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Friday, March 24, 2017

Best Ever Pasta With a Secret Ingredient

The holy grail of home cooked meals is a dish that takes practically no time to make, the ingredients are inexpensive and the results are delicious.

I found a pasta dish that fits all of those criteria.

The ingredients are basic. Olive oil, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms and a green vegetable like asparagus. The seasoning is straight forward, just a little sea salt, black pepper and, if you like, a pat of sweet butter. By the time the pasta is al dente, the sauce is finished.
Anchovy filets are the special ingredient that creates an extraordinarily delicious pasta.

If you have enjoyed spaghetti alla puttanesca in an Italian restaurant, my recipe is similar but with more delicate flavors.

Even people who don't like anchovies by themselves fall in love with this sauce because the anchovies dissolve, binding together all the flavors. The result is an earthy, deeply satisfying dish.

Anchovies, a gift from the sea

Anchovies are a ubiquitous ingredient in Mediterranean cuisines. Stop in a neighborhood cafe in Northern Spain, as I did in the cathedral town of Burgos, and you will certainly have a tapas with an anchovy filet skewered along with a pepper, pickle and an olive or two. Those delicious filets are front and center on the dish, displayed in all their fish-filet-glory. With an espresso or an ice cold glass of beer, nothing is better for an afternoon snack.
Use high quality Spanish or Italian anchovies preserved in oil. Do not use salt preserved anchovies, ones wrapped around capers or filets with skin. 
Anchovies are sold in 2-4 ounce tins or glass jars. buy anchovies in larger quantities like Flott's 28 ounce tin. That way I always have them in the refrigerator to add to deviled eggs or tapenade. Kept in an airtight container and submerged in oil, the anchovies will keep for months.

Best Ever Pasta Sauce

Use a quality pasta like De Cecco or, if available, fresh pasta.  For this dish, I prefer a medium weight pasta like spaghetti, pappardelle, ziti, orecchiette or penne.  

Chopped fresh tomatoes can be used, but they are not as flavorful as roasted tomatoes which have an earthy sweetness. 

Roasted tomatoes can be prepared ahead and kept refrigerated in an airtight container for up to three days or frozen for up to three months. 
During the winter at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, there are still farmers who bring tomatoes to market. Sold at a deep discount because they are misshapen and cracked. These "ugly" tomatoes are beautiful inside. With a little care and the discolored parts cut away, a roasted winter tomato has a delightful, deep-flavored sweetness.

To add crunch and visual contrast, add a lightly cooked green vegetable. Depending on what is available I use green beans, asparagus or broccoli greens. 

Serves 4

Time to prepare and cook: 15 minutes

Ingredients

1 pound pasta, a quality brand or fresh
1 tablespoon kosher salt
10-16 anchovy filets depending on taste 
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 whole large tomato, washed, pat dried, stem and any blemished skin cut away
1 pound asparagus stalks, washed, stem ends snapped off
1 small yellow onion, washed, root and stem ends and outer skin removed, chopped into large dice
1 cup brown, shiitake or Chanterelle mushrooms, stems trimmed, dirt removed, lightly washed and pat dried, thin sliced top to bottom
1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)
Pinch cayenne powder (optional)
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley, washed, pat dried, leaves only, finely chopped for garnish
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

Preheat oven to 450F.

Cut tomato into 3 large, round slices. Line baking sheet with Silpat or nonstick sheet. Place tomato slices on sheet and place in oven. Cook 10 minutes. Remove from oven. 

Place large pot on stove filled with water to within 4" of the rim. Add kosher salt. Bring to boil. 

Cut asparagus stems into 1/4" rounds. Leave the last 2" of stem attached to the spear. Set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in large frying pan on medium flame.

When the salted water boils add pasta. Stir well and stir every 3 minutes for even cooking. Do not cover. Place a colander in the sink next to a heat-proof measuring cup.

Sauté onions until translucent in the heated oil. Add mushrooms and asparagus. Stir well and sauté 3-4 minutes.

Push vegetables to one side of the frying pan to clear space for the anchovy filets. Add another tablespoon olive oil. Allow 1 minute to heat. Using a sturdy fork, gently stir the anchovies into the heated oil until they dissolve. Toss the vegetables in the sauce. 

