RIP, Michel Richard

I may not have my facts perfectly straight here, but hey, it’s my site and the story is as true as I can make it.

Michel Richard, who just died at 68, was a friend of mine. We met in the mid-’90s, introduced, I imagine, by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, with whom I started working in the early ’90s. (A whole ’nother story, which I’ll get to sometime.)

Michel was a joyful character, perhaps a lousy businessman (until he opened Central, he complained to me about money whenever we saw one another), but a much-admired chef and a great lover of life, corny as that is.

Unlike most chefs, he knew how to enjoy the things he cooked. He also knew art, he understood politics, he could talk articulately about current events—he was someone you looked forward to hanging with. We taped together for Bittman Takes on America’s Chefs in 2002, and it was as good a time as I’ve ever had doing television; we spent two solid days together, morning until night, and I remember laughing nonstop. (We were with my producer and good friend Charlie Pinsky—who called Michel “The Elf”—which helped. Somewhere—I’m not looking for it—there’s a picture of us, three fat men blocking a doorway, grinning like fools.) We made insanely good lobster rolls (well, he did; mine were, I would say, pretty good); his “breakfast for dessert”— a variety of nonbreakfast foods shaped to look like bacon and eggs—was a ridiculously clever tribute to Ferran Adrià-type food, what idiotically came to be called molecular gastronomy.

Two other outstanding memories:

I was in Citronelle in D.C., shortly after it opened, so, 20 years ago. It was a stuffy, not-especially comfortable place, but Michel was at the height of his powers and the food was terrific. (Now we’d think it was too fancy, or at least I would.) As about half the room was on the dessert course—and the desserts were fantastic; more on that in a second—Michel appeared from the kitchen, bearing a brown cardboard box of Eskimo Pies, handing them out at every table. A small gesture, but in those days there was no other famous chef who would behave so playfully.

Two or three years later, in 1997, there was a fundraiser for the Beard Foundation run by Jean-Louis Palladin, the man who brought modern French cuisine to this country and almost unquestionably the most revered and perhaps most talented chef in the country in the early ’80s, when I began writing about food. Palladin was running a restaurant at the Rio hotel in Vegas (he was the first great chef to do that, too), and he was beginning to suffer from the illness that eventually killed him. (He died two years later, at 55; unbelievable to me now.)

There were two nights of festivities, one for chefs and hangers-on only, the other for a well-heeled public; I was there, as a sort of cook and as a reporter for Delta Sky magazine. (If anyone can find that clip, please post it or tweet it or something, but meanwhile, here is a link to my original, unedited piece, which I think is worth a glance. It’s slightly embarrassing, but remember that this was 1997. And it’s only slightly embarrassing.)

Everyone there—seven or eight “name” chefs (Ripert, Boulud, Vongerichten, Daguin), plus some helpers like me, under the supervision of Palladin—was responsible for a dish, but only Michel was in charge of desserts. He was an anomaly, a pastry chef who went on to become a head chef (still rare, but even more so then), and, as I recall (my piece doesn’t do it justice), his dessert was astonishing.

What didn’t make it into that piece—I’m not sure why—was a comment Jean-Georges made to me as all of the chefs gathered to watch Michel work: “Everyone is in awe of him,” Jean-Georges said. “He’s a wizard.”

He was. And he even looked like one.

Photo credit Michael Vonal

 

Posted in Uncategorized

Empty Fridge Pizza

Photo by Emily Stephenson

I was very fortunately to escape New York City for the summer, and I’ve been cooking in a minimally furnished house in the woods. It’s wonderful. But there is a downside: finding good-quality food.

The town I’m in has a deli, with little fresh produce, and the nearest grocery store is an international goliath with spotty quality (it’s also 13 miles away). So I’ve gotten into the habit of planning my week around farmers’ markets (generally at least 45 minutes away) and making do with the dry goods I hauled up with me.

It’s forced me to be creative, though there have been some weird meals I’m glad I didn’t have to serve to anyone other than myself. Things had gotten a little desperate before my farmers’ market run today. Thankfully, I was saved from any further experiments by a friend who had me over for dinner, though she also hadn’t gone shopping and was making do with what she had on hand.

