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Archive by Year:

2005

2006

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011


2009 Recipes by month:

January

Lentil and Artichoke Salad

Mozzarella En Carrozza

February

Recipes from the Super Bowl segment on The Today Show

March

Casbah Pistachio Strudel

Candy Bar at Eleven

Mexican Chocolate Torte

Vietnamese Coffee Crème Brûlée

April

Kaya Fish Tacos

May

No recipes

June

Kaya Black Bean Dip

July

Rosemary-Grilled Chicken and Pork Loin

Watermelon Mojitiniita-thing

August

Thyme-Chili rubbed Sea Scallop, Fritter, Corn Cream and Pancetta

September

Bill’s Canned Tomato Sauce
Rapid-fire Peach Jam

October

Indonesian Corn Fritter and Sauce

Short Rib Buns

November

Casbah Short Rib Ravioli

December

Duck Entrée

 

If you want to point out grammatical errors, typos, and blatant omissions, or if you’d just like to drop me a note and say hello, or if you want to throw out an idea for a future column so I don’t have to sit around and scratch my head for a week, or if you actually cook a recipe and want to say how it came out, me. I would love to hear from everyone.

Maybe if your e-mail is offensive enough, we’ll put it up here.

Recommend eat.big to a friend

The online archive of big Burrito Corporate Chef Bill Fuller's recipes and essays from 2009

January

2009: To tighten the belt, or loosen it?

Waking up in the New Year, I feel heavy and full from the great, home-cooked foods that closed out my year. Christmas dinner of prime rib, ham, my own favorite recipe for potato gratin, and chocolate chip cookies. To start the New Year, pork shoulder and trotters that I’d rubbed with salt, thyme, and pepper and slow roasted for fourteen hours with home-made bacon and sour kraut. And to cure the hangover, stuffed cabbage, ajvar, roast pork with hot paprika and raw onions, and home-crafted plum brandy all made by the visiting Serbian parents of a friend of mine. Wow! Love it.

Of course, I suffer the same after-effects of 2008 as everyone else. The immediate - extended hangover, ten pounds gained and the absence at the gym to correct, the longer term - balancing the bank statements and credit cards, and the longest term – the question of what will this next year bring to us and our families? A new president, a new economy, and a new way to fret about the future. We all just lived through a year filled with once in a lifetime events, can there be more to come? What else can happen? After the tough year we saw, what if there is a worse one to come?

Of course, there is nothing we can do about the big things. Make sure we are conservative with our resources, pay close attention to the news and what it all means, and try to love the people around us a little more, giving more latitude for their failings while remembering that we are here together, stuck with each other, and need each other to get along.

So I guess that in typing out the above, I’ve outlined my resolutions to myself. I hadn’t really formally made any, usually don’t as I really dig the vices that I have, but have been thinking a lot about how to live in 2009. So, what I think I have formalized is this:

1. To make the spaces around me warmer and friendlier. Soften a word, extend a thanks, offer a taste.
2. To try to bring everyone more comfort and happiness. Feed the spirit with good words, feed the belly with good food.
3. Finally, to let everyone know how much they mean to me, how important the beautiful web of friends, relatives, customers, vendors, farmers, and trades people (most serving in at least a couple of these capacities) is to my life. Thank you everyone for making this world we share such a pleasant one.

I wish everyone out there in BurritoSphere a great New Year. Be strong through the tough times that might come. Love deeply the sweet moments of joy and happiness. And remember, we are all in this together and need to love one another no matter what, so buy a drink for the guy next to you at the bar and let that young mother have the prime parking spot.

Happy New Year! May we all have a good one together.

A couple of simple recipes that make a really good, simple, and affordable dinner. The Mozzarella en Carrozza is my own interpretation of a dish I made thousands of times at the Occidental Grill in Washington, DC some 22 years ago. (Thank you to Jeff Bubin, my culinary father and a incredible, if stern, teacher.) I drag it out once in awhile when I want to really feel warm and fuzzy about the two and half decades I have spent cooking professionally. It goes well with the Lentil and Artichoke Salad, a dish I put together to take to a pot luck a few weeks ago, MacGyver-ing it on the fly from what I had in the house.

Lentil and Artichoke Salad

Mozzarella En Carrozza

And you can see me make these dishes here and here.

February

There they went, Fullers, there they went

January 22, 2009 - 11:25 AM – Receive message from Ryan Burke, GM of Soba, that I am to call the producer of the Today Show because they want to feature a Pittsburgh chef – me – and an Arizona Chef – Beau Macmillan from Sanctuary on Camelback in Scottsdale – in a Super Bowl cook off. I don’t believe him. He is strident that it is not a practical joke.

January 22, 2009 - 11:27 AM – Leave message for Debbie, Producer on the Today Show.

January 22, 2009 – 12:06 PM - Miss return call from Debbie. Call her back. She asks me to call back in half an hour. Google the name to see if she is a real person. She is. So, if it is a hoax, it is a conspiracy with someone with a NYC phone number.

January 22, 2009 – 12:36 PM – Yes, I waited until the exact minute. Call Debbie back, get some details. They would like us to present foods indigenous to our regions and specific to tailgating and Super Bowl parties. She refers me to Michelle, the Producer of the segment. Debbie thanks me, says that she will forward my info to Michelle who will call me back.

January 22, 2009 – 1:00 PM – Call Madeline, who recommended me to the Today Show, and thank her endlessly.

January 22, 2009 until January 24, 2009 – I watch my phone, hoping to receive a call from a 201 area code. No call, is it a joke by Ryan? Probably not, I still worry. I also fret about the menu for my spot, asking everyone around me what I should make. Do I chef it up, making fancy versions of kielbasa and kraut and hot sausage? Do I go low brow, stop by Parma and Pierogies Plus, get down and dirty and authentic? Should I shave the playoff beard and cut the hair?

