"Waiter! Bring me shad roe!"

Friday, February 29, 2008

You'll be able to follow Cole Porter's lead for the next few weekends as the shad roe has arrived. It seems to me to be a bit early, but in any case, here it is.We'll serve it folded into soft scrambled egg enriched with Chapel Hill Creamery Quark and plopped atop a puff pastry vol-au-vent. I'm thinking we will only have it on Saturday and Sunday nights. Although lots of people ask about it, the number of takers is small. Shad roe is the food equivalent of what jazz was to music years ago when I owned the Cat's Cradle. People would lament in sad, slow, serious tones the lack of jazz in town. "If only there were some really good jazz", they would mourn. Occasionally we would book such a band and three people would come. Shad roe fares better than that and happily the music scene around here is now much matured. There are all kinds of audiences of all kinds of shows. We'll see what happens this season. If you are a fan, call ahead to make sure we have it.

This Saturday will also see the last corned ham of the season. The menu is getting too crowded, with lots of new stuff clamoring for space. Soon gone as well will be cheese pork and gumbo. I am happy to bring back, after a long time, our artichoke stuffed with breadcrumbs and all kinds of other stuff- mostly cheeses. We call it Artichoke Vieux Carre, because it is a style often seen in New Orleans. I learned of it years ago from an old friend who was born and raised there. Like so many other recipes, this one now bears little resemblance to the original. It actually bears little resemblance to the last time we served it. Normally, among it's ingredients are capers and finely minced anchovies. This year I had half a wheel of Chapel Hill Creamery's Hickory Grove cheese that I hadn't used. It had gotten a little strong, but it was still delicious. I cut it into tiny little dice and tossed it into the stuffing which already included Parmesan, butter, fresh rosemary, garlic, olive oil, pimientos, red onions, lemon peel, and of course breadcrumbs. Capers, suddenly seemed inappropriately sour and anchovies might be gilding the lily. Besides, anchovies, although I consider them an essential seasoning, have a repellent effect on much of the population equalled only by liver or beets.

The artichokes are steamed and cleaned and then a disk of Celebrity Dairy's chevre is placed in the bottom. Then I cram as much of the above mentioned stuffing as possible into the heart and among the leaves of each one. They are topped with a lemon slice, drizzled with olive oil and baked until they almost fall apart. Some people can't seem to see bread crumbs as something to eat and try to rake them to the side. I don't see what is wrong with bread myself. I guess these are the same people who object to crust on fried chicken. In Spain, I've actually been served a little dish of fried bread crumbs at tapas. And, oh yes, when the Hickory Grove is gone the capers will return.

Next Wednesday (March 12th), I will have the great pleasure of helping Sara Foster host our pal Kim Sunee for a signing of her new memoir A Trail of Crumbs at Foster's Market in Chapel Hill. Kim is the food editor of Cottage Living Magazine and a good friend of many of us in the food business around here. The event will begin at 5:30 and we will be serving recipes from Kim's book, including a wonderful almond saffron cake that I'll be bringing. Please join us.

posted by Bill Smith at 9:34 PM 0 comments

The more things change.....

Sunday, February 24, 2008

An interesting, busy, crowded week. St. Valentine's Day always seems to be the ramping up point for the spring season. As if on cue, things begin to bustle. This upswing isn't an absolute certainty, however. One must still wonder if it will continue, or is it too soon to reschedule for a busy spring. With the economy always in the news, why are people filling up the restaurants? Perhaps going out to dinner is an economical alternative to travelling. Also, at this time of year, commerce ebbs and flows with the tide of basketball. A nine o'clock game on Tuesday will cause you to be slammed at 5:30; a six thirty game on Saturday we leave you with empty tables all night. On top of all this there is the drought. I am frugal with water in my home, but sanitation in a restaurant requires lots of hot soapy water.

