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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Buttermilk Fried Chicken You Can’t Resist

The food is great at Manuela. No question about that, but besides great food, there’s a cool, easy vibe in the bar, dining room and outdoor patio.

Manuela’s casual atmosphere was created by chef Wes Whitsell. The restaurant, like his look, is country-urban. His t-shirt, jeans, a turned backwards baseball cap and an apron fits easily with his hip version of a country café and bar, LA style. Outside the restaurant, he built an organic herb and produce garden to supply the kitchen. He left room for a chicken coop, with a dozen+ chickens whose eggs are served in the restaurant.

Diners make reservations in advance or decide to stop by on the spur of the moment. A lot of people see Manuela as they walk between the galleries at the Hauser & Wirth art complex on East 3rd Street between South Santa Fe and South Alameda Streets. There’s art inside the restaurant as well. In fact, yes, that is a large Mark Bradford canvas in the dining room. The aerial view of Hollywood is for sale so while you eat, you can buy the art.
With as many as fifty items divided between Raw, Cured & Pickled, Supper and Vegetables, the food at Manuela draws on many traditions but the beating heart of the menu is country. Pimento cheese, country ham, chow-chow, biscuits, deviled eggs, cast iron cornbread, hushpuppies, collard greens, pork sliders, fries and mashed potatoes with gravy are a through line. If you had a picnic, you would do very well to bring Whitsell’s food to your afternoon at the beach.
This is country cooking with healthy, quality ingredients and fine dining execution. Having lived in Lebanon and France and cooked in some of LA’s most noteworthy restaurants (Gjelina, Blair’s and Osteria La Buca), Whitsell informs his cooking with his superior palate. Take a bite of almost any dish and you’ll experience a pairing of savory, sweet and heat. He cultivates relationships with farmers, dairies, fishermen and ranchers. Follow him on Instagram (manueladtla) and you’ll see how much he loves high quality ingredients and how far he will go to procure them.
When I had a tasting, I had his olive oil fried duck egg with melted ramps and anchovy aioli on grilled sourdough. The bottom of the egg had a thin crust, the bright yellow, sunny side quivered. Cutting into the center of the egg released a torrent of yolk that shared its sweetness with the ramps and soaked into the grilled bread.
Order the grilled avocado, which you will definitely want to do, and marvel at the beauty of a single, perfectly ripe avocado arriving on a plate, cut in half with grill marks on the soft flesh. The avocado meat has been flavored with crème fraiche, sea salt and Aleppo chili. One mouthful and you’ll give yourself over to its savory tasting of creaminess and heat.

Whitsell elevates familiar dishes and ingredients by adding an unexpected element. He takes the comfort-food-familiar flavors of a baked potato, sour cream and chives to another level when he flavors fingerling potatoes with freshly grated horseradish, crème fraiche and dill.

He is a master of meat (chicken, elk, pork ribs), seafood (Santa Barbara spot prawns, ahi tuna, California king salmon) and vegetables (beans, peas, cauliflower, turnips, carrots, kale and potatoes). Jars and crocks line the kitchen shelves because he loves pickling and fermenting.  He serves plates of pickled vegetables and uses fermented elements (jalapeno, mustard seeds, radicchio) to spice up his dishes.
Rough textured greens like collards and Savoy cabbage that most chefs roast or boil, Whitsell serves raw. He massages them with kosher salt to coax a softness from their otherwise stiff leaves. To make his Cole slaw, he puts shredded savoy cabbage leaves into a bowl and sprinkles on kosher salt. His fingers go to work, pressing and squeezing the leaves together with the firmness of a Swedish masseuse. In a matter of minutes, those stress-stiffened leaves have relaxed enough to accept some friendly seasoning.  He adds a sprinkling of red onions, pickled jalapenos and mustard seeds, shredded carrots and a hit of apple cider vinegar. Delicious.
The skillet and the bubbles

For his video, Whitsell shows the step-by-step process for making crispy fried chicken. His favorite and mine.

Two essentials to making great fried chicken: a heavy duty cast iron pan (and, in my opinion, a carbon steel pan made by de Buyer) and getting the cooking oil the correct temperature.