January 24, 2009 5:19 PM –Follow-up call to Michelle, afraid that the whole thing is a hoax. Leave message, certain the whole thing is a hoax.

January 24, 2009 5:21 – Michelle calls back, exuberant and excited. We discuss the segment, she fills me in on all the details, asks me for the menu. I stammer, say that I am working on it, will get back to her.

January 24, 2009 7:49 PM – Wise counsel suggests I go Pittsburgh, dwell on the traditional, have fun. Don’t chef it up too much. But give it a little big Burrito love. Dither about appearance and menu for three days with everyone in my vicinity.

January 27, approximately 7:30 PM – Shave beard. Kids tell me I look like the scientist from Back to the Future. Decide to cut my hair first thing in the morning.

January 28, 2009 – 6:50 AM - send Michelle the following menu:

Kielbasa and Kraut
Big Eleven Burgers
Black truffle Pierogies in Soft onions and Butter
Chick Pea Chili with Applewood Bacon and Root Vegetables
Mad Mex Chips, Guacamole (tomatillo style), Fire-roasted Tomato Salsa
Gobs made by Vanilla Pastry Studios
Hooch
Iron City Beer in 16 oz. can
Penn Pilsner
Troegs Nugget Nectar Beer
Herradura Anejo Tequila
Wild Turkey 101

They love it but ask that I drop the Kielbasa, third beer, and tequila. Sure. There is a 4 PM rehearsal on Thursday, the segment goes live between 10 and 11 AM Friday.

January 28, 2009 – 11:00 AM – Cut hair.

January 29, 2009 – 7:30 AM – Load car with ingredients, Steeler swag, kids and wife. Hit the road in a sheeting ice storm headed for New York City.

January 29, 2009 – 3:00 PM – Arrive at hotel, check in and deposit exhausted family. Head over to studio.

January 29, 2009 – 4 to 6 PM – Fun rehearsal with the crew. They have the whole segment mapped out and walk me through each action I will take to finish the Eleven burger on camera. Their comprehensive appreciation of every small point relaxes me.

January 30, 2009 – 7:30 AM - After a mostly sleepless night of anxiety dreams (In one I appeared at the studios in the middle of the segment wearing my work out clothes. I tried to quickly get my burger together but was dismissed on camera by Kathy Lee Gifford.) I arrive at the studios. The team there is all over it. The two cooking assistants help me prep, Bianca the food stylist makes decisions how things should look, the set designer places everything.

January 30, 2009 – 9:30 AM – The tempo of activity increases dramatically. Cameramen appear in the studio, Beau and myself work to finish details of our food. It reminds me slightly of the moment during labor when everyone knows that it is time to get going and the OB rolls in. I am ready to go, nervous as hell.

January 30, 2009 10:08 AM – First tease. Beau and I make a show of flipping a coin to see who goes first. I get to start.

January 30, 2009 10:38 AM – I am worried that the burgers for the demo won’t have enough time to finish. I try to start them on the griddle, but Bianca stops me so we can shoot another tease, this one of Beau and me facing off saucing our other dishes. Bianca says there will be enough time before our 10:48 segment to get them ready. At this point, I believe everything Bianca tells me.

10:46 AM – Kathy Lee and Hota join us in the studio. We are introduced around. Hota, a big Steelers fan and former resident of Morgantown, is paired with me.

10:48 AM - The previous segment runs over. I watch the seconds tick by on the camera clock.

10:49:20 AM – The commercial lead in to our segment runs. It is a Slim-Fast ad. Kathy Lee makes a big joke about it being the lead in as we are about to eat a bunch of tailgate food. I totally relax, and the segment starts.

Here is the video.

We have a ball on TV. The hosts are fun and friendly and we joke around like friends. Beau and I raz each other. My part is timed out perfectly closing on the 90 seconds I was allotted. Beau does a great job too.

After the segment, my wife and kids come onto the set. Kathy Lee asks them to join us for the final shot of the show. They do and stand politely while the hosts wrap things up.

Afterwards, the hosts and crew and guests hang around the studio for an impromptu lunch cocktail party. We eat the food, chat, relax. I am amazed by how personable the whole team is, how friendly and professional. What a nice bunch of people.

I spend the rest of the day enjoying New York while fielding endless texts and e-mails of congratulations. Thank you Pittsburgh for all the support.

And thank you Steelers, for making it Sixburgh.

Recipes from the Super Bowl segment on The Today Show (PDF)

March

You can't run from dessert

I am going to run the half marathon on May 3. I am not a ‘runner’, have never run in a long race, and sure don’t have a runner’s physique. But since I have been trying to get in/stay in shape more over the last two years than I have in about twenty years, the idea when suggested to me by a friend at the beginning of the year, seemed like a great idea. What a good way to stay focused on being fit, keep cigarettes out of my mouth, and work towards a new and different goal – one of personal, physical achievement.

Sounded great. And since I have run ten miles once before, I know that I can train up to this goal. All I have to do is be strong enough to do ten and I’ll finish the last three on stubborn meanness. That, and squeeze time out of my schedule to do it. Mary (wife) suggested, “Why don’t you get up early in the morning and run before getting the kids off to school? That way, it won’t interfere with work or family time.” So if you think you hear an asthmatic musk ox lumbering through Highland Park somewhere around dawn, relax and hit the snooze button. It’s just me.

So I got a schedule worked out to get me from a couple of treadmill miles a week up to a road-hardened pavement-eating distance runner by the end of April. Gradual increases in distance each week, three runs during the week with a long run on Sunday, cross training workouts on the not-running days, one day off to let my body heal a little. I built a spreadsheet that showed actual vs. projected miles, cumulative miles for the week, and total miles run during the training period (actual vs. projected of course) and it looked doable.

