Monday, March 24, 2014

Traveling On Our Stomachs


Kathy and I have set out on a rare vacation that has taken us from Portland to Scottsdale/Phoenix and will continue on mid-week to Austin, TX.

Our first night in Portland we ate at a restaurant that has been on my "need to try" list since I moved to Oregon, Ned Ludd.  The restaurant is named, of course, after Ned Ludd who became the figurehead of the Luddites in the early 19th Century because he broke two stocking frames in a fit of rage in the 1790's.  In the tradition of the Luddites Ned Ludd embraces, to a certain degree, a return to simplicity.  All of the cooked food at Ned Ludd comes either out of a roaring wood-fired oven that is the center-piece of the restaurant or a smoker that puffs away out on the front patio.

Ned Ludd sits in a storefront on Portland's MLK Jr. Boulevard in a neighborhood that might be described as "just beyond transition".  There are restaurants opening up and down the street and what was once a rather ominous part of the city is opening up.  The restaurant, remaining true to its ideals and name, is rather simply adorned with found art, food related tchotchkes and lots of recycled wood.  Service is unpretentious and friendly.  The menu changes monthly and like so many of the good Portland restaurants relies on the seasons to drive its menu direction.  The choices are divided into four parts, Forbits, Kaltbits, Warmbits and Plats.

We started off with a generous bowl of oven-warmed olives and the de rigeur Martini for Kathy.  Fortunately for them they were serving Aviation gin.  The first course offerings were interesting and included a generous plate of house made charcuterie, but what really grabbed us were the salad and vegetable sides (Kaltbits/Warmbits).  We wanted to try all of them.  We settled for a smoky charred salad of oven roasted cauliflower with a bright green nettle sauce and pine nuts and an escarole salad with paper thin slices of sunchoke topped with an olive bread crumb  and tossed with a creamy dijon dressing.  Both were excellent, but I STILL want to try the Arugula salad with oven roasted beets, fresh local sheep's cheese and pistachios as well as the Roasted potatoes with Spring goddess dressing.

Back to the oven for our entrees, a bronzed stuffed quail for me and Petrale sole for Kathy.  My quail was one of the best I've eaten, stuffed with braised bitter greens and sauced with a nice bird reduction sweetened slightly with dried fruit.  The quail sat on a thick bed of oven-roasted root vegetables and was topped with a scatter of mizuna leaves.  As I said, one of the best quail dishes I've ever had.  Kathy's sole was good, but certainly not supernal (thanks, George).  The fish was rolled into cylinders and roasted with chanterelles, white wine, raabs and leeks.  The sauce was "nice" and the fish was fresh, but the whole dish didn't elevate past "good" into "great".

We finished off with something called a "Tarte de Perigord" which was a custard infused with brandy soaked dried fruits and baked in the wood oven in a small cast iron skillet.  I was skeptical, but it was a great way to end the meal; slightly sweet and slightly rich.  I couldn't be absolutely certain but it seemed to go well with the local Pear Brandy that Kathy had with her coffee.  I liked Ned Ludd so much that I wish we lived closer to Portland so I could go once a month to see how the menu changes.  The meal wasn't exorbitantly expensive and the whole experience was totally charming and satisfying.


And onto Phoenix; warm weather, a pre-fab feel and mountains off across the horizon.  Lots of gated communities and some of the most aggressive and rude drivers I've ever encountered.  BUT, amidst all that,  we got to see Spring Training baseball and family.  Hard to beat that.

Oh yes, there was the pilgrimage to Pizzeria Bianco.  Fifteen years ago a chef friend told me about this guy in Phoenix who was making the best pizza he'd ever eaten.  He said the guy was a crust perfectionist and that the line stretched around the block before the place even opened each day.  I started reading about him in the food press a couple of years later and then hadn't heard much about him as the culinary trends changed.  He was still down here, though, building a mini-empire of two good-sized full service restaurants and a newer location called Pane Bianco.

I insisted that we go.  I was here, it was here and I wasn't taking no for an answer.  Good thing.
We found the place inside a Town and Country shopping center and the line was still there.
We were told it would be a 25-30 minute wait and it was more like 45 minutes but it was all okay.
We sat outside on a lovely warm evening and while Kathy and her daughter Chelsea drank very expensive Chardonnay the kids ran around and I just dug the smells coming out of the wood burning ovens.

We sat down and they immediately dropped warm house-baked bread and SOME REALLY GOOD OLIVE OIL in front of us.  We scarfed the first plate of bread up so fast the busser laughed as he dropped the second one.   The menu is so simple as to be deceptive, but don't worry.  This place rocks!  We ordered a simple salad of local greens and a classic Caprese salad and they were both exemplary.  The greens featured a good amount of escarole, olives and a nicely light vinaigrette.  The tomatoes in the Caprese were actually ripe and they included the top with the green vine on the side of the plate as evidence of its freshness.  The mozzarella was homemade, creamy and actually had flavor.  Fresh green basil leaves and more of that great green olive oil made me remember why this is one of the great dishes.

We ordered a Margherita for the kids and a sauceless pizza with more of that house made mozzarella that had been smoked, caramelized onions, and long slices of a perfectly spicy fresh made sausage. These were seriously good pizzas.  Seriously.  Good pizza depends on a good crust and this was GREAT crust.  It was smoky, salty, perfectly chewy and one of the best pizza crusts I have ever eaten.  It is now the benchmark for me.  As you might imagine, the pizzas disappeared in record time.

It is rare that a pizza place offers dessert, but we were in the mood and the kids ears perked up at the mention of "flourless chocolate cake".  I am SO glad we ordered dessert!  The chocolate cake was good, really good, but the lemon tart I had was ethereal, everything you ever wanted in a lemon tart.  It was sweet, creamy, tart, all of it.  And the crust was great.  Accompanying and elevating both these desserts was a rich and delicious vanilla creme chantilly.  Another bullseye here.

I would go back to Pizzeria Biano tomorrow and maybe the next day.  It was that good.

And so, on to Austin...

