Showcasing the Pacific Northwest

We continued our recent trend of having a very well defined theme for our weekly tasting menus, but decided to keep things domestic. This time around, the Pacific Northwest was our region of choice. Pretty interesting area, and one I’ve actually always wanted to visit. Just to clarify, we’re talking about Oregon, Washington, and even into Northern California. Some things to take note of would be the obvious things like proximity to the ocean, which means seafood is an important part of the repertoire. Additionally, being a heavily wooded region plays a big role in the cooking- use of nuts, mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns(we were able to get these in fresh, which was nice for that real authentic feel to the food), and apples are all pretty apparent and something we made a point of showing. In addition to seafood, because of the geography and it being such a heavily wooded area, game meats are pretty popular- namely venison and elk(we used venison). Finally, the food is all prepared very simply- nothing particularly complicated about any of. The focus here is on the fresh local ingredients.

So, for one of our appetizers, we decided to use Artic Char(which is sort of like a cross breed of salmon and trout). We cut the Char into 3oz portions and hot smoked it, and then served it chilled. We kept the dish extremely simple, and just served almost like a salad of herbed fingerling potatoes, pearl onions, and bacon(we actually made this bacon in-house), along with a brandied apple chutney.

For our second appetizer, we used a slightly more complex preparation(just tedious really, not necessarily hard), but kept the flavor profile very simple. We used King Crab meat and made a cold set terrine. I’ll spare you the details on how to build a cold set terrine… it’d be as tedious for me to explain it as it would be actually build it and I don’t feel like doing that again. Basically, we have a terrine mold(this one was basically shaped like an arched doorway), with the edges lined with carefully arranged leg meat from the crab. The inside is a pea mousse. Pretty simple- its like a cylinder of pea mouse with the crab leg meat going around the edges. We just serve a slice of this as an order, which gives that visual appeal. After this slice of king crab and pea mousse terrine, we made a nice little relish of pickled corn and prosciutto, and a basil gelee(basil pureed into water and white wine, with some xanthan gum added to thicken it).

For our fish course, we took advantage of it being King Salmon season, which is a pretty brief time of year. I’m generally not a fan of salmon, but King Salmon really is something special and its something I actually really enjoy. The problem is that it goes for roughly $20 a pound for whole fish- regular garbage farm raised Atlantic salmon goes for more like $7/lb for sides(skin on, not portioned). You won’t find a whole lot of restaurants that serve King Salmon- very few with the clientele that’d be willing to pay for it. Luckily, for our members, we made this part of our weekly 3 courses for $30, so they won’t have to worry about all that. So, we crusted this wonderful wild caught salmon with pine nuts, and served it with some sauteed fiddlehead ferns, and a wild mushroom and potato hash. Instead of a sauce, we just made a simple rosemary gastrique(rosemary, thyme, garlic, bay leaves, port, sherry vinegar, honey, all just reduced to a near syrup), and drizzled it over the plate. Just simple ingredients prepared the right way here.

For our not fish course(we did too damn much with fish this week), we decided to use venison. I really hadn’t expected this to sell, but its actually handily outsold the King Salmon(shocking since our members are lame and generally order seafood like its gonna all be gone by tomorrow). I guess I should be encouraged by that, I dunno. This dish couldn’t have possibly been any simpler, to be honest with you. I’d eat it, though. We started by marinating venison tenderloin in some olive oil with garlic, thyme and rosemary, and grilling it to a nice medium-rare. Next up, we caramelized some fennel, and toasted some walnuts in the same pan… we then added a bit of a very simple vinaigrette and very quickly and lightly wilted some spinach(not so much wilted, really, just warmed a bit), and added some dehydrated blueberries. This nice warm spinach salad gets finished with a little black pepper, and goes on the plate with the sliced venison, a couple pieces of maytag bleu cheese, and a nice blueberry jus(just our has bacon jus, pureed with some blueberries) to finish things off. Again, just simple fresh ingredients prepared the right way.

I actually really enjoyed the food this week- nothing pretentious, just good simple food. Also, the members seemed to enjoy it all, and actually “got it,” so to speak.

