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June 14, 2006

Have Roll, Will Travel

Dominic Armato
'Cause I need more kitchen toys, right?

In all seriousness, this is a fantastic gift. For our wedding, our good pals Doug and Rob opted to give my bride and I separate presents rather than a joint household item. So while my ladylove swoons over the Winery Dogs of Napa Valley, I'll be drooling over the most beautiful method possible for transporting my toys.

This roll will see some serious use.

Cooking in a foreign kitchen only to discover there isn't a good, sharp knife anywhere to be found is one of those silly little things that drives me to the brink of insanity. Sparse utensil drawer? Who cares. Old, beaten-up pots and pans? I'll make do. But when all of the available cutlery is either serrated or more akin to a letter opener, I die a little. Now, instead of confusing people by rifling through kitchen drawers, grunting as I reject one knife after another, I can instead scare people by taking an impressive array of honed steel with me wherever I go.

Doug, Rob, thanks... and feel free to feed my obsession anytime.

June 13, 2006

Holy Cow

It's a horrible pun, I apologize, but this beef is positively divine.

I'd like to officially take back any disparaging remarks I may or may not have made about Wagyu-Angus crossbreeds. While I strenuously object to Snake River Farm's debasing of the term "Kobe beef" (if it isn't from the Kobe prefecture, it isn't Kobe, Wagyu or no), I can't deny the fact that their product is absolutely incredible. As previously mentioned, I wanted to use some Wagyu beef for Iron Chef Garlic, but the minimum order at my local purveyor was a full pound whlie I only needed a half. So I decided to give myself a treat for what I assumed, in advance, would be an Iron Chef well-fought. As such, when my one pound NY strip arrived, I had the butcher deli-slice half of it into the carpaccio-thin pieces I needed for my Iron Chef dish, and I retained the rest as an 8-10 oz. half-inch thick steak for my Sunday dinner. This turned out to be a wise move, as I'm fairly certain that this piece of meat will easily coast into my top ten dishes of 2006.

But first, a little lesson in Wagyu.

Wagyu is the breed of cattle that is used to create the justifiably world-famous Kobe beef.* Kobe beef is the legendary beef you've heard of; the product of cows that are regularly massaged and fed the highest quality grains and beer (yes, beer) to create a tender, rich, impossibly marbled steak that frequently commands prices in excess of $100/pound. While we, in the United States, are blessed with exceptionally good beef that is envied the world over (including Japan!), Kobe beef is a luxury food item that is so much in its own class that the US grading criteria don't even apply. Jake probably said it best when he labeled it "Magic Beef +3", and as proud as I was of my dish, he didn't even have it at its best. I regularly have Kobe shabu shabu when traveling in Japan, and I absolutely adore it, but rapidly boiling the beef in broth just doesn't unlock its full potential. It needs to be thinly sliced and quickly seared. If it cooks for too long, the precious fat cooks out, but you want a good sear to caramelize some of the fat and provide the incredibly rich flavor and texture that is almost crispy. It creates a beef flavor that is both full and rich, fatty and moist and succulent and sweet and amazing.

In any case, Kobe beef is like Champagne. There are many sparkling wines, and many the world over are quite exceptional, but if it isn't from Champagne, it isn't Champagne. Similarly, while Wagyu cattle bred and slaughtered outside of the Kobe prefecture may, in fact, be exceptional beef that is completely worthy, it isn't Kobe. Sadly, the on again / off again Japanese-American beef war is on again these days, so we're limited to a domestic supply at the moment. So if you see Kobe beef on a menu in the United States, it means one of two things:

1) The restaurant is smuggling Kobe into the country.
2) What you're actually eating is Wagyu or some crossbreed thereof, which may be tasty, but which almost assuredly isn't as good as the real item.

Nearly everything falls into the latter category. Unfortunately, without the strict quality enforcement that is used in Kobe, American Wagyu covers a wide, wide spectrum. Over the last year, Kobe has become such a culinary buzzword that any mangy American cow with the tiniest hint of Japanese ancestry, no matter how distant, will undoubtedly be sold as Kobe. I had read that many American ranchers were cross-breeding Wagyu with American Angus, in an effort to up production. As such, despite its impressive reputation, I approached my Snake River Farms bounty with mild suspicion.