Thursday, February 21, 2013

GUMBO: The Recipe

GUMBO Pt 2  The Recipe (or not)

I'll put the disclaimer right at the top. This is not going to be a recipe like you might be used to.  This is NOT going to be a listing of ingredients followed by the steps of how to put them together; exactly.  Those things will all be here, but it seems to me that writing down a recipe for gumbo like you're making cookies or salad dressing compromises the depth, the mystery, the secret codes and the soul of what gumbo really is.  Gumbo is how you feel that day.  Gumbo is what you happen to have lying around.  Gumbo is and was survival food.  There are as many different versions of gumbo as there are cooks who have cooked it.  This one happens to be ONE of mine.

The last time I wrote down a recipe for gumbo it was for my younger sister and it ran to about eight pages and included a lot of legend and lore.  Sadly, her treasured recipe book, wherein my treatise was stored, was stolen by the jealous ex-wife of her now husband and whatever wisdom/knowledge/hearsay I imparted has flown to the winds.  It is not at all unlikely that whatever I happen to write here my contradict much of what I wrote then.  Gumbo is like that.  I'm like that.  She said hers came out pretty good.

Another disclaimer early on is that I have always made gumbo in batches anywhere from 5 to 15 gallons.  This will not be that big and as a result, the amounts may not be precise.  Bear with me; improvise and intuit.  Lastly, remember that this is just a base recipe. You will be expected/advised to add the goodies: crab, shrimp, oysters, duck, etc., per your own tastes and desires.

There are two lists of ingredients, mandatory and optional...

The mandatories are:

The Holy Trinity of Vegetables plus garlic, jalapenos, green onions and okra (cut frozen is just fine)
Chicken Legs

And the optionals are:
Hot Sauce
Seafood (shrimp, crab, crawfish, oysters...)
Rice (although this is more of a given; it's gotta have rice)


2 Cups All Purpose Flour
2 Cups Canola Oil (or Canola Oil and some rendered bacon fat)

Let's start with roux, a simple mix of equal parts of flour and fat that is traditionally used for thickening soups and sauces.  We won't bother with any of that white and blonde roux stuff.  We won't even pretend that this is for thickening; it isn't.  This is gumbo and the roux is "as black as your arm if your arm was black" and it is cooked to the point where nearly all the gluten, the thickening agent, is cooked out of it.  What it does do is give gumbo that elusive, haunting smoky and almost burned flavor for which it is famous.  The roux is so simple yet so ultimately critical to the final flavor of your gumbo.

I use canola oil for my roux and if I happen to have some rendered bacon fat I'll mix that in with it when I heat it up.  I find that a light simple oil like canola is easy to work with, smokes at a relatively high heat and blends easily.  Yes, the bacon renderings add flavor, but you're going to need a WHOLE lot of bacon fat if you want to use it exclusively for your roux and honestly, clarified butter is just too damned expensive

There is a school of thought that subscribes to the theory that in order to make a proper roux you have to heat the oil to a flashpoint, add the flour as fast as you can (without creating napalm) and then stir like a mo' fo' until it turns black.  I'm not sure why this is a popular theory, but I don't do that.  No, I don't.  Heat the oil slowly until it comes up to point well below smoking and stir in your flour.  Keep the flame somewhere between low and medium and relax.  Put on some music you love and hang out with your roux for a while, stirring and stirring.  It is critical at this point that you use a wooden spoon or something that will easily insinuate itself into the edges (or corners) of your pan.  You don't ever, ever, ever want the roux to stick to the pan.

You will, with patience, begin to observe the roux slowly, very slowly changing color, or at first you may just wish you were.  But yes, it will begin to change color and edge away from the whitish tan  glop you have been stirring toward something a bit suaver and tanner.  The stirring will also become easier as the roux heats through.  As the roux cooksm the gluten, that is, the thickening agents, begin to cook out of it and the roux will become thinner and thinner the longer it cooks.  Continue to exercise your patience, rock back and forth (or sway) to the music and keep stirring.  There will be a direct parallel between the thickness of the roux and the color as it cooks.

  As the roux grows darker it becomes quite thin and needn't be stirred so arduously.  Before the flour is fully cooked is when the roux is most in danger of burning.  You will now begin to work your way through the gradations of color; ecru, tan, peanut butter and finally, oh yes, finally at last into the chocolates.  Keep the roux moving but look for it (or at least I look for it) to turn the color of a good chocolate sauce.  When it hits that point take the pan off the flame and put it somewhere to slowly cool.  Keep stirring because you do want the roux to keep cooking, although you've effectively slowed the process down.  This will bring the roux to the ultimate "black" color all on its own.  The pan can now sit, unrefrigerated, until you feel ready to make your gumbo.  Do go back and give it frequent stirs during its first half hour off the stove.  As the roux cools it will separate slowly; let it.


2 Gallons Previously Made Chicken Stock
8-12 Whole Chicken Legs
2 Cups Rough Chopped Yellow Onion
4 Seeded and Rough Chopped Green Bell Peppers
1 Head Rough Chopped Celery
1 Cup Rough Chopped Green Onions
2-3 Heads Smashed Garlic
All the Chicken Bones you've saved
All the Shrimp Shells you've saved
All the Crab Shells you've saved  

It is absolutely true that you can make perfectly good gumbo using water as your liquid base.  There should, in theory, be plenty enough flavorful additions to the pot (the roux chief among them) to make a tasty gumbo.  But you (and I know this about you) are not looking for just a "perfectly good gumbo",  you are looking to make a gumbo that has a depth of flavor, layers and layers of flavor; a gumbo that makes you close your eyes and wonder, "where did THAT come from?"  One of the many, many answers to that question will be that at least SOME of "THAT" came from the rich, deep and mysteriously flavored stock you added to the pot.

I'm going to tell you how to make this deep and mysteriously flavored stock by making an awfully large presumption.  I'm going to presume that you not only know HOW to make a good chicken stock, but that you will have a gallon or two of it on hand to make your gumboIn this recipe you will be using cooked chicken legs and a good way to cook those legs is to gently poach them in a bath of simmering previously made chicken stock.  This will not only get your legs properly cooked, it will also enrich your previously made stock.

