Summer Dinner Diaries and Same Restaurant, Different Disaster

Dinner Diary                                                                         June 26, 1988

 

Another example of a nicely restrained menu.  How about that!  Florence was a very dear friend of ours, a realtor who got Bonnie and me into our first house by convincing the people that were selling it to trust us enough to give us a second mortgage.  And pay it back before it was due, we did.  Florence is a character, but regardless we will always love her for getting us into that first house.   

Mayonnaise as a base sauce for things on the grill, or the stovetop is perfect.  It kinda crisps up nicely, takes on any seasoning or breading and I love it!   I don’t know that I’d change one thing on this menu.  Even though the grilled zucchini was not loved – it should have been. 

Well, there is one thing that I would change.  You can’t FORCE anything nowhere, no how, for nothing and have it turn out well.  That includes peach sorbet with unripe peaches.  No matter how long those unripe peaches were in the blender with my finger digging into the ‘puree’ button they were still not ripe, hard and  with little flavor.  And that’s after a lot of effort to make this into something palatable – sugar, whipping cream and peach brandy.  Of course, if we’re talking about things being ‘not ready’ we’ll ignore the ‘seedless’ grapes for the Sole Veronique. 

Big lesson here, if it ain’t ready it ain’t going to taste its best, it will in fact taste BAD – I don’t care what you do to it.  Cook what’s ready, cook what’s in season, cook what makes sense, cook what you love.  Follow those rules and it will turn into a wonderful dish.  If you’re in a restaurant and it’s offering a special of strawberries in January get up and run, don’t even walk to the door, get in your car and drive away to a restaurant that has no spring/summer fruits on its menu.  I don’t care that it’s summer in Argentina; your meal will be many times more enjoyable without the strawberries.  

Dessert – Part I

You really should try making your own mayonnaise; if not for everyday than for special occasion uses.  All it takes is egg yolks, oil and seasonings and a blender or handheld mixer.

As for seasonings I always add salt and depending on the dish that it going with: herbs, saffron, mustard, cayenne pepper, lemon juice and on and on and on.  As for the oil: olive, peanut, corn or oils like walnut.  Again, it depends on what it’s going with, what you want the taste to be.  Do it once and you’ll understand how much better and different (smoother and richer) than the store bought.  I knew that you’d want to know – I can’t stand Miracle Whip.  To me it taste like poor quality mayo with a ton of sugar added – iiiiiccccckkkkk.

  

                                                                                             

EXCEPT IT’S BETTER

  

  Same Restaurant, Different Disaster 

On our vacation journeys up to the Cape Bonnie and me sometimes spent a night at one of my brothers homes before continuing to the Cape the next morning.  This particular year found my brother and his family would be away that night, but they invited us to spend the night there despite the fact that they wouldn’t be able to join us.

We decided to have dinner at ‘that restaurant’ – the very same restaurant where the ‘incident’ occurred wherein my mother decided to tell me what she really thought about the woman that I had divorced.  Perhaps you recall my writing about that.  I myself still recall the actual ‘incident’.   I had called the restaurant to make the reservation, made the reservation in my real name and was actually told that they would look forward to seeing Bonnie and me. 

The car was packed and I was ready to drive away to a wonderful dinner and a vacation on the Cape, as soon as Bonnie arrived home from work.  And arrive home from work Bonnie did – with almost uncontrolled sobbing and river size torrents of tears pouring from her eyes.  Bonnie’s boss was a certified Cee U Next Tuesday kind of girl.  The kind of girl whose philosophy is: if I hate my life and I ain’t having any fun, ain’t nobody going to have any fun.  She had berated Bonnie throughout the day until Bonnie, feeling her most miserable, broke down in tears and left.  Heartsick and depressed to the point where it wasn’t going to be over quickly. 

Hey!  All you bosses, supervisors, directors, et al that are like this ….. We know where you live and payback is a bitch, a long painful bitch.  How’s your children’s puppy doing?  Does it run into the street?  Brakes OK on the spouse’s car?  Might those envelopes addressed to you, but mistakenly delivered to your co-workers and neighbors with the ‘Board of Health’ return address and the ‘CONFIDENTIAL – S.T.D. TEST RESULTS’ label be a little embarrassing?  Next time you want to act like an asshole think about the payback.

So, we drove up the four hours to my brother’s house with Bonnie in tears the whole way.  An unsettling thought slowly began to worm its way into my mind.  The restaurant, as I’ve previously written, is very good and it is not cheap (sometimes the two can be mutually exclusive).  It does, in fact, deserve one’s undivided attention. 

The staff works hard, they do an excellent job, the chef works hard, and his food is superb.  You do not want to just walk into that wonderful setting, partake, and leave without having seen or savored all of it.  With all of this in mind I said to Bonnie, “Uh, honey, you’re pretty upset.  Why don’t we just cancel at the restaurant and get some takeout?”  Bonnie replied that she’d be fine.  That she just wanted to lie down when we got to the house and rest up before dinner.  That’s what she said in between sobs with tears still pouring from her eyes.  All of a sudden I’m getting those restaurant vibes.  The Grunwald restaurant vibes.  The holy shit, how am I going to deal with this – again – vibes.  One more time, “No, really honey, you’re still pretty upset.  Let’s not have to worry about getting dressed and having to spend a few hours at the restaurant.”

Bonnie continued, through the tears, to insist that she’d be fine.  I, meanwhile, was hoping against hope that this would in fact be the case.  But my guts were twisting; don’t the witches perceive the future by divining the entrails?  My cause was lost, my powers of persuasion gone.  We got to the house, cleaned up and rested and Bonnie’s tears were in fact down to the smallest trickle.  One more shot at staying in and one more time, the last time, the suggestions was turned down.

We arrived at the restaurant and – NO TEARS!  Maybe we would get through this OK.  Maybe the sun does revolve around the earth.  I, with wife beside me, once again sat on the deck, looking over the pond and the setting summer sun, peach daiquiris in our hands – several peach daiquiris each.  The unpleasantness of Bonnie’s day faded more and more with each sip of those daiquiris.   We went in to dinner and with glasses of wine in hand perused the wondrous menu. 

At some point in our menu perusal I looked up, looked with love at my wife’s face and noticed that her complexion had the faintest hint of the color green.  New makeup?  What do I know about that?   Ah, those Grunwald restaurant ‘vibes’.  “Honey, how are you doing?  If you’re tired we can leave now.”  Slightly slurred exhortations that she was just fine, the green tint, to my eye, deepening and spreading. 

We decided to share a Chateaubriand – a wonderful, beautiful, large and expensive cut of prime beef.  Oh! And  another good bottle of wine to accompany it.  The meal progressed as did Bonnie’s green complexion and slurred speech.  The Chateaubriand arrived in all of its glory cooked perfectly.  Bonnie, to my amazement, took a bite, swallowed and said, not to my amazement, “I don’t feel well”.  Well just color me surprised!

I have to say about this restaurant – we actually have had meals here without histrionics that were in fact finished and appreciated without incident.  Really.

Tears started again, the waiter wrapped up our uneaten dinner, I paid the very large tab for the uneaten dinner and we were on our way back to the house before you can say, “pull over quick!  I’m going to be sick!”  I didn’t yell at Bonnie, why would I, OK I won’t take the opportunity to go there.  Her explanation the next day: the hellish day at work and nothing to eat all day, and then the peach daiquiris was fine with me and I told her that I loved her.  I waited at least one day before the following words poured from my mouth, “I KEPT TELLING YOU THAT WE SHOULDN’T GO.  I SAID IT TWENTY TIMES.  WHY THE HELL DIDN’T YOU BELIEVE ME?”  Her charming answer, “I know that you really like that restaurant.   I didn’t want to let you down by canceling out.”  No, I didn’t reply.  I could have, but I love her too much.  What did frost my nuts was the call the next day from the brother whose house we had stayed in, “Gee! Thanks for leaving all that food (damn, we had forgotten to take the leftovers!) they were great!  I can’t believe that you ate so little of the Chateaubriand.  I loved it!  How was dinner?”