My suspicion, it turns out, was entirely unwarranted.

I decided to keep things simple. I wanted to taste the beef. So I took my half a NY strip, seasoned it with coarse salt and freshly-ground pepper, and seared it for about two minutes per side in a hot cast-iron pan. Since it had been in my fridge for a couple of days, the result wasn't the prettiest steak I've ever had, but it's quite possible that it was the tastiest. Of course, I am a condiment fiend, so I wanted to put together a little dip of some kind, but I endeavored to keep it light. I'd recently read Jeffrey Steingarten's article on the subject, and he referenced a sauce composed of soy sauce, honey, garlic and miso. All four were in my larder at the time, so I quickly tossed them together and tore into my beef.

I cannot describe how heavenly it was. I mean, it was truly incredible. And not only did it seem that the Wagyu-Angus fusion (dubbed "Wangus" by Jake) wasn't harmful, but rather it gave a new dimension to Wagyu that I'd never tasted before. The steak had the incredible moist, fatty, creamy richness that I've come to expect from Kobe, but there was also an assertive beefy tail that smacked of the American beef I was raised on. It isn't quite the ultra-decadent experience I've had in Japan, but the fact remains that this is a healthy, stable marriage that I hope will remain strong for years to come. At $60/pound, it's clearly special occasion food, but I've paid much, much more for meals that I've enjoyed much, much less. At Snake River Farms, they absolutely know what they're doing, and I look forward to my next good excuse so that I can once again place a special order with my butcher.

* - A correction many years after the fact: The breed isn't Wagyu. That's a very generic term that covers a number of breeds of Japanese cattle. The breed is Tajima-ushi. And I repeat the notion that this Snake River Farms steak was fabulous (even if some subsequent ones I've tried have been considerably less so.) But this doesn't even remotely resemble premium Japanese beef.

June 12, 2006

Photos - Iron Chef Garlic

And here are the photos and descriptions. I (perhaps unwisely) opted to do six courses this time around, since the 1,000th dish scored at Chicago Iron Chef fell in the first course, and I really wanted to serve it. The challenger leads off, unless the Iron Chef does an extra dish. So I did an extra dish :-) Also, thanks to Lindsay Bartolone for this year's pictures.



Sautéed Garlic Cloves, Three Flavors
A common Italian pasta technique that I find absolutely maddening is that they will frequently cook whole garlic cloves in olive oil, and then throw them away before using the oil for the pasta. The upside is that when I cook huge pots of pasta for Movie & Pasta Night, I end up with a little cup of tender, crispy, delicious whole garlic cloves to munch on. Such are the chef's spoils, but with this dish I wanted to share. Each of the three cloves was sautéed and then seasoned: basil puree with pecorino, anchovy puree with fresh mint and red pepper and chile puree with Sichuan pepper. Of course, the presentation on the aforementioned 1000th dish, served to the chairman, was slightly different.



Steaming Garlic Broth with Wagyu and Green Garlic
Garlic soup is done frequently enough, but it's usually done as a heavy, creamy monstrosity. So I wanted to do a garlic soup that would bring out a lot of garlic flavor without beating the judges over the head. I thought a beef stock would be the best vehicle, so the soup was comprised of a homemade beef stock made with marrow bones, beef chuck, onions, ginger, fish sauce, sugar and lots of garlic. The soup was accompanied by thin slices of raw Wagyu beef and slivered green garlic, which were dipped into the broth to be lightly cooked and eaten while drinking the soup.



Roasted Garlic Ravioli with Egg Yolk Sauce and Crispy Pancetta
Garlic is used for all kinds of pastas, but since this is Iron Chef, I wanted to do a pasta that used garlic in an unconventional manner. Garlic is usually a supporting ingredient in pastas, or when it is featured, as in an aglio e olio, it's usually a very strong, sharp sautéed garlic flavor. So I did roasted garlic filled ravioli, with a rich sauce composed of egg yolks and a touch of butter to provide a rich base that mellowed the bitterness of the garlic. The pasta was finished with pecorino for a bit of tartness, crispy bits of fried pancetta for salt and texture, and a bit of black pepper.



