Tuesday, August 23, 2005

I smell pot!

A judge nasally inspects our ovens for 'rancid'.

I just got a fresh batch of photos back from our Dutch oven cook-off victory in La Pine, Oregon and thought I would share them with you. Below, E chops the garlic that we brought all the way from Gilroy for the festivities. I think something that really won us points with the judges was the fact that we cared about our ingredients and only brought the best we possibly could.

Take that.

As stated below, the baklava was a big hit. We used oregano-infused butter which we doused between each layer of phyllo dough to bake our way to best use of featured herb. I even melted the butter in a cast iron cup measure:

When completed, the 'lava was hot. We flanked it with the unused portion of the imported Iranian pistachios and walnuts and the crowd went wild.

The only problem was how to get it into people's waiting mouths. When cooking baklava you have to know how many pieces you are going to end up with and cut accordingly; you can't just cut it all up at the end or the phyllo will fall all apart. Folks had to make do with rather large pieces of 'lava which they were none to displeased about.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Oh, oh, the Wells Fargo Wagon is uh...

Did I mention that E and I are the returning champions of the La Pine, Oregon High Desert Herb Festival and Dutch Oven Cook-Off?? Yeehaw!!!

In the midst of a mockup western town we mocked-up semblances of old west
inhabitants did our best to impress in 'god's country'.

Dateline: La Pine, Oregon. Never heard of it? It's no surprise. Neither had we until Tuesday, August 2 when I found out about the Dutch oven cook-off to be held on Saturday the sixth. This was an International Dutch Oven Society (IDOS) sanctioned cook-off and a qualifying match for the world championship in Murray, UT this year. It's also the only one that we thought we would be physically and financially able to make it to. So we made a snap decision to head to Oregon late Friday night after work to compete Saturday morning.
We knew we'd be outclassed by all these old-timers who'd been Dutching it for a thousand years or so. We knew everybody but us would be sporting magnetic yellow ribbons on their cars, and that there wouldn't be a bottle of Pellegrino for a hundred miles in any direction. But we also had a good feeling that we would win. In an evening, we came up with these recipes, adhering to the competition's rules and featuring the herb of the year, Oregano:

Dessert: Baklava
Ingredients:16 oz package phyllo dough, thawed (follow package directions) 16 oz pistachios, finely chopped (4 cups) 1/2 cup sugar 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon 2 sticks melted butter or margarine 12 oz honey
Fresh oregano

Special Equipment:
Vessel for melting butter
Oil brush
Parchment paper
Directions:Preheat a large Dutch oven. Prepare butter by melting with some oregano. Leave oregano leaves attached to twigs for easy removal later.
Brush butter on bottom and sides of large Dutch oven. Mix nuts, sugar and cinnamon. Unroll phyllo dough and cut into 9x12 pieces (this can be easily done by simply cutting the large piece in half). Place one layer of dough in pan. Brush with butter. Repeat with at least 5-6 layers. Evenly distribute one cup of nut mixture. Place one layer of dough over the nuts. Brush with butter. Repeat with at least 5-6 layers. Continue with 5-6 layer intervals until last cup of walnut mixture is layered. Over walnut mixture, place one layer of dough and brush with butter. Place all remaining dough on buttered layer. Butter the top layer only. With a sharp knife, cutting only halfway through all layers, divide into 24-36 portions. Bake for 1 1/2 hours or until light golden brown. Use parchment paper to remove baklava intact. Cover the inside of the D.O.’s lid with the paper, replace the lid, then flip the oven so the baklava fall onto it. If underside is not as attractive as the top, flip them again once they are out of the oven. Heat honey until hot, but not boiling. Pour over the top of Baklava. Cool. Cut through bottom half of layers to serve.

Bread: Herbed Focaccia
3 ½ Cups unbleached organic flour
1 Tsp sea salt
Coarse sea salt to top
Pinch sugar
1 Packet active dry yeast
Olive oil
1 ¼ cups water
1 cup parmesan cheese
Herbs (rosemary, oregano)

Combine wet ingredients in a bowl. Combine dry ingredients in a bowl. Mix all together and knead for at least five minutes. Cover bowl and allow to rise. Punch down and let rise again. Coat dough with olive oil. Bake in a large Dutch oven at 400 degrees for 20-30 minutes. For a 12” DO this will mean 19 briquettes on top and 10 on the bottom; for a 14” DO you will need 24 briquettes on top and 12 on the bottom. Turn often to ensure even distribution of heat. Remove bread, cut, sprinkle with salt and herbs, and serve.