 

SAME RESTAURANT, DIFFERENT DISASTER

 

Dessert – Part II

I wish that everyone has the chance to have a properly done Chateaubriand at some time in their life.  Well, maybe not everyone.  Chef.com had some good info about it.  Châteaubriand is a small roast extravagantly cut from the center of the beef tenderloin.  This dish was first prepared 200 years ago by Vicomte de Châteaubriand’s chef, Montmireil.  This is not a tenderloin steak.  It has a very recognizable almost loaf shape to it.  Because of its thickness cooking it requires care so as not to overcook it.  Legend has it that Montmireil placed the chateaubriand between two other cuts of tenderloin, burnt both outside meats to a crisp and threw them away, leaving the Vicomte’s portion evenly pink through and through.  Would that I could be so extravagant!  As with all history, including culinary history, there are differing versions of the story.  Some contend that the dish itself is not based on the particular cut of meat, but the sauce that should accompany it or even taking its name from the cattle bred around the town of Châteaubriant in the Loire-Atlantique, France.

Châteaubriand

 The Châteaubriand cut comes from the tenderloin, piece #4

 

Dinner Diary                                                                                     May 13, 1990

 

 Bonnie’s family with us again for a nice simple dinner.  Mom & Dad-In-Law are not ‘adventurous’ eaters so I keep the menu on the easy side.  I really do try to make things that my guests will enjoy.  I usually ask new invitees their likes and dislikes, what they positively or even possibly will not eat.  And of course, what they like to drink – alcoholic or not – but never Tak-A-Boost.  Our friends include vegetarians and teetotalers and people like me whose gustatory universe knows few limits.  I mean, these are your guests – it’s your job and privilege to make them happy. 

The Silver Palette Lemon Chicken!  The Silver Palette cookbooks have provided fabulous recipes since their inception.  Maybe there are a few idiots out there who will argue that but I love these recipes.   I have served the Lemon Chicken many times.  It has become a staple summertime dish – at home, picnics, leftover.  Always great.  Making it is a lot like playing a musical instrument in that most people can play it, but you have to work at it to play it very well.  You can screw up this recipe – fake pre-squeezed lemon juice, no lemon zest, overcooked chicken – but if you follow the recipe you can’t go too far wrong.  To do it really well – select nice looking pieces of chicken, slice the lemon topping just the right thickness so that it doesn’t burn in the oven, but is translucent, make sure that you have enough lemon zest, spread the brown sugar and zest just right, cook it till it’s done – wonderful.  Let’s not forget Chicken Marbella either.  Folks these days are making jokes about it being such an 80’s dish, but it is a good dish and worth revisiting. 

Buttermilk Rhubarb Cobbler with vanilla ice cream – also perfect.  I’m one of those people that drink buttermilk right from the container – better, tastier, than regular milk and a must have for baking.  It makes everything taste better.  After all, it is the Vin Ordinaire of Hot Dog Johnny’s.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE GODDESS OF LEMON MOUSE and THE GODDESS OF JAMS AND JELLIES

Dinner Diary                                                                         July 18, 1987

 

SEE!   I can be restrained.  Of course I can be restrained, and sometimes like it that way; Let me rephrase – I can act in a restrained manner in regards to the menu.  Well, there’s that too.  Nice menu!  Good seasonal timing with all the food.  I’m certain that the pasta portions were sized appropriately for their order in the courses.  Nice use of the tomato coulis in parchment for the shrimp sauce.  Alas, too many people don’t like bluefish (the same people that don’t like shad).  Sure it really tastes like FISH.  As I’ve stated previously, if you don’t like fish eat tilapia.  Bluefish taste of the sea, you look at it and it looks like a classic fish.  The fragrance is – FISH.  How could you not love that!  Get it on the grill, rubbed with salt and pepper, I’ve rubbed it with garlic on occasion.  Get it nicely grilled, a little “crusty” and serve it sprinkled with chopped parsley and lemon wedges to drizzle over it as you eat it.  Smoke it yourself, very easy to do on the grill.  Low, low heat and a smoke box.  Sublime, much of the oil goes, you don’t want too much going, leave enough so that it’s still got moistness.  Eat it as the best appetizer you’ve ever had, put it in pasta with fresh tomatoes, mix it with cream cheese, sour cream and a little horseradish for spread.  And for heaven’s sake don’t forget the’ blue fish en papilotte nicoise’.   Another truly great fish.   

Maida Heatter’s Lemon Mousse.  Listen up!  I’ve been told that this is so good that folks had the “BIG O” while eating it.  Swear to God I’m not lying!  Yes, it takes a little while to make, but not that long and it’s not that hard to make.  Simple ingredients of course: lemon juice and zest, sugar, water, a little gelatin, egg whites, salt, cream of tartar and heavy cream.  It is so light, so BOOMIN’ with flavor.  A gift from a Goddess. 

Eating it is like lying on your back in the soft green grass on a warm, but not hot, summer day.  The sun isn’t blinding and hot, it’s lemon yellow, warm, and luminescent.  Soft, soft breeze blowing.  There are clouds in the sky, puffy and white, washed the lemon yellow of the sun in the folds and shadow edges.  You reach up a hand, gently pull one of the clouds to you, bring it to your mouth and let it flow into you.  It’s cool and sun lemon yellow at the same time.  You glow.  You are at absolute peace.  You’ve been transformed by Maida Heatter’s Lemon Mousse.  OK, Maida says, “it is like eating a sweet, lemon-flavored cloud”.  I wax a little more rhapsodic.  Maida Heatter and her creation deserve it.    

 

Dinner Diary                                                                         November 17, 1996

 

I really enjoy canning and preserving food.  I like it so much that I’m trying to make a business out of it, but more on that later.  Mom had a small garden behind our house and I remember her canning tomatoes in the 1950’s.  As a matter of fact I got, and still use, her canning kettle.  I don’t know how much that influenced me, but I certainly remember it.    I didn’t have much interest in food at that time, with the exception of eating it.  Hence the husky boy section at the clothing stores. 

I don’t recall what got Bonnie and me going on canning.  Maybe the fact that, when the corn is in season, tons of it can be had for little money.  Maybe the fact that I love fresh corn.   I have always cut the kernels from the cobs and frozen it for later times (like November!).  And I have to scream to the heavens that New Jersey’s corn, along with its tomatoes are superb – top of the ladder – beats all comers.  Good corn relish really hits the spot with me, so maybe it was one of those things that I had to do to satisfy myself.  It’s wonderful when, months later, I get a jar of sweets or savories open it and all wonderful the memories of having made it come to mind.  Maybe it’s a looking to the future kind of thing.  It has never been a chore; so far, it has always been a lot of fun.   And then there is ‘The Goddess of the Jams and Jellies’ on the Cape.  We shall soon learn more about her. 

 

 

ROSE HIP JELLY

 

Dinner Diary                                                                         November 20, 1996

 

 

Canning, preserving food, is like so many things in that it’s easy enough to do but, to do it really well takes a lot of practice and work.  Always finding the best, freshest, in season ingredients (yes, I know, I froze the corn – it’s still fresh) taking the time to bring the mixture to the point where it aches to set up, to gel.  I love creating the new recipes and flavor combinations.  Trying for the unique without being contrived. 

Our 2006 vacation on the Cape really kicked the canning and preserving into high gear for Bonnie and me.   Beach plums grow on the Cape.  The crop, yes, a small plumish fruit with something of a distinct flavor – the salt air and huge light filled sky –  like much of the local produce has bountiful seasons and thin seasons.  2006 was bountiful and, as Bonnie and I love beach plum jelly, we decided that we’d make ‘some’. We aren’t always lucky enough to find a good crop.  2006 was a bumper crop, but none were to found in 2009 – I’ll have to depend on the wisdom of Al Gore for an answer to that puzzle.  The crafting of the jelly was a magic time for us, perfect huge blue sky, cooling breezes and walking along the roadsides and through hidden groves gathering the fruit.  Then back to the house and start canning.  You don’t need much in the way of implements to do this: big pot for the hot water bath, canning jars, cooking pot, sugar, pectin, fruit, colander, canning funnel, cheesecloth. 

The resulting beach plum jelly was very, very good.  It took some time; a few batches had to be redone before they set up.  But the end result approached the perfection of my jams and jelly goddess.  Its flavor was just beyond delicate, clean; the texture was absolutely smooth and did melt in your mouth and the color – a wonderful dark purple almost touching black that you could just see the light through.  We were very pleased. 

But, there was a problem.  The problem being that we had a few canning jars unfilled.  The solution was simple enough, more time outside on a beautiful day to pick more beach plums.  Another batch of superb jelly was made. 

