Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Cattails - Summer Consideration

A quick search of my blog will show you that I love using cattails on our restaurant menu. As a kid I was raised around cattails every time we drove to our cabin near Ste. Genevieve, MO. Along every roadside in the ditches, surrounding every slimy pond, and lining every sewer runoff there were cattails. At that time my only goal was to wait for them to become mature and puffy so I could whack them with a stick and make them explode into a million little parachutes (no wonder they were everywhere - I was dispersing the seeds). But now as a chef I have a different appreciation.

Back at our Winter Foraging Workshop, Doug Simons introduced myself and my foraging team to cattails as food. We had all heard of it being eaten, but we had never actually tried. At that time our focus was the root systems which Doug suggested be cooked into a porridge of sorts. I tried it once with no success (I later strategized that I needed to dehydrate, grind and then reconstitute it). But then came Spring. All of a sudden little shoots were coming up around all of the old dry stalks...and I pulled a few up and nibbled! Cucumber. Water chestnut? Baby corn? The flavors were familiar yet alien, but good. The raw cattail shoots quickly joined my menu both as garnish and centerpiece. But those shoots have grown and are practically inedible.

With summer comes the next phase of cattail eating - the heads. Below are a series of pictures (all from the same day) showing the cattail heads in various stages of development. My goal on this day was to gather pollen which I did quite successfully.

Here is a head still in its paper sheath. This will be ready for pollen or "cob" eating in just a few days.

Next, you can see a cob starting to poke its head out. The head (what we think of as the brown fuzzy part) is considered the female, while the little stick poking its way out above the furry brown is the male. The male drops its pollen on the female and the cycle begins anew. This plant I allowed to continue to mature.

This is maybe another day older...still not quite ready although I certainly could pop this off and gnaw on it or better yet, saute it.

Bigger, older, completely ready for gnawing...but I'm more interested in pollen today. Time to pop that hoodie off sister!

And, now too late. Once its the big, brown, beautiful cob that we all know and love its not really palatable. Doug said it was edible, and I've heard of people cooking it into bread and such, it doesn't fit my criteria for food worth foraging. So I leave it for people making Thanksgiving centerpieces.

And here's my prize for the day. See the stalk on the left? Notice that there's a top and bottom? That's the male and female. The female can be eaten although I left it to do its work. But the male was generous with its pollen giving me plenty and keeping enough for its vertical courtship.

And unlike most of my foraging trips, my faithful companion, Lexi, couldn't care less. She just wanted to play in the pond.

When we get to fall, the cattail will change in its usefulness once again. And until then...

Book Review: The Wild Table

Connie Green and Sarah Scott’s The Wild Table: Seasonal foraged food and recipes is the latest in a string of books capitalizing on the foraged (also called wild crafted) food movement. Just as the movement has evolved and matured, Green & Scott’s book is a step above all others.

While in America the “foraged” ingredient restaurant craze is exploding, the concept has been around as long as restaurants have existed in the rest of the world. The country most known for such food would certainly be Italy, which developed the Slow Foods movement, but slow food is not necessarily about wild, foraged foods. France certainly could argue its place in history, but so could many other countries full of chefs who head out on a crisp Autumn morn to gather the day’s new bolets. Although this is a new fad on the American restaurant scene, the practice is obviously not new.

You can read the rest of the review at The Gastronomers Bookshelf.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Expanding my Jura Horizons

I recently enjoyed a bottle of this wonderful dessert wine. I bought it because of my love of Vin Jaune and this bottle definitely did not disappoint. From KL Wines where I purchased it:
Coming from the wonderful Domaine de Montbourgeau, producers of top notch Vin Jaune, Etoile, etc, comes this most bizarre of treats. Made in a similar fashion to Pineau des Charantes, Montbourgeau takes the fresh pressed grape juice (Le Moût) and adds about 1/3 Marc du Jura. In a classically vague explanation from the Domaine, the cepage is listed as "Chardonnay, quelques Poulsard." The flavors are altogether unexpected and significantly different from Pineau. Showing intense quince, orange essence, and hazelnut on the nose. The palate is like the most incredibly delicious Sweet Tea, with barely a touch of the funkiness prevalent in many of the dry wines of the region. Fresh, high-toned, and balanced, the Macvin is a perfect aperitif for the adventurous or a great pairing from fruit tarts and confections.

Curious Kumquat

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

On safety, competition and sales

I'm on vacation this week, and with idle mind time comes thoughts that actually string together to help me learn something.

On Saturday I hosted my latest tasting dinner. These differ from my nightly meals in that they are at least 10 courses, and prepared for a set seating. Back in the good ol' days before I was working 60-80 hrs in the kitchen I had the down time for my mind to be playful, and that led to really cool dishes - although with risk. Sometimes the dishes failed, but other times they were huge hits. Rarely were they in the middle.

But on the last two of these tasting dinners I opted for safer routes with my menus. More classical flavor pairings using more accessible ingredients. The results...even Tyler said this last meal was good, but no memorable.

I've made it no secret that I believe that we should get serious James Beard consideration. This last menu, while leaving no guests unsatisfied, will not achieve that goal. Carving out the downtime to allow for my playful menu creation will find its way back into my life. If not, my guests won't be wowed, and my soul won't be fed.
Turning the page to competition. A restaurant recently opened in town that shot to the top of all of the online reviews. "Amazing," "Best ever!" "Remarkable." Sounds impressive. Well, in the end its a sandwich shop housed in a gas station building. The food is fine, ingredients are as fresh as any grocery store's, but each reviewer is a first time reviewer and so it was clearly not an objective response. I rarely review other restaurants publicly in my town, but I did for this one titling it "Friends don't let friends review restaurants." It really is unfortunate that this has become part of the restaurant business.

On a healthier side of competition. We've always said that 106 and Shevek and us are the top 3 restaurants in town. You can go to any one of us, and depending on your style, you'll have a great meal. We're all very different but doing great things. Part of our shtick has always been that we're going to use local foods (and of course now foraged). We emphasize that because other restaurants state on their menus that they "support the slow food movement." But, the same Sysco truck backs up, or we see each other at the mega-grocery store. Cooking from scratch is only part of the Slow Foods movement. And this is why we've always listed where our ingredients come from - every day on every menu. We don't do this to be better, but because our guests have the right to know. So I was happy to read that Shevek is starting to list his providers. This is where competition is good for everyone!
And a final thought as I dig into my vacation. My intention is to knock out the first two sections of a cookbook that's been swirling through my mind. I'll be sharing parts of it here and appreciate your comments and criticisms.

and btw, if you were wondering what the picture is - I've been trying to make my own malt balls...without much success.