My interpretation of Egyptian cuisine

In a recent entry, I believe I mentioned doing a Moroccan tasting menu at work. Well, after that we took our theme back to North Africa a couple weeks later. This time we decided to showcase Egypt, and the food the land of the Sphinx has to offer. Growing up, I was always fascinated with the history of Egypt- tombs, mummies, the pyramids, all that. I hadn’t really thought much about my childhood fascination with Egypt again until here very recently- been watching a lot of nat geo and history channel- and kinda randomly decided to do an Egyptian themed menu. Now, going into this I wouldn’t have claimed to have known really anything about Egyptian food(still wouldn’t dare say I have much more than a basic understanding), but that was the fun of doing this- getting to learn something new. I just did some basic quick research over the net, and went off of the little bit I know about Mediterranean food(in the broad sense of it), and some typical things one sees in North African food(lots of heavy spicing, grains, beans, a plethora of great produce). Also, and this was a huge resource, but my boss actually spent about three weeks in Egypt on vacation, so he was an easy go to for questions and insight. All that said, lets get into what we came up with- I was pretty happy with it, and the limited feedback we got was overwhelmingly positive.

We’ll start with appetizers. Our tasting menu is in choice of format, with two appetizers and two entrees to choose from(as well as two desserts). Our first appetizer offering was a simple Avocado and Radish Salad. Very light, very simple- some baby spinach and arugula, red onion, tender red potatoes, almonds, and a cinnamon vinaigrette(rice wine vinegar, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, shallots, garlic, jalapeno, lime juice, olive oil), plus the obvious items mentioned in the name of the salad. Pretty nice little salad… likely would be a bit more festive if the weather was a bit warmer. Sold quite a bit of these, but I don’t remember getting any specific feedback.

Our second appetizer offering is a bit more fun, at least to say. If you’ve seen the move “Wedding Crashers”, you’ve heard of this dish but if you’re like me you may not have known what the hell it was they were talking about. Baba Ghanoush would be the name of this one. Whats Baba Ghanoush exactly? Just a puree of roasted eggplant, generally served at room temperature, along with some bread- served like a dip almost. So for this simple little dip, all we did was cut some eggplants in half, sprinkle the flesh with curry powder, and roast it at 325 until tender. Then we just scooped that flesh out and pureed it in the food processor along with some garlic and onions, and just a touch of olive oil. Now, we had to add a little more to the dish than just some eggplant. So, we went with a Mediterranean favorite- a fried chickpea cake(mashed chickpeas, garlic, cilantro, tahini, cumin, coriander, lime juice, olive oil). Almost like falafel, but we just sauteed it on the flat top instead of being a deepfried ball. Then we took some of our pizza dough(yeah, a bit of a shortcut, bo so what), and rolled it out very thin and grilled it, for a nice grilled flatbread to be used scoop all the good stuff up. To finish the plate off, we drizzled some good Middle Eastern style aioli(roasted garlic and olive oil puree) over everything. Very simple, but nothing not to like here. I think most were a little scared of something titled “Baba Ghanoush,” so we didn’t sell much of it, though.

Entrees got a little more interesting. For our fish option, we used Corvina(Pacific Bass- not exactly Egyptian, but thats what was available to us). But, with the heavy spicing we used to replicate the style of cooking in Egypt, it really wouldn’t have mattered what kind of fish we used. You’re going to see a lot of the same spices repeatedly. But, we pureed roasted garlic, jalapenos, cilantro, parsley, tahini, cumin, coriander, lime juice, and olive oil together and used this as a rub for the fish. So, after we seared the fish, we’d smear some of this robustly flavored paste over the top of the fish before finishing it in the oven. Now for the starch… We didn’t have bulgar wheat, but we used couscous to make tabouleh- diced tomatoes, cucumber, mint, parsley, cilantro, lemon/lime juice, and sesame oil all mixed into a couscous salad. Now, Egypt is known for its phenomenal selection of fresh product. Egypt is to Europe what Chile is to North America when it comes to being a supplier of produce. So, we finished this dish with a really nice mango and starfruit chutney. If you’ve never had starfruit before…. let me introduce you. You may have seen them at the grocery store- the bright yellow, star shaped fruit, with green edges. They’re also known as Carambola. They actually kinda taste like a golden delicious apple, with a bit of a citrus flavor as well. They’re quite nice. We cooked the mango chutney as one typically would, but waited until it was cooled to add in the diced starfruit, for a nice bit of crunch.

For our non-fish entree, we did something really exciting. At least I thought so. We decided to use Pigeon, also known as Squab. Its considered a delicacy in North Africa, and to a certain extent all across Europe. Squab is like a big quail- so we’re talking about a little game bird, and its generally looked at in Egypt as a special occasion type meal. The first step was creating a very flavorful marinade, using a lot of the same spices we’ve mentioned before- cumin, coriander, curry, cinnamon, clove, paprika, jalapenos, cilantro, parsley, garlic, molasses, honey, lime juice, and rice wine vinegar. We then used those same spices, along with a little sugar, as a dry spice rub to add to the bird right before roasting. For our starch, we chose rice and red lentils, along with some dried fruit- dates, figs, raisins, currants, and apricots. Finally, for a sort of sauce(they don’t do much with sauces in the typical sense in Egypt), we made a nice fig preserve- pureed figs, chopped dried figs, onions, garlic, jalapenos, and fig vinegar. This really came together to be a great dish- didn’t got a whole lot of orders(people were scared of Squab), but most of the feedback we received on this dish was nothing but stellar.