Halfway in, it still looks doable. I am almost two miles ahead in the total miles, but lost a couple of miles last week when I was slowed down by a little over-training the previous week and some long kitchen hours on my feet. My pace is slow, but fast enough to finish under the allotted three hours, and improving. The legs are getting stronger, the heart is keeping up, and the lungs haven’t been this clean since high school.

But one of the best parts is the calories. I figure I am easily burning 4,000 to 5,000 extra calories a week directly due to the running. Additionally, I believe that my heightened metabolism is burning another few thousands. One of the ways I am filling that caloric void is massive sugar and fat intake. I am so excited that, after caging the sugar beast for the last few years, I get to rip into creme brulee like a rabid sea otter. Eat ice cream right before bed! Suck down an entire box of Girl Scout cookies with the excuse that “I’ll burn it off in the morning” as flakes of cocoanut fly out of my mouth! Such joyous, guiltless decadence! Truly, more than HGH, Viagra, or a supermodel mistress, this release into total caloric freedom is the fountain of youth! (Not that I’ve tried any of those first three, mind you.)

As part of this new-found freedom, I am letting myself indulge in desserts a little more at the restaurants. Rather than just a taste or a nibble, I am eating the whole thing. And further, I thought I’d share a few recipes with you.

Julie’s Casbah Pistachio Strudel is the current form of our ever-evolving baklava-type dessert. Nutty, caramelly, with white truffle ice cream. Erika’s Candy Bar at Eleven combines salty pretzel cookies with sweet milk chocolate and caramel pastry crèmes, and peanut brittle. For deep chocolate, Danielle’s Mexican Chocolate Torte at Kaya. And Shelby’s Vietnamese Coffee Crème Brûlée from Soba.

Like visiting the confectionary Heff Mansion. Wow. Desserts Next Door.

It vexes me, though, that I have not lost one pound of weight since beginning my training two months ago.

April

I would gladly pay you Tuesday…

First, an update. Thanks for all the kind words (and even the occasional sarcasm) about the race training. Things are moving apace (with the exception of this week, during which I am resting the legs. Got a little issue with the knee, need to get back to the point where I can run again) and I am pretty confident that I can finish, and in a vertical orientation. I am still eating my face off. It excites me to no end that the long runs (11 miles) work out to almost 2000 calories with the right mix of hills. Makes me want to go knock out a few miles right now and get a rack of ribs from Big Mama’s with a couple of extra sides.

On to this month’s column.

I have to admit that my head has been completely wrapped up in burgers and tacos lately. Every food blog, every trade journal, every website seem to be filled with articles about some burger joint or taco stand.

I dream of living in a world with the like of the pair of Korean taco carts in LA that communicate their ever-changing positions via Twitter. To console my 3000-mile-away-self, I scarf down a Kaya Burger - subbing the veggie patty for the beef for all the flavor with less guilt knowing full well that the sunny-up egg, avocado, spicy sauce, and bacon will dwarf any fat savings of the veggie substitution. While I eat, I can read my all-time favorite food blog, Serious Eats, and its sibling blog, A Hamburger Today, that reviews burgers from all around the US. They feature new burger places EVERY DAY. With plate pictures, bite-away shots, deconstructions, pictures of piles and piles of fries. Pure burger porn.

Sometimes I sneak off to Pittsburgh’s non-Burrito taquerias for a little lengua, al carbon, and chorizo. I hide in the booth, camouflaging myself in a group of drinking, loud taco-eaters or in deep disguise as Family Man Out for Mexican Food With the Kids. I indulge, ordering five or more different tacos. Days later, fraught with guilt, I hit the Mexes for our tacos, noting how much bigger and fuller they are than any silly little Mexican taco dalliance.

I meditate upon the idea of tortillas made fresh every day, sesame vs. non-sesame buns, fat percentages in ground beef, steak grilling and slicing methods for the average Mad Mex cook, and is fried or grilled better for fish tacos. On this last subject, I would enjoy any and all feedback you, the interested reader, would care to give by email or or Twitter.

I schedule my Eleven burger indulgences, stretching out the time between each multi-meat protein onslaught. It has been a month or so, I’m probably ready for another, I hear it calling. Mad Mex Tofu Tacos would be a good follow up, that ever-healthy tofu – deep fried and tossed in a little ponzu (soy sauce and citrus – more of that soy there) and put on a tortilla with bean sprouts and avocado. That balances things, keeping my chi square.

Tacos and Burgers. Burgers and tacos. I love them all. If I could only work out how to figure them into the lexicon at Soba and Casbah, my world would be divine.

Kaya Fish Tacos

Dogfish Head Aprihop Beer

Note: There are certain foods that I refer to as “eating over the garbage can” foods. The action of eating over a garbage can comes from the fact that chefs eat most food standing up, and particularly messy items are best consumed over a trash can where the mess on one’s self, the work station, and the floor will be minimized. The proper pose is bent at the waist about 45 degrees over the garbage, holding the food item as perpendicular to the face as possible os one bites down. Often, the pose is accompanied by an extra dip below the 45 degree angle with a fanning out of the hands as the food item explodes during the bite. The dip is to drive the explosion towards the garbage can, hand spreading to keep the greasy/sticky/creamy/gooey mess off the one remaining clean finger of each hand.

Kaya Fish Tacos fall into this category.

May

Eating Vegas

I had the fortune last week to be invited to Las Vegas to attend the United Fresh convention. United Fresh is a national organization of distributors, wholesalers, and producers that work together to promote their product - fresh produce. I was one of five chefs invited to participate. We were selected due to our commitment to featuring great produce on our menus. It was exciting to meet growers and distributors from around the US and Mexico and talk about produce. I learned a lot, shared a little, and had a great time.

