Of Fire, Water and the Ego of the Chef

Watching the third episode of the inaugural season of Chef’s Table on Netflix I was in awe, in love, and then a bit uncomfortable. The series by David Gelb, who created the sublime documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, uses stunning cinematography and slowly unfolding stories to create a tension between personalizing the chefs and venerating them. Each story seems to beg the question: Does ego drive them to celebrity status or does constant adulation lead to inflated self-importance? Francis Mallman, the subject of a beautifully filmed third episode, embodies that question. But it starts with a fire.

fire

A fire on the edge of a lake in Patagonia. Trout is prepared over open flames just a few steps from where it was caught. Vegetables are thrown directly into fires as side dishes to tremendous chunks of searing meat. The carcass of an entire lamb, stretched across wooden poles, are stuck into the snow surrounding a massive bonfire to roast slowly all day. These flame-licked treasures are all brought like offerings to a massive table covered with an ivory tablecloth, in the middle of the woods and served with magnums of wine. Then Mallman reads poetry in one of the three or four languages in which he is apparently fluent.

One can not help but wonder how all of this gets done, how it is all financed, and slowly all is revealed. Mallman ran a restaurant at a young age, spent two years in Paris under a number of prestigious chefs, then came back to Argentina and ran a highly successful French restaurant before walking away from it all and “living off the land”. There is much made about the simplicity of his lifestyle and how he is returning to his Argentinian country roots, but then the army of assistants starts to slowly emerge; young chefs who have come to train under this cult of personality. But for all the pom and circumstance which ultimately surrounds Mallman, the lingering impact for me was a re-kindling of a romance for cooking over open fire. In that, there is something pure, something true.

The cabin at the lake in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan provides the perfect setting to let my romance for cooking over fire grow into a full-blown love affair. Though the process may take a bit longer, the cooking may be more uneven, and there is a pretty high potential for ash in your dinner, this was something I wanted to do. And being the cook, it’s still a bit about me, isn’t it? At some primal level, creating a dinner is fundamentally an act of the ego. And it just don’t get more primal than fire.

In order to provide adequate fuel for our affair, we made a stop at Waseda Farms Market on the way to pick-up a whole host of precious provisions including organic tri-tip steak, green beans, sweet potatoes, and duck eggs (more on those in a later post). We built the fire, sipped a few Michigan and Wisconsin beers, developed some lovely coals, then placed our set of well-seasoned cast iron pans on the grate to help to moderate heat. Potatoes and sweet potatoes were peeled and placed in foil with butter, salt, and fresh sage. The green beans went into a pan with diced bacon. The steak was lightly seasoned with garlic salt, pepper, and paprika and given a generous knob of butter as well. All very simple.

Initially, there was some concern the steak may be overdone and the potatoes might still be a bit hard, but thankfully the steak was beautifully smokey and medium rare upon being sliced and the potatoes were creamy and smooth. The sun setting on the lake and the warmth of the company undoubtedly added to the moment, but it was a truly lovely dinner. The fire did add a smokiness to the meal, but more powerfully, the fire added a very visceral connection to the process; watching the meal cook and then enjoying it outdoors, just a few feet away.After dinner, Michigan peaches were quartered, pitted and then placed on the fire with butter, cinnamon, and brown sugar. They were served over the morning’s remaining crumb cake.

fire3

As we explore these ideas of Great Lakes Cuisine, we’ve returned to the fire many times – the fire-brewed booyah, the infamous pig roast, our campfire exploits and countless smoked dishes. The process is not essential to the preparation of Great Lakes Cuisine, but it undeniably adds to the romance.

The Chef’s Table series focuses more on the chef than on the process, which may make for better story-telling, but can also distance the viewer from the food being created. We are being sold on the idea that each dish is a work of art, each dinner is a performance. But rather than place ourselves in the passive role of audience, to paraphrase the great bard, perhaps we are the actors and all the world’s the stage. My romance for food is not spectacle, but visceral, it is participatory. For all the great food coming out of the chef-led restaurants of the Great Lakes area, one of the hallmarks is a certain humility, a lack of showmanship. This connection to the food, connection to the land, connection to traditions generates a reverence and respect which is not a force of ego and an act of artifice, but more authentic and an act of true craft. This I would suggest is truly an essential component of Great Lakes Cuisine.

