July 21st, 2007

Swedish Chef

Telling Tales

The Spirited Dinner we held at The Delachaise this past Thursday in conjunction with Tales of the Cocktail was a whole lotta fun.  It was great to meet (finally) in person my guest bartenders, Paul Clarke from Seattle and Darcy O'Neil from Toronto.  They are dedicated mixologists who treat their interest in cocktails with passionate attention to details, and it was fun to swap stories about food and booze scenes happening in our cities.  I know our guests enjoyed meeting them, too.

Neal Bodenheimer, my cocktail "go to guy" @The Delachaise, was shaking and stirring up a storm as he hand-made every person's cocktail, quite an achievement for a six cocktail evening for 19 folks.  He nailed the drinks to the "t."  Many of them featured exact measurements of aromatic bitters or strongly flavored spirits, like Cynar (the odd artichoke liquer) Lillet,  or the intense orange of Creole Shrubb, and Licor 43's massive vanilla overtones; if the bartender doesn't keep the proportions of these bright flavors in balance, the drink wil be ruined.  He came through in the clutch, big-time, but then Neal is an experienced bartender who proved his mettle in NYC for six years.  He's back in New Orleans, where he was raised, to open his own joint, and it will be fun to see him put on his stamp on New Orleans cocktails in the near future.

The food went over well, too, and I think it brought out the themes and touchstones to celebrate Lafcadio Hearn.  I was happy with the way the food came out, especially the tricky rose petal rice and my Caribbean curried lamb and mirliton baklava.  As I mentioned, the rose rice had to do with a culinary feature of the Greek island of Lefkadas, where Hearn was born and for which he was named by his mother, Rosa.  Greece is well known for producing rose petal jams, and I've had bottles of it from Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, India, and Pakistan, but only the Ionian island of Lefkadas has created a legacy of rose petal vinegar. **** 

Hearn idolized his mother, though he hardly knew her.  If you check out the website www.lafcadiohearn.net , you'll find letters sent to his long-lost brother, who was a farmer-businessman in Ohio and Indiana, sent just before Lafcadio departed for Japan.  He seems to be trying to reconnect with his mother's memory more than to contact his brother.  The site is based more on his brother's geneology, and it makes for interesting reading to fill out the portrait of the lives both men had upon emigrating to America.  

Anyway, everyone knows that sushi rice has an element of vinegar, and the rice should be fanned to diffuse the sour flavor of the vinegar, which is added only once the rice is cooked.  I had rinsed the rice repeatedly, and just begun to cook it, without a lid, over a lo flame.  My kitchen at The D-chaise is hot in the summer, so we always have a box fan blowing to give us the illusion of cool air circulating.  I had to turn it off to keep the rice at the perfect low flame, though it's not as low as classic American-style rice cooked with more water under a lid.  Right then, my friend and chef extraordinaire, Pete Vazquez, came to drop off his last shipment of pates before he goes on a long trip.  We moved away from the kitchen to talk and say good-bye for a while, and as the conversation ended, I turned to go back to the kitchen.  I didn't have a timer on the rice, but I came back at the exact right moment: the rice had absorbed its liquids and getting crusty on the bottom.  I knew it would be a good day then because it was more important that I talk with Pete instead of fretting about the rice, which I might have done had he not visited during that interlude.  

I had steeped red wine vinegar with a touch of rose water two days earlier, left at room temp.  First I added to the hot rice, which was cooked with some sake and dulse seaweed water, some Japanese "mix-in" of seaweed, sesame seeds and other flavors.  Then is tossed in the rose vinegar, which stained the rice a light reddish-pink tint.  I turned our box fan to full blast, and turned the rice on a large platter.  Sushi writers always emphasize not to fan the rice in metal bowls because the vinegar and the hot, steaming rice seem to pick up metallic flavors.  

I like to improvise in the kitchen.  Perhaps I'm reckless, dumb, or naive, but that was the first time I made the rose petal rice.  It turned out to be wonderful, and paired with the raw flounder very well.  We put the smallest dab of Greek rose petal jam on the side, but the rice had just the right texture, real Japanese flavor, with its mysterious rose flavor as a background note.  Rosewater can be so tricky, a tad too much and it smells like a grandmotherly sachet or some weird soap, but this came out according to plan.

So we started our meal with that "alpha & omega" points in Hearn's life, and it was great to realize there was a link in tying the disparate flavors into one dish.

The taiyaki pans for dessert were also a happy occasion.  They looked festive, and the white peach mousse with crystallized ginger pureed together provided a burst of flavor inside the pancakes.  I like that it wasn't elaborate; we used basic Pioneer ready to use pancake batter, with some Macadamia Nut Liqueur in the cream and milk to enhance the taste, but it was still just pancake batter.  The taiyaki pans took forever to finally be available, arriving the Monday before our dinner on Thursday.  Jason was taiyaki master for the event, and he made a batch that exactly covered the number of guests we had. 

Miles butchered the fish, and he and Jason helped me in so many ways keep it together  together we pulled off this improbable dinner, while I recovered my strength after my little hernia surgery.  They made great specials while I was out, and there'd have been no way I could've accomplished this insane task without their talents and enthusiasm.  I'm proud of my guys, and that includes Connor, who came in on his night off to help out, run the line and check out our madness firsthand.  A chef ultimately is only as good as the people who work alongside him in the kitchen, and my guys deserve major props for the success of this event and while I was gone.

The Japanese have a word for when red and white appear on the plate.  It's kohaku, and I learned it in Elizabeth Andoh's outstanding cookbook, Washoku.  The Japanese believe that joining those two colors on the same plate brings a feeling of felicity.  I guess the arrival of our vividly red Copper River sockeyes and the pale, buttery, and huge Ivory King salmon may have guided us to reach for a prolonged state of kohaku.  I think we all passed a good time, and I enjoyed visiting with all our guests for this singular evening.

**** I learned about he peculiarity of rose petal vinegar, and other oddities of the cultures that have shaped the Ionian islands, and all the other regions of Greece, from the magnificent cookbook by Diane Kochilas, The Glorious Foods of Greece.  It's a richly rewarding read of old-fashioned dishes and cultural distinctions from every corner of Greece, definitely a joy if only for the chance at total immersion into armchair travels, but the recipes are solid throughout.  You'll definitely discover new favorite dishes to cook from either of the books mentioned in this post.