Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Baker's Dozen #2: Chef Josh Stokes

Dear Boo,

Bout time for another Baker's Dozen, eh? Sheesh, you'd think we don't have any friends. Well! Chef Josh is no stranger to A Mouse Bouche--you may remember him from such episodes as Hamlet the Pig, the concord grape and habanero jam session, and that time I conveniently broke my elbow and he had to take over cooking the Boyfriend's Birthday Dinner. He's one of my most favorite people, and not just because he feeds me pretty much every time I see him. I've learned so much from watching him cook, and from his company Grill A Chef, which is basically dedicated to helping home cooks (and eaters) with any question, large or small. And believe me, I've asked them all. More than anything, he's an incredible chef. After a spring break trip to New Orleans during college, Chef Josh "saw his booze budget being funneled into restaurants instead", and decided to take a break from a sculpture degree to pursue becoming a professional chef. Since then he's worked in some of the greatest kitchens in Italy, New York, and as a private chef for some of the biggest names in entertainment and finance. But even better, is his totally democratic approach to cooking and eating: Whether it's a bucket of thighs from KFC, or foie gras at Gramercy Tavern (where he just recently did a stint in the kitchen), or something a measly little home cook like me has thrown together, if it's tasty, Josh will eat it and love it. In just a few short weeks, The Boyfriend and I will be in New Orleans celebrating Chef Josh and his lovely and brilliant lady Kate's wedding. Highlights? A crawfish boil the night before, and, drumroll please, a PIG BAR at the reception. Also I hear tell of late night goody-bag muffaletta on our way out the door. Jealous?

Without further ado, it's my turn to grill this Chef...

1) What are your earliest food memories?

I remember as a kid in Missouri, we would pick a lot of corn at an adjacent farm and spend the day peeling it, boiling it, and flash freezing it. I would eat as much as I could, it was like candy.
I also remember BLT's in late summer. Crispy bacon, iceberg lettuce and the perfect tomato on toasted wonder bread. It was one of my favorite things in the world.

2) What was the first meal you made for your lovely wife?

I made her a four course meal around arctic char, there was a tar tare with crispy skin, a sliced cured salad, and a slow roasted course. After the first course she told me that dinner was very delicious and asked what was for dessert.

3) If The Boyfriend were to call you and tell you he wanted to make a romantic dinner for me, what would you recommend? Keep in mind, he knows his way around the kitchen but he's no expert.

I'd recommend super simple fresh preparations. I think seafood works great, oysters, shrimp cocktail, mussels, a simple ceviche . . . . it's easy to do, sexy to eat, and doesn't weigh you down for any post-meal action . . . . if you know what I mean.

4) What do you have for dinner when you're home alone?

I always order Indian. I love it, but my wife will never go for it. So while the cat's away . . . .

5) What are the top mistakes home cooks make that could be easily solved?

The biggest misstep I see is with salt. People seemed petrified by the stuff, but you have to properly season your food, every step of the way. Salting at the beginning or end of a preparation doesn't cut it.

6) What food trend do you find totally irritating?

All of them. I am the ultimate post-modernist when it comes to food. Every food trend I've come across is a is an age old tradition with a new paint job and price tag. Take garlic scapes, last spring they were all over menus, and in magazines. Farmers were charging a premium. The year before, the majority of the public were passing them over and farmers were throwing them away.
The same is true for the other trends in the city over the years. Fried chicken? BBQ? Hamburgers? Ramen noodles?

7) Okay, weigh in on this debate for me: If a special on a menu features a main ingredient that I can find elsewhere on the regular menu, I assume it means they're trying to get rid of too much product that's about to go bad, and I don't order it. Am I being ridiculous?

This is totally circumstantial. It depends mostly on the place, sometimes you'll come across what you described. But more often I would suspect that they just bought a bunch of something that is great and/or has a short season. We're about to have ramps in the market, they'll show up everywhere. Excited chefs, (myself included) are bound to buy more than they know what to do with.
Hence the ramp special on the menu. . . . . I'd order it.

