Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year

Sorry it's been so quiet over here lately. I'd love to tell you I've been deep in thought, reflecting and ruminating on the year and decade as they come to a close. But frankly I'm still coming out of a bit of a food coma after a three-day visit to New Orleans (here's a preview: Stanley, Lüke, Mr. B's Bistro, Dante's Kitchen, Cochon, and Stella - and one word summary: wow).

I thought perhaps this evening I'd take a shot at some sort of year in review (I'm not big on New Years' festivities), but when more modest plans fizzled out, we actually stumbled into seats at Michael's Genuine tonight when there was a cancellation. I'd take that as a promising omen for the year to come. In the meantime, here's some good year-end reading material:

Eater Miami gives recaps of several favorites and predictions for 2009 and the coming year (this post links to all their various lists), including from yours truly.

Lee Klein of Miami New Times gives an interesting "Top Ten Most Important Restaurants of the Decade" list. I'd agree with many, though I'd question whether Barton G's food is anywhere near as impressive as its presentations, and suspect places such as Altamar, Pilar, and even Grillfish might wonder whether River Oyster Bar was the only place serving fresh fish in a contemporary manner. Red Light may have been given short thrift by being lumped in with Pascal's, very different places, though I think there is a point that they are both very personal visions of very honest, heartfelt food. A couple glaring omissions, in my opinion: Ortanique, which Chef Cindy Hutson opened in 1999 and successfully elevates Caribbean cuisine to high dining; and Talula, which opened in 2003 and is one of the few places left in South Beach where you can find great food without the hype and pomp of a trendy scene (and the prices that go with).

And finally, Frank Bruni resurfaces from hermitic seclusion after stepping down as the New York Times' food critic (just kidding: I think one of the trends of 2009 that is hopefully over is learning not only what the food critics ate, but how long it stayed in them) to give his glowing take on Miami's restaurant scene, including much praise for Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, Sra. Martinez, Pacific Time, Red Light, Area 31, and Hakkasan. These are some of my favorite places as well, though I have to say his take on Red Light is puzzling. Though he seems to lump it into the bacon-intensive, animal-style, "This is Why You're Fat" genre ("If you're looking for spa cuisine, don't go to Red Light"), I actually find Chef Kris Wessel's cooking to be fairly health-conscious (maybe my standards are low). There is typically not a single fried thing on the menu (I don't think they own a deep fryer), it is usually heavy with seafood (including always at least a couple fresh fish options), and even items like the ribs or the burger come with lighter sides like an apple-slaw or a salad.

In any event, I think it all points to a promising 2010 for the Miami food scene. Here's wishing everyone a happy, healthy new year. As my grandfather used to say, "Always better, never worse."

Friday, December 25, 2009

Tropical Chinese - Miami (A Traditional Jewish Christmas)

It is a Jewish custom nearly as old, and nearly as universally observed, as lighting Shabbat candles and saying the Kiddush and the Hamotzi: we go out for Chinese food on Christmas Day. Unlike our Christian brethren, we are not busy opening presents, singing carols, or preparing a ham or a goose for Christmas Dinner. And while most restaurants are closed for the holiday, it seems in most places the Chinese restaurants remain open. Though I'm not sure it's actually in the Torah, it is a natural and logical tradition. And possibly the best place to observe it in Miami - whether Jewish or not, and whether on Christmas Day or any other time - is Tropical Chinese Restaurant, across from Tropical Park on the west side of Miami.

While Tropical has a full menu, I've visited (many, many times now) almost exclusively for the dim sum, which is served daily during lunch hours. Service is pushcart style, with roughly a half-dozen or more heated carts working the sizable room, a glassed-in open kitchen where you can see the chefs at work, and nicer, more polished furnishings than you'll find at many other more bare-bones dim sum houses. Frod Jr. and I observed our Christmas Day tradition this year with some other good eaters; since a good part of the joy of eating dim sum is the variety of little bites, this really is the ideal way to do it.

You can barely get your butt into the seat before people start plying you with food, so let's move to that quickly.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

CSA Week 4 - the beginning, plus some leftovers

So what do we have here? Clockwise from the left, collard greens, hakurei turnips, dandelion greens, parsley,zucchini, tomato, green pepper, the dirtiest grapefruit I've ever seen, and Lula avocado.

Nothing much of note has happened to any of them yet. I quickly trimmed the greens off the turnips and stored them separately, until they eventually got together with last week's white chard, the dandelion greens, an onion, and some serrano ham that was lurking in the fridge:

This will eventually wind up with some pasta, over some toasted bread with a fried egg on top, or in an omelette. Need to dig up my friend's recipe for Ethiopian Yegomen Kitfo for those collard greens.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

5 Countries in 5 Blocks - El Rincon de Chabuca - North Beach

[sorry, this restaurant has closed]

The food of Peru is possibly the original "fusion cuisine." Indigenous, Spanish, and Asian influences all have made their contributions. An abundance of produce, including more potato varieties than can be imagined, exotic chiles and herbs, as well as ready access to all sorts of seafood, also play a significant role in the uniqueness and diversity of Peruvian cuisine - which is represented in my "5 Countries in 5 Blocks" series on North Beach restaurants by El Rincón de Chabuca (or, as we call it in my household, El Rincón de Chewbacca).

El Rincón de Chabuca is a modest eatery along Collins Avenue just past 71st Street in the North Beach neighborhood where, as I've previously noted, you'll find a multitude of eating options from around Latin America. It's not much to look at, and it's probably not in contention for the best Peruvian food in all of Miami (most people think that honor goes to Francesco in Coral Gables), but some things are quite good.

