Sunday, March 29, 2009

Vegetarian for a Day

Green Zebra interior photo courtesy of Mariani's Virtual Gourmet.

F and I are not vegetarians. As is evident in this blog, we like our meat. Most of our dinners consist of 1/3 pork or chicken or fish, 1/3 vegetables, and 1/3 grain, and it’s all I can do to sneak those vegetables into the equation. If it were completely up to me, I would cook a few vegetarian dishes a week. But when I make a ragout or an eggplant lasagna, F eats in silence and when prodded admits, “It’s good. But it would be better with meat.”

As described in the previous post, my sister B is essentially a vegetarian. When ordering a “design your own” sandwich, she will circle the entire vegetable section without prejudice. So when B came to visit, I embraced the opportunity to finally try a restaurant where I knew F would never willingly eat: the vegetarian Green Zebra. We made our reservations and invited F to join us, if he was so inclined. “There’s no meat at all?” he asked. Assured that there would, in fact, be no meat on the menu, F stocked up on a pulled-pork sandwich a few hours before dinner and agreed to accompany us “if only for the dessert.”

We arrived at Green Zebra in the midst of a raging downpour, complete with sleet and howling winds. The hostess led us to a table near the window, with a lovely view of the gray sky and rain-streaked street. The room was painted in muted greens and browns and dotted with pots of towering bamboo. We were in a little rainforest all our own.

The waiter provided a quick lesson on the menu. The dishes were relatively small and meant to be shared; he recommended three to four plates per person. The menu started with light, leafy dishes and soups and worked its way down to heaver plates of mushrooms, lentils, and creams. There were four distinct sections, and we decided to order one dish from each, forgoing the suggested three to four plates per person. To start, we ordered Honey Crisp Apples, Fresh Horseradish, Tarragon, Hazelnuts and both soups because we couldn’t decide between them: Thai Spiced Carrot Soup, Crispy Rice Noodles and Sweet Onion and Garlic Soup, Truffle Cream.

The carrot soup was a vivid orange with electric green foam. At once spicy and tangy, this was B’s favorite dish of the evening, while I was reluctant to share the onion and garlic soup. Its presentation was imaginative—if a little pretentious. The truffle cream arrived first, at the bottom of a white dish. Then the waiter poured the soup into the bowl from a cast-iron tea kettle. The cream spread throughout the soup, while a daub rose to the top, so you could garnish a spoon of soup with a hint of truffle. It was just the soup I wanted on such a damp, cold evening.

And F loved the apple dish. The plate was painted with a light streak of green horseradish, topped with a crispy stack of julienned apples and hazelnuts that appeared to have been lightly fried.

For the next course, we chose Foraged Mushroom Dumplings, Tofu, Thai Basil, Baby Bok Choy, Star Anise Broth and Olive Oil Confit Fingerlings, Dijon Mustard, Parmesan, Truffle, and a side dish of Spiced Edamame.

The edamame was salty and zesty and went very quickly. I could have done without the fingerlings, which were good, but pretty much just fancy potato wedges. B and I both liked the mushroom dumplings, which arrived in a star anise broth with plenty of green vegetables. The dumpling dough was chewy and slightly peppery, and made the dish.

For dessert, we ordered Cream Cheese Beignets, Carrot Cake Ice Cream, Ginger Snaps, Sugared Mandarin Peels and Chocolate Cake, Creme Fraiche Ice Cream, Salted Caramels, as well as the Lemon Pound Cake, Vanilla Gelato, Mandarin Slices from the "sweet bites" section.

The lemon pound cake was very good, but again, it tasted like pound cake should, without being particularly interesting.

But the other two desserts! The chocolate cake was heavy and soft and warm and the ice cream was flaky and sweet. It was accompanied by wrapped caramels that melted as you opened the wrappers. And the beignets! I took one bite and nearly leapt from my seat with joy. The soft, delicate beignet disintegrated as soon as it touched the tongue, leaving sugar crystals in its wake. The subtle cream cheese filling added a hint of tang. The carrot cake ice cream was creamy and tasted of cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. It was a little heady for me, but B professed to love it.

We drove home in the rain, full and happy. I thoroughly enjoyed being vegetarian for a day—everything was so green and leafy. B seemed to love the entire Green Zebra experience and even F the meat-and-potatoes man liked this meal. I was nearly convinced that F and I could be vegetarians, if we could eat like this every day. I slept soundly, dreaming of truffles and bambooand woke up Sunday morning hankering for bacon.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A Shape for Cake

When she was little, my little sister B used to say that her stomach had spaces shaped like certain foods. There were chicken and pasta and bread shapes—and plenty of cake shapes—but she would tell our mother that her stomach just doesn’t have a broccoli shape this evening but there is, however, a space shaped like ice cream.

Now, her stomach has shapes for broccoli and beans, carrots and celery, lettuce and leeks, and no shapes at all for cookies and cakes. What happened in there, I wonder.