She had some frozen pizza dough she let proof while the oven heated up. She had a lemon and two onions, and thinly sliced both to put on the pizza. She has a garden, which yielded up a couple ripe tomatoes and plenty of fresh basil, so we sliced those up too. We didn’t have any cheese, so she whisked some chopped chives from the garden into crème fraiche and generously spread that on the crust as the sauce.

It was delicious, and so adaptable to any bare fridge scenarios: you could use cream, sour cream, or mascarpone for the sauce, and any bits of herbs you have lying around. The lemons and onions were delicious, and something you are likely to have at home. The sliced tomatoes were lovely but it would have still been tasty without them. It got me excited for a few more weeks of very improvised meals.

– Emily Stephenson

Posted in Behind The Scenes

Tomato a la Mode in Mexico

Caramelized tomato from Flora Farm

Photo by Kerri Conan

Yes, beneath this mound of just-churned vanilla ice cream is a caramelized tomato. I am responsible for the missing bites but not for inventing such a remarkable dessert. That honor belongs to Guillermo Tellez and his wife Leslie, executive and pastry chefs for the magical restaurant at Flora Farms just outside San Jose del Cabo in Baja California Sur, Mexico. I couldn’t stop thinking about the place or the tomato so I wrote Tellez for the recipe, which he was generous enough to share.

Now, during peak tomato, let’s all make one. Or a dozen. Tellez says to start with large ripe specimens—any kind, any color—and remove the toughest stem end, leaving the rest intact. Put them cut side up in a roasting pan. Dissolve a little sugar in sherry vinegar and splash it around, then slow-roast in at 200° and don’t do anything but look at them and baste once in a while until they shrivel and release most of their liquid, about eight hours.

The tomatoes collapse as they cool, leaving behind a texture that’s part persimmon, part flan—in fact that’s how the waiter described it—but the characteristic caramel is enhanced in a way that defies explanation. Top them with a proportionate scoop of the best vanilla ice cream you know and spoon over the aforementioned nectar until the plate fills just shy of overflowing. And I bet you’ll take a bite before you take a photo, too.

– Kerri Conan

Posted in Uncategorized

Grill Cake

Photo by Emily Stephenson

Inspired by recipe testing we’ve been doing, summer, and not wanting to turn on the oven, I made my first cake on the grill, with great success.

I used the Pineapple Upside Down Cake recipe in How To Cook Everything Vegetarian, subbing 2 cups pitted cherries for the pineapple. The batter came together in less than two minutes; I poured it over the brown sugar and cherries scattered over the bottom of a cast iron skillet, and I carried it up to the rooftop, where our barbecue was taking place.

We were using a standard Weber kettle grill, the one pretty much everyone has owned at some point. I tried to wait until the coals had ashed over, but I got impatient and put the skillet directly over the fire before it had hit its peak hotness. (Next time I’ll wait until the coals are fully “ready.”) I closed the lid and cooked it for 15 minutes, then checked on it; it was nowhere near ready, so I closed the lid and set my timer for 10 minutes. When I checked again, I’d say the cake was just slightly overdone, but I had been enjoying myself for those extra 10 minutes and I figured no one would notice.

They did not. The fruit mixture was bubbling around the edges and the crust was crisp and smoky. I flipped it out of the skillet onto a cake plate and let it rest while we cooked and ate the rest of our dinner (also cooked on the grill). In the end, it was the cake everyone was most impressed with. I’m now inspired to grill all my summer desserts: It’s easy, practical (you can do it while the grill is heating up), and delivers impressive results.

– Emily Stephenson

Posted in Baking, Behind The Scenes

Talking Turkey

Photos by Pam Hoenig

I’ve never been a huge fan of turkey. I like it well enough to eat at Thanksgiving and again for leftovers the next day in gumbo. And as long as it’s the dark meat, most definitely not turkey breast.

But I am here to testify that I have most emphatically changed my mind. The reason? Porchetta-style turkey breast roast. Porchetta originated in Ariccia, a small town just outside of Rome. Prepared traditionally, an entire pig is deboned, the meat seasoned with herbs, then rolled up in its skin, and roasted in a pit to insane tenderness, with a crisp exterior.