The tricky part of the process is cooking the chicken not too fast and not too slow. If the oil is too hot, then the outside will be crispy and the inside will be uncooked. That is why Whitsell recommends making a test piece to help you gauge the heat and the time it takes to cook the chicken properly.
Pour 1” of oil into the skillet, which should reach half way up the side of the chicken pieces. Heat for about 5 minutes. When the test piece is placed in the oil, the bubbles should come up the sides but not over the top. If the bubbles envelop the piece, the oil is too hot. On the video, Whitsell shows exactly the bubbles he looks for.

Buttermilk Fried Chicken with Spicy Honey Butter

Whitsell prefers on-the-bone dark meat to breast meat.

When you make the brine, it should taste like ocean water.

Given the time it takes to brine and dry the chicken in the refrigerator, do all the prep a day or two ahead. Bread and fry the chicken just before serving.

For Whitsell, quality ingredients are essential. That’s why he tracks down Sonoma flour from Grist and Toll, a local mill, and organic buttermilk from Clover Sonoma because he likes their taste and believes they are healthier.
Lower each chicken piece into the pan slowly to avoid hot oil splatters.

Make sure there is a lot of space between the pieces in the frying pan and move the pieces around as they cook for even browning. Work in batches.

Brining & Drying Time: overnight - 2 nights

Prep Time: 15 minutes if using pre-cut chicken, 30 minutes if cutting up a whole chicken

Cooking Time: 20 minutes

Resting Time: 10 - 15 minutes

Total Time: 45 - 65 minutes + Brining/Drying Time: overnight - 2 nights

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 whole chicken or 1 whole chicken cut up, washed, pat dried

¼ cup kosher salt (for brine) + 2 tablespoons (for the flour dredge)

2 cups buttermilk, preferably from Clover Sonoma

2 cups all-purpose white flour or,  preferably, Sonora flour milled by Grist and Toll

1 teaspoon freshly ground cracked black pepper

4-6 cups peanut oil depending on size of cast iron pan

Directions

Brine whole chicken overnight or 6 hours for cut up chicken.

Remove from brine, pat dry.

If using a whole chicken, after brining, cut off legs, thighs and wings. Filet the breasts off the bones and cut each breast in half. Wash and pat dry each piece. Reserve the bones to make stock or freeze if not using immediately.

Lay the chicken pieces skin side up on a piece of parchment or non-stick paper on the bottom of a cooking pan or baking sheet. Do not cover. Refrigerate overnight.

Mix together flour, kosher salt and freshly ground, cracked black pepper.

Put 1 inch of oil into the cast iron or carbon steel pan. The oil should reach half way up the chicken pieces. If needed, add more oil. Place on a medium to a medium-high heat for about five minutes.

Place the chicken pieces into the buttermilk or work in batches.

Take one piece of chicken at a time out of the buttermilk. Shake to remove excess liquid.

Place each piece into the seasoned flour. Pat seasoned flour over the entire surface, making sure all the meat is covered.

Shake each piece to remove excess flour. Lay onto a clean cooking tray or baking sheet.
As the dredging progresses, “flakes” will appear in the flour. That is a good thing. The flakes will add crispiness to the chicken.

Use one piece of chicken to test the oil’s temperature. Chef Whitsell suggests using a quarter of a breast.

As you slowly lower the test piece into the oil, the bubbles will rise up onto the chicken. The bubbles should not envelop the piece. If that is what happens, lower the heat a small amount.

Once you have browned the test piece successfully, start frying your chicken.

As you add pieces to the pan, the temperature of the oil will lower. Raise the heat to compensate.

Work in batches. Don’t crowd the pieces. Leave an inch or two between each piece and the sides of the pan so they cook evenly.

As the pieces are frying, move them around in the skillet for even cooking. Be careful not to knock off any of the crust.

Roughly speaking, each side should brown and cook through in 5-6 minutes, so that’s a total cooking time of 10-12 minutes.

After the pieces are browned and cooked through, let the chicken pieces drain on a wire rack, which is on top of a baking sheet for easy clean up.
The chicken should rest uncovered 10-15 minutes so all the oil drains off and the juices collect back inside.

Spicy Honey Butter

As Whitsell says, “As if fried chicken wasn’t rich enough,” he adds a layer of sweet-heat by drizzling spicy honey butter on each piece.
While the chicken is resting, make the honey butter.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 5 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield:  4 servings

Ingredients

½ stick sweet butter

2 tablespoons honey

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1 large thyme sprig

3 whole dried cayenne peppers

Directions

Drizzle honey onto sweet butter in a small skillet over low heat. Season with salt, dried thyme and cayenne pepper.

Stir frequently to prevent burning.