But, there was another problem.  The problem being that we still had an abundance of beach plums and no canning jars.  The solution was simple enough, a ride in to the local hardware store to pick up more canning jars.  The problem of this imbalance continued until we had put up 3 dozen jars of beach plum jellies and we finally decided to call it quits.  But we had really been hooked, got a heavy Jones for this whole canning thing.  But look!  Lo and behold as they say.  The hillside around the Cape house that we had rented was a dense jumble of ‘Rosa Rugosa’.  This is a wonderfully hardy ‘wild’ rose that is a classic Cape Cod flower.  Not only does the plant produce a flower, but also, of course, a seed pod as well- the ‘rose hips’ of the plant.  These are large berry- like fruits containing lots seeds and lots of juice.  As thorny as the plants are, they are not as thorny as a bramble, they’re pickable, and so Bonnie and I picked and picked and picked.  Actually, Bonnie did most of the picking.  We again dealt with the ongoing imbalance of canning jars to rose hips, eventually ending up with 4 dozen jars of rose hip jelly.  A jelly the color of orange/red/yellow autumn leaves, clear enough to see through, melting in your mouth with a taste of citrus, hint of tomato, honey, salt breezes and sun.   What did you do on your summer vacation? Oh, we went to the Cape and spent several days putting up 7 dozen jars of beach plum and rose hip jellies.  A perfect vacation. 

 

BEACH PLUM JELLY

 

My Goddess Of Jams And Jellies 

One of my great joys and constants has been the existence of a woman who sells jams, jellies and chutneys from what is literally a wooden shack alongside the two lane highway.  My Goddess of Jams and Jellies. The fruits (no pun intended) of her labors are in fact the nectar of the Gods.  They are full of pure flavor. The texture of each is absolutely perfect, her jellies are so clear that, if you dare, you can see the depths of your soul through them.  The combinations are inspired and the singular flavors of such ones as blueberry, strawberry and peach are unmatched by anything that I have ever tasted on heaven and earth.    The jars of jellies, jams and chutneys are set on wood planks that form the outside walls of a shack by the road.  The shack is painted white, fading, looking old and weather beaten; it’s been there as long as I can remember, as has my Jam and Jelly Goddess.  She is in much better shape than the shack, but has been around long enough for her face to show her Cape character: wrinkles darkened by the sun, a picture of life lived, she’s beautiful.  The shack does have a wonderful up to date kitchen – I want it.  Aside from the kitchen there’s not much else to it.  Usually, in season, it’s open.  Sometimes the shutters are down, covering the shelves and she’s gone somewhere to do whatever needs to be done.  She has been kind enough, and I have been bold enough, that she accepted my offering of one of my preserves, giving me one from her ‘special stock’ in return.  I sometimes think on the fact that, on her passing, I will cry as I have for few others, because she is truly unique, absolutely wonderful and her talent raises her craft to the level of sublime perfection. 

When we were talking with her last summer, she told us that her husband had died.  We knew that he had been ill on and off for a long while and we expressed our condolences.  But in telling this story she did bring a big grin to my face by saying, “You brought me the spicy tomato chutney last year, right?  Well, my husband got to that before I did and ate the whole jar – said to me that it was one of the best things that he ever tasted, he loved it!”   Yeah, and I asked, it was long before he passed away.

I also love her, because, as she told Bonnie and me, “this damn woman from NEW YORK was here the other day.  Kept asking if all of this (Marge’s jams, jellies and chutneys) was fresh and complaining that the jars were dirty.  She was picking jars off the shelf and putting them back out of order.  ASKED FOR A PAPER TOWEL TO WASH HER HANDS!  KEPT asking if my stuff were fresh and KEPT saying that the jars were dirty.  So when she finally picked up a jar to buy I grabbed it back from her and said, I’m not selling this to you, you get the hell out of here!” 

I want to be the equal of my Goddess of Jams and Jellies.  Hell, I’m unemployed, why don’t I try to make a living out canning?  And so Dave’s Sweets & Savories was born.  To say that the enterprise is up and running would not be correct.  At present I am fighting my way through the State of New Jersey regulations that make it impossible for anyone to make and sell preserved foods such as jams, jellies and chutneys unless they are a company on the scale of Archer Daniels Midland or General Foods.  In addition to the ‘certified kitchen’, no cooking in an inspected home kitchen and selling the products made there, they’ve got you jumping through more hopes than a circus tiger and expecting you to spend money on the kitchen equipment  and administrative fees that are beyond the reach of normal, or unemployed folks, such as myself.  Well, I ain’t giving up on this and will continue to work to get the delicious results of Dave’s Sweets & Savories into your hands.

Back at home from the Cape I went through a variety of recipes, some old, some new.  The list of comestibles, to date, is shown below.

Beach Plum Jelly                                            Rose Hip Jelly

Peach Syrup                                                    Yellow Peach Jam

White Peach Jam                                            Cranberry Apple & Pear Chutney

Apple & Pear Chutney                                    Grape Jelly

Grape & Thyme Jelly                                      New Jersey Blueberry Jam

Pear Butter                                                      Apple Butter

Corn Relish                                                     Mango & Lime Jam

Tangerine Lemon Lime Marmalade               Earl Grey Jelly

 Mango Tea Jelly                                             Spicy Tomato Chutney

Port Wine with Bay Leaf Jelly             Peach & Raspberry Jam

                   Meyer’s Lemon & Vanilla Bean Marmalade

          Cranberry Chutney with Pear &Ginger         Spicy Cranberry & Dried Fruit Chutney

      Pickled Watermelon Rinds

                                Hang On To Your Seats – I’m Just Getting Started!

I worked throughout the fall and eventually put up more than 140 jars of wonderment. My goal is to craft something more than just the jelly to accompany the peanut butter.  I want these used as an ingredient or accompaniment to dishes that are their equal.  I want them to be indispensable as the cake filling, the glaze on the pork tenderloin, replacing the tomato coulis in the Bluefish en Papilotte and, yes, spread on the scone or muffin at breakfast.

Which am I most proud of, or partial to?  That’s easy to answer.  That would be the Beach Plum and Rose Hip Jellies that Bonnie and I put up while we’re vacationing on the Cape.  

It’s been our custom to give presents to our guests at our Christmas Brunches and in 2006 we gave out gift boxes of 3 or 4 jars each to our guests.  I asked for honest criticism of my efforts and got it.  Primarily suggestions, I’ve found that I’m my own toughest critic.  But all absolutely loved the efforts of Dave’s Sweets & Savories.  The comment that made me the happiest, and I heard it from several folks, was.

“IT WAS SO GOOD THAT I JUST STOOD THERE EATING IT WITH A SPOON UNTIL IT WAS ALL GONE!”

                    To that I say, “My most humble thanks.”

SOFT-SHELL CRABS, MORE GOOD FRIENDS and COOKING IN A RESTAURANT

Dinner Diary                                                                                     June 29, 1990

 

 

Fish and shellfish do stick on the grill unless the grill is really hot and has been wiped with oil.  Live and learn.  A good menu for the early summer.  Bonnie and I love soft-shell crabs.  We consider them, like the shad and shad roe, another of the ritual spring time foods.  You can get these beauties from about late spring through the end of spring.  Though you can get them into early summer I find that, at that time, the shells just aren’t as paper-thin as they should be.

 I don’t know that all folks would describe them as ‘beauties’; they look as they should; like crabs.  The crabs are kept in underwater pens at dockside and harvested just after they molt, their shells are paper thin.  If the shells are kinda thick forget it.  It’ll work, but it won’t be at its best.  Clean them up a little, remove the gills, mouth and eyes (I guess you could leave the eyes in ……).  I like to dredge them in a little flour, salt and black pepper, a little cornmeal and some Old Bay Seasoning.  Get a pan nice and hot, put some butter in it and sauté them.  That is truly living.  My Dinner Diary notes are correct.  Not too much butter and don’t let it sit in the pan after you’ve cooked it up – serve immediately.  It takes all of about five minutes to cook these so have them ready to go and don’t start cooking them until you’re ready for them.  There are a million other recipes, just don’t go to chi-chi and lose the flavor of the crab.  Lots of textures and tastes: the crispness of the shell, claws and legs, the chew of the meat and the soft innards.  All edible, all delicious.  Batter dipped and fried – Wow!

William W. Warner’s, “Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and Chesapeake Bay” wonderously describes the whole ‘crab thing’: crabs, crabbing, the bay and its people.  This book was first published in 1976, is still in print and I’ve reread it many times.  Get it and read it – now!  It’ll tell you about draining the pickle.  Oh, and don’t forget the Old Bay Seasoning.  I’m not partial to a lot of pre-blended seasonings, but this is awesome and should be in everyone’s pantry.