On that note, I can report that we had a visit from the health inspector this week. I've been receiving the Health Department for thirty years now, and it's interesting to note the evolution of their focus. Less important is the eggshell that accidentally rolled under the stove and got stuck. Now attention is on temperature, proximity, cross contamination. The thermometer and the sanitation strip had bumped the flashlight aside. We presently await a new finding on clarified butter from the State. Yes, we got an A, but despite many dollars spent this years on repair and upkeep in the kitchen, our score remains the same. Thus the rigors of trying to have a restaurant in an old filling station. One interesting item that came to light this time is that places that serve food are now divided into four different risk categories. We fall into Risk Category IV- "food service establishments that cook and cool an unlimited number of potentially hazardous foods...". This means that we are liable to be inspected four time as year as we have always been. Lower categories, where less food is prepared on premises, are now to be inspected with less frequency. On the face of things, this seems sensible, because it allows an overextended staff of inspectors to concentrate on places where problems are more likely to occur. The de facto effect, however, is to allow large chains to be inspected less often, because they serve food that arrives prepackaged in company trucks, while those of us who actually cook every day are held under closer scrutiny. This feels iffy to me although, as I said, I can see the practical side of the decision.

Other items on our plate presently: One Saturday we sell a whole corned ham, then the next week we only serve one order. Should I continue on to Easter as planned or finish up with the two I have in the fridge now? The menu is crowded right now, and I need to make room for shad roe, which will apparently be early this year. On the other hand, we flew through all our salt cured duck, so our wilted salad was only on the menu for only a week. It was gone before it had had time to register with the public. People often ask about this salad, so I've done something I don't often do. I ordered a case of duck legs, last week and packed them in salt so that later this week the salad can reappear. I'm told that we will finally have artichokes this week. For some reason, for the last several years, they have become quite expensive, so I haven't used them as much as I would like. An artichoke that costs three dollars wholesale should cost on the menu- using the accepted pricing formula- nine dollars, plain. I would hope that no sensible person would pay nine dollars for a plain artichoke, so I wait until the price is lower before I put them on the menu. I'll probably stuff them with goat cheese and seasoned bread crumbs in the style of New Orleans. One last thing. Butterscotch pudding has returned. It contains butter but no scotch. I've actually tried to track down the origins of this odd flavor without any luck. We achieve it with a clever use of molasses and vanilla.

posted by Bill Smith at 9:16 AM 0 comments

Butter and Salt and Girl Scout Cookies

Saturday, February 9, 2008

It's that time of year. In fact, it's that time of year several times over. First of all, we are approaching St. Valentine's Day. In restaurant parlance, this is often refered to as Noah's Arc Night. Two by two they come. Even tables normally reserved for eight people will probably have only two diners. We don't do a "special menu". We do slim it down a bit so that we can cope with the volume. Gone are the hamburgers, which seem simple enough, but because health regulations regarding doneness take longer than most entrees. Gone are some things that will back up my one fryer. We try to compensate with over the top desserts- whipped cream, red hots and strawberries all over everything. We bring in fancier things like filet mignon and sweetbreads. We set the dining room with candles and flowers. We turn the lights down a bit. St. Valentine's, is the first of spring's hurdles. The last will be the Mothers' Day/Graduation Weekend. Honeysuckle tends to bloom in the middle of that one.

The other thing that happens this time of year is Girl Scout Cookies. I have always been a fan of these. I usually gobble up a whole sleeve of the peanut butter ones right away. The shortbread ones sometimes show up with our ice creams at Crook's. The thin mints have their own special ritual. I put butter on everything and years ago I absentmindely dragged a mint cookie through some that was softening on the counter. In my logic, coarse salt was the obvious next addition. Now, each spring, I feast on little butter and salt sandwiches as long as the cookies are around.

Butter and salt are a subgroup of the larger family of grease and salt. I often refer to "transforming magic of grease and salt. This sends some folks heading for the exits, but most people will admit privately that these ingredients are essential to good eating. I'm sure that my admiration for butter is second to none. And what would we do without bacon? Last spring, I joined a group of local chefs to do a fund-raising event for WUNC Radio with Lynn Rosetto-Kasper at A Southern Season. My part was a wilted salad made with Chapel Hill Creamery's New Moon cheese and lardons made from Cane Creek Farms' sidemeat. The dressing requires whisking whole butter into the melting pork fat. The audience fell silent. but Ms. Rosetto-Kasper seemed delighted. Having gone on about this so, I hasten to add that I am actually in favor of moderation at meals. You needn't eat great platefuls of grease and salt at every sitting. Cooks should use whatever seasonings and techniques that are appropriate for the best results. Years ago, Julia Child began chiding those who advocated avoiding fats at all costs. Her message more or less was to enjoy your food and to not be so skittish and you'll be fine. She lived into her nineties. (Please see above left for a picture of me strolling through a bacon forrest with a glass of sweet tea and Jack Daniels last fall in Oxford, Mississippi. A picture is indeed worth a thousand words.)

