Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Baker's Dozen #3: Chef Daniel Brooks

Dear Mouse,

It's a wet spring afternoon and I'm supposed to be writing my play (!!) that goes up end of August. What better time than this for a really great batch of blueberry muffins , and our third Baker's Dozen Interview?!

I'm very excited to present this interview because of its truly MouseBouche-ness. If this blog is devoted to the intersection of food and art in our lives, there was no way Danny - excuse me, 'Chef Daniel' - Brooks - was not going to appear at some point. He may have become a Barcelona-trained, San Francisco-based food professional, but to me he'll always be the tie-dyed, Phish-following, music-theory spouting twentysomething who once cooked an entire roasted venison in my off-campus apartment... and who asked me, backstage at our college production of Assassins, "Hey, have you ever thought of being in a band?"

Danny Brooks introduced me to many important things, including live rock music, acupuncture, Southern California, mango salsa, seared Ahi, the Fender Rhodes, Taylor guitars, Indian vocal percussion, overtone singing, transcendental meditation, and let's stop there. Since I have just as many memories of Danny cooking as, say, taking pictures of our keyboard player on the toilet in the House of Blues green room, I'm not at all surprised at where he is today. And now...

1) What are your earliest food memories?
6 years old. A bucket of manila clams on my tiny white legs. Opening and eating them with my bare hands.

2)What was the first meal you made for your wife?
New Years Eve 2003 in Barcelona. Everyone ooh-ed and aw-ed and told me how extraordinary the food was. Teresa told me she was unimpressed. I didn’t understand her cause I didn’t speak Spanish at the time. I took her rumblings as a compliment. I think I even may have said “muchas gracias”.

3) You grew up in SoCal, have lived and cooked extensively in Spain, and are now in San Francisco. Which is your favorite food city?
San Francisco. Los Angeles is just too much driving. Period. Even when you can find good shopping or restaurants, it is just too far. I LOVE Barcelona ... However, in Barcelona you can eat the best and worst food in Europe…very inconsistent and VERY expensive! The shopping is great for proteins, particularly fish and shellfish, and mediocre for fruits and vegetables. San Francisco has AMAZING grocery stores, specialty markets and farmer’s markets. It also has a pretty good restaurant culture, especially for cheap regional foods.

4) You have now worked extensively in both entertainment and in food. Similarities? Differences?

Lots of arrogant assholes work in both industries. Lots of interesting, creative people work in both industries. It is easy to find the former, hard (yet very satisfying) to find the latter.

5) What are the top mistakes home cooks make that could be easily solved?
Home cooks have a tendency to add ingredients to pans before the pans get hot. Then, once their ingredients are added, they incessantly poke and prod and slide them around.
(The Boo: Yup. I totally do that.)

6) Most annoying food trend at the moment.
People who demand local, humanely treated foods but do so while simultaneously wearing leather shoes made in a sweat shop in Indonesia.

7) Weigh in on this for me: Defrosted shrimp has been in the fridge four days. Eat it? or no?
No. And shame on you. It is so mean to do that to the poor shrimp who gave their lives to feed you!
(The Boo: Are you hearing this, Mayor??)

8) Favorite hangover cure?
Less drinking the night before.

9) In 1998, you convinced me to try sea urchin. I still remember it vividly as the worst thing I ever tasted. Do you still like it?
Perhaps my favorite food.

10) One food you simply could not live without.

11) What do you do when you go to someone's house for dinner and the food is really terrible?
Lie and say I have been ill and don’t have much of an appetite.

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?
Sushi with my wife.

13) The Mouse and I were reminiscing recently about the food you used to make in college, and how wild and out-there something like mango salsa!!!! seemed to us then. What is similarly ahead-of-the-curve in your present repertoire?
I feel my food ideas come almost always from something I have eaten or from a combination of techniques I have learned. I really don’t feel like I invent or innovate. I’ll leave those “ahead of the curve” critiques to the people eating my food.

Well played, Danny. Just like a great Rhodes keyboard solo.


