(Im)Morel Eating

Earlier this year, near the end of spring, I found myself browsing one of my favorite haunts: Union Square Green Market, in the dead center of Manhattan. Now that my daughter is fully ensconced in her own Upper East Side apartment (crowded with roommates though it may be) and is a fully fledged member of the dean’s list at her college, my wife and I have more than ample reason to migrate regularly to the Big Apple. While we partake of all manner of sophisticated society when we visit, the Green Market is a welcoming beacon of earthiness at the epicenter of urbanism. Union Square GM

If you are like me (and I know I am), you find farmers’ markets irresistible. My own market in the Proctor District of Tacoma is a weekly delight, but I am also enamored of the San Luis Obispo Thursday Night Market, the Saturday morning market at Cabrillo College in Aptos, and the St. Paul Lowertown Market. You may have yours; these are mine.

My most recent visit to the Union Square Green Market — responsible for launching Danny Meyer’s iconic Union Square Café (which, sadly, will soon be no more) — gave me reason for serious pause and reflection. Among the heirloom carrots, organic micro-greens, free-range pheasant, line-caught bluefish and sundry other yuppie delights were baskets full of morel mushrooms — foraged fungi that fetched (gulp) $150 per pound.

Yikes! I am used to mushrooms being pretty pricey, morels in particular. Just weeks before my New York excursion, I saw them priced at $70 a pound at Seattle’s Pike Place Market. I watched with amusement as a disbelieving tourist thought the purveyor was quoting $17 rather than $70. But $150 a pound? That price got my attention. A decimal seemed out of place.


Experience speaks on this subject. Growing up in south central Minnesota some decades ago, amusements came cheap and were unrelated to the internet or any kind of “social media.” We made our own fun, or so the story goes. One Saturday morning, under clear instructions to get me out of the house, my father took me out to hunt arrowheads. If there is a more pointless activity, I don’t know what it might be. Off we drove to find a nearby freshly plowed field, in the hope that we might find a flinty stone that had been worked to a point with an antler for the purpose of killing something. I had been on such scavenger hunts before without much success, but multiple Hills Brothers coffee cans in our garage — brim-filled with fractured flints collected by my father — gave me hope. “Keep your head down and your eyes peeled” were the only instructions. Since those days, I have found that a direct correlation exists between the degree of guidance required and the spiritual or psychic value of a specific exercise . . . but that is for another time. Suffice to say that “Less is More” almost always holds serve.

That day provided no points, but we did happen upon a treasure of another sort. Taking a break from Indian archeology, we happened upon an adjacent stand of once-sturdy American Elm trees, now dying of Dutch Elm disease. In this doomed grove, we happened upon a patch of gigantic morel mushrooms, each of them approximately six inches or more in height. I had no idea what luck had befallen us, but I could tell from my father’s excitement that these were good times. We picked more than our share, perhaps a half grocery bag or more, and headed home, leaving a fair enough number for procreative activities of the fungal sort. Aside from gorging on a heaving platter of morels sliced and sautéed in butter for lunch, I have no recollection of what happened to that mother lode. Today, such a find would fetch a thousand dollars; back then it was just a very good Saturday morning.

So it was something of a personal shock for me to see morel mushrooms, those little nubbins, fetching $150 for a single pound. Certainly morels are tasty, offering up a splendid umami, earthy flavor that mates especially well with butter, spring garlic, a good New York strip steak, and some wild ramps. The fact that it is not possible to commercially cultivate this fungus certainly puts a damper on the supply. And in our free enterprise system, short supply combined with significant demand results in prices that soar to levels unconscionable.

Of course this begs the question: When does morel eating become (im)morel? It is certainly a question worth asking and one that must be asked, especially given the dilemma of how to feed a growing human population, the majority of whom go to bed hungry. Moreover, how does one justify spending $150 a pound for a foodstuff that you can find for yourself for free, if only you will spend some time in the woods?

As a committed food enthusiast, it is a situation I confront with frequency, and one that I realize I contribute to, however unintentionally. Were there not people like me willing to pay an immoral sum for a prized ingredient, the market would not support such outrageous prices. Morels would go back to being the provenance of distracted arrowhead hunters and the mycological cognoscenti. Still, we live in a market economy that insists that costs find the intersection of supply and demand. If few of us are willing to venture into the dying woods in search of fungal treasure, then we get what we get. In this regard, I am not innocent.

Along the same lines, I ventured the other day to my cellar to peruse my wan collection of wines, a mere few dozen bottles I keep for some rainy, special day, hoping they will improve while reclining in their dark and cool resting place. I have a number of bottles from a Vashon Island winery called Andrew Will that are absolute treasures, and a number more that I have hoarded for far into the future, thanks to the sage advice of Tacoma wine merchant Bill Bonnie, who is an enological savant. Engaging in some rapid back-of-napkin algebra, I calculated the value of my stash and was seriously taken aback. I’m not going to quote a number here, but it’s a lot more than I expected, and more than a little embarrassing.

Of course there are those that outdo me in this regard by many multiples, so I don’t feel too bad. My own moral high ground here is but a small mound indeed, so I will resist making value judgments in the hope that I may be given but a warning ticket for my own gustatory trespasses.

While one can find endless examples of over-the-top, im-morel culinary excess, there is, of course, the other side of the coin. Food that is too cheap to be true is exactly that. That Saran-wrapped poulet you got on sale for 79 cents per pound lived a life of utter squalor, not to mention the environmental holocaust it takes to turn a profit from chicken that cheap. Farmed salmon? Fuggitaboutit. And don’t get me started on feedlot beef: an abomination from any angle, whether social, environmental, or culinary.

When it comes to eating, morality is a slippery subject. I get where food writer and social commentator Michael Pollan, is coming from. Eating right (not to mention well) is indeed an Omnivore’s Dilemma, and it’s hard to know where to draw the line between right and wrong. No doubt about it, though — there is a price to be paid. That is, unless you are willing to take a few minutes off from scavenging for arrowheads to see what you can find among the dying elms.

New York Strip Steak in a Morel Green Peppercorn Cream Sauce

Two thick-cut New York strip steaks (the highest quality you can get)
A half-cup of heavy cream
6 small morel mushrooms (sliced)
1 Tbsp. green peppercorns (roughly chopped)
1 small shallot (finely minced)
2 cloves garlic (roughly chopped)
A splash of dry vermouth

Bring the steaks to room temperature and season expertly with salt and pepper.

Heat a cast-iron pan, large enough to hold the steaks without crowding, to medium high. Cook until a nice crust forms on one side and then flip. Remove steaks from pan and place in a 375 degree oven to finish cooking.

