Tuesday, December 8, 2009

More than a vealin'

I ate veal heart last week. And, like Carrie White's mother remembering Carrie's father, I liked it. I liked it!

Mind you, I didn't know I was going to eat veal heart. The Schwa menu promised this darling vegetarian combo

cauliflower, coco [sic] nibs, curry

for the pasta course, but when mad genius Michael Carlson delivered the dish to our table, he charmingly blurted, "Yeah, I fucked up the menu. Pardon my French." (I am not being sarcastic. There aren't that many people whose profane blurts I find charming, but he is one of them.) What we got instead was

veal heart, huckleberries, taleggio, yuzu

Merely typing the word "veal" gives me a frisson. It's an old taboo for me; all I can think of when I contemplate the word is a bleating, liquid-eyed calf crammed into a minuscule pen, unable to move and thereby unable to develop muscle, so its flesh stays pale and pink and tender. I wouldn't buy veal, wouldn't cook veal heart on a dare; I lack the nerve to confront the more outré organs of even fully grown animals in the sanctity of my own kitchen. But, dammit, if Michael Carlson puts it in front of me, I am going to eat it. He says that his food costs hover around 60 percent (restaurants run by actual businesspeople aim for about half that), so I'm confident that he is not going to buy sad veal. I decided that the veal calf whose heart lay precisely diced in front of me had lived a full springtime life gamboling about in green fields, having its fuzzy forelock combed by some descendant of Fern Arable who simply couldn't find the right arachnid in time.

The veal heart was, of course, delicious. Tiny cubes of slightly chewy dark-red meat and wee, so-purple-they're-black huckleberries were strewn over a perfect coil of house-made pasta—it might have been a single yard-long noodle, actually—nestled into a golden pool of honey-yuzu gelée and stinkily molten Taleggio, all sprinkled with greens so small they might have been tenderly snipped from the head of a Chia Pet. And did I mention the VEAL HEART?

“We take what’s intimidating and make it palatable,” Michael Carlson told an interviewer. “We like to educate, to challenge. We want nervousness, anticipation, but most of all we want conversation, because that’s what makes a meal great.”

Melvin and I have been to Schwa twice now, and we're still talking about it.

The other courses last week:

[no menu description: Kumamoto oyster shooter, oatmeal, almond milk]

pine, mushroom, plantain

apple pie soup
cheddar, savory, chestnut

green curry, rootbeer

tiger fish
watermelon, red pepper

extra nom[no menu description: quail-egg ravioli]
corn, patron, cilantro

zucchini, garlic, borage

[no menu description: a hot little pretzel encasing molten salty cheese]

[no menu description: concord grape soup, black pepper ice cream, microbasil]

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Shack-a-Lacka TWO

There are charlatans, there are frauds, and then there are people who simply want you think that they might be one or the other but are actually fantastically self-aware, knowing, and far more sly than I can ever hope to be. One of these people is Ricky Jay. Another, maybe, is Bill Kim, guiding spirit of the Urban Belly and Belly Shack, where we went this weekend for a late lunch.

But first Ricky Jay. Jay is one of those people who is extremely well known in the circles that he is extremely well known in. He's on the cultural fringe in only the way that a man who has been in dozens of movies, has been profiled at length in The New Yorker, and has had a long-running Off-Broadway show can be. His primary shtick is legerdemain and the history thereof—he doesn't just show you a good card trick, he gives you the pedigree. What makes him more alluring than the Amazing Historical Mumford is his air of menace and the way he systematically knocks away the seeming supports of his tricks, only to pull them off all the same. There's a description of this in the New Yorker profile that Watson and I reference now and again: Jay slowly gives more and more control of the trick to his mark, asking each time, "Is that fair?" In the end, the mark has been allowed to open the pack of cards, cut them, and shuffle them, only to hand them to Jay who deals out four aces off the top, answering his own question as he does so, "I. Don't. Think. So." (If this were not a food blog, I would go into detail about his subtle "rotten dice" ruse, in which he professes that celluloid dice decay in the same way that old film stock does; to those who believe this, I say only: consider the source, not to mention the venue.)

Anyway, Jay was in town for a few days last week, doing a new one-man show that may or may not be heading to New York. It's a loose affair and, as with all of Jay's endeavors, it afforded the audience the illusion of free will. (The one truly inspired moment came when an audience member, instructed by Jay to cut a deck of cards in preparation for another bout of wizardry, asked, "Why?" Even Jay couldn't keep a straight face at that.) His piece of resistance was a memory feat in which he alternately recited a Knight's Tour of the chessboard, quoted Shakespeare, solved cube roots, and sang field hollers. You heard me, field hollers. For the Knight's Tour, he used a chess grid on a blackboard with all the spaces numbered. So the audio track to the feat went something like "Three hundred and eighty nine [a cube root]; five, sixteen [Knight's Tour moves]; I gotta woman who move too slow [field holler]; this goodly frame, the earth seems to me a sterile promontory [Shakespeare, like I have to tell you]," repeated until the Tour was complete. All of which led up to his concluding shout, "BOOM-SHACK-A-LACKA; two!"

And with that thin thread finally established, here we are chatting about Belly Shack, which was our return visit to the empire of Bill Kim. As with second marriages, this was a triumph of hope over experience. Underwhelmed the last time around at the fancier of his operations, we went to Kim's "sammich" joint with considerable reservations. And let me just say that, as a "sangy" guy, the affectation of "sammich" has never sat well with me. But you can't tell people what to say, any more than you can tell them what to eat. Oh, wait, Kim basically does the latter, with his minimal menu—five sandwiches, two salads, a few sides, a case of drinks, and some soft-serve ice cream. Yeah, soft-serve ice cream—another instance of a big-deal cook doing something "fun" (foie gras Pop Rocks, anyone?) to show that he's not all hi-falutin' or nuthin.

The space is weirdly shaped and jammed underneath the Blue Line tracks at Western and Milwaukee, but the vibe was much less stressful than Urban Belly's. Watson went for the Korean barbecue sandwich, which she liked, while I—a veritable portrait of ignorance as usual—opted for the boricua sandwich. This turned out to be primarily tofu and greens smushed between a couple of fried plantain slices, not at all unlike a jibarito. It was a somewhat oily mess but vastly more delicious than anything we'd had at Urban Belly. The accompanying peanut sauce was a sticky delight, too. We also went for two sides: the bland kimchi (which also came as a side with the barbecue—thanks for the heads-up, staff!) and the star of the meal, roasted squash with "pho spices," which we're pretty sure is just five-spice powder. Now that was delicious, if seemingly crazy-easy. We sat in the sun, ate contentedly, and then shared a cinnamon-caramel soft-serve that Kim dished up himself.