8) Favorite hangover cure?

Biscuits and gravy, no question.

9) The Boo and I grew up as products of a multi-cultural household, with parents from very different religious backgrounds. You recently had an adorable baby girl who faces a similar complexity: Dad is a chef who loves meat, and mom is a lifelong vegetarian. How do you plan on raising the munchkin?

She will eat plenty of vegetables . . . . wrapped in bacon.

10) Favorite pizza topping?

Arugula and prosciutto di Parma.

11) What do you do when you go to someone's house for dinner and the food is really terrible?

Smile and say thank you.

12) I've heard chefs like to play a game of "last supper"--as in, what your final meal would be if you could choose. What would yours be?

It would be something super simple and fresh. Like a perfect peach, or a really nice tomato with salt and olive oil and some crusty bread. Maybe even a BLT.

13) Your company, Grill A Chef, has an awesome tag-line, "advice from scratch". Who came up with that, and does this person's brilliance know no bounds?

Ha, you have a good point. I couldn't come up with anything good, so I put the word out to my friends and got a lot of response. One lucky rodent (who shall remain shameless) had the perfect tag-line for me. I still owe her a steak dinner.


Well, there you have it--all roads lead back to A Mouse Bouche. Thanks to Chef Josh for taking the time to participate in our Baker's Dozen. Thirteen questions are too brief, I know, so if there's anything I didn't ask that you're dying to find out, Boo, you don't have to wait til the next time we roast a pig. You can always visit Josh at, or at Chelsea Market or the Union Square Greenmarket where you can grill him in person. Now, excuse me, I have a ribeye to finish...


The Mouse

Friday, March 26, 2010

Mexico City, NJ

Dear Mouse,

Hello from Red Bank! I've learned some words.

queso fresco
salsa roja
pan dulce
chilaquiles. Say that five times fast.


So, it's Spring! Season of hyacinth, crocus, new beginnings, sugar snaps, fava beans, freezing weather, coughing up a lung on stage, and Mucinex DM. As it turns out, it is simply impossible to clearly say, "But here is Orestes, ready to die", with a ricola wedged in your cheek.

Other than that, the remounting of the show in our home state has been a breeze. The theatre is spacious and lovely (and just steps! away from the train station! ahem), the re-staging is effective and exciting, the acoustics rock, the Thursday night cover band at the bar behind the theatre lets me sing with them!, and I'm generally wallowing in NJ nostalgia of the kind I didn't know I had. I mean ...there's a WAWA!!

One thing that I didn't really expect to discover was anything new on the food front. I mean, as you might expect, there is a pizza parlor every three blocks in this town. If you want a hoagie or a meatball parm, you're all set. Natch. Go here for the arancini (risotto ball with mozarella center).

But the Italians aren't the only ones coming to the table. Get off the train and the first thing you'll see (besides the theatre!ahem) is the sign for Juanito's Gourmet Mexican Bakery. Turn left to behold Senor Peppers restaurant. Around the block from that is La Juquila Mexican Grocery. And that's just what I know so far.

I've become a regular at the Mexican Bakery. It's not that the coffee's so great (it's not), it's just cheap, available in vanilla and hazelnut, and is directly in my line of vision upon waking. But I find myself coming back to look at the rows of pan dulce (sweet bread) and imagine biting through the sugary crust.

Then there's the shelf of Mexican junk food - packaged mini-bunuelos with brand names like 'Bimbo'. I have to remind myself that just because it's not American doesn't mean it's not disgusting.

On our third day here, Orestes - who, as far as I know, doesn't cook - announced that he would be making breakfast for our whole crew the next morning. I knew he had some secret Food Plan going (there were furtive phone calls in Spanish and obscure questions like "how do you shred a chicken?"), but I didn't know what.

I came downstairs the next morning to this:
Picture taken with dish already half-eaten. Typical Hart.

