The New Convivialist

Month: August, 2013

Vacations, Feasts and the Restaurant Industry

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I have always thought the restaurants of Italy in France did it right. A couple weeks of closed doors in August comes at a time when precisely no one wants to be inside behind a hot oven. Allowing the full staff, from dishwasher to owner, to retreat from the stress and hustle of the restaurant industry for an entire two weeks seems not only generous, but … humane. In the US, people pride themselves for working hard, for only taking two weeks of vacation per year. In particularly in the food industry, which just never stops (or cannot stop, for purely economic reasons), vacation of more than two days is a rare luxury.

But this is not an advocacy post for more vacation in the United States (maybe later). It is rather to tell you about the dining possibilities that can ensue when restaurants DO decide to just go ahead and hang that ‘gone swimming’ sign for a couple weeks.

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a casual Italian feast in the countryside about an hour outside of Berlin, at Wehrmühle Biesenthal, a renovated landmark property dating back more than 750 years, which in recent times has been home of ART Biesenthal, a privately organized exhibition for contemporary art. Friends Federico, Wibke and Francesco of restaurant Da Baffi organized the dinner for a group of about 40 in collaboration with musicians The Group. Da Baffi is a cozy restaurant in Berlin Wedding and one of my favorites in the city, specializing in traditional and seasonal dishes from Emilia Romagna. The sourcing of their ingredients is an example of perfection-bordering-on-obsession, so I was anxiously starving myself all day in anticipation of what the trio would prepare in an outdoor environment. One far away from the safety of their own kitchen.

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When our five-person posse from Berlin arrived, hair still wet from a quick stop at a nearby lake (and run-in with a rain shower), we walked into the half-renovated barn to find the band and a makeshift bar, hip-looking people lounging about on sofas with Aperol spritz in hand, the brook of the mill babbling out the windows. Paul commented that this is the kind of thing you usually only read about in the New York Times Style section. I had to agree: the laid-back air, melodic music and smell of the grill just beginning to be fired up, all in superb countryside surroundings renovated with an urban taste for minimalist architecture.

After a short walk around the property, we headed over to the buffet and grill area, where Federico and Francesco (“Cisco”), along with a couple of assistants, were busy with last minute preparations. Superb cold dishes included a salad of buckwheat groats and oven vegetables, light dorade-stuffed bell peppers, panzanella salad from self-baked bread, and the restaurant’s signature, ultra-rich burrata over rucola. Cisco was manning a teepee-shaped barbecue, whose grill swung gently over top of the coals. He said he hadn’t used such a barbecue before, but the improvisation proved successful when we tasted the second course of grilled crayfish. I passed on the mango sauce, opting instead for a bit of olive oil and black sea salt as seasoning. At that point in the dinner I was already more than satiated, but I had spied a few steaks, as well as a large stash of octopus marinating beside the grill. Thus, I set off for another walk through the landscape to digest, the weather having cleared enough to see an oil-painted sunset in the distance.

The kilo-sized octopuses greeted me back at the grill with a smell that was at once repulsive and enticing. It half reminded me of a city sewer, and having smelled such a thing in an urban environment, I would have run the other way. But knowing the origins were emanating from fresh sea creatures, fire-grilling, I swallowed the slight gag reflex and stuck around for a first taste. Really my only experience with octopus prior to this one had been in salads at restaurants, or ‘pulpo’ dishes in Spain, and always with that distinct gummy-worm texture. Grilled octopus was somewhat of a revelation since, if prepared well as it was here by Da Baffi, it has a soft, gentle texture, crisping at the ends of the tentacles where the grilling does its real magic. The flavor was definitely of the sea, but mild and more tenderly meaty and substantial in texture. Similar to, dare I say, chicken?

