Saturday, January 27, 2007

Anthony Bourdain's Restaurant Les Alles - Fighting the Good Fight!

If anyone were to be named the General of the Guerrilla Food Army to take back the American dining experience, it would be Anthony Bourdain. This is a quasi-review of his restaurnat, Les Halles.

My wife and I just returned from a three day vacation trip to Washington DC. As soon as she booked the tickets I went to the website of Les Halles in DC and made reservations. I must admit, I waited in such anticipation for weeks leading up to the trip; The White House and Capitol Hill are cool and all, but I couldn't wait for some authentic French Brasserie food.
We arrived ten minutes before our 7:30 reservation, and a rather attractive young lady with what seemed to be an Eastern European accent and a metro-sexual guy asked to take our coats. We were immediately seated next to a couple that would prove to be a ridiculous source of entertainment for me and a major headache for my wife who hates people who blabber on and on about nothing.
When our waiter appeared with menus I couldn't help but think that foreign accents are definitely to be expected in a restaurant like Les Halles. Considering the fact that
Philippe Lajaunie, one of the actual owners of Les Halles (Anthony Bourdain is just the executive chef, not an owner) proudly hails from Portugal, I was not surprised to find such an international treatment in their DC branch.
I ordered the Steak au Poivre ($21) and my wife the Poulet
Rôti avec Frites ($16). When my steak arrived I was blown away by the smell. The meat was a wonderful sirloin about as thick as an unabridged copy of War and Peace. It was absolutely encrusted with roughly crushed black pepper corns, and bathed in a cognac and dark veal stock reduction. My wife's chicken was perfectly roasted with a wonderful aroma of herb butter and a jus reduction sauce on the side. Our pommes frites were perfect. Believe me, I feel pretentious calling them pommes frites, but referring to these ideal crisp and perfectly seasoned sticks of potatoes as "French Fries"... I don't know, it just feels wrong.
The most shocking part of the entire meal to me was the small salad of fresh greens that came with both of our meals. It was perfection. There were no tomatoes or cucumber or anything else. It was just greens tossed with a
vinaigrette. Simple and understated. But at first taste, I knew that this is how I want every salad I eat for the rest of my life to taste. Even at the risk of overusing this word... it was perfect!
The Steak au Poivre is really very peppery. I never think of French food as being spicy like Mexican, Spainish, or
Portuguese food would be. But this stuff will really knock your socks off, in the best of ways. Until Les Halles I had always had Steak au Poivre in a reduced heavy cream and cognac sauce. I think the cream has always toned down the pepper corns' heat. At Les Halles, they really let the black pepper rip into you. It was almost religious. I felt like after many years in the forest, I had found home.
Needless to say, I enjoyed my meal. And with three beers ($4.50 ea.) and water the total was only $55. The atmosphere is inviting and Earthy. Everyone seems to smile, laugh and truly enjoy themselves. Some places just have an energy that invited you in. Les Halles at 1201 Pennsylvania Ave is just such a place.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Time Is On Our Side

Alright damn it! What is everyone doing with all this new found time? I haven't seen any cures for cancer, or a couple hundred thousand community centers popping up along the midwest or eastern seaboard. Everyone is saving so much damn time these days with microwave this and that and 30-minute whatevers. What are they doing with all that new time they saved?
We have so many "time saving devices" in the kitchen now. Electric can openers, instant heat and cool stove eyes, microwave bacon cookers, aluminum thawing accelerators, bread machines, and the hits just keep on coming.
I think that people buy these things to "save time" honestly only to see if they work. Most of them end up in the back of whatever cabinet behind things that you do use... like a pot. I just can't figure out why everyone in this country is so obsessed with saving time. No one wants to be doing anything. There are time savers in the car, time savers all over the place at work, and even time savers the be used to relax faster during so-called "off time". We all hurry through everything just hoping and praying that we will not have to think about and be present for any activity. We just want it done, so that we can move on to not doing our next task.
Living in a one bed room "efficiency apartment" in Munich with NO appliances showed me that there is a relaxing beauty in hand washing your dishes. Buying the food that you plan to eat that day is a joy. Buying meat from a different person than your bread is a feeling of artisan bliss that almost no American can remember. Putting your own groceries into your own bag is a humbling and ultimately happy experience. And taking all of an hour to prepare diner for you and your loved ones with all fresh ingredients using nothing more than a pot, a knife and a wooden spoon is a romance that so few will experience because they are so busy saving time.
I don't blame the masses or feel anger towards them; I just wish for their sakes that a little American pride would return to our kitchens and we could all just enjoy real life for a minute, instead of life being brief periods between television shows and blog postings.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