In the same cast-iron pan, sauté the garlic and shallots briefly with a pat of butter. Add the sliced morels and sauté for a couple of minutes. Add a healthy splash of the dry vermouth and reduce quickly by half. Add cream and continue to reduce until thickened. Add green peppercorns. Adjust seasonings, salting to taste.

Remove steaks from the oven (preferably at medium rare). Slice on a bias and serve on a platter with the morel cream sauce poured over them.

Eat well.

Clever readers may be able to connect the dots between this wonderfully flawed clip and the story above. Or not…

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Full Steelhead Jacket

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“I’m on!” You stand there in the dank drizzle for hours, having woken up at 5:00 a.m., crawling straight from bed into hopefully impermeable chest waders and heavy fleece. Then you stand in the bow or stern of a pitching … Continue reading

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Haute Dish: Green Bean Casserole

Late last summer, I had my first chance to visit Brooklyn, which might well qualify as the current poster child for upscaling. Yuppies, having been shagged out of even the Lower East Side, have flocked to Brooklyn’s neighborhoods and transformed them. A walk through Park Slope or Williamsburg or Crown Heights, which was once a matter of taking your life into your hands, is now dangerous only in that you have to watch out for Lululemon-encased mommies jogging at midday while pushing their spawn in designer turbo-strollers. Despite that minor annoyance, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park is gorgeous, and is every bit as pleasant as Manhattan’s more famous Olmsted-designed open spaces.

Such upscaling is not necessarily all a bad thing. Park Slope, Williamsburg, Crown Heights, Flatbush, and a dozen other Brooklyn neighborhoods, once dens of decidedly dark-side dealings, are today as safe as pie – “sanitized for your protection,” as a friend says. And then there is the accompanying transformation of the culinary scene. These days in Manhattan, one must sift through a thousand versions of Bubba Gump Shrimp and Johnny Rockets before stumbling upon an authentic pizza joint. Meanwhile, Brooklyn is emerging as the new culinary capital of New York, boasting near-Michelin quality on a block-by-block basis. A stroll through Park Slope and its well-scrubbed surroundings leaves no doubt that you now need some serious coin if you hope to live there, even in an 800-square-foot third-floor walk-up. Not unlike Chelsea or Greenwich Village, raising a kid in Brooklyn these days is like growing an oak tree in a thimble.

And there’s the rub. I’m no expert, but even an amateur like me knows there are two sides to the gentrification story, one of which never gets told. While Brooklyn looks great and tastes even better, Newton’s third law of motion cannot be avoided: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the case of gentrification, of course – be it in Brooklyn, Barcelona, or Bakersfield – what that means is that poor folks just got their ticket punched for somewhere cheaper. Somewhere else. Somewhere gone. And with them goes a certain authenticity. Sure, Pok Pok is great, but who eats like that every night? Answer: the unbelievably rich.

Pondering the gentrification phenomenon and its culinary implications upon my recent tour, I realized this is a complicated topic. Face it: you can’t swing a dead cat without smacking into a comfort food that has been foodie-fied to its precious and expensive extreme. Exhibit One is the upscaling of dishes like macaroni and cheese. Here is a dish that has seen the full spectrum, from Kraft’s industrialized elbow mac and powdered cheez to featured entrée dishes that incorporate lobster, $30-per-pound cheeses, and artisanal pasta. You can get a gentrified version of mac and cheese at any of the most envelope-pushing establishments. Go for it, Chef Grant Achatz.

Either end of this spectrum draws serious suspicion. Simply put, I am not going to eat a dish that includes what can only be described as pulverized cheese product. Using the term “cheese” in reference to Kraft’s industrialized, boxed concoction ought to be illegal. While there are not many dishes that include lobster that I will not eat with an eager appetite, even pretentious eaters like me realize there is a cucina line in the sand that should and must be drawn.

Not that I am unwilling to push that boundary. The other night, I had a hankering for a simple roast chicken, which I stuffed with mirepoix and scorched in a 500-degree oven to crisp the skin and sear in the juices. But I could not let well enough alone. Upon reflection (and because of boredom), it seemed clear to me that such a dish required Yukon Gold potatoes mashed with cream and mixed with butter-and-garlic-sautéed chanterelle mushrooms. Look, you gotta live a little.

Still, a balance must be struck, whether in the neighborhoods of Brooklyn or your Own Private Kitchen. A recent example, which for me serves as a symbol of culinary balance, was a gentrified version of the Upper Midwest’s classic green bean hot dish (that’s “casserole” to those of you inhabiting states other than Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa, or Wisconsin).
The green bean hot dish I grew up with was a staple at Lutheran church potlucks (believe me, neither “pot” nor “luck” was involved at these gatherings) and at holiday gatherings with my three-dozen cousins, uncles, and aunts. This is a dish that mainly requires a can opener. Open two cans of “French–cut” green beans and one can of cream of mushroom soup. Mix together and top with crispy onions. Cook until hot. Done and done. Blech.

Blech, that is, unless you are open to a little gentrification. The other day, my wife brought home a three-pound package of fresh haricots verts, found on sale at the local market. Never mind that there are but two of us in the household eating green beans at present (our Labrador, Roy, will not touch veggies). The haricots were on serious sale, and our adopted household motto, “Save by spending,” held the day. I was pondering the existential question of what to do with such bounty when lightning struck. Green bean hot dish! I had the gorgeous fresh beans, but my quandary was how to upscale the cream of mushroom binder.
haricot verts
The solution, courtesy of gentrification: I replaced the condensed industrial Campbell’s product with a simple béchamel, augmented with recently procured farmers’ market leeks, garlic, and a handful of chanterelle nuggets (cheap this year due to a bumper crop), which resulted in a dish of humble yet epic proportions. Dang, it was good. OK, the Truth in Recipe Act requires full disclosure: I also added two tablespoons of tiny chunks of Prosciutto di Parma and some lovely shredded Gruyère . . . like it needed to be richer. The result was the culinary equivalent of a $3000-per-month two-bedroom Park Slope brownstone.
Whether you are buying $500 turbo-strollers, $30 lobster mac and cheese entrées, or $200 tickets for front-row seats to a revival of Supertramp, it’s easy to let a surfeit of money get the best of you. The trick is to live sufficiently high on the hog without spending an arm and a leg or selling your soul (to mix a couple of perfectly good metaphors) in the process.

As with life, it takes a little imagination. But it can be done.

Green Bean Hot Dish, Gentrified
1½ pounds fresh green beans (little French haricots verts, if available)
2 Tbs. flour
2 Tbs. butter
1 cup whole milk
2 cloves garlic, minced
One large leek, chopped (use the white and light green parts only)
1 cup chopped mushrooms (use the best type available to you¼ cup grated Gruyère cheese
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
1 tbs. chopped Italian parsley
salt and pepper

Blanch the green beans for two minutes in boiling water. Submerge in ice water to stop cooking. Set aside.

To make the béchamel, sauté the garlic and leeks in butter until softened. Add flour and sauté for three to four minutes. Add milk slowly and whisk until the mixture is thickened. Add the béchamel to the green beans and mushrooms and season expertly with salt and pepper. Place in an oven-proof hot dish. Sprinkle with grated Gruyère cheese. Top with mixture of panko and chopped parsley.

Cook for 45 minutes, covered by tinfoil or casserole top, in an oven pre-heated to 375 degrees.

This would be a great Thanksgiving side. Or, I would serve it any other day with a plainly grilled steak, veal, or pork chops.

Eat well.

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Since emerging from a recent funk, I have come to some fairly garden-variety epiphanies. One is, life is too short to be on the mobile device when using the bathroom. As my sensei says, “Do one thing at a time.”

The other epiphany is less (or perhaps more) than garden-variety. Having dropped off my only kid at college a continent away in the City That Never Sleeps, it has become clear to me that parenthood is a decidedly temporary situation, especially if, like me, you are the one-and-done type. Oh sure, they say that once you are a parent you are always a parent, but the truth is that bouncing the kid on your knee and teaching her the alphabet are far removed from transferring the funds sufficient to cover her monthly subway ticket. I don’t know if other parents feel this way, but it seems like my work was essentially done after I taught the kid to drive — all but the worrying, which is a one-sided, ongoing affair.

After crawling out of this psychic crevasse — caused in large part by a self-induced identity vacuum — I have concluded that it is well-nigh time to reinvent myself. Of my 53 years, I have spent 19 as a parent and even fewer really punching that clock. It is part, but not all, of who I am — a proper fraction. As long as I have good years left, I feel obliged to make good use of them. Whatever you believe to be beyond this life, it is uncertain. Best to eat dessert first, or at least while you can. At the very least, go for the cheese plate.

At the nadir of my own recent personal shutdown, I got an email from the maternal unit, my mother. In an effort to simplify her own mise en place, she has been cleaning out the basement and garage, which have collected some four decades of detritus; it is mostly my father’s hoard, much of it animal body parts. She asked if I wanted one of the bison skulls, adding, “Your father certainly has had some odd hobbies.”

Bingo! If there is anything that will keep you going in this world, it is a couple of odd hobbies. If nothing else, it gives you something colorful to talk about at cocktail parties. I mean, my taxidermy days are long past, but it is amazing how often I find a way to bring it up in casual conversation, not to mention the impression it makes. When your sixth-grade science fair project won a blue ribbon with the theme “Taxidermy: For Fun and Science,” you tend to brag about it a little. At least, I do.

At this distance, much of my dirt-road childhood seems exotic now. How many people have scoured freshly plowed fields looking for flint arrowheads? Who has spent an afternoon wading in a knee-high creek, catching crawfish under flat rocks? Have you ever happened upon a cache of giant morel mushrooms, filling a grocery bag that today would fetch $500?

Of course, this was a place and time long ago. As a kid, some of my most delightful times were the early morning dawns of late August, when my dad would take me along to count pheasant broods. It gets no better than when it’s your job to count fledgling chicks, not to mention the other biological tasks he appointed us: doing pellet counts (deer poop), drumming grouse, and identifying the quavering songs of wannabe mating woodcocks. It’s stuff like this that sets one’s soul to soaring, or should. I don’t know about you, but my spine shivers when I hear a hooting owl in the gulch across the street.

One could make an argument for the spring woodcock census, but for me, pheasant counts were the best. We would rise before dawn, drink a cup of Folgers, and head out to drive the rural gravel roads of his region at 10 miles an hour or less. This is the trick to determining pheasant populations: in late August in Minnesota, the lowering evening temperatures converge with the high dew point, soaking the grasslands. As a species transplanted from China, ring-necked pheasants are ill-suited to the climate of the Upper Midwest, and they decidedly do not like getting damp especially the little ones. At dawn, the mommas shag their broods out of the soggy grass cover onto gravel roads, where they not only fluff their feathers but also scratch out a little grist for their gizzards. If you cruise the same rural routes, counting the chicks year in and year out, you get a decent picture of how the pheasant population is faring.
If this sounds esoteric, then you haven’t done it. You have to keep your eyes peeled — a phrase my father repeated with frequency, and advice that has held me in good stead regardless of my endeavor. You have to see the
brood before the brood sees you. Complicating matters is that you not only are charged with counting their numbers as they are skittering back into the wet grass but you must also attempt to estimate their ages. This seems an impossible task, but you would be amazed at how quickly you develop the knack. I am proud to be able to say that at one time in my life, I could easily differentiate a six-week-old pheasant chick from one eight weeks old.

Alas, my current day job does not involve doing things as exotic as counting pheasants or deer-poop piles. Instead, as I transition from my parenting days, I find myself seeking a consuming off-the-clock pastime that qualifies as colorful — something at least half as interesting as listening for mating woodcocks.

Finding himself at a similar psychic crossroads, the cook/novelist/poet/fly-fisher Jim Harrison (one of my favorite writers) decided to rename the birds of North America. I’m not sure I’m quite up to such a gargantuan task, but perhaps I will get serious about re-stringing this dusty Yamaha FG730S guitar beside my desk, take some lessons, and become a real bluesman. Certainly I have sufficient time on my hands to fashion this food blog into something more serious. God knows, there are places to go, sights to see, people to meet. Heck, I could read Moby Dick.

Toward that end, I leave you with a brief verse from Mr. Harrison:

The moon comes up.
The moon goes down.
This is to inform you
that I didn’t die young.
Age swept past me
but I caught up.
Spring has begun here and each day
brings new birds up from Mexico.
Yesterday I got a call from the outside
world but I said no in thunder.
I was a dog on a short chain
and now there’s no chain.


Pheasant Breasts with Chanterelle Apple Cream Sauce
4 pheasant breasts (no substituting chicken — sorry, it’s just not the same)
½ cup flour, seasoned
¼ cup vermouth
1 tart apple, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
¼ pound fresh chanterelle mushrooms, chopped
1 shallot, sliced
1 cup heavy cream

First, shoot a couple of pheasants (alternatively, you may buy them at a store, but that is a poor second choice). Carve off the breasts, reserving the hindquarters and the carcass for making stock (pheasant legs are so tendon-y that they’re not worth the trouble, but their stock is tremendous). Dredge the breasts in seasoned flour and set aside.

Heat a splash of olive oil in a large saucier pan on medium-high. Sauté the pheasant breasts until golden brown on each side. Remove and tent to keep warm.

Add shallots to the pan and cook about one minute. Deglaze the pan with vermouth. Add the apples and cook five minutes, until softened. Add the chanterelle mushrooms and cook another two minutes.

Add the cream and reduce by half, until the apple/mushroom mixture has thickened. Add the pheasant breasts back to the pan and cook until finished. Season expertly with salt and pepper.

Obviously, this would go nicely with a commercial brown/wild rice mixture and the vegetable of your choice, such as wilted spinach. Various wines could pair here, but I’d try one of any number of Burgundy-style, un-oaked Chardonnays — these are becoming increasingly available and provide an excellent alternative to the cloying Cali-style Chards so popular until recently.

Eat well.

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The Italian (Duck) Job

Some days even Superman can’t manage to get the cape on.  I don’t have a story for all y’all today, but I do have a dish.  Lately, I’ve been eating cheap duck from my new grocer, H-Mart, which sells five pounders for $2.69/lb.  At that price, it’s almost like chicken to me.  I’ve waxed eloquent on my love for duck in previous posts, so it comes as no surprise that I’m eating more of it at H-Mart prices.   Here is my latest favorite concoction, Canard Italian-style:

photo (2)

Italian Grilled Duck

One whole duck, 5-6 lbs.

Several large sprigs of  fresh rosemary

3 cloves garlic, minced

Sea salt (large crystals)


Lemon zest

5 whole shallots

3 large sprigs rosemary


1/3rd cup honey

1/3rd cup jerez vinegar

½ cup chicken stock

2 tbs butter

Remove backbone from duck and cut wing sections at first joint.  Reserve for making stock.  Split breastbone to make two halves.  Trim all fat and reserve for rendering for confit, steak frites, etc.

Rub duck halves with mixture of rosemary, garlic, lemon zest salt and pepper.  Refrigerate 2 hours or overnight.

Prepare charcoal grill with coals to one side.  Place duck halves skin side down in cast iron skillet and place over hot coals until skin browns well.  Once skin is browned,  flip over and move to indirect heat.  Add whole shallots and rosemary.  Cook over indirect heat approximately 30-40 minutes.

Remove duck halves from pan and tent to keep warm.  Drain fat from pan.  Deglaze pan with vinegar and stock briefly, then add honey.  Reduce liquid until thickened, then add butter.

Remove breast meat from bone and slice.  Cut thigh from leg.  Pour pan sauce over meat and serve immediately with any sides that go with duck.  This being Italian, I would go with polenta and wilted chard, but really, anything would work.  Employ your Italian Imagination.


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Home Cookin’

Home. It’s where they have to take you back. In food terms, it’s where you grow, gather, catch, shoot, or otherwise scavenge your sustenance, and in this regard, the closer to where you lay your head down, the better.

A couple of years ago, I was visiting the home I have left behind: the place where I grew up, down close by the river — the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve, as Mr. Keillor puts it. It was summer — a typical broiler — and there, in a corner of a cement parking lot at the abandoned Cedar Mall, was a fresh-faced young lady selling sweet corn off a flatbed truck. The price for a dozen ears was a fraction of what I pay in the 11_16_12-Corn-FieldPacific Northwest, where the climate — not to mention the soil — is less conducive to growing sweet corn. I asked the young lady if the corn was local, this being the early part of the season. “No,” she replied apologetically. “This corn is from Rochester.” For those of you without GPS devices, Rochester is a scant 40 miles from my little town.

With fried walleye on the menu (compliments of my Uncle Paul), a bag of fresh corn was certainly a welcome addition. It’s tempting to fancy up sweet corn by roasting it on the grill — skillfully removing just the silk and soaking the ears, still in their husks, in a saltwater brine — or by slathering on a fancy lime-cilantro-chili compound butter, but on this night, it was fine to simply boil the cobs in salted water, roll them in butter, and serve them generously seasoned with salt and pepper.

The point here is one frequently made in the culinary world these days: eat close to home. Can that concept be taken to a ludicrous extreme? Yes, it can. The foodie haven of Vancouver, BC, a few miles up the road from my new little town, is home to a growing clique of chefs who pride themselves on serving nothing sourced farther than 100 kilometers from Robson Street. While this may be politically correct, it is the culinary equivalent of asking Usain Bolt to participate in a three-legged race. Olive oil, anyone? How about arborio rice?

Still, the point is taken. While I am less engaged by the undeniable political benefits of eating locally and seasonally, I am on board whole hog with the culinary advantages. Take, for example, the humble salad. Every grocery store, from Kroger to Dean and Deluca, features fancy lettuce greens these days, washed, bagged, and ready to eat. You can buy spring greens (in the middle of winter), “Italian” herb greens, butter crunch, red leaf, endive, baby romaine, arugula, and stuff I have never even heard of. And while I’m sure it’s all well-intentioned, none of it can compare to the leaves of lettuce I pluck nightly from my little garden plot. To be sure, they are dressed with extra virgin olive oil (that traveled thousands of miles for my benefit) and some fresh lemon juice (all the way from the Republic of California), but it’s the greens themselves that star in the show — not because I grow better lettuce than anyone else, but simply because I can eat it within minutes of picking.

I am admittedly blessed that my “new” home (since 1990) is one where I can enjoy a veritable bounty of seasonal foods that often rise to gourmet heights. For example, this being 2013, Puget Sound is about to be invaded by literally millions of pink salmon, an anadromous fish that runs here in odd-numbered years, strangely enough. Pinks are not a particularly popular species, from a gourmet perspective. They deteriorate quickly once hitting fresh water and do not transport well. Mostly, they are smoked or canned. However, I once had a screaming-bright saltwater pink, served sashimi-style and topped with a bit of pickled sweet onion and fresh mint, that was out of this world. Add to this that they will readily take a fly fished near the surface, and this angler/cook is on board. Think Pink in 2013!

It’s also Dungeness crab as well as halibut season right now, both of which you can take to the bank. But those are no-brainers. Less well regarded would be something like the amazingly fresh slab of Columbia River sturgeon I picked up the other day, which was marbled in fat like a goose on its way to foie gras. With some Midwest friends on site, ISturgeon painted the sturgeon with a lacquer of olive oil, lemon, green garlic, and fresh oregano, then roasted it on the grill to medium. The fish was meaty enough that it could be carved like a prime rib roast. This we ate with a nice Greek-ish salad of orzo, feta, cucumber, onion, and tomato, herbed with parsley and mint. Sticking with the Greek theme, we had pita and homemade tzatziki for an appetizer, along with fresh local veggies for dipping.