I won’t even attempt to give you an expert recipe here, since I need to first experiment myself with grilling octopus. But there are a few tricks to the preparation that seem to be universal. The octopus is made up mostly of water, so the key to tenderness is to drive as much water out of the creature as possible before placing it on the grill. In Greece, this consists of the fisherman actually beating the freshly-caught beast against a rock, as many as 100 times. If you buy one from a fishmonger or grocery store, you can defrost it in the refrigerator for about a day, then braise it in some vegetable broth (you probably won’t need much broth as the octopus’s own liquid will be released in the process) and a wine cork. Many chefs say that the enzymes present in the cork aid in the release of water from the octopus. You will need to simmer it for about 45 minutes to 1.5 hours, depending on its size (check for done-ness with the tip of a sharp knife). Once this is finished, you can pull them out of the water and leave in the fridge overnight either alone or in a marinade of wine and some spices (recipes vary). Then, when you are ready to grill, just pull them out and set them over the flame until seared on both sides, the ends of the tentacles brown and crispy. Remove the head and cut the pieces of meat roughly, serving with a drizzle of olive oil and salt.

As far as I know, grilled octopus never appeared on the daily menu at Da Baffi. Though they weekly feature new dishes, there is a certain degree of experimentation and fun with cooking that can only happen outside the confines of the daily restaurant grind. Had they not opted for a few weeks’ summer closure, Federico, Wibke and Cisco most likely wouldn’t have endeavored to host such a decadent meal for their friends and fans. The constraints of time and schedule could not have allowed for the days of preparation that such a meal involves. The three owners of Da Baffi are among the best examples of good restaurant owners because they are truly generous, holding the pleasure of their customers –many of whom also happen to be their friends– in the highest regard. But there is one other essential ingredient that enables this generosity: the satisfaction of the cook as a creative individual, with the ability to function as an artist outside of the confines of the day-to-day. The occupation of the restaurateur and chef can be a thankless and grueling one, but giving it a little air and time can allow the big goblet of creativity to be re-filled.

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Cold Noodles Against High Heat

convivialist food blog recipe

Even in the depths of summer, it is unusual for the temperature in Berlin to reach the 30s, never mind reach the 30s for two weeks straight. Not accustomed to the heat and even less to air-conditioning, here we deal the old fashioned way: hand-held paper fans, en-masse exodus to the lakes, and specially-designed-to-cool foods. Like ice cream, loads of it. But eating ice cream multiple times per day (believe it or not) becomes tiresome and you eventually begin to crave something more satisfying and substantial to eat… then what?

Though she comes from Seoul, which surely has its share of hot and steamy, my friend and colleague Hae lan is unable to deal with the heat. When it’s too hot, she gets a sort of dreamy look in her eyes and then, slowly, begins to melt, sliding down her chair in a way that can only be reversed by the thought of something revivifying like…. cold noodles, anyone?

Hae lan and her friends from Maturlich served as guest chefs at our Dritte Mitte aperitivo last winter, but I must admit that on the evening they cooked, I was stuck behind the bar mixing drinks non-stop, and was unable to actually eat what they had prepared. So when she told me last week she would be preparing a cold noodle dish for a work event, I eagerly signed on to observe and assist, my sharpest knife in tote.

Cold noodle dishes are often served in South Korea in the summertime, as they are satisfying, but also cooling. Surprisingly cooling, actually. Despite a good dose of spicy kimchi on top, the dish was served with a hunk of ice on the side, which, although appearing strange, did wonders to help keep the noodles cold while eating. Cold noodles have another function, Hae lan explained. At the über-popular BBQ restaurants in South Korea (and abroad – Korean BBQ has certainly taken other large cities worldwide by storm) plain cold noodles are often ordered at the end of the meal, serving the purpose of soaking up any leftover sauces or bits of meat. YES.

In the case of our little meal, we made a very typical dish of Galbi, beef (or some people use pork) marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, garlic, green onion, sesame and honey. At a restaurant, you might grill this yourself at the table with your fellow diners, but we just wanted to give everyone a taste of it  (and did not have a table-top grill), so we cooked it in advance and served it as a side dish.

The basic components of the cold noodle dish we prepared are Somyun, thin wheat noodles (look a bit like angel hair pasta); kimchi mixed with Gochujang (a Korean red chili paste mix with fermented soy beans and sweetener) and honey; hard-boiled egg; thin strips of cucumber; and some seaweed crumbles. (see below for ‘shopping list’ photo cheat sheet.) Sounds simple, right? Well, it is in principle, but as I learned from Hae lan, there are lots of subtle ways that a good noodle dish can be made just a little bit better.

