Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Year Later, An Updated Manifesto--and A Few New Salon Dates

When I started the Food on the Dole Salon one year ago--March 10, to be exact--I didn't have a clear expectation of what was to come. Four brave souls came to that first Roast Chicken Salon; we cooked together and had compelling conversation over a really tasty meal. As we grew over the course of the year, we were able to put on over 50 Salons, all told. That's two or three hundred different perspectives coming through the F.o.t.D. Headquarters, and I hope you all gained as much as I did through the Salon.

As we embark on a new year and approach an exciting new growing season (translation: soon there will be more than squash and potatoes available!), I'd like to tighten up the definition of just what the Salon is, and invite you all back--or for the first time--to join us, and find out first hand and in person what the words below could never fully describe. Current salon dates will always be listed at

What is the Food on the Dole Salon, you ask?
The word Salon comes from the Italian word sala--a large receiving room of an Italian mansion where, in the 16th century, people would gather to exchange ideas, facilitated by a knowledgeable and inspiring host. Ultimately, Salons took hold in France in the 17th and 18th centuries, becoming a center for ideas to form and spread during the Age of Enlightenment.

Full disclosure: the Food on the Dole Salon is not hosted in an Italian mansion, nor is it expected that we give birth to a second Age of Enlightenment. We're a bit less academic than that, and a main goal is to have a great time. However, just as poets shared words and musicians their music hundreds of years ago, the Food on the Dole Salon aims to be an important part of food as culture and thought, shared amongst as many perspectives as possible. Though we will be cooking a meal together, it should be understood that the salon is not a cooking class; instead, it is an intimate gathering, with food and cooking as our medium, hosted and facilitated by Chef Hugh Amano.

The Salon seeks guests who hunger to enhance their understanding of food, and seek a community rooted in a common thread of the recognition of the importance of food and sound cooking. In a forum of others sharing these desires, in an atmosphere free of exclusive notions, open to all viewpoints and the discussion of such, we will:
  • Cook a market-based meal together (please note that all diets are welcome and will be accommodated whenever possible);
  • Sit down in a byob setting, eat and discuss the food we made and food in general, issues regarding food, things you may be curious about or feel need to be addressed;
  • Help to create a community based on the joy of food, cooking, and the conversation and relationships they foster.
All topics are welcome in the natural course of the evening. I hope to develop a non-exclusive community of people who come from all sorts of backgrounds--I want to connect those of you who are experts in, say, theater, with those of you who keep bees. Those of you who eat regularly at places like Alinea, and those of you who visit tacquerias and hot dog stands on a daily basis. 6-8 seats are available at each Salon, and dates and cost will be made known through Food on the Dole ( I hope to see you soon and welcome you to the community of the Food on the Dole Salon.

Friday, March 9, 2012

I'd Love For You To Come, But You've Gotta Stay Here and Cure

Headed towards the Old Miss this weekend for a touch of relaxation whilst sitting outside whittling wood and letting the smoke from the fire and whiskey from the still soak in a bit. Naturally, before leaving, we decided to get a hunk of brisket brining for next week's festivities. Mind you, there'll be no green beer and no green uniforms (guys: white long-sleeved shirt under green short-sleeved shit, preferably with Cubs logo, girls: green and white striped thigh-highs, short shorts and green star antennae things). Just some really solid corned beef and cabbage--the kind you want to eat--and of course plenty of solid beer and whiskey to match. You know, like a normal day 'round the FotD headquarters.

The brisket came from the fatty cap end--though usually my preference for corned beef and most things brisket is the first cut/flat cut as it's a bit easier to drive, if you will. But in this case, I took what was available, and was reminded of an older friend in Boston, who told the story of his father courting his mother way back when. The father, a city boy, was finally invited to the farmhouse of the country girl's family for Sunday dinner. A roast was passed around and made its first stop in front of the guest. He looked at the slices in front of him, nervously pondering which one to take. He spotted the fatty piece, and thought that he'd be doing the most honorable thing by taking it, sparing the good, meaty pieces for the rest of the family, namely the father. Unfortunately, as soon as the serving fork touched the fatty piece, the father--watching in judgement with a farmer's hunger--sprang down upon the poor boy (verbally; the shotgun stayed on the wall) and let him know which piece he'd better not take. Heart racing, the boy returned the fatty piece and took another--any other--and watched as the platter was passed back through all of the children's hands to the father, who claimed the coveted fatty piece.

The moral of the story here? Fat is good. So is understanding who you're dealing with.

