Does anyone know the medical signs of Gout? I will say this, its going to be salads for this guy for a while....at least until lunch tomorrow. Two weeks of indulging in everything from baby octopi to Ossobuco, from martinis to zinfandel, from sour patch kids to pizza rolls (don't ask) have caught up. As I reflect back on menus and meals from 2009 it is not with the aire of a ill-fated gym resolution but rather appreciation for a rekindled passion for food. For me 2009 was a year of many things including career building, enjoying working in the town I live in, Land Rover repairs and knee surgery. Missing from that list - food. According to my scale there was no decline in my passion for eating. But, like all things in life when time is tight somethins' gotta give; I simply did not cook as much as in previous years. Despite that, 2009 was not without some interesting salvos across the culinary bow. What follows is a retrospective of 2009 in three parts: food trends in, my top meals, and my top kitchen endeavors. 2009 Food Trends
The end of the last decade had a clear trend, it was when we took food back. Over the last few years us foodies have been kicking to the curb the ideas of factory made, mass produced food. Reaching a crescendo in ear of the factory food manufactures in 2009, the "local movement" has taken hold. There is still a long way to go before the movement is even mainstream, but it is clearly making headway. Want to know more? Have a listen to this episode of the Splendid Table. In addition to eating locally, we are continuing to pay more attention to the quality of our food. Books like Pollan's Omnivores Delemma (though published in 2006) helped draw our attention to what we are eating and where it comes from. As home cook and diners we are celebrating by returning to slow cooking, artisanally made foods.
- Bacon - this is probably not news to anyone who has eaten in the last year. Bacon has transcended mere breakfast food to ubiquitous ingredient. Perhaps a symbol of our rebellion against low fat, low carb tasteless diet food, last year we embraced cured smoked pork belly with vigor.
- Slow food - We came back to crock pots, braising, and the family meal in 2009. In addition to things that cook slowly, we also returned to things that that time to prepare and eat; quite literally the antithesis of fast food. The wonderful result of slow food is often slow eating; spending more time around the table with the people we really enjoy breaking bread with.
- Traditional food merchants - Though still not widespread, many medium and smaller sized cities are seeing the return of butchers, fish mongers, bakeries and traditional purveyors. In recent years we have begun rewarding the entrepreneurial foodies who setup specialty shops in our towns. Think about this, would you take your car to a place that claimed expertise in all manor of transportation from skateboards to horses? No, we take our cars to mechanics who work on four wheeled passenger vehicles. Why are we buying our food in a place that sells everything from trash bags to meat in plastic sitting on a diaper?
My top meals of 2009
This portion of the review is regrettably challenging for me. Our travel was sparse, our time to eat out limited and our energy to sleuth out foodie finds minimal. Although a year that included sushi, Vail cannot be considered unfortunate by any means.
- 18 week aged New York strip steak at the Wildflower in Vail Co - This was one of the best steaks that I never ordered. It was my father who called for the rarely cooked (and rarely well aged) cut. To add to the improbability, those who know my cynicism for hoity-toity, resort style restaurants are undoubtedly surprised by the inclusion of the Wildflower on this list. The steak was the standout dish of the meal, but it was the service that made the experience remarkable. If the economic situation (remember, we are not supposed to say depression) of 2009 has taught us anything it is that we do live in a service economy. The businesses who are going to make it are those that understand exceptional service. The Wildflower, and our fortunately named server Nicolas (he was French, thus no 'asssh' - or h) were the quintessential definition preemptive service; understanding the customer's unexpressed wishes and seeing to them. Have I discussed my passion obsession for service before?
- Sushi at Hatsuhana - I've said it many times (including in 2008), Hatsuhana in New York is the best sushi that I know of. Hatsuhana is not avant garde sushi, unlike the fusion and insanely creative creations of my friend Osada (formally of Takah Sushi in Aspen which has gone donwnhill since his departure). Hatsuhana is traditional in the best sense. When I first mentioned it to Osada his comment in whimsically broken English was "[Americans] dont eat there, only Japanese". And although not entirely true, the place is frequented by Westerners and Asians alike, it is rooted in real sushi culture. In the spring of 2009 I found myself in New York for a speaking engagement; due to schedule, I was in and out in less than 24 hours. One thing I made sure of was a meal at Hatsuhana. I walked in straight from the airport to a nearly empty sushi bar, owed entirely to my late arrival. I started with one of my guilty pleasures, ankimo - cured and steamed monkfish liver served with ponzu and chives. I've long held the belief that you have to gain the trust of a sushi chef and there is no better way to their heart than to request a childhood favorite. I asked for sawagani which are unctuous and umami laden fried tiny fresh water crabs. Sadly I learned they are illegal in the US thanks to a frivolous law suit. Never the less, the gauntlet was thrown and when I asked the chef to chose for me the reward was spectacular. There is benefit of arriving very late at a place that prides it self on new fish daily. In an effort to make use of the ingredients that he was most proud of, I was literally spoiled for choice. What followed was a virtually private meal of non-stop piscine creativity. For once, it paid to be late.
As alluded to above, 2009 did not see a lot of kitchen time from me. I would like to think it was because I was too busy, which is in part true. Also the case, some of the passion was gone. Perhaps the former led to the later, or maybe it was experiencing so few inspiring meals (only 2 on this years list above, compared to 5-1o in years past). Regardless, I just did not feel as innovative or inspired as I have in years past. Two meals in particular proved the exception.
- The New Visits charity dinner in Lynchburg - Can you say 'over the top'? We started by mailing a very simple "comfort food" menu to guests with items like 'tomato soup with grilled cheese' and 'southern barbaque'. The reality, at least my hope in how it was perceived, was very different. The tomato soup, pictured above to the left, was a gazpacho aspic with jalapeno and cucumber caviar. The bbq was all day braised pork belly served under a glass filled with apple wood smoke. It did not stop there - the salad nicoise was deconstructed and the olives had a surprising twist, they were liquid inside... the bisque was an sea urchin foam...liver and onions? foie gras torchon served with apple butter on a southern biscuit and shallot salt. It was a great night, well executed with expert help (hi family!).
- New Years Eve, aka the Sous Vide Experiment - Of all of the things I have played with recently, sous vide has to be the technique that has me the most excited about cooking again. Sous Vide, or under vacuum, involves cooking foods sealed in vacuum bags submerged in a precisely controlled water bath. Put practically, if you want a piece of beef to be perfectly medium, say 134F, then why not cook it at that temperature? When you think about it that way, it makes perfect sense. The added benefit of the vacuum bag is there is no loss of moisture of flavor from the meat. In fact, you can infuse just about any flavor you want. It does not have to be meat either. Veggies can be perfectly cooked as well. For New Years Eve we started with a take on the croque madame - fine dice of home cured bacon lardons and brioche, a scant bit of aioli with some water cress for color all topped with a butter fried quail egg. It was a perfect one bite dish! We moved on to veal cheeks which had been cooked en sous vide for 8 hours in butter and a braising liquor of squab stock and aromatics. We capped off the meal with buffalo tenderloin that was also cooked en sous vide, enveloped in duck fat with just a hint of sage. Check out the menu here for the complete details.
The end of the decade was still a resplendent one in terms of dining in the Dawson world. I would be remiss to call myself anything but lucky. The thing that I am perhaps the most excited about is becoming invigorated again about spending time in the kitchen. Here is to eating in 2010!