Of course, a visit to Las Vegas conjures up seedy indulgences and smoky casinos. While they are always available, the real fun for me in Vegas is dining. There is everything and anything to eat.

Watching the flood of people headed to Las Vegas to gamble and spend, the hotel owners came to the realization that some of them probably want to be fed better than “$9.99 All The Cheap Steak You Can Eat!” buffets. So they dialed up celebrity chefs from around the country and asked them to bring some magic to the hungry, sun burnt masses. And the chefs came, and the lobby of each over-marbled faux Italian giant hotel was quickly ringed with copies or derivatives of their great restaurants in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Las Angeles.

These restaurants are staffed with seasoned veterans of their home restaurants following recipes and procedures laid down by the Masters, and the celebrity chefs make as many appearances as they deem necessary, and perfectly good copies of the originals are produced. Is the magic there, the perfection that a world class chef demands from his teams? Occasionally yes, often, not so much. I have dined at a few, and the result is usually “Really good, but not amazing.”

But this visit, I was lucky to dine in one of the newest Celebrity Chef ventures there, Restaurant Charlie by Charlie Trotter. Minimalist and sleek without being dark, the restaurant is two parts of a whole. The formal dining room, Restaurant Charlie, mimics the original Charlie Trotters in Chicago - tiny portions in extended tasting menus featuring resonant tastes of perfect ingredients. Bar Charlie, a Trotter-inflected sushi bar, is a slightly less expensive demonstration of the skill, intelligence, restraint, and pursuit of purity that are the Charlie Trotter trademarks. I sat in the dining room for an elaborate ten course tasting menu accompanied by wine pairings that I can only describe as brilliant. Each presentation fascinated the eye and the tongue and resounded with excellent craftsman ship.

But also, the growth of Vegas attracted immigrants to build the hotels and deal the cards and clean the rooms and bus the tables. Many of these immigrants came East, from the California coast and beyond, and build thriving communities where Korean is heard more than English and pho is as easy to get as a burger. It is into these areas that the truly passionate go to discover great food. And this is where the two best restaurants of Vegas are located.

Lotus of Siam is a Thai restaurant. It has fluorescent lighting that is too bright, inexpensive Thai decorations, a bustling dining room staffed by smiling Thais, and menus slipped into plastic page protectors. With a check cashing store on one side and a convenience store in another, it seems unlikely to be much more than a stereotypical American Thai restaurant. But the first hint that something is different is the presence of multiple pages of excellent, affordable Alsatian style wines. And when the food comes, you know. This is the best Thai food I have ever had. Ever. This includes very good food I have had from Pittsburgh to Phuket Town, Thailand. Ever. One of my favorites is the Issan-style dip – roasted chilis pounded with lime, fish sauce, dark sugar and ground pork and served with sliced vegetables and fried pork rinds to dip. But every dish I tasted there rang with great flavor.

Raku, another strip mall denizen, is a Japanese Charcoal Grill. It features grilled dishes, of course, soups and stews, and small appetizers. I sat down to a ten course tasting menu to experience one of the best meals in recent memory. Great flavors and texture combinations thoughtfully assembled and masterfully executed. Smooth friendly service. Comfort and precision simultaneously. If you want, you can see a thorough description of the dinner here: http://hungryfuller.blogspot.com/

When you go there, check out a really expensive fancy Celebrity Chef restaurant. You’ll be pleased and maybe blown away. Then don’t eat another meal within a half a mile of the Strip, and dig into the local food culture. There is a lot there to try. I just scratched it.

Next time I go, I’m going taco hunting.

Bill

June

If you love something...

The honeysuckle is in full bloom, as are the blackberry blossoms. This is the scent of first blush of summer in Western Pennsylvania.  This is one of the scent memories that brought me back here.  It is the time that we really, finally, break the last tiny grasp of winter and roll strong into summer.  It marks the transition from the busy tumult of Spring into the lazier (slightly) Summer.

It has truly been a Spring of celebrations and you have invited me and big Burrito to seemingly all your events. Pittsburgh, you and I have spent Easter brunch together at Casbah, your daughter’s wedding at Phipps, your nephew’s birthday at the Warhol, the graduation of your brother at Eleven, your promotion at Soba, and the simple glory of drinking in the street at Kaya. We grabbed coffee before the Marathon together, and had lunch with friends after the Race for the Cure. We sipped margaritas over the pig on Cinco de Mayo, mimosas on the patio on Mother’s Day, and martinis in the Eleven Bar during hockey playoffs. You’ve invited me to your Mitzvahs, your fundraisers, and your dinner parties.

For this exciting, albeit hectic and sometimes daunting, season of fun, I just wanted to say thank you. Thanks for having us there, or coming to us, and Thanks for making us a part of your life. I look forward to spending the summer together, at a cook out, on Father’s Day, or as a send off when you head out to your first year of college (or kindergarten). I look forward to Arts Fest in State College and Labor Day back at Kaya. Oh yeah, look forward to that.

As a very small token of my appreciation, I am going to offer the most requested big Burrito recipe, the Kaya Black Bean Dip, to the world. Not only will it be sent out now, with this newsletter, but will have permanent enshrinement on our website here.

Dip in good health. See you at your next party, Pittsburgh!

