Thursday, May 31, 2012


Our trip to Alinea started with a fire in a Chicago furniture store the day before our much anticipated, very difficult to get reservation.  We were going to have dinner at Goosefoot -- a coveted new BYOB.  A big portion of the brown L line we needed to get to our dinner was closed due to the fire, so our plan was to catch a cab.  But as we stepped out of our hotel, we noticed that we were walking faster than the traffic.  The only way to get to our dinner was to walk about a mile through the smoking street to get to the closest open L stop.  A helicopter would be another option, but those were all busy given the fire and all.  More than an hour later we finally made it -- sweaty, frazzled, and worried that our reservation was no more.  Fortunately, everyone was late that day, and they still had a table for us.  In our joy to be finally sitting, eating, and drinking, we didn't notice how the first bottle of wine disappeared and we decided to do what we have never done before -- open the second bottle.  How often do we get to celebrate an anniversary and not have to drive afterwards?  The plan was to just have a glass each, but somehow the second bottle was gone by the end of the night.  By 10pm, we stumbled out of Goosefoot a bit drunk, but perfectly happy.

The next morning, we tried to take a shower, but Jason didn't make it past the toilet.  Poor guy was so sick.  Since neither one of us had much experience drinking in college, we had no idea what to do.  I googled for some hangover remedies.  According to semi-reliable site, you should keep hydrated and eat a banana.  We tried that.  It didn't work.  He couldn't hold anything down, not even water.  I ran out to CVS to get some Pedialite.  At first it seemed like it was working.  But as soon as Jason tried to stand up, all the pedialite came back.

That is not the best state to be in if you have a reservation at Alinea that evening.  Oh well, I thought.   Maybe it wasn't meant to be.  I put Jason to bed, and went out on the porch to read.  At some point I got really hungry and decided to run out to find something for lunch.  "I'll come with you," said Jason.  "Why don't you try to walk around the room first." I said.  He took a few cautious steps stopping a few time as if listening to what was going on inside of him, but in spite of being very pale and slightly green, he seemed ok.   "Let's see if I can make it around the block first," Jason suggested.  We tried that and nothing terrible happened.  We went to a nearby cafe where Jason watched me eat.  By the end of the meal, he dared to take a sip of tea.  It was definitely an improvement over morning.  But it was already 2 pm, and we weren't sure if the ability to hold down water was sufficient for Alinea experience 4 hours later.  "I think I can try to eat a piece of bread," said Jason.  We went back to our hotel to eat bread and watch a movie.

Now I was starting to feel a bit nauseous.  Could hangovers be contagious or was this a stomach bug?  I tried to ignore it and focus on the movie, which was stunning -- The Unbearable Lightness of Being.   The good news was that the bread experiment worked, and Jason was even starting to get some color back in his face.  At 6pm we were at our table at Alinea praying that neither one of us would have to throw up.

"This looks like tofu, but it's not," said the waiter to the table next to us as he set their next course in front of them.  "It's a scallop turned into tofu."  I barely held myself from rolling my eyes.  Give me a break.  What's wrong with a scallop?  Does it really need to be turned into tofu?   When it was our turn to taste the dish, I couldn't hold myself back and did roll my eyes, but not from cynicism.  It was the loveliest scallop I've ever eaten.  The simplicity and balance of the dish made me forget that the delicate cube I was eating does not exist in nature.  It disappeared like an ephemeral dream.  I am not used to dishes escaping from my grasp like this.  I can reverse engineer almost everything I eat in restaurants, but not this.  Was this an homage to cubism or was I reading too much into this?  It was like a scallop in 2D instead of 3D we are used to.  The fact that it was in a shape of a cube seemed like a cute pun.

Another thought provoking dish was a trio of lamb (3 different cuts cooked different ways with the best lamb reduction I've ever tasted).  A large matrix of jells, purees, and powders was presented with it.  I didn't count, but it must have been around 40.  We were instructed to put a couple of flavors on each bite of lamb.  We tried, but I found this matrix just distracting.  It felt like putting make up on a paradigm of female beauty.  Any real woman, even the most beautiful one, could benefit from a bit of make up, but would you put it on Venus de Milo?  

