Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Why We Eat In

It is not that I am not interested in restaurants.  As with most other areas of the contemporary food scene, I take a keen interest in ambitious restaurants near and far.  I keep up on local restaurant news via the food sections of our local newspapers, and particularly through the excellent local food website, The Heavy Table.  I'm even well informed about New York restaurants--reading Sam Sifton's reviews in the  New York Times is a Wednesday happy hour ritual for me.  I follow some chefs on Twitter (David Chang of Momofuku, Rene Redzepi of Copenhagen's Noma, as well as top local, local-foods champions like Scott Pampuch ), and I admire like hell the dedication and artistry of other local chefs, like Mike Phillips--late of the Craftsman, now maitre charcutier at Green Ox Meat Co.-- and Alex Roberts of Restaurant Alma , who possesses the subtle skill and intuition to make the best of any ingredient that comes before him.

Having said all that, I must admit that I rarely eat in restaurants these days, and at the high-end gastronomic ones, hardly at all.  The photos here should help explain why.  This was a Bide-A-Wee dinner of homemade buckwheat pasta with fresh-foraged chanterelles in Cedar Summit creamAu Bon Canard magret (the breast of fattened duck, via Clancey's) with a sauce of foraged black cap raspberries, red wine, and home-smoked bacon.  Farmers market green beans shriveled in the rendered duck fat. 

Now, I really enjoy cooking, and I think I've picked up some skill and a few bits of knowledge over the years that have made me both a more imaginative and more capable cook (which you wouldn't know from the big bandage on my left thumb right now, where I sliced off the thumb-tip with a Global chef's knife a couple of weeks ago...).  But I want to make it very clear that I do not consider my abilities to be anywhere near the level of the professionals who work the line every night.  I am very certain that if I tried to match that intense pace of cooking for even one night, I would have my sad ass handed back to me in a Cambro and run off crying for my mommy.  (Furthermore, I'm sure that my sense of food today has been formed in part by excellent restaurant meals in years past.)

What it is, it's the ingredients, the stuff we can get now, that hasn't always been available to us.  I could not have prepared this meal ten years ago--Au Bon Canard did not exist, nor did Clancey's.  The buckwheat and whole wheat bread flour in my pantry, from Whole Grain Milling, allowed me to create a pasta both rustic and elegant (and the dough skills I picked up during our Real Bread years gave me the confidence to whip up a batch of fresh noodles on short notice). 

Ten years ago I was still figuring out the fungal schedule in my local woods, and I'm sure that the whole foraging-friendly zeitgeist that has developed since then has had something to do with my continuing enthusiasm for wild foods (indeed, I don't think that Trout Caviar, Recipes from a Northern Forager would have come together in that earlier time; you can order it now at Amazon, by the way...!). 

Come to think of it, I'm not sure that Cedar Summit products were easily available ten years ago--Dave and Florence Minar were just starting to sell their superb organic dairy products at farmers markets in 2003, the same year we started Real Bread.  When they showed up for the first time at the tiny St. Luke's market where we were selling, we fell down before them in adject adulation, and cried, "We are not worthy!" 

Times have indeed changed for the better for those of  us who care what's on our plates.

I'll take some credit here for coming up with a really good buckwheat pasta formula, and an excellent sauce for the duck from a short pantry.

For the pasta I combined:

2 tablespoons buckwheat flour
1/4 cup whole wheat bread flour
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
good pinch salt
1 egg
water, about 2 tablespoons

Mix all the dry ingredients in a large bowl.  Crack the egg into the center and add a tablespoon of water.  Mix with your hand or a fork to combine.  Add additional water a tablespoon at a time if needed, but careful not to over-wet the dough; it should be fairly stiff.  Knead the dough for a couple of minutes, then let it rest, covered, for 20 to 30 minutes.  Knead again to achieve a smooth, stiff dough, then let it rest again, covered, for 20 to 30 minutes.  Divide the dough into four pieces and roll each portion out in a pasta machine, working down to the second-thinnest setting.  Let the sheets of dough dry for around an hour--I drape them on a chair back.  Then cut them into fettucini (or thickness of your choice--but I wouldn't go too thin, as the buckwheat makes them somewhat fragile) with the pasta cutter attachment.  Cook immediately, or drape them on your chair back to dry, and use within a couple of days.  Fresh or dry, the pasta will only take a minute or two to cook to al dente.

For the chanterelle cream sauce, I sautéed chanterelles in some of the duck fat left from searing the magret.  As they started to brown I added salt, pepper, and some chopped shallot and fresh thyme.  Another minute or so, then I sloshed in cream--about a half-cup--then I added the just-cooked pasta and tossed to coat.  Serve it up.