Take the cooked chicken legs out of the stock and turn your oven on to 450.  When the oven is hot put all the chopped vegetables and all the animal parts into a heavy roasting pan and roast them for at least 45 minutes before you touch them.  Stir up the bones and vegetables in the roasting pan to see if they're beginning to stick to the pan.  They should be.  Put the pan back in the oven and continue roasting until you can see that the tops of the veggies and the chicken bones are taking on a rich brown color. (This is a good time to pull the chicken meat from the cooked legs and add the bones to the pan.)  Scrape the pan again to check for caramelization on the bottom of the pan.  What you want is for the vegetables, bones and shells to be breaking down into a nearly burnt, brown crumbly mess that is sticking to the pan.

When you feel as if you have achieved optimum browning and are afraid to let it go any farther (no, I mean really afraid) take the pan out of the oven and scoop all the browned ingredients into a heavy stock pot.  Put the hot roasting pan on a couple of burners on your stove and turn them to medium high so that the pan starts to sizzle.  Pour in 2-3 cups of your previously made (and enriched) chicken stock and scrape up everything you can from the bottom of the pan.  Please be careful.  When you feel like you've got it all scraped off the bottom and sides pour it into the pan over the roasted mix and see if you need to do it again.  Scrape EVERYTHING you can into the pot, pour the rest of your chicken stock over it and make another stock.  Bring this one to a boil, drop the heat, pull the pot over to one side of the burner so that the bubble just comes up the side of the pot and let it cook for 3-4 hours.  If you feel as if you are losing liquid too quickly either add more chicken stock or water to keep the level even with where you started.

Strain the stock when it is cool enough for you to feel comfortable handling it and put it on a shelf in your refrigerator so that air will pass both over and under it.  Let it rest for a day to allow the flavors to settle and so that whatever fat there is comes to the top and is easy to remove.  Your stock is ready and your roux is ready.  Now it's time to get the solid ingredients ready and move into actual gumbo making.


The Holy Trinity of New Orleans cooking is onions, green bell peppers and celery.  It is purported and it often really seems that those three vegetables show up in nearly every dish, be it Cajun, Creole, or somewhere in between.  There are those like me who detest green bell peppers yet end up admitting, somewhat grudgingly, that once they immerse themselves for hours in all other things "gumbo" they do indeed have their place.  There is an entirely different school that questions the need for celery and I agree that it probably has less presence than any of the other ingredients and can, at times, come off, when one can actually taste it, as slightly bitter.  I do remember that at the Elite Cafe we went through a period where we experimented with omitting it from our basic gumbo recipe, but ultimately decided that we could take it or leave it, so we took it.  Ultimately you must look at the Trinity as a flavor base that will cook deep into and indeed become an unseen (at least at the first adding) layer of flavor.

The "plus three" for me are garlic, lots and lots of garlic, jalapeno peppers, and green onions.  Each of these has their place in my gumbo and therefore are included in this recipe.  To me they are all essential components of the gumbo flavor.


The underlying flavor of smoked pork is key to my own gumbo flavor base and while I do love using andouille, the long smoked and densely made sausage of Louisiana, I have had success using other smoked sausages and at Belle Roux we omitted Andouille entirely and used our own house-made Creole-style smoked pork sausages.  Our recipe combined the best parts of Andouille and Chaurice sausages and added a rich greasy smoky flavor.  Whatever you choose to use must have a smokey flavor and a good healthy spice to it to effectively enhance your gumbo.


8 Big Yellow Onions, cut in large dice
8 Big Green Bell Peppers, cut in large dice
2 Heads Celery, cut in large dice
6 Heads Garlic, peeled and chopped
8 Jalapenos, diced
2 Bunches of Green Onions, sliced and reserved
16-20 Spicy Smoked Pork Sausages (If you are using Andouille, which are generally longer, use 10)
1# Frozen Sliced Okra

Cut the vegetables, mix them and divide them in half.  Set the green onions aside for later use.
Dice half the sausages and and cut the other half into discs.  

Put your big gumbo pot on the stove and bring it up to a medium heat.  Add the diced sausages and let them cook slowly so that they render their fat.  When they have given up as much fat as they can, add one half of the chopped mixed vegetables and stir them into the sausages.  Cook over medium heat until the vegetables are coated with fat and beginning to soften.  Pour your gumbo stock over the vegetables and bring it to a boil.  Let it come to a rapid boil and then turn it down, pull it to one side of the burner and do a slow simmer for an hour.

On another burner bring your black roux back to life by heating it very slowly until it becomes smooth and the oil is once again incorporated.  You do not need to get it cooking, only to heat it so that it becomes nearly liquid and is close to the same temperature as the simmering stock.  Increase the heat of the cooking gumbo stock and vegetables and when it is just short of a boil, add the black roux in a slow stream while whisking steadily.  When the roux is completely incorporated, bring the (now) gumbo to a boil again then reduce the heat and repeat the pulling of the pot to one side of the burner.

Place your cut Andouille (or other sausage) discs on a sheet pan with the cut frozen okra and roast them in a 450 degree oven until they both begin to brown and stick to the pan.  This will take 20-25 minutes.  Scrape them up and add the sausage and okra to the gumbo.  Using the same technique as you did to deglaze the roasted bone pan, deglaze the sheet pan with a half cup of water to capture the remaining browned bits that have stuck to the pan.  Stir the okra/sausage mix in and add the second half of your  chopped vegetables to the gumbo pot.  Stir them in and bring the gumbo up to heat one more time, stopping it just short of a boil.  Return the heat to medium low and pull the pot to the side of the burner once again.