Fried Garlic Crusted Halibut with Pickled Garlic-Miso Sauce
I was already in the habit of panko coating and roasting my fish, but on my recent honeymoon in Hawaii, I had a dish at The Hualalai Grille by Alan Wong that put a panko-crusted fish on what he called a miso-sesame vinaigrette. In thinking about IC Garlic, I recalled this dish and I thought it would be extremely well-suited to a two-pronged garlicky approach, so I reverse-engineered the sauce as best I could, and then adjusted it to take a ton of pickled and fried garlic. The halibut was covered with a crust of panko, butter, fried garlic and basil, then roasted and served on a sweet, tart, creamy sauce seasoned with rice vinegar, pickled garlic, white miso, ginger and sesame oil.



Pork Tenderloin with Ancho-Cherry Sauce, Garlic Confit and Green Garlic Salad
Cherry was another finalist for the secret ingredient, and I think garlic and cherry is a great pairing, so I wanted to do a dish that incorporated two garlic and cherry pairings, one cooked and one raw. The pork tenderloin was marinated with cider vinegar, thyme, bay leaf, cumin, allspice, cloves and cinnamon. It was roasted and topped with a sauce composed of butter, shallots, whiskey, cherries, thyme, ancho chiles and garlic confit, which was made by blanching garlic cloves before poaching them in duck fat. The pork was accompanied by a salad of maché and slivered green garlic, dressed with a vinaigrette of oil, cherry juice and sherry vinegar.



Roasted Garlic Crème Brûlée with Strawberries and Balsamic Syrup
I'm of the opinion that garlic is underused as a sweet ingredient, and that the difficulty in making tasty garlic desserts lies not in the recipe, but in managing the tasters' expectations of where garlic belongs. The crème brûlée was seasoned with roasted garlic puree, and topped with fresh strawberries and a sweetened balsamic syrup, to act as a bridge between savory garlic expectations and sweet garlic reality.

June 11, 2006

A Very Close One

Dominic Armato
Well, we're finally back to our winning ways, though only just barely. Our challengers were absolutely fantastic, and I hope they'll come back for a rematch at some point. We nearly had our first tie, the margin of victory being two hundredths of a point, but we somehow managed to stumble through and just barely eke out a win. Frankly, given that we were deep in the weeds almost the entire evening (perhaps moreso than we've ever been), I'm amazed we managed to get anything out on the table. But thankfully, I'm blessed with super-sous extraordinaire, Kirsten, who I'm certain had no idea what she was getting into when we did the first Iron Chef Chicago five and a half years ago, and somehow still manages to put up with me.

Speaking of which, the day after Iron Chef always serves as a stark reminder that I made the right choice in not pursuing a culinary career. Yesterday, Kirsten and I put 84 dishes on the table. My feet ache, my legs are weak, my back is cramped and my head is aching and foggy. And then I remember that there are people who do this every day. I can barely get off the sofa, much less do it again. Though I will allow myself a little cooking this evening. The minimum order for Wagyu was one pound, and I only needed a half, so I have a nice little steak waiting for me in the fridge. Snake River Farms doesn't produce a pure Kobe-style Wagyu (they cross-breed them with Angus), but it's still a damn fine piece of beef, so I'm looking forward to it.

Now, with the judging behind us, the veil of secrecy has been lifted. Photos and a recipe or two will follow later (thanks to Lindsay... I was in no position to take the time for photos last night), but for now, here's the menu:

Sauteed Garlic Cloves, Three Flavors
Steaming Garlic Broth with Wagyu and Green Garlic
Roasted Garlic Raviolini with Egg Yolk Sauce and Crispy Pancetta
Fried Garlic-Crusted Halibut with Pickled Garlic-Miso Sauce
Pork Tenderloin with Ancho-Cherry Sauce, Garlic Confit and Green Garlic Salad
Roasted Garlic Creme Brulee with Strawberries and Balsamic Syrup

June 05, 2006

Garlic!

