It’s funny- I’m obsessed with ceramics right now, and yet I’m lucky if I can carve out half a day every two weeks in which to make them. It’s so interesting, and relaxing at the same time; if I had the time I would take a year and completely immerse myself in it- and then maybe another year to learn wheel throwing. Part of it is the long delay between the fabrication and the finish firing- it keeps me in a more or less perpetual state of unfulfillment, since by the time the kiln fires I’ve begun a new batch of stuff. In any case, this batch will yield something like 8 pieces each of ten or so different shapes, each glazed differently. And I have big ideas about what I’m going to serve on them.

Shameless Pandering

Some kind soul nominated this here blog for an awards-type competition. So if you like what you read here, why not click over and vote (come on, gimme 5 hats) so I can build enough traffic to get a book deal for something that I’m working on. I have no idea who nominated me, but thanks. Not sure what the deadline is, so be skippy. If I win, I will send you BACON.

Tonight, continuing our sojourn through the superb seafood I picked up yesterday, I marinated a pound of scallops in kimchi juice for an hour or so to give them a little firmness and a slightly ceviche-esque acidity. While they sat, plump and quiescent, soaking up tangy complexity, I peeled a huge red potato from the garden, halved it lengthwise, and pared those two halves into approximate cylinders which I sliced into discs about 3/16″ thick, and then steamed until just tender. Next up I made a batch of pie crust, but since we only had the local white flour with all the germ intact, it ended up a slightly more rustic version than the usual; it held together OK, but didn’t have the elasticity that my idea really called for. In any case, it worked out all right.

The idea was pretty simple: alternate slices of scallop and potato, season, roll, and bake. And that’s just what I did. The scallops, cut in half, ended up abut the same thickness as the spuds. I melted a little butter with a clove of garlic, a small spoon of pimentón, thyme, and olive oil, and brushed the dough with it. I also dribbled more over the finished stacks just prior to rolling them up (I made two, each about 7″ long). A little pinching to repair holes, some crimping and gentle compression, and into the oven they went.

While they baked, I made a simple ragout of good-looking stuff I picked in the garden today while I puttered around and planted hardy lettuces and greens for fall and winter salads. Leaving aside the grotesque injustice that the weather has been so far- summer literally started a couple of weeks ago- there’s no denying that it’s been just perfect lately, with crystalline blue skies, beaming sunshine, and temps in the 70s. So I got motivated to try and grow something, despite the humiliating fail of so many of our crops this time around. The ragout was a gently sautéed (in the rest of the butter-oil blend) mix of onion, carrot, fennel, celery, chioggia beet, potato trimmings, cherry tomato, herbs, garlic, summer squash, and corn (these last two did not come from our garden).

It’s a common refrain here that I rarely have enough time to make things the way I want them to be, since I can’t normally start making dinner at lunchtime- which is pretty much what it would require. So I make the most of an hour, sometimes two, and think of many of these dishes as rough drafts, filing away the better results for another time when I can go crazy and take a week off from all other duties just to cook. Other people call this “Thanksgiving.”

And this turned out fine- certainly from a flavor point of view it delivered handily. Even Milo said “This is such summery food!” As he ate first the crust, then the potatoes, then the ragout. He doesn’t love scallops. In his defense, cooking them properly done up like this was impossible; something to think about will be how to keep them medium while getting a good brown on the crust. (Once he turns five, though, I’m going to expect better of him). Possible variations include thinner layers, perhaps with more different ingredients for color and texture inside. But the white on white look kind of worked, and the colorful vegetables set it off pretty well. There are lots of ways it could go. We drank a 2005 Domaine de Longval Tavel, which is just wonderful; it may even be a little too assertive for this food, since the age and the tannins (it’s pretty dark for a rosé) make it maybe more of a BBQ chicken kind of wine, but the extra power it had did help it get into all the nooks and crannies, scouring some interesting resonances out of the shellfish and vegetables.