The Treachery of Origins – or – Ceci N’est Pas Une Salade Niçoise

Origins of a dish are an ephemeral thing, full of nuance and speculation.And as debates rage about the invention of many dishes in the modern pantheon, those dishes morph and change to accommodate modern tastes or based on ingredient availability so the current incarnation may bear little resemblance to the original dish. The Salade Niçoise is just one example of many.

A farmer market bounty of beautiful greens, fresh green beans and new potatoes connected quite naturally to my recollection of a Salade Niçoise. The “Americanized” version typically includes green beans and new potatoes along with the required tuna, anchovies and Niçoise olives. Versions of this recipe can be found many places (such as Saveur, Epicurious or even Julia Child). Amazingly, two of those three listed, including the Julia Child’s version, does not even include Niçoise olives.

Consensus seems to building on what should be in a Salade Niçoise based on the opinion of Jacques Médecin in his book Cuisine Niçoise (a great discussion on that can be found here) which explicitly forbids new potatoes and green beans and features tomatoes much more prominently. This approach is apparently more faithful to origin in Nice, France. The current American version is akin to calling a dish Florentine because spinach and white sauce were added, with no real connection to Florence, Italy.

The inspiration of our salad as French mattered only in so far as it further tied the dish to Great Lakes Cuisine due to the historic settlement of the Great Lakes region by the early French voyageurs and fur traders coming down what is now known as the St. Lawrence seaway. Yet the belief that the inspiration was the classic French salad led to a much deeper investigation of the French history in the Great Lakes region. Much of the settlement of the area was not by French nationals or French military simply claiming lands in the New World. The process took generations and was much more gradual. In fact, many of the enduring settlements in the region were populated to a large degree by a multi-racial, multi-cultural mix of French and the indigenous peoples, which can be more accurately captured by a term not often associated with the Great Lakes region – Creole (read more about the use of that term here).

1753 Devaugondy
Image from the Library of Congress

The research into French settlement in the region further led to details on the farming communities which were established to support these settlements. In one, there is a very specific mention of raising beans and potatoes to support the community. And so we are brought full circle to our Early Summer Salad presented here.

In our preparation, the green beans and potatoes were cooked over an open fire, which even furthers our connection to our early French settlers. A soft boiled egg tops our salad, rather than the more Mediterranean options of anchovies and tuna, though whitefish would have a good option in this preparation, which were reported to be plentiful around the French settlement in La Baie (which became Green Bay, Wisconsin).  And no, there are no olives here.

An argument could be made for calling this a Creole Salad in line with the larger discussion on mixed race settlements alluded to earlier, but Creole Cuisine is already largely defined in the American mind and would only cause confusion. So we elected to simply call this our Early Summer Salad in honor of the harvest time for the ingredients. This is not a Salade Niçoise. This is, however, Great Lakes Cuisine. Local ingredients with lengthy ties to the area, ethnic traditions provided inspiration (though in a very circuitous fashion), and re-imagined for modern tastes. Imagine this coming fresh from your own farm, prepared over an open fire. Even better if you don’t have to imagine it.

Early Summer Salad

4 slices thick-cut bacon, diced
8 oz. green beans
1 Tbs. butter, melted
8 small new potatoes, quartered
4 large eggs
16 oz. mixed greens
dried herbs (herbs de provence)
garlic powder
salt

Apple cider vinaigrette (see note below)

Prepare grill to medium heat. This can also be prepared stove-top. Place cast iron pan large enough to hold potatoes in one layer on to grill. Toss potatoes with butter, pinch of salt, pinch of garlic powder, and pinch of herbs de provence. Add to cast iron pan. Place diced bacon into a cast iron pan large enough to hold the green beans and place on grill to cook until just crisp. Remove bacon and leave 1 Tbs. of fat in pan. Add green beans and toss with bacon fat to coat. Allow green beans to roast for approximately 20 minutes or until just cooked through. Allow potatoes to roast for approximately 60 minutes until soft and golden crisp. Poach eggs in gently boiling water, about 4 minutes.

