Well, hello there.
And hello to all of you who found your way over here from the Wall Street Journal. Boy, are you in for a treat.
Time for me to tell you about what has been equally the most challenging and most rewarding experience of my life. Oh yes, kids. This is bigger than just making a braised, stuffed pig's head. There's a whole other layer to this story that I haven't really talked or written about publicly. But it's time, because it's pretty damn cool and I'm incredibly proud of it. Full disclaimer: I made this dish back in early March, and for reasons you'll see as the story unfolds, I haven't been able to post about it until now. But I think you'll be excited about the reasons why as well as the final result (at least I hope you will), because you guys have been so amazingly supportive up until this point, why quit now? Seriously though, I can't wait to share this with you... it's been killing me not to. So, here we go.
Me and my pig's head? We cut a demo for a TV show.
I KNOW! Cool, right?
Back in January, the head of development at JWM Productions got in touch with me to see if I might be interested in pursuing something with them. After calling a bunch of my friends to see which one of them was playing this practical joke, I realized he was the real deal. So, we got together over coffee and got to know one another. I have to admit I was hesitant at first, because as a media and PR consultant, it's always been my job to put my clients on camera while I stay in the background. I've done some on-camera work before, but nothing like this, so I wasn't 100% confident that I'd be any good at it. However, they were willing to move forward pitching a TV series with me, so I thought to myself, "they're the experts and if they didn't vomit when they saw me or think I'm a bumbling idiot, then I guess I should give it a shot."
A few weeks later, three handsome gentlemen from JWM -- Aziz (the head of development), Patrick and Neil (who ultimately became my production crew) -- came over to my house for a meeting to talk about what a demo might look like and what show ideas we might want to pitch to which networks. We ended up spending a fair amount of time in my attic (which seems bizarre, but actually made sense at the time) looking through the hundreds of vintage cookbooks I own, tossing ideas around and trying to figure out what we might want to do.
They wrote up a treatment for some pitch meetings they had the following week. There was interest in one of the ideas, so we worked on an outline for a demo. We went back and forth on what I should cook and what the story would be, and at one point, we all came to the same conclusion: it had to be the pigs' head. So, I outlined the process, they came up with a production schedule, and shooting began.
I got the pig's head from Forrest Pritchard, who runs Smith Meadows Farm. I've mentioned Smith Meadows before because they're my regular meat and egg vendor at the farmers' market in town. I called Forrest ahead of time to order the pig's head so he'd have it ready for us on the Sunday we began the shoot. And away we go......
Let's take another look at the pig's head to get everything started:
This is a dish in The French Laundry Cookbook that is written about in more narrative form, so I'm going to do my best to break it down into the steps the book provides (in the order it provides them, as well) and show you photos as we go, so if you want to try and do this dish, you can. These photos are stills pulled out of the video footage, so credit goes to JWM Productions. The italicized text below is from The French Laundry Cookbook; my commentary is in regular type.
1. Cut off ears and reserve. (Note: pigs' ears have hair on them, so it's best to shave off that hair before removing and then dicing the ears. Someone suggested burning the hair off, but I think that might actually smell worse than that freakin' tripe, so I stuck to shaving).
2. Split the skin and meat down the center of the head, beginning at the top and working around the snout and to the back of the head to split the skull down the middle. Then, beginning on one side of the head, run the knife along the contour of the head, following the bone structure, to remove the skin and the attached meat.
Here's where the fun really begins. Splitting a pig's skull? Wow. Really? There's also text in the book about how to make sure you get the cheek meat and the meat at the temple. This is the point at which I went back and consulted all the notes and research I'd done on this process (nerd alert!), as well as the people I'd talked to who'd done this dish (or a version of it) before. The consensus was that the best way for an amateur like me to be able to see where all the good bits are and be able to get the most meat off the face was to saw the entire head in half and cut the face off each side, one half at a time. So, that's what I did. (Note: If you're going to try this dish, your butcher will do the sawing-the-head-in-half part for you, and I highly recommend letting him This is not easy. Not at all. Especially when you have a crap saw and even your power tools couldn't really do the job neatly or easily.)
Because I deviated from the book's exact instructions at this point (and because I'd never done this dish before and was bound to make mistakes), I ended up with two large flaps of face meat and the cheek meat separately. I also removed the tongue (which was an unpleasant-sounding step) and set it aside to use in a little while. Let me take a moment here to bow down to anyone who has ever done this before, or who does this kind of butchering or boning-out on a regular basis. This was incredibly difficult, time-consuming, and honestly, really gross. the worst part was when... no, I can't tell you this.... can I? No..... wait..... yes, I have to. I was going to spare you this particularly gory detail, but I just can't: I had to reposition the pig's head at one point to get a better grasp on it while I was cutting the meat off the head, and accidentally jammed my thumb through one of the eye sockets. With the eye still in it. No, I wasn't wearing gloves. Yes, I'll wait while you run to the bathroom to throw up.