Another Plate Of Food

Among other things, I got some Arctic char from our weekly primo fishmonger. Monging fish is hard work, evidently, so he was late for the delivery, but I still managed to get dinner together- though not without less elegance than I had originally imagined. Char is pretty mild, salmony hue notwithstanding (it often comes off as a bit of a letdown, flavorwise, since it looks so much like salmon) so I gave it a goose with a rub of miso mixed with kimchi juice and a pinch of brown sugar which sat on the fillet for about an hour while I washed greens and prepped other things.

I peeled, seeded, sliced, and salt-rubbed the cukes, then let them sit and cough up some water for a bit. Then I rinsed them, squeezing out all the water, and dressed them with soy sauce, sesame oil, and a drib of yuzu juice. I had obtained a fat handful of greens from thinning the radicchio, so I sautéed them with garlic and olive oil until wilted. A beautiful bag of shiitake and oyster mushrooms from the market today went in a pan with guanciale and garlic and got a hearty caramelization followed by a deglazement with white wine, soy sauce, and sherry vinegar. I served it all on a bull’s blood beet leaf, with some purslane to garnish. The quick marinade did wonders for the fish; while it didn’t firm up much like with a longer cure, the delicate umami richness of the miso did permeate the flesh and make for some pretty great bites. The mushrooms were ridiculously good.

With a bit more time (the story of my life) this could have been something really special. The red garnish is a julienne of our first cayene pepper, meticulously de-membraned and seeded to get the heat to a perfect level. As it was, the best bites involved rolling up a bit of everything inside the beet leaf. Next time, I’ll brine them like grape leaves and make it official.

Let There Be Lens

I didn’t have a ton of time yesterday, so I convection-baked chicken thighs with a spice rub and put them on top of polenta with some roasted Roma tomatoes (roasted alongside the chicken) and a salsa made with more tomatoes (Roma and pink Brandywine) plus red onion, cucumber, lemon juice, and poblano broiled until the skin blistered and came off easily. I had thought about going the chiles rellenos route, but the wife is not eating cheese right now. I could have stuffed the peppers with polenta, but only thought of that after they were fully blackened and not so structurally integrous. So I made it into a vaguely deliberate pile and called it dinner. And it was good.

Today I had a little more time to mull over the steps that lead to dinner, so I coaxed a little more richness and detail out of the various components. To begin, more Roma tomatoes, since they’re going off like plump fireworks every day now. (Tomorrow I will go buy a big box at the weekly market in town to supplement our crop and get to canning sauce for the winter). This time around I baked them like before, but with thyme, copious olive oil, and a fat clove of garlic cut in half. So the top halves half-dried and caramelized, and the bottom halves confited. Once done, I removed the thyme stems and blasted all the rest in the processor until it was all lovely, smooth, and thick. Here are the before and after pics, because it’s now actually worthwhile for me to take pictures:

While all this tomatoey erotica was transpiring, the pressure cooker was working its barometric magic on some local organic navy beans, water, and a mirepoix of our guanciale, fennel, onion, carrot, parsley, and celery. “Why, it makes its own broth!” you might say, and you would be right to say it. Freaking awesome. Getting the quantity of the water right is the trick, so that when the cooker is opened it’s neither a soupy mess nor a stuck, blackened disaster. Usually I like to err a bit more on the watery side, and then simmer off the extra liquid while I finish up the other things.

In this case, the other things were puréeing the tomatoes, toasting some local sourdough to a bean-supporting stiffness (I have fully fallen off the bread wagon lately) and mincing a grab of parsley. And thus: crostini as dinner. I had thinned the midsummer plantings of rutabaga, daikon, and black radishes- all woefully underdeveloped due to the awful weather; it’ll be a miracle if they reach a decent size before the season ends- so I washed and sautéed the various greens with garlic, lemon, and olive oil for a bright, fresh, crunchy counterweight to the rich, creamy beans and deeply savory-sweet tomato sauce. Also elegantly balanced was our beverage: a 2003 Ada Nada Barbaresco “Valeirano” that’s every bit as good as Mary describes it here. We bought it from her, and I fear that we may be down to our last couple of bottles. It’s my kind of wine; decadent yet austere, wise beyond its years, and tannic enough to improve over another decade or two (not that it will have the chance).

Other People’s Gardens Are Better Than Mine

The first of the month brings a new article, this time about edible landscaping and such.

Yours Truly



I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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