Poor Rick and Brenda, old friends and good sports who usually eat everything.  But they didn’t tell me that they don’t like soft-shells.

 

 SOFT-SHELL CRABS AND SARDINES – BEFORE

 

Dinner Diary                                                                         April 13, 1991

 

 

 I did make up for the soft-shell crab faux pas that I visited on Rick and Brenda with this menu.  I cannot emphasize enough that you absolutely have to try to get a copy of Italian Family Cooking by Anne Casale (IFC).  I don’t think that I’ve ever had a recipe from this book turn out badly.  They’re actually pretty simple recipes.  They taste fantastically good.  She was someone that just really knew what she was doing. 

Of course, I couldn’t leave things exactly as they were, Notice that the IFC Chicken Rolls are stuffed with a Spinach and Blue Cheese filling from Bon Apetit and served with a Lemon Caper Sauce from IFC.  In retrospect I’m a little surprised that I rated that combination Very Good., but very good it was.  You will also note that Brenda brought dessert – the Chocolate Orange Torte.  Brenda and Rick are both excellent cooks.  What surprises me here is that I ALLOWED someone else to bring one of the meal courses.  Usually I’m much too much of a control freak to allow that to happen.  Maybe I was mellow; maybe I was tired (I’m choosing this excuse – cheese & crackers being the evidence), maybe I just trusted Brenda because she is as good as she is.  My usual response to an offer to ‘bring something’ is – YES – please bring some wine, “We will be having chicken stuffed with spinach and blue cheese served in a lemon caper sauce.  I think that a Sauvignon Blanc or possibly even a Chianti might work well – thank you.”

Bonnie keeps trying to talk me into holding a ‘pot luck’ dinner at our house where, as you know, everybody would bring a ‘dish’.  That ain’t never goin’ to happen.  I say that fully realizing that I am of the age where I never say never.

  

SOFT-SHELL CRABS, SARDINES AND FIDDLEHEAD FERNS

WITH BLUEFOOT MUSHROOMS

(Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles – fiddleheads have returned!)

 

So, You Want To Cook In A Restaurant?

At one point – unemployed – I was considering enrolling in the cooking school in Philadelphia.  I actually met with the school and was told that they would welcome me.  They prized my real estate development expertise, as the school was planning on expanding.  They also told me that I’d never be a master chef, because I was simply too old.  No matter to me as long as I could be a bona fide chef. 

Barry has been a substantial influence and cheerleader regarding my cooking.  He, at the time, held the position of Executive Chef at a highly regarded restaurant in Northern New Jersey.  I’m still trying to replicate his salmon flavored with lavender – a fantastic dish.  I talked with Barry about my thinking of going to cooking school and he had an idea.  He was both gracious and wise enough to say, “Come cook with me in the restaurant for a couple of weeks to see what this is about.  It might help you decide.”  HOW GREAT WAS THAT – I WAS GOING TO COOK IN A REAL RESTAURANT!  HOW FREAKIN’ COOL WAS THIS!!!!  I knew that after a few weeks in the restaurant kitchen I’d be ready for my television show on The Food Network – really, some of the ‘cooks’ on that channel had only spent a couple of weeks in front of a stove, it’s obvious. 

It’s always pretty damn funny when the dream meets reality, “Hello Mr. Dream, I’m Mr. Reality”.  Then Mr. Reality punches Mr. Dream right in the nose ….. and then kicks him in the family jewels just so Mr. Dream is sure to remember this event.  Before you think too much more about that television show why don’t you just spend another hour or so scouring the oven (still pretty damn hot) and the burners (likewise).  And then go in to the walk in freezer and do an inventory.  But before any of those just reach with your bare hand into the oven set at 500° to turn that venison loin.

 I didn’t have a clue as to what it was going to be like.  I thought that I’d be working hard, but I did not think that I was going to become a slave.  I did not think that I’d be cutting pounds and pounds of carrots into a nice julienne.  I did not think that my hands would become numb from the ice water that I was washing the romaine lettuce in.  I did not think that the flesh from the palm of my hand would remain attached to the red hot skillet handle that I grabbed.  I did not think that I would arrive at the kitchen at 10:00 in the morning and leave it at midnight or later.     Barry was amused by my efforts, but continued to encourage me to ‘hang in there’ and he was right – I loved it. 

This will not be an Anthony Bourdain exposé.  The staff was friendly and treated me well (letting me snitch a waffle fry or two from the customers plate before it went out) I did not encounter illicit sex or an excess of drugs or alcohol.  I find the word ‘excess’ to be pretty ambiguous and open to personal interpretation.   Actually the staff treated me well after they saw that I had some knife skills and was willing to be subservient to every single one of them.  I did learn that being a chef, being a chef who actually cares about doing his work well, is the damn hardest, most tiring job on earth – working from 10:00 in the morning till past midnight, no going out to pick up the dry cleaning, no surfing the web between phone calls.

I did get to wear honest to goodness ‘chef clothes’, that cool jacket and the pants.  I was a kid on Christmas morning.  But wow was the kitchen hot.  The prep room was in the basement and, while nowhere near a hell hole, it was the basement.  I used to have an office with windows looking out onto grass, trees and the sky.  One day I was sneezing, feeling a cold coming on and asked if there was a way in which they’d prefer that I sneeze so as not to ‘affect’ the food.  I was told, “bend over and sneeze low”.

 I did learn to bone a duck – after 8 or 10 tries – without having it look like some absolutely unrecognizable piece of road kill. 

I did learn that it takes a long time to clean up the stove at the end of service – the clean up beginning about 10:30 PM.  I would come home from the day, kiss the sleeping Bonnie, make a drink, sit on the couch in front of the television (it didn’t matter what was on) and fall asleep. 

I loved the family meals cooked by various members of the staff, when, at about 4:00 in the afternoon all of us would sit down together to eat before the onslaught of dinner.  I remember the rosemary chicken in particular.  I don’t know why, but that one dish in particular sticks in my mind. 

I am thrilled and proud to say that my knife skills were not derided (the duck being the exception to that – a mess for which I was thoroughly derided up-side my head), I managed not to drop or spill too much food on the floor, I did not overly salt anything, I did not incur the wrath of the service staff – in short – I did not make a pain in the ass fool of myself. 

I did learn, actually it was indelibly imprinted on my psyche by the volume and fury of Barry’s voice, that one, “DOES NOT THROW AWAY ANY FOODSTUFFS!!!!”

Barry, “Dave, where are the stems from the herbs that you’re cutting up?”

Dave, “I threw them in the garbage.”

B.’ “You did what?”

D., “I threw them in the garbage.”

B., “Why?”

D, “They were the stems.  They were garbage right? (my voice began to quiver a  bit here).”

B., “You think that the stems are garbage!  You don’t think that I can use them to flavor sauces and stocks!  You think that they’re FREE!”

D., “Um, um, um, um.”

B., “Don’t you EVER throw anything in the garbage unless I tell you its garbage!”

D., “Um, um, um, OK.  I’m really sorry (I was not near tears, no matter what Barry says).”

B., “Good.  You’re working well.”

So, a lesson learned that I’ve carried with me since that day – use all the parts, use your imagination.  The only downside to this is that our refrigerator has, at times, contained more than its share of ‘science experiments’.  Barry has also imparted this golden nugget of timeless wisdom in response to my asking him how long I should cook something, “How long do you cook it?  You cook it until it’s done.” 

Despite my errors over those few short weeks Barry and I managed to stay friends, maybe even better friends.  I loved being there and cooking, but realized that I may not have what it takes to do this full time – though I’d sure like to give it another shot.  One of the toughest jobs on earth.

I recently reread Bill Buford’s ‘Heat’, his journey from being a home cook to an accomplished chef.  It’s always nice to receive affirmation of your experiences, ideas and ideals from someone else and in Buford’s book I’ve received this affirmation. The experiences, ideas and ideals being the wonder, joy and obsession of a person truly loves cooking.  I envy him for having taken it farther than I have.  Like so many things, for some of us, once cooking gets its hooks into you there’s no turning back, no getting off. You just hang on and go with it.  You’re addicted.  And in this case, that’s a good thing.

 

SHAD, A GOOD DINNER MENU AND HOW DO YOU DRESS A PHEASANT?