Anyway, the beautiful piece of meat scored from The Butcher and Larder is now in a really strong brine made of mustard seed, coriander, chile flake, allspice, bay leaf, clove, garlic, ginger and a whole lot of salt, pepper and sugar. I didn't use pink curing salts this time around, namely because I misplaced the ones I have at home (kind of scary) and have, as mentioned, the mighty Mississippi calling my name so have no time to get some; plus, I'd like to see the results of a nitrate-free brine. The color of the meat won't be electric pink like usual, and the flavor will be a touch more mild. But nonetheless, it will be delicious--and devoured.
Side note--why is it called "corned" beef? Well, as Harold McGee explains in On Food and Cooking, way back when, corn was a generic term coming from the same root--and meaning the same thing as--"kernel" or "grain". Thus, the grains of salt used to cure the beef were called "corn". And thus, the term corned beef came to life. Weird.

A common problem with brining a huge hunk of meat is the "where do I do this" conundrum. Tough to say depending on your setup at home--get a huge brining bag and set it in a pot in the fridge or, if you live in a place that hasn't been either warm or below freezing all winter, and hovers in the 33-40ºF range, set it on the fire escape, covered and weighed down lest the squirrels get in it. Me, I sealed it in a bag after removing the air, and made a little bed for it in a crisper drawer in my fridge, just in case of any blowouts or leaks. Corned beef is good; brining liquid all over the bread and Busch Light isn't. This 4 pounder will stay in the brine for about 5 days or so, then move to fresh water for a night, then braised low and slow. We'll eat some straight away, but for the big dinner, I love slicing the brisket nice and thick, then searing it on a cast iron griddle. You'll get a lovely, crisp and caramelized crunch that yields to the soft, braised meat below. At any rate, this isn't something that has to only fall on St. Patrick's day--brined and braised brisket is not only a tongue-twister--it's a year-round delight.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Simplicity vs. Fuss, or Big Cat vs. Catherine Deneuve

I just got back from a great lunch over at Sun Wah with the Big Cat, a friend and excellent chef here in Chicago. Over Crispy Pork and Chinese Broccoli with Chiles we talked about the importance of simple food, and perhaps more significantly, accessible food. Seems like at the same time that everyone is so hyped up about molecular gastronomy (a term coined in part by the great Harold McGee, who now laments its use as a marketing term a la Dr. Frankenstein), we are also so interested in the old-fashioned, simple foods, such as charcuterie and cheese and beer and roasts and actual vegetables. Which is a great thing.

I just watched an exceptional episode of No Reservations where Bourdain makes his rounds in Brittany on the northwest coast of France, making a similar observation, most notably in the case of the fascinating and inspiring chef Olivier Roellinger, who returned his 3 Michelin stars to pursue something that mattered more to him: "a more fluid, accessible and natural experience." Aside from his ascent into becoming one of France's great chefs despite a really rough start (he was beaten, nearly to death, by a gang of several people when he was 21, was in a coma for a bit, then a wheelchair for 2 years, and only then got into the food business), which is amazing on its own, Roellinger's story sparks interest because he is a chef at the top of his game, and he chooses to step away from the stuffy environs of perfection, white linens, and plating things with tweezers, and move into a neighborhood of dirt, pigs, charcuterie from said pigs, bakeries and pastry shops, spice merchants, and above all else, an inn with gorgeous yet approachable food. Which begs the question: is something more beautiful because it is inaccessible (think Catherine Deneuve), or does beauty come from the every day realness of something (a wooden table, the sea). I suppose it's far too complex to answer that easily, but I suppose at this point, I would take a lovely plate of Roellinger's well-crafted charcuterie with the Big Cat over a fleeting chance to wash Catherine Deneuve's car given the choice.


At any rate, the point here is that the inherent quality in something simply but lovingly crafted is always pleasurable. Last week, me and mine got hold of some very simple ingredients, and made a really great meal together--the kind of meal that, when created together, and the cooking is actually part of the event of the thing, is greater than the sum of its parts.
We found a beautiful striped bass and some mussels; sweet little parsnips and lovely treviso radicchio, potatoes and brussels sprouts. At home, I had a rich duck stock in the freezer from meals past, and some of that great ham from Tennessee that my Bounty paper towel friend brought me.
We cleaned the fish, and tossed its collar with some soy sauce, cane vinegar, sesame oil, fish sauce and chiles, then blasted it in the oven and served the hugely flavorful result over rice.
This was followed by mussels steamed in duck stock with that salty ham, leeks and celery sautéed in butter, and some crusty bread.
And to finish, puréed parsnips and potatoes with charred Brussels sprouts, a salad of the bitter treviso radicchio with apples, and an extremely crispy-skinned bass with an herb vinaigrette. None of this food is way out there, and none of it ranks high on the difficulty/creative list. But we found beautiful product, cared about it and each other, and had an outstanding evening preparing and eating it. We'd be in the $100 range in a restaurant for something that cost us $15-$20 to buy, but that's not the point. The value inherent in simple, well-crafted food and the pleasure in cooking and enjoying it is its own reward.