Sunday, March 17, 2013

Inspired by Haven (Carrot Coconut Ginger Soup)

Often I am asked what is my favorite restaurant in Oakland. I can answer, without question, Haven in Jack London Square. Open for just over a year Haven is an outstanding example of the talent and fine dining Oakland is attracting. Haven's cuisine is probably best described as New American, or better yet, New California Cuisine. Chef Kim Alter's* dishes are among the most creative I have personally sampled. She is particularly adept with vegetables and grains. Two of her dishes score in the top two positions on my list of best food I have ever eaten. The menu at Haven changes frequently and some of the best dishes evolve with the change in season. I view this as the mark of a truly great restaurant, and ultimately a great chef. I hate to harp on a new idea, and I understand the argument for consistency. But, with Americans amidst our own food renaissance, diners attitudes are changing. This is paving way for chefs to boldly express themselves through their food. I believe that one day some of their menus will be widely accepted as a fine art.

While I am sure by the time this post is published the menu at Haven will have changed; it is worth mentioning the two dishes I will never forget. On my first visit to Haven I ordered Smoked Black Rice and Squid. I was initially intrigued by the smoked black rice, but a bit apprehensive about the squid. Squid is a difficult ingredient to work with. When cooking it quickly it should only be cooked for between one and two minutes. Further cooking by even 30 seconds can take it to a texture not unlike rubber bands. When braising squid, in soups for example, it must be cooked for upwards of 40 minutes to return it to a softer texture. This dish was executed perfectly! The smokey flavor of the rice came through just beyond a hint and complemented the nutty flavor of the rice. The squid was softened nicely with just a bit of bite. I gather a similar dish is now being served with Uni (Japanese sea urchin) which I must try!

The second dish came from the chef's tasting menu on my second visit. This is perhaps the most creative dish I have ever eaten. Served in a fairly small portion, probably due to its richness, was a Sunflower Seed Risotto. I was assured that this dish was cooked exactly as you would a risotto, but with sunflower seeds instead of rice. This risotto was nutty, rich, and perfectly al dente; the flavor was exquisite! I suspect that duck stock was used as apposed to chicken stock used in a more traditional risottos.

Much of the allure behind eating at places like Haven is being exposed to these creative dishes. Some of the techniques and equipment used in preparing these dishes are a bit beyond my capabilities as a self-taught home cook, but that never prevents me from drawing on these dishes for inspiration.

The recipe in this post is my take on the Carrot Coconut and Ginger soup from the chefs tasting menu at Haven. The soup was served with an accoutrement of "compressed apples" made by soaking apples in ginger beer in a vacuum bag. The apples paired perfectly with the ginger and carrot. I don't have a vacuum sealer and I was looking for something a little simpler. I made eight trials of this soup before settling on this recipe. I am quite pleased with this version. This soup is simple, delicious, and makes an impressive first or second course. Be sure to read the notes section of the recipe.

If you are an adventurous eater I highly recommend the chef's tasting menu when visiting Haven. Call first and make a reservation. If you want to be a little more in control of your meal you really can't go wrong with anything on the menu. I highly recommend ordering anything made with grains or duck.

* I do not personally know Chef Kim Alter, but it is important to mention her name because the dishes at Haven are of her own vision and she deserves every bit of credit for her part in the success of Haven.

(My recipe for Carrot Coconut Ginger Soup inspired by Haven Restaurant, Oakland CA follows)

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Skirt Steak with Porcini Red Wine Reduction

Recently I joined a book club. Last month I was given the chance to choose the book. I chose Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford. Buford basically lived my fantasy midlife crisis, and wrote a book about it. He accounts his experience meeting Mario Batail at a dinner party, quitting his day job, going to work at Mario's three-star restaurant Babbo in New York City. After apprenticing at Babbo for a little over a year he journeys to Italy on a quest to learn traditional Italian cooking from Italians who have been passing down their family recipes for generations. I found the book thoroughly entertaining and very inspirational. Buford starts his journey wanting to know more about cooking, and along that route he comes to make much more profound realizations. In my own experience these cursory realizations often come when you aren't looking for them, and those realizations mean a great deal more. I came to a few of my own revelations while reading Buford's book.

