Man with the plan:
Installation begins this week. Some may think we are nearing the end of “patio season” here in Chicago, but technically patio season runs until December 1st:) Exciting things to come.
Man with the plan:
Installation begins this week. Some may think we are nearing the end of “patio season” here in Chicago, but technically patio season runs until December 1st:) Exciting things to come.
I love pork. Well the truth is I love almost every food product, but pork is indeed wonderful. It’s versatile, tastes great cured, roasted, and fried, and bacon tastes so good that I often chide my cooks that adding bacon to a new recipe is just lazy or cheating. Very few things taste bad with bacon. Actually I personally can’t think of anything that tastes bad with bacon, maybe caviar? But if I remember correctly I think the general Law of Bacon translates to:
Bacon > (meh)
(meh) + Bacon is always = or > (Good) and sometimes = Awesome therefore:
(meh) < (Anything) +(Bacon), which is either always = or > (Good) and quite possibly (Awesome)
Fortunately for me I’m not the the only one who feels this way and people as a whole have loved pork for quite sometime. The fact is that Pigs are one of the earliest domesticated animals in our history, and as with any product that is continuously bred for our tastes, the pork that we enjoy on our tables is constantly changing. A clear example of this is that the pork that we readily pick up at the supermarket today is 30% leaner than what people were able to enjoy as recently as in the 70s.
Luckily for us who fall under the banner of “a leaner pig is a less tasty pig”, there has always been a stubborn and small group of renegade farmers resistant to the call for ”[an]Other white meat”. Refusing to allow what we now consider heritage breeds to fall to the wayside, these farmers have continued to raise pigs based on flavor rather than other values, such as the ability to be quickly brought to slaughter or the procurement of a leaner meat. In the past decade or so the demand for pork with the old flavor has surged, and it’s encouraging to see a growing group of farmers dedicated to this movement, like Faith’s Farm.
One of the perks of owning a restaurant is that you get invited to some pretty amazing events. Recently the Ruxbin crew was invited to Faith’s Farm for their 3rd Annual Butcher & Booze event. The purpose of the event was to get like-minded restaurants together to share their thoughts on farm to table products and the local food movement.
A quick note on Faith’s Farm. Faith’s Farm is one of those stubborn farms that decided to raise an old-fashioned pig, and in their own words, proudly and rightfully, proclaim “All our livestock is raised the old fashion way: on free-range pasture that is not chemically treated….. They are raised with a gentle and humane hand. ” Faith’s Farm, located in Bonfield, IL is a 90 minute drive from Chicago, two hours away if you’re prone to getting lost like I am. It’s run by a woman named Kim, one of the most hospitable and strongest-willed people I’ve met. Kim turned her back to a white-collar job and willed a succesful farm into existence with basically no experience and what I presume must have been an amazing combination of grit, gumption and determination. If you’ve ever read a Michael Pollan book, imagine one of those ideal bucolic farms he profiles that are sustainable and hell-bent to be the opposite of so many of the nightmarish factory farms in our country, and that’s what Kim has been able to create with Faith’s Farm.
At the farm one of the main events was the live slaughtering and butchering of both a lamb and a hog. Watching an animal slaughtered can be a harrowing experience and there is little joy to be found in the macabre event. Even so, the organizers felt that witnessing a slaughter first- hand was important because it has the ability to bring a much greater appreciation and understanding of how food products that we’re so familiar with, under the best circumstances, reaches our table, I agree.
The hog that was chosen was a magnificent animal. A crossbred Hampshire-Berkshire hog, obviously well fed and taken care of. Taken away from his group for the first time, the hog was clearly distressed. Taking note of this, Kim ordered that the hog be quickly put down, and he was taken down swiftly with a bolt to the head.
Next we saw the pig being butchered. Under the skilled hands of Sam, the butcher, a hog that weighed nearly 300 lbs was quickly skinned and broken down into primal cuts in less than an hour. To put this in perspective, it can take me up to 20 minutes just to skin a large pork belly. The skill and craftmanship of Sam, bluntly put, was breath-taking. After the pork was broken down, we took a tour of Faith’s Farm, had a potluck dinner, enjoyed some booze, made some friends, and at the end of night we were given a very generous parting gift: whatever parts of the hog we would like.
For a restaurant Ruxbin unfortunately has very little refrigeration (no walk-in, reach-ins and lowboys only, in an apartment sized kitchen), and at the time we only had one menu item that used pork, our pork belly salad. I already had a fresh pork belly ready to cure in the fridge and wasn’t sure that if I picked up more I’d be able to sell it before it all went bad. I also knew we only had space for a couple pork-chops and a slab of pork belly. So in the end, that’s what we took.