So yes, Bill Kim's redeemed himself in our eyes, somewhat. And if at heart he's a guy whose main interest is soft-serve ice cream, that's OK with me. But he's managed to convince some people that he's a culinary prestidigitator of Achatzian proportions (albeit one working more at the low end of the hi-lo game). He's that about as much as Ricky Jay is an up-and-coming Olympic gymnast. The difference is, Jay might yet convince me.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Smoke It If You Got It

Me, I love the controlled chaos of making a slightly too elaborate Thanksgiving dinner. Watson finds it a little nerve-wracking, though more in concept than in execution, so we tussle over how much to make, when, and in what. We wind up with less than what I want (no soup this year!) and more than what she finds necessary. (I prevailed on making rolls.)

Here's what we whipped up this year for us and her parents:
Caveny Farm Smoked Turkey
Brown Bread Stuffing with Chestnuts, Apples, and Sausage (Aida Mollenkamp)
Garlic Mashed Potatoes (Cooks Illustrated)
Roasted Mushroom and Barley Gravy (Gourmet)
Brussels Sprouts with Maple Butter (Annie Sommerville)
Butternut Squash Gratin (Lee Bros.)
Boiled Corn
Wild Rice Rolls (Beth Hensperger)
Spiced Cranberry Sauce with Zinfandel (Epicurious.com)
Sweet Potato Buttermilk Pie (Lee Bros.)
Redemption Hazelnut Pie (Patty Pinner)
Swiss Gourmet Egg Nog Ice Cream

There are a few keys to having a pleasantly busy Thanksgiving Day: (1) Make the pies ahead. This is so obvious I shouldn't have to mention it. (2) Buy a smoked turkey. It's delicious, and there's nothing to do but let it come to room temperature. It slices more easily, too. (3) Back out a schedule: start with your desired dinner time, then sit down with each recipe and work backward, leaving generous amounts of time for chopping, blanching, etc. This will never turn out perfectly in its first draft, mainly because you need to adjust for the limitations of space—in our case, one oven and four burners. And that oven, of course, can only be at one temperature at a time. Still, take the time to refine it, and you might be amazed at how much easier the day gets: chop this now; sauté that next, then punch down the rolls, etc. We aimed for 4:00 and with the exception of the squash gratin, which could have used at least a few more minutes than the recipe indicated, everything was on the table at 4:01.

Now, of course, we have far more leftovers than any two people can happily account for; so if you need some pie, come on over.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Apple Crush

Yes, OK, fine, we went to the Publican again, this time for a cider dinner and sat in our favorite seats. And while there were some fantastic dishes—like the Fingerling Potato, Artichoke, and Celery Salad with Chorizo Vinaigrette and Remoulade, which built strong flavor atop strong flavor atop strong flavor—it wasn't a TKO like the last two times. The risotto seemed bland to me—basically just butter with occasional other textures—and the Roasted Guinea Hen with Root Vegetables and Wild Mushrooms would have been much stronger with only dark meat. Then again, I don't care much for poultry, so what do I know? The Sweet Potato Tart was a winner, though, redeemed from its potential blandness by the surprising saltiness of its graham-cracker crust.

The ciders were of a broad range—I preferred the very dry and less overtly apple-y ones, though there were two darker, vinous ones that were well matched with the food as well. I especially dug the Sarasola Basque Cider, which to my palate had a sharp minerality not common to apples. Our man Paulie tended to us more than nicely again—this time plying us with pear cognac and introducing us to some of his other regulars and some of the staffers. We learned that Paulie has done time in the wine biz, that he recently chased down a mugger, and that his 90-day TV fast is almost over. We chatted briefly, too, with the chef de cuisine. These are all perks, in their way, and they're a big part of why we'll be back again soon—cry though our bank balances do. Urban Belly, take a note: we're charitable to the Big P because even when it isn't at the top of its game, it still feels like a great place to be.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Bloated Belly

We've been a hot streak lately, restaurant-wise, and exulting about our good fortune to live in this city. We knew it had to come to an end somewhere, sometime. We didn't figure it would be at the Urban Belly.

Everything—everything—about the Belly was calling out in goodness to us. (Wow, what's with the Palin-esque syntax?) For starters, it's in a neighborhood strip mall, not far from Kuma's Corner and next to a Laundromat that commandeers most of the parking. It doesn't take reservations, it has communal seating, it's quite wee, and its focus is exactly the sort of food we miss most from St. Paul: Asian soups and noodles.

(A brief aside here to underline for those unaware that University Avenue in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood is dense with cheap, intense Southeast Asian restaurants. There's Cheng Heng, which features soups thick with quail eggs and jalapenos; Little Szechuan, where we can't stop eating the Kung Pao Chili Shrimp, the Dan Dan Noodles, and the Eggplant with Garlic; Saigon Restaurant and Bakery and its crunchy banh mi stuffed with fragrant, mysterious pork pastes; and even Ngon, which is to some of the other places as Noodles & Company is to Otto but is nevertheless a festival of cilantro-y goodness.)

Actually, the aside perhaps tells the tale: we have had fantastic urban Asian soups and dumplings, and Urban Belly, you just don't measure up.

Let's start with truth in advertising. If you're not going to take reservations, you're going to be crowded, and the line forms principally down a narrow hallway from the dining room to the kitchen and bathroom. That's fine. While you're there, you need to peruse the menu, because you place your order and pay for it before sitting down. That's fine, too. What is not fine is describing dishes in the de rigueur minimalist fashion but then delivering things dominated by other, nonlisted ingredients. Thus, "lamb & brandy dumplings" were four admittedly quite tasty little dough packets nestled amid a monstrous fuzzy raft of edamame (which to me taste like socks). Similarly, the squash/bacon ones had a palatable texture yet were drenched in what Watson said was ponzu, yuzu, or one of the other -zu flavors but to me tasted distinctly of Lemon Pledge.

