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 cream , Au 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
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