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The proverb goes: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. However, I wasn’t given the option. God knew I’m a rebel and I refuse to follow the masses. God respected it, and so instead of the above mentioned yellow, über tart fruits, he/she handed me… onions.
VERY FUNNY, GOD! I HOPE YOU’RE SHAKING UP LAUGHING ON YOUR FLUFFY, LAMB-SHAPED CLOUD UP THERE.
On my very first day at ANIMAL I was given a task of chopping onions. Thirty (30) of them. Each one to be peeled and diced into 1/4″ cubes. Roughly, because who’s measuring, right? Next, I was to caramelize the bunch, cool it, and store it away for the dinner service later that night. Shallots followed, twenty of those, with a tiny cut adjustment called brunoise. It’s a fancy French word for a VERY SMALL FOOKING DICE. (1/8″ cube to be exact, but again, who’s running around with a ruler!) Have you ever tried that? No, the French did not mean you MINCE the bulb, because that would be too easy, and sloppy, but precisely BRUNOISE them. End of story.
Three weeks later I still begin every morning at the kitchen with at least twenty onions on my chopping board turning them into a bowl of tearsome dice one head at a time. I got really good at that, thought I did not expect working at the restaurant to be that emotional. Sniff-sniff.
Luckily, during my time with the restaurant’s crew I did more than just improve my knifing skills. In a true ANIMAL spirit, I’ve seen a ZOO pass through their kitchen. Let’s pause for a moment and take a look at the menu before I move forward.
Once seated at the table, one can start with a CHICKEN LIVER TOAST, and then push it with CHICKEN HEARTS WITH LIMA BEANS, BABA GHANOUSH & YOGURT. If that doesn’t bring your testosterone levels up, there’s MARROW BONE WITH CHIMICHURRI & (my!) CARAMELIZED ONIONS available at your request.
All that is just a happy meal for your toddler when you juxtapose the starters against other treats on the menu. How about some PIG TAILS “BUFFALO STYLE” or PIG EAR WITH CHILI, LIME & FRIED EGG? RABBIT LOIN WITH COUNTRY HAM & SUCCOTASH introduces you to game I myself am a big fan of. Like the CRISPY RABBIT LEGS WITH MEYER LEMON AIOLI where the meat is so tender it melts in your mouth as fast as that cliché comes to mind.
There’s more, but you get an idea where ANIMAL comes from, and where it goes for that matter. In the morning hours of prep, I witnessed beheading of an octopus; I assisted at an autopsy of hamachi fish; I deboned smoked trout, and cooked and cleaned sweetbreads (calf’s gullet that is, and not a bread of any kind). Oh, yes, I butchered a bunny as well.
As macabre as it sounds, it’s just nature that feeds us. When plated at last, all the meats are simply fabulous. The food is the reason I chop those onions endlessly without as much as a bleep, so I can get up close and personal with the process and techniques. The kitchen is organized impeccably. Operations run smoothly like in a well oiled apparatus. The crew is friendly, professional, and welcoming–from day 2 I felt a sense of camaraderie. I haven’t met everybody yet, since I’ve been working the morning shift thus far, but beside the bosses, the TWO DUDES, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, there’s Frank and Rebecca, there’s Carlos and Dan, there’s Jose and Gaby, and there’s Raymundo.
The local legend says Raymundo was a surgeon in his native Mexico, and one day was summoned to operate on a drug lord. He butchered the surgery deliberately thus eliminating one of the top mobsters from his home turf. Consequently, he was forced to flee his country, and that’s how he got to the U.S., and became a cook.*
At least that’s what the legend claims, and you know what they say about legends, especially those very local ones…**
Raymundo has since worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, like Mario Batali to name one, before he laid out his knives in ANIMAL’s kitchen. I told you his story for I am about to share with you one of his recipes, and I want you to be able to fully recognize its value. Also, this is to show that ANIMAL is more than just the flesh and bones. Those bi-weekly trips to farmers’ markets happen for a reason. It may come as a shock but there are a few vegetarian options on the menu as well. Raymundo’s recipe would be one of those:
RAYMUNDO’S TOMATILLO SALSA (proportions adjusted):
– 5-6 tomatillos, husk off, washed and quartered
– 1-2 jalapenos, keep seeds of one for heat
– 1/2 tsp cumin
– 1 tsp red wine vinegar
– juice of one lemon
– pinch of salt
– handful of cilantro
– 1-2 garlic cloves, smashed
Place all ingredients in a food processor, or blender, and give it a solid whiz. When liquified, cut small pieces of a ripe avocado and sink them in the salsa. Drizzle a spoonful of the goods all over fresh burrata. Finish with a few sprinkles of sea salt (muy importante).