Last week I was shopping the meat counter and saw what was being sold as “turkey breast roast.” There were three of them, all in those tight little net bags that keep everything even and together, and one of them was half covered with its skin. I didn’t buy one then but it got me thinking, what if I tried to do turkey porchetta style, working the flavor paste under the skin?

I went back the next day and just one roast was left, just shy of four pounds. It wasn’t the one with the skin, but I bought it anyway, along with half a pound of thinly sliced pancetta. Home I went.

In my little food chopper I combined 1/2 cup fennel fronds (picked from the stand of ornamental bronze fennel in my flower garden), 1/4 cup fresh rosemary leaves, a handful of fresh sage leaves, salt, red and black peppers, and the zest of a large lemon and reduced it all to a puree. I pried the roast out of its netting and worked the paste all over and between the pieces of turkey breast that had been jammed together to comprise this “roast.” I reassembled them, then very unartfully wrapped the whole affair in pancetta and tied it together with kitchen twine.

Onto the grill: indirect, with a medium fire for 2 1/2 hours, until the center hit 155°F. I let it rest till it reached 160°F, then cut away the string. The pancetta had turned hickory brown. I cut the roast into thick slices; you could see the flavor paste lacing through the juicy breast. The taste was incredible—complex and aromatic. And it held up the next day when I enjoyed some in a sandwich, topped with a handful of arugula.

– Pam Hoenig

Posted in Behind The Scenes, Italian

Rosemary vs. Lavender

Photos by Kerri Conan

They’re twin herbs separated at birth. Rosemary was raised in the kitchen. Lavender got stuck in Grandma’s underwear drawer. It’s time to reunite them for a cook-off.

In starkest terms, the difference between rosemary (shown on the left) and lavender is akin to pine needles versus peach-tinted rosebuds. Each has a place and a purpose but one is easier to cuddle up with.

Rosemary has the advantage of familiarity. Unless you or someone you know grows lavender it can be tough to find it fresh. Ask around your farmers market for someone to start bringing it. If you can only find dried, that’s fine; like rosemary, lavender dries well with a similar concentrated potency.

Twice last week I took the lavender path to great success. First I pushed a couple sprigs under the skin of a spit-grilled chicken. As the drippings bubbled and reduced before straining and serving, I dropped the leaves in the pot to eke out the last bit of flavor…

And here are those leaves again, barely visible minced into mustard-seed-balsamic vinaigrette for grill-roasted beets…

In both cases, rosemary would have been appropriate. But lavender was understated in the chicken, not easily identifiable. You knew it wasn’t rosemary and it tasted almost like bay leaves. As a dressing for warm, slightly charred beets, it amplified their sweetness, where rosemary’s pineyness might have provided a more one-dimensional counterpoint.

Here are some of my favorite ways to use lavender: in the pot with white beans or lentils, rubbed on lamb or duck, steeped in simple syrup for cocktails or punch (lavender julep anyone?), brewed for herb tea, scalded with the milk or cream for custards (and strained out), in marinades for olives and feta, baked into focaccia and socca, or snuck into blueberry pie filling.

You’ll chart your own course but a good place to start is to try lavender whenever you’d consider using rosemary—if only it weren’t so harsh.

– Kerri Conan

Posted in Behind The Scenes

Bait Plate

Photo by Mark Bittman

One of the things I look for in food when I’m in a place is a sense of place; you get it in those farmers’ markets that limit their vendors to actual producers. You get it in the best, most honest restaurants. (You don’t get it in dishonest restaurants, which probably comprise the majority.)

I’ve complained for years that Cape Cod restaurants don’t strut the Cape’s stuff—which, despite declining stocks of cod and other fish, is still a pretty rich place—as well as they might. (By the way, note that that link goes to a piece I wrote nine years ago, so the information in it is way out of date.) So it was with delight that I recently visited Terra Luna, whose site (I assume kiddingly) describes the restaurant’s cooking as “rustic neo-pagan,” and was served, as an appetizer, what chef-owner Tony Pasquale calls the “bait plate,” a pile of what were once considered trash fish, all (or nearly all; depends on the night) sourced locally.