Main: Herb-encrusted rack of lamb
Two racks of Lamb
Sea salt
2-3 Onions
Truffle oil
Olive oil
Black pepper
Root vegetables (Parsnip, potato, carrot. Can substitute rutabaga for parsnip).
Herbs for rub (oregano, rosemary, thyme, basil, oregano, garlic)
Herbs for flash-frying (oregano, rosemary, thyme, basil, marjoram)
Panko bread crumbs

Special equipment:
Dutch Oven Rack
Cast Iron Skillet

To prepare herb rub, mix herbs together with mortar and pestle. Remove and mix with panko in separate bowl.
In large Dutch oven or cast iron skillet, brown lamb in oil to make crispy outside. Remove lamb and insert rack. Cut between lamb bones to ensure penetration of flavors, but not enough to separate the ribs. Apply mustard to meaty part of rib, top and bottom. Rub mustarded areas with herb rub. Place stock in D.O. Then place root vegetables in D.O. Cook root vegetables for 20-25 minutes at 350 degrees.

A 12” D.O. will require 17 briquettes on the top and 8 on the bottom to achieve this temperature; a 14-incher will require 21 on the top and 11 on the bottom.
Add rack and lamb and onion and cook for 10-12 minutes at 450 degrees or until the meat reaches an internal temperature of about 130° F. Allow to rest 10 minutes before carving. Baste. For a desired temperature of 450 degrees, a 14” D.O. will require 26 briquettes on top and 14 on the bottom; a 12” D.O. will require 22 on top and 11 on the bottom.

The level of specificity in the recipes was called for by the judges as we were adhering to IDOS rules. I did come up with two innovations that I had to ask about. The first was cans of compressed air. Now of course the cowboys, etc. in the nineteenth century didn't have cans of compressed air, but they did have Dutch ovens that cook using charcoal and so they had a perennial problem of removing the charcoal dust from the oven lid before inspecting the food cooking inside of the oven. This they accomplished with a whisk broom. I opted for the 21st century's technological advantage and had to make sure it was within the rules. The gracious host of the event, Linda, said "we're not going to hang you if you don't follow one of the rules" and that she thought the compressed air was a hell of an idea.
For purposes of time and avoiding CTS I am going to gloss over the first two dishes, which are the ones we won first and second prize for.

Here are the young lovers, basking in the afterglow of winning first place
for dessert, second place for bread, people's choice for cleanliest

I will simply say that baking bread and baklava in the Dutch ovens was an amazingly and surprisingly awarding experience that paid off big time when it came time to be judged.

On to the main event, and the one we were the most sure of. We went about the business of prepping all of the vegetables for the lamb dish even as we finished cooking the focaccia. We had a gorgeous broth in which to cook all of the root vegetables, 8 parts Pasta Shop chicken stock and one part Oakland Butcher veal stock (we could not get our hands on any Fatted Calf duck demi like we'd hoped). In truth we spent too much time worrying about the vegetables and cross contamination (another stipulation of the rules) and not enough time worrying about the lamb.

Is this a cleanly camp cooksite or what??

We tried so frigging hard to have this ready on time, and in the end what tripped us up was that the lamb simply had not cooked long enough. So, for anyone who likes rare meat (which apparently was most people at the cook-off, as they would not leave us and our uncooked lamb alone) it was fine, but it wouldn't have been legal to serve. We managed to keep a rack for ourselves.
Our presentation as well was freaking gorgeous. We're pretty certain we would have one based on that--you should have heard the crowd's reaction as we brought it out and placed it aside the other main dishes:

The redness that you see underneath the lamb is actually radicchio not red meat. The contrast was gorgeous. The dish stage right of ours (with the biscuits on top) was the only one we saw that employed the cook-on-top strategy that we so love to do with most of our Dutch oven recipes. Unfortunately the rest of the dish was unremarkable, resembling the BBQ chicken below. Similarly the one to stage left of it was a novice's attempt at a pro's dish. This was made by our immediate neighbors, team #8, who were very well-intentioned but not very accomplished Dutch oveners.