You have now added the bulk of the ingredients to the gumbo and it needs to cook.  As it cooks, the gumbo will begin to take in the cooked flour from the roux and discard the oil it was mixed with and that oil needs to be removed One of the reasons for setting the pot to the side of the burner is that as the oil comes to the top it will journey over to the side of the pot away from the heat and be much easier to ladle off.  Using as broad and flat a ladle as you have, begin what will be a long, long process of scooping the grease off as it rises to the top.  This isn't something you need to do constantly, but you will need to return to the pot every 10-15 minutes to do some scooping and you will be doing this scooping for the next hour and possibly longer. 

Now is a good time to start tasting the gumbo.  The first taste will be rich, but a bit flat.  It's going to need salt and pepper and I like mine to have a bit of a black pepper bite.  Start with a healthy handful of salt and at least half a hand of black pepper. Stir them in, wait five minutes and taste again.  If you want your gumbo to start off spicy you can start adding hot sauce and letting it cook in.  I like to use Tabasco because I feel like the acid in the vinegar base helps heighten the other flavors.  You may not feel that way.  In any case, shake a healthy ounce or two in and let it cook for another ten or fifteen minutes and give it a taste.  

At this point of cooking, perhaps three hours or so, you should have a very gumbo like product.  Keep skimming and ladling the fat off and for this last hour of cooking add the sliced and reserved green onions to the pot along with the chicken meat that you pulled off the bones, way back when.  Cook the gumbo for another half hour or so with the green onions in it and then turn off the heat.  You have made your gumbo base.  Let it cool on the stove top until it is less dangerous to handle and then either ladle or pour it into containers that will fit in your refrigerator (where I KNOW you have created space for it).  Try to put the gumbo in a place in the refrigerator where air will pass both under and over the container.  You want to cool the bottom and the top of the gumbo at the same time.

As you would with anything you would cook that has this many flavors, let your gumbo rest overnight so that the flavors begin to meld.  You may notice that even three days after being made the gumbo will taste slightly different than it did when you first brought it off the stove.  

Bring the gumbo out and slowly bring it up to heat in small amounts (or heat all if it if you're having a crowd). When you serve your gumbo have a pot of cooked white rice ready to put in the bowls under the gumbo when you serve it.  When the gumbo is hot you get to decide how you want to dress it up.  I like it with Dungeness crab, both whole legs and body parts.  But I also like it with oysters and/or shrimp just barely poached in the gumbo as it sits and slowly roils just short of a boil.  I also like to add roast duck or chicken, more sausage, or tasso.  And of course, there are those who will want to sprinkle gumbo file (ground sassafras root), although I have never been able to see (or taste) the point in that.  Me?  I like a sprinkle of thinly sliced green onions and a dash of hot sauce right at the end.  You've gotten this far, you know what you want.  Have at it...

Sunday, January 27, 2013



There was a time in my life when I made gumbo every week.  Big pots of gumbo.  Gallons and gallons  of gumbo.  For nearly six years I ran the kitchens of two N'Awlins style restaurants in San Francisco, of all places; back to back and year butted up against year. When I started making it I thought I knew a little bit about what gumbo was all about and when I finally stopped making it with huge regularity I had come to realize that I was just learning what gumbo was all about.

Like a lot of cooks of my generation, I came into what we all used to call Cajun cooking (even though it really wasn't Cajun cooking at all) courtesy of Paul Prudhomme.  There was a food revolution going on (yeah, remember THAT?) and the places where I worked, which just happened to be Berkeley, were in on what was happening out there on that once cutting edge.  Not only were we (and I'm generously lumping myself in here with Mark Miller, Jeremiah Tower, Jonathan Waxman, Bruce Aidells, and of course, Alice) doing our best to both push the borders, as well as discover the terroir, of what we were cooking, we were also aware that there were cooks and chefs Just Like Us who were doing it in their own necks of the woods.

Nobody discovered regional cooking, it was always there.  In many cases, however, it had been buried, or set aside like a boring old book, while different directions and options were pursued.  It did seem, however, that an unspoken and underground movement sprung up nearly simultaneously all over the country and suddenly we, the cooks, were aware that there was something abrewing nearly everywhere  we looked.  And a lot of these cooks were re-evaluating the foods that the folks around them had been eating all their lives.

Despite the fact that it may indeed have been the one single place that stayed most in touch with its roots, New Orleans became a flashing red light at that time on just about everyone's dashboard and a lot of that was do to Chef Paul Prudhomme.  He was just a big ol' quiet shy country boy (and yes, he is/was Cajun) who happened to make his way into a Big Time kitchen in N'Awlins and just happened to, because he loved the cuisine, start tweaking it to the point where it caught the attention of people who cared.

I met Chef Paul in the kitchen of the 4th St. Grill in Berkeley where he'd come to visit the Chef I was working for, Mark Miller.  At that time, even in his pre-Coyote Cafe days, Mark was making a name for himself by cooking with chiles that no one had ever heard of and was just beginning to push the edge of the palates of the dining public.  4th St. Grill was a stop-off point for other chefs around the country who were just as curious about what we were doing as we were about them.  I stood in a bit of a daze and eavesdropped as they talked gumbo, how to make the right black roux, what sauce debris was and a whole lot of other arcane knowledge.

I was transfixed and knew immediately that I wanted to learn a whole lot more about cooking that kind of food.  I set off buying every New Orleans cookbook I could find (and there weren't a whole lot of them out there at the time).  I absconded with a Brennan's cookbook from the 60's that my dad had brought home from a business trip years before and also latched onto The New Orleans Cookbook by Richard Collin and one or two others.  I had a few side trips, but by 1983 I had a chef's job in the Napa Valley where we did a week celebrating a local New Orleans Jazz Festival and I had a week to cook and serve my version of the food I'd been digging into.

What that week of cooking did was open my eyes to the complexity and diversity of the cuisine.  I realized that there was a WHOLE lot more to all of this than slinging some red-spiced fish into a blazing hot pan.  I made marchand du vin sauce, I found a source for "real"andouille",  I learned about tasso and muffalettas and etoufee, AND, I made my first batches of gumbo.  At the time I thought they were good.  They weren't, not really, but they were okay.