This might be a quibble. After all, if one can actually stomach edamame (or if one's intestinal tract needs a good buffing and polishing), then there's no problem with either dish. What's not a quibble is the poor quality of the noodle soups. The Soba Noodles with Bay Scallops, Oyster Mushrooms, and Thai Basil Broth were a grayish swampy mess of indistinguishable flavors. The scallops had that off flavor from one too many defrosting/refrosting cycles, and the "fish dumplings" that floated alongside them tasted like congealed glue. It was only slightly better than what I imagine poking around in a week-old bowl of pureed hippopotamus would be like.

Watson went for the Udon Noodles with Shrimp, Coriander, and Sweet Chili Lime Broth. It is very hard to seriously screw up udon, and indeed the noodles themselves were fine—chewy but not too chewy, gummy but not too gummy. But the shrimp had that same gummy texture—and the same off flavor that ruined the scallops. The broth was thin and uninspired, more reminiscent of dishwater than of sweetness, chilis, or limes. Perhaps the best part of the meal was the chewy ginger candies that we were given on our way out—ginger candies countenance a lot of culinary shortcomings.

One other thing about the ambiance: when is the communal seating trend going to be over? It makes brilliant sense for the restaurateur—it's easier to clear tables, and it reduces expectations for service. And yes, occasionally you do have a nice chat with a stranger who likes (or, in the event, hates) the same kind of food you do. But equally often you get crammed next to a foursome of sorority sisters with the collective IQ of a bottle of Noxzema, and you have, like, to hear all about how, like, uh-mazing New Moon is or like whatever. It's like being back in a school cafeteria, proving that expeditiousness is not an unmitigated good.

Next time, we're heading to some of the Argyle Street options—where, to judge from the local chatter, we might have better started out in the first place.

(Special hat-tip to our blogosphere—and real life—pal, the Bloated Belly.)

Fear and Loathing in the Produce Aisle, Part I

I was a bok choy virgin until my 30s.

I can practically hear what you're thinking: "What, in
this day and age? With frank, illustrated educational materials widely available, and all the teevee cooking shows with the sizzles and the knife sounds lovingly miked, and ethnic markets where you can purchase all manner of exotic produce without eliciting a second glance from the gum-snapping cashier?"

But, yes, it's true. I was never sure what the heck to do with bok choy. It was lovely-looking, with creamy white stems and full, deep-green leaves, so I'd caress a bunch now and then at the Asian supermarket in my old neighborhood. But, as with so many of the unlabeled items in its produce department, I was afraid of it. Even the adorable little baby bok choys (boks choy?) nestled six to a plastic bag stymied me. Crazy, right? It's just a vegetable, and a cheap one at that. I wasn't much of a kitchen experimenter at the time, though, so I always set the bok choy back down and headed for my familiar old garlic, ginger and basil.

As with so many things, it took a new love interest to make me brave. I was pitching woo at Melvin and wanted to impress him with my devil-may-care fancy cooking skills, so I decided an experiment was in order. I found a recipe (now lost to the mists of time and my disorganized storage system) for fish and halved baby bok choy that were glazed and cooked together in a bamboo steamer. The fish turned to rubber, but the bok choy saved the day. We devoured the whole batch. They were cooked but still crunchy, with a sheen of sesame oil and (I think) a bit of honey. My fear was banished, Melvin liked me even though our entrée was inedible, and bok choy entered my kitchen repertoire.

Baby bok choy would work for this Mollie Katzen recipe, which has been a tonic in our household during many a gloomy cold snap. You can use the grownup kind, too—just separate the ribs and wash everything well, because bok choy can be sandy. For easy handling, cut the green leaves off the white stems and chop them separately; the stems handle like celery, the leaves, like chard.

This is a virtuous soup (for extra virtuousness, I use whole-wheat noodles) that's exceedingly tasty with the addition of condiments like sesame oil, chili-garlic sauce, cilantro and soy sauce. Mollie says they are optional, but I disagree.

Big, Bold Noodle Soup
from Vegetable Heaven, Mollie Katzen

6 or 7 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 1/2 cups boiling water
8 cups strong vegetable bouillon
6 star anise
4 or 5 large slices ginger
4 cups (packed) stemmed, chopped mustard greens (about half a large bunch)
4 cups chopped bok choy, stems included (2–3 small heads)
10 scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal
1 pound fresh egg noodles, or 1/2 pound dried (about 3–4 cups cooked)

Soy sauce
Chile garlic paste, chile oil or red pepper flakes
Chinese sesame oil
Torn cilantro leaves

Rinse the mushrooms and place them in a small bowl. Pour in 1 1/2 cups boiling water and cover with a plate. Let stand at least 30 minutes. (This can be done several days ahead, and the mushrooms can just stay in the water until use.)

Combine the bouillon, star anise and ginger in a soup pot and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down, cover and simmer for about 20–30 minutes. At this point, the broth can sit for up to several hours–or even overnight–before you proceed.

Remove the ginger and star anise with a slotted spoon. Strain the mushrooms over the soup, squeezing them firmly, so all of their soaking liquid goes in. Then slice the mushrooms thinly and add them to the soup as well.

Heat the soup to the boiling point, and add the mustard greens, bok choy, and scallions. Turn the heat down and simmer for about 2 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the noodles in boiling water till just tender. Drain them in a colander, rinse, and drain again, so they won't clump. Divide the cooked noodles among the largest soup bowls you can find, and ladle the soup on top. Pass around the optional toppings on a small tray, so each person can customize his or her portion.

Yield: 6 to 8 soul-soothing servings

Monday, November 16, 2009

Yes We Publican

Two posts into our second life and already this blog is in a rut: yes, I'm going to write about Publican, too—this time about the Allagash beer dinner. Why? Because I want to ruin it for us by telling you how great it is, so that you'll go, and we'll never be able to sit in the Watson Seats again. It happened at 112 Eatery in Minneapolis, you know—though, let's be honest, the entire freaking world already knows about this place.

Actually, we didn't even get to sit in the Watson Seats this time, but we did sit at about the same spot of the bar where we did for the New Holland beer dinner back in August—the fact that I initially wrote "a few weeks ago" instead of "August" gives you a sense of one of the challenges we're up against in writing this blog. Anyway, that had been a crowded affair, with lots of standees and many Friends of the House. We had charming if mildly distracted service from a guy named Paulie, who sealed his place in the Munch Detective pantheon by sneaking us a couple shots of Sortilège, which ought to be sad cliché (it's a mix of maple syrup and whiskey—and indeed, it is Canadian) but capped a night of mesmerizing pairings. Is there a more perfect beer for a snout-to-tail joint like the Publican than New Holland's Charkoota Rye? I think not—though, as the name implies, you have to like smoky flavors. But, friends, Chicagoans, gastronomes, who among us does not?