Note: We make a house vinaigrette with a house-made malt vinegar made with a wheat saison, but apple cider vinaigrette will work well here. We also roasted shallots to add to the dressing as well. Store bought will work fine, or consider making one with 3 Tbs. vinegar, 1/2 cup oil, and Penzey’s Country Vinaigrette seasoning mix and then add a shallot, diced and caramelized.

To assemble salad, toss greens with just enough vinaigrette to lightly moisten. Pile greens on plate, add a small pile of green beans and a few potatoes per plate. Top with poached egg, a spoonful of vinaigrette and sprinkle with crisped bacon.

Early Summer Salad

Irish Food versus French Cuisine

Discussions of cuisine are fraught with historic, ethnic, and racial overtones which are impossible to avoid. Unavoidably, discussions of cuisine, such as this one, are a bit more academic than singing the praises of farm-churned butter, but they are important. We have touched on the larger discussion of defining a cuisine in reflecting on the video shared by founders of NOMA, widely recognized as instrumental in the promotion of  “Nordic cuisine”. They do an excellent job exploring the ill-defined bounds of culture and history when considering cuisine of any geography. But in the end, the victors write the history books…and the cookbooks. This means for the Western world a culture of cuisine dominated by traditional European imperial powers.

The more recent rise of technology in our increasingly interconnected society has lead to two countervailing trends. We have experienced an exponential rise in our access to information across geographies and across times, experiencing other cultures and food traditions in the process. Yet as we rely more and more on technology to communicate and share experiences, we have come to prize authenticity. We seek authentic experiences rather than overly constructed and controlled experiences, authentic voices over hyper-produced, corporate media stories. And then there is the search for authentic food.

This search for authenticity in food involves a number of loosely related but poorly defined terms such as “ethnic”, “cultural” and the very word “authentic” while seeking to avoid approaches which are mass produced or reek of cultural appropriation. A recent interview with Krishnendu Ray, a food studies scholar at New York University, appeared in the Washington Post which suggested the American dining public may only “pretend” to like ethnic cuisine, while demonstrating an unwillingness to pay prices in line with more Western European food traditions. In the interview, price becomes a proxy for genuine appreciation and is then extended to suggest a level of ethnocentrism across the American population.

Equating price to appreciation seems a fair approach, but suggesting it also indicates a marginalizing of non-Western cultures may not be as clear. A very informal bit of research on Google helps to illustrate the point. Searching for a set of leading culinary traditions with either the term “cuisine” or “food” associated with it, we then compute the ratio of “cuisine” to “food” and then multiply by a factor of the number of mentions to derive a “Prestige Rank”. Recognizing that Google filters results based on location and past search history, we have to assume similar searches may yield slightly different results, but we feel comfortable suggesting these results help to illustrate a different view than that suggested in the interview with Ray.

             
  Ethnicity Cuisine Mentions Food Mentions Cuisine vs. Food Food vs. Cuisine Prestige Rank
1 French 3930000 434000 9.06 0.11 35.6
2 Indian 7970000 13900000 0.57 1.74 4.6
3 Italian 6690000 15700000 0.43 2.35 2.9
4 Thai 5390000 10700000 0.50 1.99 2.7
5 Japanese 4820000 10600000 0.45 2.20 2.2
6 Chinese 4710000 22700000 0.21 4.82 1.0
7 Spanish 530000 454000 1.17 0.86 0.6
8 Vietnamese 516000 446000 1.16 0.86 0.6
9 Turkish 500000 464000 1.08 0.93 0.5
10 Moroccan 408000 401000 1.02 0.98 0.4
11 African 432000 467000 0.93 1.08 0.4
12 Mid. Eastern 434000 475000 0.91 1.09 0.4
13 German 420000 445000 0.94 1.06 0.4
14 Caribbean 418000 454000 0.92 1.09 0.4
15 Peruvian 437000 512000 0.85 1.17 0.4
16 Russian 392000 437000 0.90 1.11 0.4
17 Greek 515000 756000 0.68 1.47 0.4
18 Cuban 392000 512000 0.77 1.31 0.3
19 Indonesian 469000 746000 0.63 1.59 0.3
20 Korea 439000 675000 0.65 1.54 0.3
21 Brazilian 348000 437000 0.80 1.26 0.3
22 Nordic 202000 182000 1.11 0.90 0.2
23 Pakistani 236000 768000 0.31 3.25 0.1
24 American 549000 5330000 0.10 9.71 0.1
25 English 160000 520000 0.31 3.25 0.0
26 Egyptian 120000 362000 0.33 3.02 0.0
27 Swedish 84800 403000 0.21 4.75 0.0
28 Mexican 458000 17900000 0.03 39.08 0.0
29 Polish 25500 513000 0.05 20.12 0.0
30 Irish 22600 3040000 0.01 134.51 0.0

