People eat local and seasonal foods all around the world, you know.
Maybe so, but you wouldn't necessarily know it from the menus of most American restaurants devoted to that culinary philosophy. For the most part, local foods restaurants in these parts offer a kind of cooking generally described as "contemporary American," which you could translate this way: French. Now, the contemporary American chefs purveying this kind of cuisine might protest, but when I see coulis, sabayon, consommé, fricassé, gateau, fromage de tete (these are all from one local menu I just peeked at online); when I see soufflé, brioche crouton, jus, terrine, crepe (from another)--if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck--c'est peut-etre un canard, n'est-ce pas?
Not that I have anything against French cooking. You kiddin' me? Love it to bits. But when I think of all the things we could eat, all the ways we could eat, I sometimes find this rigid adherence to what is, in many ways, an outdated way of putting together a meal--I find it kind of stultifying, uninspiring. I think it's often more about fulfilling diners' expectations of a "nice dinner" than it is about making the most of great local products. And now, not that there's anything wrong with fulfilling diners' expectations, but....
This creeping dissatisfaction with the typical "nice" restaurant format came into sharp relief for me during our lunch last month at Momofuku Ssam Bar in New York (though even there, I now note, there's a prix fixe option; mon dieu). The flavors there came from China, from Korea, from Vietnam, from Japan; but also from Pennsylvania, Missouri, and New York. This, to me, was truly contemporary American cooking. It's not that I don't love my rillettes, but could I please have them with a side of kimchi?
Another meal we enjoyed on that trip was a dinner at The General Greene restaurant in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn (don't know why their menus don't come up on the website, but you can look at the pictures, at least...). Here they don't quite reinvent the wheel in the manner of the Momofuku restaurants, but the eclectic menu and informal manner of service create a very contemporary dining experience overall. They skip the usual categories of appetizer, entrée, etc., and just list all the dishes together. The priciest thing on the menu was a whole fish, a dorade, for $24 (it was also, I thought, one of the less interesting things we ate, though I love fish). Everything else was well under $20.
We had five good eaters at the table, and so we ordered pretty much the whole menu: chicken liver toasts, sliced radishes with anchovies, roasted three-squash salad (some cheese in there), grilled hanger steak, cockles with potatoes (also a bit boring, though I love cockles!), candied bacon (as good as you'd imagine, $5 for two big hunks), dirty rice, green bean salad, kale sautéed with garlic.
When the waiter informed, rather than asked, us how the meal would be served, I admit I was a little taken aback (hey, I want my expectations fulfilled here!). Dishes would come out according to the kitchen's pace, and were intended for sharing, we were told. When the food started to hit the table, I quickly forgot my little silent snit. The flavors were bright and satisfying, and everything spoke of the season without being pedantic about it. It was truly fine dining, and truly good fun. (I thank my Brooklynite friend David for taking us to The General Greene; he claims to not know much about food, but he's modest. At least he knows a great restaurant when he sees one.)
I'm not knocking our restaurants that hew to the French program in presenting local foods. They do great work in promoting local products and opening people's eyes to the delicious foods our region has to offer. I just wish the local-seasonal ethic would trickle down a little, down to noodle shop level, say. There is one local restaurant that applies the local foods approach to less traditional fare, and it's a very good example, indeed: Ngon Vietnamese Bistro on University Avenue in Saint Paul (Ngon is pronounced "nong," I've heard, and I believe it means "tasty" in Vietnamese). Ngon's traditional Vietnamese dishes are very, very good, and some of their more contemporary creations, like crispy rabbit dumpling with curry sauce, are superb. It's one of our top three lunch spots these days (I just wish they'd turn the music down a notch or two...).
Is Ngon the exception that proves the rule here, or am I just not getting out enough? If you know of Twin Cities restaurants that break the fine dining mold and feature local ingredients, I'd love to hear about them--examples from other cities would be great, too. I saw something recently about a new Doug Flicker restaurant that will swim against the Euro-centric tide. Welcome news.
I know it's hard to break out of old habits. Even cooking at home, I often fall into starting with a meat and adding on sides when I begin to plan a meal. I'm going to work on that, a great project for the winter. And so I begin here with a dish which, though I've titled it Chicken with Chestnuts, was in fact inspired by the chestnuts, beautiful, fresh, sweet chestnuts from Iowa. They're in the co-ops now, but they won't last long.
We served this with steamed rice and cabbage stir-fried with bean paste. This is an unusually mild dish for Sichuan fare. The original didn't even include the bit of chili and Sichuan pepper I added. I nearly burned the chestnuts, so be careful when you fry them. Good fresh chestnuts have lots of sugar, and will go from nicely brown to black in a flash. But in the end the combination of the deeply browned chestnuts, excellent local chicken, and good homemade stock created a sauce which would have been at home in--dare I say it?--a fine French restaurant.
Sichuan Braised Chicken with Chestnuts
serves two--you could easily double or triple this recipe
2 chicken thighs
6 thin slices fresh ginger root
2 scallions, in 1-inch pieces
1/2 tsp whole Sichuan peppercorns (optional)
1 small fresh or dried red chili, chopped (optional)
1 cup unsalted chicken stock
1/2 cup water
2 Tbsp Chinese (Shaoxing) rice wine or dry sherry
2 tsp soy sauce, preferably dark soy
2 tsp brown sugar or equivalent of rock sugar
vegetable oil such as canola or peanut oil
First you need to peel the chestnuts. The Chinese cookbooks I've consulted suggest slicing off one end and boiling them, but I prefer to roast them: With the tip of a paring knife, cut an "X" in the flat side of the chestnuts, just barely going through the shell. Roast the chestnuts in a 400-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until the little flaps of shell created by the "X"s you cut start to curl back. Remove from the oven, and as soon as the chestnuts are cool enough to handle, peel them, making sure you also remove the papery skin that may adhere to the flesh.
Heat a wok or sauté pan and add a teaspoon of oil. Over medium heat, sauté the chestnut meats until they are deep golden brown--careful don't burn them! Remove to a paper towel-lined plate.
Whack the chicken thighs in half through the bone with a cleaver. Salt both sides lightly. Wipe out your wok or sauté pan, heat over high heat, and add 1 tablespoon oil. Add the chicken and brown over medium-high heat, about five minutes per side. Remove the chicken from the pan.
Add everything but the chicken and chestnuts to the pan. Stir to dissolve the sugar (especially if using rock sugar). Bring the liquid to a boil, add the browned chicken, partially cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
Add the chestnuts and simmer, uncovered, for five minutes. At this point the sauce should be quite reduced. If it still seems too watery, remove the chicken and chestnuts to your serving dish and reduce the sauce over high heat to desired thickness. Pour over the chicken and serve.
Text and photo copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw