The Existentialism of Mussels

“I don’t think I’ll last much longer,” my mother said putting down her spoon.

Well, it’s been nice knowing you, I thought, wondering if she was suddenly struck by an episode of food poisoning she knew to be fatal. At least we’ve established that those precooked mussels she’s had in the fridge for over a month -to which she calls attention every time she opens the fridge in my presence- were indeed not to be trusted.

This morbid moment proudly brought to you by the province of Québec, exporters of frozen seafood and grim moments of existentialism since 1975.

But let’s backtrack a bit.

“Is this really going to work?” asked my mother as we made slits in two cryovac-ed pouches of Sogel pre-cooked mussels hailing from Prince Edward Island (imported through Montréal). Yea, I turned cryovac into a verb.

As I sawed off the top bit of sealed plastic so it wouldn’t melt away due to contact with the coils of the toaster oven, I shrugged and went about my business of doctoring up a bath for the somewhat suspect looking mollusks being zapped in the microwave.
After scouring the fridge for things to embellish the greyish frozen liquid generously supplied by the purveyors in the package of frozen precooked seafood, I decided on pancetta, green onion and some garlic which I sautéed in clarified butter, seasoned with salt, hot pepper flakes and thyme then doused that with about half a bottle of dry white wine. Once the alcohol cooked out, I added a cup and a half of the chicken stock I had previously made from some unfortunate whole chicken I roasted.
After 4 minutes in the microwave, I tentatively checked the mussels. “I’m not sure what we should be looking for,” I offered “but at least we know they’re cooked.”
So I threw them in the pot with the makeshift sauce..
and hoped for the best.
———————————-
The meal itself turned out quite well.
The mussels did not kill anyone, or even give us food poisoning. In fact, they weren’t half bad. The fascinating thing about all this is that I have a strong bias against things that are precooked, and when possible, would rather just get live mussels from the grocery store.
And this is where I get existential. One of the things I like so much about cooking is the satisfaction of transforming something from its un-actualized (and sometimes inedible) state into an experience. If our lives are truly defined by the sums of our actions, existentially speaking, life then boils down to our experiences. In some ways, cooking is the most concrete experience of existentialism. With very little (a knife and in some cases a source of heat) coming between the person acting and the thing acted upon, we create an experience for ourselves and others that can truly change the way we nourish ourselves. When you cook, you’re taking control of every aspect of the experience that defines you.
While I suppose I see the merit in being able to safely keep 2 lbs of mussels in a tidy vacuum sealed pouch for months on end, somehow it takes away from the experience.
While we threw away the extra mussels and leftover fries, my mom did keep the one component I made from scratch: the broth I made to conceal the uninspired quality of those shifty little precooked Canadian mollusks that tried to rob us of life itself… if not by killing us literally, then by killing the experience.
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Credit- The Goosefoot Experience

I’m not entirely sure where to begin my report on our experience at Goosefoot.

Should I rattle off all the reasons Goosefoot is a unique restaurant? Or should I take you course by course through Chef Chris Nugent’s incredibly well thought out menu? Do I give you the inside scoop, straight from the chef’s mouth, on where to shop for groceries? (Oh, I’m onto you, all food obsessed people are constantly on the prowl for the best places to shop.)

I know! I’ll start by saying Chris Nugent has some sort of psychic ability…. he came out for a tableside chat during one of the dessert courses [that’s right, for all of the sweet toothed folks of Chicago, there are two of them not including the cheese course] and he flat out asked: you’re a soup person, aren’t you?

Sure, that could have been a shot in the dark, though that would imply that he randomly goes up to all his diners guessing, carnival attraction style, what their favorite dishes and preparations are…and since he’s not in the least socially awkward, it has to be that he has a 6th sense for taste.

It would explain plate after plate of visually stunning culinary innovation.

If I had to choose one word to describe Chris Nugent’s menu, it would be assiduous. Not in an overly fussy sort of way either. The vibe of the restaurant as a whole is laid back, casual and very upbeat. The celebratory ambiance could have stemmed from the 6 birthdays being celebrated that night, but I get the sense that Goosefoot is no stranger to birthdays. I’d imagine this is exactly the kind of place you would take a food loving friend for a festive meal. To my right were seated a chef (celebrating his birthday) and his date, and to my left sat a professor (also celebrating a birthday) with his wife.

But back to assiduity. The attention to detail within each dish, but also when it came to the conceptualization and orchestration of the meal as a whole, was astounding. It seemed as though each dish was meant to play off some aspect of the one before or after it. Clearly a lot of thought went into the menu planning, and it paid off. After not one but two amuse-bouches, we were taken on an intricate 8 course journey.

It’s true that you eat first with your eyes, and in some cases it was almost a pity to destroy the presentation by eating. But I sucked it up and ate every bite off every plate. My favorite courses were (unsurprisingly) of the seafood persuasion.

