Sunday, September 26, 2010

Mid-Autumn Moon Festival Dinner

Earlier this week, I was in Nashville, speaking at a conference.  Nashville is known for producing the best country music in the world and I got to sample some of country's up-and-comers, live.  The music was vibrant and energetic and made me want to get up and dance, which I did.  I have a greater appreciation for the genre now that I've spent some time at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge and The Stage on Broadway.  To all the nay-sayers of country music: You ain't heard nothin' till you've been to Nashville.
Something Nashville is not known for is its food.  And for good reason.  The food I ate there was neither tasty nor healthy.  After three soggy fried-food-filled days there, I announced to my fellow conference attendees that I thought I might be suffering from scurvy.  I suggested we try to find a place that served salads.  Someone handed me a screwdriver, made with orange juice out of a can, and told me to hurry up because they wanted to catch an early set at B.B. King's Blues Club.  Luckily for me, I hadn't been out at sea for weeks on end.

Enter Teddy, a friend I met through Ku, who is of Chinese descent and was raised in the Denver area.  Teddy sent me a text message from Denver while I sipped on my screwdriver in Nashville:

 mid-autumn moon festival @ jj's tmrw nite @ 8:30
casual with a few people.
you in?

The only correct answer to this kind of question is, emphatically, YES.

Honestly, Denver isn't exactly known for the best Chinese food either.  Having spent some time in Toronto, Vancouver, New York, San Francisco, and, yes, Hong Kong, there's just no comparison.  But if there's any decent Chinese food to be found in Denver at all, Teddy will know where it is.  And the knowledge that I would soon be feasting at an authentic Chinese restaurant gave me the strength to fast (and to beat scurvy) for the remainder of my time in Nashville.  So promptly at 8:30 p.m. the following evening, Mr. Rose and I pulled into the little parking lot on W. Alameda.
It was a small place and it's not much to look at.  But when we walked in, the outdated wallpaper and fish tanks characteristically labeled with misspelled fish names confirmed my suspicions that we would soon be eating some pretty darn good Cantonese style food.
People trickled in, fashionably late as Asians often are, and the attentive waitstaff hurried to Teddy's side to give him recommendations for a mid-autumn moon feast to knock our socks off.  The rest of us exchanged and/or made up some mid-autumn moon folklore while they made some critical decisions.
I pointed out the black rock cod that looked like the bully of the tank (the rest of them fish will thank me later) and the waitress pulled it out, gave it a swift bump on the head, and brought it to our table deliberation.
"Over 2 pounds.  $50.  Is okay?" she warned us about the price tag, as if it wouldn't be a problem to just give him a moment to let him recover from the trauma and return him to the tank.  Teddy raised his eyebrows to the rest of the table -- were we ready to commit?  Again, the only correct answer to this question must be, emphatically, YES.

The waitress shuttled our black rock cod and the rest of our order back to the kitchen, and a few minutes later, emerged with several dishes for the lazy susan.  We had guilan, salted egg, and pork soup to start.  Then ma po tofu and crispy peking duck skin with soft pancakes with scallions and hoisin sauce arrived at our table.  The flesh of the duck was chopped up and fried with scallions and served with lettuce wraps.  The lettuce wraps arrived with baby guilan shoots, sauteed with garlic.
We also had pan-fried fat rice noodles with beef, Japanese-style fried tofu with fish and shrimp, and a clay pot with soft and luscious eggplant stew (not pictured here).
I didn't get to take a picture of the black rock cod before we devoured it, but it was steamed with scallions and slivers of ginger root.  Here it is, after we'd all but picked it clean.
For dessert, they brought us a hot red bean and tapioca soup, followed by moon cake.  

All in all, the meal doesn't rival the food in Hong Kong, Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco, or New York.  But, considering I started the day in Nashville, and spent most of the day in transit back to Denver, this was not a bad way to celebrate the mid-autumn moon festival.

ASIDE: The tab for this meal came to $22 per person, including tax and tip.  Not a screaming deal, but the fact that this tiny establishment was able to offer such a diverse menu, including a variety of fish so fresh that it was swimming until the very moment we asked for it, at that price, is staggering.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Project Food Blog Challenge #1: Me, Food Blogger for the People

*UPDATE* In all of my blogger soul-searching, I somehow forgot to mention that this post is part of an interactive competition where thousands of Foodbuzz Featured Publishers are competing in a series of culinary blogging challenges for the title of FOOD BLOG STAR.  Starting Monday, September 20, please click on my face to the right, sign up, and vote for me.  Thanks for reading, Friends!  *END OF UPDATE*

If you look at the archives of my food blog, you'll see I started this, reticently, in 2006.  It was named for my underground restaurant in Washington D.C., where friends and strangers came to my house for dinner and the only thing they had in common was that they expected to dinner to be good (I think I may have disappointed them once, due to a Cuisinart mishap with 10 lbs of onions and a crummy, store-bought, cinnamon-heavy mixture of garam masala).
On my food blogging reticence: I have no professional culinary training whatsoever, nor did I grow up eating home-cooked meals worth blogging about.  I prefer good food over bad, but my closest friends will attest to the fact that I have been known to eat complete merde with much shame and little complaint.  So, humbly, I didn't think I had anything important to say about food -- I like to cook it, eat it, and share it.  That's it.