Just before serving, pour melted honey butter over chicken pieces.







Sunday, May 28, 2017

Sweet, Crispy Pork Ribs; Cooked Low And Slow

Dry rub pork ribs cut apart after slow roasting and ready for serving. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt
The summertime debate is on. What is the easiest way to cook pork ribs? Boil, roast or grill? High heat, low heat, wet sauce or dry rub? I’ve tried them all. Now the question is settled, at least for me.  Slow roasting with a dry rub. To avoid summer’s heat, I put the ribs in a 250 F oven before I go to bed. When I wake up, the ribs are moist with a bacon-thin, sweetened crust. And these best-ever ribs cooked while I was fast asleep.
My mother taught me to make pork ribs with a thick coating of sauce sweetened with brown sugar and raisins. Eating those finger-licking ribs was one of my favorite childhood memories.
Everything changed on a busy research trip to Abilene and Fort Worth, when I ate at 25 restaurants in 36 hours. I fell in love with West Texas BBQ.
At restaurant after restaurant, I watched grill masters lay bundles of mesquite into their subcompact-car-sized smokers. With the heavy metal doors open, the wood crackled as flames enveloped the logs The grill masters seasoned their racks of pork ribs with thick, grainy coats of brown sugar and spices rubbed onto the meat.  Waves of dry heat radiated from the smokers. But the heat that would cook these ribs would come not from an open fire but from smoldering mesquite embers.
When the doors were closed, the blazing logs were starved of oxygen. The flames died and a delicate smoke filled the air. At that moment the grill masters loaded in the racks of ribs coated with sweetened dry rub. Hours later, the ribs were removed, their outer coating thickened to crispness, creating what grill masters call “bark.”
I loved those ribs even more than the ones from my childhood.
At home, without the benefit of a smoker, I experimented for years to duplicate that sweet-crispness. Nothing could ever recreate the wonderful mesquite smokiness but I did succeed in making ribs with bark as good as any I enjoyed in West Texas.

High heat versus slow cookingMix of kosher salt, black pepper, brown sugar, cumin, coriander and cayenne for dry rub slow roasted pork ribs. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Mix of kosher salt, black pepper, brown sugar, cumin, coriander and cayenne for dry rub slow roasted pork ribs. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Cooking with high heat is exciting. There is great pleasure in watching the pyrotechnics of an outdoor grill as sizzling fat catches fire.  Roasting at low heat in the oven lacks that excitement.
And yet, what happens in an oven set at 250 F has its own kind of magic. In the darkness of the oven, the waves of steady heat melt the fat inside the rack, tenderizing the meat and gently fusing the dry rub to the outside of the ribs.
The best magic of all is that the oven does the work. No standing over a blazingly hot grill on a hot day. Once the oven door closes, there is nothing to be done.
Walk into the kitchen and a savory-sweet aroma scents the air. Pull the baking tray out of the oven and press a finger against the outside of the rack. The soft pliancy of the meat has been replaced by a jerky-like crust as sweet as a crème brulee topping.