Roll the film forward somewhat slowly and you see me working in restaurants in and around the SF Bay Area and putting my New Orleans leanings on hold for a spell.  But as my career began to run its course I found myself living nearly around the corner from the Elite Cafe in San Francisco.   The Elite had been the first restaurant in the City to devote itself entirely to the cuisine of New Orleans and it was a hotbed of blackened redfish.   But by the time I started going there the Elite had been open for nearly 12 or 13 years and was beginning to show signs of wear and tear.  My ex and I would go in during softshell crab season and I would look around from my seat at the ancient counter and think, "If I was the Chef here. . . ".

Naturally, I ended up as the Chef of the Elite.   I got hired at the Elite Cafe in Spring of 1994 in attempt to get it back "on track" numbers-wise, and to drag it kicking and screaming into the 90's.  I had the very good fortune to inherit a good kitchen crew, chief among them, a sous-chef, Steve Harlow, who took his gumbo making very seriously.  So began a five year stretch of my life in which I made or participated in making at least 15 gallons of gumbo every single week.


It was my opinion in early 1994 that I knew how to make a pretty good batch of gumbo.   I hadn't made it in large quantities on a regular basis, but I had made some 5 gallon pots of it that I thought were pretty darn good.   I knew how to make a dark roux and I knew how to throw the Holy Trinity (onions, bell peppers and celery) in on top of it along with stock, andouille sausage, garlic and some hot stuff to make it gumbo-like.   What I had no appreciation for, or even understanding of, at that time, was how gumbo was made up of layers and layers of flavor.   And not knowing that, I certainly had no idea of how to go about getting/creating something I didn't even know existed.

When I started work as Chef at the Elite Cafe I learned quickly that most of the cooking, the "setting of flavors" was done in the daytime.  At night it was busy; way too busy to do anything but fry popcorn shrimp, flash highly-seasoned filets of fish in a cast iron skillet, slam out plate after plate with the same potato/veggie combo and then do it again, all night long.   It was in the daytime, however, when Mr. Harlow, who had been at the Elite close to when it opened and had returned several years before I arrived put together the gumbo, the etouffee, the red beans and rice, all the desserts, all the stuffings and all the sauces.

When a chef or cook makes the same dishes each week, often on the same day of the week for weeks, then months on end, one of two things can happen:  either the chef/cooks grows weary and unchallenged by the roteness of it and either he suffers or the food suffers and often both flag in their freshness and flavor; the second is that the chef/cook can begin to see the nuances, the oddities, the changes, the aberrations that can occur from one batch to the next, no matter how minute or non-earthshaking they may be.

What happened at the Elite is that once Steve Harlow and I began working together, the Gumbo Discussions began.   We began speculating on what made gumbo gumbo; what made it taste right, taste good and what might or might not give it the complexity we both knew it should have.  What I brought to the Gumbo Discussions was a serious and classical cook's background in how flavors were developed.  I knew about reductions and infusions, roasting for flavor and kitchen techniques that had been the building blocks of flavor for years.  I had also made gumbo in five or six different restaurants and received varying criticisms in those restaurants.  What Steve brought was an artist's mind and palate, years of experience of having made the gumbo, loyalty to something he was proud of, and a philosophy fueled by the first Elite Cafe Chef, Thomas Brown, who described the need for the gumbo roux to be "as black as your arm if your arm was black".

Week in, week out we opened that kitchen at 7:30 AM, put on anything from Coltrane to Hendrix, from Hank Williams and George Jones to Arthur Alexander on the battered tapedeck and set about making the foundation of the Elite Cafe's flavors.   We made gumbo on Wednesday, etouffee on Thursday, red beans when they were needed.   I took over the pie crusts but Steve still made the fillings.  He made creamed spinach and on Friday he made our famous filet hash.  On Tuesday's we cooked 150#s of baby back ribs and at least twice a week made the accompanying BBQ sauce.

I changed a few things right away because that's what I had wanted to do back when I had sat at the worn counter stools and eaten things I didn't like, but most of it either stayed the same or evolved slowly.  All of it was up for discussion.  What changed most over my three and a half years though, albeit slowly, almost imperceptibly if you were a guest, was the gumbo.  It got richer and deeper; smoother, yet edgier.  We started roasting the andouille and the okra on a sheet pan together before we added them to the base.  For a while we left out the celery.  For a while we added basil mixed in with green onions at the end.  After a while we began adding the vegetables in two layers, one at the beginning and one two or three hours into the cooking process.

It was never Cajun gumbo, or Creole gumbo, or even New Orleans gumbo, because every single gumbo is different.  But what it was, at the end of that time we spent together, was a damn good gumbo, one that I know I was proud of.  And I'm sure it changed even more when the next Chef, who was actually from Louisiana and had some mighty strong opinions about gumbo, came aboard.  I moved on to yet another Louisiana-style restaurant, Belle Roux, where I got to create my own menu and banish all those things that the Elite had made me hold on to.  I made the gumbo each week in a style very similar to the one Steve Harlow and I had talked about and experimented on so many times.  And then I started to tweak it all on my own.  I still do every time I make it.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012



We got our first blizzard warning of the year last Sunday.  It arrived in a modern and hi-tech fashion, via an unearthly screech from Kathy's iPhone. The screech brought breaking news from the weather watch that our specific area of the world, tiny little Scotts Mills, was going to undergo a series of wind storms with gusts topping out at 65 MPH.  Our personalized disaster forecast also advised us that we were in severe danger of power outages and falling timber as well.  Well.

We've been through the drill before so we went about our various chores designed and assigned to ensure that we would have light, water, heat and the other necessities should we indeed lose electricity.  Not only does electricity power our lights and stove, but our well is run by an electric pump; no power, no water.  I filled the five gallon and one gallon containers and together we cut kindling and stacked wood.  Kathy checked the flashlights, the lanterns and the candles.  I wheeled the generator out of the shed, fed it some gas and pulled the cord.  Lo and behold, it fired up on the third pull.  It seemed we were ready.