As a result, my blogging was inconsistent over the years.  But my love for food has never wavered.  Ever since I discovered that wonderful, delicious food could be made by my own two hands, I have cooked.  Even when the meals went unblogged, I cooked for myself, my loved ones, and a few dozen total strangers who wandered across the threshold of my kitchen.
And then I had the opportunity to meet with some brilliant kindred spirits in Los Angeles and they encouraged me to share my love through my blog.  So here I am.

The thing about Speakeasy Kitchen is that it simply shares my love of food.  There is no snobbery, no elitism, no exclusivity.  I probably don't know more about any food subject than you, but I'll tell you what I'm up to in the kitchen because I hope you find it interesting/amusing/refreshing/resonates with you.  Because it resonates with me.  I make mental notes of my horticultural successes, jot down recipes for my culinary triumphs, and practice foodtography on a daily basis, all so I can share my observations with you.
It's important to me that you feel like you've been welcomed into my kitchen.  I recently found myself among some people (whom I refuse to dignify by identifying them in any way) who were real experts and enthusiasts in their field.  At first, I felt honored to be invited to join them, but very quickly felt excluded as they name-dropped and talked over my head.  I never want to be those guys.

I aspire to inspire you, but will settle for a little camaraderie amongst food-lovers.  Speakeasy Kitchen, as an unlicensed, underground restaurant, was a place to enjoy a good dinner with good company.  With my current day job, I can't be running crosswise with the Department of Public Health, but I hope that Speakeasy Kitchen, as a blog, is still a place where everyone can enjoy a good meal.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Foodbuzz 24x24: My Taste of Colorado

When I learned that Foodbuzz would sponsor my perfect meal, team up with Electrolux to raise awareness about ovarian cancer, and donate $250 to Ovarian Cancer Research Fund on my behalf, I thought: PERFECT WIN-WIN. And so I dedicate this blog post to survivors of ovarian cancer (in admiration of your strength and resilience) and the State of Colorado (in gratitude for providing me with a bounty of ingredients about which to blog).
The weekend of my perfect meal was the weekend of the Taste of Colorado, but we had been invited to J&M's cabin, Castle View. Castle View is perched on the edge of Pike National Forest, just on the other side of the Continental Divide, near Eleven Mile Lake. It's out there, far, far away from the hub-bub of civilization. The ingredients for the meal would have to travel 2.5 hours by car from Denver. Not to get preachy à la Barbara Kingsolver, but no food should have to travel much more than that. So I decided to make the meal out of ingredients produced in Colorado.

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The decision was easy to make. Colorado is a tremendous food-producing state and, as you may have read before, I get a great deal of my produce from my very own garden in Denver. The elk came from Grande Elk Farm in Del Norte. The eggs and cream came from Grant Family Farms in Wellington. The wines from Mesa County. Everything else came from somewhere in between, thanks to In Season Market.
We arrived at Castle View the night before the big meal. While we caught up with our hosts, I prepared the elk with a marinade, including New Belgium 1554 black ale. The next morning, all the ingredients from around the good State of Colorado got together for a 3 Hour Summit. Grilled anaheim peppers and tomatoes from the Denver Rose Garden, jumped into the Fort Collins beer-broth concoction. Then the Del Norte elk joined them. And that was the official start of the Taste of Colorado Party.
It gave us a lot of time to do some hiking around Castle View, and explore some of the neighboring summits ourselves.
In the final hour of the 3 Hour Summit, we shifted gears and got ready for dinner. Also on the menu: roasted beet and carrot salad, dirty mashed potatoes, and a plum and raspberry cobbler. Everything but the potatoes and raspberries came from the Rose Garden in Denver.
Despite the fact that we were all operating in relaxed cabin-mode, we still managed to coordinate dinner like a well-oiled machine. The table was set, the wine uncorked, and the food brought to the table, all in time to eat dinner while the sun set behind Saddle Mountain. We were temporarily quiet while we passed the food around and took in our surroundings.
And now, without further ado, I present five dinner plates, practically licked clean.
So that's it, folks. That's My Taste of Colorado.  The only tough part of the entire experience (aside from getting out of the office on Friday afternoon) was having to put out the fire and call it a night.  The recipe for my braised elk roast is below. If you want more recipes/instructions on the rest of this meal, make your request in the comment section below and I'll post those recipes as my next entry.

Thanks for reading. I'll take this as my final opportunity to wish you and your loved ones good ovarian health.

Braised Colorado Elk Roast
Elk, as it turns out, is an extremely lean meat, even when it is farm-raised. So don't be afraid of the butter and bacon fat that is left in the pot. It is insignificant in the whole scheme of this roast, much needed given the leanness of the elk, and just plain delicious. If you are fat-phobic, feel free to skim the fat off the top of the broth before boiling it down to serve.