Let me walk you through this. Those fiery red-orange triangles? Tortilla chips - NOT Doritos - coated in hot red salsa and fried up in a pan like scrambled eggs. (There were also scrambled eggs). So: Layer of salsa-fied chips. Layer of scrambled eggs. Layer of shredded chicken. Layer of sliced avocado. Layer of crumbled, snowy-white queso fresco. Sprinkling of chopped epazote (dark leafy green that reminded me of parsley, but with an edge.) The result: chilaquiles, a spicy, crunchy breakfast treat that will either kill you or cure your hangover. I loved it.

Now, Mouse, you know me. I like things HOT. I've always felt that there's almost nothing short of profiteroles that can't be improved with a smudge of wasabi or a sprinkling of red pepper flakes. And I made it through a plate and a half of this stuff no problem. But I'm just saying, wow. Citizens, beware, and carry antacids.

Actually, the salsa roja is my favorite part of the whole thing because of its back story. Orestes had risen bright and early and descended on the Mexican grocery, buying up bags of ancho chiles and fresh tomatoes with the intent to make the salsa himself. A block away from the store, he realized he maybe had not given himself enough time to learn to do this and get breakfast on the table in the same morning. He was explaining to the amused and intrigued women at the store, ("How do you know what chilaquiles are?!") that perhaps he would just buy a jar of salsa, when they invited him into their kitchen and made it themselves from the ingredients he'd bought. Now that's a food adventure. Eating the fresh, salty, fire-engine red puree that morning and hearing the story, I felt as if I'd just received a card saying "Welcome to Red Bank"... only much more tasty.

We open tomorrow!! and close April 11. Come visit me. The theatre's really close to the train station. :-)


The Boo

Friday, March 12, 2010

Blame it on the Berry

Please forgive the photos in this post. I was under the influence. But let me explain.

Dear Boo,

Lemme tell you about the party I went to a couple weeks ago. Fun bar, nice people, cheap drinks. The food, though, was a little strange: a vast and colorful mixture of raw kale, piles of strawberries, a tub of sour cream, bottles of hot sauce, jars of pickles, watermelon, and raw garlic cloves. But even stranger than the menu was the fact that the guests, myself included, were piling their plates high, happily stuffing their faces, and exclaiming excitedly as they sucked on slices of limes. Blame it on the a-a-a-a-a-alcohollll, you say? Oh no, Jamie. Not this time.

Blame it on the magic berries.

Yes, that's right. At our friend DaveRed's birthday party, I entered the world of Jack and the Beanstalk. Some time ago, the Times published an article about these tiny miracle fruits and the trend they've produced of "Taste-tripping parties". The basic story with these berries is that they alter your sense of taste for anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours, during which sour foods taste remarkably sweet and one generally experiences a major mindf$#@k. Yes, that's a technical term. Since reading about them, DaveRed had been dying to try it and thought his birthday would be the perfect occasion. So, ever the organizer, he ordered a batch of berries from some guy in a faraway magical land, found a bar that wouldn't mind if we took over a few tables, covered them with a random (and slightly revolting) assortment of food which we had been assigned to bring, and then drank the collective kool-aid, so to speak.

The spread.

I have to say, as a perpetual goody-two-shoes who always seems to be in the 2% of people with averse reactions to anything from acne medication to jalapenos, I was kind of freaked out about trying this. What if the effects were permanent?! What if I forever lost the joy that comes with a extra sour pickle, a margarita on the rocks? What if the delicate balance of sour/sweet/salty of a good pad thai or papaya salad was forever upset? I'd kill myself, that's what.
I read extensively on the subject and found that while miracle berries are not approved by the FDA, they do contain something called miraculin (no joke) which was at one time sold in pill form as an artificial sweetener. They're also sometimes used by cancer patients undergoing chemo to combat the metallic taste produced by treatment. Armed with this information, a good dose of peer pressure, and a confidence-boosting cocktail, I decided to go for it.

So, you're wondering, how did it taste?

The berry itself was sort of tart and sweet, and we were instructed to suck on it until it mostly dissolved and we could spit out the seed (I never did find out what happens if you eat that part. I suspect something terrible.)