The sauce, black cap raspberry, red wine, bacon:  I was about out of chicken stock, usually the basis of my "fancy" sauces.  I had maybe a quarter-cup, two ice cubes worth, in the freezer.  But I had  bacon, the excellent home-smoked stuff .  I diced a thick slice very small, started rendering it in a small saucepan.  Add shallot, garlic, and a small not-too-hot chile, chopped fine.  As all became wilted I added my bit of stock, a slosh of red wine, and black raspberry juice, which I had made by simply  combining a generous cup of berries with water not quite to cover, bringing it to a simmer, then passing the berries through a food mill.  I reduced the sauce by half, then added salt and pepper.  I probably swirled a bit of butter in at the end, can't recall for sure.  All the flavors came together really well, and I liked the texture from the bits of bacon and vegetables.  It didn't taste like bacon--the smoky pork melded into the other flavors, and echoed the rich duck (which is practically like poultry bacon, on its own).

Just a beautiful meal, elaborate compared to how we tend to cook at Bide-A-Wee.  And while the result did show the the maker's care and imagination, I find it impossible to look at that table without recognizing that such a spread would not have been possible without the superb raw ingredients available to us now, with thanks to the people who bring them to us, not forgetting to mention the contributions of Great Nature, the great provider.  Salut.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw


el said...

Oh yum.

As someone whose own cooking was deeply influenced by spending many happy evenings at Lucia's, I know well what you're saying. But now I don't have much choice restaurant-wise but the funny thing is, even when I *do* go I am usually sorely disappointed. I can eat better at home! Not a bad situation to be in. (I just wish someone else would do the dishes, and geez maybe the cooking sometimes too.)

Your book is pre-ordered!

Tom said...

Hear, hear! Often enough I have the beginnings of an idea and come to Trout Caviar to find it fully elaborated and well expressed.

I picked up the summer number of Lapham's Quarterly this morning. It focuses on food and the opening essay by Mr. Lapham is refreshingly critical of the reigning foodie sensibilities, and I particularly liked his observations on restaurant dining and conspicuous consumption. But I also like your more positive approach. Anyway, you should consider picking up a copy, or I will lend you mine.

Gloria Goodwin Raheja said...

I appreciate all the points you’ve made here, Brett. We love Heartland, The Craftsman, and Restaurant Alma too. But there have been times when we’ve had lovely meals at places like that, and I come home feeling hungry or at any rate unsatisfied in some way. It took me a while to figure this out, because as I inventoried the food I’d eaten, quantity-wise and deliciousness-wise, there was no reason at all for me to be unsatisfied. But it finally occurred to me, what was missing. The sensory experiences and pleasures of chopping and sautéing and stirring and tasting are so great now that, if they’re missing, a meal is not as satisfying to me as it otherwise would be. But that couldn’t have come about without the relatively recent revolution in the availability of so many high-quality and most often local meats, cheeses, and vegetables, as well as the palate-training culinary pleasures made available to us by the likes of Lenny Russo and the other chefs you mention.

Wisconsin Trout Bum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

sorry about that,
original post:

Man, this is such a good website. It brings life to so many things in the simplicity of life. I just like the idea of slowing life down a little bit and enjoying good rustic food with some wine... keep it up, so great!


ben lester

Jen at Jen and Company said...

Great post Brett. Although I do love eating at quality restaurants (and mpls/sp has many), I tend to stay at home. I love making a special meal while sipping wine, listening to music and catching up with my Brette. It is the whole experience that gets me every time.

By the way, love the way the blog looks and can't wait for the book. Congrats!

aesthetigeek said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
aesthetigeek said...

There are lots of great reasons for "eating in". I am one of those who has to watch certain items in my diet and restaurants rarely give you a full list of ingredients in their dishes. I eat in, because I need to know what I'm eating. Also, modern Americans are so far out of touch with food and how to prepare it. Most of them have the sense that cooking is somehow "hard". It isn't. My advice to those people is to get Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything" and start experimenting. And some people think they can't cook unless they have a luxurious kitchen with all the right utensils. Bittman deflated this once by posting pictures of the tiny kitchen he has in his New York apartment.

Trout Caviar said...

First off, I just want to say how much I appreciate all of you who read and comment on this blog. It's such a treat to see these thoughtful, insightful responses to something I've written. In fact, I think this batch of comments went well beyond my initial impulse for this little essay, which was more or less just to say: Look at this great meal we made; I'm so happy that we have access to such fabulous ingredients.

El: When you cook a lot, and with the best, freshest ingredients, I think you develop, along with your cooking skills, a sense of your own taste, and of those you cook for/with, and so when you're able to satisfy, in your own home, those taste desires, make whatever you like, really and truly--then going out to eat has to be about something much more/other than the food. In your case, starting a meal with home-fermented pickles, ending with your own goat camembert...? What restaurant has a chance?

"Your book is pre-ordered!" is my new favorite sentence.