That’s how it’s served at the restaurant. However, at home, I loaded my plate with butter lettuce first, thus making a bedding for my burrata and salsa, and added a few ribbons of red onion for color and whole cilantro leaves for fun. A drizzle of good quality olive oil is an option that will bring everybody together, just like the Olympic games do.
You think that’s not enough for a dinner? Think again. Neither Jason nor myself had any room left even for a single chocolate chip cookie afterwards. You MUST try RAYMUNDO’S TOMATILLO SALSA. It’s to die for. (No pun intended.)
* + ** All names, dates and places have been altered in order to protect the lives and privacy of the people involved in the story. All characters mentioned and the story itself may or may not be fictional and have plenty or nothing to do with reality.
I know it’s not much, and certainly not a recipe for anything, but here I come with the fruit of a collaborative labor between my dear friend Jason Gurvitz, a talented photographer (among his other talents), and my humble self.
As I’ve been building a website for my personal cheffffing, one day I realized I was short on professional photos of self. Jason G. was so kind to offer his help, and so with no further ado, nor much constructive thinking, yesterday, on my day off from Animal, I stood as I were in front of his lens… *
So… what do you think? Do you foresee my success in the near future? I mean, how could I not hit it BIG with these!
* I apologize in advance for the nightmares I may have caused you by sharing those semi-sweet cherries of fruits of my photo shoot. Sorry I am, but don’t even think of sending me the bill from your therapist. I’m not that sorry.
Even when it seems that nobody’s home and things get eerily quiet around here, like minutes before sunrise, don’t think for one second that I lounge with my bum buried deep between soft cushions of a couch and scratch me some balls. On the contrary, I’ve been out and about cruisin’ and schmoozin’. As a result, just the other day, I met Susan Feniger of STREET, and then Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of ANIMAL, another wildly popular restaurant and one of LA foodies’ favorite.
A close friend’s birthday celebration brought me to a dinner table at STREET, where Susan poked her head in between us to say hi and offered her menu suggestions. I couldn’t help myself and launched across the table over a timidly flickering candle, barely missing my friend’s wine glass, in order to shake Susan’s hand. My impetuous plunge landed me right in front of our chef and I came just shy of kissing the woman. I looked up in terror, prepared to be escorted out of the venue at once. To my astonishment, after my less than graceful entrance, chef Feniger was simply delightful, all smiles, and generously opened her door to me whenever I am ready to commit some time in her kitchen. Woot-woot!
ANIMAL is a whole different animal. If you’ve been hanging around here for a while, you may remember me mentioning PIGGING OUT at the place just a few short months ago. To this day I have vivid memories of their BACON CHOCOLATE BAR (go ahead and click the link to see the chefs in action) that haunt me whenever I’m craving a dessert. I was so impressed, in fact, with the food and the entire concept behind their restaurant that I finally got my act together and approached chefs Jon and Vinny directly. I prepared a speech, and drove down Fairfax with candy up in my sleeve ready to bribe. I asked for a job, the non-paid kind, an apprenticeship.
My wish was granted even before I finished telling my long and windy story with a trembling voice and sweaty hands. I couldn’t believe how easy that was. And just like that, at 8 o’clock the following morning I was tucked in a truck along with Jon Shook and his right hand Frank heading down to Santa Monica Farmers Market in order to get fresh produce for the restaurant.
Farmers are the only providers of produce and meat for ANIMAL’s kitchen. “It’s all about the love” I was told. How classy? How elegant? And how honest an approach to making food and conducting business in general that is? Think about it. As a customer at a fine dining place you don’t want to be served some cheap rubbish full of chemicals and genetically altered by mad and corrupted scientists. As a restauranteur, you don’t want to cheapen your final product by using crappy produce of vague origin. Also, by shopping local not only do they support their farmers, but also minimize their carbon footprint! And yes, they recycle at the restaurant as well. I was shown separate containers for food waste, trash, and then paper and metal. One of the staff members takes away all the plastic bottles they collect in a month and takes it to a recycle center.