All right, where was I? Oh yes, at the bar at Publican with Watson, looking enviously at the couple of British spies who had commandeered our favorite seats. What, not spies? Just balding guys with trenchcoats who ate very slowly? OK, fine. Paulie was on the case again tonight, and once again he delivered the goods. It's amazing how a little extra in the pours and a side shot of cider will get a couple to want to come back pretty much every week.

Yes, yes, we're easy marks and we like our beer. And wine. And liquor. But for god's sake, man, what about the food?

First up tonight was a velvet-on-velvet combination of wee Nantucket scallops (remarkably crisp yet not overcooked) and celery-root puree. Pureed with what, you ask? Butter, silly. A couple large truffle shavings were actually superfluous. I never remember in my own cooking to add like to like—you hand me some small, sweet scallops and I start thinking about drowning them in balsamic vinegar—but here the textures created an inimitable mouth-bath of silky richness. The Allagash pairing was the Curieux, and a good thing, too, because due to a comical series of misinterpretations and one startling gesture of bad faith, Watson had poured out a glass of the stuff I'd been drinking just the night before. It's true I was asleep on the couch at the time and had said something profound like "Grrzzflltt" when asked if I was done with my beer, but it just goes to show that you never really know anyone. So the manifestation of a glass of the creamy, saisony stuff (aged in bourbon barrels, doncha know) was even more welcome than it would have been otherwise.

As good as this was, we were knocked back by the followup: squid pizza. Actually, squid-arugula-tapenade pizza. Oh yes, there was guanciale on there, too. Them's hog jowls (snout-to-tail, remember). And then there were some Fresno peppers and lots and lots of salt. I will want this dish on my deathbed, but I hope to have it many more times before then. The peppery Allagash Fluxus stood up to it but was ultimately overwhelmed. I should mention somewhere—here, perhaps—that this dinner was much less crowded than the New Holland one; my theory is that the New Holland guys have a lot of friends in Chicago, whereas no one knows that guy from Portland.

Onward! Paulie draped himself over the back of the chair (no, he's not a cat; it's the easiest way for him to talk to bar patrons) and let us know that he was about 80 days into a periodic 90-day TV fast. "I've read everything in my apartment," he said, "including a book by Leo Buscaglia." He then nabbed two suspiciously full glasses of Interlude, a rich red-purple ale with an intense grapiness, and slid them before us. It was about as plummy as you could imagine a beer to be, and we wondered (a) what could be paired with it and (b) whether Paulie would sink so low as to read Dan Brown. We got an answer to the first question with the arrival of plate of turkey, a meat I do not care for.

And yet... and yet... oh, Publican, we love you so. Here the turkey was done two ways—first as a smoky hamlike slab and then as a, uh, breaded and deep-fried turkey finger? That part didn't enchant me, but the pseudo-ham was topped with little roasted brussels sprouts, slivers of pear, and shavings of actual ham. (A New Yorker writer or Frank Bruni would call this ham on not-ham pairing "witty." I will not.) The denseness of the dish cried out for red wine—or, conveniently, winey beer. As anyone with tastebuds knows, fruit beers can be abominations of sweetness or amiably pointless. Interlude doesn't actually have any fruit in it, which is probably the secret of its success (it's the blend of yeasts and the barreling that do the work), but it provided the same kind of sweetness that a chutney might, in other circumstances.

Paulie, who had by this time taken to calling us his gang, swept our plates away, brought over the beer guy for a chat, slipped us some cider, and announced that he'd served three tours in the military (Somalia, Yugoslavia, and, um, Iraq? We were getting a little hazy by now) and has a bullet still in his leg. Obviously, we were in love.

Dessert arrived and sent us nattering back to childhood—albeit a much fancier and stranger childhood than either of us actually had: chocolate gelato, with salted peanuts, scorched little marshmallows, and a dildonic piece of candied banana. This came with Allagash Black, a smooth, dry stout that slithered across the palate. The only thing that would have made it better would have been two short glasses of the crimson Cantillon kriek that had been poured from the taps in front of us all evening. Why, thank you, Paulie, don't mind if I do. And I take back that crack about fruit beers.

Is there something unseemly about us gorging ourselves into oblivion while being fawned over by a veteran pantomiming friendship? There is. In our defense, we weren't actually gorged, and we totally bought the act, especially in its last scene. We thought the play was over, so we rose to go. Paulie was down the bar, with another couple, whom he turned quickly from to come shake our hands and say, "Let me walk you to the door." Which he did. It was charming, it was a little strange, and we made a reservation for next week's cider dinner on the spot. Whatever it is, it works. And we tipped very well.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

For the people all said "sit down"

If I'm going to tell you the story that's awakened the Munch Detective from hibernation, I have to tell you about the Watson Seats.

The Watson Seats are those two seats that are tucked away by themselves, revenue-maximizers that are crammed into some corner of a restaurant or into some awkward short row of a theater or sports arena. For example, there are Watson Seats at Midway Stadium (first-base side, top row of Section K) and at the McGuire Theater at the Walker Art Center (Row O). The beauty of Watson Seats is that their relative isolation lets you experience whatever you're there for as though it belongs to you and your companion alone. There's nobody hogging the armrest next to you, nobody eavesdropping as you whisper a critique of that bad jazz ensemble, nobody breathing garlicky breath in your general direction. While most people think the Watson Seats undesirable because they're too far from the action, they're always the preferred seating for Mel and me.

We discovered the Watson Seats last week at The Publican. They're the only two seats on the short side of the L-shaped bar, and they offer a great view of both the kitchen and of the woman who labors with great concentration over the fresh oysters: shucking them, sniffing them delicately, nestling them gently into beds of shaved ice. When Mel and I walked into the Publican at 9:00 on a Thursday, we expected to have to wait a while, having been told by the New York Times Style section some months ago that Thursday is the new Friday. Not only were we seated immediately, we were shown by happenstance to the Watson Seats, where we had excellent beer (including two beauties from Michigan: a Dark Horse Fore Smoked Stout and a New Holland Brother Jacob Dubbel) and delicious, I-never-woulda-thought-of-that seafood-plus-meat dishes (littleneck clams with pork shoulder, squid with kielbasa; both are much more than the sum of their parts). Mel also had oysters—Bagaduces from Maine, described on the Publican menu as "unyielding and brackish"—while I pounced on the homemade crackers that accompanied them.