The Boo

P.S. Chef Daniel Brooks' web site posts a "Monthly Menu" with recipes. Please note the "Amuse Bouche" selection - !!! - get it? - which right now features yummy sounding "Gulf Shrimp Croquettes with Salsa Brava". For the love of god, make them the same day you buy the shrimp.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Chicken in a Pot: The Return

Dear Boo,

I realize this may feel like deja vu, me extolling the virtues of another Jamie Oliver creation, which happens to also feature a whole chicken cooked in a pot. I realize I'm rather boring. But hear me out. Consider this the spring equivalent of the other Jamie Oliver chicken in a pot. And we know how delicious that was.

When I mentioned to Mom the other day that I was making poached chicken for dinner, she very politely wrinkled her nose and said: "How old fashioned. And boring." And who can blame her, really. Poached chicken conjures up thoughts of rubbery mayonnaised salad and bland dietetic food. Luckily, I tasted this dish before I had the chance to judge it based on its title, when the student I tutor offered me some of her leftovers while we worked. I'm not usually in the habit of taking food from my students, but I was hungry, she was having some, we needed a break, and it just looked so pretty, studded with bright green peas, orange slices of carrot, silky leaves of spinach wound around pale pink baby radishes and half moons of potatoes. With the richness and kick of the horseradish cream, there was no trace of the wan pale chicken mom was anticipating.

The broth isn't bold in its chicken flavor, and when I made it at home I was disappointed at first. When it came together in the bowl, though, the beauty of the dish emerged. It's not chicken soup--oh no--the focus is the fresh vegetables and chicken, with the broth as a warming accent to bring it together. Jamie's description of how to serve it reflects this: "divide a nice mixture of veg between 4 bowls, put some shredded chicken on top, then ladle over some of the wonderful, comforting broth. Sprinkle over some of the chopped reserved fennel tops or some celery leaves, with a healthy dollop of horseradish crème fraîche on top and a drizzle of nice peppery olive oil" Doesn't that sound lovely? It is.

Right now, when the markets are full of baby vegetables, just making their spring debut, this is the perfect recipe for the transition from spring to summer. Just warm enough to comfort on a rainy May day, fresh enough to satisfy that intense urge some of us get the first time we see a bit of color among the Farmer's Market's wintry bins of root vegetables, with a surprizing note of heat that hits the back of your tongue and hints at June's rising mercury.


The Mouse

Jamie Oliver's Spring Poached Chicken (slightly adapted by the Mouse)

• 4lb free-range, organic chicken
• a handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley
• 4 bay leaves
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
• 2 handfuls of new potatoes, scrubbed
• 2 handfuls of baby carrots, or carrots sliced into 2 in lengths
• 2 handfuls of baby radishes
• 1 bulb of fennel, quartered, herby tops removed and reserved
• 1.5 T drained bottled horseradish (or to taste)
• 1 Cup of crème fraîche
• 2 handfuls of fresh or frozen peas (I used frozen)
• 1 colanderful of spinach or Swiss chard
• olive oil

Clean your chicken and stuff it with the parsley and bay leaves. Salt and Pepper it. Put it in a large pot (very large--my 7 qt dutch oven was almost too small, but you could always use a smaller chicken) and fill with water to cover chicken by a couple of centimeters. Add potatoes (halve if they're large). Bring to a boil, then cover with a lid and lower heat to simmer for about 20 minutes. Add carrots, radishes, and fennel, and simmer for another 30 to 40 minutes.
While this is cooking, prepare the horseradish creme by mixing the creme fraiche and horseradish, taste to make sure the proportions are right.
By now, the chicken should be done--test to see if the leg comes away from chicken easily. Remove the chicken from the pot and set aside to cool.
Add the peas and spinach to the broth and cook for one minute. Season to taste.
To serve, spoon vegetables into bowl, top with shredded or sliced chicken, ladle over some broth and add a generous dollop of horseradish cream. Sprinkle some chopped fennel fronds, parsley, or celery leaves over the top if you like.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Mouse Goes to New Orleans: In Which I Eat 150 lbs of Crawfish, Finally Hit my Salt Limit, and Discover the Next Food Trend to Hit New York

Dear Boo,

It's been a few weeks since I got back from New Orleans where I was celebrating Chef Josh and LadyKate's wedding, and I'm STILL FULL. Only just days ago have my pores ceased to emit the perfume of Abita, have the callouses on my fingers from tearing the tails off of crawfish been pumiced away by an unfortunate manicurist, has every airline official at JFK been satisfied that the suspicious white powder found in the luggage compartment was not anthrax but powdered sugar and beignet crumbs.