Need I say more? I’m in love. I can’t wait to join the 2 Dudes, as they used to call themselves, and their team, and see my inner dude come out and play. Did you take a look at that video I told you to click the link to? The Bacon Chocolate one? Go ahead and do it again, this time paying close attention to the chefs’ surroundings. You see that kitchen they’re making the bacon candy bar in? From now on, a few times a week, this will be my office, my lab, my classroom, and my playground. It is going to be a fun and rewarding ride, and you bet I will be writing about it. Looks like we got a green light for Season 2 of my Restaurant Diaries. Woot-woot indeed!
I looked through my recent posts and realized there’s not much recipe sharing happening around here these days. Time to fix it… Where’s my utility belt?
Unless you live in the Smurf Village, you must be aware of the food revolution going on in America these days. It hasn’t started with Jamie Oliver’s hit TV show under the same name. The documentary “Food, Inc.” came first (among others). Its very own, and my personal guru, Michael Pollan has been talking about the REAL FOOD versus FOOD LIKE PRODUCTS for years now.
I’ve been observing the growing trend of eating fresh among my own friends and my American family. (In Poland it’s still so much easier to eat real food despite heavy influences of the Western World, hence I’ll focus on my life in the US for the purpose of this rant.) Shopping at Farmers Markets is fun. Sprouting one’s own herbs in a recycled can on the window seal, turned out, has nothing to do with magic. Stirring away creamy Risotto at home no longer intimidates. To top it all, gastro pubs pop up all over the cities like mushrooms after it rained. Those are the yummy eateries where everyone gets a chance to taste what fine dining is about for a fraction of what it would cost them in a high-end restaurant. Places like “Animal” on Fairfax or “Lazy Ox” Downtown (both in Los Angeles) are getting the buzz for a reason.
It’s undeniable, the way the Americans think about food today is shifting. And it’s so exciting to watch. I realize the change cannot be completed over night, but the steps we’ve been taking are very promising. Many of us, however, still hesitate to take the leap onto the brighter side of life for the organic food is priced at a higher mark. Moreover, people got used to cheap food in this country over the last several decades. The truth is, the prices are low because of the industrialization of the food market. The quality of the food in America is so low for the same exact reason. The cost of health care is also directly related. You do the math.
While I personally believe that we should pay for quality (You get what you pay for!), today I want to show you how we can all eat more organic foods without breaking the bank. Let’s use the product that an average American consumes over 60 pounds of each year–CHICKEN.
The regular chicken, not an organic one, raised most likely in some horrendous conditions, lingering knee-deep in its own feces, with legs breaking under its own unnatural weight (due to added growth hormones and overfeeding with genetically altered corn), that whole chicken costs about $6 at our grocery store. When you look over to the right, where the Organic, Free Range Chicken rests right next to the sad guy, with its price tag of $12, that may be shocking. I get that. Now, think about where your food comes from first. I don’t think it’ll take you long to lean toward the organic, happy bird. Your challenge is to use up that $12 to the last penny. I’ll show you how I do it.
First and foremost, I save a bucket of money by purchasing an entire bird versus only breasts, or legs. Then I cut it to pieces myself at home. Next, I place the chicken thighs and drums along with the boobies in a glass bowl and rub them with a combination of herbs and spices. I cover the bowl with a plastic wrap and let the meat marinate for a day or two in the refrigerator.
The carcass, the neck and the wings go into a large pot along with a whole bunch of vegetables (cleaned, peeled if needed, and roughly chopped): 4-5 carrots, 2 parsnips, 1 large leek, 1 onion, 4-5 celery stalks (or 1 celery root, peeled and quartered). Next, I add a handful of whole peppercorns, no more than 1 tbsp of salt, 5-6 bay leaves and a bunch of fresh thyme springs plus a small spring of rosemary. (Dry will do, too, if you don’t have any fresh herbs handy.) Such arranged, I cover the content of the pot with water, as much as I can fit into my 6 quart dutch oven, and turn the heat on. You want to bring it to a simmer, and never let it boil. Leave the pot on the stove, with a lid on but not covering it completely, for about 2-2.5 hours.
When my chicken stock is concocting itself, I toss the giblets left from the bird (all the inner organs usually packaged along with the whole thing) in some flour and toss them onto a pan with hot oil. When those are cooked through, Cosmo has a ball. Frankly, I love chicken livers. I grew up eating them. Jason, on the other hand, is repulsed by the idea. Since one chicken liver won’t make a meal for me, I simply give it to Cosmo. You, however, can entertain the thought of using the innards for a cheap meal, if your feelings towards the meat are similar to mine.
