The older we get, the longer things take. And when for the last few years you’ve been squeezed into a tiny, disfunctional kitchen with shitty appliances and no room for more than one person to cook, getting an amazing, brand new kitchen is a little slice of heaven.
One week after the move, we’re not done in the kitchen, but we’re really close, and we’re really excited! This is where the magic happens, going forward, and as I alluded to, there’s a couple more changes here in the wind – More on that later.
M and I agreed that this is and will be a serious working kitchen, a production kitchen for things here at the website, so we took our time, discussed things in depth, and decided together how to to arrange everything. And in a word, it’s magnificent. Wanna talk storage? This alone is a 12 cabinet pantry, 24″ deep, with tons of space for stores. There are drawers and cabinets and display places everywhere – it is so cool.
The basic triangle is, in this iteration, a square, and it’s marvelously functional – defined by fridge, stove, sink, and island, there’s plenty of room for collaboration, and for guests to hang and watch.
And speaking of hanging and watching, the kitchen is open to the living room as well – I seriously dig this.
And naturally, if you’re here with any frequency, you know where my heart is – Testing, designing, refining – And here’s the new nerve center for that process.
So thanks for being here, thanks for your patience and kind words through the transition, and stay tuned – It’s about to get really, really good.
Winter is turning to spring in most places by now. Our world is in big transition – We have to be out of our place by Friday, and won’t have our new home (and AMAZING kitchen), for a few weeks yet. As such, I’m going to post some good stuff from others, and maybe a surprise house post or two.
For this week, here’s Real Farmacy making more sense than anything you see from our government. Check it out, and let’s get crackin’!
Surely, you’ve heard the adage, ‘We eat with our eyes,’ yes? Truer words were never spoken. And there’s more to it than that, of course – We also eat with our noses, skin, imagination, and memory, and you certainly should cook with all your senses. All that stuff is every bit as important as taste, frankly, and a savvy home cook never forgets it. It’s kinda like Obi-Wan’s epic line – You gotta use the force and let go of rigid, recipe thinking.
First, sight, naturellement. Many assume that the feast with your eyes concept speaks to plating and presentation. Certainly those aspects have a bearing on things, but frankly, there’s much more to it then that. Often enough, we come home from a long day at work, only to realize we gotta make dinner. Here’s where sight should first be employed – What you see around you should be your inspiration. As such, whenever and wherever possible in your kitchen, leave the good stuff out where you can see it and be inspired. Bowls of fruit and veggies, glass jars of pasta, beans, and rice, home canned goodies in mason jars – If all this bounty is packed away neatly in pantry or shelf, it’s not revealing itself to you – Put the goods out center stage, and be inspired. Make part of this scheme a rotating canvas of sorts. Go through your pantry and spice cabinet and pick out half a dozen things you’ve not used since you can’t remember when, then pull those out and display them where they’ll make you think. Take a look at the stuff you’ve got on display and do some paring – Chances are good that when you come home tired and hungry, these little vignettes will not only spark inspiration, but lift your spirits a bit as well – There’s a reason art makes us feel good.
In our piece on Banh Mi, I wrote, “Vietnamese cooks strive to include fiver essential nutrients in each meal – Powder (spice), water, minerals, protein, and fat. The visual element of cooking is also carefully considered; white, green, yellow, red, and black are presented in a well balanced Vietnamese dish.” Therein lies another clue to visual cooking – Use it when you compose a dish on the fly. If you’re here at all, you know we revere soups and stews, so here’s another tip – consider the over all pallet when you compose one. A great part of the joy of fresh veggies is the vibrant colors they add to what we eat – Balance those in a way that appeals to your eye and it’s guaranteed to make your belly happy as well.
Naturally, plating and presentation matters. Yeah, I know I’ve told y’all numerous times to not sweat it, and you shouldn’t – It should be a labor of love, not a chore. A little thing like a nice bottle of red opened, cork set on the foil round from the bottle, with a sparkling clean glass and maybe a flower in a bud vase. Set that out for your mate’s arrival home, and it can and will mean the world to a loved one. Presentation can be as simple as choosing the perfect bowl for that soup or stew – or offer some topping options in small ramekins – sour cream, freshly grated cheese. You’re offering not only dinner, but a delight for the eye, and of course, for the nose.