3. Lay out the piece of pig, skin side down ... Trim off the fat until you reach the meat. Run a knife along the skin and remove [it] from the meat ... (much as you would skin a fish fillet). I did this, and also trimmed away all the other bits and pieces that were not meat-like in any way, leaving only the thin layer of very white fat, which I then scored. I also trimmed the meat side of the face, scored that, and pounded it as flat as I could, then salt and peppered it.
I should note here that we're still on Day One of this little project -- we began filming around 9:30 a.m. at the Farmers' Market, and this pig prep continued well into the night. I think I finished around 1 a.m.
At this point, I also diced the pig's ear and put it, along with the face and cheek meat into the refrigerator.
Monday morning (on just 3 or 4 hours' sleep), I woke up extra early to get the pig's tongue braised so that we'd be ready to shoot the rest of the prep once it came out of the oven. So, before the sun rose or the newspaper hit the front porch, and while most decent people were still in bed, I put a pig's tongue in a Le Creuset pot along with some mirepoixed onions, carrots and leeks, as well as some garlic, thyme, kosher salt, chicken stock, water, and white wine vinegar. I brought it to a simmer on the stovetop, then braised it for four hours in a 300-degree oven.
When it was finished, I brought it out, scraped off the tastebuds and skin, and cut the tongue meat into small batons.
4. Arrange batons of cooked tongue, sweetbreads, and diced pig's ear over the meat. Roll the head in plastic wrap to shape it (as you would a torchon), then remove the piece, roll it, and tie it in cheesecloth.
I laid the two pieces of face meat on the cutting block and put the cheek meat, diced ear meat, and tongue meat onto it, rolled it tight using plastic wrap (which I removed once I had used it to help roll everything up), then wrapped the meat roll in some cheesecloth, which I bundled nice and tight.
I put the meat into the pot with chicken stock, water, carrots, onions, leeks, bay leaves, thyme and parsley, covered the pot with foil and put it in a 300-degree oven for 6 hours.
After six hours of braising, I removed it from the pot, unwrapped it, rewrapped it in fresh cheesecloth, and let it hang in the fridge for 24 hours.
The next day, Tuesday, I removed it from its hanging place in the fridge, and was supposed to unwrap it, slice it, bread it, and sauté it. Just before the guys got there to shoot this segment, I had a mild panic attack. What if it all fell apart? What if it crumbled or fell apart into chunks when I unwrapped it from the cheesecloth? What if it was a complete and total disaster, and all that work up until this point for was naught? Would I have to start all over from the beginning? Would we improvise and figure out another end result? Where the hell was I gonna find another pig's head on such short notice? Was I a total hack? Who let me do this? Who decided this was a good idea? Who do I think I am? AAAAAAUGHHHHHHHH!!!!
I made myself some coffee, ate breakfast, and talked myself off the ledge. The guys arrived, and we got to work. I held my breath as I cut the string that held it in place in the fridge, unwrappped it ever so slowly and gently, almost having an out-of-body experience as I drifted above myself and watched it all unfold on the cutting board below:
As you can see, it stayed intact after being unwrapped. But, would it stay together when I sliced it into medallions to bread and sauté?
Listen, I know I'm a big dork and YOU know I'm a big dork, so it should come as no surprise when I tell you that I actually got a little choked up when this ACTUALLY WORKED. And, if you have The French Laundry Cookbook and can see the photo of this step in the book, you'll see that mine actually, kinda, sorta resembles the one in the book.
I brushed the medallions with Roland Dijon mustard (my favorite brand), dredged them in breadcrumbs, and sautéed them in a little canola oil:
I'd made the Sauce Gribiche earlier in the day -- shallots, capers, cornichons, Dijon mustard, sherry vinegar, olive oil, hard-boiled eggs, tarragon, parsley and chives (photos are mine, not production stills; the crappier quality should be a dead giveaway):
To plate the final dish, I put the meat on top of the sauce and brought it to the table. Here's a shot of my new friend, Katrina (you'll meet her in a minute), eating the dish:
This is one of the best things I've ever eaten. The pork was tender and delicious, and you could taste the subtle differences in texture of the different kinds of meat, but when it all came together it was amazing. It was almost creamy in its consistency, yet still had a meat-like texture. It was smooth and tender and the sauce complemented the dish like nothing I could have imagined. I'd make that sauce again even if I was just making pork tenderloin or a pork loin roast (or even just plain old pork chops, I suppose).