The notion of moving to Italy and learning traditional Italian cooking is among my most idyllic fantasies. Buford's portrayal of how Italians approach cuisine is fascinating. In his research he finds that these traditions have not changed much over the last 500 years since the recipes were first recorded. He describes the food and cooking as being an integral part of the Italian identity. His account is pretty much how I have romanticized Italian culture. What I find so intriguing is how these traditions are passed down from generation to generation and carried out, not by chefs, but cooks. These cooks are grandmothers, fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters. Their understanding of regional cuisine seems to be socially ingrained and a source of identity and pride. Each of the cooks, for whom Buford apprentices, has a broad understanding of their region and heritage that is strongly bound to their culinary traditions. Each is truly a master of their craft, specializing in specific areas of these traditions: pasta, fish, meat, butchery, wine making, bread, and olive oil. What particularly strikes me is that each of these masters expresses their concern that the industrialization of food is threatening these traditions. Which, to them, means the loss of their cultural identity.

For some time now I have been thinking about my own philosophy on food. Something I strongly believe–resonated by the characters attitudes in Buford’s book–I believe food brings people together. I think about this from an evolutionary standpoint. Food is what kept humans together in herds, packs, or tribes tens of thousands of years ago, hunting and gathering and preparing shared meals. Gatherings centered around food are deeply symbolic and meaningful to most religions and cultures around the world today. The Last Supper, Passover Seder, and Thanksgiving to name a few. I ponder our traditions here in the United States. As a relatively new culture, composed almost entirely of immigrants originating from longer standing cultures, we too have culinary traditions much like those in the various regions of Italy. However, our traditions were largely brought with us and not developed out of what was plentiful in the areas we now live. This, I believe, has both positive and negative effects on the culture surrounding food in the United States. The demand for ingredients that are not native or require special applications to produce has given rise to industrial agriculture. Shipping this food around the country and in from other countries requires a tremendous amount of resources and has a considerable impact on the environment. This demand all but ensures the mass production of foods that are not fresh, preserved with unnatural ingredients, and missing the point of the original application.

On the upside we have this collective of culinary traditions, to draw on, to use in our own inspirations. We have the freedom to create from these traditions our own unique interpretations without the pressure to adhere strictly to the traditional ways. I once rejected the idea of Fusion Cuisine. The concept is often overemphasized, especially where that label is applied. I am certainly not advocating that we start putting soy sauce on tacos (although I believe there is probably a chef out there who is doing just that, and making it taste good.) And, understanding and preserving some of the traditional aspects of the originating culture is essential to shaping our own. We are in the beginning stages of our own culinary renaissance: New American Cuisine. Consideration for where our food comes from, how it is produced, and what is in it should be at the forefront of this movement. This is our opportunity to embrace the traditions of America’s cultural melting pot and integrate them into our own collective cultural identity.

*  *  *  *

How does Bill Buford's book tie into this recipe? While the inspiration for my post came long after I prepared the pictured dish, the answer is: very loosely. Buford mentions some of the sauces on hand in the Babbo kitchen. One piqued my interest immediately, a brown sauce made using a porcini reduction. He never explains how the sauce is made, so I searched the internet. One thing that many recipes on the internet, usually intended for home cooking, often lack is sauces. I find sauces to be a bit of a challenge due to my lack of experience with them. My search didn't turn up much except the idea to use the soaking liquid from dried Porcini mushrooms along with red wine and butter. I have used the soaking liquid from dried porcini in wild mushroom risotto. The soaking liquid has an extremely rich earthy flavor and aroma not at all uncharacteristic of mushrooms. So, the idea for the sauce came first. Then I began to think about what might go well with this sauce. Skirt steak. I had eaten skirt steak earlier in the month. I'd never cooked skirt steak before, but I've eaten plenty at restaurants. Skirt steak is not one of the most tender cuts, but it is probably my favorite in terms of flavor. The cut is used a lot in fajitas, but often overcooked. Marrinated, seared, and served rare to medium-rare is the best way to present this cut of beef.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Bumper Crop 2: Zucchini Frittata

Zucchini is one of my favorite vegetables, maybe just behind chard. I think its versatility is what I like so much about this tender summer squash. My general rule of thumb with this vegetable is: the smaller the better. I love early summer when you can sometimes find baby zucchini. Baby zucchini are wonderful slightly browned in olive oil and tossed into pasta with basil and tomatoes for a light lunch. In South Africa zucchini are called marrows. When I was there visiting my sister I picked up a simple recipe for Marinated Baby Marrows which is essentially thinly sliced or julienned zucchini dressed with olive oil and lemon juice. Served cold, the salad is wonderfully refreshing on the hottest of summer days.