So in short we took second place in the contest all in all. We are not going to nationals this year unless we go to Kenab, UT (where??) on August 27th for the western legends competition there. We've looked into corporate sponsorship, the only way we can think of to get there, and it's not forthcoming. So, we are prepping for next year's HDHF hoping we can surprise them again with our crazy Californian-Italian-Mediterranean cuisine. On the plus side, we won over 200 bucks in cash and prizes, and so treated ourselves to a night at the crater lake lodge, which was ridiculously gorgeous.

E and I cooked the rest of the lamb on the porch at the lodge using my portable cooker and had a few drinks to celebrate.

I have to note that all of the people involved in this competition were extremely nice and friendly. We were a bit worried when I first spoke to Linda on the phone and she told me it was 'god's country' up there. We were afraid that people would try to convert us to whatever religion they follow (we saw a lot of Pentecostal churches up there. >shudder< )But we politely declined the kind invitations we got from people to stay at their homes that night and thus removed the context. I'm pretty sure most people wouldn't be prepared for our ultraprogressive Bay Area musings living in the middle of nowhere.
But as I say, these people were as nice as can be, without being weird nice like in Utah. They have kept in contact, sending us nice letters and emails. We're thankful for the experience and would do it again.

Bloggers blogging through the night

I just wanted to give a shout out to all my homies in the field of food blogging. We really jammed up the works over at Biggles' place on Sunday with the first annual SF bay food bloggers' picnic. It was fun meeting and yakking with so many intelligent and capable folks. Looking forward to doing it next year. Oh, and hey, here's a photo of the aforementioned Kabocha that I done brung to the pic-nic (stolen from Fatemeh's blog):

It was cool to rub shoulders with people who appreciate food as much as (or more than) I do. I even got to meet one of the people whose blog I look up to and secretly am jealous of, Pim.

Separated at birth?

Pim loved my kabocha, which is the name of the sqush I used, not the dish itself. That was a doff of the hat to me. I liked her satay but thought they lacked sugar. That is probably due to my American taste for Thai which makes me want everything sweet as well as spicy. Next year, Ms. Techamuanvivit, I will make some flying prawns for you.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Bad consumer! No! No!!

If you order this I will rub your nose in it!!!

Ok. Following below is the official press release from sizzler re: the meal advertised above (with my comments of course):

Sherman Oaks, CA - What's the next best thing to having a culinary Olympian come to your house to cook dinner? Going to his, which is why Sizzler Executive Chef Dudley McMahon is inviting guests over for "Chef Dudley¹s Backyard BBQ Combo."

Ok. 1: I don't want this guy at my house. I don't want him within a hundred feet of it. Anyone who could be stunt doubled by bit part actor Michael G. Hagerty does not pass go, does not enter castle five pints. And I don't want to go to his house, with its backyard appointments fresh off the rack at Expo and his great halls lovingly adorned with the calibre of oil-on-velvet paintings that only an executive chef for the Sizzler's salary could provide. So really, the teaser line is wasted on me (and I hope any discerning consumer).

A life-size, stand-up cut-out of Chef Dudley holding his latest creation greets guests at the chain¹s more than 300 locations. The
$11.99 Backyard BBQ Combo features ribs, chicken, shrimp and choice of corn-on-the-cob or a vegetable skewer.

2. Wait a minute -- it's life-size? How do the customers get through the door then? They themselves average the same girth as Dudley's, so I don't see it working. Does the fire department know?
And let's address the food, shall we? I know the ad is set up to fill us with comfortable feelings since all of the foods match the APPROVED COLORS FOR AMERICANS® that lets us know a food item is desirable. But step back for a minute folks. Corn is not supposed to be that color. It only gets that way when it is genetically modified, which I believe I've mentioned before, is a bad thing. What do you suppose comes on the "vegetable skewer" (the 'new steamed vegetables' that the ad above talks about)? I'm guessing two sections of carrot, three of broccoli, in their brilliant ACFA® glory.

McMahon, vice president of product development, is an award-winning culinarian and member of Team USA, which won the coveted gold medal in the 1992 Culinary Olympics held in Frankfurt, Germany. He joined Sizzler in 2001 and was given the task of revamping the chain¹s menu and restoring food quality.