Lemme tell you, I did some serious damage down south. And by south I mean of course, my lower intestines. HO!

But seriously, folks. It was a magical time. Not only because of all the gloriously warm feelings one experiences watching two very special people declare their love and join their lives together (for the second time, really) in the presence of the people who adore them most and all that hullaballoo, but also because New Orleans has some seriously delicious food.

Our first night in town, the boys had scheduled a bachelor party, so us ladies got together to wrastle up a little trouble of our own. Acme Oyster House was the destination...for half the city of New Orleans, apparently. Here's the thing: waiting in line is something I hate to do, probably in part because in NYC we have to do it All. The. Time. Solution? A pitcher of beer, drunk out on the sidewalk in the balmy weather, while friendly folks stationed on the balcony above drop free jewelry on you! In no time, we were seated inside in front of an obscene and voluptuous platter of local Louisiana oysters. Briny, smooth, slippery, and like the city itself, larger than life, they were seriously the best I've ever had.
Until these arrived. Char-grilled oysters which from what I could gather, are smothered in butter, seasoning, romano cheese, and southern hospitality, and stuck under the broiler until crisp, white hot, and terrifyingly good.
For my main course (as if I needed one), the shrimp etouffee. Creamy, salty, rich with seafood and that unmistakable cajun kick, it was so. so. so. good.

The bride's plate of fried shrimp with a side of crawfish hush puppies. I may have sneaked a few fried morsels.

All photographs from the rest of this evening have been confiscated and I have been sworn to secrecy. Suffice it to say, we did not go hungry. Or thirsty.

I woke up the next morning with Muffuletta on the brain. We headed to the Central Grocery, the original home of the sandwich. Since everything in New Orleans seems to be portable: food, alcohol, live music, we took our football-sized sandwiches to M.R.B bar where we drank some seriously delicious bloody marys and watched the three-legged bulldog hang out by the pool table.

Between the drink, the sandwich, and the dill gator chips I grabbed at the cash register like a fool, I nearly shriveled up and fell off my barstool. It was like spending the day with my face stuck to a salt lick. A tremendously enjoyable salt lick.
That night was the rehearsal dinner. Or more aptly put, the let's all get together at this amazing old bar in the beautiful warm sun-dappled evening light where everyone looks radiant and happy and we can chow down on, oh, 170 POUNDS of boiled crawfish. Plus some assorted po'boys, red beans and rice, and a healthy dose of beer to wash it down.
Crate after crate appears, and we do rotating duty sitting at the table, twisting tails, sucking the heads, and eating the meat, one after another, like corn nuts. When we get full, we stand and stretch and complain about our distended bellies, get another beer, crack a few jokes, and then get back down to business, hunkering down over another mound of shells. In the end, all that's left is 20 uneaten pounds, mountains of tiny carcasses, and a blister on my thumb, evidence of a battle well fought.Just look at that destruction.
Naturally, the next morning I woke up hungry. What else to do but get a po'boy? And where else to go but Johnny's Po'Boys, with a line out the front only a hard-core sandwich shop can produce.
I opted for the crabcake po'boy (because I can never resist a crabcake) foolishly thinking I was being virtuous by not ordering something deep fried, and forgetting of course, that this is New Orleans, and what can be fried, will be. It was delicious. Duh.
The Boyfriend got the catfish. Cause that's how we roll.

To cool our bellies after lunch, we went to Meltdown Popsicles, an amazing little shop with homemade, all natural ice pops made from fresh fruit and herbs combined in the most creative, refreshing and charming (can a popsicle be charming?) flavors. I went for the pineapple cilantro, and the Boyfriend had some combination of honey, lavendar, and canteloupe. I grabbed a taste of strawberry basil (to die for), vietnamese coffee (dying), and coconut lemongrass (dead). We inquired about franchise opportunities in NYC and the lovely proprietor laughed us off. We walked away scheming.
Of course last week in the Times, I spotted this piece on all of the folks who got the jump on us bringing this treat to the tri-state area. How much you wanna bet there's a popsicle truck in our future?