Knowing the amount of work that went into this whole pig head extravaganza, I had prepared myself not to be too disappointed in case it turned out to be a somewhat mediocre dish. But you know what? It was really, really good. The meat was cooked to perfection, the sauce was incredible, and I was so tired and giddy but completely honest when I said, "I can't believe I'm actually going to say this but I think I might actually do this again someday. It's THAT good."
I meant it then, and I mean it now. But someone else is going to have to debone the pig's head for me next time. That's one step of this process I have no interest in repeating.
Looking back, the thought of making the dish was scary enough, but adding the "hey, we don't care if you've never made this before -- let's shoot it as you go and show it to a bunch of programming executives who might ultimately have a major impact your future career path" made this all the more surreal. It was exhausting, grueling, labor-intensive, frustrating, stressful, exciting, hilarious, beyond challenging, and ultimately, something I'm incredibly proud of. I wish there was a bigger, more impactful word than proud, because that's how I feel about the final product. This dish was the best thing I've ever cooked, and the resulting footage told a great story and was an amazing learning experience.
Oh yeah, about that footage. You wanna see it? Good. 'Cause I want you to. Here's the four-minute demo JWM Productions put together. Unfortunately, they had to strip some of the music for it to be posted here; sorry 'bout that. Dang rights and clearance issues. Just whistle along during the quiet parts. Hope you like it!
In Over Her Head (Carol Blymire) from Carol Blymire on Vimeo.
I can't end this post without thanking Aziz, Patrick, Neil, Justin, Jess, Brian, and the rest of the JWM team for making this happen. And, a special thanks to Jason Williams and Bill Morgan, without whom there would be no JWM.
So, there you have it. A delicious braised, stuffed pig's head, and a humble, grateful writer thinking it actually might be kinda cool to make the leap from your laptop to the TV screen. Why? Well, doing this blog has pushed me in new directions I never thought possible and has deepened and intensified my passion for food and cooking far more than I ever could have hoped or imagined. So, if I can share the reward of pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone -- truly getting in over your head when trying new things -- and inspire even one person to challenge him- or herself in the kitchen, then it's all worth it to me.
So, stay tuned.... I'll keep you posted on where this all ends up, and who knows? Maybe someday you can set your TiVo to record me. Wouldn't that be awesome? Fingers crossed...
# # #
Up Next: French Laundry at Home Extra: Brioche
Pig’s head from Smith Meadows Farm
Sauce Gribiche ingredients from Whole Foods
Music to Cook By: Perry Como; Magic Moments. This was the tune playing on the original video while I was prepping the pig's head. I find myself whistling this song quite a bit these days. Totally addictive.
Read My Previous Post: "Head to Toe" -- Part One (Pig's Feet)
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
I don't think it's a big secret that I've been dreading this dish. When I first started this project, I had no idea I'd even make it this far, and now that I've survived deveining foie gras and cutting the faces off soft-shell crabs, and eaten an oyster without passing out in a pool of my own vomit, this dish was inevitable. I've been putting it off long enough. Time to face one of my biggest culinary fears head on ("apply directly to the forehead") and just do it. What's the worst that could happen?
Ooops, did I speak to soon?
Oh, just you wait and see.
"Head to Toe" is broken into two parts in The French Laundry Cookbook -- Braised Stuffed Pig's Head with Sauce Gribiche, and Pig's Feet with French Green Lentils. We're gonna start with the feet, and get to the head in a later post. Wow. I can't wait to see what freak-ass Google search lands someone on this page based on that last sentence. Yipes.
I've actually eaten pig's feet before -- the meat is really delicious, and I like a traditional French country preparation, as this one was intended to be. Notice how I used the word "intended" there? Yeah. Hoo-boy, here we go:
I picked up some trotters at Eastern Market, brought them home and cleaned them. I had the option of buying just the feet, or what I bought below, which is the feet with the shank attached. I decided to do this because you have to split and braise them, then use the skin to wrap the meat in during part of the cooking process, so I wanted to make sure I had some nice, long pieces of skin to work with:
I can hear some of you shuddering. It's okay. I understand. Completely. While I like the meat that a pig's foot produces, I have a bit of trouble with my gag reflex when I see a whole pig's foot. Why? It all stems from a hot, crowded concert hall in New Orleans a few years ago. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was a little hungover (okay, a LOT hungover), and we were all packed into this hall like sardines (come to think of it, quite a few people actually smelled like sardines, but I digress). As the different bands and music groups took their turn on the stage, people moved around to get a better view. I ended up standing next to a couple who were probably in their late 50s/early 60s. The woman had a giant purse, out of which she took two ziploc bags -- one for her, one for him. Each one had something in it that I couldn't really make out until they each opened their bags and I smelled a pickled substance. Then, they inched out the food product little by little and began gnawing on it.