Late last June I got a chance to have brunch at a terrific restaurant in Oakland called Camino. One thing that makes Camino particularly special is that most of the food is cooked in a wood fired oven. The stand out that morning was the zucchini frittata. Typically when I've made a fritatta they have been rather thick, between 1 and 1 1/2 inches usually filled out with something like potatoes. The zucchini frittata served at Camino was served quite thin, perhaps 1/2 inch thick. Although I thought it unusual, this made a lot of sense. Zucchini contain a lot of moisture. If one were to make a deep frittata with lots of zucchini it would become a soup and probably never set. Also, wood fired ovens tend to be very hot and I would imagine that the top would scorch before the center was cooked. I was quite impressed by the simplicity of the Camino frittata and made note of it. Later in July I gave it a shot. My frittata turned out fantastic! My recipe may differ somewhat in its ingredients, and execution given that I don't yet have a wood fired oven, but I am none the less pleased with my take on Camino's Zucchini Frittata. I served mine over sliced heirloom tomatoes and grape tomatoes dressed with olive oil, but I would try it with arugula or spinach or even alongside roasted potatoes. As with most frittatas they can be served hot or at room temperature.

(Recipe for Bradley's Zucchini Frittata follows)

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Bumper Crop 1: Zucchini Bread

What do you do with a bunch of giant zucchini's from the garden? I've found a few good uses for the abundance of zucchini that came from my garden last year. These summer squash (I know this is a little late) can grow from a perfectly usable size to something bearing more resemblance to a skinny watermelon in a blink. Often the larger zucchini lack a little in flavor, so I'm not advocating that you grow them so large. If you truly want the best flavor harvest them when they are between 5 and 6 inches long. Zucchini bread is probably my favorite use for the larger zucchini you'll end up with if you aren't paying attention.

Zucchini bread is really a cake. It is quite sweet and I find it rather addictive. Make sure you have someone to share this with because it is hard to stop eating it once you've sliced off that first piece. I've perfected my recipe for Zucchini bread since last summer. I found a balance of white and brown sugar that seems to work quite well. The best way to show off this bread is to use the best cinnamon you can find. I get mine from here ( This cinnamon is the sweetest most fragrant cinnamon I have found. Trust me it makes a huge difference in any dish calling for cinnamon.

Recipe for Bradley's Zucchini Bread follows

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Duck, Duck, Chicken!

Chicken Ragu and Home Made Gnocchi

Many of my recipes are inspired by something I’ve been served at restaurants or a friend's table. It is the challenge to recreate a dish in my own way that I find so intriguing, but sometimes my inspirations don’t turn out anything like what I first envision. This recipe is the result of several mistakes and a lot of persistence. My muse for this recipe came while having dinner at a nice restaurant on Polk Street in San Francisco. On the menu was a ricotta gnocchi served in a pork ragu. I have always wanted to try making gnocchi and a simple ragu seemed like just the thing for a first attempt at gnocchi.

My original idea was for a potato gnocchi in a duck confit ragu. I figured the duck would make a fine substitute for pork. Both are rich, flavorful, and fatty meats. Since this undertaking was planned for a weeknight I thought starting with confit would save a lot of time where pork would take many hours to braise and become tender enough for ragu. I still think my intuition was reasonable, but I made some crucial mistakes in my approach and hastily procuring the ingredients. I knew this the moment I opened the hermetically sealed vacuum bag containing two dry overcooked duck legs almost completely devoid of fat. The ragu wasn’t going to work out. No amount of braising would bring this foul back from its state of cooking induced rigor mortis.

My next mistake was thinking that since I’ve become very good at making fresh pasta the gnocchi were going to be a cinch. Wrong! I way underestimated the amount of time necessary to roll out a full recipe of gnocchi. While I rolled out the gnocchi I allowed the ragu to simmer uncovered. This required several additions of wine and chicken stock to keep the ragu from turning to paste. As the liquid reduced the flavors became far too rich and unbalanced. As for the potato dough, I lacked a crucial piece of equipment. I used a potato masher which left chunks of potato in the dough that made for an irregular texture. A potato ricer would have produced a much more uniform texture. The potatoes were also too wet which required too much flour to bring them into a dough. This gave the gnocchi the wrong texture and taste of doughy raw flour instead of a firm texture with distinct potato flavor.