If there is one item that people think of when they think of Peruvian food, it would most likely be ceviche, or its cousin, tiradito. Traditionally, a ceviche features raw fish or seafood that has been marinated in citrus juices, the citric acid in effect "cooking" the fish. With Chabuca's shrimp ceviche, the shrimp seemed to have been previously cooked, which with shrimp is not that unusual, doused in a mixture of lime juice, salt, garlic, and chile paste (they ask how spicy you want it and it is prepared to order), served over a bed of lettuce, topped with slivered red onions, and plated with traditional accompaniments of steamed sweet potato, choclo (a South American variety of corn with starchy, gigantic kernels), and corn nuts. Ours was good if a tad oversalted (a common refrain for many of the dishes we tried). Their ceviche can also be had with only fish, or with a mix of seafood (calamari, octopus, mussels and shrimp). I was intrigued by a menu item called "Ceviche Caliente Exotico," described as "crispy on the outside and yet fresh on the inside" and apparently involving seafood prepared ceviche-style and then deep-fried - but not intrigued enough to try it. You'll find a broader variety of preparations at a place like Francesco or La Cofradia, where they offer their ceviches either traditional style, or with an aji amarillo chile sauce or a rocoto chile sauce, and sometimes even more esoteric, non-traditional versions.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Cobaya Experiment #3 - Chef Jonathan Eismann

When Chef Jonathan Eismann, of Pacific Time and Pizzavolante (and soon to be a couple more), and I first started discussing the prospect of doing one of our "underground dinners," he was completely into it. After months of trying to nail down a date and location, several weeks ago Chef told me "I have a spot" and everything quickly fell into place.

The spot turned out to be the not-yet-opened location of his new seafood restaurant "Fin," which is nestled within his also not-yet-opened new restaurant "Q" (which will be a barbecue place). Both are in what Miamians will likely fondly recall as the location of the old "Sheba" Ethiopian restaurant which closed a year or so ago, along Miami Avenue in the Design District. The "Fin" space occupies a cozy corner of the space (I'm pretty sure this is where the little art gallery used to be in Sheba) and is decorated in a Cape Cod style, very clean and simple.

The fish-centric concept of the new restaurant (everything will be fresh, local and simply prepared) and Chef Eismann's love of seafood helped set the theme for the dinner. After considering the seafood angle and the late December date, I mentioned something about the Italian Christmas tradition of the "Feast of Seven Fishes," and Chef Eismann and his team ran with it from there. Everything on our menu was brought in from the waters up and down the East Coast within 48 hours before our dinner, and Chef Eismann's team of chefs all assisted in creating several courses out of the ocean's bounty. In all, we had nine courses, all fish and seafood, fresh from Maine down to the Keys.

Though our menu said "Fin" on it, and the new restaurant will share the seafood focus, you won't see most of the specific dishes we had on the restaurant menu, at least not in the particular incarnations we saw. Most of what we 34 guinea pigs experienced (our largest group yet for one sitting, and very cozy for a 32-seat restaurant!) was created just for this dinner. Unfortunately I forgot to bring a camera and so for present purposes can only offer this low-quality scan of the menu and my recollections (I've put a request out to the other diners to see if someone will share their pictures Thanks to guinea pig Brad Nichol for providing some pictures, his full album from the dinner is here).

Thursday, December 17, 2009

CSA Week 3 - roll 'em if you got 'em

When I first saw a bag of big, strange leaves in my CSA box, I didn't even know what I was looking at. Thankfully, the newsletter helpfully explained that these were piper betel leaves. They looked like they really wanted to be wrapped around something, and eventually my mind got to thinking about the Vietnamese dish called bò lá lốt, or grilled beef wrapped in leaves.

Lo and behold, the traditional wrapper for the dish would appear to be none other than betel leaves! I looked up a few different iterations of the recipe, all of which appeared to be variations on the same theme, and improvised some. For a pound of ground beef, I added about 2 tbsp. of finely chopped lemongrass, 2 tbsp. chopped green onion, a clove of finely chopped garlic, a couple tsp. of curry powder, a couple glugs of fish sauce, a spoonful of sugar, a pinch of salt, a grinding of black pepper, and mixed well with my hands. I laid out the leaves and added a torpedo-shaped spoonful to the upper third of the leaf and rolled it backwards on itself. My basic assembly guide can be found here.

If the leaves still have the stem attached you can use that as a sort of toothpick to hold the roll together, otherwise an actual toothpick will work (as will a longer skewer, which you can stick through several at once). Then just brush with a little oil and grill them in a hot grill pan:

The leaves, which start off feeling somewhat waxy, quickly soften and then get slightly crispy. After about 3-4 minutes, turn or roll them to cook the other side. Conveniently, once the leaves are wilted and cooked all over, the meat inside will also be done. I only got five leaves in my box, not nearly enough for a pound of beef, but I did have another leafy green hanging around. I trimmed off the leaves of some of the white chard and quickly blanched them for a minute or two in boiling water, then dried them on a paper towel.  I wrapped the rest of the beef in the chard leaves and gave them the same treatment:

I also whipped up a quick nước chấm to use as a dipping sauce. There seem to be many different schools of thought on the proportion of ingredients in a nước chấm. I used the juice of two limes, one thinly sliced chile pepper, one clove of minced garlic, about a tsp. of sugar, about 2 tbsp. hot water, a squirt of sriracha chile sauce, and about 1/4 cup of fish sauce. It wasn't bad but it could have used more tweaking if I wasn't ready to eat, right then and now.

The betel leaf wrappers had a wonderful frilly, slightly crispy texture and an interesting, subtly smoky flavor. The chard had a more substantial bite, but took nicely to grilling and had a slightly sweeter flavor. I liked the filling, which when cooked has a nice firm, but not tough, texture with brightness from the lemongrass and scallion.

The betel leaves seem like they could come in handy for a number of other uses. I will no longer feel the urge to panic when I see them in my CSA share. In fact, I'll be looking for more in the extras box.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

CSA Week 3 - pesto and pisto

I've been making quick work of my CSA share this week. The Thai basil started changing color on me from green to purplish-brown, which told me it was time to make pesto, and fast.