When any kind of external condition becomes strenuous, when we feel vulnerable, I think there is always a tendency towards what is most comforting and safe. In no small part is this also the case with extreme weather and eating habits. When the temperatures climb to 40°C, I go for the simple slices of watermelon that I grew up eating during the summer months, or the cold-brewed iced coffee that my roommate in New York would make during the doldrums of August heat. Likewise, if you’re from South Korea, you might grab a package of Somyun, some fermented cabbage and a big block of ice.

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Recipes: Korean Cold Noodles / Galbi

Ingredients:

for the noodle dish:

100 grams of Somyun, thin wheat noodles, per person

1 package of kimchi (or homemade)

3 heaping Tbsp. Gochujang, red chili paste

2 Tbsp. honey

a few sprinkles of rice vinegar

1 large cucumber, sliced into small matchsticks

eggs (1/2 per person)

1 package of small sheets of dry seaweed, crumbled

a few green onions for garnish, thinly sliced

for the Galbi:

filet of beef (or short ribs if you can find) thinly sliced, about 1 kilo, or a bit more depending on how many people you are

1 cup soy sauce

a few dashes of sesame oil

small onion, diced

green onions

garlic, mashed

chili powder

sesame seeds

3 tsp. honey

1. Make marinade for the Galbi. In a Tupperware container large enough to fit all the meat that you want to cook, mix together soy sauce, sesame oil, diced onion, finely sliced green onions, a couple of cloves of mashed garlic, a few sprinkles of chili powder, sesame seeds and honey.

2. Slice the meat into approx. 1 cm thick pieces and place inside the container with the marinade. Cover container and refrigerate for at least ½ hour, or as long as overnight.

3. Prepare kimchi mixture. Remove contents from one large package of kimchi (see photo) and cut the cabbage into smaller pieces. Place in a large bowl and add the red chili paste, honey and a few sprinkles of rice vinegar. Here, Hae lan recommended tasting the kimchi right out of the package, before mixing in the other ingredients, and then again afterwards, to get a taste for the difference. You really want to strike a harmonious balance between sour, sweet and spicy. Mix well and refrigerate for about a half hour.

4. Hard boil enough eggs so that each person will get a half. I suggest making one or two extra in case the shells do not come off so beautifully, as was the case with ours! Hae lan told me that the egg is often the first thing to be eaten in a Korean meal, because it is thought to ‘cover the stomach with protein’. When cooled, remove shells and cut eggs in half lengthwise. Set aside.

5. Wash and cut one large cucumber into thin matchsticks. Slice green onions for garnish and set aside. Take one package of the dried seaweed sheets (see photo) and crumble with your fingers into a small bowl. All of these will be used later on.

6. Meanwhile, your meat should be finished marinating. Ideally, this can be cooked on a grill, but frying in a pan coated with a little bit of vegetable oil also works fine. Cook for about 8 minutes or until cooked through but still tender. Remove meat from pan along with its juices onto a plate. Garnish with sliced green onion and set aside.

7. Boil water (can also start this while you are preparing the meat) in a large pot and drop in 100 grams of noodles for each person, being careful not to crowd the pot with too many. The trick to cooking the noodles in the best way, so that they remain tender and not mushy, is to watch the boiling water closely. Have a glass of cold water ready. After a minute or two of cooking, the water will start to boil over. At this point, add the cold water and stir. Repeat two more times when the water boils over, cooking the noodles a total of only about five minutes. Pour out the noodles over a strainer and rinse under cold water tap, massaging the noodles/pulling them apart with your hands.

8. Once the noodles are cooled by the running water and drained completely, take a one-portion-sized amount in your hand and wrap slightly around your fingers to create a kind of ball of noodles (Hae lan did this very elegantly, but I suspect it takes some practice.) Put onto a plate and top with two scoops of the kimchi mixture, making sure to get some of the spicy juice as well, some cucumber matchsticks, crumbled seaweed, one half of a hard-boiled egg and some garnish of green onion.

9. Take one ice cube (straight from the freezer) and place it just beside the noodles on the plate, to keep the whole dish as cold as possible.

10. Serve a portion to each of your friends and the Galbi in the center of the table to share.

I found it deliciously spicy, but nevertheless cooling on a hot night.

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convivialist food blog berlin

Shopping list cheat sheet (sesame oil, gochujang, somyun, kimchi, seaweed sheets)

korean food recipe

Somyun recipe korean food

convivialist food blog korean food recipe

korean food recipe