Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Top Chef, Tasting Notes, and Home Cooking

Where do I start? This past week has been a culinary whirlwind. Let's start with Top Chef.

I was sitting at the bar at Volt Wednesday, watching the TV screen as brothers Bryan and Michael Voltaggio waited with urgent intensity to hear which one of them would be crowned Top Chef. When Michael heard his name called, he transformed. It was actually one of the more beautiful things I have seen. I grew up with a younger brother who was always somehow second to me in the eyes of other people because I was good, and did the right things, and was brilliant, and succeeded. My brother, also brilliant, was unable to follow other peoples' rules, was often angry and inappropriate, and was always asked, "what is wrong with you" and "why did you do that" and "why can't you be more..." It was hard to watch Bryan not win; I know how good of a chef he is, and how much he fought for it. But it was wonderful to watch Michael win, because there was that moment where he had permission to see himself differently. I hope it is a seed that grows within him his whole life. Some people say the title was stolen from Bryan- I don't know, I didn't try Michael's food. The episode was set up to make you think that Bryan would win, but the blogs from the judges have been more informative. They were torn. They duked it out all night. There were people who thought Bryan should win and people who pulled for Michael. In the end, the vote was the vote. But it was close.

The Voltaggios are brothers, after all, and they have decided to become successful together as a team. Check out their website. A rising tide floats all boats. The person I was more sorry for was Kevin, as he had his first real bad day and the show dispensed with him so unceremoniously. But others have said, and it appears to be true, that he has an illustrious career ahead of him. He has a certain genius to him, that much is obvious, and he is a fan favorite. He also has the ability, like the Lee Brothers (whose cookbook is at Ollie's right now for $6.99- GO BUY IT), to tell a story about Southern cooking that elevates it from the prejudices of the North and West.

Kevin and Bryan both talked a lot about using local, fresh ingredients; I think this really distinguished the two of them. Great food starts with great ingredients. Our local tourism industry will be putting together an initiative to bring people to Frederick for our cuisine, and they will be highlighting the proximity to high quality local ingredients as part of the campaign. I give Bryan a lot of credit for developing the concept that Frederick will be capitalizing on as a result of his success.

I look forward to seeing more from all of the chefs. Most of all, I am proud of them- how they helped each other and wanted to win because they were the best, not because someone else lost. I think the tone for this was really set by Bryan. The production team loved Bryan the best because he was always charitable, easy to get along with, kind. It's a long-term philosophy, to treat yourself and others well, that in my experience always pays off in the end. And Top Chef is just the beginning. Bryan is also now a celebrity and that's kind of weird. But them's the breaks. I am sure it's weird for him too. Stay true.

I went to Georgetown this weekend with my friends Chris and Karly. We hung out at the GORGEOUS apartment of his sister Kelly and her husband. I was inspired by the place, as it really is focused on art, and by the people who have a love of fine food. We went to a restaurant that was just around the corner from their place, called Urbana. The Executive Chef there is Alexander Bollinger, who used to work with Bryan V. at Charlie Palmer. I had three courses on the tasting menu for $39 and was stuffed; the courses were also excellent. Some notes:
  • Portugese kale stew with cannellini beans, creamer potatoes, laughing bird shrimp, and chorizo. The broth in this soup was outstanding and had a lovely balance of shrimp and chorizo. The shrimp was a tad bit more cooked than I like but I am weird about seafood and like it just as the proteins denature (turning the shrimp from translucent to white) and not a second more. $11. A very big bowl and a hearty soup.
  • Ahi tuna tartare with 61 degree egg, warm applewood smoked bacon and banyuls sherry vinaigrette with crispy house made fennel crackers. I had this without the crackers since I am wheat-free. For those interested, 61 degrees is significant because it is the temperature at which egg white and yolk are at the same consistency- silky, velvety, and thick. The way this is achieved is by cooking sous-vide. Sous-vide is done by vacuum-sealing the food and then putting it in a water bath that is calibrated to a precise temperature. The food is then cooked until it reaches the desired temperature. Food cooked sous-vide NEVER OVERCOOKS. For this reason, it's a great technique for things like chicken and pork, which need to reach a certain temperature on the inside but often suffer from overcooking on the outside. Sous-viding is not something that the home cook does at this point, though I have seen an ad for a machine that ran around $350, plus the vacuum sealer and bags. About the cost of a microwave, and worth it I would think if you cook meat a lot or are obsessed with perfection. The dish was delicious though I would have preferred the egg and tuna separately. Their flavors go along together except for a few subtle notes pretty far in that I thought clashed, and I could not get over that, but again that is my palate. $15 well spent.
  • Cassoulet with crispy duck confit with butternut squash, cannellini beans, garlic sausage and applewood smoked bacon. Confit, a preparation of duck where it is preserved in salt, cooked in its own fat, and then stored in fat, is the most tender preparation and a real delicacy well-suited to the holidays. This confit was excellent, and came with a crispy skin that I really enjoyed. The bean cassoulet was also very good. I found the combination of the two to be oversalted and would have liked to see the cassoulet have less salt to compensate for the salt in the confit. This was an extremely hearty dish that filled me up like an entree and was an absolute steal at $13.
  • I forgot to write down the name of the wine but it was a 2006 French Burgundy. I thought it was a good wine but still closed. But a good price on the wine and a good wine list in general from what little I know about wines. I know a lot more about food than I do wine.
  • Some local, seasonal ingredients were mentioned on the menu like Tuscarora Farms beets.

Urbana, 2121 P. St. NW, Washington DC 20037, 202.956.6650

I made a good dinner this weekend too- a chicken pot pie using the Lee Brothers' recipe (seriously, get the book). For local ingredients, I used a chicken from Rohrer's meats and some cayenne peppers I had grown and dried last summer (I also had a watermelon radish from the Common Market that went into a salad). The recipe asks for you to cut up the chicken and fry the pieces, but I broiled them instead. Broiling chicken is my new favorite cooking method because it is fast, gets the skin crispy, and avoids the addition of extra fats from frying (though the chicken roasts in its own fat). Basically I broil on the top rack, starting the pieces cavity-side up, for five minutes on each side, then drop the rack to 8 inches and continue to broil but at 10 minutes each side. I made gluten-free dumplings from a mix of flours like brown rice, potato starch, and garbanzo and was very excited that they tasted good. The pot pie also had the holy trinity of carrots, onions and celery in it. I will definitely make this recipe again.

I would also like to note that my elimination diet is going along well in the sense that I am still on it and have made a complete 180 degree shift in my awakeness and energy. I am having a rough time reintroducing foods because every one that I have tried to reintroduce has completely bombed. I guess that's good because it's REALLY OBVIOUS that I have sensitivities to food. So I am going to wait a few weeks before trying to introduce foods again. I also keep hitting land mines when I go out to eat, which means I really need to stop going out to eat. Maybe there's a niche for me as a lover of quality foods with a very limited diet, and I should go with it. I'll do a more complete post here soon of my experience with food and getting better, because I think it might help someone. But for now, I am:

Yours in food and in health,

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