3-4 lb elk shoulder
10 cloves garlic, mashed and minced
2 large onions, chopped
1/2 lb cherry smoked bacon, diced
10 anaheim peppers, roasted, skinned, and diced
2 tbsp butter (unsalted)
2 medium tomatoes, peeled and diced
2 bottles black ale (I used New Belgium Brewery's 1554, robust and sweet)
3 tbsp ground cumin
2 tbsp chili powder
1 lime
salt and pepper to taste

Place one chopped onion and 4 minced cloves of garlic in a gallon ziplock bag with elk shoulder. Pour both bottles of black ale into the bag and seal it. Place the bag in the refrigerator for 8-24 hours, rotating once or twice every few hours, to make sure everything is well-mixed.

Preheat oven to 225 degrees F and arrange the rack so that the dutch oven can fit into the oven with its lid on. Remove the elk from the bag. Reserve the liquids from the bag by pouring it through a sieve into a bowl. Set liquids aside and discard the solids. Liberally salt and pepper the elk. Mix the cumin and chili powder in a small bowl and rub all over the elk. Set the elk aside. Melt the butter in a large dutch oven over medium-high heat and saute the remaining garlic in the butter. Add the bacon, stirring, till the bacon is just barely starting to get cooked. Place the elk into the dutch oven to brown on all sides, about 3-4 minutes per side. Remove the elk and set aside on a plate. Saute the remaining chopped onion in the bacon fat. Remove the onion and set aside. Slowly add some of the reserved liquids from the ziplock bag to deglaze the dutch oven. Put the elk back into the dutch oven, adding also the onion, peppers, and tomatoes. Stir the mixture, place the lid onto the dutch oven, and put the dutch oven into the preheated oven. Cook for about 3 hours, turning the elk every hour.

Remove from oven and place the dutch oven on the stovetop. Remove the elk to a cutting board while the remaining liquids boil, about 10 minutes. Squeeze the lime into the beer broth. Add salt and a generous amount of freshly ground pepper to the elk-beer broth. While that is boiling, slice the elk thinly, against the grain. Serve the elk with the beer broth. I highly recommend using dirty mashed potatoes to sop up some of that beer broth as well.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Winding Up for My Perfect Meal

A few weeks ago, I submitted a proposal to participate in Foodbuzz's September 24x24.  It was to create a perfect meal on Saturday, September 4, 2010 and blog about it.  Foodbuzz teamed up with Electrolux to give a stipend to 24 lucky bloggers to make that meal happen, and a matching donation to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund.

Last week, I learned that they selected my proposal!  I know you're curious... what exactly is my perfect meal?  To be honest, I'm not sure there is a single perfect meal, like a one-size-fits-all.  Sure, I'd eat sushi any day of the week, but I'd probably get sick of that if I had to eat it every day of the week.  To me, "perfect" is situation-specific.  And on Saturday, September 4, 2010, the situation was this: We'd been invited to spend the weekend at J&M's cabin, Castle View.  Castle View is perched on the edge of Pike National Forest, just on the other side of the Continental Divide, near Eleven Mile Lake.  It's out there, far, far away from the hub-bub of civilization.  A perfect weekend getaway.  J&M also invited a German who is, as they put it, "hands down the nicest guy in the world."  Well.  Can you think of more perfect dinner company?
Last time we were invited to Castle View, we got lost somewhere around the edge of the world.  Mr. Rose, center, walking toward some thunder clouds.
So, with this remote mountain location, the lovely J&M and the German Nice Guy for dinner company, what is the perfect meal?  Well, I'm not going to haul sushi up there, that's for sure.  The food must be able to make the 2.5 hr trip from Denver.  Since the rest of Denver would be celebrating the Taste of Colorado, I figured I'd go with a similar theme: My Taste of Colorado.  In my proposal, I touted Colorado as a fantastic, but lesser-known, food-producing state.  The meal would be made up entirely of foods produced in Colorado.
Mr. Rose testing out his post-surgical anterior cruciate ligament on Eagle Rock.
Last night, I got an elk roast from Edward's.  This elk was raised on an elk farm just west of the Rio Grande National Forest in Del Norte, Colorado.  Our own garden is pushing out tons of produce, including several varieties of tomatoes and cucumbers, beets, carrots, kale, peppers, plums, and herbs.  I'll bring a large assortment with us.  We'll pick up some microbrews that Colorado is famous for, as well as some wine from up-and-coming Colorado vineyards at Mondo Vino, both for cooking and for drinking.  Finally, before we head for the hills, any other ingredients we need will be purchased from In Season, a local market that sources all of its groceries from farms within a 250 mile radius of their shop.  If all goes according to plan, we'll dine al fresco with a view of Castle Mountain, as the Aspen trees start to turn golden and the sun starts to set.  How's that for perfection?