It should be clear by now that while I like my ingredients to come from close by, my influences in terms of preparation are flung far. In any given week, my foodie goggles look to Vietnam, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Szechwan, Scotland, or southern Minnesota. It’s also worth noting that the two places I have visited recently where I have felt instantly at home — Scotland and Spain – are both culturally quite distant from my Lake Wobegon. Still, I could not have felt more welcomed or at ease than I did, in large part because the way they eat in both countries made utterly perfect sense to me.

I’ll single out Scotland in particular because it gets a bad rap as the home of haggis, while in reality, their produce is peerless. The weather bites, but the food is incredibly delicious. While there, I ate enormous breakfasts of black pudding, pan-fried tomato, and toast, or perfect scrambled farm eggs piled on a California king-size bed of shaved Scottish smoked salmon. Dinners featured medium-rare roasted lamb or Highland beef.

One morning, the chef at our inn pulled me aside and whispered that he had just procured three spiny lobsters from a fishing friend, and if I would like, he would save them for us. lobstah Would I like? Silly man. They were out of this world. Is it any wonder that I felt absolutely at home the moment I stepped off the train in Glasgow? After all, my bloodstream carries at least a few drams of Scottish essence.

So while I like to eat as many ingredients as I can from as close to home as possible without being overly compulsive, it’s important to me from a preparation standpoint to get the hell out of Dodge on a frequent basis. If you have the time and the means to literally do so, I heartily recommend it. My own infrequent forays to places requiring a passport for entry have been among the most culinarily inspiring things I have ever done. Unexpectedly, the best inspiration hasn’t come from the drop-dead incredible, over-the-top experiences I have had by the courtesy of showboating chefs. Rather, it has come from things like the humble pinxto, a rustic boar stew, or a split lobster, simply grilled over wood and with a squeeze of lemon. You know, that old stuff. Pack up that passport and hit the road, Jack . . . if not for real, then at least in your kitchen.

Greek Tzatsiki

1 cup whole fat greek yogurt

¼ unpeeled English cucumber, finely diced

6 large fresh mint leaves, cut into a chiffonade*

1 small bunch chopped Italian parsley

2 cloves minced garlic

Juice from half a lemon

Black pepper

Simply mix these ingredients and enjoy a dozen different ways, as a dip for raw veggies or toasted pita triangles, on a piece of fish or lamb, as a dressing for crisp lettuce greens, whatever.

*mint turns black if it is chopped to hard or fine.  To avoid that, remove leaves from stem, stack them on top of each other and then roll them up lengthwise, like a cigar or tzatziki-healthy-eating-vegetablesother smoke of your choice.  Cut them thinly (and gently) on the bias so they come out as thin threads.  Your mint will stay bright green and add a fresh taste to the tzatsiki. 

Eat well.

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Mr. Jones Goes on a Field Trip

Something is happening and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?

–Robert Zimmerman
Hibbing, Minnesota

I was feeling in need of some adventure the other day, so I grabbed my passport and shuffled my wing tips on over to a place I had read about in the business section recently, but had somehow never noticed in my travels. Not that this is place is difficult to miss; it is a non-descript building in a suburban strip mall, in perhaps the most forgettable town I know — Federal Way, Washington. Harry Potter must have loaned his invisibility cloak to this place.  Verily, it disappears from sight.

My field trip destination was a place by the beguiling name of H-Mart — merely typing those six characters makes me suppress a yawn. Still, I had been intrigued by the article I read, which announced that this Korean-owned, New Jersey-headquartered outfit was expanding into the Puget Sound region with new stores in Lakewood and in the former Nordstrom Rack building in downtown Seattle. Typically, I cannot read beyond the first five words of such articles without lapsing into narcolepsy, but this one was different. Obviously.

The part that perked me up, that stimulated the culinary cortex portion of my brain, was that H-Mart locations feature extensive fresh produce and fresh fish sections. Connecting the dots, we have Korean ownership and lots of square feet devoted to my most treasured areas of any grocery store. Add to this that there is an existing H-Mart less than a mile from my favorite new cantina, a reclaimed burger joint called Los Amigos that has the best menudo I have yet tasted.

Walking through the parking lot, I noticed a surprising number of people emerging from the invisible building as if appearing out of thin air. The parking lot was full of shoppers and I was the lone Caucasian among them — not an alarming situation, but noticeable nonetheless. One thing I have learned as an eating professional is that when dining at so-called “ethnic” restaurants, the fewer funky white boys the better. My expectations began to rise.

Once inside, I had further confirmation that I was indeed not in Kansas anymore. Describing H-Mart as having “extensive produce and fresh fish sections” is damning with faint praise. The produce section alone occupies about an acre of property, at least enough to locate a soccer pitch. I saw fresh greens there that I never knew existed, and fruits that sort of scared me in an Andrew Zimmern kind of way. I am not sure why a store needs to stock 46 different kinds of yakisoba noodles, but apparently there is a market for them. H-Mart meat bears special mention. Not only do you have all the usual as well as decidedly unusual cuts (all at rock-bottom prices) but you also have such products as frozen bricks of pig blood. Of course, there are also pig trotters, snouts, tails, intestines, on and on ad infinitum if you go for that kind of stuff — and I do. In addition to your basic beef, pork, and chicken, H-Mart’s meat section included venison, pheasant, chukar, guinea fowl, and several savage beasts that would require a translator to identify.

My head was already buzzing when I reached the fish counter, at which point I almost needed a defibrillator. A 30-foot live tank featured swimming Dungeness crab on sale for $5.99 a pound, which is simply ridiculous. My local market brags about their “cooked today” dungies that they sell for $12.99. Scores of live tilapia and striped bass finned in a second tank, and a third housed several alarming-sized octopuses, who were most assuredly alive. On ice were probably three dozen different kinds of fresh fish and shellfish, including a mountain of the only head-on shrimp I have seen in the Puget Sound area lately. Does that Asian recipe you found require a sea squirt? H-Mart has them live. They carry piles of fresh squid, as well as the only cuttlefish I can remember having seen in the United States. More good news: they carry a ton of whole fish, which they will clean, scale, trim, and fillet to order. Like chicken, lamb, and everything else, fish is best with the bones in, grilled whole. Don’t try to customize your H-Mart order, though, as the gentlemen mongers wielding the large, sharp knives behind the counter don’t habla Inglés. No matter — a sign above them explains your options. Just decide what you want, point at it, and hold up the corresponding number of fingers. It all works.