Everyone has had a head cold, and when we do, what do you notice? For most of us, it’s the fact that almost nothing tastes that good, even our favorite comfort foods. That’s very likely the root of the old wive’s tale, ‘starve a cold and feed a flu,’ with the latter, you feel like shit, but at least you can taste. Smell is a huge part of taste – Without it, us human are limited to the most basic flavors – salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami, and those not all that well. Doubt it? Pinch your nose shut and eat something you know well, say, a strawberry – With your olfactory blocked, you’ll get some flavor, maybe hints of sweet and sour – unblock your nose half way through and suddenly, there it is, all the subtleties that make a strawberry what it is. Those nuances are critical in fact; lose your sense of smell, and the world of food turns black and white – A horrible affliction, to say the least. As a home cook, I live to hear M say from the other room, “That smells amazing!” That means I’m on the right track with whatever I’m doing, and it guides me more than anything else while composing a dish. Let your heart and your nose be your guides, and never forget that the real subtlety of a dish comes from scent, far more than any other sense.
So, we eat with our skin? Sure we do – If you’re like me, having tactile interaction with my food is important. We spent millennia eating before cutlery came around. Literally in every part of the globe, there are myriad dishes meant to be eaten by hand, and that’s a critical consideration for a cook. There are tacos, sandwiches, sausages, tajines, samosas, and many, many more. Such dishes exist on every continent, and may the food gods bless ’em all. The ubiquity of vehicles such as unleavened flat breads, tortillas, and the like exist largely to act as a shovel for wonderful things. Great fried chicken is a delight, at least in part, because we can feel the crunch, salty, hot outside layer as we bite into it – If that’s not proof of concept, I don’t know what is. Consider a finger food for your next menu – That could be as simple as fresh bread to mop everything else up with, or maybe small dishes of olives, cornichons, or pearl onions. One of our favorite low pressure meals is a picnic of whatever is at hand – meat, cheese, veggies, fruit, nuts, and bread, cut up to bite sized pieces, with Dijon mustard and house made giardiniera, and a nice glass of wine.
Don’t forget imagination and memory. Any of all of your senses can and will trigger things – The smell of the Asian take out at the grocery, potatoes frying on a flat top, the scent of freshly baked bread – These might spawn fried rice, pommes Anna, or banh mi for dinner. If it’s a fleeting glimpses e of something, grab pen and paper, write it down and stuff it in your pocket as a reminder – If not tonight, then down the line, but don’t lose the inspiration. By the same token, food memories are some of the most vivid internal imagery we conjure for ourselves. When we were kids, making mac and cheese or pizza may have involved a box, (Kraft, and Apian Way, I freely admit), but the memories are of cooking comfort food in a warm, steamy kitchen, and that’s all you need to be inspired. When one of those memories hits, use the power of 21st century technology to unlock something new – Google whatever it is, find a take on it that’s outside your usual mold, and go from there – As every chef from Jacque Pepin to me tells y’all, a recipe is just a guide – Use it to springboard something of your own.
When you feed your senses, imagination, and memory that way, it’s a solid guarantee you’ll never leave the table unsatisfied.
It happens in every professional kitchen, to some degree, every day – And folks, truth be told, it happens exactly the same way in our home kitchens, too. Classically, it’s known as being dans le merde – You might not know the term, but I guarantee you know the feeling. You’re in the shit.
Anyone who’s worked in a professional kitchen knows the term. My first professional kitchen training was French, then a Basque kitchen, then another French outfit. ‘On est dans la merde,’ was a thing I heard early on, and quickly came to understand – If you want the proper pronunciation, it’s onnay don la maird – It means, we are in the shit, and in it deep. It’s a colorful phrase, indeed. The Americanized version is ‘in the weeds’, but it means the same thing, and it’s rarely good – I’ll explain my choice of rarely over never down the line a spell.
What in the shit or the weeds means is simple – It’s the Murphy’s Law of cooking – What can go wrong, will go wrong, and usually at the most inopportune moment. It makes sense, frankly. While some advocate that the phenomenon is more prevalent and has greater negative repercussions in a fine dining outfit, I personally think that’s hooey. Let’s face it, we’ve all been to a fast food chain when they’re in the weeds, and frankly, I have zero doubt that staff and patrons there feel it every bit as acutely as they would at The French Laundry. It sucks, bad, and sometimes it can be damn near impossible to get out of quickly or cleanly. Yet most of the time, that’s not true, thank the gods.
