Monday, April 15, 2013

Cooking for a Cause

Michael Krupp and Michael Leviton from Area Four
When you have a food blog, you occasionally get free passes to food events.  Normally, I ignore these invitations, but recently one caught my eye.  East End House is a non-profit organization that helps Cambridge families in need, and they were holding a Cooking for a Cause event at MIT Media Lab.

The first (and only) food charity event I attended was 10 years ago during my internship at Casablanca restaurant.  I was helping the chef hand out samples. My job was to repeat "Would you like a fig and blue cheese tart with arugula walnut salad?" roughly 500 times.  This time I was on the other side.  Surprisingly, I found it even harder.  It required 2 skills I do exceptionally poorly: take pictures in bad lighting and network with people I don't know.  Luckily, there was no shortage of liquid courage.  After a few mixed drinks, I finally got myself to start talking to people.

In some ways, the Boston food scene has changed a lot in the last 10 years.  Some trends were obvious and predictable.  The geeky city that we are, we embraced scientific cooking (better known as molecular gastronomy) with open arms.  Immersion circulators, mushroom foam, beet paper, and sherry caviar all made appearances.   Was the food any better than 10 years ago?  Not really.  Some of my favorite dishes at Cooking for a Cause were simple and traditional.

Green Street was handing out samples of addictive beef tartar.  It was a bit homey because they ground it instead of mincing.  But that was one of its charms.  It was almost reminiscent of rillettes, but raw.  When I asked Greg Reeves, Green Street's chef, what cut he used, I was in shock and awe.  Top round.  Top round?!  I could never find a use for that cut.  It's too tough to cook medium-rare, yet it's too lean to grind for a burger, or to braise.  It never occurred to me to make a tartar out of it.  What made his version particularly good was that he ground it twice to remove all chewiness and mixed it with truffle mayo to give it much needed richness.  The pickled mushroom was a perfect addition.  Now I'll have the answer for my students who subscribe to meat CSAs and are forced to deal with this frustrating cut.

The dark brown pasta from Craigie on Main tasted surprisingly smooth for something that looked like the latest health trend.  Turned out the color was due not to whole wheat, but to pig's blood.  And the rich brown sauce was made with pig's hearts.  It was a delicious dish and captured the essence of Craigie in one bite: meticulously manipulated food that feels deceptively simple and rustic.

The spread from New England Charcuterie (that's promising to open soon) attracted a lot of attention for a reason.  The cured sausages and meats were excellent.  The most memorable of their samples for me was a pork liver mousse.  We see plenty of chicken and duck liver on the menus, but pork liver is often overlooked.  It was a pleasure to see it cooked so well.

Foie gras torchon with apples and sherry "caviar" from Puritan and Co. was one of the few "modern" dishes that was as delicious as it was visually appealing.  The light and creamy texture of foie gras made me stop and talk with Chef Will Gilson.  Turned out it was passed through a tamis to remove the veins, and then whipped with a mixer.  The results were absolutely stunning.  Next time I make foie gras, I'll have to try this method.

Hmm, it looks like I ate nothing but liver and meat at this event.  Unfortunately, vegetables were non-existent and the seafood had a much smaller representation.

Catalyst's hamachi tartar provided a much needed break from a meat overload.  Pickled watermelon radishes were a perfect crunchy counterpoint to the creamy fish.

My favorite seafood dish was the squid salad from Area Four.  Chickpeas, olives, preserved lemons, and parsley solidly rooted this punchy salad in the Mediterranean traditions.

I wish more of Boston places came down to earth and put deliciousness before innovation, presentation, and virtuosity.  I feel like many of them are cooking way above their heads.  It's as if you took a fabulous salsa dancer and asked him to do Bill T. Jones choreography.  



Kake said...

I love the idea of serving pickled mushrooms with steak tartare! It's ages since I made pickled mushrooms; perhaps it's time to do another batch.

A friend of mine told me the other day about someone on a cooking programme (Masterchef maybe?) who added zha cai (Chinese pickled mustard stem) to their steak tartare. That sounds like a great idea too.

Kari said...

I grew up eating "raw hamburger bread" as a special treat in my German family. Grandpa would buy a top round from the butcher and have it ground. We served it on dark bread with raw chopped onions and lots of salt and pepper. Basically a more rustic version of tartare.

Top round is also one of my favorite cuts for jerky.

Herkkusuun lautasella said...

am not that familiar with your blog yet, just tumbled in today but i will definitively be coming back now that i've bookmarked you!