Lucky me, they each had brought a pickled pig's foot to chew on during the show in the 90-degree-heat-with-no-ventilation room. To top it off, they also dunked potato chips in the pickled pig's foot juice and ate them with reckless abandon. Had I not been hungover, it might not have been so gross. No wait, I take that back. It would have. I had to leave the room to get some water and some fresh air. To this day, I still remember what that smelled like. Oooof. (on a side note, when Katrina hit two weeks later that man and woman were the first people I thought of when I watched the footage of the flooding; I still think about them from time to time and hope they're okay.)
Back to the dish.....
As directed, I split the trotters lengthwise. That's where the fun began. Of course, I am lying. It was not fun. Not at all. It took forever and a day to do, I used every curse word I've ever learned in every language I've ever spoken, and I debated going to Lowe's to buy an industrial table saw. I gots no skillz, yo.
I placed the split-open trotters skin side down onto a bed of aromatics (carrots, onion, leek, bay leaf, thyme sprigs, parsley) and mirepoix (carrots, leeks, onions), then covered them with more vegetables. I added chicken stock and water to cover them, put the lid on the pot, and brought it to a simmer:
After I brought it up to a simmer, I put the pot in the oven at 300 degrees for what was going to be six hours. The book recommends the six-hour cooking time, but it also adds the caveat of "or until the meat is falling away from the bone." For me, that happened at about the 4.5-hour mark... and what also happened is that the skin completely disintegrated. Shredded. Melted. Went bye-bye. Bought the farm. Flipped me off. Rendered itself completely useless.
So, I took the feet out of the braise, deboned them (which was kind of gross), removed all the meat, shredded it, and put it in a little storage container next to the storage container of skin I was able to salvage.
I put the containers of meat and skin in the fridge and debated what to do next. The house still smelled pretty good -- the scent of braised pork in almost any form is a very nice thing, but even a fine-smelling, porky house does not make up for the fact that I knew I was sort of in the shitter on this one.
The next step in the book is creating the farce (or stuffing) for the skins, then stuffing them, wrapping them in caul fat, and cooking them before serving them on a bed of green lentils. However, I knew the pieces of skin were too small (the largest, most intact one was 2x3") so I knew I couldn't finish this dish the way I had planned to, so I had to improvise and figure out something else. I decided to just serve the pig feet meat (great name for a band by the way, "Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Piiiiiiiiiiig Feeeeeeeeet Meeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaat!!!!!!!!!!") over lentils. I thought it would taste pretty good.
What I didn't think about is what it would look like. Note to self: THINK ABOUT THIS KIND OF THING, YOU DUMBASS.
I had thawed some veal stock for another dish I was working on, so I took a bit of that and mixed it with the meat from the feet and reheated it in a small saucepan on the stove.
I had already cleaned the lentils the day before, so I made those (with a little garlic, slab bacon, carrot and onion) and they looked great. The pig feet meat was all warmed up and ready to go, so it was just a matter of plating the dish.
"Aw, who is that precious child with the yarn-tied, lopsided pigtails looking all pensive as she contemplates which present to open first?" you may be asking yourself. Before I show you the final dish, I thought I'd insert a photo from my birthday party when I was four as a cheap ploy to garner some love and support because once you see this final dish, you will lose any and all respect for me and you will say, "Huh. I didn't know there was a recipe for Ken-L-Ration in The French Laundry Cookbook."
Sorry about that. Trust me when I tell you it actually looked WORSE in person. And in addition to its non-beauty, the meat smelled great while it was braising but when I warmed it up using a little veal stock, it made it smell like really bad b.o., which, you know, is great at meal time.
One of the most frequently asked questions I get is "how many times to you try these dishes before you finally post it?" And, my answer is "One." When I started this project, I debated whether or not to test some of these dishes before doing a final version for the site, and I decided that it would be much more interesting (and honest, and cost-effective) to employ and "one-and-done" strategy.
This dish is a prime example of that.
I had a few friends over to taste it, and they sat down at the table and didn't say a word as they stared at their plates waiting for the ghost of Allen Funt to appear (or Ashton Kutcher, for you young whippersnappers out there - now GET OUT OF MY YARD!). We each took a bite, chewed semi-politely, swallowed, pushed our plates away, and drank many, many glasses of water.
