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MARCH 17

March for me has meant many things. The hope of spring starting early, beginning to decide on what to plant in our garden, unwrapping the patio furniture and of course, St. Patrick’s Day. As a youth, the celebration in Cleveland, meant taking off of work to attend one of the largest parades in the Midwest. The city would put on its green and begin serving corned beef, cabbage, potatoes and Irish beer at daybreak. Although a real holiday with its roots tied the Roman Catholic Church, as a teen it just seemed to be about food and drink, the unfortunate demise of many a holiday. Today as a chef, I not only respect its origins but work to create dishes that truly reflect its humble beginnings. The use of corned beef dates back to Ireland as a diet staple and Irish Americans used it as a breakfast meat to replace Irish bacon as a much cheaper form of protein, still resembling their native product. My research revealed that corned beef was introduced by their Jewish neighbors on the lower east side of New York. Today along with cabbage and potatoes it makes for a hearty meal any time. So what makes good corned beef? First is the salt. The term “corned” refers to the “corna” or grains of coarse salt. Kosher salt is the primary ingredient in my brine, along with garlic, mustard and brown sugar. The secret to an authentic product is the slow brining process followed by curing time; brining being a wet saline preparation and curing being a dry rub without water. Getting right into it my recipe follows:

Corned Beef Brisket from Scratch
Brine:
1 gallon water
8 ounce sea salt
4 ouncelight brown sugar
1 ounce pickling spice
6 pounds brisket

Cure Dry Rub:
3 each bay leaves
1 ½ ounce garlic, minced
1 ounce mustard seeds, crushed
2 ounce black pepper, cracked
2 ounce red pepper flakes
1/4 ounce coriander seeds, crushed

Combine the brine ingredients into stainless steel pot and bring to a boil, dissolve completely; cook for an additional 5 minutes; remove and cool completely; place the beef in the mixture and cover, ensuring meat is submerged; refrigerate, keeping the meat in the brine for 7-14 days. Turn the beef everyday to ensure even brining; ensure the meat is submerged each time; remove from wet brine and drain.

Combine dry ingredients and rub into all areas of the beef; place beef in sealed bag with air removed for 5 days in refrigerator. Remove beef from dry rub bag; place into a large pot; cover the meat with fresh cold water. Bring to simmer and cook for 2 1/2 – 4 hours until tender to the fork.
Slice and serve.

As the recipe states, this is a long and dedicated process with a minimum commitment of 12 days. The original beef was only dry cured with large grains of salt to preserve the meat since refrigeration had not yet been introduced. As techniques and cold storage became available the recipe morphed to include other methods of preparation while preserving the original flavors. In supermarkets today you can find small briskets or other tough cuts of beef sealed in a bag with pickling spices and other aromatics. The manufacturer has taken most of the work out of it since the meat has been curing for some time before the package was shipped. The downside to this is that you have no control over flavor since the meat has taken on the characteristics of the ingredients it has been sitting in. Whether it is mine or the manufacturer’s recipe being used, keep in mind that we are dealing with a tough cut of beef. Specifically located below the chuck and just above the shank, this muscle meat needs to be tenderized before consuming. Salt not only preserves the meat but aides in breaking down the fibrous muscle. Salt water slowly opens the cell walls of the muscle allowing for the tenderizing to begin and while this process takes place, flavors slowly take hold. The process finalizes in cooking. A slow covered bath finishes the breakdown of muscles tissue and forces the aromatics into the meat. The resulting product is tender and juicy. Understanding the basics allows us to play with the ingredients. For instance, replacing some of the water with beer, cider or flavored stock is one option. Mixing up the traditional spices of mustard, coriander and garlic to include a curry or Middle Eastern spice or even espresso begins to create new exciting recipes. However, the basics are just that. Keeping it simple keeps it true to form and allows the sides to do their job. Most agree that cabbage and potatoes are a must. A simple head of cabbage and baby redishes or fingerling potatoes work well. As the brisket is finishing its last hour in the liquid, add your potatoes and cabbage cook for 30-40 minutes.  Both vegetables will take on the characteristics of the meal while preserving their individuality. My Jewish traditions kick in at this point with a splattering of fresh horseradish overall. If that is not your thing than a good coarse mustard will suffice. For the finish I have to fast forward to a recipe we discovered this past year that is not authentically Irish but good nonetheless. A Guinness Float! In a tall glass put 3 scoops of your favorite vanilla ice cream and slowly add a bottle of Guinness. You can also make this into a milkshake or as I like it with the addition of a shot of espresso. So whatever your reason for celebrating March 17, remember to include good friends, good music and your own freshly made labor of love corned beef!