The Sixth Element... Temperature

We have all heard about the primary tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, and that everything we eat on Earth is just combinations of all of these. It has now been proposed that there is a fifth taste known by its Japanese name: umami. This taste is associated with protein-rich foods like meats and cheese.
It has also become pretty much accepted that our tongues are not sectioned off neatly into areas designated for specific tastes. While the idea is cute, it is simply an over-simplification.
Now, that we are all thinking about the mechanics of taste, I want to talk about something that I think is far too often ignored in the home kitchen… temperature. A dish's flavor profile changes incredibly when it is served at different temperatures. For example, have you ever made ice cream, and noticed how much more muted the vanilla tastes when it is frozen than when it was still a warm custard? What about eating refrigerated cheese versus the same cheese at room temperature? What about coffee? Iced Tea?
And my favorite example of temperature as a factor in flavor profile… French Onion Soup. Go make this recipe:

8 Large or 16 small onions (lyonnaised)
1½ sticks unsalted butter
¼ lb smoked bacon (diced)
½ tsp kosher salt
1/3 cup port wine
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1 qt chicken stock
1 qt beef stock
Bouquet Garni (3 stalks fresh parsley, 2 sprig fresh thyme, one dried bay leaf, 8 black peppercorns)

In the biggest heaviest cast iron pot you’ve got melt the butter over medium heat until it foams and starts to brown slightly. Add the onions and salt. Cook until the onions are deeply caramelized, stirring very often (25-30 minutes). In another pan, slowly render the fat out of the bacon and cook until crisp but not crispy. Drain and reserve the bacon fat for another recipe. Add the bacon lardoons to the onions, and add the port wine and balsamic vinegar. Stir until most of the liquid has evaporated (3-5 minutes). Add the chicken and beef stock along with the Bouquet Garni. Bring to a simmer, cover, reduce heat to low and let simmer for 45 minutes to an hour, being careful not to over reduce.
Then take a high quality French bread baguette (not from Wal*Mart’s bakery, come on!) Slice it into half inch slices. Top each piece of bread with grated gruyere cheese and put under a pre-heated broiler for just a few minutes until melted and bubbly. Float the croutons on top of each bowl of the soup. Serve piping hot!

Now, the reason I want you to make this soup, is so that you can see how much more bite and freshness a piping hot French onion soup has over a saggy cold one. When this soup is hot (almost too hot), the flavors jump across your tongue, and the soup seems bright and vibrant. As the soup cools, it goes from less interesting, to too strong and rusty, to plain limp and fruity. I am almost sure you could leave out most of the salt, cool this soup, and serve it as a desert course with whipped cream and a doughnut it gets so fruity as it gets cold.
So, the next time you are serving up some eggs for breakfast in bed for that special someone, keep serving temperature in mind when planing your attack. And remember to cook the eggs last. Because as soon as they leave the pan you have pulled the pin on a temperature hand grenade and your masterpiece is fading fast as you walk the tray up the stairs.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Rachel Ray Must be Stopped

Rachel Ray is like Milli Vanilli.

Apparently millions of people love her and buy her books. I just can’t seem to find anyone who will admit it. As far as innovation goes, she gets a zero in my book, and that’s only because I haven’t found a way to give someone negative points. She has been warming things in microwaves, and opening cans of this and that while flapping around like a cartoon Swedish chef for years, and for some reason housewives and the unimaginative applaud her ferociously for it.

What has she done for food? What has she done for the American Cuisine? Rachel Ray is a galvanization of all that is wrong with our throw away fast-food nation. She even endorsed Burger King! Come on!