July

Beach Blanket Bill

Just got back from my morning kayak in the ocean. I took one of the kids out to follow the dolphins as they did their morning run up the coast. They are faster than us, when they choose, so we had to paddle hard to keep up. No matter how many times I see them, their quiet aquatic power entrances me. Slickly arising from the water in synchronized series of three four and five fins, they lured us up the beach, further offshore. When we thought we’d pulled even and hoped they would arch out of the ocean next to the boat, they’d rise twenty feet away. We’d paddle on, to that spot, or a spot ahead of that spot where I was sure they’d arise. And they’d come up to the left, slightly behind us. Or another pair would surprise us to the right with their exhalations as they broke the surface. I know that they like to tease us, to work our arms limp while they pump easily ahead, a single muscled thrust through the water. At about a mile out, we broke off and headed back to shore.

I am at the beach for my annual vacation. I love it here. We rent a house and some ocean kayaks, load the car, and chill out. We plan little to no activities, preferring to ease into the relaxed tempo of breakfast – beach – lunch – beach – dinner – cards or games or bikes – bed – adult time – adult bed. It makes for a full day, if you can get slow enough. It always takes me some time to wind down (here I am half way through this week following up on e-mails and writing this column) and fall into the rhythm. Kayaking on the ocean is one way I work my mind loose. The other is cooking for the group of friends and family at the beach house.

So I send back with this column, and my gentle thoughts of waves and dolphins, a nice beach meal I cooked. The rosemary was liberated from the yard of some rental property here (sorry whoever), the chicken and pork I brought from home (thanks Pete from Heritage farms), and the tomatoes and other produce are almost local to here (trucked up from South Carolina). The whole dried anchos and rosemary sprigs on the coals give the meat a wild, smoked flavor.

Hope you all get some time to relax this summer.

Rosemary-Grilled Chicken and Pork Loin

Watermelon Mojitiniita-thing

August

My Summer Work-cation

or How I Really Can’t Complain About My Life

bill on a beachIt isn’t often that I get invited to cook at wine and food festivals. In fact, I have never been invited to cook at any food and wine festivals outside Southwest Pennsylvania. And only one there. So when I was invited to be one of seven guest chefs cooking at the second annual British Virgin Islands Winemaker Dinner Series, I accepted. The dinner series would span five days beginning with a cocktail reception on Wednesday night where the winemakers and chefs would be introduced followed by four seven-course tasting menus, each at a different island. Proceeds would benefit local charities. I was recommended by Guana Island, the location of the Saturday night dinner for 100 people, and invited to stay there. The hosts would procure ingredients and have them at each location where there would be assistants to help us finish the preparations. The event would be promoted in major food magazines and it would be an excellent opportunity to meet other chefs, big-time foodies, and winemakers from around the world.

I envisioned a week in the tropics, blue water and white sand, spending the mornings and early afternoons on an amazing private island with the kids, heading to some other amazing private island’s restaurant kitchen to oversee final preparations of that night’s dinner, tasting some great wines and chatting up the beautiful people, and finally cruising home washed by gentle ocean breezes for a nightcap with my tanned and sleepy wife. I’d make some connections, catch some rays, and relax with a bit of cheffing mixed in while the folks back home thought I was “working”.

Four things I learned:

1. I can still be a naïve rookie.
2. It feels great when the French guy likes your food.
3. The harder it is, the better it is.
4. I really love to cook, especially under challenging conditions.

As I got into the planning, the organizer, Vikram Garg, Executive Chef at Halekulani Resort, Honolulu and a complete blast, warned us that facilities might not be quite what we are used to. “Fine.” I told myself, “The facilities are not what HE is used to, chef at a big resort, but will be completely adequate for me, used to little restaurant kitchens.” I planned multiple step preparations with difficult to acquire ingredients (I assumed that the islands have the same well-developed and immediate supply chains to which I am used). And lots of ala minute finishing. For the dishes. The only course I planned to be easy was my Cheese course for Sunday night.

The reality of it was that each night we were cooking from a kitchen in a home on a private island. Each home was fantastic and the kitchens well-appointed and designed for entertaining large parties, but in no way equipped or staffed to serve seven courses to between 70 and 110 guests. Transportation to and from each island was questionable and took a longer time than I ever would have imagined, ingredients were sometimes perfect, sometimes spotty, and it was really hot there.

I arrived late Monday evening. The trip consisted of the dawn hour drive to the airport, three planes interspersed with three-hour layovers in lovely Newark and San Juan airports, a taxi, and a boat ride. The sky was lovely at night and the air sweet. When we were met by people from Guana Island as we passed through customs, a lot of my misgivings eased. (The Guana crew was amazing, one of the best parts of the trip. Smiling, truly friendly, charming, and funny, they made the trip work.)

island funTuesday was spent shopping on Tortola, the main island, with Linus, Guana’s Chef. We had to prepare the hors d’oeuvres for the dinner on Saturday and that would be our only opportunity. We stopped at a dozen or so stores, trying to acquire the proper ingredients to make sushi maki. I met a bunch of island chefs and store owners, and was amazed that the texture of the shopping experience was not dissimilar to a morning spent bouncing up and down the strip. Linus is a reserved and quiet man but we finally connected over passion fruits. As we dug through a bin of passion fruit at one supermarket, he talked to me about picking exactly the correct ones, colored red (but not always) and just beginning to dimple. He broke a couple open with his thumb to show me the different levels of ripeness then buried the broken fruits in the bin.

Wednesday was spent travelling to Virgin Gorda to acquire my ingredients. After I prepped some items for Saturday in the morning at the Guana kitchen, I set off to Virgin Gorda. The reception would be on Virgin Gorda Wednesday night, and my food was on Virgin Gorda, and it would take too long to go there, get ingredients, and return for the event, so I needed to get there (two boat rides) get to the supplier to acquire and pack the food into coolers, travel to the site for the event, store my mise en place in refrigeration until the end of the event, catch a cab back to the dock (coolers in tow), and return to Guana (two boat rides). I realized for the first time how many unfamiliar moving parts each day would present to me. I won’t say I was frightened, that would be too strong a word, but the realization on my dependence upon unfamiliar people in a hot alien milieu, with perishable products and a responsibility to do a good job began to weigh on my mind.