Sun-burnt and tired from the day’s events we drove home giddy with the pork we were able to take home. The next day, with a clearer head after a good night’s sleep, I was able to take a better look at the pork belly that Kim had so generously given to us. I knew this was a good product, but under the flourescent lights of our kitchen, laying next to the pork belly that I had picked up from another purveyor, it was pretty mind-blowing to see the difference between the two. Kim’s pork belly had more layers of fat and meat. In Korea there is a prized pork belly known as “Heuk Dehji” which is loved for its five layers of meat and fat. Faith Farm’s pork belly made the prized “Heuk Dehji” seem homely, and our other pork belly emaciated.
So for the next week, unbeknownst to our customers, for the same price they were able to enjoy both a product who’s food cost would have nearly doubled what they were paying, and the finest specimen of pork belly that I or any of my cooks had ever worked with. Being able to do this as a cook brought my staff and I a lot of joy. There’s something beautiful about being able to send out a product that you know is wonderful, and allowing a guest to experience it unfettered of any grandiose background. Let the product speak for itself.
As Friday came that week, in the middle of our rush, the last portions of Faith Farm’s wonderful pork belly was coming to an end. I asked Gabe, who was working garde manger that day, how many orders we had left, and he responded “two orders, Chef”. From the corner of my eye I could see that the 2nd to last serving being plated was a generous portion of pork belly, so much so that I was about to have Gabe cut the portion down, but I stopped myself thinking that the end
to such a wonderful product should be celebratory and why not knock their socks off.
Of course that was the first Pork Belly Salad that has ever come back to our kitchen not fully devoured. I grilled the server what the problem was and she explained, with a look that could only be described as confused, that the table had said “the pork belly was too fatty and that they wanted a portion with less fat”. At this point you might expect the kitchen to be angered by such a response, but we found ourselves just laughing and incredulous. How could this be? “And no”, I said to the server “I will not send them another pork belly.” Instead I sent our expediter, Nate, to talk to the table and explain to them the origins of the pork belly we had just sent them, and to maybe clear up any misunderstanding they may have of the product. Maybe they hadn’t realized that pork belly was basically a generous portion of bacon. Minutes later, Nate came back with a grin that resembled a grimace. He informed me that the table upon his explanation responded that not only were they quite familiar with pork belly but they had much finer pork belly at many other establishments in Chicago, and that a proper pork belly should have a ratio of sixty-40, meat to fat. Gabe and I soon had a grin that resembled the one plastered on Nate’s face. This reaction was elicited by the fact that: 1. I, and any of my staff, would swear on nearly anything that you could not procure a better raw product than the one Kim had given us, and 2. neither I, nor any of my staff, had ever heard of this vaunted ratio of sixty-40.
Throughout the rest of service we joked amongst ourselves and even started using “sixty-40” as a punchline. Sometimes the only proper response to a situation is to just try to laugh it off. The truth is I wasn’t able to laugh it off, and later that night I started to wonder how the customer had come up with this ratio. Disturbed by the experience, unable to sleep, I decided to google sixty-40 and see if it had any relation to pork belly. What I found with some quick digging is that it is possible to order pork belly at a sixty-40 ratio, which made me pause and think “maybe that table was right”, but then I started to google Berkshire Hogs and here’s what I found:
A standard Berkshire hog should have 2 to 3 times the amount of intramuscular fat that a standard commodity hog would have, and in general is a much fatter pig than the ones people in the U.S. have become accustomed to.
If that’s the case, then it seems logical that a Berkshire hog’s belly would have a much higher ratio of fat to meat, much higher than the ratio of sixty-40 that our disgruntled table had expected. So what does this mean? I may be wrong, but this is what I believe: Sixty-40 is a standard that may have come about due to the leaner hog. It is not de facto, but maybe should be more correctly understood as the minimum requirement. And yes, maybe pork belly that is sixty-40 is what people have come to expect, but that doesn’t mean that such a ratio is what’s best. As a cook, as a chef, I’ve come to believe that predetermined notions and bias should often be put to the wayside, and a better question to ask when any of us have a particular dish or meal is not whether or not it meets a predetermined standard of quality, but whether or not it is satisfying. Did it make me happy, did I think it was tasty, or maybe even delicious. Food should be enjoyed on a visceral level, and not be judged like a dog show awarding points based on a “breed standard”.
