Friday, August 25, 2006

First Meal Back

After over two months cooking in Michigan, I knew my first dinner back in St. Louis would be important. After all, this meal would be for my number one client, my designer, my muse, my wife: Carol. Now while I consider my wife to be more proficient than me in virtually everything, (quoting movie lines aside, but I'm not exactly going to brag about that) her varied talents have yet to fully include the culinary arts. She's not a bad cook at all, it's just that she doesn't really enjoy cooking so her repertoire stays pretty limited. In fact, her favorite dishes to prepare typically have names like "Girl Scout Tacos" or "Inside-Out Ravioli". Tasty staples from her childhood, but not exactly recipes from Larousse Gastronomique. Which is fine, for as a chef who spends most days cooking food that's inspired by "Haute Cuisine", my wife's signature dishes provide the perfect type of sustenance: comfort food. Some of my fondest memories of working as an Executive Chef would be coming home, after 14+ hours of foie gras, diver scallops and the like, to a casserole dish of shell noodles, ricotta cheese and red sauce: "Inside Out Ravioli" (sorry no recipe, family secret). It's why I'll never understand why people are tentative to invite chefs to their homes for a meal; on those days when we don't have to cook we'll be happy eating just about anything.

So as I was driving back to St. Louis I gave a lot of thought as to what to make for my girl. For I knew that while I was up in the mitten state cooking for 10 to 12 hours a day, never wanting for any food or foodstuff; poor Carol had resorted to her "BK" days (Before Kirk). This meant either eating the leftovers from a mediocre lunch for dinner or rehooking the microwave (for I'd banished it to the basement) and heating-up God knows what. She wouldn't whip-up "Girl Scout Tacos" for just herself, instead she'd bide her time until her "knight with shiny knives" returned. And, frankly, I love this about her. Creative people working in any medium need those who are central to their lives to rely on their work, and more than in just a material way. I had known for a long time that as much as Carol might need my cooking, I needed to cook for her more.

I knew there would be some nice heirloom tomatoes waiting for me in our home kitchen, I asked a farmer friend to drop some off for Carol as a small anniversary token (What'd you expect me to But as a result of the big storm that swept through St. Louis in July, and left us without power for days, the tomatoes would be the extent of our larder. Not a lot to work with, but considering I'd be arriving late (after stopping at the John Boos outlet in Effingham, IL for a great deal on their fabulous cutting boards; it would be a great start for what I had in mind.

Every food culture has its means for using old bread. The Italians have panzanella salad and pappa al pomodoro, the French have panade, the Chinese have congee (OK.. that's with rice, but when was the last time you saw a crusty loaf in Tianjin?). My favorite had to be the Lebanese salad with crunchy flatbread, tomato and cucumber: Fattoush. A simple summer salad with a broad range of flavors and textures that's substantial enough to be served as a main course. Yes, this would be the ideal homecoming meal for my wife; a simple affair that would give me plenty of time to catch up with Carol, unpack from my trip and put the microwave back in the basement.

Kirk's Fattoush Salad (serves 4 as main course salad)
I recommend using a variety of tomatoes (for texture), French Feta (not as salty as Greek Feta) and making you own flatbread "pita" chips (it's worth the effort, see asterisk). While ground sumac makes the salad authentic, this version is still delicious without it.

Assorted Ripe Tomatoes, Diced 5 Cups
Seedless Cucumber, Peeled & Diced 1 Large
Pita or Flatbread, Cubed & Toasted* 1 1/2 Cups
Shallot, Sliced 1 Small
Mint, Chiffonade 3 Leaves
Italian Parsley, Minced 3 Tablespoons
Feta, Cubed (preferably French) 1 1/2 Cups (Plus extra for garnish)
Grilled Chicken Breast, Cubed (Optional) 4/6oz.
Black Olives, Oil-Cured (Optional) 1/4 Cup
Bibb Lettuce, Whole Leaves 1 Head

Dressing (Whisk all ingredients thoroughly)
Fresh Lemon Juice 1/4 Cup
Lemon Zest (To ensure you use real Lemons) Pinch
Plain Yogurt (preferably Whole Milk) 3 Tablespoons
Honey 2 Tablespoons
Garlic, Minced 1 Clove
Extra Virgin Olive Oil 1/2 Cup
Sumac, Ground (Optional) 2 Tablespoons
Salt & Fresh Ground Pepper To Taste


Combine salad ingredients with dressing and serve over bibb lettuce leaves. Garnish with extra shredded feta and lemon wedges.

