Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Farewell to Mignonette

Believe it or not, despite being in Chicago for so many years, my first trip to Madison, WI came last weekend. During this trip I submerged myself in the expected: ridiculous amounts of beer, sausage and cheese of varying qualities; lots of walking around the Capitol at the country's largest farmers' market, marveling at the quality and modest prices of an endless amount of produce and baked goods while scarfing down strange apples, cider, doughnut twists and a really well-made biscuit; soundlessly relishing the sanctity of being out of the city and seeing stars, breathing actual air and paying a mere three dollars for all day garage parking.

But one of the things that stands out to me most after this trip is the experience at a lakefront restaurant called Sardine, whose food and refreshingly kind, genuine service destroyed my belief, cemented while living on the east coast, that the better the view of the water, the worse the restaurant. Sardine is a really well-put together bistro that executed well, but that is really neither here nor there. What's important about Sardine is that it offered me a chance to open up a very special time of year for me: oyster-eating time. Open it I did. And how!

An old adage tells us not to eat oysters during months not containing the letter "r". I'm not sure how much weight that carries with today's oyster farming; of course good oysters can be had during the summer. But more importantly, it's the brisk fall weather that makes me crave them. And I realize how tony this makes me sound, but when this weather hits, I want crisp white wine and oysters by the gross. But to be clear: this is all I want. The dry wine cleans my mouth up for the next oyster, and when I eat that oyster I'm smelling it, tasting it and all of its juices, and chewing it. I'd never slurp down a piece of good ribeye--so much of the joy of eating comes in the masticating and feeling the food in one's mouth--so why do that with an oyster? Why am I eating it otherwise? And to be certain, the combination of shallot, vinegar and black pepper that makes the classic, beautiful mignonette sauce that accompanies oysters so often is one of my hands down favorite things in the world of eating. Sour, oniony, sharp. But again, when I eat an oyster, I want to taste that oyster. The sea water it lived in. Its cucumbery delicacy and its briny strength. Another recent dozen oysters at the hearty Publican afforded me a trip around this country's coasts, up and down the east and the west. When you embark on this trip yourself at your local oyster shack, leave the mignonette at home, or at least in the middle of the ice on your platter. Just once if not more. Smell the oyster, tip it into your mouth with all of its brine, chew it. Listen to what it tells you, learn where it's coming from. Revel in enjoying this, the freshest of foods, still alive as it arrives at your table. Thank the mignonette for his time, and perhaps invite him to the salad course. But above all else, taste that oyster.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Country Music, or Getting Kicked and Coming Back for More

Sometimes I miss cooking on a line in a restaurant. I mean, I really miss it. And I'm talking about way back in the line cook days. Because let's face it: there's a decently long patch on the cheffing spectrum where the higher you get on the totem pole, the less cooking you actually do, until that fateful day that you open your own restaurant and revert to becoming everything: line cook, server, dish washer, busser, general manager, maintenance man, errand runner.

It's a tough thing to explain to someone who asks what's to love about it: terrible conditions of heat and fire and sharp steel (just a notch above those of George Orwell's role as a plongeur in the great Down and Out in Paris and London); unsavory cohorts, many of whom have, or are working on obtaining, criminal records; relationship-destroying long hours away from loved ones at night,on the weekend and over holidays; a crushing amount of adrenaline that keeps you up long after work and well into the witching hour; notoriously long working hours and even more notoriously low pay. Every night, there's a point that your body breaks down, and your spirit does, too.

But then, there's some sort of redemption of the whole thing. There's the feeling of "Wow--just an hour ago I was flailing for my life and everything was going wrong: I was cleaning artichokes on the fly while I had five trout in various stages of cooking on the stovetop and in the oven (which may or may not have been working properly if at all) and three pans of varying vegetables perched on the side of a huge pot where I was trying to force water to boil on a burner that had to be coaxed back to life after getting doused with starchy, salty pasta water that got knocked over by this criminal working next to me who I'm pretty sure has been stealing my herbs all night and the ticket printer has gone down so now these waiters are all hand-writing their tickets but they are doing so too high up on the paper so when I put the tickets in the thing that holds them their writing gets covered up so I have to pull the ticket down slightly with wet-ish hands anytime I need to refer to it and they are beginning to tear and I really should give this entire station a good wipe down but what's that smell oh no the criminal has burned three pork chops and now I'm going to have to help him out of this as well and there's five new illegible tickets on the board." But that feeling is always, always superseded by one of accomplishment after making it through a nightmare like that, which is a hugely satisfying feeling, one of camaraderie with your co-workers (even the criminal next to me) as you sit around drinking cold beer (the quality of which is almost always rock bottom, but who wants thick, chewy "good" beer after a night like that?) and smoking cigarettes behind the restaurant. There's a feeling of kinship, of "us vs. them", the kind of common ground belonging to the "have-nots" that the "haves" will never obtain, and it's this feeling--so hard to name, that despite all of the abuse described above (and that doesn't even mention the full day put in before the sideshow of service even began), all of the proverbial kicking in the ribs that a night of service in a busy restaurant provides, keeps us crawling back for more the next day.

Don't get me wrong. I certainly don't want to revert back to that life. But, somehow, I really miss it sometimes. Here's to the line cooks of the world.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Apples, Scotland, and the Fine Line Between Rocks and Cakes

Fall has clearly arrived, which mean that hundreds of thousands of people living in "heat-included" apartments across Chicago are entering that period where things are cold, but not cold enough for the landlord to turn on the radiators. My solution has always been to use the oven more--in the case of this lovely weekend, scones were in order. I've always been torn--I feel that traditionally, scones fall more on the biscotti side of the richness/softness/tenderness scale of baked goods. By which I mean to say, they are eaten with something else--be it clotted cream, jam, or a hot cup of coffee--and are thus a bit drier than some other pastries.
But these days, people want to be impressed in a single shot, sacrificing the harmony of complementary foods--so many times, scones are baked to be eaten alone, like a muffin, and they then become much softer and richer than perhaps they were before. Which isn't to say they were ever light--butter and cream prevent that--but you've gotta consider that since the name comes from The Stone of Destiny, a/k/a The Stone of Scone, a rock where Scottish kings were crowned, scones had some pretty dense beginnings.
Me, I try to find some common ground. I like a good flaky scone--a texture acquired by using cold butter, creating layers of flour and fat that separate while in the oven, made a touch softer with cream and the occasional egg. But don't over do it with the egg and turn it into a cake. Put some good nuggets in it, some dried cherries or cranberries, or the traditional currants, and eat it with a dollop of Devon cream or good jam. Be sure to brush the top with cream and dust it with a chunky sugar. This weekend, I served it with a big, fat slice of double smoked pork rib belly from Gene's...buy some of this now! Cheaper than the garbage Oscar Meyer is peddling, cleaner for sure, and mind blowingly delicious. Plus, grab a nice apple from your friendly farmer, or better yet, go apple picking. No wax, beautiful and unique markings, and if you are picking them yourself, plenty of that great fall air. Way better than sitting inside that cold Chicago apartment all day.