posted by Bill Smith at 5:05 AM 0 comments

Sweetbreads and the Tailend of Mardi Gras

Thursday, February 7, 2008

I used to wonder who ate the first sweetbread. Now that I'll eat almost anything at least once, this kind of question seldom arises,although some of those things floating around in the carnita pot did give me pause. I've always found that if you can get someone to try them before you tell them what they are eating, you'll get a convert. I guess you oughtn't try this on a vegetarian. I love all the innards except chittlin's, although I did have an interesting brush with them under the guise of "andouillette' in France once. Sweetbreads have an enormous fan club around here. They are one of a handful of things that people will actually stop me on the street or in the grocery store to inquire about. I think Crook's must be the only place around where you can get a whole plateful of them.

The cooking process is somewhat involved. I've never seen fresh sweetbreads, so first they must be thawed. I do this by putting them in cool water in the refridgerater overnight. The next day, I remove their wrappers (each comes in its own little package)and give them a brief soak in more cold water to which has been added a little vinegar- hardly any. Too much will cause them to begin to break down. This soaking draws out some of the blood and other impurities. Then they are gently simmered in chicken or veal stock that has been seasoned with chopped celery, tarragon, whole black peppercorns and just a little salt. Sweetbreads come in all different sizes, so you need to examine each one for doneness.Start looking for results after ten to twelve minutes for the small guys. They usually, but not always, begin to float as they approach readiness. They are very squishy when raw but when the cook they firm up. Test each one for firmness at its thickest part. It should feel set all the way through. Gently pry apart the lobes of larger ones and look to see if any remaing blood looks cooked. The membranes and connective tissue on the outside should appear opaque white as well. When all these appetising tests have been completed, remove the sweetbreads from their broth and submerge them in icewater until they are completely cold all the way through.Save the broth for your sauce. Then,they must be pressed for a few hours to remove any absorbed liquid. I put them, in one layer, in a stainless steel pan. Another pan goes on top,which is weighted down with a couple of clean bricks or heavy cans. Back into the refrigerator for at least three hours. Then they must be peeled. What you want to discard will be obvious- membranes, veins, gristly looking stuff. I add all this back into the broth. The sweetbreads will naturally break apart as you clean them into different sized pieces. I like to leave them as large as possible, any tiny crumbs I will save in the freezer to add to pates or to use in wilted salads later.

At this point they are finally ready to be served. I generally either dip them in egg and bread crumbs and fry them in butter or finish them in a cream sauce (made from the poaching liquid) with oysters and/or country ham. They go great guns for about a month, then the public loses intrest and they go away for another year.

We had the pleasure this week of hosting Alexander Julian's sixtieth birthday party. The guests were to attend a dance after dinner, so we needed to serve things that were quick, while still sort of fancy. For one of the selections, I chose Jambalaya Deluxe. The basic recipe I inherited when I came to this job in 1993. I made it deluxe by adding the salt cured duck legs that are a byproduct of our winter menu. With or without the duck, the jambalaya is delicious. I couldn't pass the pan without a spoon. It is, alas, also really good cold, straight from the fridge the next day.

It was our last little bit of Louisiana for this year. One night after staff dinnner someone remarked that the desserts that we had tried were really more like a cocktail hour. There was Louisiana Wiggle, soaked in bourbon; milk punch sorbet, full of bourbon; bananas Foster with rum and creme de banane. What is it about these people, that they can lead us to misbehave so? Where else in the world would the suggestion to try a Hurricane at every bar in the neighborhood in one evening sound like a good idea?

posted by Bill Smith at 5:04 AM 1 comments

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