Mardi Gras in Cannon Beach?

My wife and I have a bucket list. All the things we want to do yet! And this time of year we think about our fantasy of being in New Orleans in the middle of the celebrations. Of course we want to enjoy the parades, the jazz and seemingly free flow of festivities. But as foodies, we really want to taste the foods of New Orleans first hand—Creole, Cajun, and Acadian. Then it occurred to me that I could increase my knowledge and experience with this cuisine right here in Cannon Beach. I just had to pick up the phone and call chef John Sowa.

Locals may already know that besides his current success as owner/chef of Café Sweet Basils here in Cannon Beach, John previously opened and managed Lil’ Bayou in Seaside for seven years before settling into Cannon Beach. I spoke to John to find out how he became connected to the cuisine of the bayou and he had a lot to tell me.

John’s first exposure to New Orleans was during his stint in the army. In the late 60’s he was stationed in Georgia. On leave one of his platoon members invited a group of his buddies to Louisiana. As John puts it, “I fell in love with the cuisine immediately.” He was there when the king of Cajun, Paul Prudhomme, was at the helm. Not to pan TV’s Emeril Lagasse, John says, because Emeril was one of the youngest chefs to take over for Paul Prudhomme at Commander’s Palace.

But being a native New Yorker Sowa ended up back home after the army and settled in Long Island. It was there while working during the day in sales and marketing that he took evening and weekend opportunities to learn the ways of the kitchen. Tony’s Crab House, Busters (in Manhattan), and Main Street (in Long Island) were a few of the restaurants that fueled his passion and gave him the experience to open his first restaurant in 1992. At first he was going to open with a southwestern theme until he hooked up with an old friend, Pete Lutzen, who had worked under Paul Prudhomme and even married into the family, marrying Paul’s niece. It was at Pete’s urging that The Pepper’d Owl was created as a Cajun/Creole dinner house with live Blues, Jazz and Zydeco (a Cajun style with a zippy washboard sound). A good call as the restaurant secured four stars from the New York Times and News Day.

With this success in his pocket, Sowa moved on to one more venture before heading west or rather northwest to Seaside with his wife Deborah, a native of the community. Lil’ Bayou’s tenure is pretty well known to this area and to anyone who has had the pleasure of dining on John’s food.

So what makes good Cajun food? Well to start I had to learn a little about its roots. It begin in Nova Scotia with the French Acadians, who to escape religious persecution from their new landowners, the British, moved to Louisiana. They populated the bayous, marshes and prairies. The food of the area became known as Cajun, which as it turns out is a somewhat bastardized word for the French word, Acadian. Creole cuisine was thought to be the city version of Cajun, derived from the aristocracy of the main cities of the day.

Today however most agree that Cajun and Creole are intertwined. And that the migration of other European cultures to the area brought significant influences. For example the French dish, Bouillabaisse, is said to be the forerunner of Gumbo, the Spanish dish Paella, the predecessor of Jambalaya, and the use of charcuterie and sausages is attributed to the Germans. From my research and speaking with Sowa, one thing that is clear and consistent is the use of butter and pork products. Of course these are two of my favorite flavors, and are perhaps the reason John’s latest venture (Café Sweet Basil) is more mindful of the balanced use of such ingredients. But for the occasion of Mardi gras, let’s bring it on with the real thing.