The first night was at the Sugar Mill on Virgin Gorda. It was a well-done, beautiful reception outside. The hors d’oeuvres were done by local chefs and were delicious. My favorites were salt fish and fritters, conch salad, and a spicy salt fish canapé. We were introduced, speeches were made in what I was to learn was classic West Indian fashion and would occur every night, and I met the chefs, the wine makers, some press, and a lot of beautiful people. I had conquered the ingredient gathering and hadn’t sweated too much. The process was moving and there was no disaster yet.

Thursday, the work began. Thursday’s dinner was on Necker Island, private island of Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Record fame. The day began with what would be a regular series of events – clean and pack the cooler, haul it to the dock, take two or three boats, haul the cooler to the kitchen of the event, and begin cooking. Necker Island was beautiful, Branson’s house incredible, and the chef helpful. The facilities there were the best we’d see for the week, a restaurant-style kitchen with AIR CONDITIONING! Accompanying me this day was Guana’s Sous Chef, a cheerful man passionate about food and eating. We prepped our course, Tuna Tartar with Pineapple Hoisin, Yuca Chip and Snapper Ceviche with Lettuce, Lime, Kaffir Lime, Herbs, Crisp Corn, and helped others get ready. Before dinner, we played a quick game of Chef Beach Volleyball (embarrassing at best), and tasted some of the wines. We worked a smooth service, cleaned up, packed our stuff and headed to the docks. It was near midnight, the ocean breezes were blowing, I was thinking about bed and a night cap.

The boat was too full, we’d have to wait for the next one. That meant an hour over and an hour back. Ugh. We moped awhile until we came to the only obvious conclusion – raid Sir Richard Branson’s pool bar. So for the next two hours, we liberated gin and tequila, and waited. The boat came, we helped load all the plates for the next day’s dinner at Peter Island. Somewhere around 3 AM, I was in bed.

The next day was Peter Island. To arrive by 1 PM, I’d have to leave by 11 AM. Because of logistics, I had to travel at this time. I got up around seven, had breakfast and sent the family to the beach, prepped some mise en place, loaded the cooler, hauled it to the boat, took two boats to Hawk’s Nest Villa on Peter Island, and hauled it to the site. Amazing house, beautiful island. That night, I had the starter course and made a spicy crusted sea scallop with corn cream on a corn pancake. This was my favorite of the dishes I made. Alain Ivaldi, a charming chef from Marseille, also dug it.

I arranged to make it home that night with a couple from the dinner. Boat ride, drive across Tortola, boat ride, on the island by 1 AM.

Saturday was the big day, dinner for 100 on Guana. My day to host the other chefs, hors to do, separate food for the media and staff, and my most complicated item, the duck breast with polenta, confit, and grilled fig. Lots of work, lots of running around, lots of thinking and leading and decision making. So, the best way to prepare for that seemed to be to suck down a bunch of wine and a bottle of tequila with my friends on Guana Island Friday night /early Saturday morning. Bed, 3 AM.

Plating the DuckSaturday was a huge day. Everything went great (except for overcooking the only sushi rice on the island). I took no boats on Saturday and we had a great time. The kitchen was tiny and all the chefs worked together really well. I really enjoyed working with Seif and Rachel from Joule Restaurant and timing our courses out smoothly (duck then lamb, back to back, we both needed the whole home stove and oven at the same time). The Guana staff did a great job.

No boat rides, bed by 3 AM.

Sunday was quiet. The kids and I hit the beach for an hour or two in the morning. The staff made a birthday cake for Zoe and we all sang to her. Three boat rides to Mooney Bay. Quiet day of preparation for our courses and a civilized, smooth dinner service. One boat ride home, bed by 1:30AM.

Then home. Boat ride, cab ride, three planes (no layovers), one hour drive home.

Good to be home.

Recipes: Thyme-Chili rubbed Sea Scallop, Fritter, Corn Cream and Pancetta

2008 Schloss Lieser Brauneberger Juffer Riesling Kabinett

2008 Fritz Haag Riesling

September

Canning: The New DIY Vibe

Every autumn, I break out the canner and fill all the empty jars in the basement. I do jams and jellies, tomatoes and tomatillos, even some roasted peppers pressure canned as a hot relish. I enjoy the process of transformation, making raw fruits and vegetables into pretty colored Mason jars with shiny new lids. Canning goes with pre-season Steelers games, back to school preparations, and great sleeping weather.

Most people, upon hearing that I like to can, especially in the amounts I often do, have responded in one of two ways: “Oh, how nice.” or “Why bother? Why not buy organic sauce at the store and be done with it?” And even those interested express dismay at the idea of trying to find enough free time (they envision days spent at the stove, slowly stirring preserves until a perfect texture is achieved) to do another home project. “I enjoy it,” I say, “And it really does taste better.”

And they say “Oh, how nice.” and turn away.

That was before the recession. In the year that has transpired since I last went through my annual canning fit, the world has been transformed. Friends lost jobs, house values plummeted, retirements vanished, and we were bombarded with cautionary tales of how the whole world was down sizing, contracting, and retracting. We all have to learn to make do with less. One of the outcomes of this fear is a new household fiscal conservativism and a renewed interest in cooking at home. A segment of the people with this heightened awareness have also become interested in home preserving. Canning in particular.

peach jamSo I have fielded a lot of questions in the last few months. I thought I’d use this forum to answer them and offer some advice.

“How do I start canning?”
Pick one item – apple butter, tomato sauce, potted venison, and find out how to do it. Get a safe procedure and follow it exactly. If you like it, do something else.