Slow-Roasted, Dry-Rubbed Pork Ribs

Rack of pork ribs, trimmed. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt
Cooking time depends on the size and thickness of the rack.
Buy good quality pork. Asian and Latin markets are often a reliable source of fresh pork products. Unlike the ribs sold in upscale supermarkets, the ribs in these markets will most likely be untrimmed.
Above the actual ribs, the rack will have a top portion with boneless flap meat and a section with thick bones similar to country style ribs.  Another smaller piece of flap meat will stretch across the back of the rib bones.
Requiring only a sharp filleting knife and a few minutes, removing the flap meat and the top portion is not difficult. The flap meat is excellent to use in stir fries, slow roasted in the oven or grilled on the BBQ.
A white membrane is attached to the outside of the flap meat. Use a sharp filleting knife to separate the meat from the membrane and discard.
The flap meat and country style bones can be prepared in the same manner as the ribs.  They will cook more quickly and should be removed from the 250 F oven after a total of 2 to 3 hours depending on thickness.
While the rack of ribs does not have to be turned over, the flap meat and country style bones should be turned over after one hour for even cooking. After another hour, use kitchen shears to cut off a small piece of meat to test for doneness. Return to the oven if the meat is not yet tender.
To eat the country style ribs, have a sharp paring knife handy to help cut out those hard to reach tasty bits tucked between the bones.
The ribs can be cooked ahead and reheated. In which case, do not cut apart the ribs until ready to serve. Reheat in a 300 F oven for 15 minutes.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 6 to 8 hours
Resting time: 5 minutes
Total time: 6 hours, 35 minutes to 8 hours, 35 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
Ingredients
1 rack pork ribs, 4 to 5 pounds, washed, dried
3 cups brown sugar
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup cumin
¼ cup coriander
½ teaspoon cayenne (optional)
Directions
1. Place a wire rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat to 250 F.
2. Select a baking pan or cookie sheet that is 2 inches longer than the rack of ribs. Cover the pan with aluminum foil for easy clean up. Place a wire rack on top of the aluminum foil.
3. Lay the rack of ribs on a cutting board, bone side up. Use a sharp filleting knife to remove the tough membrane on the bone side of the rack. Let the knife help you lift the membrane. Use your fingers to pull the skin off the bones and discard.
4. Do not cut off any fat.
5. In a bowl, mix together dry ingredients.
6. For easy cleanup, lay a sheet of plastic wrap on the cutting board. Place the rack on the cutting board. Layer a thick coat of the dry spices onto both sides, covering the meat and bones.
7. Reserve left-over dry rub in an air tight container and refrigerate for later use.
8. Carefully place the rack of ribs on the wire rack meat side up.
9. Put the baking sheet into the preheated oven.
10. Roast six hours. Remove from oven. Use kitchen shears to cut off a small piece and taste.
11. The outside should have a jerky-crispness. The meat inside should be moist and tender. The tapered end of the rack where the bones are small will cook faster than the rest of the ribs. Use the kitchen shears to cut off that section before returning the rack to the oven for another one-two hours. Be careful not to dry out the meat.
12. Once the ribs are cooked, remove from oven and let the meat rest five minutes.
13. Cut between the rib bones and chop into pieces any flap meat without bones. Serve hot with a green salad, Cole slaw, baked beans or freshly steamed vegetables.
Main photo: Dry rub pork ribs cut apart after slow roasting and ready for serving. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt.
 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Comfort Food, Italian Style: Making Gnocchi with Chef Mirko Paderno

What’s your favorite comfort food? Do you prefer savory or sweet? Maybe a hot fudge sundae topped with whipped cream puts you in a Zen state. Maybe it’s a fresh-out-of-the-oven chicken pot pie with wild mushrooms or mac n’ cheese with extra cheddar. For Chef Mirko Paderno, a plate of freshly made gnocchi reminds him of home in Northern Italy. In his Vinoteca and Culina kitchen, he showed how to make gnocchi.
Often served in upscale restaurants as a fine dining dish, gnocchi is as basic to Italian home cooking as pasta. The sauces may change and the markings on the little “pillows” may differ depending on the region, but gnocchi is made with three basic ingredients: potatoes, flour and (most often) an egg.
Although there are a variety of opinions about how to make gnocchi, for Paderno if you can boil water and roll out a pie crust, you can make gnocchi. No special kitchen tools are required.

And, he loves gnocchi because of it's versatility. Perfect in winter with a hearty meat sauce or in summer with a light pesto or butter sauce.

Making gnocchi is his yoga
Rolling out the dough puts Paderno into a relaxed, Zen state.  On rainy days, he enjoys making gnocchi with his teenaged daughter.

A James Beard Nominee and a seasoned veteran of kitchens in Italy and Los Angeles, he began his culinary career at the Four Seasons Hotel Milan. With his appointment as Executive Chef at Culina and Vinoteca, he has come full circle, returning to the Four Seasons family. In between, he worked in some of Los Angeles’ best restaurants. Piero Selvaggio’s Primi, Cecconi’s, Oliverio at the Viceroy and DTLA’s Officine BRERA.

But when he was a teenager, he wasn’t certain what he was going to do with his life. That’s when he enrolled at the Cesare Ritz School in Marano. At the time, he wasn’t that focused on cooking. One of his teachers, Abramo Magnani saw talent in him. But Magnani told him point blank, if he didn’t focus and apply himself, his talent would never amount to anything. In one of those wonderful moments when a person’s life changes forever in a good way, Paderno accepted the challenge.
At Vinoteca and Culina, that determination has paid off. His reworking of the menus has created dishes that give local diners an authentic experience with modern Italian food. Unlike many hotel restaurants, Paderno makes changes to the menu depending upon the seasons, the availability of quality ingredients and feedback from his diners. He combines the California love of seasonal food with Italian regional touches. 