Two hours later, I strain the stock and, once cooled, store it in an air-tight container. You can freeze it for up to 6 months! In my next installment, I’ll show you how you can turn that complex and aromatic stock into a pot of soulful soup with an addition of only a few bucks to your healthy food budget.
From the strainer I pull out all the chicken parts, and you won’t believe it until you do it yourself how much meat there’s still on that carcass, the wings, the neck. I gently pull it all away from the bones using two forks, as the meat simply falls off those bones.
Let’s add it all up. We spent $12 on the organic chicken plus another $5 – $6 on all the veg for the stock. We ended up with:
1) about 8-10 cups (based on my pot) of homemade, flavorful, organic chicken stock to be turned into a big pot of HEARTY AND FILLING SOUP in a few days;
2) 2 full legs (or 2 thighs and 2 drums, if you separate them) and 2 full breasts that are marinating in the ice-box that will turn into 2-3 full meals for two, with an addition of some starch and/or salad;
3) chicken scraps that can be sauteed for added flavor, mixed with a variety of sauces and served over brown rice or whole-wheat pasta (See how I’m planting those healthy choices in your head? INCEPTION…), or used as a filling in dumplings or croquettes, that will again easily feed 4 – 6 people.
I will get back to the SOUP and my CROQUETTES in the next few days. Today, let me share my simple tricks for baking that bird in such a way that the meat is perfectly cooked and yet still moist at each bite.
I roast my marinated chicken in a roasting pan for about 35 minutes in a 375° oven (with an addition of a ladleful of my stock and some water or white wine, 1-2 bay leaves, fresh rosemary and thyme), then take it out and let it rest covered with foil for another 10 minutes. I serve with in a variety of ways; sometimes it’s over a medley of brown rice (as seen above) for the enjoyment of our clients who love ONE MORE BITE’s Lunches. The sauce that surrounds the meat in the pan is divine. Just pour it over your starch, perk up with fresh herbs (tarragon, parsley, dill, cilantro, etc.) and you have yourself a hearty and satiating dinner! A side of simple green salad with a LEMON VINAIGRETTE makes the meal complete.
This is home cooking at its best. The food is always fresh, with no processed ingredients, all made from scratch, leaving you not only satiated and content, but also the satisfaction level from the accomplishment (when you realize what you have just CREATED ALL BY YOURSELF, FROM SCRATCH, SO DELIGHTFUL AND FRESH!) will get you like a drug. You’ll want to come back for more. IF I CAN MAKE THAT, WHAT ELSE CAN I MAKE MYSELF INSTEAD OF BUYING CRAP FROM A STORE OR EATING EVEN WORSE CRAP AT CHAIN RESTAURANTS AND FAST FOOD PLACES??? Now you feel the power of creation.
The fact that it also makes sense money wise is just a cherry that flips its feet in the pool of icing on top of the cake. The cake I have just described above. You get it, don’t you.
Homemade, organic, fresh are the slogans of today. Stay healthy, America. Stay healthy, the World! And Bon Appetit along the way.
Naked patches of dirt around our house, where there used to grow juicy grass, signaled it was time to get off our meatless diet. Last Sunday marked the monthniversary of our eating only combinations of a veg with another veg over a bowl of grain of some kind.
To celebrate, we invited a few friends over, all foodies, for a potluck dinner. Everybody brought a dish of their own making. Our dining table, barely standing straight under the weight of all the goods, bravely held on its head a giant casserole of Risotto, a glass bowl of Short Ribs with Wild Mushrooms (from Poland!), a tray of Armenian mini Pizzas and Pastry Rolls filled with Cheese. There was Shrimp Ceviche, mean Brussels Sprouts with Pine nuts, another dish of Rosemary Roasted Potatoes, Sauteed Zucchini with Mint Butter, and some Simple Green Salad for common sense. The menu was only complete with a platter the size of the Columbus Circle in New York City filled with THAI LAMB LARB of my creation. Here’s the satellite shot, for it were the only way to capture it whole:
I found the recipe for this colorful appetizer in my recently purchased book “Small Bites” by Jennifer Joyce. As the author explains, “larb” describes ground meat in Thai. She used pork for her dish, however I went with lamb. Shockingly, that’s pretty much the only change I applied to the recipe. (Yes, Mama Linda, for once I followed the instructions!)