While we enjoyed our beer and our food, we also enjoyed the show. The Publican is always unbelievably busy, but the staff never seems harried. Nobody’s pitching a fit in the kitchen. Everybody, from the cooks to the busers to the servers, knows exactly what they're doing and knows how to get from point A to point B quickly and unobtrusively. The only ripple happened when the restaurant's co-owner Donnie Madia—leather-jacketed, groovy-spectacled and Jim Jarmusch-haired—walked into the kitchen around 9:45 and started talking, tasting, making the rounds of the kitchen and bar before he started to work the room. Mel and I had a great time watching him. We could tell that he was seeing everything, even in the parts of the restaurant he didn’t seem to be looking at.

Donnie was stationed at the door as we were leaving. "How was your dinner?" he asked. "Terrific," I told him. "This place makes us really happy." "Oh, you had the best seats, those seats at the oyster bar," he enthused. “We love them,” I replied. Donnie grinned and turned to the woman at the host stand and said, “Hey, can we do a favor? They love those oyster bar seats. Will you put a note in the system so they get those seats whenever they call?” Mel and I (who, I should note, are by no means prone to falling for a suck-up or a glad-hander) swooned. It was a cool thing for him to do, and a supremely savvy one, because those few keystrokes turned us from people who really like the Publican into full-on Publican regulars and evangelists. We’re going tonight for the Allagash beer dinner, and will report on the food and the drinks—and whether we enjoyed them from the Watson Seats.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Trust your own crust

When will I get over my conviction that people who write cookbooks know more than I do, simply by virtue of their having written cookbooks? Maybe I'll get over it when I write my cookbook, topic TBD. (Judging by what's been coming out of my kitchen lately, a meditation on noble culinary failures might be worth exploring.)

My feelings of inferiority are even stronger if said cookbook writer is English and glam and the sister of my darling Daniel Day-Lewis. But listen up, Tamasin Day-Lewis
: Your tart crust was ucky. And I knew it didn't seem right when I was putting it together, but I soldiered on, thinking that you couldn't possibly steer me wrong.


Day-Lewis's pie-dough recipe in
The Art of the Tart calls for a cup of white or whole wheat flour, four tablespoons of unsalted butter, a pinch of sea salt and two tablespoons or so of ice water. Not enough fat, I thought, and not quite enough water. I was right on both counts. I whirred the (white) flour and salt in the food processor for a few seconds, cut the cold butter over the top of the flour, put the top back on the processor and started working the pulse button. I was waiting for that magical moment when the mixture starts to look like coarse cornmeal . . . and it never came. Know why? Because there wasn't enough fat.

I didn't want to overwork those four paltry little tablespoons of butter, so I laid off the button and started drizzling in some ice water. Day-Lewis warns that too much water makes the crust liable to shrink upon baking, so I was very judicious. But her prescribed two tablespoons (say it with me now) weren't enough to bring the dough together. So I added a bit more water. Then a bit more. And more still. The moment the dough looked the slightest bit clumpy, I dumped it onto the counter and pressed the clumps into a ball, smooshed the ball into a disk, wrapped it in plastic and banged it into the fridge for a half-hour.

When I rolled it out, the damn thing
still cracked like the leather seats in a '91 Buick Park Avenue. And when I tasted a scrap, it was flat and floury. (Do you taste raw pastry dough? I did this in front of my father once while on Thanksgiving pie duty and sent him into paroxysms. In my opinion, if it doesn't taste okay raw, it's not going to taste okay baked.)

Despite its dryness, the crust did indeed shrink when blind-baked. It cracked and leaked filling all over the place (this is why I always put my tart pan on a baking sheet). And it tasted flat and floury. The innards were delicious, though, which rescued the project from utter failure.

So, Tamasin, I do owe you thanks for the lovely filling recipe, which I'll certainly use again, and for reminding me that I should more often trust my instincts about whether a recipe is good or not. Say hi to your brother for me. And try this pie-crust recipe
, which has never once failed me.

Chard, Gruyère and Crème Fraîche Tart

9-inch unbaked tart shell, chilled
2 heads of Swiss chard
1 cup crème fraîche

4–6 T. whole milk

1 egg, beaten, plus 4 egg yolks

3/4 c. Gruyère, grated
1/4 t. cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Strip the leaves off the chard, and wash leaves and ribs carefully. Set the leaves aside for something else (you can sauté them with a little olive oil and garlic and serve them alongside this tart, if you like). Then slice the ribs as you would celery, in 1/4-inch widths, and steam them until tender. Drain and let cool.

Bake the tart shell blind for 15 minutes, then remove the beans, prick the bottom with a fork, brush with beaten egg, and return to the oven for 5 minutes. Turn the oven down to 350 degrees F.

Beat together until smooth the remaining beaten egg, yolks, crème fraîche, and milk, then stir in the cheese and cayenne pepper and, sparingly, some salt and pepper.

Quickly assemble the layer of cooled chard ribs on the tart bottom, pour the custard over the chard, and cook until browned, about 30 minutes.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Nice Sangy

For reasons I have never investigated, my father, who grew up in the Midwest, has a tendency to call a sandwich a “sangy.” He also—again, for reasons uninvestigated—has long called my sister “Bears-o.” (My sister in no way resembles a bear.) Hence, one of the refrains of my childhood was the lunchtime query, “Care for a sangy, Bears-o?”

Often, she did, and yesterday, I did, too. Unfortunately, my father lives hundreds of miles away, and I’m a grown man, so I had to make do on my own. What we’ve got here is a little mother-of-invention-ish, but it’s also a bit indebted to a sandwich creation in a Chicago brewpub called the CB&J, which is a wonderfully lethal fried mush of cashew butter, Morbier cheese, and fig jam, served alongside a coup-de-grâce of macaroni-and-cheese. Lacking all of those things, I settled for this instead.

First, take a nice hunk of sourdough wheat and slice off a couple of nicely matched slices. Smear the outsides with duck fat. (Yes! The year of duck fat continues!) Resist the urge to call it done. Get a nonstick pan going at medium heat—it is, by the way, more or less all right to heat up a Teflon pan with nothing in it, as long as you’re not using super-high heat and put something in it eventually. Put one slice of bread duck-fat-side-down and listen for the sizzle.