Not only did it look and smell pretty bad, it didn't taste all that great, either. Texturally, it was really stringy and weird, and the smell overpowered any positive taste aspect there might have been.
So, pig feet meat? Great band name. Not so great dinner.
Pig: 1 Carol: 0
Up Next: "Head to Toe," Part Two. The moment you've all been waiting for: The Pig's Head.
Trotters from Union Meat Company; Eastern Market; Washington, D.C.
Produce from Whole Foods
Lentils from TPSS Co-op
Music to Cook By: Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam; Head to Toe. Are you surprised?
Read My Previous Post: French Laundry at Home Extra -- How (not) To Cook Tripe
Thursday, May 15, 2008
I don't talk a lot about my day job on this blog, but in an effort to better illustrate today's post, I'll make an exception. I do a wide range of public affairs and media work for my clients, and sometimes they need me to arrange briefings and press events on Capitol Hill.
Not long ago, I did a press event on the Senate side that attracted the interest of a fairly well-known lobbyist who is more well-known for his smell-it-from-50-feet-away-I'm-not-even-kidding bad breath than he is for his work. I've seen people scurry around corners and duck into offices when they see him coming, because it's just so offensive.
At this event, I had the distinct pleasure of working with some well-known members of the Senate leadership. One in particular is a high-ranking Democrat from the midwest who is "on our side" with respect to my client's position on an issue, so I've gotten the chance to get to know him and his staff, and have nothing but the utmost respect for all of them. My respect for this Senator grew by leaps and bounds when I saw him exit this particular event, only to be greeted by the holy-crap-is-that-an-open-sewer-oh-my-bad-it's-your-breath lobbyist. The Senator's well-honed political veneer cracked before my very eyes as he literally recoiled from this man's breath, his eyes blinking furiously as he said, "Whoa" not quite as under-his-breath as I think he'd intended.
The lobbyist had no clue and kept on talking, and later turned down a politely offered piece of gum, oblivious to the olfactory havoc he wrought.
I'm sure you've all encountered that kind of smell before. One that nearly renders you unconscious, melts your eyelashes off, and leaves a black fog of death in its aftermath -- the memory of which stays with you far longer than you'd ever hoped.
And that, my friends, is what cooked tripe is like.
If this blog has proven anything, it's that I'm not a culinary wuss. In fact, even before starting this project, I'd have to say that I was a pretty adventurous eater. Growing up in Pennsylvania Dutch country means you're exposed to all sorts of pickled animal parts at an early age. And, thanks to a former employer that essentially paid for me to travel the world over the course of two years, I've been able to try a wide variety of foods I otherwise never would've known about.
I've eaten nearly every animal part imaginable, and for that matter, nearly every animal imaginable (including the time I was in Egypt and the waiter offered us "dinosaur" when he meant to say "iguana" -- one of the funnier translations I've ever encountered). And, what I wasn't able to eat or enjoy before, I've been able to have a new appreciation for thanks to The French Laundry Cookbook -- oysters, tongue, foie gras... the list goes on.
But tripe? I've never tried it before, even though I've seen it in the store and on the menu at my favorite El Salvadoran restaurant. My mother tells me that my grandparents used to eat tripe, but that's one memory I don't have. I either never witnessed it, or it was so awful that I repressed it so heavily and just can't recall it.
So, I decided to make tripe and see what happened. Perhaps it would trigger an amazing, homey memory of sitting at my grandparents' kitchen table. Or, it would make me want to burn down my house to get rid of the smell.
Gee, is that foreshadowing or what?
For those of you who have a copy of The French Laundry Cookbook, please turn to page 209 and follow along. The first thing I did was buy the tripe at the supermarket (notice what else I bought as an incentive to get through this dish?):
I brought the tripe home and cleaned it thoroughly as the book directed, because when I read the line "When it has been well cleaned, it will have very little odor," I expect it to be true. Ahem. Could that be more foreshadowing? Why, I just don't know.
I cleaned that tripe, scraped off all the excess membrane, rinsed and scraped it again and again, and really made sure it was clean as a whistle and had absolutely no odor.
This is honeycomb tripe, which is the reticulum -- or, second chamber of the alimentary canal (digestive tract) of the cow.
Next, I prepared the vegetables to cook with the tripe: carrots, onions, pasley, turnip:
I also thawed some veal stock, which I would then mix with white wine and pour over the layered tripe and vegetables:
I brought this to a simmer on the stovetop, then covered it and put it in a 275-degree oven for 6 hours.