The sign I didn’t see at first was the one about not taking any pictures in the fish section. There I was, happily snapping away, when a very cross Korean woman poked me in the ribs. “NO PICTURE,” she said, pointing to the all-too-obvious overhead sign, her English phrasing nearly perfect. Lots of practice, I figure. “You delete now.” While I found this most curious, I complied with the directive, and she watched me trash can my lovely photos. All my photos — except this one:

Idiot fish


H-Mart’s fish section is certainly not a paragon of political correctness. They sell fish products there that would induce apoplexy among the good people who compile the Monterey Bay Aquarium Fish Watch list. Still, they take the time to label every piscine item as Farmed or Wild, and they include the country of origin. Not even my upscale Metropolitan Market takes the trouble to do that.  At least at H-Mart you can choose for yourself the level of culinary correctness you desire.

Also, cooks are warned that this is not Whole Paycheck Foods, where you can select superior product while blind-folded.  H-Mart features an amazing variety and some unbelievably fresh product, but it’s definitely a caveat emptor situation.  Home cooks are advised to be able to distinguish between fresh and off-fresh product.

Tempted though I was by the sea squirts, I ended up buying a couple of clear, bright-eyed striped bass that were US-farmed – they are also an MBA Fish Watch “Best Choice” for sustainability — and had them gutted and scaled free of charge. Stripers in hand, I then swung past the to-go grill and ordered the Number 10: sautéed cuttlefish in a spicy red sauce with a generous side of kimchi. Hungry, I ate with abandon. It was a delicious and satisfying way to conclude the field trip. Once back home, I stuffed the striped bass with onion, leek, lemon, and fresh herbs and grilled them at 650 degrees over propane. Charcoal would have been better, but it was raining. Eating-wise, they were firm, sweet, and delicious.

Driving back from H-Mart and reflecting on the experience, those Dylan lyrics above took on a decidedly personal meaning — there is definitely something going on here. I am an adventurous eater, to say the least, but I don’t know any restaurants or even any people hereabouts who are cooking with sea squirts or large quantities of pig blood . . . yet apparently, there are. I wish I had a recipe for some of those crazy vegetable greens I saw, or (even better), I wish I knew a Korean woman who could show me what she has been doing with them for the last 70 years. Unbeknownst to me, there’s been some crazy eating going on here, right under my snout. And I want to get in on it.

Striped Bass:  Stuffed and Grilled

2-3 whole striped bass, gutted and scaledStripers

Half a lemon, thinly sliced (squeeze the other half and reserve the juice)

2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

Half a sweet onion, thinly sliced

White part of one leek, roughly chopped

Italian parsley, chopped

Olive oil and reserved lemon juice

Salt and pepper

With a sharp knife, score the outside of the fish down to the backbone, three times per side. 

Make a vinaigrette with the lemon juice and olive oil. Mix together the onion, garlic, leek, and parsley and drizzle with half the vinaigrette.  

Season the inside of the bass cavities liberally with salt and pepper. Stuff the bass with the onion mixture and insert lemon wedges. Tie fish with butcher’s twine to keep the mixture inside. 

Pour the remaining vinaigrette over the outside of the fish, being sure to get the dressing into the knife cuts. Season liberally. 

Get your grill good and hot and carefully lay the fish on the grill, being careful to keep the stuffing contained within the cavity. Cook five minutes and flip once. The idea is to get the skin nice and crispy so that it stays intact and does not tear apart. 

This is a nice summery dish, so serve it with a tossed salad and a decent Albariño, chilled near to freezing.

Eat well.


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Mad Menus: Loaf of Meat

My literary empire is expanding.  The last few weeks I have been contributing short pieces to The Spleen (www.the-spleen.com) called Mad Menus, that are essentially sidebars to Claire Moshenberg’s and E.C. Fish’s erudite recaps of recent Mad Men episodes.  I’ll start posting these here as well. 

Mad Menu #3:  Loaf of Meat

Meat loaf.

If you start thinking and don’t just take it for granted, it’s a weird mash-up of a name:  meat and loaf. “Hey hon, how about whipping up a loaf of meat tonight?” It just gets weirder if, like me, you can’t think of it without recollecting the image of the jowly “rock star” of the same name. “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”?  Actually, yes, it is.

A ’60s staple, meat loaf keeps making trendy comebacks as comfort food, especially at restaurants that are anything but comfortable. The whole notion of ordering comfort food at a restaurant, no matter how updated, leaves me cold (Exhibit A:  lobster mac and cheese). When I want comfort food, I want to eat it at home. Also, I don’t want to pay $16.99 for a single slab.


Nevertheless, your basic meat loaf can be improved immeasurably with a few simple updates, which involve both addition and subtraction. On the minus side are eggs and breadcrumbs. If you use a recipe ripped from the pages of The Betty Crocker Cookbook, you’ll want to cut both those ingredients by half. One egg will give you binding action without glueiness. As for breadcrumbs, half a cup is easily enough. Replace traditional breadcrumbs with Japanese panko, or toast and crush your own. By all means, do not use store-bought regular breadcrumbs, which have the flavor and consistency of sawdust.

The addition side is where you can exercise a bit of creative license. I find that meat loaf improves dramatically by combining two kinds of meats. Your mother’s meat loaf was made out of hamburger, but I suggest that you cut that with an equal amount of ground pork. A recent experiment of mine that replaced the beef altogether came out with satisfactory results.

Gianni’s Italian-Inspired Meat Loaf

1 pound ground lamb
1 pound ground pork
2 Tbs minced fresh rosemary
Zest from 1 lemon, finely grated or chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 medium shallot, minced
1 stalk celery, minced
1 roasted red pepper, chopped
1 medium bunch parsley, minced
2 Tbs tomato paste
1 Tbs Dijon mustard
1 egg
Salt and pepper
½ cup panko crumbs

Lightly sauté shallot, garlic, celery, red pepper, and rosemary until shallot is just softened and rosemary gives off aroma. Set aside and cool to room temperature.

Combine lamb, pork, the shallot mixture, and remaining ingredients; mix thoroughly. Form into mound and place in shallow pan with plenty of room, so that fat drippings don’t spill out. Bake at 375 degrees for one hour.

Serve this with a side of creamy garlic polenta and a succotash made of white beans and corn.  A simple Italian red wine would be fine with this.

Eat well and enjoy the show.