The mushroom dish was another one that stopped me in my tracs.  4 stones were placed on a smoldering wood board.  They held all different forms of morels with varied accompaniments.  Each bite varied just a bit -- some savory with shallots, some herbaceous with fiddleheads, some sweet with smoked dates, but the focus was always on the mushroom.  It felt like Monet's paintings of Rouen cathedral in different light.  

At times, art was referenced directly.  Our waiter told us that the "random spoons" dish was based on Miro's painting.  But the whole meal felt like a survey in 20th century art.  I know that this culinary movement is often referred to as "scientific cooking," but I think it pays tribute to art much more than to science.

I don't want to give a course by course description of our meal in this post, and I didn't take any pictures.  I have seen pictures of most of the dishes we've had at Alinea, and have seen videos of how they are made.  They did nothing for me until I smelled and tasted the real dishes.  Taking pictures of food is like taking pictures of a musician.  Music is not an art form that can be captured visually.  Not that a picture of a musician can't be an art form, but it is on a different plain than the artist it captures.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Grilled Zucchini (and other summer squash)

How to cut zucchini is probably the last thing Michael Ruhlman intended to teach people with his Ruhlman's Twenty book (here is my review).  Actually, it's the last thing I expected to learn too, yet it's the most fabulous tip I have picked up from the book so far.  In his Grilled Vegetables recipe, he instructs you to cut summer squash into quarters lengthwise.  But of course!  Why didn't I think of this before?  I've never been happy with the usual ways of cutting zucchini for the grill.  If you slice them lengthwise, there are always those ends with too much skin.  If you slice them crosswise, there are too many little pieces to flip.  And both ways result in a bit of sticking to the grill in the center of each slice where the seeds are.   Ruhlman's way has many advantages.  It distributes the skin evenly among all the pieces.  It places the seeds at one edge of each piece, making it much easier to dislodge them from the grill than when the seeds are in the middle of each piece.  It produces a nice contrast between the slightly charred corner with the seeds and juicy thick part near the skin.  I took it a step further and cut my zucchini into 8 lengthwise wedges instead of 4, resulting in more surfaces to brown.  Of course, you have to use your best judgement about the number of wedges -- the bigger the zucchini, the more wedges.

Grilled Summer Squash

My favorite summer squash are zucchini and cousa (plump squash with pale green skin), but yellow squash works well too.  Pomegranate molasses and zaatar spice blend are available at Whole Foods, and both are optional.  If you want to skip the marinade entirely, rub the squash with 2 Tbsp olive oil.  But the extra 2 minutes you'll spend making the marinade will be worth the trouble.  I promise!

Serves 4

For the Marinade:
1/2 tsp soy sauce (I prefer Tamari, Japanese style soy sauce)
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
1/2 garlic clove mashed to a paste
1/2 tsp pomegranate molasses (optional)
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp Zaatar spice blend (optional)

For the Grill:
1.5 Lb summer squash, scrubbed clean, ends trimmed
Salt and pepper
Oil for the grill

Marinade Instructions:

In a small bowl, combine soy sauce, mustard, garlic, and pomegranate molasses.  Mix with a fork until combined.  Drizzle in oil while whisking.  Stir in zaatar and mix well.
Grilling Instructions:

  1. Cut the squash in half lengthwise. Then cut each half into 4 wedges lengthwise by cutting toward the seeds (3 wedges if zucchini are small). Lay squash out on paper towels in a single layer. Sprinkle generously with kosher salt on both sides and let sit for 15-30 minutes.  The squash should release a lot of moisture. 
  2. Preheat the grill to high.  When the grill is ready, dry the squash thoroughly on paper towels (new ones -- the ones under squash will be soaked), sprinkle with black pepper, and toss with marinade in the platter you plan to serve them in (stir the marinade before pouring over squash). 
  3. Dunk a wad of paper towel into oil, hold it with tongs, and wipe the grill 5 times. Lay out the squash perpendicular to the grill grates. Cover the grill and turn down the heat to medium. Don't wash the platter. Cook until grill marks form, 3-5 minutes. Flip, and cook until grill marks form on the other side, 3-5 minutes. Remove back to the platter with remaining marinade setting each piece skin side down.
Can be served hot, warm, or cold.  These little squashes are really good drizzled with yogurt.  I like to add the remaining half of mashed garlic clove to the yogurt, and season it with salt and pepper.  Put the whole thing into a squeeze bottle (you might need to cut the tip to make it a bit wider) and drizzle over zucchini.  A sprinkle of some delicate herb doesn't hurt either.  