Tear apart the tomato slices. Add the bits and pieces and all of the accumulated oils from the baking sheet into the sauté pan. Add sweet butter (optional) and a pinch of cayenne powder (optional). Stir to melt butter. Toss well to integrate the sauce and coat the vegetables.

Taste pasta after 10 minutes to confirm it is al dente. When you strain the pasta in the colander, capture 1 cup of pasta water in a heat-proof cup.

To prevent sticking, toss pasta.

Just before serving, transfer pasta into frying pan. Separate any that are sticking together. Toss to coat with sauce. If a little more sauce is needed, add 2 tablespoons pasta water and toss. Add more pasta water if more sauce is desired and stir.

Transfer pasta into serving bowl. Top with finely chopped Italian parsley and serve with freshly grated cheese on the side.




Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Young Chef Practices His Craft in an Art Gallery

Dinner begins on a dark and windy night. An errant newspaper skitters across the street. My invitation to a tasting by chef Paul Shoemaker, says the address is 4200 Lankershim Blvd, North Hollywood 91602 but the entire block looks abandoned. Using my iPhone as a flashlight, I locate the numbers on the building although a battered sign says this is the Evolution Dance Studios.

To escape the darkness, I follow a rectangle of amber light. Just beyond the doorway, the entryway brightens with stylish lighting and colorful paintings on the wall. A plaque declares this is INTRO. A few steps more and I’m inside a large space with a beautifully set communal table. Overhead bare bulbs hang like trapeze artists. Bingo! I’m here.

General manager, Rob Ciancimino greets me with a flute of light and dry Marcopolo prosecco.  I join the other twenty guests and wander around the space, which doubles as an art gallery. The colorful paintings are by Oscar Meza, a multi-talented professional skateboarder and artist.

Rob returns to see if anyone needs a refill. Glasses are raised and he pours. He tells the group that he is happy we’ve joined him tonight.  INTRO is open for Friday and Saturday night dinner and available for private events. All of this is prelude to the fall when he and his partners will open Verse, a bar, club and restaurant down the block.

It’s time to take our seats and read the menu. The fourteen courses are a mix of elegant ingredients (big eye tuna, foie gras, Maine lobster and Hamachi) and comfort foods (beets, dates, bone marrow and ravioli). And because this is fine dining, there will be wine, including a tasting of wines hand carried by Matthew Ospeck from AuburnJames winery in St. Helena.

As we are introducing ourselves to our table mates, Ciancimino sounds a small chime. It's time to begin our meal. 

Chef Shoemaker comes out of the kitchen to talk us through his first dish. He has a great smile. He avoids the traditional toque and chef's whites. Appealing and friendly, he wears a baseball cap and a brown apron. His first presentation is visually stunning.

The Edible Cocktail is a Meyer lemon icy-foam gin martini sharing a block of charred wood with two Asian spoons. We raise our glasses to salute the chef and each other. The cocktail is delicious and fun like eating a best-ever lemony snow cone. Then we feast on the spoons, enjoying the mix of textures, temperatures and flavors. Sweet, frozen, crunchy, spicy and acidic sensations roll around in our mouths. The evening begins with a “wow”.

The next dish riffs on the great versatility of salmon. Half a dozen roe are scattered on top of a thin slice of sashimi quality belly meat which in turn is placed on a strip of salmon skin cooked to chicharon-crispness. Designed as a sensory encounter, when placed in the mouth, the skin evaporates and the roe releases its salty creaminess leaving the pleasure of the fatty, pliant belly meat. The art of the dish is notable because even after the bits and pieces are consumed, the favor sensation continues with the wonderful heat of Togarashi, the sharp edged Japanese pepper powder.

For his tastings, each dish, from the first to the last, from small plates of single bites like the bone marrow ravioli or the butter poached lobster to the larger plates of Hamachi and hanger beef steak, demonstrates Shoemaker’s culinary talent. His flavors are balanced. Every element has a contrary element. Sweet is paired with acidic. Crispy with pliant. And, more often than not, a gentle heat lingers at the finish to prolong the experience. 

Adding to the sensory experience, the dishes are beautifully platted. Some are served on charred blocks of textured wood. Others in pure white porcelain bowls. Shoemaker arranges the edible ingredients like an artist applying paint to canvas. The ingredients are as much a part of the visual portrait of the dish as they are part of the flavor composition.

Each time the chime sounds, we are alerted to the beginning of a new adventure.