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The Quack-Up

There I was, sitting beneath 26 Edison lights glowing softly over the bar at the Pacific Grill — my friend Gordon Naccarato’s swanky Tacoma restaurant — slurping my second glass of wine, the delicious Townshend T3 blend that Gordon pours there by the glass. Another friend, my mentor Aaron Valimont (then the executive chef at Pacific Grill, now dishing at the Capital Grille in Dallas, Texas), had just joined me after his shift, still wearing his chef jacket, a smear of fresh blood on the sleeve. It was OK, because it was late and any barflies who might have been put off by our appearance had already flown the coop. I bought him a glass, knowing full well that he drank for free, easily deserving it after a 12-hour day.

“So, I had this dream the other night,” I said, as Chef Aaron slurped half his T3 in a gulp. “I had this big bag of cooked lentils in the freezer and I was trying to think of what to do with them, and I had this dream.”

“Oh yeah?” You could tell he was interested.

“I was thinking lentil soup — you know, regular lentil with sausage and some fresh spinach. But then in the dream, it came to me: make it with duck.” I proceeded to outline my plan to roast a spare duck carcass I had in the freezer with a vegetable mirepoix to make a rich stock for the base, then to braise the legs and thighs in red wine . . .

“You dreamt about duck soup?” Aaron interrupted.

“Yeah,” I said. “I made a stock and then braised the legs and thighs until they were falling apart . . .”

Aaron swilled the rest of his T3, which was immediately refilled by Paul, Pacific Grill’s expert bartender. “You dream about food?”

“All the time,” I sighed.

“Yeah,” Aaron said. “I figured. You got it bad.” He gulped some more of the Townshend. Euro jazz pulsed in the background; only a couple of patrons still lingered at their tables over blond-brownie sundaes and Frangelico. “I dream about food, too. All the time. Menus, farmers’ markets, techniques.” He paused for a second and drained the rest of his vino. “Good luck with that.”

Yeah, good luck with that indeed. There is a saying that suggests “moderation in all things,” which is perhaps among the biggest crocks of all time. Life is not only short, but uncertain; there is precious little time for moderation. One is advised strongly to live and live large. As the people of Minneapolis now know, we live in a world where the interstate freeway bridge you are driving across (specifically, I-35 on August 1, 2007) can and will simply fall down, dropping you into the muddy Mississippi below. If you take nothing else from this missive, please make it this: there is not a moment to waste. Ours is a universe of chaos and beauty, with chaos prevailing often enough that it should give us pause.

Humans wishing to hedge their bets are well-advised to live in the present. For those of us who cook, who dream of things like duck and lentil soup, this means getting a few things straight. For me, one of those things is to know what to do with a duck — surely the bird that God had in mind when he invented poultry.

Duck can be tricky. I grew up in a duck-hunting household, where it was not at all unusual for Sunday dinner in January to feature a brace of bluebills. Sad to say, too many of those precious birds ended up overcooked, their splendid carcasses in the trash bin rather than in the stockpot, where they belonged. Today, if I had three quarts of duck stock, deeply rendered and reduced from wild widgeon and gadwall bones, I would hire an armed guard for their protection.

Since I long ago gave up hunting wild duck (not that I wouldn’t accept an invitation in a heartbeat to join your blind), my duck these days is not only purchased but tame. Not that there aren’t some splendid birds to be had out there. Two of my favored purveyors at the Proctor Farmers’ Market (Tacoma, Washington) — Little Eorthe Farm and CalendulaDuck Farm — have gorgeous dead ducks to sell me from time to time, free-ranger Muscovies who lived calm, happy lives in a barnyard. At prices approaching $50 for a single bird, cheap they are not. Nonetheless, I would argue that they are a great value indeed, far exceeding in culinary satisfaction anything one might procure from the freezer section of the local grocer at half the price.

The key with a fifty-dollar bird, of course, is not letting a single ounce go to waste. Here’s how I proceed. First, remove the leg/thigh segments where the thigh joint meets the body. These cuts are generally tough and tendon-y, especially the leg. However, when cooked in the French confit method, immersed in their own fat for half-a-day at 190 degrees, they become a dish so melt-in-your-mouth delicious that words themselves fail. I would have to sing for you in order to fully describe the sensation.

Similarly, remove the wings, reserving them for a stock. Once the bird is fully cut up, carefully carve the breasts off the bone, trimming (and reserving) the deeply fat-layered skin to the edges of the meat. Now you are left with a large carcass, from which you should 378867_2949341021377_1724769795_ntrim all remaining fat/skin from the back. Trim any excess fat from the leg portions as well as the breast, and place it in a pan to melt; this must be reserved, as it is a precious essence. As for the carcass, brown it in the oven and then boil it with a vegetable mirepoix — celery, onion, leek, carrot, garlic — for five hours or so (this results in a house that smells so good, it deserves its own Glade scent).

From a single bird, you now have the following: boneless, skin-on breasts (meal one); Duck fatleg/thigh portions for confit (meal two); a carcass for stock (soup and sauce base); and a batch of precious duck grease for confit and/or the best damn french fries you have ever Duck Friteseaten. Each element results in a dish that is its own special occasion, one that makes life worth living.

While the stars of this show are the boneless breasts (these rival Heidi Klum’s, in my book), the dish I will leave with you is the humble confit, this recipe being one I shanghaied from Thomas Keller’s splendid cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home. Not that this dish differs all that much from any other confit recipe, but I believe in offering credit where credit is due. Keller’s restaurants — like The French Laundry in Napa and Per Se in New   York — are paragons of culinary sophistication, but Ad Hoc approaches cooking with humility; it offers a rustic, approachable take on everyday eating at its very finest. You won’t cook like Keller every night, but if you do so once a week or even once a month, that’s a helluva start.

Ad Hoc Duck Confit

2-4 duck leg/thigh sections, trimmed of skin and fat to the edge of the meat

4-6 cups rendered duck fat

Herb Salt:

⅛ cup kosher salt

2 tsp. brown sugar

1 bay leaf, broken into pieces

2 tsp. fresh thyme, chopped

⅛ cup Italian parsley, chopped

¼ tsp. whole black peppercorns

Rub each leg/thigh section with one tablespoon of the herb salt and store overnight, flesh-side up and covered in plastic wrap, in the refrigerator. 

Remove from refrigerator, rinse well, and pat dry. Nestle the pieces closely in a baking dish, crowding them without overlapping. Cover completely with duck fat, topping up if necessary with olive oil. Cover with foil or a lid. Cook at 190 degrees for eight to ten hours. Remove and cool. Refrigerate if using soon, or store frozen for up to six months submerged in remaining fat.

To serve, drain and wipe off the fat and fry each portion, skin-side down, until the skin is crispy and golden brown and warmed through.  Served on a bed of cabbage braised in a small amount of champagne or cider vinegar.