Dominic Armato
Five days from now, I will be dead tired, hopefully victorious, and without a doubt very, very stinky.

The Iron Chef Chicago ingredient selection committee has seen fit to name a theme ingredient that is at or near the top of my personal wish list, and I couldn't be more thrilled. If I can't break my losing streak, it won't be for lack of a forgiving ingredient. This one is squarely in my wheelhouse. I understand, amusingly enough, that its selection was perhaps partially spurred by negative attack ads sent out by garlic's supporters:

What have cherries done to protect you from vampires? Nothing. Those who don't vote for garlic hate all life and can't wait for the undead to rule the night. Paid for by Concerned Citizens for Garlic.

Our menu is pretty much set. I've dreamed about a garlic Iron Chef before and I already had a few ideas stored up, so this is now the second consecutive IC for which I'm in the unusual position of being able to work on refining my ideas from the get go rather than spending most of the first few days brainstorming and narrowing selections. Sadly, much as I'd love to post the menu, it'll have to wait until after the event... don't want to ruin the judges' wow factor or provide intelligence to the challenger :-)

More to come...

June 04, 2006

Spanking the Pomegranate, and OT Travesty

Dominic Armato
The title may lead you to believe otherwise, but it's okay... this post is entirely work safe.

One of the things I love about Iron Chef is the team of sous chefs under duress saving time with cool little techniques. Most of them I've seen at one time or another, but I caught one tonight that was entirely new to me. Having sat down with pomegranates myself on a couple of occasions to try to remove seeds in an expedient manner while not totally destroying them, I was more than a little pleased to file this one away for future reference. One of the sous chefs had a pomegranate that he had halved, and was holding skin side up over a bowl. He then repeatedly spanked the rind of the fruit with the back of a heavy serving spoon, and piles of pomegranate seeds just dropped out. Fantastic.

There's a dramatic postscript to this Iron Chef report, but I'll provide a cut for those who do not wish to know the results of the Flay vs. Lee Battle Bacon:

Rant after the jump.

Continue reading "Spanking the Pomegranate, and OT Travesty" »

June 03, 2006

Southport Grocery & Cafe

Dominic Armato
We've already been over the cupcakes, and we could go over them seven or eight more times and it wouldn't be enough. They're really fantastic. But Southport Grocery & Cafe has more than cupcakes. It's also a small specialty grocery and a cafe with fairly extensive breakfast and lunch menus. We figured anyplace that can make cupcakes that good must have something going for them, so this afternoon we finally popped in to grab some lunch and check out the other offerings. The grocery is nice, but small. There are teas, oils, vinegars, chocolates, spices, etc. Stylish packaging seems to be a prerequisite, but the products themselves are solid. It isn't style over substance. Given the small selection, however, it's more suited to cute bottle impulse purchases than any kind of serious specialty food shopping. There is a small case of prepared foods that we didn't get a chance to try, but the offerings seem nice enough. And so, having eaten their phenomenal cupcakes, perused the nice (if limited) selection of specialty foods and case of prepared foods, we were looking forward to a tasty lunch.

Sadly, it only went downhill from there.

Dominic Armato
The menu is almost exclusively comprised of salads and sandwiches, and I'm a sucker for upscale salad and sandwich shops, so I had no trouble picking out a couple of options that piqued my interest. I started with their Strawberry-Beet Salad. I figured strawberries are in season, it's a summery day, and I adore beets. The components were mostly tasty in their own right: some peppery pecans, rosemary jack cheese, decent fresh sliced strawberries and a vinaigrette that seemed largely comprised of pureed beets. The exception was the greens themselves, which were limp and lifeless. But it was clear on first bite that the dish just wasn't working. I think the main culprit was a battle between the very savory, salty beet vinaigrette and the sweet strawberries. The pecans worked fairly well, but the cheese was just kind of there... it was a mild-mannered cheese that didn't clash with anything, but it didn't seem to contribute anything to the dish, either. The salad was the kind of combination that may sound good on paper (it did to me), but one taste and it was clear that the dish was a mess of bad pairings.