3. Has anyone reading this ever met a vice-president of anything? To say nothing of the hawkish, petulant, sebum-oozing cardiac case at the helm of Right Wing America, Inc., VPs of companies are there for one game plan: to make a lot of money, screw over a whole bunch of little people, then take the money and run. That is why it is hard to get a job as a VP after you've had one; they know you know the game. And they know that you know that they know that you know...I digress.
Now, what European was drunk enough to award VP Dudley and his team the gold in the 'Culinary Olympics'? Who were they up against, the VPs from In-n-out and McDonald's? What did they serve? What were the rules of preparation? Would it be considered smuggling to bring dangerous GMO foods and condiments into Germany? I have so many questions. One of these is, 'restoring Sizzler's food quality to what?' As if there were some golden ideal in the past when Sizzler stood out from the rest as the bastion of good taste among a sea of Chili's and Mickey D's. Those halcyon days, when love meant you and yours gorging yourselves on uncleaned, deep-fried bay shrimp. The impossible standard, which 'casual dining' restaurants everywhere hope to attain.

"People don't expect a casual dining chain like Sizzler to have someone with Chef Dudley¹s credentials in charge of their food," said Mike Branigan, vice president of marketing. "One of our challenges is communicating that Sizzler's food has improved tremendously in the last few years, and using Chef Dudley as a spokesperson gives credibility to that message."

4. Can any of these guys say something that wasn't written for them? Do you suppose either of them has even paused from their haze of cocaine and hookers long enough to read this press release? Of course not. Refer to V.P. comment above.

Chef Dudley's Backyard BBQ Combo, launched in late July, continues Sizzler¹s strategy of offering innovative, flavorful food at a great value. The Backyard BBQ Combo includes fall-off-the-bone St.
Louis-style ribs in a 30-spice barbecue sauce, chicken in a citrus-pesto glaze, and shrimp skewered and smothered with sweet chili sauce. The combo also includes farm-fresh corn-on-the cob or vegetable skewer, plus choice of a side dish.

5. Let me guess what the 30 spices are. You can play along with me. Ready?

Table Salt
Kosher Salt
Sea Salt
Celery Salt
Garlic Salt
Citric Acid
Red Sea Salt
Hickory Smoke Salt
Mesquite Smoke Flavor Salt
Jalapeno Salt
Pickling Salt
Onion Salt
Micro Powder Salt Flour
Pretzel Salt
Refined Salt
Seasoning Salt
Black Pepper
Cayenne Pepper
Chipotle Pepper
Ancho Pepper
Arbol Pepper
Green Bell Pepper
Garlic Pepper
Green Pepper
Jalapeno Pepper
Lemon Pepper
Pasilla Pepper
Pequin Pepper
Red Bell Pepper
Serrano Pepper

Well, that wasn't hard. I've heard though that Sizzler's research has allowed them to combine all these ingredients into two simple categories: Salt and Pepper. Then you simply mix them with some Red Dye number five and refined sugar and spread it on! The meat will be falling off of your bones, too, when this NaCL bomb hits your gut. Be sure to get plenty of water.

"Our research tells us that today¹s guests want variety, bold flavors, freshness and more choices, but that value is also very important," said Chef Dudley. "This combo, like our extremely successful $13.99 steak and lobster promotion earlier this year, delivers exactly what guests are looking for. We're serving a caliber of food people expect to find at much more expensive restaurants, and we're offering it at a very reasonable price."

6. Very good. Sounds like a completely off-the-cuff, unrehearsed remark. Since Chef Dudley is such a down-to-earth guy and he's just like you and me, he usually whiles away the hours by reading his company's 'research' and devising new ways to manipulate the cattle-like hordes that apparently flock to the Sizzler's open doors to be greeted by Dudley's life-size effigy.

Chef Dudley will be in his backyard grilling, so to speak, until Sept. 11 when the limited time offer ends.

7. I guess what the corporate officers at Sizzler are trying to tell us is that the real tragedy of September the eleventh is that we will no longer be able to enjoy the value of Louisville style ribs, baked potato, corn on the cob (or NEW steamed vegetables!), shrimp and BBQ chicken all for one low, low price!