Diner Diary                                                                April 11, 1992

 

I believe that this recipe came from the New York Times.  Bonnie and I love shad and shad roe and this recipe is a good one to highlight those superb foodstuffs.  We especially love shad when it’s prepared with a minimum of fuss – flour dredged and pan fried with a little lemon juice. Cook the roe with bacon.  There are a many good recipes for shad, some simple, some complex, all that I’ve tasted good – there ain’t no hiding the taste of this fish.  The New York Times recipe, as I’ve written, took a while to prepare, but it was well worth the effort.   

The shad presents itself honestly and without guile. While many think it uninteresting or unattractive in the way that it looks, I find its large scales to be quite beautiful; the color of burnished nickel with an edge of iridescent blue.    It has bones, it tastes like an oily fish and it smells like fish.  Givens and attributes that many folks don’t like – good, more for me.  This shad, Alosa Sapidissima (its quite beautiful species name), the star of John McPhee’s wonderful, ‘The Founding Fish’, migrates back up the rivers to spawn in the springtime.  It can be full of annoying bones, but if it’s ‘done’ right, it isn’t.  The flesh is full of flavor, but it is oily and you want to counter that, to greater or lesser degrees, with an acid flavor: the lemon juice, tomatoes or even a splash of vinaigrette.  It is heaven on earth when it’s smoked.  The roe is nutty with burst in the mouth eggs different than caviar, but a sac full of eggs just the same.  We used to really enjoy this with a side dish of morels, shallots and fiddlehead ferns, but it’s getting harder to find the ferns.  Something about ‘potential’ cancer if it’s not cooked correctly and you eat 15 pounds of it at a sitting, 4 days a week.   

Shad has become a ‘ritual food’ for Bonnie and me, a celebration of a particular season and time. It heralds the arrival of spring.   

Our town is bordered by the Delaware River.   As with many rivers, the Delaware was once so polluted that fish, including the shad, couldn’t survive in its waters.  Unbelievably, it has been restored to a virtually pristine condition at our location and the shad have returned. 

 The rebirth of the river and the attendant return of the shad brought about a festival in our town celebrating the fish and the river in which it swims.   The celebration is a nice little street fair complete with a Shad Queen, tours of the town brewery (which used to include a great pig roast until the health department and their ridiculous regulations shut it down), a shad poster auction, demonstrations of historic shad fishing (a net pulled in by a group of men and women – if you stepped back two hundred years the scene would look the same) and of course shad cuisine. 

 The odd thing is that only one or two of the food vendors have served shad in the past few years.  Bonnie and I frequent those vendors.  In talking with these vendors the consensus is that people don’t like the fishy taste and don’t want to contend with any bones.  Ya’ get what ya’ pay for and what your efforts earn you.  So the rest of you go eat tilapia – no taste, no bones, no nothing –  just what you deserve.  As for me I’ll take the river and its bounty of shad and shad roe.

 

 SHAD AND SHAD ROE DINNER

                       

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

      SHAD FEST POSTERS

 

 

 I treasure the ritual, my rituals, that come with having guests for dinner.  Looking back in the Dinner Diaries for dishes that I may not have used in a while and to find out what I have served these particular guests before; I don’t want to serve the same thing twice. 

I do give heed to the weather.  I don’t want to serve cold lemon chicken if the temperature is in the 30’s nor do I want to serve lamb shanks or cassoulet if the temps are in the 90’s.

As to the dishes themselves I usually prefer them to complement one another rather than contrast. That’s not to say I don’t want a differential, it’s just that I won’t serve Thai food and Italian on the same menu.  Thought is given to the colors, flavors and textures of the food.  I want the colors to be a rich palette, not just a single color. Nor, obviously, do I want the flavors to be the same.  Texture in that is it chewy or melt-in-your-mouth.  Putting together a good menu is art, a practice in composition. 

I prefer to fill my palette with seasonal foodstuffs and I am a locavore to the greatest extent possible.  It just doesn’t make sense food that’s from a thousand miles away and has no flavor (strawberries in December anyone?) if there are alternatives.  I shouldn’t even use the word ‘alternative’.  Use what ya got – it will taste better.  Shopping for the ingredients for dinner is something that I actually enjoy doing.  I’m the guy that’s looking at every lemon and potato, turning them over and over in my hand looking for blemishes,  I ask if there’s a fresh box of rhubarb that came in today because what’s in the bins looks like it’s been there for three weeks.

Then it’s time to decide the order of battle.  Can anything, whole or in part be made the day before? Can the gorgonzola be crumbled the day before?  Got to drain the whole peeled tomatoes the day before (save the tomato water).  Make sure that the meats out of the fridge long enough to come to room temperature.  Everybody tends to hang in the kitchen as I finish sautéing the polenta until it has a nice golden-brown crust.  Oh yea!  Made the polenta the day before, un- molded it and left it in the fridge uncovered the day of so that the exterior would dry a little.  And on, and on.  I’m big on lists.

Perhaps most importantly for me is that I want to serve my guests something that they haven’t had before; whether it’s the celery root soup, the duck breast with corn relish or the braised lamb shanks.  I treasure my guests excitement and surprise as the dishes are placed before them.

This was a good menu, cooked perfectly and with dinner guests that are two of our closest friends –   The perfect combo.  The weather was cooler than normal for this time of year so the lamb shanks were appropriate and, yes, the lamb shanks were from Ely’s.  The medjool dates – they weren’t from Ely’s.

 

How Do You Dress A Pheasant?   Depends On The Weather

I feel very fortunate living in a rural area of New Jersey.  For all of you people out there that think of New Jersey as highways and cities keep thinking that.  I like rural areas because I am, at the very core of my being, a hermit.  My few friends know this and call me a hermit.  My dream when Bonnie and I were looking for our house (I know, you’re saying, “if he’s such a hermit what’s he doing married to someone as wonderful as Bonnie is?”  Easy, I love her.) was that I’d find a house where when you walked up the driveway to get the morning paper, and you saw your neighbor getting his paper, you were too far away from each other to even shout ‘good morning’, you just waved at each other.  Well, I achieved that dream – except now I want 200 acres so that I don’t even see my neighbor.  We have what Bonnie and I term ‘Disney Land’ scenes in the property around the house continuously.  At any single moment in the spring and summer we’re often looking at several bluebirds (which I want to teach to weave a wildflower necklace for Bonnie a la Snow White – or was it Cinderella?), hummingbirds, fawns and red fox kits.

One of the benefits of living in a rural area is that we have several pheasant farms near us.  These pheasant farms raise pheasants to supply to game preserves.  Hey!  You PETA people (we often call you PETAphiles – nuts afflicted with PETAphilia)!  Don’t feel sorry for the pheasants.  We have them on our property and have found them, along with mourning doves, to be among the most stupid birds on the planet.  They will run into the side of your car, they will not move from the road as you drive towards them, they will sit there as our local barn cats walk directly towards them, the pheasant smiling in greeting.  I suspect that pheasant’s brains are at square one on the evolutionary pathway.  I really enjoy eating a properly cooked pheasant – gotta do it right, they have very little fat, so it’s way too easy to end up with a dry, tough and inedible bird.  Since I don’t hunt, I figured that the easiest way to satisfy my craving for a good pheasant would be to call up one of the pheasant farms and see if I could buy some from them.  I did call, they said come on down!  Yippee! Fresh pheasant for dinner tonight. 

By the way, these pheasant farms are not buildings.  They are acres of land covered with netting on the sides and the ‘ceiling’ about 10 or 12 feet high.  So the birds are free range and get to fly around.

I hop in the car, drive up to the office at the farm and announce myself as ready to take home the pheasants.  The proprietor says, “Just wait here and I’ll get your birds for you”, and with that walks down a lane.  He had walked a ways down the lane far enough so that when I saw him returning I wasn’t sure what he was carrying – they seemed to be moving.  Moving?  What the hell is a dead pheasant doing moving?  Those birds couldn’t be moving unless they were alive and since I’ve never actually killed my meal to eat it that can’t be possible (actually I have killed my meal to eat it: lobsters, fish, soft shell crabs, other assorted shellfish and a PETAphile that tasted like Piping Plover – ya gotta know the Cape to appreciate that).

Lordy! Lordy!  It is in fact live pheasants!  What in bloody hell am I going to do with live pheasants?  Pheasant wings were flapping, pheasant sounds were being made, pheasant heads were swiveling around and pheasant eyes were searching for an executioner or a savior.   My face may have had an expression close to the lady in Hatch’s Seafood when I told her what I was going to do with the lobster bodies.  I prefer to think that my face had a bemused and slightly bewildered expression – something like a high fashion model.  The bastard proprietor’s face had a smirk and he was holding back laughter.  Not doing much to hold that laughter back either. 