Before we explore the what, a moment to discuss the term – Where does in the shit/weeds come from – The etymology isn’t crystal clear. Some posit that it stems from a sports analogy, hitting a golf ball into the rough, or getting tangled in seaweed during a swim. Mark Liberman, a Professor of Linguistics at Yale, suggests it refers to getting off the beaten path, and that strikes me as closer to the mark, (no pun intended). It’s hard to say how old this chunk of kitchen lexicon is. A search for the origins or first use of the term as kitchen slang yields almost nothing of value, it’s an arcane term that apparently hasn’t been explored well. My earliest finding for it is George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933. The inference therein is that the term was common among kitchen staff then, so it likely has its roots back a spell from Orwell’s time.
What being dans le merde means is, overwhelmed. In a restaurant, it means that something has swamped a station or stations, and they can’t keep up. When everything, literally everything, must be precisely timed and finely coordinated, that’s all it takes to bring about disaster. And if the orders keep piling up after it’s happened, it’ll take that much longer to get out of.
What I do nowadays in the cafe during peak periods is expedite – I’m standing on the front of house side of the pass, the high counter where completed plates are placed by the kitchen staff when they’re ready to go. I give everything one more check, confirm each element of the plate with my QC, and then hand the plate on to a server. But in reality, I’m watching the clock, and all the stations. My QC, (literally Quality Control – The most important person in that kitchen), the one who has final say on what comes out to me, has control of her line, but her back is to it most of the time, whereas I’m facing the various stations – She can feel what’s shaking, because she’s really good, but I can see it – The expressions on faces, the sudden slow down in assembly steps as somebody gets bogged down, the lack of plates at a given station, where there should be several. As such, a great deal of what I actually do is orchestrate things to keep us from being dans le merde. It’s a constant, demanding dance, and I love it.
Now we reach the point of asking, so what? Why would we be interested in exploring a term that describes catastrophic failure? The answer, my friends, is simple – Search your hearts and memories, and you’ll find plenty of examples of this happening to you, in your own kitchen. Sure, we’re not Le Bernardin, but the fact is that, on a Tuesday night, after a long, hard day at work, when you’ve got to have dinner on the table for your family in X minutes, and the shit hits the fan, it matters a great deal. It has happened, and as sure as hitting a deer while driving eastern Washington, it will happen again, and therein lies the crux of the matter – When it does, what will you do? The sitcom and cartoon answer is, order pizza, and sometimes that works, but the fact remains that most of the time that’s not an option, so, just as I do at work, we at home must act to save the day.
Craig Thornton is the wildly creative LA Chef and founder of Wolvesmouth, what he describes as, “a communal dinner party, kind of like the old-world salon.” A dinner party that just happens to be one of the most sought after dinner reservations in that town. In an interview a while back, he said something that speaks perfectly to why understanding and studying being dans le merde is important – “Cooking is creating a big fucking problem and learning how to solve it.” Truer words were never spoken. No matter how accomplished you are, no matter how broad your repertoire, Murphy says that things will go wrong when you can least afford it. Made Yorkshire pudding a thousand times? You’ll fuck it up on Christmas Eve, with the whole fam damily in attendance. Think about it – Cooking is chemistry, math, history, memory, ambition, imagination, all done with a cornucopia of methods and processes almost guaranteed to make all that fail at some point. It’s a given, and as such, we need to recognize and acknowledge failure – Bow to the gods of chaos, and then smile back at ’em. Failure is, quite literally, a vital part of the cooking process. As with most things in life, it’s not what happens to us, but what we do about it when things don’t exactly go swimmingly that tests our mettle.
So, what’s the take away, S’il vous plaît? The answer depends on the disaster. Fortunately, this being the 21st century, answers are but a click away, if you don’t already know one. When a disaster hits your kitchen, it’s time to go into triage mode. Whatever the crisis, when it happens, you need to do what we do at work. Stop for a moment. When you’re in the shit, it feels like you’ve just got to forge on, a la the Winston Churchill quote, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Fact is, that’s usually not a good idea when everything is going to shit.
Disaster requires a moment of observation first and foremost – What went wrong? We may or may not be able to answer that question, but you need to take the time to observe and assess. Thats literally what I do at work – “Gang, stop – Let’s figure this out – Do we need to move people around, do we need more hands, what’s the deal? Let’s figure it out and fix it.” That’s why up there in that second paragraph I said being dans le merde isn’t always bad – If you’re barreling down the wrong path and something critical brings you to a full stop, it can be a hidden blessing – You only ruin one dish, instead of a whole meal.