It's sort of a shame pesto seems so dated and 1980's, as it's tasty, versatile stuff and the basic concept works with a broad variety of different combinations of herbs, cheeses and nuts. I went traditional here though, starting with three cloves of peeled garlic and about a 1/2 cup of pine nuts, lightly toasted in the toaster oven. Those went into the food processor, along with the basil leaves, were pulsed until smooth, and while doing so, I started adding a drizzle of olive oil through the feed tube. I don't measure the olive oil (OK, I don't really measure anything); the texture I look for is a loose paste. It could have been anywhere between 1/2 and 1 cup of oil.

I could try to convince you that I prefer to grate the parmesan separately and then add it to taste, but the truth is I forgot the cheese. So, by accident rather than design, I grated about a 1/2 cup of parmigiano reggiano and then added that to the rest of the ingredients. Salt to taste. It all came out OK.

I blanched the green beans (3/4 lb.) in boiling salted water for about five minutes, then shocked them in ice water to keep them from overcooking. I then used the same water (I use a spider to fish them out rather than dumping the water through a colander) to boil about 3/4 lb. of dry linguine. When the pasta is cooked, drain it and throw it in a big, warmed bowl (I stick it in the oven at 200ºF while the pasta is cooking), and toss with a big generous spoonful of the pesto and green beans. Use enough pesto to evenly dress the pasta: I used about 3/4 of the batch of pesto I'd made (probably about 3/4 cup). Grate more parmesan over the top, and grind black pepper to taste.

I made this over the weekend for the kids and one of their guests for lunch, and they all wolfed it down. That makes me proud.

OK, that's pesto - what about pisto?

Monday, December 14, 2009

New Ocean in the Making - New AltaMare Too

There's apparently a new ocean forming in the desert in the middle of Ethiopia. A bit closer to home, there's a new AltaMar restaurant in the works too.

I'm a bit ashamed to say I've never been to AltaMar, which is a locals' favorite, particularly for seafood buffs. Apparently the locals have been loyal enough that the restaurant will be expanding to a space next door to its current location on the west end of Lincoln Road, and nearly tripling in size. With the bigger space comes an extra letter in the name, which will henceforth be "AltaMare".

Also of note is the resume of new executive chef Simon Stojanovic, who was the opening sous chef at Michael's Genuine Food & Drink and before that at Nemo (where Michael Schwartz got started locally too).

Projected opening date for the new space is mid-January, until then the current location will remain open.

1233 Lincoln Road
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Sunday, December 13, 2009

CSA Week 3 - the beginning + ratatouille

I started CSA Week 3 with some of Week 2's bounty still in the fridge, which turned out to be a good thing.

In the box this week were some Swiss chard, green beans, a "suntan" pepper, a cucumber, an eggplant, cherry tomatoes, long stalks of Thai basil, curly parsley (extras box), and some piper betel leaves. Left over from last week still were a zucchini, yellow squash and a red pepper. Do you see where I'm going here?

I said last week I saw ratatouille in my future. It was meant to be. I briefly contemplated doing the fussy, layered version that Thomas Keller created for the movie "Ratatouille"[*] (a/k/a "Confit Byaldi"), but quickly abandoned that notion for a simpler approach. An onion from the pantry was chopped into about 1/2" pieces and sautéed in olive oil in a big sauté pan. Next in, the pepper, also given a rough chop. Next the eggplant - skin removed is up to you (I did so this time). The eggplant tends to soak up a lot of oil and you'll probably have to add more at some point to keep everything from sticking. My general thinking, similar to stir-frying, is to start with the harder vegetables that need more cooking time, then move to the softer ones. Some people actually cook each separately and then combine them, which seems overly fussy to me. I salt each addition to the pan as I go.

At this point my pan was getting full, so I dumped everything into a large bowl and started over again (if there's not enough surface for the new veg when they go in, they'll just steam instead of sauté). Here I added some chopped garlic to the pan, then the zucchini and yellow squash (also cut into about 1/2" pieces), then finally about 4 or 5 cherry tomatoes, quartered. Once they all had softened, the onion, pepper and eggplant went back into the pan so everyone could make friends. As I tasted this it kept calling out for more salt. Also some of the basil and parsley. To add a little depth of flavor, I also added a pinch of some Salish alderwood-smoked salt.

I find that ratatouille holds well and actually improves as it sits, at least overnight and for a couple days beyond (in the fridge of course), and have some further plans for this batch.

Meanwhile, I need to decide whether the Thai basil is too pungently spicy to make into a pesto, as that is the initial inclination I have upon seeing basil and green beans. The chard (which is nicely perky, a contrast to the somewhat droopy red chard from last week) will come to some good use. The cucumber will likely get a Momofuku-esque "quick pickle" and maybe find its way into some sandwiches. And after initially wondering, "What the hell am I going to do with piper betel leaves?" I'm now actually wishing I had more than the five that came in my box. Why? Because they're the traditional wrapping used for the Vietnamese dish bò lá lốt (grilled beef wrapped in leaves). Maybe some will have to be wrapped in chard instead.

[*]Ridicule me if you wish, but I think Ratatouille may be among the ten best food films ever made. As mentioned in this story, Keller was a consultant for the film and the filmmakers actually spent a week in the kitchen at The French Laundry. The whole project reflects a genuine commitment to "getting it right" that is unexpected in a "kids" movie. The food looks right, the details are on target (when they refer to wines, it is to 1947 Cheval Blanc and 1961 Latour), the interactions are those you could well hear in a real restaurant kitchen ("Keep... your... station clear! If meal orders come in, what will happen? Messy stations slow things down, food doesn't go, orders pile up, disaster! I will make this easier to remember: keep you station clean... or I WILL KILL YOU!"), and the performance of Peter O'Toole as the critic "Anton Ego" is priceless. In fact there is a scene of Anton Ego writing a review which I think is about as wise as anything I've read about food criticism:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

5 Countries in 5 Blocks - El Rey del Chivito - North Beach

Most visitors coming to Miami, if they think of "ethnic" food, will think of Cuban food. And Miami indeed has plenty of Cuban food. But that one-note school of thinking fails to capture the diversity of Latin American peoples that have come to call Miami home - Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua and many others (without even considering the Caribbean, which is entirely another subject of discussion) all make their presence felt in the culture and cuisine of South Florida. And a good bit of that diversity is reflected in just a few blocks very close to my home.