Before I list all the ingredients, let me just say that if I were to ever make this again (as hardly ever do I repeat myself on a plate), I’d use BIBB LETTUCE instead of Romaine. The latter seems muscular enough to hold the filling, however its leaves are long and straight-ish. Bibb lettuce not only has a kick-ass name but also its leaves create small and sturdy cups that I imagine would be more practical with this dish.
Having said that, let’s rock & roll. Get yourself the following items:
– 3 stalks lemongrass
– 2 tbsp vegetable oil (I used coconut)
– 1 lb lean ground pork (lamb worked!)
– 1 tbsp soft brown sugar (raw cane variety was just as good)
– 1 sm red onion, finely diced
– 1 ripe but firm mango, diced
– 3 tbsp fresh cilantro leaves, some chopped and some picked leaves for garnish
– 20 heart of Romaine lettuce leaves, chilled to serve (mark my words. I say BIBB!)
Remove the hard parts of the lemon grass and finely chop only the white, soft insides. Toss it into a saute pan with heated oil and stir fry it till soft over medium heat. Now get the fire going and add your larb. Cook it until crispy and brown. Remove from the heat when fully cooked (5 minutes or so), and set aside.
Quickly whip out a DRESSING using the following:
– 3 tbsp palm sugar (again, raw cane rocked!)
– 1 sm red chili pepper, deseeded and finely chopped (wahs your hands THOROUGHLY afterwards and under no circumstances touch your eyes, or nuts if a boy, with those fingers. Trust me!)
– 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
– 1 tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and grated
– 1/2 cup fresh lime juice
– 2 tbsp fish sauce.
If you own a mortar and pestle, use it to crush the sugar, pepper, garlic and ginger together until they turn into a paste. Add the lime juice and fish sauce and mix together. In case you didn’t have the ancient tool, simply toss everything into a small jar, close it tight and shake like a mad person until sugar’s dissolved and all the guys inside are seriously dizzy, but happy.
Pour the dressing over the still warm meat, add your onion, mango, and cilantro, toss about and scoop some of the filling onto the prepared lettuce leaves. Done!
The dinner, just like a Thai wedding, went on for days. Or at least it felt like it, especially when we collected all the empty wine bottles in the end.
Jason’s and my celebration of meat went on into the week, and was culminated with our last night’s visit at ANIMAL. This LA restaurant has earned its reputation with the rich meat dishes it serves. It was also featured in various culinary magazines as well as the Food Network, or else known as my televised bible. Can you imagine a better place to PIG OUT? Literally.
We started with a few appetizers to share:
1. Carrot Salad with Parsnip Chips, Green Goddess Dressing and Avocado
2. Hamachi Tostada with Herbs, Fish Sauce Vinaigrette and Peanuts
3. Lamb Meatballs over Golden Rice with Green Garbanzos & Creme Fraiche.
Everything was phenomenal, but the meatballs just blew our minds. It sounds almost like an oxymoron, but those meaty balls were fluffy, almost airy, so light and delicate. Amazing!
Then the Entrees arrived. Jason ordered Catfish with Gold Rice Succotash, drizzled with Tabasco Butter and topped with King Crab. Every bite melted in his mouth. I can verify it was true, for I have sunk my fork into his plate for examination.
My main course was quite different. I asked for Crispy Rabbit Legs with Peas, Dandelion and Meyer Lemon Aioli. The meat just fell off the bone upon the slightest touch of my utensil. It was cooked to perfection and the flavors did not disappoint. HOWEVER. Yes, there is a “however”. For my liking, the meal was too heavy. There was so much sauce poured all over the meat you could hardly see the Guest of Honor peeking through it. The rabbit, that pour bastard, was DEEP FRIED, I guess the best method for that crisp texture. It’s not the kind of food I enjoy on weekdays, or even a weekend.
The feast did not end there, oh no! We had to try their famous dessert of Bacon Chocolate Crunch Bar dressed with Anglaise. While their Panna Cotta did not kick flip-flops off my feet, and one taste was enough, I could hardly stop myself from stealing the chocolaty bites finished with bacon bits from Jason’s plate. Bacon was written all over that bar, but also it was married to rich and velvety chocolate, and it was a Holy Union I tell you. Alleluia.
After sampling their food it was clear to us why the two chefs from Florida, who created the restaurant, called it ANIMAL. The food was superb, and it stood for its name, but when the dinner was over I considered another meatless month, just for a moment.
And then I found a leftover patch of grass behind our garage.