I made the executive Chef decision NOT to move any of the food to the outside freezers (which the generator would power) until such time as the power really did go out.  We are all well aware that the weather bureaus do have a wonderful time indeed working themselves up into a lather when the weather promises to get exciting.  If the power does go out our inside freezers give us a comfortable four to five hours before we even need to consider ferrying the groceries out to the back.

Ironically, or fortuitously, depending on how you see these things, I had begun a large batch of bird stock the previous day, incorporating the thanksgiving turkey bones into our large stock pot along with the remains of a few roasted chicken dinners and sundry leg and wing bones.  The stock had gone for many many hours at this point and probably could have been strained at that point, but as I am always greedy for every last little bit of flavor, I wanted to let it go as long as I could.  

That morning we had discussed the evening's dinner plans and Kathy let me know that yes, we still had leeks out in the garden.  They and some carrots were the last survivors of the year's garden.  Well yes, there was that giant ugly horseradish plant that I had insisted on buying, but it doesn't really count.  We've got buckets and buckets of home-grown potatoes so potato-leek soup was just the right thing.  Just the right thing because it seemed a perfect meal given the weather and just the right thing because that was what we had; potatoes, leeks and stock.

Potato-leek soup is such a simple joy, particularly if one doesn't mind peeling potatoes and cleaning leeks (I don't), because that's just about all the work that goes into making it.  Kathy was kind enough to brave the high winds and the mud to do the dirty work in the garden and together we uncovered one of our "winterized" water spigots and washed off ten nice leeks along with a dozen or so carrots she had rescued as well (more about the carrots later).

I split the leeks about 3/4 of the way up several times lengthwise and ran them under running water to get the grit and the mud out.  I diced them fairly small once they were clean and I had about a cup and a half of diced leeks when I was done.  I put the leeks in the cast iron dutch oven on a medium heat to get a bit of the water out and when the seemed to be dry I dropped in a nice chunk of butter along with some salt and pepper.

While the leeks were stewing to a sweet smelling transparency, I peeled eight medium sized red potatoes (we have yukons as well, but the reds go soft faster) and cut them into cubes.  When the leeks had gotten themselves into a nice gloppy green mass I stirred the potato chunks in and covered the whole thing half with stock and half with water and brought it to a boil.  That's pretty much all there was to it.  I let the potatoes completely turn to mush and then pureed the soup with a small immersion blender.  I add a bit of salt as the potatoes had sucked up a lot of it, as they are prone to doing, added a half cup or so of milk and it was ready.

I did let it sit and simmer for an hour or so on the lowest possible heat just to let the flavors do their "getting together" thing and adjust the salt and pepper right at the end.  We had nice steaming bowls of it along with some oldish but reheated La Brea roasted garlic bread and butter.  Warm, satisfying and yes, very very simple.  And no, the power never did go out

An addendum to this story is that today, two days later, we woke to 2-3 inches of snow.  The yard was covered, the cars were covered and still Kathy had to go to work for her final day before he Holiday break.  Since she was out in the weather I thought I would make something nice and warm for her to come home to, so I threw together a small batch of carrot-ginger soup.  We'd had the carrots and onions and the day before I had picked up a chunk of ginger about the size of my thumb, or maybe your thumb, at the store.

I followed pretty much the same process as for the potato-leek soup with the carrots.  I chopped one medium onion and grated about a teaspoon of garlic.  I stewed these very slowly in butter while I peeled and sliced the last survivors of our carrot crop.  I did stir in a teaspoon of brown sugar with the onion-ginger mix and cook it for a couple of minutes before I added the sliced carrots.  I stirred them so that they coated with the butter and then covered the vegetables with water.  Since the carrots have such a sweet delicate flavor I didn't want to overwhelm them with the predominant turkey flavor that the stock had come out with.

The soup cooked for about fifteen minutes, or until the carrots were quite tender and then, once again, I took the immersion blender to them.  Presto, a lovely fragrant carrot-ginger soup.  Don't tell Kathy, but I did adjust the salt level just  a tiny bit.  

So when the weather is nasty, keep it simple with your cooking.  You get more reading done that way.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Freezer Full of Fruit

A Freezer Full of Fruit; Ruminations on Smoothies and more...

Those of you who have been following me and this blog with any regularity (and Lord knows how, at this stage of our lives, we hate irregularity) might remember a little paean I wrote in my final days in Costa Rica to the ritual of my morning smoothie.  Ah yes, the passion fruit growing at my door, the locally made (by the Mennonites, yet) goat yogurt, any one of a  number of species of mango or papaya; oh they were smoothies to behold, rich and dreamy, fragrant and lush.  I would sit out on my back patio on those jungle mornings, smoothie mustache in place and glass in hand, and listen to the symphony of the tropical birds while I pondered what passed then for the absolute bliss of life.

Fast forward, and in reality, kind of a slow gentle forward, and here I am in the first week of my second October on the east side of the Willamette Valley.  If I walk 400 yards down the gravel road that passes in front of our house I can see the foothills of the Cascade Mountains.  Fate, Life and Love have brought me here and that's a good thing.  Something that has NOT changed is my morning desire for a fresh fruit smoothie, however.  Whereas in Costa Rica the changing of the seasons was not overtly reflected in the day to day availability of fruit here, in one of the richest farming valleys in the United States, the seasons rule.

Last winter, my first in Oregon, I made plans.  I was bound and determined not to have there be the slightest interruption in my precious morning ritual. I saw the amazing abundance of fruit that seems to become ripe all at the same time and all of it practically overnight and I wanted it all.  I bought fruit, mostly berries, flats of berries; raspberries, blueberries and blacks.  I bought a lug of peaches, I bought a lug of pears.

I froze my precious fruit in a mountain of ziplock bags.  I was certain that I would be ready for the cold barren winter and that while others were eating instant oatmeal I would be enjoying my fresh fruit smoothies; blackberries, blueberries, pears, peaches and the ubiquitous banana (for ballast) all winter long.  The trusty blender and I hummed together contentedly imagining the taste of summer in each glass.