The city of Miami Beach is situated on a series of man-made islands along the coast of Miami, and the "North Beach" neighborhood is essentially the northern periphery of the city. While tourist-inundated South Beach basically runs south to north from 1st Street to about 23rd Street, and the predominantly residential Mid-Beach area runs up to about 63rd Street, North Beach picks up north of 63rd Street up to about 85th Street, where it yields to the municipality of Surfside. This stretch is not nearly as flashy as South Beach. Most of the beachfront condos are still awaiting updating, and the only substantial incursion of new development is the Canyon Ranch at 68th and Collins Avenue.

El Rel del Chivito

This more modest neighborhood has become home to many of Miami's Latin American populations. Argentinians, in particular, many of whom came to Miami over the past ten years amidst economic strife in their home country, have so taken a shine to North Beach that some have dubbed it "Little Buenos Aires", but North Beach is actually a happy melting pot of people from all over Central and South America. Lucky for all of us, they've brought their recipes with them.

El Rey del Chivito 2

The first stop for my "5 Countries in 5 Blocks" tour is El Rey del Chivito. "Chivito," some of you may note, means goat, yet "The King of the Goat" offers no goat on the menu. According to the owner of El Rey del Chivito, the story goes that an Argentine tourist went to a restaurant in Uruguay and asked for a roast goat sandwich. Having no goat, the restaurateur served her a steak sandwich instead, which he began calling a "chivito." As other tourists began asking for additional toppings on the sandwich, they all stayed a part of the recipe, which now typically includes a thin grilled steak, bacon, fried ham, cheese, a fried egg, onions, lettuce, and tomato, all on a lightly toasted bun - slathered with mayonnaise, of course.

chivito sandwich

It is an over-the-top, heart-attack-on-a-bun kind of a sandwich. It is also absolutely delicious, though clearly something to be consumed in moderation. This is not simply a "This is Why You're Fat" style gross-out fest. The multitudinous components of the sandwich really do make for a truly delectable combination. I just try to limit my intake to about one a year, and recently learned, while paying a visit with National Geographic writer Andrew Nelson as he tweeted his way through Miami, that half a sandwich will actually do just fine. I just can't imagine who is putting away the "Super Chivito Emperador," the super-sized version they also offer on the menu. The fries, unfortunately, are disappointingly limp, though they do serve as a handy vehicle for the greasy goodness that drips off the sandwich.

While the chivito is unquestionably the official sandwich of Uruguay, and apparently unique to the country, Uruguayan food otherwise - at least what's available here - looks much like that of its neighbor Argentina. The menu at El Rey del Chivito also offers typical parrillada items, as well as a grab-bag other things: steaks, grilled chicken, hamburgers with various toppings, a few salads, a couple pastas, pizzas (there is a strong Italian influence to Argentine cuisine). Another curious item you'll see in both Uruguay and Argentina is faina, which is a thin chickpea-based bread customarily served with pizza in both countries. You can order it on its own or on top of the pizza, in which case it's called a "Pizza a Caballo" (on horseback).

pizza a caballo

This is perhaps more of a curiosity to be experienced than a delicacy to be sought out, as the pizza at El Rey de Chivito was only fair to middling, and the faina didn't really do much to elevate it for me.

But a chivito at El Rey del Chivito is always a fine and immensely satisfying sandwich. Just keep in mind that between the egg and bacon, the ham and cheese, and the steak, it can serve as breakfast, lunch and dinner all in one.

[Edited to add: I just noticed that the first picture of the restaurant wall, above, has some great stuff in it. There's a picture of Elvis, "El Rey del Rock", next to a picture of the owner, Aron, "El Rey del Chivito" wearing crown and robe; and also some diagrams and lists showing where the different cuts of beef come from. I'm going to have to give that a closer inspection next visit.]

El Rey del Chivito
6987 Collins Avenue
Miami Beach, FL 33141

El Rey Del Chivito on Urbanspoon

CSA Week 2 - the rest

I've already given the gripping account of how part of my CSA Week 2 share became a midnight snack after happily discovering that Mrs. F had cooked off the red chard and dandelion greens. So what about the rest?

I warned you it wasn't going to be that exciting. The romaine found its way into some salads. The garlic chives were perfect in an omelette along with some goat cheese. I did another take on bok choy with Momofuku miso butter - added just a tiny bit of honey, and that did a good job of balancing it out (also didn't add soy sauce to the stir-fry pan this time, as the miso was plenty salty on its own). After staring down My Nemesis (the Florida avocado) all week, I cut it open today only to find that it was still rock hard and unripe. Avocado Fail #2. The black sapotes still don't seem ripe, so they will continue to bide their time on the counter.

And I was glad to have hung onto the zucchini, yellow squash and bell pepper all week, as my Week 3 share included eggplant, tomatoes, and another bell pepper. Ratatouille! The gang's all together now.

Friday, December 11, 2009

CSA Week 2 - Midnight in the Garden

It has been a pretty uneventful week with my CSA share so far, in part because I've barely been home to do any cooking. As a result I am sharing with you a "recipe" for what really amounts to a midnight fridge raid.

After getting home a couple nights ago after midnight without having had any dinner yet, I was thrilled to find that Mrs. F had cooked off the red chard and dandelion greens. My reconstruction (a strong hunch based on the usual methodology for greens in our house) is that she sauteéd off some sliced onion in olive oil, added the roughly chopped greens to the pan with a bit of their water still clinging to the leaves, wilted them till they were tender, and added some pistachios and some dried cherries (plumped first in some warm water).