Going ethnic with my cuisine

As I believe I’ve mentioned before, we do a three course tasting menu at work each week. Its almost entirely up to us(the kitchen staff) what we want to do for it. The only restrictions are on cost, which basically just means we won’t be ordering in any exotic and expensive ingredients- we’re not necessarily trying to make a lot of money off of this, but we certainly can’t be losing money.

This past week we did something quite astray from the norm, and went with a decidedly Latin flair. We kept things fairly accessible for our members by using sea scallops for the appetizer, and pork loin for the entree. We served those sea scallops grilled with a black bean sauce, garbonzo bean cakes, and a slice of breaded and fried avocado. For the garbanzo bean cakes, instead of cooking the beans and pureeing them, I simply soaked them for 2 days to soften them. After that, I used a food processor to chop them up very fine, and folded in a cilantro puree(lime/orange juice, garlic, cilantro, olive oil) to give them a nice green color and of course some of that good flavor. I made the black bean sauce a little bit differently as well. The usual thing would probably be to cook black beans, add some spices and some vinegar and puree it. That’d result in a very tasty end product, but it’d also be a bit chunky and thick, which isn’t really what I’d wanted. What I chose to do was cook some black beans in chicken stock(I used an excess of stock), and reserve the leftover liquid once the beans were cooked. I then just thickened that black bean flavored liquid with corn starch and had my sauce.

The pork dish I kinda lucked into, to be honest. I was upstairs after service last Saturday night looking through the coolers to see what I’d have to work with and was discussing what I was doing with one of the guys that works the formal dining line upstairs(I say that, but formal dining is usually never open- they never get reservations so they almost always get closed down). I had the 1st course pretty well ironed out at that point, but wasn’t sure what I was going to do with the entree, but told him I’d wanted to keep the direction(nationality of the food) the same. As it just so happened, he’d had a Mole sauce prepared for their menu that weekend(which didn’t get used becasue they ended up not being open at all), so he offered it to me since he had no use for it at that point. Was a good deal since Mole requires some 30 or so ingredients and isn’t a short endeavor. Once I had that, I decided to have smoked pork loin, mashed sweet plantains(fried to order and simply mashed with a fork) and roasted peppers, plus some salsa verde(tomatilos, shallots, garlic, lime juice, cilantro- all just pulsed in a food processor).

The dishes came together pretty well- I was quite pleased with both. I actually work with a couple people in the front of the house that are from Mexico. One is a server, and the other an assistant manager(also my roommate), and I’d told both of them that I had something for them with the three course for the week. They were both pretty excited with what we did, and also had very good things to say about what they tasted- which is about meaningful of a compliment as any I’ve received.

This week, we’re going ethnic again, but from a completely different part of the world. It was getting to be the end of the week and one of the guys I work with stated that he wanted to do something for this coming week’s tasting that he’d never done before- as in a nationality he’d never worked with. I suggested he look into Moroccan food, as I actually didn’t know much about it myself. So, he went home and did a little reading, and arrived at a braised lamb dish for the entree with spicy couscous(peppers, garlic, onions, currants), sweet and spicy carrots(cumin, honey) and a vegetable stew for the sauce(carrots, celery, parsnips, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and the braising liquid from the lamb). He couldn’t come up with much for the appetizer, but what he did find involved something like falafel. So, I took that and decided we’ll make our own falafel with fried pita, a spicy tomato relish and a yogurt sauce. Admittedly, that dish is more broadly Mediterranean and likely closer to Greek than Moroccan but I think it’ll work.

I’m curious to see how the Moroccan menu sells. Our Latin offering this past week actually did surprisingly well, particularly over the weekend when business picked up. This week, being the first week of the month, might not give us that opportunity but we’ll see.

The most ridiculous request I have ever heard

I work in a food service establishment serving made to order food. Its pretty normal for us to get some special requests- its a country club and we know how the stereotypical country club people can be. Usually its pretty normal stuff like no potatoes, sub vegetables, or sauce on the side, etc. Bottom line is that its a pain in the ass having to stop and read red ink(special instructions always come in as red ink, whereas the actual menu item is in black) when calling the order and setting the plate instead of just hearing “halibut”(for example) and knowing that it comes with starch A, veg 2, and sauce z- but its usually doable. The only problem is when we get a special order for something we don’t have. Lets say somebody in the dining room asks for snow peas and we don’t have them, and they’re not on the menu. That sorta situation makes me want to kill servers- they know to ask on special orders, they’re usually just too lazy and incompetent to do it.