While that’s happening, cut a few healthy slices of cheddar—or, if you’re really going for a knockout, Cotswold. Place them on the bread as it’s sizzling. Layer on a few slices of roasted red pepper (jarred is totally fine). Pick up the second piece of bread and smear some globs of jalapeno jelly or other hot-sweet condiment on the side that doesn’t have any duck fat on it, before pressing it down onto the rest of the sandwich (duck-fat-side up!). Once the bottom of the sandwich has browned up, carefully flip the whole thing and give the top side the same treatment, which won’t take long.

Slide the greasy melty darling from the pan and pile some pickles or rice chips on the side. Console your arteries with the thought that…. um, well, there is no consolation for them, actually. Especially if you used the Cotswold.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Rustlin' Evidence

Pizza is a thing we like to make. You may not feel the need, given the general ubiquity of the form across the country, but to my taste most of it is just unimaginative.
New York style? Greasy, limp, and overhyped—seriously, it cannot even be considered edible unless it’s beneath a tidal shoal of hot pepper flakes. Chicago style? Indigestible wodges of cheese drowning in oregano, poured into an oily shell. I know people (like Watson) will jump up and say, “But you’ve never tried this place or that place.” And sure, there are exceptions—New Haven style and Sicilian style, for starters--but for pizza you really, truly bond with, you’ve got to make it yourself. At least I do.

So the optimal Melvin-style ‘za is both a years-long work in progress and
an impossibility. There will always be another variation to try, whether in dough makeup, saucing, toppings, or temperatures. What’s below is just last night’s incarnation of a kind we’ve been tinkering for a while, called The Rustler after its inspiration, found at Minnesota’s Pizza Lucé.

Before we get into that, we’ve gotta talk crust. People, crust is not scary. It is not hard. And it does not even take that much time. Here’s all you do for a crust that is crisp, not puffy or oily, but also not crackery: measure a scant tablespoon of yeast into a quarter cup of warm water, then add a pinch of sugar and dissolve. In a large bowl, mix roughly 2 2/3 cups white flour with a very healthy tablespoon of your favorite salt. We’re using kosher right now, but coarse sea salt adds a nice crunch. You can use a little rye flour in place of some of the white if you must. Once the yeast proofs, mix it into the flour along with 2 tbsp. each olive oil and milk. This has been a point of great variation—the milk makes for a crispier crust, but adding too much of it can lead to weird exudations later on. Also add another quarter cup of water—I like to swirl this around the yeast bowl to make sure you get all that bacterial goodness.

Mix everything together a little and see if it’s too dry. For years, I aimed for a dry dough, but this was wrong. You want what comes together here to be wet but not sticky—you’ll get a feel the more you do this. So add some more water if it seems like a good idea, but try not to wait until things are really coming together because it’s harder to incorporate the water after a while. If it gets too wet, hey, add a little flour. (This is not astrophysics.) Knead the dough for just a few minutes—it can be very satisfying to pick this moist ball up in your hand and slam it down into the bowl or onto a board, if you’re using one. I tend to just use the bowl, since the dough is wet enough not to leave any flour behind. In any event, grease a bowl with some olive oil, put the dough into it, turn it once, and leave it to rise.

Oh, no, a rise! How long is this going to take? What do you take me for? You childless yuppies have no idea how real people live!

Let it rise a whopping 30 minutes. You’re going to need that time to prep the other ingredients and heat up the oven. Speaking of which, my preferred oven temperature right now is 520, but of course YMMV. 500 is a pretty good benchmark. I’ve taken it up to 550, but that has a tendency to set off smoke alarms and the like, as well reduce the cooking time to something like a minute and a half, which isn’t ideal for most toppings.

I could write a treatise here on toppings, but the general point is
Kenny Shopsin’s mantra: if there is something you like to eat, eat it. (This is perhaps better known as Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s mantra.) I’ve had success with artichokes, cilantro, pureed cauliflower, apples, anchovies, and dozens of other things. Whatever. We need to focus on the Rustler or this entry will never end. However, it is worth mentioning that tomato-based sauces are not in favor Chez Melvin right now—a swab of olive oil, a dab of anchovy paste, a blorp of chipotle salsa are more like it. (I am at the moment heavily influenced in this by Manetta’s, in Long Island City, New York.)

The Pizza Lucé Rustler uses a tomato-y barbecue sauce and a mix of cheddar and mozzarella, topped with mock duck, sliced red onion, banana peppers, and pineapple chunks. (I have to say that Lucé’s crust can taste like a waffle-tread sneaker, unfortunately.) What’s pictured above uses similar toppings, but we’re using Trader Joe’s meatless strips, and we skipped the banana peppers because, um, well, we forgot them. The critical element at work here, though, is the sauce,
Smoke Daddy Sweet and Smoky, which is heavy on the molasses and the vinegar. (We gave this stuff a tryout because Watson hung out with Señor Smoke Daddy as a vacationing child.)

By this time you have these things prepped and the oven heated, the crust is essentially ready to go. You can, however, let it rise for hours if you’re so inclined. No one will die. Lightly grease a pizza pan with vegetable oil (not olive oil), and stretch the crust out to fill in—it should be pretty elastic and shouldn’t require rolling. Swirl a nice layer of the sauce, add a blanket of mixed cheeses, and then dot everything else around to your satisfaction. Throw in the oven on the bottom rack for about 10 minutes. Then move it up—unless you like a very black crust—for another five or so. You will absolutely know when it’s done—everything will be nice and caramel-colored, the mock duck will be only just starting to carbonize, and there should be only a very little bit of liquid (from the pineapple, mostly) left on the top. Pull it out, slice it up, chomp into your first piece, and scorch the roof of your mouth. At least that’s what I do. More temperate souls might wait 5 or 10 minutes—you could make a nice salad, say, or pour a strong beer. We went for the
Left Hand Smoked Porter, which made for perhaps a too smoky ensemble. But hey, you know what you like.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The cream police

"I thought carbonara had cream in it," Melvin said when I showed him the recipe as part of my proposal that we make do with what's in the pantry tonight instead of venturing out into the eyeball-hardening winds currently scouring Chicago. Nope, no cream, which is one of many things I've learned in years of following periodic flareups on forums like Chowhound.com about what makes for "authentic" carbonara/fettuccine Alfredo/Caesar salad/martinis/insert your own classic here.

I'd never tried to make real pasta carbonara before tonight, and now that I know how easy it is I'm thoroughly embarrassed that it took me so long. You probably have everything you need for it in the house right now: bacon, eggs, pasta, Parmesan, salt & pepper. Easy peasy.