I first realized it had hit me when I took a sip of my vodka soda with lime and found it tasted like someone had splashed it with Sprite. I yelped and grabbed a slice of lime which I stuck in my mouth. It tasted like it had been dipped in sugar--like a very intense limeade. Next I grabbed a grapefruit which was delicious as well--like the ripest, most flavorful citrus with an intense sweetness and none of the bite. I ran around the table, following other people's oohs and ahhs and consuming a slightly dangerous combination of acidic foods only a pregnant woman or a house pet would otherwise consider.

The results?
Sour cream: Amazing, like smooth, creamy cheesecake.
Raspberries: Sweeter than normal, like the ripest, most perfect berry.
Sour cream and raspberries: a deadly and delicious combination, eaten unabashedly in heaping spoonfuls by all present.

Broccoli sprinkled with lemon juice: All the deliciousness with none of the woody, raw, bitter or sour flavors
Salt and Vinegar chips: Tasty as always. But since I particularly like the painful sourness and acidity, I found them a bit lacking in edge.
Mustard: Tasted like it had been mixed with honey. But, since the berry doesn't do anything for your sense of smell, it was kind of gross to eat by the spoonful.
Sour pickles: Weird. Just....weird.
Unsweetened Chocolate: Just as disgusting as it was pre-berry.
Kale: All the bright, green, beautiful flavor, without any of the bitterness.
Cherry Tomatoes: What I imagine a tomato would taste like were I to pluck it off the vine in a sun-dappled field in the Italian countryside. Yes, that good.
Lettuce: Tasted like lettuce.

After about an hour and a half, the effects had worn off entirely. Was it fun? Yes! Would I do it again? Sure! Will this be the gateway to a world full of mind-altering hallucinogens? Probably not. About 15 minutes into the trip, I began panicking that the berry was losing its edge, and with a wild, hungry look in my eye, I turned to my friend and said, "I think it's gone! Should I eat another one?? I think I need another one!! SOMEONE GIVE ME ANOTHER ONE!" She pried my hands off her collar and handed me a spoonful of hot sauce. "I think you've had plenty," she said.


The Mouse

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Keep Shucking That Chicken*

Dear Mouse,

I can't remember the Canadian National Anthem. I'm pretty sure that it doesn't start out “O, Canada, How Are You...?”, but that's how it goes in my mind. ( I could totally look it up right now, but I'm not going to, because I prefer my version.)

Why, you might ask, am I feeling the urge to sing the praises of our Neighbors to the North? Oh, sure, there was that whole Olympics thing. The actor house did spend a good few hours watching them clog in mohawks and spout slam poetry from atop a glacier (oh, and kick ass at winter sports). We've also ravenously devoured all three seasons of the divine Canadian theatre-geek series "Slings and Arrows" in the past month (I am saving myself for Jeffrey Tennant; so what if he's fictional. And insane.) But the real gold medal for Canada, if you will, for me, came in this form:

Behold: the Raspberry Point Oyster, from Prince Edward Island (home of Anne of Green Gables! Oh its all too much)

This is one of those moments that tests my mettle as a food blogger. I make a delicious, unbelievably affordable, stylish, blogworthy food discovery and ... do I share it in this forum and risk losing, say, any chance of getting a seat at the bar ever again? Or do I simply keep my mouth shut about the HALF PRICE RAW BAR at Old Ebbitts Grill in DC after 11PM on Thursday? Damn! Well, I've never been any good at keeping secrets.

(As it happens, a local DC friend informed me tonight that it is a big ol tourist destination, so the cat was never in the bag to begin with. But for ME it was a big discovery. Read on.)