The bitter, cold and angry truth was that I didn't even make it out of January.  I had grossly under-calculated the amount of fruit needed to make it through the winter and I was stuck with bananas and whatever the hell else I could cobble together for the next many months.  I used canned pears, really expensive store-bought frozen peaches and bags of frozen berries from the local farm stand store.  I felt defeated, but I had learned.

Fate would have it that sometime in early summer this year we inherited a stand-up freezer from the catering company where I work.  It went right into the shed; tall, clean, empty and waiting.  I knew what I had to do to fill it and I began to eye the berries covetously as they crept toward ripeness, the pears as the formed on the trees.

Let me stop here and digress, however briefly, about what it is for me that makes the best, the proper, the most satisfying smoothie.  Three, yes three fruits are required, and this is only in Chef Dave's World of course, for the perfect smoothie.  Two fruits, no matter the ripeness and quality fall short in filling out the palate of flavor a smoothie requires.  Four fruits or more merely muddle the mix.  No, three is the perfect number and one should be and is always, a banana.

The banana serves (as mentioned above) as valuable ballast.  I am of the school that believes, truly, that the only good banana is a ripe banana and so I buy them several days before the using.  I allow the natural sugars to develop because if I wanted a starchy smoothie, I'd just throw in a potato.  Granted, I was spoiled, ever so spoiled, by the bananas in Costa Rica but that is such a long and deep "other subject" that we won't go into it here.  Suffice to say that the banana forms the semi-neutral flavored "body" of the smoothie.

The medium notes of flavor seem to best come, at least in these parts, from sweeter and only mildly acidic fruits such as peaches or pears.  These take the part of the "mango/papaya" flavor in the middle body of the Oregon smoothie composition.  I had scarcely expected to find decent peaches here, but lo and behold they grow rather nicely and I availed myself to two twenty pound lugs of them.  They called them #2's at only $.50 the pound and oh my God what a deal.  I didn't require them to be unblemished, I required them to be sweet and flavorful and they were all of that. I remember smiling to myself as I stood over the kitchen sink peeling them and paring them into their zip-lock homes.

I had never considered the pear to be a good smoothie fruit, but then I had never been in place or time where I need to make such a consideration, either.  It turns out that the Bartlett pear for which Oregon is famous makes a seriously good middle flavor to sit on top of the banana.  It generously provides a lovely sweetness along with a hint, just the slightest hint of acid.  Again I waited until the peak of the season and again I scored two 20 pound boxes at a steal of a price.  I read online that one needs to pack pears into a syrup or to blanch them for freezing.  Malarkey!  I tossed them in the juice of a few lemons and they are solid and ivory white in their clear plastic homes in my tall stand-up freezer.

And lastly, but hardly leastly, the berries.  The Willamette Valley is home to what may be (and yes, I know I will get argument here, but I am prepared to face it) the best and broadest selection of berries in the US.  I could have bought examples of at least 15 kinds of berries to freeze, but I contented myself with the basics of the valley:  Raspberries, Blueberries, Marionberries (cheap and plentiful from the Russian family down the hill) and of course (see the previous post) the gloriously free Blackberries that grew ten minutes from my own front door.  And those berries in Oregon do exactly what the passion fruit in Costa Rica do for the smoothie; the lively acid squirts up between the ballast of the banana and the middle notes of peach/pear and sings, yes practically sings at the top of the palate.  It is the acid of a raspberry or the acid from the maracuya (passion fruit) that elevates my smoothie into a SMOOTHIE!!!

And so the freezer, that tall deep freezer is nearly filled with fruit.  I have managed, I hope and pray, to collect, process and freeze enough to tide me over until at least the early signs of summer.  Oh, I may cheat along the way; just this week I bought several pounds of local Bosc pears to use instead of raiding my supply, but I do believe that 3 flats of Raspberries, 25 pounds of Blueberries,  8 gallon ziplocks of Marionberries and another 8 gallons (plus 12 quart yogurt containers) of my own hand picked Blackberries will be enough.  Nancy's of Springfield provides the yogurt and the store bought bananas, as long as I stay ahead, will be as sweet as they can get here stateside.  The blender is Kathy's mother's Osterizer from the 50's and it should purr and hum and blend and grind forever.  Bring on the winter.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Blackberry Sunday

It is Sunday, September the 16th, the first day of the second half of September and one of the last five days left this summer.  The sun is bright, the air is warm but "fallish" and it is the perfect day to grab my heavy wool shirt, ask Molly the Moo if she'd like to "go for a walk", and stroll down the dirt road that runs in front of our ridgetop house.

At the end of this particular straightaway the road itself bears right, but Molly and I know to go to our left, through the yellow gate and onto the logging road.  That's where the blackberry bushes are.  It is also where there is a spectacular view of the first slopes of the Cascades.  And it is where we are completely alone.

It's an odd and wonderful feeling to stroll past densely packed bush by densely packed bush and to think that no one else comes here to pick, to revel in, to be AMAZED by, all these perfect blackberries, not to mention the view.  And maybe that's good.  It seems a waste, but then each time I come down here with Molly I know exactly where the biggest ripest berries will be because they will be right where I left them.

 I have filled quart yogurt jars, gallon zip-lock bags and even a blue plastic dishpan with blackberries here and never seen a soul.  I have seen deer and Molly has had her chase at them.  The bees buzz around me in warning, but we co-exist. We think we've heard the bear huffing and snuffing, but haven't encountered him yet.  We can hear the cars crunch by on the gravel a couple of hundred yards away, but other blackberry pickers?  Never.

I always have a song in my head and today while I pluck the ripest and fattest of the shiny berries from the thorny vines I sing snatches of the Byrds' version of Bob Dylan's You Ain't Goin' Nowhere.  The buzzing of the bees and the sound of the thorns catching at the sleeves of my heavy shirt are all I hear as I half hum-half sing, "...gate won't close the railings froze...".  Later, as I wander a little farther down the weedy logging road I find that I have morphed into Bob Will's "Stay a Little Longer; "pull off your coat throw it in the corner, don't know why you don't stay a little longer..."