There was also some leftover steak from Las Vacas Gordas from the night before (I am fairly certain you can reconstruct about 50% of an entire cow from the parrillada there), and one of my favorite leftover vehicles, tandoori naan bread (made by Fabulous Flats and available at your local grocer - this is an unpaid and unsolicited endorsement, I just really love slapping almost anything on top of them and calling it a meal).

I popped the naan bread in the toaster oven to heat up, popped the steak and the greens into a sauté pan to warm through, topped the bread with the greens, then sliced the steak and - voilà - dinner.

It seems some people found their dandelion greens too bitter. I didn't find this at all. Not sure if it's because they were mixed with the chard, but there was enough dandelion to make their presence known if they were that bitter. I note that both of the links to other sites mention blanching the dandelion greens before sauteéng them, a step we never bother with in our household. I can't imagine why blanching would contibute to bitterness, I've just never understood why it's necessary as I find that pretty much all greens will soften just fine in a sauté pan with a tiny bit of water on them (throw a lid on top for a few minutes which will steam them if they need it).

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Paradigm Shift

A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.  - Karl Marx

Very generally speaking, I think most of us tend to think of art first and foremost from an aesthetic perspective. Yet it is also in most instances - to a greater or lesser degree - a commodity. The financial success of the recent Art Basel weekend undoubtedly attests to this. By the same token, most people tend to think of food first and foremost as a commodity - nothing more than a thing to be bought and consumed. Yet food also has the capacity to strive for art, aesthetics, even perhaps metaphysical subtleties.

A recent dinner which put together Chefs Kurtis Jantz and Chad Galiano (the guys behind the Paradigm dinners) and artist Stephen Gamson at PH2 provided an opportunity to explore the intersection points of art, culture and dining.

One of the things I so admire about Chefs K and Chad is the seriousness and earnestness with which they take any mission. I recall them telling me that when they did their first menu for the Miami Spice promotional program, they put their heads together to formulate a menu that would use spices to highlight local ingredients - only to be baffled when they saw so many other restaurants just cranking out the ubiquitous farmed salmon, chicken paillard and skirt steak. So I knew when they were asked to do a collaborative dinner with a local artist that they would come up with something inspired.

Gamson's pictures all use the same simple iconography, borrowed from the visual lingua franca seen on bathroom doors around the world. The first dish we had took visual cues from the artworks, roughly duplicating the forms in some "his and hers" stick-figure anticuchos of baby octopus and chicken liver (though I'm not sure which would be "his" and which "hers"). The baby octopus, marinated with green Tabasco sauce and lemon, was paired with a Boscoli olive sauce (a twist on pulpo al olivo). The chicken liver achieved a crispy exterior and a tender, warm interior, the crunchy batter made using Trisol (one of the many items in Ferran Adriá's "Texturas" bag of tricks). The aji panca tartar sauce was nicely brightened by an unexpected bit of fresh tarragon.

Next course, a Surf-n-Turf of "2 Tails": on the left, lobster tail, cooked sous vide, served over a green bean salad dressed with "Jester" vinegar (made, if I heard right, from the remnants of some heavy-duty Aussie Shiraz from a Mitolo wine-pairing dinner), paired with a 30-second microwave corn cake (derived from an Adriá technique which you can see here, with the added bonus of Anthony Bourdain throwing out an oblique René Magritte reference). On the right, an oxtail meat pie, with a wonderful tender buttery crust, topped with some hot pepper jelly which made for a nice contrast to the rich meat filling.

I was not anticipating a "shout-out" but, lo and behold, the next dish was called "Frod's Shrimp Dickles." Months ago, Chef K and I had gotten to talking about pickled shrimp and I'd told him my mom had a great recipe. He asked me for it, and I got it from Mother Frod and passed it along - certainly never expecting to see it turn up on a menu. But there it was, and their adaptation was actually not so far off from the original - though mom surely didn't pair hers with a surprisingly nice brussels sprout slaw (surprising for me, anyway, as I usually don't like brussels sprouts raw) and some home-made cheese-its. (If you really want the shrimp recipe, I'll post it). Chef K will tell you that a "dickle" is a "dill pickle" - that's also Chef K's creation, not Mother Frod's.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

CSA Week 2 - the beginning

So here's this week's take for my CSA half-share:

A head of romaine lettuce, a bunch of dandelion greens, some red chard (out of the extras box), a bok choy, some garlic chives, a zucchini, a yellow squash, a red bell pepper, a couple of black sapotes, and my nemesis: the Florida avocado (a Monroe cultivar this time).

What with the zucchini, squash, and pepper, I definitely foresee some ratatouille in our future. The greens, especially the chard and dandelion greens, may not need much more than some olive oil and garlic, though they often get along well with their friend the pig. Little Miss F is usually my go-to girl for the exotic fruits (she loves carambola, dragon fruit, mamey, persimmon) and even though I tried to explain that this is in the persimmon family, she was not entirely convinced by the "chocolate pudding fruit" description. I might well take a hint from this guy and break the ice cream machine out. Given the persimmon family relationship, I was thinking about doing some candied persimmon to go with (I've found some nice ones at the grocery store recently, both Fuyu and Hachiya) but Mrs. F and Litle Miss F just started candying some orange peel which might be sufficient. Chives will surely come in handy for something. And that avocado? Well, let's see what happens this week.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

What Would Alexander Pope Say?

I am almost nearly at a loss for words over this, wherein local food writer decides to go to war with a new pizzeria and the local charter school for which said pizzeria is doing a charity event: Free Pizza, New Blue Collar Food Blog (make your way down to the comments for the real fireworks). Just two things:

(1) You can read more of Lee Klein's art reviews here on this blog.