Take stock of what happened – If you’re not sure what it was, grab your smart phone and google that sucker, ‘why did my Sauce separate?’ With all the resources out there, you’ll likely not only find the cause, but a wealth of possible solutions as well. For the time being, screw the sauce – What’s done is done, and a minute or two more isn’t going to do a bunch more damage. Here’s another tip – Ask for help at home. If you’re a solo cook, (as most of us at are), you’re probably not big on helpers, (I’m not, as many well know). That tendency is, in fact, the cause of many disasters – you’ve taken on a big ass menu of stuff that’s new to you for a party, and wham, things go to shit – Ask for help – Chances are good there’s a spouse, kid, hell even a neighbor you can call on in a pinch. That extra set of hands, eyes, and heart may be exactly what’s called for.
Finally, accept the circumstances. Soufflé pan cracked mid bake? May be salvageable, may not – If not, what’s your alternative? Perfect scrambled eggs are a thing of beauty – No, they’re not a soufflé, but after that disaster, who would argue with great comfort food? Burned the butter in the sauté pan? Don’t wipe it out and charge forward. Stop, get a new pan, take a sip of wine while it heats up. Take a deep breath, get rid of whatever distraction that drew your attention from where it should have been, and calmly go forth to culinary success.
If nothing else, I’ll guarantee you this – Screw something up in an epic kitchen fail, and it’s a safe bet you’ll never, ever do that again. Count your hidden blessings.
OMG! Stew made, stew devoured! Absolutely delicious! Thanks for the fabulous recipe and perfect directions, cuz! I haven’t been cooking lately like I used to, but you are inspiring me to do so. Matt is VERY grateful & so am I! Perfection! 😘
Here’s a wow – Turns out Salvador Dali wanted to cook for a living, not paint. Way back in ’73, the iconic artist published Le Diners de Gala, a lavishly illustrated tome dedicated to the astounding meals he and his wife Gala produced for some epic parties, (as if a party thrown by Dali would be anything less). It’s not a surprise that we’d not heard of this gem before – There are reportedly 400 or less copies of the book still extant.
Now, all of that is about to change for the better – Taschen is about to republish this epic volume, filled with recipes, pictures, illustrations, and the ramblings of the maestro himself. Among the calorie laden cornucopia of truly bizarre dishes, there may be some real gems. And in any case, it’s guaranteed not to be boring.
I’ve got this young Manager, Taylor Beargeon, at the cafe. Turns out he and his mom are both followers here at UrbanMonique. Taylor has made a bunch of stuff we’ve posted, and we appreciate that more than we can say.
The other day, Taylor brought in a jar of fennel, black pepper, and bacon spread from Skillet, the incredibly talented consortium of restaurants, catering, street food, and much more. Lead by Jon Severson, and packed full of an amazingly eclectic and talented mix of fellow Chefs, this Seattle mainstay is a happening thing.
I tasted this stuff, and it was fabulous, indeed. Then the thing that always happens with me happened – I thought, ‘how would I do this?’ I trust that the folks at Skillet won’t begrudge that leap in the least – Sure, they’d love us to buy their stuff, but knowing all they do and how they do it, I believe that they’d be thrilled if what they did inspired a few home cooks.
I looked at the ingredients of their wonderful spread, and immediately saw some things that I’d change. That’s not a rip off, by the way, or a put down. It is, rather, the way things go in creative endeavors. The folks at Skillet didn’t invent the concept of bacon jams, this was just their swing at it. Tasting it, and wanting to do your own version is complimentary, not parasitic.
This is why I encourage y’all constantly to take your own swing at what we do here – It’s also why I regularly use guitar licks lifted from dozens of players who came before me – what it becomes is my own amalgamated style. And that’s also why I’m thrilled when somebody else cops something of mine.
Anyway, back to that Skillet Jam. Theirs contains bacon, onion, apple cider vinegar, brown sugar, lemon juice, black pepper, whole and ground fennel seed, granulated garlic, caramel color, and xanthan gum, (a pretty benign stabilizer). What I tasted was, appropriately, bacon first, then fennel, then sweet. Again, that stuff was really tasty, but it got me thinking about what I’d want to taste in such a thing, and so here we are. As such, let’s just take a little spin through the roughly six days between what Taylor started by sharing that taste, and what I came up with for y’all to try.
The origins of bacon jam are somewhat murky. Skillet’s received a lot of press as an original condiment, and their version certainly is that. Yet the real roots go back quite a bit farther than 2011 Seattle street food. Mincemeat recipes, (an amalgam of beef or mutton mixed with suet, fruit, nuts, liquor, vinegar, and citrus), are found as early as the 1400s in England. Mincemeat might be served as a main dish, (in a pie), or as a side for meat or poultry.