The other night we had a special order of quite a different nature. This one was actually physically impossible to do. Lets talk about steak temperatures for a second. If you order your steak medium rare, thats just a phrase assigned to the internal temperature of a steak with a warmish red center, 125 degrees to be exact. That temperature in the very middle of the steak is whats responsible for the color- lower temperatures means proteins that aren’t coagulated and are still holding myoglobin and are thusly more of a red/pink color. Higher temperatures mean coagulated proteins(as meat cooks the protein strands shrink, effectively wringing out all the liquid, and thusly cook) that shift toward a grayish color. Again, to acheive this desired cook, we measure the internal temperature of the steak. So, it would seem pretty self explanatory that a steak could only be cooked to one temperature, right? Meaning, if someone were to request that, while kept whole, half a steak be cooked to rare(115 degrees) and the other half be cooked well done(160 degrees), it’d be pretty fair to laugh them out of the dining room, right?

Apparently not. Not only did one of our real foodies of a member ask for this, but one of our illustrious servers(actually a supervisor in training) said “Sure! I’ll put that order right in for you guys!” So, then some of the most moronic words I’ve ever seen put together were rang in on a ticket. What came next was probably even more disappointing.

We then confronted the server and asked what the hell she was even talking about. Her response was to suggest we just leave one side of the steak on the grill longer than the other side. I don’t know if it was the look of utter disbelief on our faces or me retorting simply with “What?!” but she then started to get it. She asked “Is that not something you can do?” It was then explained to her its not something that anybody can do, and she decided that we should just cook the steak “medium.” Thats a far cry from rare and well done at the same time, but ok.

At the end of all that, I’m pretty sure I’m now dumber from having to go through that whole experience.

The rich and famous as role modes?

So, I’ve decided that I need to rant for a minute on a subject that seems to be in the news almost daily. Its in the news now, sorta, with this whole Tiger Woods car accident thing from over the weeknd, and him not having to talk to the police about it despite running over a fire hydrant. This kind of thing always brings people out of the wood work talking about how athletes and movie stars should conduct themselves as role models and be accountable to the kids that have their eye on them.

This makes absolutely no logical sense to me. Why should athletes, singers, and actors, etc be role models for anybody? What do they really contribute to society? Athletes play school yard games. For a living. Actors pretend to be somebody else in a reality that only exists on camera. Again, for a living. What about either of those professions warrants being considered a role model? I’m really at a loss of understanding on the whole subject- on one hand, I really don’t understand why these overpaid and over glorified ass clowns get special treatment under the law, but I also don’t understand why people expect these individuals that don’t do anything that is inherently productive to society to be role models. Its ludicrous, really. What is with everybody’s obsession with rich and famous people?

It really bothers me to turn on CNN and see somebody like George Clooney lecturing on politics or some other nonsense, and pushing people to try and act on it. What makes him qualified to have an opinion that anybody should listen to? He gets paid a stupid amount of money to pretend to be somebody else in front of a camera. My response any time I see one of these bleeding heart liberal whack jobs that works in Hollywood that thinks they’re entitled to tell people what to do outside of something concerning what they do for a living is simply to shut the hell up, and go back to their own little world of doing nothing meaningful for society but constantly getting stroked for it for no reason.

Let’s talk football for a minute…

To start off, let me say that with having a lot of family in Wisconsin, I was raised to be a huge Green Bay Packers fan. They’ve been in the news a lot the past two years, and it hasn’t been for winning a lot of games, unfortunately. I’m not looking to get into the subject of Favre, and that whole dispute. Point blank, I think the organization made the right call moving on without him, and Aaron Rodgers has proved he can play. Honestly, I think its one of few good personnel decisions that have been made in the past few years.

This season has been particularly hard to watch. Right now we’re a .500 team- which could be worse, I suppose. The problem with it is that expectations seemed to be pretty high at the beginning of the year, with many experts talking about a possible run for the title. Pretty lofty expectations that are flat out laughable after what we’ve seen out of this team so far, most notably an offensive line that can’t be bothered to block- they’ve given up a league high 37 sacks in 8 games. At the pace they’re going, its very likely we could break the single season record for number of sacks given up, which was set by the Houston Texans a few years back. Not exactly the kind of record to strive for.