(2) Amidst all the kerfuffle over ridiculing schoolkids, it apparently falls to me to note that he also saw fit to use this opportunity to take shots at a blog that hasn't published anything in three years.

It would seem we are clearly on turf where angels fear to tread.

CSA Week 1 - the rest

Before picking up my Week 2 CSA share (no delivery last week over Thanksgiving break), I thought I should wrap up what happened to the rest of the Week 1 share. Sorry to say, not much of interest.

For the corn, my kids decided what to do with it. This is something called "Daddy's Special Pasta" and I have been cooking it for them for years now. It is not exactly Heston Blumenthal material. Rather, it follows what I call the "What Could Be Bad?" principle: if you only use ingredients that taste good on their own, it's pretty likely what you end up with is going to taste good. (This is also why I struggle so much with baking. Baking is the exact opposite of the "What Could Be Bad?" principle. You start with any number of things that don't taste particularly good on their own, yet they come out - if you do it right, of course - delicious).

Depending on how fresh and sweet the corn is, I will either boil it in a big pot of salted water first or just scrape it raw off the cob. This CSA corn, unfortunately, was pretty tough and starchy, and even about 5-10 minutes of boiling didn't soften it up much (I was having recriminations that I'd blown the opportunity for wonderful fresh sweet corn by holding it a few days, letting the sugars convert to starch, but was relieved to see I wasn't the only one to find the corn tough.) Then scrape the kernels off the cobs (I used one per person), and keep that water for the pasta.

I cut bacon (1-2 strips per person) into about 2-inch long pieces (I find it easier to use scissors than a knife for this) and get it about halfway crisp in a sauté pan with a bit of butter on medium heat. Then the bacon comes out of the pan and onto a paper towel to dry. Pour off most of the fat, and put the corn in with the bacon fat to sauté. Now is the time to put your pasta into the boiling water to cook (just about any relatively sturdy shape works here). Meanwhile, if the corn starts to dry out too much, spoon a little pasta water over it. When the pasta is about a minute or two from done, add some cream to the sauté pan and cook to reduce and thicken it some (if we don't have cream in the house, which is often, I have been known to fake it without dismal results by using 2% milk, which we always have, with some TempTee cream cheese to thicken it - seems sort of déclassé, I know).

When the pasta is cooked, drain it and dump it into the sauté pan, throw the bacon in, toss, and give everyone a minute or two to get to know each other. Done. Serve with grated cheese of your choice - parmigiano, pecorino, dry jack are all good. (This all took longer to describe than it takes to make, and probably wasn't worth the effort - the describing, not the making, that is.)

As for the rest of it? The Momofuku book was again the source of inspiration for the bok choy, which I sautéed quickly in an imitation of stir-frying, and paired with a miso butter from the book (basically just white miso and softened butter mixed together in equal ratio; in the book, it's paired with grilled asparagus with an egg on top). This was my first "fail" out of the Momofuku book, as I found the miso flavor overpowering (and I like miso). Not awful, just not very balanced. I'm thinking it perhaps could have been cut with some dashi to mellow it out some, or paired with something with more assertive flavors of its own. Indeed, I saved the rest of it, thinking it will be good as a compound butter to put over a nice grilled steak.

The green beans met an uninteresting fate, and the avocado was even worse. It turned brown and soft before I'd even thought to touch it, which leads to an uncomfortable confession: I just don't really like Florida avocados. They're watery, their flavor is insipid, they lack the buttery richness of a Hass avocado. I know, I should have at least tried it. It looks like the Week 2 CSA Share will have a different cultivar, a Monroe avocado - and this time, I promise to try it. But perhaps someone can tell me why we can't grow Hass avocados here?

On to Week 2.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Food Trucks Are Coming!

Just in time for Art Basel, Miami is finally hopping onto the trend du jour, as not one, but two, food trucks are hitting the streets.

First: gastroPOD, a mobile gourmet kitchen from Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog. The one that will be roaming Wynwood this week is actually not the official gastroPOD - a vintage Airstream trailer getting outfitted with a bleeding edge kitchen with all the latest bells and whistles - but rather a backup, the "Shiny Twinkie". But it's still all nice and shiny, and it'll still be putting out good vittles - if you're lucky, some of the banh mi style trotter tacos we sampled at the P.I.G. Fest. You can follow the gastroPOD on twitter at @gastroPODmiami.

Next: Latin Burger and Taco, from Food Network celeb Ingrid Hoffman. You could get the recipe here, but you couldn't have someone serve it to you from a truck - until now. She promises "It'll be like nothing you've ever seen." Which might actually be true, if you've never left Miami. You can find Latin Burger on twitter at @LatinBurger.

Already on the road: Feverish Ice Cream, traveling around in a Scion xb laden with frozen confections, and this week offering strawberry basil popsicles (for Art Basel, naturally). Feverish is also on twitter at @FeverishMiami.

I've heard there's at least one more mobile food vendor heading Miami's way soon. Keep your eyes peeled.

Lemon Twist - North Beach

[sorry, this restaurant has closed]

Lemon Twist is an example of restaurant reincarnation. Years ago, there was a restaurant in this little spot on Normandy Circle, towards the northern end of Miami Beach, called Lemon Twist (which, alas, was not that good). Then the space went dark for a while. Then it was a very lightly trafficked sports bar. Now it's Lemon Twist all over again. This time around, it's under the tutelage of Alain Suissa, whose resume also includes Grass Restaurant and Lounge in the Design District. Maybe this Twist will stick around a while longer.