*I highly recommend making your own flatbread "pita" chips. Simply use the pizza dough recipe from the "Weir Grooving" blog. Parbake the rolled-out flatbread (500d, 3-4minutes), let cool and slice into small squares. Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper and bake (350d, 12-15minutes) until crisp. These homemade "pita" chips make a delicious, healthy snack food as well.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Weir Grooving

As my summer in Michigan comes to a close, one of the last weekends brought with it the highlight of the season for me: a cooking class taught with the amazing chef, food writer and culinary world traveler Joanne Weir ( The last night of the now legendary Jill Winston Girl's Weekend (this year dubbed the "Bohemian Groove" in the spirit of the seminal Northern Californian male power get-together the Bohemian Grove) consisted of a hands-on class co-taught with Joanne. With her cooking pedigree (stint at Chez Panisse, studying with Madeleine Kamman) it was clear Joanne knew her way around a kitchen, what surprised me was how good a teacher she is (it shouldn't have, she won the first Julia Child Cooking Teacher Award for Excellence).

As a veteran of many cooking classes, I've come to believe the key to a successful class is not to simply show the students how a particular dish or recipe should be prepared but why it needs to be prepared that way. To get the novice cook to look at cooking not just as executing recipes and following measurements, but to understand that a good cook feels their way through the cooking experience. That preparing a recipe at one time of year with an ingredient can produce something entirely different with the same ingredient at another time of the year. In essence, to be a kitchen thinker not a kitchen droid.

As good a cook as she is, Joanne Weir's cooking is matched by her abilities as a teacher. She explains her recipes and cooking in a way that is entertaining but also manages to be incredibly informative yet succinct. She had this group of type-A personality woman focused on the task at hand in no time. Their direct attention came in part because they were all excited to participate in one of her classes but also as a result of her teaching style: excited. She genuinely loves good food and you can sense that when she talks about it. Listening to her talk about pizza dough and what makes a great crust had me wanting to stoke a wood-burning pizza oven and knead some fresh dough. Her teaching methods, going over each recipe in detail before you set foot in the kitchen, caused you to appreciate and enjoy your time in the kitchen even more.

The class itself was a little chaotic initially, partly because I had put together a too ambitious menu. This is a mistake I often make when conducting cooking classes (an honest mistake in that I enjoy the teaching process and want people to experience as many different foods as possible), for I know it is better for students to focus in detail on a few recipes and what makes them great rather than to be bombarded with so many that you don't get to know any thoroughly. Despite a lengthy menu and workload (the menu included: Pan Fried Fresh Artichokes with Rock Shrimp & Zucchini "Pappardelle", Grilled Corn and Arugula Salad with Shaved Parmigiano, Pork Loin Chop with Dried Fruit and Madeira, Summer Blueberry Galette with Chestnut Honey Ice Cream, among others), it eventually calmed down when the participants were able to sit and enjoy all of their hard work. The group was deservedly happy with their fabulous spread and experiencing a symptom that most cooks and chefs have right after preparing a great meal: they were full. They had employed one of the cardinal rules of cooking: taste as you go. And while this rule always results in better food, a side effect is you're not really hungry when you sit down to eat. (I'll go into my book idea for "The Cook's Diet: A True Tasting Menu" in another blog).

As we finished cleaning the kitchen and were saying our good-byes, I thanked Joanne for the opportunity to cook with her to which she responded "We made some great food." For some reason it was the most satisfying of responses, as if our cooking mission were accomplished and we could look forward to cooking another day. A thoroughly enjoyable conclusion to a wonderful summer.

Here's Joanne Weir's great pizza dough and flatbread recipe.

Crispy Flatbread with Tomatoes, Basil and Smoked Mozzarella

1 recipe Pizza Dough
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons Balsamic vinegar
1 clove garlic minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
6oz. yellow cherry tomatoes, cut in half
6oz. red cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1 1/2 cups coarsely grated, smoked mozzarella, about 6oz.
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, loosely packed, cut into thin strips

Make the pizza dough and let rise.

Thirty minutes before baking, place a pizza stone or unglazed quarry tiles on the bottom shelf of the oven and set the oven temperature to 500F.

On a floured surface, divide the dough into two pieces and form into round balls. Roll one piece into a 9-inch circle, 1/4" thick. Transfer to a well-floured pizza peel or paddle. Transfer the dough from the peel directly onto the heated brick in the oven. Top with half of the cheese, distributing evenly. Bake until golden and crisp, 8 to 10 minutes.

In the meantime, in a bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar and garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Add the cherry tomatoes and toss together.

When the pizza is done, place on a platter. Top with half of the tomatoes, vinaigrette and basil. Serve immediately. Continue with the remaining ingredients to make a second pizza.