(Note: No picture today. We really need to invest in a better camera around here, so that our tasty creations don't end up looking like the dog's dinner when we post pictures of them online [although I hear tell that on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog].)

Pasta alla Carbonara
adapted from Lynne Rossetto Kasper, The Italian Country Table
Serves 4

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 cup (4 oz.) freshly grated Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese
4 large eggs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound egg tagliatelle

1. Set a large pot of salted water to boil for the pasta.
2. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the bacon and cook until crisp (be careful not to burn the brown glaze that forms on the bottom of the pan). Cover and set aside.
2. Lightly beat together the eggs, 2 teaspoons of the cheese, a pinch of salt and a pinch of pepper in a small bowl.
3. Cook the pasta in boiling water until it's cooked but still firm to the bite. Remove 1/4 cup of the pasta water and add it to the bacon pan. Drain the pasta thoroughly in a colander.
4. Reheat the bacon over medium heat, scraping up the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the pasta to the pan and toss to blend. Mix in the eggs, stirring until they firm up and cling to the pasta. Season generously with black pepper.
5. Turn the pasta into a warmed serving bowl, and pass the rest of the grated cheese with it at the table.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Eggs à la Charlton Heston

I know Watson just posted about a fantastic mishmash breakfast, but frankly fantastic mishmash breakfasts are something we do a lot of around here. The warhorse of the group is something that we call Mexican Eggs, though it is sometimes about as Mexican as
Kenny Shopsin’s African Green Curry Soup is African (i.e., it is essentially just our idea of something that people in Mexico might like). It derives, as the mushroom lasagna did, from Annie Somerville’s Fields of Greens, and if that means we’re in a rut, so be it. It is a very tasty rut.

What you do is this: sauté up some red peppers—or green if you like them; we do not. You can also include some onion (red or white) or garlic, if you’re so inclined. As things fry up, toss in either some grated jalapeño or a spoonful or two of hot salsa—right now we’re favoring the Frontera chipotle salsa, but suit yourself.

Wait, did I say grated jalapeño? I did. Next time you pick up some fresh ones, toss a couple in the freezer. When the time comes, pop them out and without defrosting set to work on them with a box grater or microplane. You get nice little spicy bits and much easier cleanup than when you wrestle a live one.

While the peppers and what-have-you are frying up, slice up a flour tortilla. (Do not use corn tortillas because they are always unappetizingly mealy.) Beat four or five eggs and set aside. Chop a little cilantro and some scallions, if you have them. Also grate a nice pile of cheese—cheddar is a favorite here, but lots of standardish white and yellow cheeses work just fine. Pause to wonder why there seems to be very little actual good Mexican cheese, yet seemingly endless varieties of the blander kinds.

As the peppers stick and blacken a bit, add the tortilla slices. Push them around a little, and maybe add another spoonful of salsa. Add the eggs and mix in well. As the eggs start to set up, add the cheese. Serve immediately and garnish with the cilantro, scallions, and more salsa. It will not be the prettiest plate you have ever presented, but this is a mishmash breakfast, not
Hot Potato, Cold Potato, for goodness sake.

You can vary the specifics in this essentially to your heart’s content. We’ve been working in some Trader Joe’s veggie chorizo lately (add it just before the tortilla strips). It adds a bit more spice, depth, and color to the final product. And for a couple white middle-class Northerners who don't know jack about Mexico, those are all good things.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Access forbidden.

Deb's post today reminded me to rummage in the fridge for the last of the black-rice pudding I made a week or so ago. This is the most ridiculously easy recipe in my whole repertoire, I think -- three ingredients (water & salt don't count, right?) and minimal exertion by the cook result in a dish that is both an excellent dessert and a lovely breakfast. Today, it was also a good lunch.

This is one of the rare desserts that I'll make on a Tuesday just for the hell of it, but have also made for company. It's the perfect finish to an Asian-y meal: nutty and a little bit sweet -- but not too much. (If Melvin were reading over my shoulder, he'd say: "Just like you!") It's also a simultaneous creamy/chewy experience that I find very satisfying. The black rice, which turns a terribly exotic dark purple when cooked, is sometimes labeled forbidden rice (ooh la la!) and is mighty expensive if you buy it at a chain grocery. I picked up a small bag last month from the sad little clearance shelves hidden away at the back of my nearest Dominick's -- the original price was ree-diculous. Try an Asian market or a natural-foods store for a better deal.

Black-Rice Pudding

1 cup black rice
1/2 cup sugar
1 can unsweetened coconut milk (I use lowfat), stirred well

Place rice in a 3–4 quart heavy saucepan with 3 cups water and 1/4 teaspoon salt and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 45 minutes. (The rice will still look pretty wet at this point.)

Stir in the sugar, another 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and 1 1/2 cups coconut milk. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for about 30 minutes. Give it a stir occasionally.

Remove the pan from heat and cool the pudding for at least 30 minutes (the mixture will thicken a bit more as it cools). Serve it warm or at room temperature, in plain white bowls to maximize the gorgeous purpleness of the rice. If you have any coconut milk left, drizzle a bit over each serving.

Leftovers keep for a week or so in the fridge, and are very tasty cold, warm or at room temperature.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

How Not to Make a Roux

Despite the homage below to my willingness to substitute rashly and too much, I found myself seized over the weekend by the need to tackle not one but four recipes in the service of a mushroom-and-port lasagna. “Mel,” I hear you say, “seriously, four recipes? For a hot mash of mushrooms, cheese, and pasta? What’s your effin’ problem?”

My problem--in this instance, anyway--is that I haven’t made anything I haven’t loved from Annie Somerville’s
Fields of Greens (1993). I was a vegetarian for fifteen-ish years and went back to this one again and again, long after most of the Moosewoods had been wrung dry of their charms, such as they were. So when it became clear that (1) it was really cold and wet out, and (2) something had to be done with those pre-Christmas mushrooms in the fridge, I knew where to turn, even though—even though—the recipe itself uses phrases like “labor of love” and “preparation is lengthy.” Sometimes that’s just how it has to be.

Watson was having none of it, opting instead to compile a one-pot squash-and-beaner that was a good cupboard cleaner—and has made for good lunches this week—but didn’t address that need for a January hot dish and didn’t do anything about the mushrooms, either.

