Braised Kobi Oxtail & Lobster Claw Fricassée w/ Chanterelles, Harvest Vegetables & Yukon Gold Potato Tots
We eat to nourish and sustain ourselves, but for the most part we've all been trained to look at images of food to be aroused. In this respect there is little difference between commodity chains like Red Lobster and upscale magazines like Martha Stewart Cooking: the production of images that have been set-designed and stage lit to beautify and romanticize what we eat. In order to meet what are essentially market driven expectations, photographers increasingly try to avoid what a food stylist friend once described as “the icky bits of cooking.”
Which makes the job of producing a curious little food blog like ours somewhat conflicted. Two weeks ago our bookkeeper was passing the computer when she caught sight of an image we had up on the screen of a whole, uncooked octopus. It was gray, wet, limp, about the size of a small child ~ by any stretch the definition of unappetizing. “God, I wish I hadn’t seen that," she shrieked. "I’m not sure I can ever eat octopus again.” Least you get the wrong impression, our bookkeeper is no wimp. She is ex-navy with five children. But as it’s hardly the intent of a restaurant blog that touts the talents of its omnivorous kitchen to turn people off ~ and turn her off it did ~ after some discussion we took the easy way out, choosing a close-up of one graceful tentacle, brined a rich merlot red. But I haven’t written a blog since.
Because I haven’t found a way out what's become an ongoing dilemma. I love gorgeous images of food as much as the next guy, and happily my life is full of them. But that's not always what I see when I look through my lens each week as I set out to document a dish through the laborious stages it takes on its journey to the plate. And what I see has increasingly led me to believe that it's precisely this narrow definition of what constitutes ‘beautiful’ and "exciting" that inhibits us from exploring anything that can't be photoshopped into submission or reduced to copy the length of a long tweet. Because it's in the icky bits that the best flavors slumber, needing to be coaxed, step by step, to reveal themselves.
There are a lot of icky bits in nose to tail cooking ~ starting with a whole (dead) animal. But if you’ve been reading this blog at all you know that the intricate and loving steps we take to properly cook animal proteins is a huge part of what we do. It flows from the pleasure we get from eating everything that comes our way, nose to tail (if they have one), which is measured by a relationship with animals based upon respectful dependence: eating animals after they’ve lived a good life honors and engenders the bio-dynamic precepts of farming we hold most dear.
This week’s dish started with a decidedly ungainly looking animal part, the tail of an Ox. Serpentine, mostly bone and sinew, this off-cut has surprisingly little meat. It took four days to render the tail into one of the most delicious dishes I've had all year (including a full day to let the flavors develop). Check it out:
From the brining of the tail overnight there followed protracted stages: mincing vegetables and roasting bones for the veal stock, flouring and searing off the Oxtail before adding it to an all day braise, straining and clarifying the stock and the finished sauce (six times that I counted), peeling, boiling, puréeing, forming, and deep frying the Yukon Golds for the tater tots, cracking and steaming the lobster claws, peeling, paring and cooking each vegetable for the final dish. Raw meat, grease, mounds of uncooked vegetables ~ there was not one vanity shot. The drying of chanterelles, which we do in the garden, was indeed pretty, but didn’t feel an essential part of the dish. The bi-product of the only truly dramatic moment ~ Chef pouring a magnum of red wine over the meat and vegetables and igniting them, the room exploding in a foresty, primal smoke that stroked a curious longing in me ~ was a smell.
To coax a sweet, rich, tiny bundle of meat out of that Oxtail took immense concentration with a surfeit of heat, sweat, blood and guts. (Not just of an animal variety.) What we do may not always look pretty until we get to the finished plate, but at the end of our very long days, it's the getting there that's truly fascinating. As least that's what I've come to believe, with the hope that you will too.
End of Summer Porchetta Roast: Friends and family celebrate the life of a pig named Denise.
Yes, Denise is a curious name for a pig, but when Lukka, Daniel and Olga were warned not to personalize their first experience of raising an animal for the table by naming it, they stood their ground: if they were going to raise a rare mule foot, build her an acre pen to root around in, schlepp vegetables the staff collected every day for her to eat, and see to it that she lived a pain free life up to and including the way she left it, then hell yes, it was going to be personal!
Naturally, when it came to deciding what to serve our staff and a few close friends at Barndiva’s end of year harvest celebration, all eyes turned to Denise.
To allow Ryan a night off, Dino Bugica, our good friend and undisputed porchetta master was called upon to look after the "main course." If you are not conversant with the details of Porchetta, it’s a classic Italian preparation in which the body of a whole pig is de-boned, herb rubbed, then re-rolled up tight so the skin crisps as the meat slowly roasts into the melted fat. Dino used a simple fennel pollen, salt and pepper rub which enhanced the incredibly sweet, herbal notes of the meat.
For the rest of the meal, Daniel baked sublime muffins from a closely guarded family recipe and he and Olga roasted squash and potatoes from the gardens at the farm. Amber baked three stellar sweets: chocolate chip banana bread, sour cream forest berry muffins and incredible pumpkin pie brûlée. Lukka stocked the bar. Geoff helped carve. Though it wasn’t a pot luck, friends brought loads of other goodies ~ Dragonfly's beautiful salad was stellar ~ but most of all everyone arrived with tons of good will. It was a great afternoon of food, drink, and laughter, with kids running wild in the gardens until long after dark.
All text Jil Hales. All photos Jil Hales (unless otherwise noted.)