Chutney, an Indian condiment made from fruit and/or veggies, sugar or vinegar, and spices, hails back to several hundred years B.C.E..
Marmalade, fruit preserved in sugar and originally made with quince, harkens back to the ancient Greeks.
Pissaladière, the signature southern French pizza, is topped with what can easily be called an onion marmalade.
And in Austria, a traditional dish, called verhackert, is a spread of minced bacon, garlic, and salt.
All of these things were made in order to preserve fruit, veggies, and meat for longer than their natural period of ripe and ready. Vinegar, salt, and sugar have all been used for just that purpose for thousands of years. Bacon jam, or marmalade, or chutney, are natural offshoots of these roots. As such, the sky is the limit for what you can and should try in your own kitchen.
Accordingly, I started thinking about what I had available and what I’d like to taste in such a thing. My first consideration was texture. That Skillet spread was just that – A processed blend of all that good stuff that you can scoop out with a knife and spread onto a sandwich or burger. What I wanted was something a bit more rustic, more of a marmalade feel.
Then came the taste palate I was after. What I wanted was big shots of savory and smoke, with sweet and heat as after notes. By that I mean literally, I wanted the savory and smoke to hit you front and center when you first taste the stuff, and the lingering notes to be sweet heat.
I had both fresh fennel and some super sweet little tomatoes in the garden, so those were definitely in. Sweet onion and shallot contribute savory, sweet, and heat notes, and would act as the anchor of the whole mix. Because fennel root is fairly delicate in and of itself, it wouldn’t stand up to the long, low and slow cooking a dish like this requires.
For the smoke, the bacon absolutely had to be the keynote. I used Hemplers, a stellar local bacon smoked in applewood. To really highlight the smokiness, I opted for Bourbon, (which also adds subtle sweetness), and a local Thai chile grown by a friend of my Sister that I’d smoked and ground this summer – That also brings the primary heat note to the mix. The final smoke note came from home roasted dark coffee. Touches of balsamic vinegar, maple syrup, salt and pepper round out the blend. Here’s how I did it.
NOTE: You may sub 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika and any hot chile flake if you don’t have a smoked chile as I did.
UrbanMonique’s Bacon, Fennel, Onion Marmalade
1/2 Pound Applewood Smoked Bacon
1 fresh Fennel Root, (About 1 1/2 Cups)
1 Cup Cherry Tomatoes
1/2 Cup Sweet Onion
1/2 Cup Shallot
2 cloves Garlic
1/2 Cup brewed Coffee
1/2 Cup Bourbon
2 Tablespoons Balsamic Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Maple Syrup
1/2 teaspoon Chile flake or powder
1/4 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/4 teaspoon ground Black Pepper
As with any dish that calls for a bunch of ingredients, you’ll want to do all your prep, and have your mise en place set out neatly and close at hand before you start cooking.
Rinse, peel and and dice the fennel root, onion, and shallot, (about 1/4″ dice).
Rinse, stem, and quarter cherry tomatoes.
Stem, peel and mince the garlic.
Cut bacon into a roughly 1/4″ dice.
Heat a deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat.
Add the chopped bacon and sauté until it browns and starts to turn crispy, about 3-5 minutes.
Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and transfer to clean paper toweling.
Toss the onion, shallot, and fennel into the hot bacon grease and sauté until the onion begins to turn translucent, about 2-3 minutes.
Transfer the veggies from the pan to clean paper toweling, with a slotted spoon.
Deglaze the pan with the bourbon, taking care to scrape loose all the little cooked bits from the bottom.
When the raw booze smell dissipates, return the bacon and salted veggies to the pan, add the tomatoes and the garlic, and stir to incorporate.
Add the coffee, vinegar, and maple syrup; stir gently to incorporate.
Season with chile powder, salt, and pepper and stir to incorporate.
Reduce heat to low and simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has all been absorbed and the blend has a nice, marmalade like consistency. A little loose is fine – It will tighten up as it cools.
Transfer marmalade to a glass bowl to cool.
So, what’s it good on? Silly question! Damn near anything! Burgers, dogs, sandwiches, omelettes, chicken, pork – There’s a reason bacon is such a ubiquitous kitchen cheat.
Refrigerated in a clean, airtight container, the jam will last for 5-7 days.