Me, “Um, Um, Can you dress these for me?” 

Him, “Nope – can’t do that.” 

Me, “You couldn’t this one time?” 

Him, “Nope” 

Me, “I never dressed a game bird before.” 

Him, “Figured that.” 

Me, “So, how do I dress these birds?”

What else could I say?  I did want the pheasants and I most certainly did not want to look like a wimp.  So the proprietor told me how to dress the birds.  For those of you that know how to do this, we know that it’s no big deal.  For those of you that don’t know how to do this, I will spare you the details. 

Actually, I was planning on telling you, but I ran the instructions past Bonnie and she suggested that I should leave it out.  She strongly suggested that I leave it out.  When the proprietor finished his instructions he said, “I’ve got some quail too.  Want any?”  I love quail.  In for a penny in for a pound I said, “That would be great, I’ll take six.”  They’re small, you know.

The birds went into boxes, not altogether willingly, and then into the back of the car and home.  I realize that there is a wide spectrum of ‘sensibilities’ out there so I shall be brief and a bit vague in regards to the events that followed when the birds and I got home.

          I GOT MY TRUSTY MEAT CLEAVER

             WENT TO THE FIREWOOD SPLITTING STUMP

                AND THE DEED WAS DONE

I was thrilled!  Four nicely dressed pheasants and six quail rested in the fridge (I didn’t have a good place to hang them to ‘ripen’ or I would have) awaiting the efforts of my culinary skills.  I couldn’t wait to tell Bonnie, I was so proud of my newly learned skills.  She had known that I was picking the pheasants up but obviously had no idea as to the lengths that I would go to in that regard.  I called her at her office, “Honey, I got 4 pheasants and 6 quail!”  And then I told her ‘the rest of the story’.  There was a really LONG silence and then she said, “You did what!?!?!?”  So I told her again.  Another long silence and then, “I’m not eating any of them.”  What?  I had done a lot of feather plucking that day and I could not believe that she would spurn the fruits of my efforts. To this day I’m still a little mystified as to her refusal to eat the birds (which were very tasty). I guess that she just never figured me for the savage that I really am.

DINNER DIARIES, BONNIE’S SOUFFLÉ AND ROOT VEGETABLE GRATINS

Dinner Diary                                                             February 27, 1988

 

 

Nice touch with the venison, good job Dave.  With the exception of the grilled shrimp/grapes/curry (in my mind it’s a warm weather dish, though I’ve served it throughout the year) this menu works. 

This menu is absolutely correct for the month of February: a time when you want the food to cosset you with warmth, to stay with you and give you a sense of well being and security – the harsh cold will do you no harm with this food in your veins.  The venison turned out well.  Cooking it demanded attention and attention was what it got.  Glance away for a split second and it’s overcooked and dry.  My gaze did not waiver.  It was cooked perfectly.   

When I’m putting together a menu one of my top priorities is that it should be seasonal and the food stuffs have to be as local as possible.  I did it here – with the exception of the shrimp.  

As I recall the atmosphere that evening was a tad reserved, a bit stiff, for at this particular point in time Sandy was my boss.   In some ways I felt like I was in a ‘Leave it to Beaver’ episode where Ward brings the boss home for dinner.  Actually a better example would be Ralph Cramden bringing home the boss in a ‘Honeymooners’ episode.  Everything went well, we enjoyed ourselves, but I couldn’t forget that she was the boss.   

So make this menu when the winter’s cold and friendships are to be warmed.  Hope that it will snow a little, and drink a toast to good fortune.  As for me I’ll think twice about bringing home the boss for dinner.

 

INTERMEZZO

In truth there are some days when even I don’t want to cook.  God, the truth does set you free!  I’m not even talking leftovers here, which I very much enjoy.  These are the days that I don’t want to put anything in a pan, I don’t want to turn the oven or a burner on and I don’t want to have to wash a single dish.  These are the days that Bonnie and I order a pizza or sushi from the local shop.  Or, Bonnie cooks dinner.  It happens, not too often, but it happens.   Bonnie is a good, competent cook and she enjoys cooking.  She just doesn’t enjoy it to the degree that I do and her job is tough; when she gets home she’s tired.  Also she hates even the thought of having a sink full of pots, pans and dishes to cleanup whereas I have no such hesitation.  So, I usually cook and it’s an arrangement that has served us well – if you ignore those 9:30 dinners where Bonnie was starving and had to go to sleep in an hour. 

And it came to pass that I found myself in a ‘no cooking’ mode.  I try to give Bonnie a day or so notice with this kind of thing so that we can decide what we’re going to do about dinner.  This time, to my delight, Bonnie decided that she would cook.  Not just cook hotdogs, but…… a soufflé!  She mused on how she hadn’t made a soufflé in many years, how she enjoyed them and how her soufflés usually came out pretty damn good.  The stage was set; Ely’s ham, good Swiss and parmesan cheeses, seasonings, eggs, milk and a trusty copy of ‘The Joy of Cooking’.   

 I am banned from the kitchen when Bonnie’s cooking.  If I’m there I’m likely to say annoying things and ask annoying questions.   

–          Aren’t you going to use a bigger knife?

–          You’re going to use that pan?

–          I’d slice that differently. 

–          Did you butter the soufflé dish? 

–          Are you going to put a collar around the soufflé dish?  If you are, don’t use the brown paper shopping bags, they have plastic in them.  Use the parchment      paper. 

Eventually, quite quickly actually, Bonnie gets this angry- cold look in her eye, glances down at the knife in her hand and in a knife edge voice says to me, “You’d better leave the kitchen – now”.  As I am not a complete idiot I do as I should, I leave.  Understanding that it’s not my show.  That if I wanted to tell her how to cook it well maybe I just should have damn well cooked it myself. 

The soufflé?  Perfect.  Golden brown crusted, creamy-light-melt in your mouth interior with a taste full of the cheeses and seasonings and the wonderfully chewy bits of ham.  Yeah, sometimes I love to take a break from the stove and be presented with such a wonderful gift.

Thanks Honey!

 

 Bonnie’s Soufflé

           

Dinner Diary                                                                         October 26, 1991

 

This IS a good fall, or winter, menu.  It also shows proof that I am responsible for inventing and introducing a culinary masterpiece to the world – the ROOT VEGETABLE GRATIN.  I was way ahead of the curve on this and BOTH Al Gore and I invented the Internet.  As to the rest of the menu.  The soup sounds good – what doesn’t sound good when it has oysters in it?  Six pounds of chicken for four people verges on stingy in my opinion.  Thank you Brenda for the apple pie.  I have no doubt that the pie was very good, but Bonnie is the Supreme Empress when it comes to apple pies.  Not just because of her never to be equaled crust, but because she has ‘the touch’ when it comes to apple pies.  

Root Vegetable Gratins.  Maybe I love them as much as I do because of my eastern European heritage.  Maybe it’s just because they are so absolutely satisfying and soul warming.  This is true comfort food and it does taste of the earth, not dirt, but of the essence of time itself. All the events that the leaves witnessed, and the flavors of the sun, rain and winds that they soaked in  before completing the cycle and becoming the earth are in the flavors of the root vegetables.  Picture the autumn colors of this dish, the golds, oranges, creamy whites and the crispy edges and corners of the top layer of veggies.  The texture and tastes are RIGHT THERE.  Bite through the top layer of crunch into a yielding firmness, the tastes swirl around, sweet, not too sweet, a little tart with the right amount of bitter, the golden glow and liquid wonder of hot butter and heavy cream, some nice herbs to enhance the vegetable flavors.  Yeah, I love root vegetable gratins.  I’ve made them with various combinations of root vegetables.  They all taste a little different, they all taste wonderful.  They are a perfect companion for ‘Bell’s Seasoning’.  

To appreciate a root vegetable gratin to its fullest curl up in a big chair with a hot serving of this each time you have the chance to look at the autumn leaves as the light fades from the day, whenever the leafless branches of trees lace the edge of the evening sky and whenever those first one or two or three snowflakes drift down in slow motion from a featureless gray sky, harbingers of the winter to come. 

 

DESSERT

Dave’s Root Vegetable Gratin

This is one of those dishes that there are numerous recipes for, this one is mine.  My ‘coarse chop’ is a bit smaller than a bite size piece of whatever.  This will serve about 6 plus guests as a side dish – depends on the size of your vegetables doesn’t it.