What I find to be most alarming about the issues on the offensive line start with the fact that those guys didn’t perform particularly well last year, and the issue was not addressed during the off season from a personnel standpoint. There was no point made to go after the acquisition of experienced, proven linemen- as a matter of fact, they actually chose to get younger and less experienced in that area by picking up linemen in the draft. I’m all for building for the future, but rookies rarely address an immediate need- and thats where being somewhat aggressive in free agency and even the trade market come into play. I would think a supposed “professional” General Manager would understand this, but it’s getting to be pretty clear that ‘ole Ted Thompson doesn’t.

Moving forward, the thing I can’t wrap my head around is that it’s the same problem every game- the line is giving up some almost unheard number of sacks. The response from coach Mike McCarthy? Something along the lines of “It was a communication problem. We’ll take a look at the game tape and correct those issues with the players on Wednesday.” That works if its a case of one really bad game out of five or six, but when it’s every single week- and you’re giving the same response every single week… It gets to be pretty apparent that what you’re doing, or the theoretical “correction” that is taking place isn’t correcting anything. If you’re having to have the same conversation repeatedly, then you’re not saying the right things to clear up whatever the problem is. Its pretty obvious that there hasn’t been any kind of adjustment made- just a stubborn approach to keep doing what you know, because it worked for you somewhere else. Its flat out asinine. In this particular context, this team, these players, and the competition that you have, it doesn’t work. Isn’t the defenition of insanity trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result?

This actually isn’t the first time that McCarthy has shown he’s too stubborn to change even when he’s obvious that his game plan is going to fail. The best example I can give is that it cost us the NFC Championship game a couple of years ago. I’m referring to the matchup of Al Harris against Plaxico Burress. If you watched that game, you probably remember full well that Harris got chewed up and spit out- wasn’t really surprising since he’s never proved that he has the athleticism to go up against a marquee receiver. If I remember correctly, Burress had about 100 yards in the first half. What adjustment was made at half-time? Absolutely nothing, which is really hard to understand when the other cornerback we have, Charles Woodson, is better than Al Harris and at least deserved a shot at defending Burress. He couldn’t have done any worse. Instead, Harris was still matched up on Burress and he continued to get torched nearly every time he was thrown at.

This weekend’s loss to the previously winless Buccaneers could be what brings the outcry of the fans thus far this season to a head. Those that follow the NFL know that theres a couple of superbowl winning coaches possibly on the market- Bill Cowher, Mike Shannahan, Jon Gruden, and Brian Billick. Really not the year to be a coach with a team falling embarrasingly short of expectations. Theres some really bad teams this year- Oakland, Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis. All those teams have fairly new coaches(some are 1st year), so even as bad as those teams are it seems doubtful they’d make a coaching change so soon. I think the only team that is pretty well certain to make a coaching change at this point is Washington. Should make for a pretty interesting off season as far as coaching changes go- I’m hoping we’ll dump McCarthy and go after Mike Shannahan.

My first food mission in Charlotte

One really simple food that I tend to really enjoy is a great sandwich- BLT’s, club sandwiches, a good French dip, and of course a properly made club sandwich(has to have the ham and the turkey- most people skip the ham these days and it pisses me off). Those are the stand-by’s that are usually pretty easy to find at most sandwich shops. Another that I’m a big fan of, from a deli that had it down in Orlando is an open faced turkey pastrami melt. It was one serious sandwich, and got it almost every time I went there(when I didn’t order it, I usually left wishing I had).

I feel pretty adamantly that when one wants a real sandwich, an old school deli is the best place to go. Problem is, there aren’t too many of those anymore. Unfortunately, the commercial, craptacular sandwich joints have taken over and its almost depressing how bad some of them are. And even if they don’t suck and manage to serve a respectably good sandwich, they just don’t offer the full deli experience. What I mean there is the fresh made soups, the display case full of more pies and whatnot than you can believe(and its always impossible to decide what you want), old school milk shakes and malts, and then the potato salad and coleslaw and whatnot you can buy by the pint and take home(if you want to, anyway).

So, today I had a serious jones for a turkey pastrami melt, an egg cream, and some boston cream pie. I’m new to the area I live, and don’t know where theres a good deli, so I ask around at work. The first few people didn’t know, and somebody said “Oh, well we have Quizno’s.” I honestly felt like punching that person for that response. After asking a few more people, I seem to have been turned onto a fairly solid deli- its downtown(or uptown around here, I can’t keep it straight) across from one of the big business centers and its only open for lunch during the week. Sounds about right for a deli to me. I’ll be looking to find it one day next week, and we’ll see if the menu has what I’m craving.