It's a genuinely charming venue, with a pressed tin ceiling over the bar, a long velvet sofa serving as a banquette, roses and candles on the tables, and dark lace, linen-covered sconces, and French posters on the walls. It looks and feels exactly like what it aims to be, which is a classy neighborhood bistro. The menu likewise hews pretty closely to the line of straight-ahead French bistro fare. A short list of appetizers includes onion soup gratinee, endive salad with roquefort,escargot in garlic butter, a charcuterie plate. Entrées include poached salmon, sea bass provencale, moules frites, chicken cocotte, duck a l'orange, a few steaks, a rack of lamb. The menu listing is supplemented with about a half dozen blackboard specials, but there are few surprises here (though a "Weight Watchers" section of the menu, complete with "points," seems strangely incongruous; what self-respecting Lyonnaise chef would deign to do a  "Weight Watchers" menu?)

Not that there's anything wrong with sticking with the classics. Classics are that for a reason and I've previously mentioned how I find a traditional French bistro lineup to be genuinely satisfying and reassuring. This can be both good and bad for a restaurant. On the good side, if you do the classics competently, you can create food that people already know and love; it requires no learning curve. But on the other hand, to stand out is difficult. It is not easy to make a truly outstanding onion soup, particularly when almost every diner has had the chance to try several versions already.

Our meal at Lemon Twist was a bit slow getting started. When we were there on a Sunday night, it appeared there was only one person working the entire restaurant, and though they weren't terribly busy (only about 3-4 other tables being served while we were there), he was struggling a bit to keep up. We waited at least 15 minutes for water to be served and orders to be taken, and about another 15 minutes before any bread hit the table (without butter? is the chef really from Lyon?), but things generally picked up from there.

We started with the escargot de bourgogne, as well as a couple items from the blackboard - a frisée lardon salad, and the soupe du jour, a cream of asparagus and leek. The snails were doused in the customary bath of butter and garlic, and though the presentation was perhaps not as impressive as at Au Pied de Cochon, where they are served stuffed back into their shells, the buttery juices were just as good sopped up with some warm bread (though the bread likewise would not compare favorably to the crusty baguettes served at APDC). The frisee lardon hit all the right spots, the bacon still chewy with just a hint of crispness, the spriggy lettuce dressed with a classic vinaigrette bolstered with bacon fat, the poached egg warm and still oozy. The soup was satisfying if a bit one-dimensional.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Burger & Beer Joint - South Beach

When I first heard that a new burger and beer joint in South Beach was being touted as a "concept" - nay, three "concepts": burger joint, sports bar, and lounge - I was a bit dubious. And that it was going to be called "Burger & Beer Joint"? Well, nice to keep it simple and direct anyway. Shows what I know: after hearing multiple reports of hour-long waits for tables, clearly they were on to something, and I put Burger & Beer Joint onto the back burner as a place to go to after the fuss had died down. But this weekend I found myself on South Beach in the middle of the afternoon with nothing better to do and an empty feeling in my belly, and the stars aligned themselves for a visit.

The transformation of this little pocket of turf on the periphery of South Beach is really quite remarkable. For years nothing more than a warren of auto repair and body shops, there are now a number of places worth visiting here, between Joe Allen, Sardinia, its sister restaurant Casale, and now B&B. Both Casale and B&B, right across the street from each other, actually have some nice outdoor seating, even if you do sometimes hear the not-so-mellifluous sound of a fender being set back into place from one of the neighborhood's more longstanding residents.

Inside, Burger & Beer Joint is simple, casual and rugged, with a brick wall on one side being the primary form of "decoration." But if "burger" and "beer" are in the name, it's pretty easy to figure out what to evaluate a place by, and it's not the decor. I went in, found myself a seat at the bar, and scoped out a menu and the beer selection.

While the dinner menu offers either "composed" burgers or a lengthy list of DIY options for assembly, the lunch menu sticks only with the pre-ordained burgers, as well as a selection of snacks and sides. Perhaps against my better judgment, I opted for the "Hotel California": 10 oz. burger, salsa, guacamole, grilled onion, cilantro sour cream, cheddar, fried egg. Lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle. It was clear just from reading the menu description that this burger suffered from an Amadeus complex ("too many notes"), but I just wasn't hankering for the bacon & bbq sauce combo offered by the "Thunder Road."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Talavera Restaurant - Coral Gables (updated)

short rib with mole colaradito
(Note: this was first posted November 3, it's been updated after a couple additional visits to the restaurant). I paid a visit to the now-really-actually-open Talavera Restaurant, a new restaurant in Coral Gables opened by the folks who run Jaguar in Coconut Grove on its opening day, and have now been back a couple more times since. Jaguar has been one of the few restaurants in Coconut Grove with any staying power, thanks to an interesting selection of ceviches (cleverly offered in spoon-sized samples if you like to try several) and what I'd found to be a surprisingly decent grab-bag of Latin American entrees, with something of a focus on Mexican dishes. That focus is explained by the fact that owner Lalo Durazo, managing partner Martin Moreno, and partner-executive chef Oscar del Rivero all came from Mexico City. And their new restaurant in Coral Gables, Talavera, hews more closely to an exclusively Mexican theme.

It seemed like they had been working on a space on Ponce de Leon Boulevard forever, and then just in the past couple months the worksite expanded to include the corner that stretches out to Giralda Avenue. They've made good use of the space, too, with a welcoming bar in the front, some tall bar height seating, a plethora of booths and tables, and an open kitchen behind it all. The room is decorated with Talavera pottery, as well as a series of portraits over the bar ranging from Frida Kahlo to masked Mexican lucha libre wrestlers. It's a big open-feeling space, the only drawback being that noise just seems to bounce all over and it was difficult to hear someone on the other side of the table (apparently I wasn't the only one eagerly awaiting this opening, as the place was packed for lunch on their first day open).

The menu is fairly extensive. In light of Jaguar's success, it should come as no surprise that there are a few ceviches items on offer (though not nearly as extensive or exotic as some of Jaguar's choices). But there are also a number of appetizers and salads, several tortas (Mexican sandwiches), a few moles, and additional main course options. They also have several variations on a "signature" item, a "huarache," which is a toasty slab of corn masa shaped like a flip-flop, crowned with a variety of toppings. We were pleased to find a lengthy list of lunch options all priced at $12.