During Hour One, there wasn't much of a smell. Hour Two, same thing. Hour Three and Hour Four, I noticed a meaty, almost Beef-a-Roni smell. Not too bad, really. By Hour Five, the scent had intensified, and another twenty minutes past Hour Five, something happened. The scent shifted in a split second and I was nearly knocked to the ground when I opened the oven door.
You know when you walk into a nursing home for the first time, and there's a distinct, rather unpleasant smell? Or, when you drive past a sewage treatment plant or paper mill? Or the airplane bathroom on a Southwest Airlines flight? Or a hospital's burn unit?
Those are all preferable smells compared to cooked tripe.
I drained the tripe, saving the liquid to make a sauce (why, I'm not sure. I know it's what the book suggested, but choking back my own vomit was difficult enough at this point -- why the hell did I want to make sauce?). I also called my friends and told them they didn't have to come over to try this. I wasn't so sure I was going to eat it myself. People, this smell was worse than morning breath and dirty hair after you've have the flu for three days and haven't brushed your teeth or showered at all.
I strained the liquid into another saucepan, reduced it, added some cream, a little mustard, and some salt and pepper, as the book suggested. By this time, my corneas had evaporated from the stench and my eyebrows started to fall out.
I then cut a small piece of tripe and put it in a bowl with some of the sauce. I also brought along a little liquid chaser, in case I needed it after tasting the tripe.
This? Was disgusting. Absolutely, positively the worst thing I have ever eaten in my life.
And I was surprised and really bummed. In some part of my twisted little mind, I really did have high expectations for this dish. I kind of wanted it to be excellent, so that I could amaze, astonish, and horrify my friends by ordering tripe when we went out. I wanted to be The Girl Who Is Not Afraid To Order Tripe And In Fact It Makes Her Even Cooler And All The More Sexy Because She Enjoys It. Alas, it was not meant to be.
I left my kitchen, cookbook in hand, and sat outside on the front porch to re-read the instructions to make sure I hadn't missed a crucial step. I hadn't. It was then that I saw the final sentence that wrapped up the instructions for the dish: "It's terrific."
It made me wonder how long it took Michael Ruhlman and Thomas Keller to come up with that sentence, because surely, it has to be some sort of inside joke or secret chef-to-chef code for a dish that is really awful but meant to be tried only in some sort of freakish dare. I imagine their exchange might have gone a little something like this:
Michael: So, we've described how to cook tripe, and we've included your story about the importance of cooking offal. Would you like to add something here at the end that describes what tripe tastes like?
Thomas: Yeah, sure. But in case someone, someday decides they want to cook every recipe in this book and maybe write about it, let's not deter them in any way, so how about we say, "It's absolutely fantastic!"
Thomas: Yes, Michael?
Michael: Fantastic. Really?
Thomas: Um, how about, "it doesn't suck... oh no wait, IT DOES!"?
Michael: Or, "hope you've got your fumigator on speed dial"?
Thomas: Oh, I know! What if we say "it's good" and you draw a picture of me doing air quotes around the word "good"?
Michael: *giggle*snort* Or, we could say it tastes like a word that rhymes with something else. Like "schmass"?
Thomas: Wait, wait, wait. I got it. Let's say it tastes terrific. After all, Michael, you went to the CIA; you've been inducted into the Secret Chef Jargon That Pranks Home Cooks Club -- you remember what "terrific" means, right?
Michael: Oh yes. Ha ha. But the regular reader won't know that now will they? We are so smart. This will most certainly encourage a potential home cook perhaps from the Washington, DC region to try this dish in like, I dunno, ten years or so, because she thinks it will be really great. Maybe we should tell her to pick up a donut when she buys the tripe.
Thomas: No need for that. She can make her own. Unless she sucks at that, too, which is a distinct possibility. Well done, Ruhlman. Well done. Terrific it is.
Thanks a lot, guys. Thanks a lot.
Up Next: "Head to Toe" Part One -- Pig's Feet
Who cares? You're not going to make this. I won't allow it.
Music to Cook By: I refuse to sully any artist's name, discography, or reputation by associating them with this post. Oh, except for Celine Dion. Go ahead and listen to her and eat some tripe. I'm not sure which experience will be worse.
Read My Previous Post: Meet Scott Weinstein, Fishmonger, BlackSalt
Friday, May 9, 2008
How do you go from being law school-bound to becoming a renowned fishmonger? Ask Scott Weinstein. He's the fishmonger at BlackSalt in Washington, D.C.