I even saw her glistening cleavage, all rubbed down with “EVOO” in an issue of FHM Magazine where she was posing half naked on the counter and going down on a strawberry. And this is American’s new queen of the kitchen?!?

If Julia Child were alive and Martha Stewart weren’t afraid of a parole violation, I am sure they would jump her, one holding her arms while the other beat her with a Boos Block.

Now, that would be good TV!

When it Strains it Bores

Boiling anything other than rice or pasta should be punishable by death by, you got it... boiling. So put away your strainers America and start steaming, sautéing and yes, simmering.

Okay okay, sure, there are wonderful dishes like corned beef, or even some English boiled meat dishes that threaten to make my point invalid. I say however, that those dishes are “poached” and not boiled. There is also the occasional Brussels Sprout or Broccoli that does great when boiled quickly and then shocked in ice water. But my main focus of this episode of Guerrilla Food is to do battle with the notion that it is okay to boil vegetables. It’s not.

Sure childhood images of huge pots of simmering green beans with ham hocks and black eyed peas being beaten into submission by a couple quarts of rolling H²O pop into my mind. The key word here however is simmer. That’s right, 212˚F is simply too hot for essential nutrients as well as many flavor components to survive. I’d feel much better about eating beans that were simmering away at 180˚F for three hours, than at 212˚F for 30 minutes.

Who has three hours to dedicate to simmering black-eyed-peas you ask? Well shame on you for asking. Nothing produces more lifeless and limp boring psydo-vegetation than boiling. I hope you do something really awesome like cure cancer during the couple hours you “saved” by boiling your vegetables.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Southern Food is a Sham

We all have this notion that southern cooking is the only cuisine in America that is of any real interest, anthro-historically speaking. There are thousands of soul food and southern cook books taking up valuable space on book store shelves and yet there are only a handful of books dealing with “New England” style or the dreadful “California-Style” cooking. Basically with the exception of maybe Boston Baked Beans and Cream Pie and Yankee pot roast, I’d say 90% of foods considered to be down home American fare are from the south. Well I bite my thumb at such a notion.

I grew up in Georgia, being born in Atlanta and raised in rural south Georgia farm country. I am steeped in all things southern. I have also watched countless times, a person be elevated to celebrity status based on their “soul food” southern cooking, while they are palming little packets of Lipton onion soup mix, and red and white cans of condensed soup.

I heard for years about Mrs. Wilke’s Boarding House Restaurant in Savannah GA and how her food was the read deal. Imagine how cheated I felt when I got an autographed copy of her cookbook from Sema Wilkes herself, only to read in every recipe about Crisco, soup mixes, and self-rising flour.

Now, like I’ve said before, I am not trying to disgrace the memory of Mrs. Wilkes, God rest her precious soul. She was a good Nouvelle-Southern American dump cook. She simply knew no different, and probably wouldn’t have changed a thing if she had been told. And damn it! I respect that.

Southern food has always been based on poverty. Like most great dishes of the world, southern food centers around making great things from meager offerings. The southern magicians of yore turned tough meat full of connective tissue into succulent piles of smoky goodness. They took intestines and organ meat and made them sing on high. They ground sassafras leaves, tamed slimy okra, and took corn and made it into everything from smooth bourbon to velvety grits. They did all this, with little more than fat, salt, sugar and water; and sugar was something special.

Then a strange thing happened. Widespread distribution along with food canning and preservation made it cheaper to buy vegetables and things in cans than straight from the ground. Farms moved towards large Del Monte conglomerates and our corn crop began largely going to feed the high fructose corn syrup monster. The only thing that didn’t change was that southern cooks were still poor as the dirt they farmed. So they began reaching for cans and soup powders that cost pennies and promised authentic results.

Time marches on, but hunger stays the same. After a while conventions shifted to where no one even noticed these products as strange. Children turned into grand-children and within one or two generations, the glory that was southern cooking and all it’s Euro/African influences has become brought to you in part by the Campbell’s Soup Company. Mmm mmm Good.

Well I can’t cure poverty. And I’ll never be able to convince people that Paula Dean is a hype-monger that is dragging the southern name through the red Georgia mud, with her contrived “Ya’ll” and over emphasized, …“frum myy kitchun tuh yurrs!”. People love the idea of the southern dump cook with her charming accent and mint julep under the counter. But let me tell you guys, in the words of Hunter Thompson, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.