I don't care if it's touristy. I could go on and on. I remember saying that all it needed was a stage set up for me to perform and there would be pretty much everything I need in life. First off, the lighting is perfect. Almost nothing from above; all warm, amber lamplight everywhere, everyone looks gorgeous. You enter into a vast, seemingly endless labyrinth of rooms, tables, bars, antique paintings... you're immediately lost, but don't mind.The great, classic rock songs playing continuously ( a big plus for me) are at the perfect volume - loud enough to notice, soft enough to hold audible conversation about AC/DC. The snappy-dressed, striped-shirt-and-bowtie-bartenders (ask for Larry), who asked us what theatre we were from (!). And the DRINKS! Two words: pitch-perfect, ice-cold, three-olive dirty vodka martini (ok, I had more than one). The ruby-violet pomegranate martini ordered by my companions: also no slouch. The bold, built-for-two, gorgeous desserts like peanut butter pie and pear crumble.

And, bien sur:

“#3 Walrus Platter”

Clockwise in a spiral: Raspberry Point and Saint-Simon oysters, clams, fat shrimp cocktail, cocktail sauce with horseradish, vinegar and lemon wedge, oyster crackers. Cost during Half Price? $21.

I shared the above with the SM, but I watched Orestes go it alone. Thinking about the relative absence of usual demons - fat, calories, chemical additives - I asked, “What does happen to you if you eat too many raw oysters?Anything?” He looked at me over the cocktail sauce, shell in hand, and said, “You have an orgasm.”

Now, for the uninitiated: I do not consider myself an oyster expert. I'm not going to be able to cover all the history, traditions, etiquette, and superstition in this blog post, and I wouldn't try. I'm not equipped, and there are plenty of other places you can read that stuff. I'm also not going to necessarily try to describe the experience. There are some things, like, oh, say, sex, or whiffleball, that are simply ineffable. When you have not yet been through it yourself, the practice seems bizarre and perhaps even revolting, but ...

I seriously have been trying for 20 minutes to insert a decent "shucking" joke in here, and now I have to get to the matinee. Please feel free to submit your own.

I will say this, for your consideration: Oysters 'respond to irritation' by producing pearls. (Oh, if we all did so!) Their gender is indistinguishable from the outside, and they can change their sex one or more times during their life. And, considering the Oyster Shooter, can be consumed as either a snack or a cocktail. O, sweet mystery of life....!

And, if and when you decide you're ready, allow me to give a few guidelines.

Dress for the occasion. Heels, maybe. Definitely jewelry. It IS a performance. A dance, if you will. Not just a snack. I'm telling you this not to intimidate you but to get the idea across that it's a gorgeous, privileged, activity performed for yourself, not an audience, if that makes sense. All of the hoo-hah contributes to the taste sensation. Really.

Eat dinner beforehand. I know it sounds counter intuitive, and I'm not suggesting you go stuffed and completely anti-food, but oysters should not be eaten for the wrong reason (ie, out of something as base and coarse as hunger.) They are subtle creatures, and , yes, small. If you're starving, you'll scarf them down and miss the whole point. They're also not that filling, and god knows how many you'll have to eat to feel full (and I refer you to the potentially embarrassing result of overindulgence suggested above).

And now...

Take the tiny adorable silver fork in hand, and the beautiful scalloped shell in the other. Savor the sensation that you are, oh, Brooke Astor, or Marie Antoinette, for a moment. Sit up straight in your imaginary corset (holding a full martini glass is good practice for this) so as not to spill any of the oyster “liquor” . Spear the slippery little thing on the fork, dip it into the vinegar and get it back in the shell. Dont panic if you drop it in, but get it back for the love of god. Give the cocktail sauce & horseradish a good stir to mix them up and place a small drop (to taste) atop your oyster. Put the shell to your lips, tilt your head back. Slurp. ...

-I will head off the “chew or swallow whole” debate here by saying I keep my teeth out of it but I do somewhat crush the bivalve against my upper palate with my tongue on the way down to maximize the experience-

...And it's as if the whole ocean suddenly lives at the back of your throat. Mermaids are singing. Aphrodite lifting you into her seashell, rising on the foam. Brine, salt, lemon, horseradish. Mm.

I'll miss you, DC. Next stop: Red Bank NJ. Do you think they have oysters there?


The Boo

*with apologies to much-mocked anchorman Ernie Anastos and to anyone here who hasn't seen this clip and thought this post would be about chicken.