The lobster had a delicate curry sauce and was paired with flavors and textures (hubbard squash and licorice root) that meshed perfectly with the dominant flavors of lobster and curry.

The loup de mer (French sea bass) was also perfection on a plate. Perfectly cooked and served with a meyer lemon sauce with tapioca pearls and sunchokes. I only wish I could have requested a double portion!

Of the remaining courses, the angus beef was the most straightforward (not a bad thing!) The chestnut soup with white alba mushrooms and truffle essence and the quail with spiced beluga lentils as well as one of the dessert courses struck me as more playful and innovative. Each had elements that could have been featured on the pages of Modernist Cuisine. Hell, the soup has “smoke” listed as an ingredient. The cinderella squash with nougatine and spice meringue was also a prime example of how to use modernist techniques to play with textures without assaulting your diner with them.

Chef Nugent clearly knows how to innovate without intimidating and that’s sometimes a fine line to tread.

For those of you who read all the way through this post muttering “will she just get to where the chef buys his groceries?” that time has come.

Chef Nugent told me to check out Harvest Time Foods on Lawrence right next door to Goosefoot, and after my own trip there I urge you to do the same.

A Holiday Roast Beast…

…and a big huzzah to those who got the Grinch reference.

Every Christmas it is my privilege to spend a week with my slightly crazy family in California. It’s not just the (welcome) climate change that makes it a privilege, but the opportunity to pin down exactly how inevitable it was that I turned out as batty as I did!

This Christmas marked the first time that I was able to go to a family gathering feeling 100% confident that I am moving in the exact right direction with my life. I may not be galloping out of the gates, but I know I must be doing something right when upon hearing of my new proposed vocation, the family assigned me to cook for all of them. You know you’re on the right path in life when being forced to feed over a dozen hungry family members actually sounds like the best way to spend your days. It’s also encouraging that I get paid to document every triumphant success or epic failure of the process.

I love everything about food, especially being able to be in proximity to those who are truly gifted at preparing it. It seems only natural that I put in my time writing about those who do it so much better than me. I have big plans [top secret, sorry] of ultimately selling the entirety of my soul to this fickle industry, but until I do, I might as well enjoy experiencing others’ great food while I have the time.

But today it’s time to document one of my own feasts, prepared over the holidays:

Pork loin with pear and shallot, roasted fennel bulbs and Thomas Keller’s savory bread pudding with leeks.

I figured apples with pork is getting a little tired… so I decided to use pears (slow down, crazed adventurer!) I know, I know, it’s not the biggest departure. It turns out that they compliment pork nicely AND since their meat is a little more delicate and pulpy than that of an apple, browning them in the sauté pan yields a lot more fresh pear juice for your pan sauce.

I seasoned the gargantuan piece of meat with a lot of salt and pepper about 45 minutes before I intended on getting back around to messing with it. The pork loin was so gigantic that I had to cut it in half to be able to sear its sides in a pan before putting it in the oven.

Then in a bowl, I mixed enough olive oil to coat the meat with fresh thyme and minced garlic. Simple. DONE. I trussed the loin and smeared the mixture of oil, garlic and thyme on the beast and then seared each side of the loin until achieving that pretty brown quality you want to see. To borrow a word from my dad, the “grumph” will fall off the meat. (If you haven’t gleaned from the context… grumph refers to the non essential though tasty bits of garlic and thyme that you lose to the pan).

I chose not to clean the pan before I sautéed the pears and shallots in it. After transferring those elements to the platter (which I served “as is” to accompany the pork) you’re left with a wonderful assortment of juices and flavors swimming around in the pan. I added a few cups of pear nectar and a bit of chicken stock for saltiness. I sprinkled in some flour to get a more dense consistency, oh and a (rather large) slab of butter.

As for the remarkable savory bread pudding, you can find it on epicurious.com or, if you’re really committed (and you should be!) to trying out Keller’s recipes… go ahead and purchase Ad Hoc at Home.

With that, I leave you with the idea of roasted fennel bulbs (halved) which we brushed with oil and dashed with salt as the final touch on a meal that turned out to be deceptively easy to pull together!

Behold the bulbs:

Discredit- Radio Silence

After a few weeks of utter silence on the world wide web, it’s time to kick it back into gear.

This is my announcement of posts to come:

1. My thoughts on my wonderful experience at Goosefoot

2. The first steps on my plans and feasibility to develop a destination restaurant/small scale inn to bring a touch of crazy to a midwestern farming community. (They’ll thank me in the end) I’ll start by announcing my bid to volunteer my services on any working farm to learn the ropes.

3. Coverage of my cooking escapades in Laguna Beach with my California family.

Let the writing begin! More soon.