But of course, by the time I’d scanned the recipe in all its complexity, there was shopping to be done. For starters, we didn’t have enough mushrooms.

Recipe number 1 was essentially for mushroom sauce, and it entailed some mushroom stock, which under other circumstances could have meant that this would be actually a
five subrecipe extravaganza. Luckily, we had some frozen into a solid, disturbing-looking mass in the freezer, right next to the pierogi.

So while that was heating up, I soaked some porcinis and sautéed half an onion in some olive oil. Incidentally, have you ever known a cat to like to lick olive oil bottles? The bad one of ours does, and frankly it’s gross. But you didn’t need me to tell you that. Anyway, to the onions I added the porcinis (chopped up), their liquid, a whole lot of minced garlic, some white port, and cooked it all down into a savory mess, which I transferred to a bowl. In the same pan, I melted some butter and whisked up a roux, thickening it gradually with the mushroom stock. This, friends, is indeed how one makes a roux. To the successful sauce, I returned the savory mess from above, and things are off to a good start.

On to recipe 2: mushrooms and leeks. Leeks are probably the most wasteful vegetable I know, other than my brother-in-law--all those lovely green tops, useless for much of anything besides more stock. But whom are you going to argue with about it? Anyway, a couple cups of those sliced lovelies go into some oil and get sautéed for a bit with some thyme and garlic and such, then covered and steamed for about 8 minutes before getting pulled from the pan. This pan is about to really go through holy hell, but I decide not to mention it to Watson, who would worry. I crank the burner up to high, promptly incinerating some stray leek bits and nearly one of my eyebrows. To the pan I add just a drop of oil and half the mushrooms. They sizzle and start to melt, but not nearly as fast as the pan is blackening. I add some more chopped garlic, which doesn’t really affect the situation at all, and some more port, which does help. I remove this batch and repeat the exercise, despite a look of concern from Watson, who leaves the room. A few minutes later, she returns and wonders if our carbon monoxide detector is on the fritz. Seeing as we removed it from the ceiling some weeks back on account of suspicious behavior, this seems a reasonable supposition.

To try to disguise what I’ve done to the pan (OK, her pan actually), I’ve thrown more port, the first batch of mushroom, and the leeks back into it and shut off the burner, all the while making “isn’t this just heavenly, dear?” noises. Watson, unfooled, is opening a number of windows and doors, which is sort of unfortunate (see observation about “wet and cold,” above). But at least we’ve reached the end of recipe 2.

Recipe 3 is simplicity itself. I blorp a container of ricotta into a bowl and mash it with some beaten eggs, Parmesan, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Heck, that barely counts.

Recipe 4 is a herb béchamel. After realizing we don’t have enough milk, running out through one of the open doors/windows to go to the 7-11 on the corner, and returning to find that we might, actually, have just enough milk after all, I take the first fateful steps down the path to not making a roux.

See, what the recipe calls for is this: scald some milk in one pan, while melting some butter in another. Into the butter, stir some flour. Now, given that I had made a more complex roux earlier this same evening (we’re about 90 minutes into the process at this point, by the by), one might well imagine that I would know what to do next. And, indeed, should you consult page 155 of
Field of Greens, you, too, will see what to do next.

Reader, I did not do that.

Nevertheless, I charged ahead—still worried about how I was ever going to clean that seared pan—and let the béchamel burble away with some bundled fresh herbs, as I began to assemble the actual lasagna. No, I am not going to get into the whole boil/no-boil thing. The answer is always no-boil.

So: mushroom sauce, pasta, mushroom sauce, leek/mushroom mixture, cheese (Gruyère and Parmesan), pasta, ricotta mix, pasta, mushroom sauce, cheese, pasta. And now, with the oven preheated, all I need to do is “Pour the béchamel over the lasagne, spreading it evenly to cover the corners.” This proves difficult because what I have is not a spreadable sauce but rather a pan of hot milk. For in making--or, rather, not making—the roux, I scraped the butter and flour into the milk, rather than the other way around, and as a result that nice rouxy thickness never developed.

Actually, it was worse than that. Watson was pitching in around the time of the roux misstep, and I actually told her to scrape the butter and flour into the milk, rather than the other way around, Trusting soul that she is, she did. That’ll teach her to listen to me. (I am reliably informed that she was biting her tongue forcefully at this moment, which will teach me not to ask her what that grimace is about.)

Alas, into the oven all the same—and if I do say so the kitchen smells pretty damn good about this time. But as the baking time passes, and then some, there is still this undeniably liquid quality to what’s in the pan. Around this time, Watson forswears her taciturnity and says, in effect, “That’s not how you make a herb béchamel, you know.”

Crestfallen, I consider taking to the tub, but instead we sit down to some mushroom-noodle milk soup. Later I scrub the pans with Kennedy-esque vigor. ("You certainly are domestic today," said Watson.)

The next day, we discover that several hours in the fridge has done a world of good, and that we now have a reward worthy of all the seemingly wasted effort. No, really, it's terrific. Try it yourself sometime.

It's what we've got, and what we've got is good

"The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for 30 years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found." —Calvin Trillin

"If we can eat like this from our leftovers," Mel observed, "I'd say we're doing pretty well
." He was looking at the New Year's Day breakfast he'd improvised out of the stuff in our fridge and on our countertops.

The bottom layer (invisible here under subsequent strata of deliciousness): the previous night's skillet cornbread, from a recipe in
The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook.

Next: a layer of shredded sharp cheddar cheese. Then: eggs fried in fat that Mel had patiently rendered from a smoked duck breast. The fat had languished unloved in the fridge for a few weeks, because it took us that long to figure out its irresistible resemblance to smoky, extra-silky butter. (Some of it went into the cornbread batter, too, replacing half the melted butter. We later agreed that we should've substituted it for
all the butter.)

Finally: a scattering of diced smoked salmon on Mel's serving and crisp bacon bits on mine (left over from our New Year's Eve feast of oyster & benne-seed stew, also courtesy of the Lee Bros.), plus some chopped scallions. Oh, and a few shakes of hot sauce over the top.
On the side: leftover mustard-roasted potatoes, recipe courtesy of the fabulous smittenkitchen.com.

Improvisational cooking has always been tough for me—I'm a recipe-follower through and through. Mel has taught me to loosen up a little and follow my instincts, to read recipes as inspiration rather than gospel, and to work with what's in the kitchen instead of racing off to the store for an incidental ingredient. More improvisation in 2009! Also, more duck fat.