Makes 2 pizzas, 9-inches diameter

Adapted from "Weir Cooking, Recipes from the Wine Country" by Joanne Weir

The Best Pizza Dough

2 teaspoons dry yeast
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons lukewarm water, 110F.
2 cups unbleached bread flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt

In a bowl, combine yeast, 1/4 cup warm water and 1/4 cup flour. Let it stand for 30 minutes. Add the remaining 1 3/4cup flour, 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water, olive oil, and salt. Mix the dough thoroughly. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth, elastic and a bit tacky to the touch, 7 to 8 minutes. Place in an oiled bowl and turn to cover with oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place (75F) until double in volume, 1 to 1 1/2hours.

Alternately you can let this dough rise in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, bring the dough to room temperature and proceed.

Adapted from "Weir Cooking, Recipes from the Wine Country" by Joanne Weir

Kirk also recommends "From Tapas to Meze: Small Plates from the Mediterranean" by Joanne Weir, a literary precursor to the current "small plates" craze. Accessible and broad.
237 Ears of Free Sweet Corn.

As the summer harvest comes rushing in, it's not just tomato and zucchini plants that produce fruit at a rate that makes it difficult to keep up. Most amateur growers have experienced the joy and stress of one or all of their plantings ripening at just about the same time. The joy comes with the knowledge that you must have done something right to have such a bountiful garden, the stress follows shortly after with the question "what the hell am I going to do with 20 pounds of eggplant?" In rural America most small farmers deal with the same issues, just multiplied.

This past week I ran into Lee and Laurie Arboreal (Eater's Guild Farm in Bangor, Michigan), who I've been buying produce from in Michigan for the last few summers, at the local coffee shop. They greeted me with the seemingly harmless question "want some sweet corn?" Having recently returned from the Saugatuck farmer's market they were loaded-down with their delicious organic sweet corn (not an easy trick, as even corn that's encrusted with every chemical known to man can be littered with worms) and I was the last option before they threw enough corn to their ducks to produce some nice lobes of foie gras. So not as a stand against fattened duck liver, for I love the stuff, but rather because any food-loving person has a difficult time saying no when offered great ingredients for free, I agreed to take four-plus cases of corn off their hands. It was only as I was driving away, my little hatch-back riding low because of a hundred pounds of maize, did I confront that age-old question "what the hell am I going to do with all this corn?"

Hours later, just as I was beginning to think investing in some ducks would be better than shucking all that corn, I had the eureka moment of turning all of that corn into a small token of thanks for my clients. Something I could leave behind to say thanks for using the Traveling Kitchen, appreciation for allowing me to make a living doing what I love: COOK. Some ginger, many dozen mason jars, ground coriander, and a bushel of green tomatoes later I had every space of the kitchen littered with my creation: Organic Sweet Corn Chutney with Ginger, Green Tomato & Coriander. Then, as I was feeling satisfied, reveling in what I felt was a major accomplishment, even though spending all day and most of the night of one of my few free days working on this rather than the myriad things I needed to do for my fledgling company is not exactly accomplishing, a new question came to me. Probably the same question cooks who work with seasonal goods, who are passionate about preserving the ingredients that they love while they're at their best, have been forced to answer for generations: "Where the hell am I going to put...".

Here's a good recipe for sweet corn. Try to purchase your corn from local farmer's markets or farmstands where the corn has seen little or no refrigeration, it'll be much sweeter.

Dairyless "Creamed" Corn Soup serves 6
This soup takes advantage of the natural milk in really fresh sweet corn. By pureeing the soup while warm it will have a delightfully creamy texture, without the fat and calories of cream or milk.

Sweet Corn, shucked and removed from the cob 4 Cups (about 3 ears of corn)
Sweet Onion, minced 1 Medium
Garlic, minced 1 Tablespoon
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil 2 Tablespoons
Chicken Stock, preferably homemade 6 Cups
Kosher Salt and Fresh White Pepper as needed

To Serve:
Cherry Tomatoes, halved 1 Cup
Fresh Basil, chiffonade 1 Tablespoon
Avocado, peeled, pitted and diced 1 ripe
Sea Salt to taste
Good Olive Oil to drizzle to taste
Smoked Paprika (Pimenton de la Vera), optional pinch

In a medium pot, sweat garlic and onions in olive oil over low flame until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add corn, cook until aromatic five minutes or so, add chicken stock and bring to a boil. Cook for 10-15 minutes, remove from flame and let cool. While still warm, carefully puree in blender, leave slightly chunky. Return to pot and season to taste. Serve in warm bowls garnished with tomatoes, basil, avocado, salt, smoked paprika and drizzled with oil.