For the sixth course, a single Maine scallop in a porcelain white bowl is placed in front of me.  Cross-hatched with grill marks, the pink-white scallop the size of a silver dollar rests on a pillow of avocado mousseline next to a pale white cube of pickled daikon, smaller than a dime. At the bottom of the bowl, chef poured a pool of house-made ponzu broth with a gathering of white and black sesame seeds. The scallop is paired with AubernJames’ Meritage 2010 (Napa Valley), a lovely, crisp white that compliments the delicate flesh and acidic broth.

Selecting the ingredients for this dish as with all the others, Shoemaker searches for the best ingredients. If he can't find what he wants locally, he looks elsewhere. 

What Shoemaker serves depends on the seasons. He tells me with a big smile that this week he is expecting a FedEx delivery of Dutch white asparagus. He is the kind of chef who delights in the perfections of the moment. Who will source ingredients from half-way-around the world. 

In his travels he is always on the look out for quality providers, which is how he found the fisherman in Maine who supplied him with the scallops for our dish. And the scallop is perfect. Tender. Slightly sweet. Full of briny flavor.

A DIY Kitchen Produces Sophisticated Results

Looking at the complexity of each dish, it is easy to visualize Shoemaker’s kitchen. It must be high tech, fitted out with the latest gadgets. Given the detailing of the platting, surely there must be a dozen sous chefs bending over plates with tweezers picking micro greens from their mise en place.

Nope.

Shoemaker’s kitchen is a large space with a playhouse feeling.  When I walk in, one of the chefs is taking a break on a rope swing secured to the ceiling. There are some high-tech tools like a sous-vide cooker but INTRO’s kitchen is very basic. The two 1970s era stoves were purchased on eBay. There is no grill so with DIY inventiveness, to place grill marks on the scallop, the chefs use a kitchen torch to heat a knife red hot. Pressing the sizzling knife against the scallop creates the cross-hatch marks and adds a hint of caramelization.

Back in the art gallery-dining room, the chimes sound. To explain the dish, Shoemaker reappears as the servers place the next dish in front of each diner.

Foie gras is served nigiri style, on pressed rice. Who would have imagined that fat slices of beautifully charred foie gras go so well on vinegared rice, itself also lightly charred on the bottom to create a thin crust? The sweet acidic flavor so essential to balance the richness of the foie gras comes from a single blackberry sliced in half and a dollop of sour plum sauce.

The foie gras is exactly what I want from a fine dining chef. He should have a mastery of technique. Display flawless execution. Present artful platings. Cook with inventive parings of textures. From the beginning to the end, Shoemaker delivers in all those ways.

At the End

Talking about the meal, everyone has their favorite dish. Mine is the pork belly. A fat triangle of pork skin is fried to airy crispness. Which contrasts perfectly with the fork-tender, apple cider poached pork belly served with a sunny-side up quail egg, the yolk still runny, and pureed sweet potato flavored with maple syrup and bourbon. As we eat, all conversation ends. We're all too busy savoring each bite to talk. I am careful to maximize the deliciousness of the dish. I swab bits of pork belly into the richly sweet sweet potato, being sure to add a bit of egg yolk and maple syrup.
As people finish, they say to no one in particular, “Wow.” “That’s amazing.”

I reach for my glass of AuburnJames' delicious Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 Napa Valley and notice that chef leans against the wall in a corner of the room. Clearly he is an impresario who takes delight in hearing us appreciate his creations. 

As we finish dinner, Shoemaker brings out his crew. Like the end of a theatrical performance, the cast takes a curtain call. Seen on the street, his cooks would be mistaken for skateboarders. To our applause he stands smiling with Paul Richardson, Erik Punzalan, Raymond Morales, Dro Dergy and Joel Ocampo.

At that moment it seems abundantly appropriate that this space is named INTRO. Ciancimino is using the pop-up chef’s table to introduce Shoemaker to Los Angeles. With the slow roll out to the opening of Verse in the fall, Los Angeles will have the opportunity to meet a very talented chef in an intimate dining experience.