I'm wistful today, from the changing of the season as shown to me by the ripeness of the berries, I suppose.  Some are so ripe they fall from the vines when I pick the ones next to them, while others are withering and drying.  The fattest of the berries are plump and full of flavor and juice, nearly collapsing into themselves as I drop them into my bag.  This spot, this splendid isolated smidgen of paradise may not be here next year in this secluded form.  I can see the blue and orange plastic ties of the lumber company on some of the bushes and Kathy has mentioned that this area may be cut in the coming year.

I wander from patch to patch, smiling at how the size of the fruit and even the temperature of the berries changes from bush to bush, and from one side of the road to the other.  I don't linger at any one bush, but meander past all of them, "berry picking" only the fattest and ripest.  After all, they ARE all mine.  I have learned, from Kathy's advice, to wander around the sides of the bushes and behind them, to find secret stashes of berries that catch a perfect morning or afternoon sun.

This is my time, Molly's time.  We have no schedule, just a plastic bag to fill, or not fill.  Molly sniffs and wanders, never quite sure why we need to come to this particular spot, but happy to get to go.  Just the going is so important to her.  To me, it's the solitude, the quiet, watching the subtle changes even in the berries.  I love to stretch for branches just out of my reach and to step down on the vines that protect the inner fruit.  I could wear long pants and get farther in, but why?  It seems enough of a concession to wear the long sleeves.

I work my way down one side in the shade and back on the other in the sun (but not religiously, sometimes veering and varying).  The shirt is getting warm and the bag has a little tiny leak from catching on the thorns.  Molly walks ahead a bit and comes back, walks ahead and comes back.  She's getting bored, but I am lingering just a bit.  Will this be the last visit this year?  I know I need to come back, but schedules, work, life, all those things get in the way.  I have today, I have my songs, I have my berries.  I think we'll go home.

Wednesday May 13, 2009 La Cusinga and Me

This words below are from our website describing La Cusinga.  The story, however is much deeper and much richer than these introductory words can describe.  La Cusinga represents a noble and successful effort to preserve this section of unspoiled coast and to keep it alive as a model of what true ecology can accomplish.  The dreams and visions of John Tresemer, the owner of La Cusinga and the Finca Tres Hermanas that surrounds it, have been realized here in what is a true example for all who would preserve and protect what remains of this, or any natural wonder. 

La Cusinga 
La Cusinga Lodge is a coastal rainforest eco lodge dedicated to marine and terrestrial conservation and environmental education. Its location on the southern Pacific coast provides guests with sweeping ocean views and a relaxing beach vacation. In addition La Cusinga is part of a private nature reserve that supplies the visitor with an unparalleled look at Costa Rican wildlife and rainforest. The reserve consists primarily of 250 hectares of virgin rainforest that borders thousands of more acres of privately protected forest. On Costa Rica’s still wild south-western Pacific coast, La Cusinga Lodge borders Ballena Marine National Park which was developed to protect the humpback whales that frequent the coast. La Cusinga Lodge was established in order to share the unique site with Costa Ricans as well as international visitors. Besides getting exposure to rural Costa Rican culture and beautiful vistas, visitors have access to highly prolific areas of primary tropical rainforest and unspoiled coast, all conveniently accessible. 

i returned to La Cusinga this past January, 2009, with a dream in mind.  I wanted to create a cuisine for our guests that would bridge the gap between what La Cusinga offered physically and spiritually, and what they were putting in their bodies when they ate here.  I knew from having previously lived in Costa Rica for over two years that there were organic farmers and that sustainable agriculture was being practiced, but at that time it had been limited in its scope as well as its distribution.  

My first steps upon returning were toward the local Feria to seek out and communicate my ideas with the growers and vendors who could provide me with a local, organic and sustainable product.  The fertile valleys of San Isidro that lie over the coastal mountains and to the Northeast of our Pacific location are rich and productive but are only now exploring the potential that they hold.  

I had in mind a vision that would support local farmers, fishermen and food artisans and one that would recreate (or perhaps, create) a new cuisine of Coastal Costa Rica.  I visit the markets each week to talk with growers and to develop the  relationships that I believe will be mutually beneficial as Costa Rica experiences its rapid growth on an international level
Organic farming is a new and not heavily supported concept in our part of Costa Rica.  It is a brave step for farmers to make, as local communities of both growers and consumers have never placed, or not known to place, an importance on farming organically and sustainably.  I feel a responsibility as a Chef here to be at the forefront of those encouraging and supporting these pioneers  

I came to La Cusinga almost three years ago not knowing what to expect.  My first time through here was characterized by a lack of understanding and appreciation on my part as well as an inability to recognize or connect with the local "flavor" that would make for a coherent package for out guests.  I now feel as if I have made a "connect" with the property and the vision.  I am not completely satisfied and hopefully, never will be, until we are able to produce, right here at La Cusinga, the greater share of the produce we serve.  However, the groundwork has been laid with local farmers and the availability and quality of organic produce is impressive.

Now at La Cusinga I serve a variety of organic lettuces and braising greens.  My salads include wedges or slices of rich red tomatoes as well as sweet !00 and yellow pear cherry tomatoes.  I roast organic beets and marinate them in balsamic vinegar to be served alongside the lettuces and topped with a locally made organic goat cheese.

My soups are made from roasted and steamed local organic vegetables and tiny organic yellow creamer potatoes have found their way onto my plates, nestled against filets of locally caught fish.
I am now using a local organic cocoa powder that still contains the nuggets of cocoa butter unlike the fined cocoa powder in the markets.

And better still, I am able to use palmito (hearts of palm), ginger, cilantro and its sawtooth leafed cousin culantro coyote, mangoes, hot and sweet chiles, mandarina limes and yucca root from our own Finca Tres Hermanas to serve in my dining room at La Cusinga.   The connection from jungle and farm to table is evolving.  May it continue to grow.