“How do I learn?”
Every agricultural university has downloadable information about home canning, as do companies like Ball that produce canning supplies. Read the instructions and follow the steps.

“Where do I get the supplies?”
At this time of year, most grocery stores sell jars, lids, and pectin (for jams and jellies). You might have to go to a large discount retailer to find a canning kettle and other tools. Look at garage and yard sales, especially if you live in a neighborhood with a large number of older people. As they downsize or pass away, their families will be looking to clear out basements and attics. Lots of great old canning stuff can be found this way.

“Is it safe?”
If you follow the directions of a reputable source, you should be safe. These directions are well-tested scientifically, and nobody wants to be sued for proscribing a formula for botulism. I feed my children the goods I can. If ever I have a doubt, I throw it out. Better safe than dead.

“Can you suggest some recipes?”
Again, look at reputable websites. I use the directions in pectin packets to make jams and jellies. Ask your parents (or grandparents). Usually, there are recipes that, once complete, will be very familiar to you - grandma’s pickles, the family sauce recipe. Ask, there was probably some history there.

“Where do I find the time?”
As a busy parent and chef, this is the hardest one for me to answer. I break down processes into discrete steps and do them early in the morning or late at night. If you really dig it, take a vacation day and put up three bushels of sauce (A bushel will give you 16-18 quarts of sauce) mixing in a few batches of jam. But to help you out, I thought I’d share my two favorite fast processes – Tomato Sauce and Peach Jam.

Happy canning!

Bill’s Canned Tomato Sauce

Rapid-fire Peach Jam

October

Frittering my buns away

Traveling and dining are two of the greatest tools of a chef’s continued education about food. Extensive travels through foreign nations places the chef in direct contact with the ingredients, the climate, the people, and the style of that land giving invaluable insight into the culture, the traditions, the ingredients, and even the very cultural philosophy of a nation. Regular travel abroad is necessary to continue to grow as a chef.

But who gets to do that? With all the time away, expense, and hassle, we don’t often get to go abroad. So we let other people come here, bring their food traditions, and visit them in cities in the United States. Saves a ton of money and time and helps us avoid unpleasant gastro-intestinal events. San Francisco is a great place to ‘visit’ Asian food. Excellent opportunities exist to taste a lot of great Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese food. On a trip a year or so ago, I was dining in a restaurant that described it self as Pan-Asian but seemed to be driven by the poly-ethnic blend of flavors that is Indonesian food. The food in general was mediocre, but one item stood out. We were served a corn fritter, basically a deep-fried nearly-all-corn batter. It was served with a bland sugar-based sauce and some green leaf lettuce. But the flavor and idea of the hot corn cake, especially where the corn kernels poked through the flour and were caramelized by the hot oil, were really good and worth remembering.

Upon my return to Pittsburgh, we began to play with the idea. We added some other vegetables, cooked the batter in a sauté pan rather than the deep fryer (to try to reduce the greasiness), and wrapped them in delicate crisp Bibb lettuce with mint and basil. We started sprinkling Sriracha and soy on them and the simplicity was good. So we put together the sauce from these ingredients. And here we ended up. Not only good, but ridiculously easy to make.

Bao Bao Bao!

On a recent eating trip to New Your City, we dined at three of David Chang’s four restaurants; Momofuku Noodle Bar, Momofuku Ssam Bar, and Momofuku Milk Bar. I really dug all these places and would highly recommend them for your dining itinerary. One item that really stood out (and has stood out to thousands and thousands of other diners) was the steamed pork buns.

Now, most people that have eaten Chinese food have had steamed buns (or bao). The name brings to mind a slightly sticky white blob with a morsel of dry (or greasy) meat in the center. Usually this item is stuck to a piece of white paper. These were different. These rocked. The pork buns were pillow-y white steamed buns folded around slow-cooked pork belly, cucumbers, and Hoisin sauce. Totally freaking yummy.

The bun has all the opportunities of a tortilla. The medium is tasty but mild and lends itself to any filling. I could see vegetarian bun, meat buns, even steamed bun buns. And, the phrases “steamed buns” and “soft buns” and “hot buns” all have such great comedic value in a kitchen environment. I had to have them.

Folded BunsWhen we got back to Soba, we set to work. The first mission was to find the buns. Upon first viewing the item in New York, I assumed that to achieve bao-ness, we would have to make them. Well, we learned from a top-secret source that the buns used at the restaurants were purchased, not made, and easy to procure in Chinatown. And surprisingly, the same proved to be true here. I found them on my first trip to Lotus Foods in the Strip. Second is the filling. This is easy. Imagine a tasty taco, and but it on a steamed bun. Grilled chicken and hot sauce – sure. Scrambled egg, bean sprouts, cilantro – sure. Short ribs, radish, and cucumber – Yes! All delicious. We have entered into the world of bao-dom. I can only imagine the continued possibilities…

And, for further fun, here is a video of me making both the Indonesian Corn Fritters and Short Rib Buns.

Recipes:

Indonesian Corn Fritter and Sauce

Short Rib Buns

November

Braising Days

Of course, cold weather means long, slow cooking. And this year’s fashionable piece of meat to cook all day for succulent deliciousness is the beef short rib.

So what is the short rib? The short ribs are the ends of the prime rib. If you were a steer, the prime rib (succulent, fatty, and scrumptious) would be the large muscles to either side of your spine, just below the shoulder blades. In addition to producing the banquet favorite prime rib roast, off the bone this cut becomes rib eye steaks in all their fatty glory.  To create a prime rib roast of you, the saw would go across your back below the shoulder blades, again above the hips, vertically down through the spine, and vertically down through the ribs just behind your upper arms. From these last two cuts around to a point approximately your nipples is the section that produces the short ribs. As the flesh tapers around to the sides of the steer body, the strong back muscles thin and become more intensely infiltrated with tougher connective tissues.  As a result of this increased amount of tougher tissues, this muscular plate requires long slow cooking to become tender. Fortunately for us, good internal marbling as well as a lovely fat cap remain a feature of this piece of meat. This fat melts as the cut is braised, basting the meat from inside and above. You couldn’t design a better slow-cooking piece of meat.