Reflecting that dual vision, Paderno worked with Sommelier Amanda Craig who created a wine cellar with a comprehensive selection of wines from around the world but especially from Italy and California. In a tasting flight I selected she paired an Arneis from Piedmont with one from Santa Inez and a Vermentino from Liguria with one from Arroyo Secco in California. The differences were marked. All were delicious.

Gnocchi Made with Cold Potatoes

For Paderno, two details are key to making the best gnocchi. The potatoes must be steamed over salted boiling water so the flesh does not become water-logged. And, the dough must be made with cold cooked potatoes so less flour is needed.

By using cold potatoes, the dough can be prepared before the meal, even the day before. But if hot potatoes are used, when the egg and flour are added, the gnocchi must be cooked immediately to avoid becoming soggy.

Paderno uses Idaho russet potatoes because they have a neutral flavor, the better to work with a variety of sauces. But he suggests using any potato you enjoy, even sweet potatoes or purple potatoes.

Paderno uses “00” flour which blends easily with the potato. If “00” is not available, use all-purpose (AP) flour.

The amount of flour used partly depends on the moisture of the cooked potatoes. Getting the right density takes a bit of practice. The gnocchi dough should be not too dry and not too damp. Like pastry dough, with a dusting of flour, the gnocchi should roll out without sticking on the work surface. Watch the video to see Paderno’s technique.

Serves 8

Time to prepare: 30 minutes

Time to cook: 30 minutes

Total time: 60 minutes

Ingredients

2.2 lbs. Idaho russet potatoes, washed, skin on
14 ounces “00” or AP flour
2 tablespoons AP flour for dusting
1 extra large egg
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

Place a steamer on the bottom of a large pot. Add water only to the bottom of the steamer. Season with 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Bring to a boil. Place potatoes in the pot. Cover. 

Depending on the size of the potatoes, cook 20 minutes or until a paring knife can be inserted into the potatoes easily. Add water as needed if more steaming is required. Remove when the potatoes are soft but not mushy.

Allow potatoes to cool. Peel and discard the skins or reserve to sauté for breakfast. Run the cooked, peeled potatoes through a potato ricer or food mill using a fine blade.

Sprinkle work area with flour. Place potatoes on the work area. Create a “volcano,” the way you do when making fresh pasta, with a depression in the middle of the mound. Dust flour over the potato and place a raw egg into the center of the volcano.

Using fingers, work the egg, flour and potato together until all ingredients are combined. Create a ball.

At this point, the dough can be wrapped in plastic wrap or placed in an air-tight container and refrigerated to use later or the next day.

Before cooking the gnocchi, make a sauce. That can be as simple as a butter sauce with a little pasta water or as complicated as a braised meat ragu.
Sprinkle the work surface with flour. Work in batches. Cut off a cup of dough at a time. Using both hands, fingers and palms, roll the potato dough back and forth until it takes the shape of a dowel, about 1” in diameter.

The dough is forgiving so if the dowel breaks apart, start over.

Once you have made a uniform shape, create individual gnocchi using a pastry cutter or chefs knife. The gnocchi should be approximately 1” long.
It is important to mark each gnocchi using a fork, your finger or a gnocchi board. The indentations will help the sauce stick to each gnocchi.

Fill a large pot with water. Add 1 teaspoon of kosher salt. Bring to a boil.
The gnocchi cook quickly, anywhere from 30-60 seconds. To determine how much time is needed, place several test gnocchi into the water. If the first gnocchi breaks apart, either the water is boiling too fast and/or the potato dough needs more flour, in which case you can return to the work area, gather up the gnocchi, sprinkle with flour, knead together, roll out and cut again.

If your gnocchi hold their shape, after 30 seconds remove one to taste. Then after 45 seconds. And another after 60 seconds. Decide which you like and use that timing to make the rest.

Working in batches, carefully drop a dozen gnocchi at a time into the boiling, salted water.

Using a wire strainer, remove the gnocchi from the boiling water.

Drain and add to the heated sauce, which can be as simple as sautéed San Marzano tomatoes with olive oil or a tablespoon or two of pasta water mixed with melted butter like Rodolphe Le Meunier’s salted French Beurre de Baratte.

Serve each plate of gnocchi hot, topped with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Chef Mirko Paderno, Vinoteca and Culina, Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, 300 S. Doheny Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90048