 Ingredients

1 strip thick cut bacon

1 large onion: peeled, cut in a coarse chop

2 or 3 parsnips: peel, cut in a coarse chop

1 fair size celery root (celeriac) peeled and cut in a coarse chop

2 or 3 carrots: not peeled, cut in a coarse chop

1 or 2 fair size russet potatoes: not peeled, cut in coarse chop

1 rutabaga: peeled and coarse chopped

Salt

Black pepper

Bell’s Seasoning

Nutmeg

Butter

Chicken broth

Heavy cream

 Preparation

–          Preheat the oven to 375°F.

–          Render the fat from the bacon in a cast iron porcelain coated baking dish large enough to hold all of the ingredients.

–          Remove the bacon strip and reserve a tablespoon or two of the rendered bacon fat in the baking dish.  Treat yourself and eat the bacon strip.

–          Sautee the onions in the bacon fat until they’re just beginning to soften.  You want them to be a cooked a little before the gratin goes in the oven.

–          Remove the onions from the baking dish and put them in a bowl large enough to mix the ingredients and seasonings without having them slop all over the counter.

–          Add the parsnips, celery root, carrots, potatoes and rutabaga to the baking dish with a tablespoon of butter, a little salt and just enough chicken broth to cover the bottom of the baking dish. 

–          Cover the baking dish (foil, baking dish cover, whatever), place it over medium low heat  and braise the vegetables about 10 minutes or so, checking to see that there’s still liquid at the bottom and stirring the vegetables when you do.  Add more chicken broth as you need to, but not so that it’s drowning in it.  I do this so that the flavors can mingle a bit and the vegetables have a head start on getting done.

–          Remove the baking dish from the stove, turning the vegetables and juices into the mixing bowl with the onions.

–          Add the salt, black pepper, Bell’s Seasoning and nutmeg to the veggies and toss to mix.  You want the taste of the Bell’s and the nutmeg to be evident, but not overwhelming – not IN YOUR FACE.  One big happy family of flavors, no show offs here.   Add a bit at a time and taste, taste and taste again.

–          Return the contents of the mixing bowl to the baking dish.

–          Add the heavy cream to the baking dish.  I add just enough so that I can begin to see it through the mélange of vegetables.

–          Add a couple of pats of butter atop the gratin, maybe 2 tablespoons.

–          Place in the oven and bake until a fork stuck into the veggies shows you that the veggies are nicely soft and done, about 45 minutes or so.

–          The top of the gratin should be nicely golden crusted.  If it’s crusting before the veggies are done loosely cover with foil and remove the foil about 5 minutes before you plan to take it from the oven so that the top can get crispy again.

–          If the veggies are done, but not crispy, drizzle a little heavy cream over it, place it under the broiler and watch it like a hawk until it is golden and crispy.

–          I’ve had good luck seasoning this with only fresh thyme, salt and black pepper.

A NOTE:

Bell’s Seasoning is a very nice seasoning.  It goes particularly well with poultry and I always remember my Mom using it to season the Thanksgiving Turkey and stuffing. 

Started in Boston in 1867 by William G. Bell it contains rosemary, oregano, sage, ginger, marjoram, thyme and pepper.  Not only does it work well with poultry. But also some fish, vegetable dishes like the gratin and pork.  Yes, it’s owned by one of those ‘large’ companies these days, but it’s as I’ve always remembered and that’s nice.  A bonus is the retro packaging.  Again, as I always remembered – except for the fact that they’ve added a little banner that states, “Salt Free”, a concession to our PC nutty world.

 

 

THE PRIZE

The Prize

The 1980’s found me doing a lot of cooking.  In 1987 Bonnie and I hosted twenty-four dinner parties – let’s be less formal – friends joined us for dinner twenty-four times.  Doing the math that comes out to a lot of cooking, setting the table and washing a lot of dishes just about every other weekend.  It was something, and still is something, that I need to do, want to do.  Entering a cooking contest wasn’t something that I needed to do, but for whatever reason I did.  I must have been feeling pretty damn confident about the dish that I entered.  Part of that confidence was born in ignorance.  There are most certainly revisions that I’d make to the recipe today.  Regardless, the dish was successful.

Yes, I did win an award for a recipe that I submitted to a cooking contest.  What contest was this?  Was it The Pillsbury Bakeoff or Bon Appetit?  James Beard?  The Food Network?  Something else on a national level?  No, Nothing on a national, or regional, level.  The contest was held in 1987 and sponsored by the local town paper and Princeton University (why on earth was the university involved?).  We’re talking a very local level.

I’m still thrilled that I won the category and I still think that it’s a pretty damn good, and imaginative, dish.  So here’s the story of winning that award as told through several of the Dinner Diaries.  Many of my friends got to sample the dish – whether they wanted to or not.

 

Dinner Diary                                                                         January 13, 1987

 

Boy, is this a “WHITE” meal or what?  WHITE fish, WHITE sauce and WHITE rice.  I’d like to think that I was so excited by my new creation that all other considerations fled.  However, herein is presented my sole (get it: sole/ flounder) claim that I am worthy to enter the bastions of Chef Greatness.  The “Turbans of Flounder Stuffed with Sea Urchin Roe” was in fact created by me and me alone.  Obviously, I tried this on Bonnie and myself before foisting it on any friends that I wanted to remain friends.   Forget about the white rice and the anchovies versus flounder.  Concentrate on the Turbans. Beautiful fillets of flounder, or grey sole, cut lengthwise.  The sea urchin roe mixed with the smallest bit of beaten egg.  The roe is than nicely spread on the fillet, the fillet is rolled pinwheel fashion and placed on edge on an oiled baking sheet or pan.  Pour enough vermouth and clam juice to just cover the bottom of the dish.  

Yes, the prize winning dish.  The award being a silver chafing dish.  A chafing dish that has never been used.  A chafing dish that, for a small fee, is available.  Door prizes included meals at good restaurants.  Something that I’d rather have than a chafing dish. 

 

Dinner Diary                                                           January 30, 1987

  

 

Cover the dish with foil and, “bake until it’s done” – maybe 10 minutes or so.  The vermouth cream sauce is just that.  Today I’d do things a little differently. Hey, I’m older – a fair amount older – I supposedly have more wisdom and experience.   The roe is so delicate I’d mix it with just the barest hint of egg yolk to hold it together.  I’d sprinkle the top of the turban with fresh, largish, buttered bread crumbs and touch it with the broiler for color.  Or, instead of the crumbs, a beautiful golden-orange roe to dress the top.  A nice white wine cream sauce.  All that I want to taste in the fish, the roe and a little sauce.

 

In taking top billing I beat out some ‘interesting’ dishes: Cinnamon Spice Veal (that sounds like it could work in the right hands – maybe, maybe not. I’ll have to try it my way.), Garden State Turkey Lavish (not as horrible as you might think: turkey and Courvoisier on phyllo with cranberry relish), Poulet En Phyllo Avec Sauce Dijonnaise (I mean really: chicken in phyllo with mustard sauce), Scallops Primavera, Rosemaried Scallops, Marilyn’s Pork Cordon Bleu and on, and on.  It was a big year for Phyllo dough.  

At one point in time this newspaper had a food critic that, in my opinion, should have found another way to make a living.  Her highest praise in her restaurant reviews was, “there was so much food that I was able to take enough home in a doggy bag to make a meal of it the next day.”  Her review would also rate the food on how good it was when it was re-warmed the following day.   Now, that’s the level of competence and knowledge that you want a food critic operating on.  It makes it so easy to choose a restaurant, “Gee honey, do you think that we should go to that restaurant that SHE reviewed, Bust Your Gut?”  “Yeah honey, SHE said we could eat for three days on the leftovers!”    Ambiance – who cares?  Imagination – who cares?  Good wines – who cares?   Good service – who cares?  Finely prepared food – who cares?   Just so long as –  THERE WAS A LOT OF FOOD!  Her reviews would note that a dish had arrived at the table cold, a dish had been inedibley over-salted, the waiter had picked his nose while taking her order, but just so long as there was a huge quantity of food, good or bad it didn’t matter, lots of food and the restaurant got four stars. This particular food critics name doesn’t appear in anything having to do with the contest so, I’ll assume that she wasn’t around at that time.  The contest category was actually judged by the executive chef of a very good area restaurant, so I accepted the prize with gratitude and elation.