Taps is blowing over the centuries of hardship and innovation. The honeymoon is over on southern cooking. All that's left is congealed salad with Cool-Whip, potato casserole with crushed Ruffles on top, and Broccoli with Cheese Whiz.

Want some mayonnaise with that?

Herb and Spice Mixes Are Evil!

With the exception of maybe Old Bay, all spice mixes are bad and should be gathered and burned Salem-style for crimes against the kitchen. Have I owned a bottle of that fuzzy little Portuguese TV chef’s spunk mixture? Yes. Have I used “Italian Seasoning” in a Ragu Bolognese and “Herbs de Provence” in a Beurre Composé? Yes. Am I proud of it? No!

Nothing has done more to drain the soul out of the American kitchen than specialty spice mixes: steak seasonings, seasoned salt, rib rubs, jerk mixes, rotisserie chicken rubs, taco-seasonings, Mrs. Dash’s 10,000 different combinations that each only vary by one ingredient, and the dozens of celebrity chef’s ridiculously grinning at me from my local supermarket selves… all of these bastardizations of herbal goodness have chipped away at the collective skill of the home cook.

When I moved to Europe I wanted to cook an American Thanksgiving diner for my new German girlfriend’s family. They had only seen Turkey-day images from Norman Rockwell paintings and post cards. At that time I didn’t have very many notches on my culinary head-board yet, so I was going to mostly wing it, and was doing a lot of google'ing for American recipes. What I wasn’t prepared for was that literally EVERY dish that I wanted to make was held together, at least herbally, by ridiculous spice mixtures that meant nothing to my local Lebensmittelgeschäft employee.

What the hell was in “Poultry Seasoning”? How do you make “Apple Pie Spice”? Where was I going to find a 10 and ¾ ounce can of condensed cream of mushroom soup in Munich? And was I going to have to get my mom to air mail me a package of “Turkey Gravy Mix”? I made a Magna Carta like vow then, that I have lived by until this very day eight years later. Nothing enters my kitchen pre-combined. I even hate having Iodine in my salt. Self-rising flour is for the unimaginative, and even pre-made Ketchup never sees the refrigerator-light of day in my killing field. Ever since this decree, my understanding of food has increased with each day, and my food costs have crept to an all time low.

You’ll never hear me talking about my “secret weapon” or my “special secret ingredient”. That’s right. My only cloak-and-dagger mojo is my passion to understand what, how, and why. I have literally never seen a spice mix that could produce a better end product than even a dyslexic ten year old. The quality of the herbs in these mixes are, with microscopic exception, little more than dust off the floor of a Maersk Line shipping vessel. They produce unpredictable and irreproducible dishes. They take up valuable space in your cabinets by consisting of redundant ingredients. i.e. You already have all that shit in your spice rack to begin with!

I know that there are thousands of cookbooks out there that list spice mixes in their recipes. I also know that no one wants to think that they or their past family members were cooking bullshit dishes for generations. But, let me be the bearer of harshness. If grandma was using Bisquick, Coca-Cola, or Canned Soups to create her down home goodness… grandma was rookin` your ass! Now, before I get blasted for laying the pimp hand to ol` granny, I have to say that it wasn’t Granny’s fault. She was just doing what she knew, with what she had. Grocery stores then weren’t the mega-marts they are today with 15 different types of lettuce. There was iceburg and “the fancy stuff”.

So in conclusion. No, you do not have to throw out your mother’s old shoe box full of family recipes. No, you don’t have to rebuild your entire repertoire from scratch after bulldozing your pantry. But damn it! Think for yourselves. And if you pick up a cookbook that even makes mention of using pre-combined products to make a dish… leave it on the shelf with the rest of the dying dinosaurs. It is a new day. Your local store’s spice section is teaming with botanical life. Pick an herb, and use it all by itself in your dishes until you get a feel for what it does. Then move on to another. Eventually you will see how horrible you’ve been cooking and you’ll all start writing me thank you checks for having written this.

I look forward to my riches. Thank you in advance and good luck!