Thursday, May 10, 2012

How to Grill Fish (Video)

I showed up at Captain Marden's bright and early this Monday morning to buy fish for the grilling video.  I was looking for a challenge, but a relatively safe one.  I was hoping for striped bass.  If you don't know what you are doing with fish on the grill, all hell can break loose with striped bass.  It can curl up, it can stick, it can fall through the grates, it can refuse to take on good grill marks by the time it's done.  But if you know your stuff, it's a piece of cake.  I wasn't too worried when I didn't see striper on the fish counter.  "Maybe they just didn't unload the truck yet," I thought.  My fishmonger went in the back to look for it.  He came back shaking his head.  No.  "Bluefish?"  I asked hopefully.  He shook his head.  "Not today."  I carefully surveyed the fish counter.  Flounder, sole, cod, haddock, and sable were impossible to grill -- they would fall apart.  Salmon, char, and trout wouldn't curl up, and wouldn't make a good demo of the skin scoring technique.  Swordfish, tuna and halibut steaks were too easy -- who needs a demo of grilled fish if it behaves like a pork chop.  That left me with red snapper.  It was definitely a challenge.  It had the same curling issue as striped bass.  But on top of that, it was thinner and flakier.  I took a deep breath and decided to go for it.

YouTube link: How to Grill Fish

I wish I could take credit for all the brilliant tips in this video (super heating the grill, oiling it 5 times, and grilling skin side up first).  But that wouldn't be fair (as my 4 year old says).  I picked up many of these tips at Cook's Illustrated whose magazine I've been reading cover to cover for the past 10 years.  Here are more details not covered in the video.

Why and How of Marinades
I am anti-marinades with most cooking methods, but on the grill they do serve a purpose (as long as they are made wisely).  They can help the fish brown, and they fuse with the fish during cooking giving it a more complex flavor.  A successful marinade has 3 basic component:
  • Oil (lots of it) -- Oil helps the fish brown and prevents it from sticking.  Oils I like to use in marinades are olive, safflower, and grape seed.
  • Sweet ingredient (tiny bit) -- Sugar speeds up browning, which is invaluable for thin fish.  Sweet ingredients I like to use are soy sauce (I like Tamari), and pomegranate molasses (it's very reduced pomegranate juice; you can buy it at Whole Foods).
  • Emulsifier (tiny bit) -- They help the wet ingredients stay suspended in oil.  I like to use Dijon mustard and garlic mashed to a paste.  Both are also huge flavor boosters.  Minced garlic doesn't work as emulsifier and tends to burn on the grill, so make sure you turn it into a paste before adding.
Once you got the basics, you can add pretty much any herbs and spices, but remember that less is more.  

Can you grill this fish?
Even if your grilling technique is flawless, some fish should not be grilled (at least not in fillet form).  
  • Don't grill: flounder, sole, hake, haddock, cod, pollock, fluke, sable (also known as black cod or butterfish), and other exceptionally flaky and fragile fish that are usually sold without skin.  
  • Only grill with skin: salmon, arctic char, trout, bluefish, red snapper, black bass, striped bass and other delicate fish.
  • Grill with or without skin (easy ones):  mahi-mahi, grouper, swordfish, halibut, tuna, monkfish
Start checking for doneness at 6 minutes per inch of thickness.  As soon as your fish is brown on both sides, turn down the heat to prevent drying it out.  If you think you only need another minute or two, turn the heat completely off.  The grill will retain enough heat to finish cooking your fish.  Even if you turned the grill off, you need to get your fish on a plate when the center is still translucent.  Keep in mind that salmon tastes best still translucent in the center (even after the rest) and tuna tastes best completely raw inside.  Here is the fish doneness video for more detail.  

35 down / 15 more to go

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Rhubarb Pizza

If you have to get into trouble with the pizza authenticity police, why not do so with panache and bake this Rhubarb Pizza.  I can see some book or magazine calling it a "heart-healthy" tart because it has no butter.  But I hate this concept.  Taking butter out of a tart is like changing its DNA.  Why try to make it into something it's not.  Just leave it alone and eat it in small quantities on special occasions.  Calling my little rhubarb creation a "pie" would be silly too.  Most of you know what a rhubarb pie is, and it's not this.  So I'll stick with pizza.