Having lived in the Mid-Atlantic region all my life, I realize how lucky I am to have fresh fish and seafood at my disposal every day. Having shopped around quite a bit over the past few years, I now buy all my seafood at BlackSalt, not because it's close to my house or convenient (it's not), not because it's inexpensive (it's not), but because the quality is outstanding, and because Scott knows his stuff and has never steered me wrong.
Having a good relationship with any food purveyor (or a plumber or electrician, for that matter) is critical to experiencing consistent quality coupled with those little extra special pointers or products. I've gotten to know Scott over the past year and a half and find him to be not only charming and funny, but incredibly knowledgeable, resourceful, and savvy.
It's my nature that when I find a great service, product, or person, I like to share it with only the people closest to me. However, when it comes to food I'm a huge advocate of spreading the word far and wide, because I think it's important to learn from the best and buy product from the best. And in this case and in this region of the country, Scott is the best. So, in the spirit of The French Laundry Cookbook's stories about the restaurant's purveyors, I thought it only appropriate that I introduce you to some of the folks who have made French Laundry at Home such a joy to do.
With that then, today, instead of reading about a dish, I'd like you to read about fish, and the man who has almost become a curator of sorts when it comes to all things from the sea: BlackSalt's fishmonger, Scott Weinstein.
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A Washington, DC-area native, Scott grew up in Bethesda, MD, graduated from Churchill H.S., and left town to go to college in Vermont. Not really loving life in Vermont, he soon transferred to University of Maryland in College Park, MD and graduated in 2001. Having majored in political science and sociology, and hailing from a long line of lawyers, Scott figured he'd spend a year or two after college traveling and working, and then head off to law school.
Instead, he took a job cooking at Addie's in Rockville, and enjoyed cooking so much there that he then did a year-long stint at Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa, Canada. Having learned proper French technique, he came back to the DC area and worked as a cook under David Craig at Black's Bar & Kitchen in Bethesda for a year. During this time, he perfected his skills, learned how kitchens and restaurants were run, and quickly rose up through the ranks. When Jeff and Barbara Black were in the final stages of preparing to open BlackSalt in 2004, their fishmonger backed out and Scott, who was already planning to be BlackSalt's lead cook, was asked to take the job. Here's where I let Scott take over the story, and where I share the interview I did with him a few days ago...
Scott Weinstein: I grew up loving seafood, and I knew how to prepare and cook fish, but I didn't have any experience as a fishmonger. So, I spent the six months prior to the restaurant opening traveling, meeting vendors, going to markets, learning from other fish experts, and basically teaching myself how to do this job.
Carol: So, when the restaurant and the market finally opened, had you sufficiently prepared?
SW: Well, it was hands-on from that moment forward, and it's been great. There were some bumps in the road getting started -- I learned early on I had to perfect my cutting techniques, which I did, because we were bringing in this great product, and I wanted to do it right. But it's been an amazing three and a half years.
C: What kind of budget do you have?
SW: That's the great thing. I have carte blanche, with the only directive really being 'bring in the best you can find.' Obviously, I have to make sure we make money, but as long as the numbers match up, I can focus on bringing in the very best I can find.
C: Let's talk about a typical day for you -- what does that look like?
SW: I get in between 6 and 6:30 every morning and spend the first two hours of the day ordering, taking phone calls, doing inventory. Most restaurants in DC put in their orders the night before, but I do mine in the morning, which means these guys are champing at the bit to get me on the phone to get me what I need. It also means I'm getting the freshest possible fish. I love talking to my vendors every day, and seeing what they have. I've gotten to know these guys really well over the years and they're really great to work with. They know I have really high standards, and they want to get me the best stuff.
C: Okay, so you spend the first two hours of your day "in the office." When the fish market opens, do you spend the rest of the day on the floor? Then, when the restaurant opens, does it get even busier?
SW: Yeah, from the minute the doors open, I'm in the market serving customers and supporting the kitchen. On any given day, I've got 6 or 7 people working in the market with me, and I'm there with them until we close up shop, usually between 7:30 and 8:30 every night. Sometimes, I leave around 6:30, but most nights, I'm here along with everyone else.
C: Do all of you work just in the fish market side of the business, or do some swing over to help out the restaurant?
SW: We handle all the purchasing, receiving and fabricating for the restaurant, too. One of the other things I do before opening the market in the morning is write up the food guide for the kitchen so that the chef knows what we have available for use.
C: Legend has it that at Per Se, 75% of what's brought in on any given day to the receiving area gets turned away. How much do you have to turn away every morrning?
SW: I look at every piece of fish that comes in. That's very important to me. I've built great relationships with my vendors, and they know exactly what my standards are, so I rarely have to look at anything that's substandard. That said, every now and then, a fish will come in that looks great, but when we cut it open, there are dark areas, which means it's bruised. It's certainly nothing the vendor could've spotted, so it's not his fault, but I can't sell it or use it in the restaurant, so it has to go back.