And then, the wedding. What else to say, but beautiful, joyous, raucous, spunky, romantic, and utterly and perfectly like the couple themselves.

I don't have too many pics to offer since I was too busy cutting a rug on the dancefloor, but I did manage to grab a bite or two of shrimp and grits, crab dip, etouffee, seafood gumbo, sausage, boudin, pork rillettes, and a few oysters. Oh, and of course the krispy kreme bread pudding, though I missed the root beer floats, I'm afraid.

I did, however, get a shot of the pig bar.

Yes, you heard me. None of this namby-pamby sundae bar ridiculousness.

The Boyfriend and I were cursed with a 7am flight out the morning after the wedding, and naturally the ONLY thing that could soothe the sting was a bagful of beignets bought in advance from the famed Cafe Du Monde. Of course I couldn't help but sneak a bite when they were hot and fresh, greasy, crispy, and airy, dusted in a snowdrift of powdered sugar.

As someone who is increasingly and alarmingly becoming challenged at just relaxing and being and doing nothing (even and especially on vacations), I thank you, New Orleans, for asking nothing more of me than that I have a good time. I sure wish you could catch a break, Big Easy. Between hurricanes and oil spills, the proverbial neighbor sure is determined to call the cops on your party. But still we say, Laissez le Bon Temps Rouler. And roll, and roll and roll.


The Mouse

P.S. If you want to help the greater New Orleans area affected by the oil spill, go here. And if you want to speed up the reconstruction of homes in the ninth ward, join Brad Pitt's org here.

P.P.S. Thanks also to Josh and Kate for including us in such a beautiful celebration, and for introducing me to the food I've been missing out on all this time.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Yes We Cater! ( A Mouse Bouche Goes Public)

Dear Mouse,

People keep asking me how to subscribe to our blog. What's the best way to let them all know that they can simply enter their email address in the "Subscribe" box to the right (scroll down)?

Oh, there we go.

So ... we did it! I feel almost exactly as if we opened a show on broadway to rave reviews! Well, no, really, way OFF broadway, and then at theatre festivals around the world, and THEN back to one of NYC's most beloved venues finally to mount a groundbreaking production that had been denied the rights to open here for years - Oh wait, no, that's Elevator Repair Service, the brilliant downtown theatre company known primarily for their luminous stagings of great american novels and their excellent taste in desserts.

We are not caterers, but we played them on Monday for the ERS benefit.
Let's recap, shall we? The rehearsal process AND the show.

Friday Night: Tiny Salted Chocolate Chip Cookies
The Boo is dying to make these little sweets and The Mouse suggests an added sprinkle of coarse sea salt. We've never made the before, and so we read almost every one of the conflicting user reviews online (not recommended). Follow the recipe exactly,it's perfect. Don't follow the recipe; add 1/4 cup of flour. They're too crispy. They're not crispy enough. (My fave, from someone in Russia: 'Replace the chocolate chips with raisins and grated swiss cheese.' ???!!!) We decide these people are all crazy (swiss cheese???) and we will follow the recipe exactly. The result? They are FLAT FLAT FLAT and crumble at the lightest touch. !!! Take it from us; you should add 1/4 C flour to the recipe. The next batch is perfect.

The Boo forgets to sprinkle sea salt on at least two batches before baking. We'll serve them anyway. Whatever. The Mouse yells at The Boo for eating batter.

