Saturday, August 16, 2014

Chef - a Delicious Road Trip

2014 has blessed us with three foodie movies to savor.  First up was Tasting Menu, somewhat inspired by the closing of Spain’s El Bulli.  Though released in April, the DVD is out in October, and I will have to review it then.  Next came Jon Favreau’s Chef which I will review here in a moment.  In the last week we were treated to the dessert, The Hundred Foot Journey.  I hope to devour that in the next week, so stay tuned.

Chef… I went to this expecting food to only play a secondary role and ultimately to find it a little unsatisfying but a decent escape.  I was wrong.  Food played a central role, it was loaded with morsels of wisdom and subtle foodie observations and proved to be an entertaining and enjoyable film.   

Favreau plays a LA celebrity chef caught between a rock and a hard place.  His manager/restaurant owner wants him to stick to what he does well, take no risks and simply turn out the same menu night after night, year after year.  But the city’s most influential critic is about to visit and the Chef would like to display his chops.  The manager threatens him with his job.  He gets a lousy review.

In this first third of the film we see that the Chef, Carl, is obsessed and consumed by his work but that he truly loves the creative process of cooking; the restaurant is stifling to him.  However, his obsessiveness seems to have cost him one marriage and regularly drives a wedge between him and his son.  

After a verbal explosion goes viral Carl loses his job.  Now we know it’s time for the redemption and it will likely involve Carl getting back in touch with both his love of creativity, cooking and his son.  Totally predictable, right?  It is.  But it’s fun.  

Enter a food truck, the support of his ex-wife, Miami and the beautiful simplicity and love of Cubano sandwiches.  Along the way we will get touching conversations, father-son instruction in the value of hard work and love of food, the subtlty of sandwich creation, a road trip and ultimately rekindled romance and food fame with a predictable twist at the end. 

The co-stars really steal the show.  Sofia Vergara plays the ex-wife and her easy smile warms the screen.  Jon Leguizamo’s humor and flair brings lightness to Favreau’s self-absorbed chef, and Bobby Cannavale nails it as a loyal sous chef.  Dustan Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Scarlett Johansson, and Robert Downey, Jr.  have smaller parts played spot on.

This won’t win any awards.  But you will enjoy it.  I highly recommend it…but you need to find a place in town for a good Cubano and make a reservation for 15 minutes after the movie is out…you’re gonna want one! 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Humble Scotch Egg

I have a cookbook in my kitchen that often gets a giggle – Traditional British Cooking.  I have been asked if it featured blank pages.  So unfair!  Our stereotypes of culinary greatness and grandeur tend to be French – thanks Escoffier and Julia Child.  Soul nourishing comfort foods?  Italian maybe.  Exotic flavors?  Asian of all kinds.  Filling, rich foods?  German and Eastern European.  But the British Isles get left out unless we are talking beer and spirits.  In retort I bring up pub grub and people just smirk as if that doesn’t count.  But fish and chips, a shepherd’s pie, some bubble and squeak – these may not be the result of some hours’ long processes with reductions and so on, but they are delicious.  Furthermore, we seem to be in an era in America of appreciation for simplicity, minimal ingredients, and fresh, versatile flavors.  So let’s give British food a break – and a try.
In Chicago recently I had the pleasure of eating at Blokes and Birds in Wrigleyville.  I spotted Scotch eggs on the menu – an item I never see without trying.  I am physically incapable of passing them up.  So along with an excellent burger and some fish and chips, we added this traditional portable snack.  And it was delicious.  In fact, before going on, I have to encourage you all to visit Blokes and Birds.  Great food, great location and stellar service.
That said, I got to thinking about the Scotch egg.  It is so simple it is a work of genius.  But why do we reserve these treats to pub visits?  It is simply a hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage, rolled in bread crumbs and fried.  That would be easy to do at home, right?
And it has a wonderful, if disputed, history.  It could be the creation of an elite grocery store in London, or maybe a natural adaptation of an Indian meatball.  It might even have North African origins.  It is definitely not from Scotland.  But it becomes popular because it is filling and easily portable, delicious hot or cold.  This is a simple snack for the masses.  I had to do this at home!
I did what I often do – glance at a half dozen recipes and then just create my own.  I rarely use recipes – prefer to just create based on what I have seen.  So I hard boiled some eggs – cold from the fridge into rolling, boiling water reduced to a simmer for 12 minutes and then hit with cold water.  This way the yolk is done but golden and creamy, not dry.  After the eggs cooled and I peeled them I made a patty of mild Italian sausage in my hand, placed an egg in the middle and carefully wrapped the patty around the egg.  I thought this might be challenging but it was easy!  Then I rolled the sausage/egg ball in a whisked egg then rolled it around in a bowl of about a cup of flour, cup of bread crumbs and half a cup of panko with some salt and pepper.  I then dropped the balls into about an inch worth of vegetable oil, very hot, in a Dutch oven on the stove.  After a careful turn they fried up to a beautiful golden brown and looked to be restaurant quality.
The kids wandered in and out of the kitchen, knowing what I was making but skeptical – eggs inside sausage – weird!  Once all five balls were done I sliced them in half and put them on the table.  The kids looked a little more curious now.  My stepson took a bite.  “Yum.  Cool!”  My stepdaughter took it apart a bit to accommodate a sore mouth due to some orthodontic work, but responded with a “wow…that’s good.”  Some family dropped by conveniently and they too loved them.  This was sooooo easy!
And there’s even more that can be done.  What if we pickled the eggs in Worcestershire or Jalapeno juice?  What if we used a beer batter?  Or chorizo or a hot Italian sausage?  The possibilities are endless**.  Each family member could develop their own signature egg.  These could even be done with different kind of eggs – mini ones with quail eggs or giant goose eggs.
So give the Brits a break and try these at home.  
**Additional note - Just last night we had dinner at a new Santa Cruz restaurant, Assembly.  As a snack they served Scotch olives!  They were delicious!  Get to Assembly ASAP.  Review to come soon.