B eats salad for every meal. She claims that she would be perfectly content to eat the same thing every day for the rest of her life, but I don’t quite believe it. On her birthday, B takes a look deep inside and finds her dessert shape. It’s there, just wedged in tight with all the vegetables, smooshed into a teeny fold of stomach lining. On her birthday, B allows the dessert shape to emerge. It unfurls into a glorious chocolate cake with chocolate icing shape, or a vanilla cupcake with buttercream frosting and sprinkles shape. And she enjoys every last moment of filling up that shape. But only on birthdays.

I usually feel pretty good about the way F and I eat. We make recipes from Cooking Light and eat lots of fresh produce, lean meats, fish, and whole grains. We are moderate in our portion sizes and generous with our vital nutrients. And then B comes to town. Compared to her usual cereal for dinner, my gourmet creations are monstrous mounds of fat, carbs, and calories.

B will be arriving from NYC tonight, and I am determined to rescue her dessert shape from its sad fold. At the same time, she will guide me through this new world of vegetables I have only recently discovered. On Saturday, we will dine at the vegetarian restaurant Green Zebra to fill up our vegetable shapes. And then, on Sunday, we’ll stuff our dessert shapes at a chocolate-making class.

If all goes well, by the end of the weekend all of our shapes will be satisfied.

Photo courtesy of

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Mad About Mado

I met my supper club for dinner last night in Bucktown/Wicker Park at Mado, home of the fabled Rolled Pig’s Head from my previous post.

Although the restaur
ant is relatively new, husband-and-wife chef-owners, Robert and Allison Levitt, are already known around town for their daily seasonal menu of farm-fresh meats and produce.

Mado is an unassuming, even ugly brick building on an otherwise dreary sid
e street populated with shuttered buildings and empty lots. Until recently, it was a pizza joint with bright orange walls and plastic furniture. The windows are still tagged with spray paint, but inside, the orange walls have been stripped to reveal warm brick. The dining room is intimate and unadorned, and the food is outstanding.

We were tucked into the back corner at a long rustic table for eight. Our group arrived slowly, so we opened a bottle of wine and chatted until the last member of our party had arrived. By that time, we were all ravenous. S suggested ordering family style and the rest of us heartily agreed. We started with two plates of the meats, featuring Country Pate, Rolled Pig's Head and Tuscan Chicken Liver Pate accompanied by Freshly Baked Sourdough, Grain Mustard, and Pickled Vegetables. The assorted meats arrived on antique, pig-shaped cutting boards.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I was excited about the Rolled Pig’s Head, but was possibly even more excited to be dining with a group of people
who were just as enthusiastic about trying something new. For four hours, we talked about food, and less important subjects, like men. It was refreshing to dine with a group of girls who are as passionate about food as I am—most of them more passionate and more educated about the subject I have only recently come to love. When I said that I’m looking for a pasta machine, they each had suggestions about the best one on the market. They agree that a culinary tour of Chinatown or the Korean neighborhood would be an ideal way to spend an afternoon. And without blinking an eye, they ordered Rolled Pig’s Head and critiqued its taste and the merits of its texture.

When the meats arrived, I am ashamed to say that we spent a good am
ount of time debating which meat was which. We finally puzzled out that the soft, pillowy mound on one end was the Country Pate, the grayish meat in the middle must be the Tuscan Chicken Liver Pate, and the strips that looked like Prosciutto must be the Rolled Pig’s Head. Of them all, the Country Pate was the unanimous favorite—smooth and delicate and addictive.

We followed the pig with a selection of appetizers: Roasted Baby Carrots with Gorgonzola; Grilled Calamari Panzanella w
ith Red Onion, Vinegar Peppers, and Capers; Confit Pork Kidneys, Grilled Bread, Hard Cooked Egg and Mustard (first photo below); and Fried Farm Egg Bruscetta with Truffle Butter (second photo below).Absolutely everything was wonderful. We raved over the crispy bruscetta oiled with truffle butter topped with a runny, salty fried egg. The carrots with gorgonzola were a surprising delight—and an aesthetic extravagance, with orange, yellow, and red carrots. I didn’t know that carrots came in yellow and red!

Next, we ordered two bowls of the home-made Rigatoni with Grilled Radicchio, Walnuts and Gorgonzola:
Followed by: Rainbow Trout Stuffed with Braised Swiss Chard and Confit Pork Belly (Pictured below with Rosemary-Roasted Potatoes), Hanger Steak with Gorgonzola Polenta , and Casuela of Farm Egg, Braised Pork and White Beans. With sides: Rosemary-Roasted Potatoes (pictured above) and Creamy Polenta. It would be a daunting task to describe each of these marvelous dishes, so I won’t try. I will say, however, that I have never tasted polenta quite like this. The polenta I make at home tends to solidify as soon as it hits the plate, while this was rich and creamy and tangy. I could eat Mado’s polenta with every meal for the rest of my life.