C: Sustainability is a big buzzword when it comes to seafood. What does that mean to you?
SW: It's definitely a big part of our overall business philosophy, because we buy as locally as we can and rely on wind power for our restaurants. But, we also look at the whole picture when it comes to product. We put pressure on our vendors to source responsibly.
C: What does that mean?
SW: When buying domestically, we only work with fisherman who are working within strict quotas and state and national management plans. That way, we can still serve good wild-caught product responsibly. We carry swordfish, but do it responsibly. We only sell shrimp that's been wild-caught by domestic fishermen who are using turtle-safe gear. We're not bringing in stuff from China or who knows where. That's important to me. I have brought in organic farm-raised salmon from Ireland and Scotland because the EU has developed strong organic guidelines, which the U.S. and Canada have failed to do at this point.
C: It seems like there are so many studies, articles and opinions on this issue. What should people do to better educate themselves?
SW: It's important to not just read one article or listen to only one point of view. Every day, I try to learn more about changes in netting, bi-catch issues, and who is doing their catching properly. But I have to go to more than one source to learn about the issue as a whole. And people should make decisions based on a wide variety of information available to them, not just one thing.
C: What fish do Washingtonians eat the most of?
SW: Salmon, for sure. We sell as much salmon as anything else combined. But we also work with a lot of private chefs, really experienced cooks, and people who love to try different things, so I like to stock and sell things that no one else carries.
C: Any advice for my readers on how to buy a great piece of fish?
SW: Sure. You can poke, prod, and smell it -- all those tips you read about -- but really, it's most important to know the person you're buying the fish from. Develop a relationship with that person. Talk to them about the fish, make an effort to learn from them and know that it's all about trust. Let them take care of you, because when you build that relationship, we end up looking out for you and making sure you get what you need.
C: Many of my readers don't live as closely as we do to the water and great seafood resources. For people who don't have access to fresh fish, is frozen okay?
SW: Fish is always best fresh. However, if the fish is vacuum-packed-frozen right away, it's good for about two weeks and the taste won't suffer all that much when you do cook it. It is important to thaw it properly, though -- and that means letting it thaw slowly and naturally in the refrigerator. Never in the microwave. Never.
C: What's the biggest mistake home cooks make when preparing fish?
SW: Underseasoning and overcooking. Most people are afraid of salt, so they don't ever use it, and then wonder why their food doesn't taste as good as it does in a restaurant. It's important to learn how to use salt throughout the cooking process because it makes a huge difference in the final product.
C: What do you do on your days off?
SW: Well, I don't cook. Usually, I go out to eat -- sushi, Thai, Vietnamese. Here in DC, the best food is either high-end or ethnic. It's kind of difficult to find a great middle-of-the-road type of place that's worth the time or money. I'm also into sports, so I play and watch on my days off, when I'm not hanging out with friends.
C: When you do cook at home, do you make fish?
SW: Sometimes I see a piece of fish in the case in the morning when we open, and I think of all the different ways I want to cook it when I take it home at the end of the night. Then, I end up getting sushi on the way home instead. But when I do make fish, I like it grilled, with a little salt and pepper, maybe some fresh lemon juice. I like fish to taste like fish, not something else.
C: If you weren't a fishmonger, what else would you do?
SW: Probably go back into the kitchen... be a chef or a sous chef... maybe someday have my own place.
C: I always end each one of my posts with a little blurb about what music I listened to when I cooked that particular dish. So, let me ask you, if I were to turn your iPod on right now, what would be playing? Anything particularly embarrassing?
SW: I'm probably the only person in the world who doesn't have an iPod.
C: I'm not letting you get out of answering this question, but nice try. What CD is in your car's player right now?
SW: (semi-sheepishly) Okay, fine. I kind of have a thing for 80s music.
C: So, you got some Phil Collins goin' on? Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam?
SW: The Breakfast Club soundtrack.
... which was, for me, the perfect way to end this interview. Because really, when your fishmonger can go from talking about sustainability and bi-catch prevention netting technologies to The Breakfast Club soundtrack, you know you're working with someone pretty damn fantastic.
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Up Next:Île Flottante (I know I promised this earlier, but the electrical system in my house is experiencing some technical difficulties and I had to adjust my cooking schedule to accommodate repairs. Sorry.)
Read my previous post: Citrus-Marinated Salmon with a Confit of Navel Oranges, Beluga Caviar and Pea Shoot Coulis