It was great to win and this prime win was coupled with the fact that I had Bonnie submit a recipe of mine under her name for “Saffroned Seafood Bisque” to the “New Jersey Fishing For Compliments Cookbook”.  AND IT WON A PRIZE TOO!!!!!  Am I a freakin’ wonderboy or what?  Ignore the “or what”.   This toothsome creation is not actually a bisque but, a stew.  If the New Jersey Fisheries Development Advisory Council and State of New Jersey Department of Agriculture doesn’t know the difference who am I to tell them?  The prize for this win?    No silver chafing dishes.   Just the pure satisfaction of having the recipe published in a cookbook under Bonnie’s name.

Dinner Diary                                                          February 14, 1988

  

 

Many of our friends have been ‘fortunate’ enough to enjoy the Turbans of Sole with Sea Urchin Roe (kinda’ sings when you say it out loud) at our dinner table.  A few of them had expressions of surprise on their faces when I announced what the main course was.  I’m certain that the look of surprise was based on their gratitude in being judged worthy to be served such an imaginative dish, an award winning dish.  It couldn’t be that not everyone loves sea urchin roe.  My brother Kev and his wife Shawn are good sports and always eager to try something new when it comes to food – I’m sure that they loved it.  I hope they did.

 

Dinner Diary                                                               May 9, 1987

 

I swear that I’m getting better at controlling my tendencies to have an excessive amount of dishes on the menu, this is 1987 – it’s now 2010.  This menu is a showcase of excess worthy of Caligula.  I mean really – “Good Menu”?  You could eat for days on the food that I served in one night!  Shrimp wrapped in Lox AND prusciutto sounds vaguely interesting.  I still like the idea of the asparagus with the pureed pimento (roasted red peppers) lemon sauce.  Wild rice does not go with EVERYTHING.  Repeat.  Wild rice does not go with EVERYTHING.  The soufflé wasn’t “chocolaty” enough?  How could you even tell with all the food that preceded it?  Maybe I should give in and say restraint be damned.  I like the sound of that.

Poor Joan and Erwin.  Whenever I’ve read this entry I picture them having a very long and unpleasant night ahead of them.  Not because the food was bad, but because there was just too much of it.

 

 

Long Ago And Far Away

STUFFED SQUID AND SCALLOPS WITH THE ROE

 Dinner Diary                                      July 2, 1987

Yea stuffed squid!  I think that I’ve stuffed them with just about everything that makes sense, also some things that don’t.  Again, just the two of us for dinner, Bonnie and me, we very much like it that way.  I can sometimes get the squid with the ink, a very special treat, from my most favorite seafood store in the whole world, noted before,   Nassau Street Seafood in Princeton, New Jersey.     

Squid are a versatile ingredient and easy to cook.  I have yet to have mine turn rubbery, but there’s still time for that to happen.  There is an old saying that goes, “you cook squid for either two minutes or two hours.  Anything in between and they come out rubbery”.  OK, I cooked these for 4 minutes a side.  That’s allowable seeing as how they are stuffed.  I save the tentacles to close the bottom opening of the squid, a very attractive presentation.  

This is a good menu. I honestly don’t think that the squid filling needs to be pureed, as I’ve written.  Just get the filling to the point where you can nicely stuff the squid with it.  All the dishes work together, though I might serve a Pommes Anna rather than the wild rice.  Pommes Anna? More simple than it sounds.  Very thinly sliced potatoes are layered in a baking dish and drizzled with butter or pats of butter, salt and black pepper between the layers.  The dish is baked and the and when the potatoes are a wonderful very deep golden brown the baking dish is inverted onto a plate, the potatoes slide out and are then put back into the baking dish with the ‘bottom’ , the as yet to be golden brown potatoes, up.  The dish is returned to the oven until what used to be the bottom is now golden brown.  The potatoes are unmolded onto a plate and served.  The end result is a wonderful buttery concoction with a crispy top and bottom and creamy center.  Potatoes kicked up to the point where they’re fit for the Gods.

 

 

Yes, I know what they look like

 

At Nassau Street Seafood the offerings are always fresh fish, seasonal – you won’t find soft-shell crabs in November. God bless them, they will get me fresh sea urchins, good smoked trout, cockles and real prawns.  I think back on all of the wonderful seafood that I’ve gotten here and my thoughts latch on to scallops with the roe attached.  The rarest of rare – scallops with the roe attached.  My thoughts also skip to Hatch’s on the Cape who also carries these whenever they can.  I don’t see a lot of folks leaping to buy these; supposedly they are more popular in Europe than they are here.  But when Bonnie and I walk in to Nassau or Hatch’s and see these in the case it’s like surprise presents on Christmas morning.  These shellfish are beautiful: good size, glistening, creamy white scallops with a pink or creamy-rose colored crescent moon of roe nestled to the scallop along the inside edge of the crescent, the crescent moon snuggling the sun, you and your love snuggled front to back in bed on a lazy morning.  Beautiful sublime taste of sea, flow of the tides, warm sun, cold water, summer soft salt breezes, cries of the gull and terns and eternity stretching before you.  You’ve got to ’listen’ to taste all of this but, it is all there, all in a single bite.

 

TODAY

In preparing this posting I decided to revisit the recipe. The squid in the photo were stuffed with scallops and shrimp and seasoned with herbs.  Stuffing them would have been easier if the stuffing wasn’t as coarse as I had chopped it.  I wouldn’t puree the stuffing as I’d written, but a fine dice would make the job easier.  And by the way, you don’t need the eggs and the breadcrumbs.  The squid were served with squid ink pasta finished in garlic infused olive oil with parsley and asparagus with lemon butter.  While the dish looks OK, I think that it’s lacking something.  The squid needs more of a visual sauce than beurre blanc provided.  Maybe a creamed sauce with a spinach, sorrel or chard base – something nice and bright and green that works with the herbed squid stuffing.  Not withstanding my criticism the meal was tasty.  I’ll go for tasty and better looking next time.

  

 

Scallops with the Roe attached

 

I know that the scallops aren’t the main course of this diary entry, but let’s wander a bit.  Let’s muse on the scallops.  These shellfish have to be just about the sweetest, creamiest, richest things that come from the sea.  OK, lobster’s up there too, but these take first place in those combined categories.  When you’re buying scallops you have to tell your fishmonger that you want to smell them.  Don’t be embarrassed because these aren’t cheap.  Put your nose right next to that scallop and inhale deeply.  Let the scents roll around your mouth as if you’re tasting a fine wine.  Chew on them and think about what you’re discovering.  The scent and taste should be sweet and rich, almost scallop ice cream, with delicious undercurrents of beach sounds and scents.  As I wrote in the diary entry, “Beautiful sublime taste of sea, flow of the tides, warm sun, cold water, summer soft salt breezes, cries of the gull and terns and eternity stretching before you.”  If you smell any other scents than these you should run like hell from that fishmonger.  The roe has different tastes and textures than the scallop proper (actually the scallop proper is the adductor muscle; the mussel that opens and closes the shell) and that difference works very well.  The roe is firmer, much less sweet even verging on savory.  It’s a wonderful juxtaposition of flavors and textures: soft/firm, sweet/savory.   Please, please, please cook the scallops only about 3 minutes a side if you pan sautéing them over high heat.  There are a lot of fancy recipes, Coquille St. Jacques, is a classic, but if I’ve got really nice scallops that’s just about all that I want to taste.  Maybe some butter and lemon juice or a little butter and wine reduced.  For me, culinary heaven.

I’ve been thinking about my cooking of late.  Not the, “What’s for dinner?” cooking thoughts or the constant thinking about what can I try that I haven’t done before or the what can I do that I haven’t done in a while.  Nope, not those thoughts. 

On one level I’m becoming increasingly obsessed with working to be the best cook that I can be.  I want my cooking to be perfect. I want it to be imaginative and/or I want that simple, single, ingredient to be the essence of that ingredient.  For example, I’ve become obsessed with roasting a chicken perfectly – absolutely crispy skin, meat just falling from the bone and dripping with juices.  I want this chicken so perfectly freakin roasted that all the other chickens are lining up to get in that roasting pan!       

 On another level I have been thinking of the solace that cooking brings me in these tough times.  When everything else is going to hell the cooking is still there for me.  When everything else is going to hell I can still make dinner for friends, enjoy the comfort in those friendships, enjoy the compliments and, in those moments, the tough times disappear.   So, there’s no need to thank me for inviting you over to join us for dinner. 

I thank you.  Hope to see you at our table soon!

Next Week:  May we’ll get to ‘The Prize’ diary entry.  Then again, maybe not.