This music clip In Too Deep is from my friend Kevin Bowe’s new album Natchez Trace.  It features the screaming fiddle of Scarlett Rivera, who you probably last heard on Dylan’s Desire lp.


Eat well.

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When Numbers Get Serious

“Red means run, son, numbers don’t add up to nothin’…

                                                            –Neil Young, from “Powderfinger”

As it happens, I was running the numbers the other day, as I am prone to doing. Maybe you’re not like me, but I am, and when the numbers start running, it’s hard to get them to stop. For example, I once ran the numbers on how high the fines would mount if I wereroy with ball caught and cited every time I played off-leash fetch — which is against the law in local parks — with my beloved Labrador Roy. My annual bill added up to $325,000. Today, that amount is now approaching a cumulative $3 million. That he is worth every penny is beside the point.

The equation that burrowed its way into my brain the other day was equally discouraging.  Regular readers of this blog know that I crossed the half-century barrier some three years ago and am now rapidly reaching an age of three score. I’m no Christian scholar, but if memory serves, we learned in Lutheran confirmation classes that our biblical allotment of years is something like three score and twelve (that’s 72, for those of you keeping score at home).

Simple subtraction results in a number that gets your attention, or at least mine. In my specific case, the calculus proceeded thusly: even if I get more than my biblical allotment, I probably have, at most, 25 years of serious fishing left. I am talking about fishing big, cold waters, wearing waders, and getting in deep enough to produce a shrinkage effect. Given that I might engage in such expeditions three or four times a year (let’s be generous and call it four), I have maybe 100 angling excursions left in my lifetime. Probably fewer.

And that is when I did a big gulp.

When the equations running in your head reach the result above, it’s time to throw out the calculator and joint up the fishing rod. Regardless of age, none of us have any time to waste. Readers will be comforted to note that my efforts in this regard resulted in quite a stellar 2012. My tally for the calendar year was 110 fish caught on a fly, including the first 11 steelhead trout I have ever caught in my life. When I was a boy and we were getting skunked while trolling Rapala lures behind our Lund boat, my dad would exhort me to “fish harder,” which on the surface seems to be not only a joke, but a contradiction in terms of epic proportions. However, this year I finally figured out what he was talking about. I fished harder. On the down side, I burned through a generous share of my remaining allotment. It’s a morbid thought, but it’s undeniably true.

Still, there are opportunities, even when time is short. When faced with his own imminent demise, Warren Zevon had the epiphany that it was essential to “enjoy every sandwich,” and it comes as no surprise that this is a notion with which I am down. Forget sandwiches; I have thousands upon thousands of meals left before me — even more if I go easy on the empty calories. Hallelujah!

Multiple Facebook foodie photos notwithstanding (see my “Food Porn” photo file on my FB page), I have ample, almost unlimited, room to improve the quality of my consumption. The idea, of course, is to eat well without dying from it, for the obvious purpose of living to eat another day.

Currently, I might make a really nice meal a couple-three times a week. Even for a foodie like me, most nights (though it embarrasses me to admit it) we eat the current-day equivalent of sloppy joes and frozen pizza. An intentional effort even two more nights a week stands to double my cumulative culinary output. This takes little more than a few minutes’ thought for the most part — just the time required to make sure that I have the right ingredients on hand and a recipe in mind. In commercial kitchens, they call this “getting your ‘meez’ together,” as in your mise en place. While squeezing in two more fishing adventures a year would be a near impossibility (barring an unlikely relocation to Craig, Montana), two more good meals a week that require little more than a few minutes’ thought seems doable.

The poet Albert Einstein once said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” When the numbers start running in my head like the bulls in Pamplona, this is a couplet I should keep in mind. It might even help with my cooking, and certainly with my peace of mind.

I struggled to come up with a recipe that directly relates to our Topic of the Day, so forgive me if this has a pulled-out-of-the-hat quality to it. For years, I attempted to cook steak in the Florentine style, with unsatisfying results. I figured it was because I was using the wrong kind of cow. That was part of it, but not the whole reason. It took a trip to FlorenceFlorence to set me straight, a practice I highly recommend when you find yourself stuck. Steak Florentine is simply good-quality steak, salt, pepper, and lemon juice, and it is usually served with one of my favorite side dishes, garlicky wilted spinach (again with the lemon). My mistake was in squeezing on the lemon prior to grilling, which resulted in a steak that tasted pretty much like my non-Firenzian efforts.

In Florence, they prepare and serve steak dinners differently. High-quality beef (they will tell you theirs is somehow special and not found anywhere else on earth — yawn) is grilled to medium rare, cut into strips, and served at the table mounded on a platter. Quantity is determined not by steak size, but by the number of individuals who will be eating. The essential lemon is squeezed on the sliced meat at the table, not prior to cooking. This results in a remarkably bright dish with flavors that leap like Carl Lewis off the palate. The acidity of the prominent lemon flavor is a perfect foil for the rich, fatty-flavored beef (apologies to my veggie and vegan friends; I know this grosses you out).  Psychic balance is obtained by eating a reasonable, human-sized portion of meat, as opposed to finishing off that 12-ounce New York strip yourself, not to mention the accompanying spinach side.

Beefsteak Florentine and Wilted Spinach

Thick-cut, high-quality steak (6 oz. per person served)

Salt and coarse ground pepper


1 large bag or bundle fresh spinach

Olive oil

3 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped

More lemon

Steak Preparation

Prepare a hot grill, either gas or charcoal (the latter is preferred). Keeping the steak whole, season it liberally with salt and pepper. Let it rest an hour at room temperature. Sear on the hot grill until medium rare, three to four minutes per side. Watch them cook — don’t go in and watch the ballgame. Once cooked to desired doneness, remove from the grill and allow to rest on a warm platter for five minutes. Cut into strips against the grain (on the bias, if you are fancy). Squeeze fresh lemon over the cut meat. Serve immediately.

Wilted Spinach Preparation

This dish cooks fast, so if you have your meez together, you can make it while your cooked steak is resting.

Clean and pat dry a good amount of fresh spinach (it is amazing how much spinach cooks down, so use a lot). Sauté chopped garlic in a large non-stick pan with a modest splash of good olive oil for about 3 minutes. Add the spinach and cook until just wilted — maybe two minutes, max. Salt and squeeze on lemon to taste. Serve immediately.

This simple but elegant dish deserves a special wine: a super Tuscan if you have the dough, or perhaps a Barolo or a Barbaresco from the Piedmont region. Regardless, this is the time to go large and red.

Dinner Music

Today’s musical selection could well have been “Powderfinger” by Neil Young, quoted at the top of this missive, but I have chosen instead this selection by the great and underappreciated James McMurtry:

Eat well.

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