Tom, the reason for your sense of deja vu here is that I use my spooky mental telepathy to read your mind, channel your thoughts, and just jot down here what comes to me. That's what makes Trout Caviar so good, and so easy for me to write! Thanks! I've not heard of Lapham's, but I'll keep an eye out for it. Thanks for the tip. Perhaps you'll do a precis of the Lapham argument at martha&

So, Gloria, it sounds like what you need to do is to get Lenny to let you in the kitchen to prep some of your own meal, and thus you'd get the best of both worlds--and someone else to do the dishes, as El notes! It doesn't seem as if the hospitality industry is going to crumble because of a few extreme food hobbyists like us. For every one of us self-satisfied (in the best sense) home cooks, there are probably a dozen aspiring home cooks who follow recipes religiously, but often find that they "don't turn out," and so must look to restaurants for their extraordinary meals. But, hey, no one gets there overnight, and most people with an avid, healthy interest in food probably find a balance between dining in and eating out.

end of part one--my initial reply was too long!

Trout Caviar said...

part two

Ben, thanks so much. I've enjoyed reading about your trout stream adventures. Seems like you've logged some quality stream time this summer. The morning trico hatches should be starting up soon--quality fishing in the cool(er) part of the day.

Jen: Well, amen to that. I've long felt that since we all have to eat, and most of us have to cook, every day, why not make it a pleasure rather than a chore?

A'geek, you hit upon a couple other intersting points, re dietary restrictions, and the cultural dissonance of this situation where there's never been so much talk of food--whole TV networks devoted to it, cults of celebrity chefdom, a plethora of magazines and websites--and yet, according to reliable sources, fewer and fewer Americans are actually cooking and eating real food at home. To scan the food blogs, you'd think everyone's doing it, and the farmers market should be sold out a half hour after opening. Curious. I think part of the problem may be that the focus of all those high-end, chef-driven endeavors (and no knock on the chefs, they're just trying to make a living), make cooking seem hard when it isn't. But, it isn't easy, either, if you don't come to it with a feel for it. But, again, it can be learned. I would steer people who want to learn basic cooking from a master to Jaques Pépin's "Today's Gourmet" series--the first two seasons were great, and I'm sure the videos are available to go with the books--I have almost all of them, home-recorded ON TAPE! from 20 years ago.

And in conclusion, let me stress that this celebration of the joys of cooking at home with superb local ingredients is not in any way intended to denigrate the efforts or products of the many fine restaurants in our area, or elsewhere. I love restaurants, actually. Look for a forthcoming post, "Why We Love Restaurants."

Thanks again, everyone. This is good fun.


s said...

Lovely meal.

I do still love to eat out, mostly as a get-out-of-the-house-and relax thing, it's our main entertainment splurge rather than movies or shows.

And we have lots of variety here in Madison...but the "finer" local food places? With some good exceptions, I mostly look at the menu and think: it's how we eat all the time. We tend more for the ethnic offerings, where we lack skills or patience to make a variety of goodies that we can get in one night :)

Peter D. said...

Thank you for such a moving post!!!

I don’t know that I’ve read a post / article that resonated more with me as to why me and my partner, Katie, eat in from a food perspective. This isn’t the only reason to be sure – we also eat in for social / emotional reasons: when it is Katie and me only, it is the best way for us to connect and be together; when we are with the kids, it reinforces that we are a family and we cherish time together.

Trout Caviar said...

Hi Sara: I second both of your thoughts, 1) That the local-seasonal approach of lots of the gastro restos is all very admirable, but much how we cook at home, and 2) That the ethnic joints are where we go, for variety and value. In fact we're going to pop out for lunch in a few minutes to an excellent new Vietnamese place in our neighborhood, Indochin, on Grand Ave near Macalester College.

Also, I've tried to post comments on your blog a couple of times recently, and been rejected, over and over! Hopefully the problem will correct itself, as I have no idea how to fix it.

Hi Peter: You're most welcome, and thank you very much for your kind words. As our "kids" are of the canine sort, our quality time with them is not spent around the dinner table, and I appreciate your perspective on the family values of cooking and eating together.

Very best~ Brett

Nancy @ rivertreekitchen said...

Brett, I love the idea of using the berry juice as a savory sauce. I especially love the idea right this minute, since I have a handful of black-caps (and a few rogue golden raspberries) on my counter, and wasn't sure what to do with them. I also have a cup or so of mulberries--would they work as well? Are they tart enough?

sylvie in Rappahannock said...

We rarely go out to eat - partially because the choices are limited here, partially because I dislike driving to go eat food that's generally OK and only sometimes good. We may go out once or twice a month just to air and see other people at the local tavern, and save most of our eat-out dollars for a really really good food splurge (maybe once or twice a year), either out for a great sensible chef with talents (and no attitude) in a nice setting - something really special. Or maybe some crabs, at home. But I much rather have friends over and cook something for all of us, you know? It's the food, it's the time and it's the place. And I have to agree with Gloria about "making the meal" being part of the pleasure of the meal.

Besides, the type of meal you show us Brett is the type of food that cannot be had in a restaurant - homecooking at its simplest (and best) grounded in the land around you and the season.
.. and chanterelles ... ah chanterelles!