if you saw any of the photos from the recent iron chef bacon smackdown, you’d know that my friend kwame is a redonkulously good cook. he possesses a unique and extremely rewarding combination of an all-consuming love for food, a willingness to experiment, a natural curiosity for processes and flavors, a desire to search for the best ingredients, and the commitment to wake up at 7am to check on his slow-roasting oxtail when he went to bed drunk at 3am. now that is some serious dedication, and some crazy good luck for those of us fortunate enough to attend the four course dinner extravaganza at his place last night.
i really enjoy kwame’s style of cooking – he’s focused and clearly following a grand plan in his head, but simultaneously manages to be laidback, engaging, and a great host. he’ll have five burners going while he sticks two pans in the oven and juggles a cheese grater and a juicer and dude still looks relaxed.
this lovely bowl of upland cress (the spicier, more pungent cousin of watercress), butter lettuce, mint, and sage sitting in a few inches of water signaled that there would be some delicious fresh ingredients coming our way.
last week, i went on a shopping trip to the produce heaven berkeley bowl with kwame, jess, and annie. i bet it’s the first time the butcher has had anyone buy him out of oxtail, which is why it is nonstop entertainment to roll with kwame at grocery stores. he turned this ginormous bag o’tail into a phenomenal saffron risotto with slow-roasted oxtail, topped by a sprinkle of pecorino and parmesan cheese. BOOYAH.
in the background you can see the table set for kwame, clayton, jay, beau, annie, me, my mom in town from boston, and her friend hope visiting from seattle. you don’t care about place settings though, do you? you want a closer look at that oxtail. i know your type. you want some crazy-tender-slow-roasted-in-its-own-juices-and-a-red-wine-demi-glaze-for-many-hours oxtail in your mouth, i know it. i get that – i’ll give you a closer look:
ooooh saffron risotto. looks like sunshine. tastes like individual little morsels of subtly chickeny delight.
during the interlude between courses, i headed over to the kitchen to fry some sage for kwame. i’d read that frying sage is great way to impart a lot of flavor without trying to gag down furry leaves like a caterpillar crawling down your esophagus. thanks to kwame’s instructions, i dropped a bunch of sage leaves in a lightly bubbling inch of oil and they turned into delicately crispy little chips that can crumble in your hand like dried oak leaves i was forced to rake at gunpoint every fall back in boston (kidding mom).
fried sage! so sparkly and green, a grassy knoll fit for a king. excellent for garnishing a soup of butternut squash (made with ginger, orange juice, maple syrup, and pancetta – and no, kwame cannot make a dish without including some form of animal product) with a handful of diced granny smith apples with a squeeze of lemon.
rich, sumptuous soup and tart green apples combine for taste explosion. so good…can’t speak…butternut squash is pretty colors…i love lamp…okay, back now and ready for course three. whew!
we had some time to chill while kwame got the third course ready. the momses played some piano, we all sat around and chatted, drank, and digested. i had no idea what was coming next, only that it required some production time, so i was half excited beyond all reason and half stunned into silence by the awesomeness of what i was seeing… kwame making GRILLED CHEESE WITH SHORTRIBS. holy shit.
if you’ve been following this blog, you’d know i’ve done a fair amount of grilled cheese eating and grilled cheese making recently. i consider myself fairly well versed in grilled cheesery, having judged at a grilled cheese competition (with about 100 other people) and been paid to make grilled cheeses (not that either of these require anything more than a love for grilled cheese and a set of opposable thumbs). so i took one look at kwame’s ingredients and knew that this would be a grilled cheese to challenge the ultimate pantheon of grilled cheeses. feast your eyes on this operation:
when your basic bread-cheese-butter trio consists of thick hunks of freshly bought ‘sweet’ white bread acme loaves, smooth and shiny slices of cave aged gruyere from cowgirl creamery, and ghee (clarified butter), you know you are dealing with a whole nother level of grilled cheesery. i enjoyed this particular quote on ghee from the oh-so-smart wikipedia entry: ‘like any clarified butter, ghee is composed almost entirely of saturated fat’. hot damn. this basically means, ghee is composed almost entirely of ridiculously decadent artery clogging deliciousness.
so that’s the ‘basics’. i could have been entirely satisfied with this level of simplicity in a sandwich, given the quality of the building blocks. but kwame drove his point home by stuffing his sandwiches with short ribs. braised overnight. in chimay. plus onion jam. look at this cast-iron pan of insanity:
wow. enough to turn any self-respecting vegan into a drooling mass of carnivorousness. he cooked down three onions in beef stock, deglazed the pan with chimay and peppercorns, and let the short ribs slowly increase in savory meatiness hour-by-hour until it puddles into a gooey pile of melt-in-your-mouth awesome.
close up of sandwich plus a broccoflower, which is like a cauliflower exposed to the test detonation of a gamma bomb and gone all incredible hulk steez of turning neon green and fucking shit up.
broccoflowers are kind of like the adorable bearcat in its hybrid of two excellent varieties of animal, vegetable, or mineral, except it does not usually turn terrifying, at least to my knowledge. these two varieties of cauliflower were roasted with olive oil, lemon juice, bread crumbs and the let’s-kick-this-shit-up-a-notch-BAM! addition of anchovies for that special kwame touch. thanks to beau, who apparently has a thing for late 80’s patrick dempsey movies, i now know to order my pizza with extra anchovies if i’m looking for some mcdreamy lovin. that’s quite a one-two punch fantasty: mcdreamy…covered in anchovies…mmmmm.
kwame, underestimating the immediate crystal-meth-like addictive potency of this sandwich, served us each only a half. luckily there were leftovers in the kitchen, so we stormed the castle walls and ate the shit out of the remaining sandwiches.
despite kwame being an obsessive meataholic, we did actually have some veggies. a fun and interactive wash-your-own-salad activity at the table kept us entertained:
he added some mandarin orange segments and some sort of delicious orange-based vinaigreette. we also had a corn dish with three colors of bell peppers and some smoked salt he scored from a restaurant that smelled intensely like campfire and gently worn flannel shirts.
one of the most impressive parts of the evening came at dessert, when kwame busted out the juicer, a monster bag of carrots and a big gnarly claw of fresh ginger. after juicing a big batch of carrot ginger juice, he added a can of condensed milk and a long pour of bailey’s to make a subtle spicy and sweet dessert cocktail. i love the idea of making participatory dessert with your guests along with your interactive salad making.
when you add in a rocher (basically an airy cloud of meringue) from tartine, your dessert is MADE. thanks annie! my final thoughts on the evening? kwame, your meal was inspired, innovative, and impeccably executed. when you finally open your restaurant, i will be the first person in the door.