I served the gnocchi that night, but I wasn't satisfied with the results. I may have taken on too much at once. I gave some more thought to my attempt: I still had half a batch of gnocchi in the freezer. All was not lost. Later that week I decided to try again at the ragu. This time I aimed to correct the balance of flavors. I decided to use chicken in place of the duck. Minding the cooking time for the sauce and keeping it covered made all the difference. The gnocchi were of the wrong texture, but still edible. The ragu, however, was delicious!

This will not be my last post concerning gnocchi. I'm still looking for a better source of duck confit. I still need to procure a potato ricer, and get more practice making the dough and rolling out the gnocchi. While not everything went as planned I did end up with a recipe that I feel quite proud of and have made several times since. While producing an incredible dish is always the ultimate goal in my culinary adventures it is the lessons like these that serve to humble my skills and remind me of why I find cooking so fascinating.

(Recipe for Chicken Ragu follows)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Cumin and Coriander Crusted Pork Chops

I have been eating a lot of chicken lately; I have kind of fallen in love with Thomas Keller's roasting method. It is just so simple. I think it is actually less effort than pan roasting pieces of chicken, but even roasted chicken can get uninteresting after a few meals. Last week I was about to buy another whole chicken when I saw some beautiful bone-in Pork Chops with nice big pieces of the tenderloin still attached. If you like pork chops you want to be sure you get them with the tenderloin, after all, it is the best part of the pig next to the belly. Another nice thing about pork chops is they are relatively quick. This recipe makes a terrific weeknight meal in less than 40 minutes. Brining the chops will help ensure they stay juicy, but if you are careful when cooking them this recipe will yield delicious and tender chops even if you don't have time to brine.

Recipe for Cumin and Coriander Crusted Pork Chops with Polenta and Sauteed Chard Follows

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Spiked Tzimmes

(Before baking)
This post is about four weeks overdue. I've been cooking, but I haven't been writing. It feels good to put the proverbial pen to paper. After about 10 days of actual spring weather, tonight, the rain is beginning to fall. I'm eating a leftover pasta dish that probably won't win a spot on the front page of Oakland Skillet. Tonight just feels like a good night for blogging.

As I'm sitting here looking over photos of the dishes I've cooked since my last post. There is one in particular that I have been wanting to share: my Spiked Tzimmes. This dish is rather out of season, save for the carrots, but there is a significance behind it that gives exception to my recent custom of shopping  farmers markets for what is in season. April 6th was Passover. I'm not Jewish, but I've been to a few Passover Saders before. I have always felt honored when invited to share in this cultural tradition. This year the invitation came from my girlfriend's family. Actually, there is some debate as to whether I invited myself. The conversation went something like this:

(Having dinner with girlfriend's parents. Things are going well. I'm pretty relaxed and feeling pretty confident.)

Girlfriend's Mother: "Have you been to a Sader before?"
Me: "Yes, two."
Girlfriend's Mother: "Have you been invited to a Sader this year?"
Me: "No. But if that is an invitation to yours then I accept."

(Two days pass) I realize that I didn't actually wait for an invitation and kind of stuck my foot in the door. It turns out it was more or less an invitation, but it does point out where I might lack some social graces, but I digress.

Along with the invitation came a "challenge", or at least I took it as a challenge. I was asked to bring a traditional Ashkenazi-Jewish stew called Tzimmes. Traditionally the stew is made with carrots and dried fruit, but other root vegetables are often added. I had about a week to research the dish and come up with a recipe. I found many variations, but having never eaten Tzimmes before I felt I had a little free license. I loved the idea of using dried fruit with sweet potatoes and yams. I was reminded of my step-mothers recipe for baked yams with bourbon spiked apricots. After reading more about the dietary rules for passover I'm not sure the bourbon was appropriate, but the combination of flavors is magnificent. Besides, Tzimmes is more traditionally served in the Fall during Rosh Hashanah when bourbon is probably okay (don't quote me on that). My version also adds dried cherries along with more traditional raisins, and prunes.

I was quite pleased with the outcome of my Tzimmes recipe. I think the addition of dried cherries and bourbon soaked apricots made this my own rendition.

Recipe for Bradley's Spiked Tzimmes follows