Here are two of Chef John Sowa’s favorite recipes to make and enjoy with friends. You can watch for these on my family meals coming again this June. Thanks, John, for sharing this romantic and interesting side of your life.

CHICKEN AND SAUSAGE JAMBALAYA The word Jambalaya comes from the African word “Jamba” which means Ham and the “Ya” is Rice. The French Cajuns somehow put the “la” in there for luck? This serves about 4 main meal portions or eight appetizers.
1 pound of boneless chicken cut into bite size pieces
½ pound chopped Tasso Ham or other smoked Ham. (Tasso is a highly seasoned Cajun product.)
1-Pound Andouille Sausage (In a pinch Kielbasa could be used but is not recommended)
3 TBS Butter
1 Cup Chopped Yellow Onions
1 Cup chopped Green Bell Pepper 1 Cup chopped Celery
(These 3 ingredients are the Trinity of Cajun Cooking add add garlic and you have the Holy Ghost!)
3 TBS minced Garlic
¾ Cup Tomato Sauce
1 Cup chopped tomato
2 ½ cups Chicken Stock
1 ½ Cups Uncooked Rice (converted)

Jambalaya Seasoning
2 Bay Leaves
1 tsp Salt
1 tsp White Pepper
1 tsp Dry Mustard
1 tsp Cayenne Pepper
½ tsp Cumin
1 tsp Paprika
½ tsp Black Pepper
½ tsp Dried Thyme Leaves
Combine all spices well and set aside

Melt butter in a cast iron pot or heavy aluminum one over high heat. Add chicken and Tasso Ham Stir frequently and scrape bottom of pot. When chicken is almost cooked lower heat to medium heat, add Andouille sausage and garlic. Cook 2 minutes while continuing to scrap bottom of pot. Add ½ the seasoning mixture, ½ cup each of onion, pepper and celery, and cook till vegetables are tender.
Add tomato sauce cook scraping bottom of pot for 2-3 minutes. Add remaining seasoning, remaining vegetables, and chicken stock, stirring well. Bring this mixture to a boil; add the rice and stir together. Reduce heat to med and cover. Cook about 30 minutes or till rice is tender. Remove cover and continue cooking till liquid is just about gone.
CRAWFISH ETOUFFEE This is one of my favorite Cajun dishes and the fresh crawdads become available just around festival time. The word “Etouffee” translates to smother and the it’s the tail meat that is smothered in this wonderful sauce. This recipe makes about 6 servings.
½ Cup chopped yellow onions
½ Cup chopped celery
½ Cup Chopped Green Bell Peppers
1 TBS Minced Garlic
3/4 Cups vegetable Oil
¾ -1 Cups all-purpose flour
3 cups of basic seafood stock (Chicken Stock can substitute in a pinch)
½ pound unsalted butter (2 Sticks)
2 pounds cooked crawfish tail meat (no substitute!)
1 cup finely chopped green onion
4 cups of hot cooked rice

Etouffee Seasoning
1 ½ tsp salt
2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp white pepper
1 tsp black pepper
2 tsp dried sweet basil leaves
½ tsp dried thyme
1 tsp paprika
Combine the seasoning mixture

In a large heavy skillet, cast iron if possible, heat the vegetable oil on high heat until smoking, with a whisk gradually add the flour and stir till smooth. Continue stirring until roux is a dark red brown. Care should be taken with this part, as the roux is extremely hot! Remove from the heat and add all the vegetables and garlic (be careful as this may splatter) and ½ the seasoning mixture. Stir until cooked for a few minutes. Return to low heat; slowly add 2 cups of stock whisking till smooth.

In a 4-quart pot melt 1 stick of butter over medium heat, add the crawfish tail meat and chopped green onions cook for 1-2 minutes. Gradually add the roux and vegetable mix and whisk until well combined and smooth. Add the remaining seasoning and remaining stock till you a have smooth silken sauce consistency. Cut remaining sick of butter in to 1 inch pieces, individually melt into the mixture stirring constantly. Serve immediately, with a mound a ½ cup of rice on each plate surrounded by Etouffee.