These results are sorted by Prestige Rank, from high to low, and yield some interesting insights. French is by far the highest ranking in this view, which given that the word “cuisine” is of French derivation, is not much of surprise. Spanish and Vietnamese have the next highest ratio, but appear much less frequently. The appearance of Italian and Japanese may not be a surprise, but the high ranking of Indian, Thai, and Chinese suggest a level of appreciation of these cuisines that may be underestimated when simply equating price to appreciation.

The lowest ranking traditions helps to illustrate a counter-point to a view that American food choices demonstrate pervasive ethnocentrism. Irish and Polish food traditions exist in America, and perhaps nowhere more wide spread than in the Great Lakes region of the U.S.  Those traditions rarely are spoken of in terms of “cuisine”. Irish food is more widely associated with bar food and the Polish traditions of pierogis, paczkis, and sausage hardly command premium prices. Even English food traditions rank poorly. These are some of the most well-established ethnic groups in the U.S. and yet those food traditions are not appreciated nor do they command high prices.

This suggests the simple approach of using price as a proxy for appreciation is fraught with many more layers of historic and ethnic viewpoints. Perhaps we view this issue of “cuisine” from a different vantage, as we are promoting the idea of cuisine for an area not traditionally appreciated in those terms. Greater education and promotion of any tradition can help broaden public understanding and appreciation of the nuances and value of each unique approach. This view may not square as neatly with the simplistic claim that Americans are ethnocentric and merely “pretend” to like other foods, but perhaps mutual appreciation could be a better starting point for the discussion.

In Praise of Smoked Trout

I have a special fondness for trout. They are a beautiful jewel of a fish, found in some of nature’s most pristine and precious settings. On a mountain lake at Colorado twilight, nearly silent but for the light ripple of the lure hitting the mirrored surface of the water, anticipating, feeling for the pull, completely focused on that moment, that motion and then the strike. Fishing there with my father and my brothers, we caught a dozen rainbow trout, filleting them right at the shore. A campfire burning, with a tripod rig and a grill to hold a cast iron pan. A stick of butter, a sliced sweet onion, a couple sliced cloves of garlic, simmered slowly until golden brown and then the fresh filleted fish added. Amongst the finest things I’ve ever eaten. The setting, the company, the delicate flavor, the moment. Our memories, our emotions inevitably inform our sense of taste. For me, trout evokes both that sense of taste and the connection to place.

That connection to place brings us back to the Great Lakes region, which has a number of decent trout streams, though admittedly nothing like the American West in number. Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan are particularly well-suited to re-establishing the brook trout. In addition, a number of local firms have scaled up the production of stream-raised trout. A recent trip to the local farmers market yielded a few unexpected delights including this lovely bit of smoked trout from Silver Moon Springs in Elton, WI, perfect for a smoked trout dip appetizer.

Smoked Trout

Built on a natural trout stream in the early 1950s, Silver Moon Springs began to sell trout raised there in the late 1970s and continues now into the third-generation. Now I’ll contend that nothing beats catching a brook trout on a crystal clear stream as the sun sets into the pines and smoking it over an applewood fire, but a decent alternative is to have this lovely piece of fish prepared for you, vacuum-packed and ready to go. If you can’t make it to a farmer market where they are selling, an alternative is Rushing Waters – another fishery in Wisconsin, which sells online and ships nationally.

Smoked Trout Dip

6 oz. of smoked trout

4 oz. cream cheese
4 oz. quark cheese or goat cheese (see note)
1 clove finely diced green garlic or 1 Tbs. chopped chives
1 Tbs. chopped fresh thyme
¼ cup heavy cream (optional)
1 tsp. salt

Lemon juice
Hot Sauce
Salt

Sliced kohlrabi, cucumber, or crackers for service

Note: The “accent” cheese used in this recipe does matter a great deal. We have had the great fortune of using the standard Quark and the Maple Quark from Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee, WI, though we have also made this with a soft goat cheese, such as a chèvre. Quark is a soft, semi-sour cheese, something like a cross between sour cream and cottage cheese. If you can find quark and your variety is quite soft, omit the cream unless needed. Personal favorite – the lovely balance of sweet and sour in the Maple Quark from Clock Shadow Creamery. Have all cheese at room temperature before beginning.