And the desserts: Chocolate Cream Pie with Almond Cornmeal Crust, Caramel Biancomangiare with Crispy Chocolate and Coffee-Chili Syrup, and Migas Bark. The Migas Bark turned out to be chunky sheets of chocolate which, while certainly delicious, did not quite live up to the exotic promise of its name. The Chocolate Cream Pie was stunning, but the Caramel Biancomangiare was something special.

I will admit that I did not know what it was, so I did a little research and discovered that biancomangiare is a Sicilian-style almond custard with almond milk. It is believed that Sicily’s Arab conquerors and four centuries of Spanish domination inspired this distinctive dessert featured in the cookbooks of the Italian Renaissance and served in large troughs of snow at the banquets of the Medici court.

Shaped with a decorative mold, Mado’s biancomangiare was soft and light with a delicate caramel flavor. Tiny balls of chocolate graced the top and rolled down the sides, and the coffee-chili syrup pooled around the bottom. A single spoonful combining the soft biancomangiare with the crispy chocolate balls and the spicy syrup was startling and extraordinary.

Eight girls, 2 bottles of champagne, 7 bottles of wine (BYOB), 2 plates of assorted meats, 4 appetizers, 2 bowls of pasta, 3 entrees, 2 sides, 3 desserts, and 4 hours later, I headed home completely satisfied—and completely enamored with Mado.

(Mado photo courtesy of Menu Pages.)

An Offal Experience

Last night, I ate pig’s head.

I ordered it willinglyand eagerlyafter having read an article in this month’s issue of Food and Wine about facing your culinary fears. Lisa Abend describes her first time ordering this delicacy in Spain:

... the bartender in Cuenca set the plate before us and we beheld a huge pig mask—with holes where the eyes and snout used to be, and glistening pockets of fat beneath the cheeks... We wanted to eat it, or at least wanted to be able to say we had. Yet one tentative bite revealed grease, and gristle, and—ick—a few charred, bristly hairs. We each choked down a mouthful, then pushed the rest away.

This seems at once disgusting, delicious, and dangerous—a culinary experience straight out of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, which F and I watch with fascinated horror and a tinge of longing. How I wish I could get paid to travel the world for the purpose of eating—even if it does mean eating such delicacies as a rattlesnake’s still-beating heart. This is adventure. This is life!

Ms. Abend’s second experience with pig’s face, years later, is comparatively tame:

When it came time to order that night, it no longer occurred to me to feel squeamish. Face had become just one more thing to eat. And indeed, the pig face Dan and I ate that night at Atrio was delicious. The chef, Toño Pérez, had pressed it into a disk roughly the size and thickness of a chocolate chip cookie. Fried until it was golden brown and crunchy, it tasted deeply of Iberian pig. We called it “face bacon,” and laughed as we ate it.

Her second pig's face seems almost ordinary. Comparing it to something as familiar and delicious as a chocolate-chip cookie decidedly lowers it on Zimmern's bizarre foods scale. So, while dining on “face bacon” can still be considered an experience, it’s certainly not an adventure.

When I saw Rolled Pig’s Head on the menu at Mado last night, my enthusiasm may have frightened my dinner companions. I pictured Ms. Abend’s pig mask rolled into a tube, empty eye-sockets grotesquely stretched, snout jutting from one lumpy side, bristle and gristle texturing the horrible landscape. This was certain to be an unforgettable culinary adventure.

In a quick Google search for “rolled pig’s head,” among an alarming wealth of references to a man who rolled a severed pig’s head into a mosque in Auburn, Maine, I discovered the blog “Offal Good,” by Chef Chris Cosentino, Executive Chef of California’s Incanto. In a post called “Let Them Eat Pig’s Head” Chef Cosentino provides an illustrated step-by-step guide to making this dish, officially called Porchetta Di Testa. He instructs us to take an entire pig’s head and remove the bones, which results in the pig mask that Ms. Abend describes. I am certain Chef Cosentino would not mind if I pasted one of his marvelous photographs below, to better illustrate this gruesome sight.
We then season the pig’s head and marinate for two days in the fridge, after which we roll it up, tie it, and place it in a sous vide bag (fancy French for “vacuum-packed plastic bag”). Cook, then place into an ice bath and let it sit in the fridge for two days. After two days, cut away any stock and fat, and untie. Slice and serve.

My Rolled Pig’s Head arrived arranged on an antique, pig-shaped cutting board. It did not have eye-holes; nor did it resemble a chocolate chip cookie. I am not enough of a pork connoisseur to know what it should taste like, but I wanted it to taste distinctly like something, whether “Iberian pig” or bacon, and I wanted the “charred, bristly hairs.” Instead, it tasted like a very mild Prosciutto, with the same oily surface. I was strangely disappointed, but at least I can say that I ate the de-boned, marinated, and boiled head of a pig.

Next time, however, I want the full pig-head experience. I want the gristle, the bristle, and the snout.

Monday, March 2, 2009

My Kitchen Kitty

This is Barry. He, too, loves to be in the kitchen.