Given that it was opening day, I'm sure some of the kinks will be worked out, so please keep in mind that some of these comments are solely first impressions. I'll highlight additions from my subsequent visits where clarification is needed.

CSA Week 1 - Callaloo and Momofuku

So here's what I started the week with:

CSA Week 1
Four ears of corn, a bundle of callaloo, a bag of green beans,a head of lettuce, some cherry tomatoes, a Florida avocado, a bunch of dill, a few stalks of lemongrass, a bok choy, and a bundle of roselle (a/k/a Jamaican sorrel a/k/a Jamaican hibiscus).

First things first: the red petals of the roselle were steeped along with a stalk of the lemongrass and some fresh ginger to make a tea:

roselle tea
The dill became a tzatziki, after being chopped and mixed with some Greek yogurt, grated cucumber, garlic and lemon juice:


I know, so far we're not winning any James Beard awards.

From there, I drew much of my inspiration this week from the MomofukuMomofuku cookbook, after being immensely pleased with my first experiment with the bo ssäm recipe.


Some more lemongrass found its way into these pork sausage ssäms, as did the lettuce for the wraps:

pork sausage ssam
I liked this Vietnamese-flavored spin on the Korean ssäm (basically, a wrap) idea, and it was "easy peasy" as Jamie Oliver might say. But first a general comment: I am horrible with recipes. I cook by look, feel, smell, sound and taste, am not big on measuring, and often regard printed recipes the way Captain Barbossa regards the Pirates' Code - more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Notorious P.I.G. [Pork Is Good]

This past Sunday was the P.I.G. (Pork Is Good) fest by Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog at Harvey's By The Bay, east of Biscayne Boulevard off 64th Street, and a good number of VIPs (Very Important Pigs) turned out for the occasion.

Our group of about 25 took over the bay-windowed back room of Harvey's for the afternoon, when we weren't outside monitoring the progress of the whole boned-out piglet cooking away in Chef Jeremiah's new-fangled high-tech caja china. While the pig roasted, we were given samples of a number of his other pork-centric creations. The underlying theme was to revel in all the glories of the porcine, with dishes created from just about every part of the pig. Belly, butt, skin, and trotter were all well represented (I saw a headcheese, too, though I didn't see where it ended up). Some of the dishes may be previews for the menu of the gastroPOD, a shiny Airstream trailer Jeremiah is retrofitting with a high-tech kitchen to bring mobile cuisine to Miami.

Sadly my camera batteries died about midway through so I don't have pictures of everything, but I did get to taste it all and there's some other good recaps at Tinkering With Dinner and Jean-Marc's blog. All my pictures are now up on flickr.

Chef started us off with some nice chicharrones, dried and fried pork skin cracklings, crispy with just a little hint of chew to them, along with a little moonshine-black cherry soda, frothed on the spot in an iSi canister.

Chef Jeremiah
Next round was some southern-style char siu bao, a nice cross-cultural mashup which took the fluffy, dense dough of the traditional Chinese steamed dumpling, but instead of filling it with the typical Chinese "bbq" pork (with its sweet sticky glaze), these were filled with rough-chopped smoked dry-rubbed pork butt.

char siu bao
If they were a little dry for you, you could dose them with a little dropper of shoyu. Chef also kept out on the table some sriracha sauce (a/k/a "ketchup" he said, and I agree) if that was more to your tastes. These were good, and I thought the East Meets South thing worked well. I would have liked to have seen it carried even further, maybe with a BBQ sauce variation instead of the shoyu (something strongly vinegar-based may have hit the spot).

char siu bao closeup
No pix of the next few items, so we'll have to rely on my meager descriptive powers (and the pictures taken by other VIPs). For whatever reason, Chef's panini press was the final straw that tapped out all the available power in Harvey's back room, and so there was a brief struggle to find a working outlet to finish the next course. When that glitch was overcome, Chef Jeremiah handed out some pressed Cuban sandwiches filled with sliced pork belly, home-made pickles and spread with Dijon mustard. I liked the tender pork belly, all slippery and soft rather than crisped up (more in an Asian style).

Sunday, November 22, 2009

CSA Week 1 - the beginning

CSA Week 1
Yesterday began the season for the Community Supported Agriculture program run by Bee Heaven Farm. The "subscription agriculture" program offers the opportunity to buy directly from local farmers by paying in advance for a season's worth of their produce, delivered each week to several drop-off points around Miami-Dade County.

One of the challenges of CSA programs is figuring out what to do with your share. This isn't shopping at the supermarket, where you make your shopping list and pick it up. Rather, you get whatever happens to be growing and ready for harvest at local farms at that time. From what I've heard from people that have participated in prior seasons, this often involves a lot of callaloo. Fortunately there are some good resources out there. Bee Heaven has its own blog, there's Redland Rambles, which will be giving a preview of the box contents every Friday, and more: Tinkering With Dinner, Eating Local in the Tropics, and, hopefully, Miami Dish.

For my first season, I started modestly with a half-share instead of a full share, to see how it goes. The Week 1 box (contents pictured above) came with four ears of corn, a head of lettuce, a bunch of callaloo (it starts!), a pound of green beans, a pint of cherry tomatoes, a Florida avocado, a few stalks of lemongrass, a bunch of dill, and a bundle of roselle (also known as Jamaican sorrel or hibiscus flower). I also grabbed a bok choy from the "extras" box.

My game plan - for now - will be to do a post each week showing what's in the box, and then - hopefully - a follow up at the end of the week with what I've managed to do with it. This could be interesting, or it could be a train wreck. We'll see.

I'm off to a good start though. I took the roselle - which could easily do double-duty as a flower arrangement - and pulled off the red petals, then steeped them with a stalk of the lemongrass and some ginger to make a nice iced "tea." My first recipe met with Little Miss F's approval. Let's hope it's not all downhill from here.

Roselle Tea