Saturday morning - Spicy Chocolate Bacon Bark!
The first HOT HOT weekend of the year! Let's celebrate by ... .baking! for hours ! in a tiny kitchen! And, since it's going to reach 90 degrees, why don't we make the one item in the menu that must. be. kept. cold. or will become Floating Bacon Goop Smeared on Kitchen Table. This is the one item we kind of made up ourselves, so it has to go well. We melt bags of chocolate, put trays of bacon in the oven, pour/spread chocolate onto parchment paper, sprinkle cayenne on bacon, crumble and scatter over the chocolate, and chill it. Once it's solid, the Mouse breaks up the bark with scary knife while The Boo frantically shoves the pieces into plastic bags before melting can set in. We get it back in the freezer with only minimal damage to rug/table/clothing. The Mouse yells at the Boo for licking her fingers.
We get a text from The Baker: "What does it sound like when bacon barks?" Ha ha.

Sunday night: Lemon Bars.
The Boo gets sleepy and accidentally forgets half the butter - half! - while making the second round of shortbread crust. The Mouse Saves the Day with a carefully overseen gradual re-mixing technique and all is well. (Ok, here I have to weigh in on this recipe, from Ina Garten. The flavor is PERFECT, but, for my taste, the crust-filling ratio is off. Next time I'd do a thicker crust and just a leeeetle less lemony goodness. Easier to eat, less goopy and overwhelming.) The Mouse chastises The Boo for criticizing Ina. Sorry, Ina.

My other regret is not making them Rosemary Lemon Bars!!!!! Wouldn't that have been great??!!

Monday: The Day of the Show, Yall: 430PM, Mouse House: We cut remaining lemon triangles, put bacon bark on ice in cooler, defrost mini-cookies, and put on catering uniforms (heels, jewelry, cute dresses). Mouse's Boyfriend pours vodka-sodas and surreptitiously packs garbage bags, paper towels, and napkins, none of which we would have remembered. Bless Him. In a stunning, historic role reversal, The Mouse has a meltdown (we will be late, the bark will melt, the lemon bars will stick together, the other caterer will hate us and not give us platters, we shouldn't dress up or attend the actual party) while the Boo says "I think it's going to be fine."

We arrive. There is both a 'playing space' (out on the floor) and a Backstage Area for the Food Folks! We're immediately at home. We know how to do THIS.

Half Hour: Guests in room, tiny savory snacks going around. M&B are hovering and plating and getting in the way of the servers. The Boo gets a white wine and speculates that we have made way, way too many lemon bars. The Mouse is drinking absinthe. What could go wrong?

NOTHING! ISn't it gorgeous? Business Cards by EKT.

15 Minutes: packed room! M&B are playing both sides like pros, socializing in their cocktail attire and talking shop with other actors... then dashing madly backstage for last siftings of powdered sugar and checking of Bark Status. The Mouse wisely sets up a glass of water and a stack of towels for The Boo - I mean, either of us - to wash hands between plating.

10 Minutes: We're undercover among guests, somewhat guiltily eating the savory snacks as they come around.

5 min: Plate the bark! Now! (pic)


Look at them go!

I think you'll agree, Mouse, that the show went well. The servers coming backstage almost immediately saying "We need more bacon bark!" Our business cards disappearing from the trays too! The cookies - GONE before we know it. Fred Armisen, Fran McDormand, and Lili Taylor are out there eating OUR FOOD. Platter after platter of lemon bars goes out and comes back empty. We drink more absinthe and high-five each other. The other caterer takes The Boo aside and asks if we'd be interested in doing other events. Why not? In the end, this is all that's left:

A volunteer begged us for the leftovers. Flattery=Effective.

Afterwards, when you went home to study (Finals!! during all of this!), I took a seat in the balcony to watch the post-reception show. The ERS actors took the stage with the celebrity guests, reading from great American novels. The audience was boisterous, appreciative, attentive, drunk. And looking down at all 150-200 of them, I realized that they all (probably) had bacon bark, lemon bars, and tiny salted chocolate chip cookies INSIDE THEM. Whoa. I've never felt so close to so many humans at once. Or so omnipotent. Like Tim Curry at the end of LEGEND, where he's about to be defeated by Tom Cruise and hurtle into space, yelling, "IIIIIIII ... Am a PAAART... Of you AAAALLLLLLL!!!..." ? (Just me?)

Only, like, nicer, in a cocktail dress covered in butter, a little teary-eyed, and applauding wildly. Go ERS. Thanks for eating.


The Boo.