INTRO: Art Gallery & Chef’s Table, 4200 Lankershim Boulevard, North Hollywood 9160. Champagne is served at 7:30pm. Dinner begins promptly at 8:00pm. http://www.experienceintro.com; reservations on https://resy.com/cities/la/intro-art-gallery-and-chefs-table

Thursday, March 2, 2017

A Video Walk-Through in Tsukiji Fish Market: Fighting To Save Tokyo’s Culinary Heritage






A food counter serving tuna bowls at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. Credit: Copyright 2016 David A. Latt
A food counter serving tuna bowls at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. Credit: Copyright 2016 David A. Latt
If you received this post by email, the link below to the YouTube video tour of Tsukiji may be faulty. If that is the case, please click here to go directly to my YouTube Channel: Secrets of Restaurant Chefs.

Located in central Tokyo, Tsukiji is the largest fish market in the world with separate wholesale and retail areas. Besides being the source for most of the fresh fish served in Tokyo’s sushi bars and restaurants, Tsukiji is the best food court imaginable.
On a recent trip to the market, like everyone else on the crowded sidewalk, I had come to see what wonderful ready-to-eat dishes were for sale. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew I would find something delicious at one of the closet-sized stalls.
In those tiny spaces, chefs stand close to customers as they prepare sushi and sashimi with freshly caught ingredients. Fat oysters steam in shinny stainless steel pots. Thick braids of smoke rise up from scallops and crabs cooking on blazingly hot grills. Tempura vegetables and shrimp sizzle in hot oil before arriving crisp and tender on a paper plate. Ramen noodles are drained and ladled into large bowls with servings of thick savory broth, topped with slices of sticky pork and half a hard-boiled egg.
The great variety of dishes available means a stall selling curry is a few steps from another selling shumai and pork-filled bao, and that stall is around the corner from a cook grilling skewered scallops topped with sea urchins.
I wanted to taste everything.
And yet, for all these wondrous treats, the city of Tokyo wants to tear down the market.  The last time I visited, the city had slated Tsukiji for demolition. That the market was still open was a wonderful surprise.
Visiting Tsukiji this trip, I felt like I was seeing a long-lost friend. I brought my video camera to record what it is like to walk through the market before it is gone forever.

Urban progress, a culinary loss

Main entrance at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. Credit: Copyright 2016 David A. Latt
The main entrance at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. Credit: Copyright 2016 David A. Latt
So, if Tsukiji is so wonderful, why does the city want to tear it down?
The market occupies valuable real estate in a congested part of Tokyo. In a real estate-starved city, the market occupies acres of land that could be used to construct large building complexes that would bring in much needed revenue.
Tearing down the market would also eliminate the truck traffic in and out of the wholesale market. So it makes sense to move Tsukiji out of the city. On the other hand, removing Tsukiji is bad for tourism because every day thousands of people crowd the sidewalks and walkways inside the retail areas.
The conflict between these competing interests was all but resolved when the city spent $5.71 billion U.S. (¥588 billion) to construct a replacement facility in Toyosu, Koto, a suburb of Tokyo.

Tsukiji Fish Market’s uncertain future

Vendor selling tuna fillets at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. Credit: Copyright 2016 David A. Latt
A vendor selling tuna fillets at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. Credit: Copyright 2016 David A. Latt
So why is the market still open?
The previous governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, had made closing Tsukiji a priority. With the 2020 Olympics coming, the land was needed for other purposes and his administration said there were sanitary problems at an antiquated facility that opened in 1935.
When Yuriko Koike was elected governor in 2016, she reopened an inquiry into the cost overruns at the new Toyosu facility and she took seriously vendor complaints that rents at the new facility were considerably higher than at Tsukiji. So much higher that many preferred to go out of business rather than relocate to Toyosu.
Those issues were important, but what halted the demolition was something unexpected.
Remarkably, the Toyosu facility was constructed on landfill polluted by a gas plant, the previous tenant. Those health reasons were serious enough for Gov. Koike to halt the relocation of Tsukiji.
For now, the market is open for business. For how long is the question. A modified demolition has been proposed that would keep the retail part of the market where it is. The food stalls would continue to feed the many visitors and locals. The wholesale operation would move to Toyosu. But if that will happen and when are open questions. At the moment, Tsukiji’s demolition is still part of the city’s master plan.
If you are going to visit Tokyo, put Tsukiji at the top of your list of destinations to visit. Come hungry because you will want to sample the ready-to-eat food.
Allow several hours so you can explore the market without rushing. Absorb the sights and aromas of the market. Take it all in as if this were your last visit, because it just might be.