I think the talk of authenticity in today's global culture is just funny.  Food is constantly changing and evolving and it was doing that since the beginning of time.  The real question is whether your dish has integrity or not.  Integrity means different things to different people.  To me it means that only the taste was taken into account when a dish was created -- not nutritional value, not the speed of preparation, and not minimizing special equipment or skill.  For example, if you buy a pre-baked crust in the store, top it with Prego Tomato Sauce, and sprinkle it with cheese, you've got yourself a pizza, but I doubt it would have much integrity.

My rhubarb pizza was born in my last pizza class.  After 4 savory pizzas, we were ready for a change.  In each class, we experiment with some sweet topping.  So far, we've tried apples with cinnamon, kumquats (tiny sour oranges) with rosemary, and rhubarb with pistachios.  All have been well received, but my favorite was rhubarb.  I made it for my family yesterday with the addition of a few kumquats.

Rhubarb Pizza

1 recipe pizza dough (start this a day ahead)
8 oz rhubarb (about 2 large sticks), trimmed and sliced extremely thin on a diagonal
3 kumquats, sliced thin, seeds removed
1 oz (about 2 Tbsp) sugar, plus more for sprinkling before baking
1/8 tsp cinnamon
3 Tbsp roasted pistachios, chopped

  1. Follow procedure for preheating the oven and shaping the dough
  2. In a small bowl, combine rhubarb, kumquats, 1 oz sugar and cinnamon.  Toss to combine and let sit at least 15 minutes.  Rhubarb will release a lot of liquid.
  3. When the stone has been preheating for 30 minutes, gently squeeze handfuls of rhubarb and kumquats and spread on top of the shaped pizza dough.  Don't discard the sweet liquid, it's delicious reduced to a syrup and added to drinks or used on top of yogurt.  Sprinkle the pizza with additional tablespoon of sugar and bake according to instructions in the pizza recipe.
  4. Sprinkle with pistachios and serve immediately.  It's best hot.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Cape Cod Fish Share

Russo's (my weekly shopping destination) has everything necessary for perfect happiness.  The only thing they are missing is fish.  When I was there a few weeks ago, a brochure caught my attention.  It was advertising Cape Cod Fish Share.  Community Supported Fisheries (CSFs) work just like CSAs for vegetables and meats. You pay a fee for a certain number of weeks or months and get a weekly box of the farm's bounty (or the sea bounty).
Considering the fact that I usually buy an average of 3 Lb of fish per week just for our family (not counting cooking classes), if anyone would be jumping on the first CSF in the Boston area (from Cape Ann), it would be me.  But that wasn't the case.  There were two things about that CSF that pushed me away.  Originally, the fish was offered whole (though now they offer it filleted too), and all of the fish offered was groundfish.  From the fishing point of view, those are the fish that swim close to the ocean floor (cod, hake, haddock, pollock, whiting and the flatfishes like yelllowtail flounder and grey sole).  From the culinary point of view, they are lean, white fish with very little flavor.  

The Cape Cod CSF has a few advantages over Cape Ann (at least on paper, I haven't actually tried it).  They promise some of my favorite varieties (black sea bass, bluefish, mackerel, monkfish, striped bass, swordfish, and skate), and also the usual cod, haddock, and pollock.  Everything is filleted and skinless.  I was hoping it would be scaled with the skin left on for fish like bluefish and striped bass, but that's not an option because of the machinery constraints.  According to what I've observed in my fish class, that won't be a problem for most people.  I am guessing around 70% of my students don't want to eat the skin.  

Cape Cod CSF also offers scallops and cull lobsters (lobsters with a missing claw).  Since restaurants and retail markets don't want them, they usually get wasted, which is a shame.  So if you want to have your lobster and help the environment, this is a great option.

There are lots of share options from about 1.5 lb to about 2.5 lb of fish per week, with the option to have only fin fish or fin fish and shellfish.  The average cost per pound varies based on how much fish you buy, but is roughly $13-20.  It's about what you'll pay at a good fish market.  A price break is not a good reason to try a CSF, but there are several other reasons.  This is a good option if you want to eat more fish, but find that you forget to make a regular trip to the fish market.  It's also a good way to support your fishermen and the environment.  The fish are caught with sustainable methods (line and sand dragging) to minimize waste and impact on the environment.

Here is their calendar, pick up locations, and times.  If you try it, I'd love to hear your feedback.