And what do we do with it? Short ribs need to be treated as you would any tough muscle group. Slow smoking and braising bring out the best. I prefer to purchase short ribs as ‘plates’, 3 to 4 ribs 10 to 12 inches long and still connected to make a big, meat-covered rib slab. The rib bones remaining in the meat help to increase the flavor as well as stabilize the moisture loss during cooking. One favorite approach of ours is to braise the whole plate and allow it to cool. When cool, we slice the meat cap off by sliding a long thin knife along the outside curve of the bones. We take this piece of delicate braised meat, portion it, and reheat it gently in the braising liquid. When hot, this is lovely served over creamy polenta with hearty root vegetables. Mmm!

Of course, when one portions this piece, there are bits of meat left over from trimming and sizing the portions. Usually a snack for the chefs, at times this pile of trim can be sizeable, especially if the short rib plates are awkwardly shaped or the cutter was clumsy with the knife. When Derek Stevens, current Executive Chef of Eleven, was at Casbah, he felt that there should be a better use of this trim than to fill his stomach. (It must be noted here that even the most delicious delicacy can become tedious and even unpalatable after enough has been consumed. How much does it take? It differs for different foods. But I can attest that even caviar, even prosciutto, even beef short ribs can lose their luster if enough is eaten over the course of a few weeks. I believe that this is what occurred at Casbah. After weeks of short rib snacks, the chefs grew bored with the short rib nuggets and were then forced to find a useful application.)

So Derek made some great ravioli, served it with sautéed oyster mushrooms, and we topped it with fresh citrus zest and a little garlic in an emulation of gremolata, the traditional finish to braised osso bucco. The freshness of the gremolata provides a bright counterpoint to the richness of the rest of the dish. A dish was born!

And the Casbah Short Rib Ravioli have been popular ever since. And since I haven’t put a difficult recipe out in awhile, I though that this would be a good time with all these long, dark nights ahead of us. Enjoy.

Casbah Short Rib Ravioli

December

DUCK!

Lots of people are afraid to eat duck. From those that have had it poorly prepared and carry memories of long chewing and greasy lips to people with visions of Easter-sweet quackers to that select group that just won’t do it no matter how much I cajole (I’m talking to you, Terry) there are a lot of duck-haters.

I understand. Putting alien foods into your mouth is frightening. I (like many people) had never eaten duck growing up. There were two kinds of people that ate duck; Chinese and duck hunters. We sure weren’t the former and the latter seemed to be either too creepy or too many social stations above us. Besides, my mom had no idea how to cook it. She barely got chicken right.

I skipped out of DuBois, PA and into a world that eats duck. Every culture, every continent, every cuisine chowed down on our feathered buddies. But every encounter I had did little to encourage me to join them. Thai duck curries led to bone splinters in my mouth. Poorly prepared Peking duck was greasy and dry. And at work the duck didn’t shine – cold sliced smoked duck draped over beets and bitter greens made for an interesting menu description but did not awake the passion of devotion in me. Of course, I never really fretted it, I just didn’t eat it. There were more than enough animals to go after.

My epiphany came at Baywolf Restaurant in Oakland, CA where I first lodged as I slid out of my life in Chemistry and back into the Kitchen. All I knew before I worked there was that they were the only restaurant in Berkeley/North Oakland that would take a chance on a former cook/grad school dropout. (Thanks Michael Wild!). I would come to learn that this little local restaurant, in addition to leading me into the warm California love of ingredients and seasons, owned duck and made duck dishes really well and served a lot of them.

The secret to duck, I learned there, was to understand the vast difference between the meats of the breast and leg and to cook each accordingly. Twice a week the duck guy (I wish I remembered his name) brought crates full of whole beautiful cleaned fresh ducks. We’d break them down, separating the breasts and leg quarters from the carcass, saving the livers to be used in another dish. The carcasses, of course, got roasted and made into fragrant brown stock.

And the different method for the different meats? Well, the legs needed long, slow cooking. We’d brown them in the oven, pour off the rendered fat (which we ALWAYS saved), reduce the heat, and return them to the oven with a little added duck stock. The legs were done when a finger pressed into the joint between the drum and thigh sank in. Sometimes we’d glaze these legs, sometimes just serve them as is.

The breasts we’d score and render the fat from the skin. To order, we’d re-crisp the skin and cook the duck to temperature (medium is really perfect). Sliced duck breast and a whole leg would go with the garniture of the week – some green, some fritter or cake, a sauce of reduced duck stock.

In addition to their warm love of food and appreciation for service, I took their duck method with me. Of course, some elements changed over time, but the essence of the thought is the same – braise the leg, render and finish the breast. We use it now in the autumn and winter at the restaurants, varying the garniture but keeping true to the method.

So, I thought I’d share the process with you. Attached is a recipe, maybe a little long, but it is a good process. If you are worried about butchering your own ducks, just buy breasts and legs. Or buy the whole bird and ask to have it done by the butcher at the store. As you go through the process, you’ll see that there are a number of places that it says to save the duck fat. Please do, and use it wherever you want some flavor. You haven’t lived until you have had eggs fried in duck fat.

And whomever out there does the dish from beginning to end - you have to let me know. And yes, I do do this at home. In fact, I did a duck dish on Thanksgiving. Ha!

Duck Entrée

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