Dominic Armato
My ladylove had the Cheese Box, which is exactly as billed. It seems like more of a takeout item, since it arrives at the table in a large plastic container. It's comprised of three rather generous hunks of cheese, accompanied by a chunk of good, crusty bread, plenty of grapes and toasted nuts. Only problem was we didn't end up with either the grapes or the nuts. Of the three small bunches of grapes, two were quite moldy in places. And there were no nuts to be found. In the staff's defense, we didn't really give them a chance to rectify the situation. When we pointed out the moldy grapes and asked our server to remove them, we didn't make it clear that we expected to receive more grapes. And by the time we realized that the nuts were missing, our entrees had already come and we decided not to make an issue of it. But disappointing, nonetheless.

Dominic Armato
For my sandwich, I went with the roast beef. This was a dish that, for me, could have been really nice, but was torpedoed by what were either mistakes in execution or in planning. The sandwich was on a very nice toasted crusty bread, with some leeks and roasted tomatoes, and was accompanied by a tasty sauce that, to my surprise and delight, was sour cream based insted of mayonnaise based. The problem, however, was that the house made roast beef was well-done to the core, tough, rubbery and largely tasteless. The flavor was less roasted with care on the premises and more institutional packaged beef. The sandwich also came with tater tots. I love tater tots. And for their little classy twist, they were dressed with a dried herb mixture that I thought was really delightful. But they were either baked, or first fried and later baked, and either way had clearly been sitting away from the most recent heat source for quite some time. They were also tough and chewy. In my book, when it comes to fried potatoes, if they aren't going to be served fresh from the fat, you're better off simply going with some other side rather than trying to hold them for extended periods of time.

Dominic Armato
My wife's sandwich was the best of the bunch, though even that was less than exciting. It was a chicken salad, served on a toasted wheat bread. The bread, again, was very nice. The salad wasn't bad, but wasn't the least bit exciting. The chunks of chicken were very large... some almost like half tenders... which I understand is a stylistic choice, so I can't dock it for that, but it's not one that works for me. There were large chunks of celery and whole red grapes, and as with the roast beef dip, the sauce binding the salad wasn't made with mayo, but rather with sour cream. However, where I loved the sour cream with the roast beef, it didn't work for me here. Unlike the roast beef sandwich, which already had some strong flavors going on with the roasted tomatoes and sauce seasonings, chicken and celery needs a little more to keep it interesting. As a result, the salad didn't have that round, full flavor that a mayo base brings, and didn't have anything else going on to grab your attention. While I appreciate the attempt to do something a little different, I just didn't think it was working. That said, for what it was, I thought it was well executed... just poorly conceived.

And we had minor service issues as well. Our server wasn't bad, just not as available as we would have liked. We wanted to order cupcakes for dessert, but finally gave up when she went to the next table three times in a row and never gave us a glance. We were already a little frustrated, having eaten four mediocre dishes... two that were poorly conceived, one that was poorly executed, and one that was ruined by simple inattention to detail. So, since you pay at the register, we just gave up and stuck to the one thing Southport Grocery does really, really well.

June 02, 2006

マクドナルド

Let it not be said that we don't cover both ends of the culinary spectrum (not to mention whatever we can cram in between) here at Skillet Doux. The title of this post, for those who don't read Japanese or have the Asian language fontset installed in their browsers, is roughly pronounced "mah-ku-doh-nah-ru-doh", with a very slight emphasis on the first and fourth syllables. It is the Japanese name for McDonald's, as the Japanese language isn't terribly well-suited to properly pronouncing international burger empires inexplicably named after Irishmen. In any case, today's post is devoted to a few of the myriad items found exclusively on overseas McDonald's menus. Admittedly, it's a strange obsession. Dining overseas is an opportunity I clearly don't want to waste eating American fast food, but if it's snacktime and there's some funky local variant on American junkfood... well... all bets are off.