Another note: Green garlic is simply the garlic bulb before it has fully matured and dried to the characteristic garlic pungency. It has more of a shallot flavor and texture but with the green onion overtones. You can find at the farmers market like we did or use fresh chives to get a similar result.

Place the cheeses, garlic/chives, thyme, cream (if using), and salt into a food processor and pulse to fully combine. Flake the smoked fish apart on a plate, removing any skin or bones. Add fish to the food processor and pulse briefly to combine. For this preparation we are just mixing the trout until fully combined, no further. Some prefer to fully process the trout into a smooth paste, more of a trout mousse.

A few additions to taste at this point: 1 or 2 teaspoons of lemon juice may be warranted to bring out all the flavors. Do not overdo the lemon as it tends to dampen the smoke flavors which will come more to the fore as the dip sits overnight. A drop or two of hot sauce, particularly a smoky hot sauce can add a very subtle enhancement to the dip. Store overnight and then taste test again, adding lemon, hot sauce or salt as needed. Remember that the trout is the star, so do not over-season.

Smoked Trout1

We served our dip with thinly sliced purple kohlrabi, another farmers market find. The light cabbage-like flavors and the beautiful crispness of the kohlrabi are a perfect foil for the trout dip. Cucumber is a traditional accompaniment, garden fresh would be ideal, but partially peeling the cucumber would be recommended. Alternatively, a good hearty cracker will work.

We have had opportunities to make variation of this with store bought smoked lake trout and home-smoked whitefish with similar positive reviews. The quality of the fish and the “accent cheese” really make a difference as does the overnight blending of flavors. This dip ends up being more about exploration than execution, more sourcing than technique. In the end, it reflects the places the ingredients come from more than the efforts of the chef. That seems to fit well in our exploration of Great Lakes Cuisine.

 

Brined, Grilled Buffalo Wings

We’ve documented our love of Buffalo Wings in the past, not only as a unique bit of Americana but also as inspiration for our Chicken Burger.  Playing around with approaches over the Fourth of July holiday recently lead to a brined, grilled variation we fell in love with. Thought we’d share.

Boneless and Skinless Chicken “Wings”

Brine: 2 cups water, bring to a rapid boil, then reduce to simmer. Add 1/2 cup sea salt, 4 bay leaves, 4 cloves garlic (smashed, skin on), 8 whole peppercorns, 1 whole dried ancho chile (seeds removed). Remove from heat and add 2 cups of ice. Resulting brine should now be near room temperature and taste like sea water (adjust salt or water accordingly).

Prepare the Chicken: This can be made with traditional wings, which are the wing assembly taken apart at the joints, but we prefer to make these with boneless, skinless thighs, cut into three long strips. Place the 2 lbs prepared chicken into the brine and allow to marinate overnight.

Next day, prepare a grill and heat to 400 degrees. Remove chicken thighs from brine and dry with paper towel. In a large sealable plastic bag, place 1 cup flour, 1 tablespoon paprika, 1 tablespoon garlic salt. Add chicken and shake to coat. Place chicken on grill and cook about 10 minutes per side, until golden brown. Now if you want to get fancy, throws these on a hot smoker at about 350 degrees over applewood chips for a bit longer.

Buffalo Wings

Remove chicken and place into oven proof pan. At this stage you can refrigerate until ready for use.

Traditional Sauce: 8 Tbs. of butter (one stick), melted then whisk to combine with 1/2 cup hot sauce

Barbecue Sauce: 1 cup ketchup, 1/4 cup molasses, 1/4 cup malt vinegar, 1 Tbs. smoked paprika, 1 Tbs. ancho chile powder, 1 Tbs. cracked black pepper, combine and simmer on low for 30 minutes.

Coat “wings” in sauce of choice in an oven-proof pan, and reheat at 350 degrees for 20 minutes then serve.