Razor clams from Eastham, which have been scarce—not because they’re not there, but because no one’s bothered to forage for them—are often on that plate, as are Eastham mussels; these are also hard to find, because almost everyone is selling the vastly inferior farmed mussels from Prince Edward Island. There’s also squid caught off the pier in Provincetown (such an easy catch that even I’ve done it), and a couple of small baitfish, which might be sardines (not always local, I’m sad to say), mackerel, eel, and the awesome Cape herring.

The cooking of these fish happens to be perfect, although—not to downplay it, kudos to the kitchen—that’s the easy part. It’s making the effort to deal with local fishers and ensure the product is genuine that’s tricky. This kind of behavior has got to be applauded.

– Mark Bittman

Posted in American, Seafood

Cooking with Almost Nothing

Photo by Emily Stephenson

I’m cooking in a vacation rental this week, and I only brought my knife with me, which means the tools in “my” kitchen reflect the generosity of the owner and the cooking inclinations of previous tenants. I’ve found one pot, some bowls, a couple skillets, a wooden spoon, a can opener, and a colander. But I can still do almost all the summer cooking I want.

I left the tools to chance, but I knew there would be no ingredients in the house. I packed the pantry items that seemed summer-appropriate, and I stopped on the way to pick up everything I thought I might need. In truth, I think I could have gotten away with salt, pepper, olive oil, and vinegar, but I brought a bit more.

Summer is the best time for pared-down cooking. You don’t want to apply much heat to anything because it’s so ripe and full of flavor. I’d happily eat tomato sandwiches and salads and grilled vegetables (if I had a grill) through September.

Inspired by a really great noodle salad we tested a few weeks ago, fish sauce was one of the things I brought, as well as buying tofu and rice noodles. A cold noodle salad is perfect summer fare.

I knew it was going to be a time investment, but I didn’t have anything else better to do, so I started by julienning lots cucumber and carrots (knife). I didn’t do it perfectly as you can see, but, hey, I’m on vacation. I boiled water (one pot) to steep the rice noodles, then drained them (colander). I cubed tofu, chopped cilantro, and minced onion (knife). I whisked together lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, and salt until it tasted good (fork), then I tossed everything together.

It was a great summer dinner that required just four basic tools, and felt like much more than the sum of its parts.

– Emily Stephenson

Posted in Behind The Scenes, Produce

Smoke a Tongue Tonight

Finished

Photos by Pam Hoenig

There’s a headline I never in my life thought I’d write. But after tasting a slice of succulent beef tongue I smoked with hickory wood chips this afternoon, how could I not share the love?

Yesterday I was shopping for plum tomatoes to smoke on the grill and decided to swing by the meat counter to see what was out. My local store sources a lot of meat from the Hudson Valley and what they carry can change from day to day. Continue reading

Posted in Behind The Scenes

Fun with Frenching

Photos by Kerri Conan

Friday night, one glass of wine into firing the grill for steak with a pile of farmers’-market string beans in the sink, I decided to kill some time Frenching.

The plan was to stir-fry the beans in olive oil with lots of garlic and shallots until droopy, then add tomato wedges, cover, and let them stew just long enough to release some juice but not their skins. Off heat, I’d stir in a handful of basil leaves from the back yard, adjust the seasoning, and serve at room temperature. Splitting the beans lengthwise—like fancy canned and frozen green beans—would help the pods soften and absorb flavor, and I liked the idea of getting random bites with baby seeds.

My ad hoc by-hand technique varied: For straight beans, I lined the business side of the knife on top and pushed down with conviction, pretending not to care when the odd end slipped free of the hack. If they were curved, I used the seam on the bean as a guide to run the tip of the blade from the middle outward in both directions, turning each between strokes. I’m pretty fast with a knife and like the practice but apparently you can also lay them horizontally in the feed tube of a food processor and let the slicing disk do the work.

Whatever your method or recipe, try Frenching at least once this season. There’s a reason why they’re cut that way for green bean casserole. This quick braise had all the freshness you want from summer vegetables, without the squeaky stick-to-your-teeth chalkiness of lightly cooked green beans. Instead their exposed insides provided a silky counterpoint to the crisp skins. And the leftovers can become anything from a three-bean salad or toast topper to a rich frittata.

– Kerri Conan

Posted in Behind The Scenes, Produce