Dominic Armato
Today's tour actually starts in Hong Kong, with the Beef Fan-tastic. This past Sunday, we researched and tried out a dim sum place that was long on flavor and short on service. An hour after ordering, we still hadn't received 2/3rds of our food, and with tickets for a film downstairs, we had to abandon the remainder of the meal. This left me with seven minutes and an empty stomach, so I fell into the McDonald's next door to the theater to give the Fan-tastic a try. It's a bad pun. Fan is the Chinese word for rice, and the Fan-tastic's hook is that it has rice patties in place of a bun. From the photos plastered all over the restaurant, the rice patties appeared to be fried or somehow crisped. It came in chicken and beef versions, and I went with the beef. The Fan-tastic left something to be desired. The sandwich filling was mediocre, as junkfood goes. The beef was thinly sliced, seasoned with some kind of light soy sauce, and accompanied by caramelized onions, lettuce and a symbolic bit of cabbage. The rice "bun", on the other hand, was awful. It wasn't crisped at all, but instead was mushy and greasy... really, really greasy. Not enjoyable.

Dominic Armato
The McDonald's in Narita Airport on our return connection, however, yielded a pair of tasty treats. This shouldn't come as a surprise, as the Japanese do junkfood well. The first is the Teriyaki McBurger, which is actually an old favorite. It's exactly what you'd expect, given the name: a McDonald's hamburger on a sesame bun with some iceberg lettuce. The patty, however, is cooked in a sweet soy-based sauce. Or, more accurately, it tastes like a sweet soy-based sauce. There isn't much sauce evident, so the patty itself may be seasoned. But in any case, what takes it from tasty to junkfood bliss is the fact that McD's Japan has unlocked one of the immutable yet little known laws of the universe. Teriyaki sauce + mayonnaise = awesome. I don't know that the combination would work so well with American mayonnaise, but with Japanese mayonnaise, which tends to be less creamy and more tangy, it's great.

Dominic Armato
Our final item is something I've encountered in Japan before, but in a slightly different context. A number of years ago, we took in a baseball game at the Tokyodome. Looking to try some Japanese ballpark food, we encountered what we thought was a pork katsu sandwich. However, upon first bite, we were thrilled to discover that the panko-breaded deep-fried patty was actually composed of shrimp. Enter the Ebi Fillet, McDonald's version of the shrimpburger. It's very similar to our ballpark experience, but a little lighter, crisper and less greasy. The patty itself is comprised of a shrimp paste, vaguely reminiscent of Vietnamese chao tom, with sizeable shrimp chunks. The patty is coated with a fine panko and fried crisp, resulting in a nice crust and a moist and juicy shrimpy center. It's served on the traditional McD's sesame bun, with lettuce and an institutional version of remoulade, made with the aforementioned Japanese mayonnaise. It's a big winner, and has officially been added to my list of dishes I'd like to reverse-engineer. I eagerly anticipate the day when the shrimpburger makes its U.S. debut. If it doesn't happen soon, I'll have to figure out how to make it happen myself.

June 01, 2006

Feast of Semi-Epic Proportions

I've tried, on many occasions, to convey to friends the daunting scope of our meals in China. I halfway suspect that they're the result of a cultural misunderstanding. I seem to remember reading at some point... probably somewhere on the vast Interweb... that you're given a ridiculous amount of food, and you aren't really expected to finish it. But the food is delicious, we're members of the clean plate club by nature, and it somehow seems ungrateful to refuse given the level of their insistence. To be clear, the feast below was really for about six people, but it's impressive nonetheless, and our Chinese compatriots clearly weren't pulling their weight, so to speak. It should probably be noted that this was an average to large business lunch for us. We've had much, much bigger.

Abalone Stewed in a Kidney Bean SauceStir-Fried Garlic Squid with Broccoli
BBQ PorkRoast Duck
Salt Crust ChickenClams, Shrimp and Chives with Lettuce Cups
Fried Shrimp with Tea LeavesSteamed Flounder
Fried RiceMystery Greens with Garlic
Not One......But TWO Platters of Baked Pork Buns
Fried Buns with Mystery Meat Filling...and Mercifully, Fresh Fruit for Dessert
I was okay up until the buns started hitting the table and our hosts didn't eat more than one apiece. It hurts just to think about it, really.