I know in my heart that the pork belly we served was exceptional, that the fat on that once happy pig was cleaner and more unctuous than any other pork belly that I had ever had. And yes, the fat to meat ratio was generously beyond sixty-40, but that should be expected because anything that is exceptional will naturally break any silly standard or mold.
And so “sixty-40” has become a code word in our kitchen, it means “the minimum requirement” and in our kitchen if something is “sixty-40” that means that you better get back at it, because if you just put in the minimum requirement that means you did things half-assed, you didn’t put your heart into it, and you didn’t try your best. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned working in the restaurant industry is that there are very few things that are meaningful in the kitchen, and in life, that can be accomplished with the minimum requirement.
With the minimum requirement Kim would never have been able to create Faith’s Farm. If Kim strived only to meet the industry standard of quality, if she didn’t push to make Faith’s Farm a place whose own standards were far above the industry norm, her pork and other produce would never have become what it is today: exceptional. In that same way, I hope that everyone at Ruxbin never settles for “sixty-40”, and instead I hope we strive and continue to push ourselves to be, in our own way, exceptional.
Today, we’ve approached our first year anniversary here at Ruxbin, and it’s amazing how much has taken place in the year. There’s so much that I’m thankful for, from our reception by the public, the positive press that we’ve garnered, our continual growth and maturity as a restaurant, to the fact that in an economy that isn’t in the best of times we’re still here, and not just surviving, but in many ways thriving.
Our success has been manifold, from the staff to the decor, from blind luck to naivety, to our loyal regulars and the overall positive reaction to our food. Which brings me to the point of this post: Trout.
From the onset of Ruxbin there has been one entree that has been with us from day 1, and that has been our Pan-Seared Trout. Trout quickly became one of our signature dishes, and (in no small part through the imploring of our customers) is the only entree that has survived each menu change.
It’s a dish that I love for a number of reasons:
1. It takes a relatively common fish and treats it with the care and attention that would normally be shown to a protein of more exotic and/or greater value. For example, we fabricate the fish in a manner similar to that of sashimi and we pan sear it like one would a filet of Dover Sole.
2. It’s a dish composed of relatively simple ingredients whose sum becomes greater than its individual parts.
3. It tastes pretty damn good. As one of my cooks said “the dates, bulgur, and trout might not be a traditional combination, but tastes like it should be” (and that is a mighty fine compliment).
The trout has been one of Ruxbin’s standards, and if I were to personify it, it’s been a great friend to us. It’s been with us from the beginning, through thick and thin. With all that being said as we continue to grow and mature as a kitchen, there comes a time when we have to retire a dish to make room for others. So as we’re at the one year mark, and especially when we feel that a dish is no longer evolving, it becomes clear that we should say good-bye, for the time being, to our dear friend. In celebration of this transition, this will be our last week of trout. And as a thank you to all those who loved this dish, I’ve posted the recipe, as well as a few photos that show part of the process that we go through to get this “common” fish to your plate.
RECIPE for PAN-SEARED TROUT w/BULGUR WHEAT TABOULEH, ASPARAGUS & DATES yields 1 entree
TROUT (protein portion)
4 oz Trout (filleted, belly trimmed, scaled and pin-boned, cut into 2 pieces)
1 T Canola oil/olive oil blend
2 T Butter
1/8 ea Lemon (Wedge)
3 sprigs Thyme
1 t Shallots (finely chopped)
1. Place saute pan on high heat, and wait for it the pan to get smoking hot, you literally need to see smoke coming off the pan.
2. Have your trout ready by your side, and lightly season the skin of the trout with salt and pepper. Add the oil to the pan, swirl the oil around so that the pan is evenly coated, and wait until the oil has the same viscosity as water.
3. Gently skim the surface of the pan with one of your trout fillets, if the skin is starting to stick this means that the oil is not hot enough, if it doesn’t, lay the fillet in the pan. Repeat with your other fillets.
4. With a spoon gently press the flesh of the trout down so that there is even contact with the skin of the trout and the pan.
5. As the skin crisps up lightly season the flesh of the trout with salt and pepper.
6. Crush the thyme with your hand and add it to the pan, be careful as the thyme will pop as you add it to the pan, tilt the pan away from you so that you don’t get too many splatter burns.
6. After about 45 seconds, attempt to lift the fillet off the pan with a spoon. If it sticks that means it is not ready, don’t worry, have some patience, the skin will release when its ready. If the fillet releases look underneath it to gauge how crispy the skin looks, if the skin resembles the top of a creme brulee its ready for the next step.
7. Add butter to the saute pan, and swirl. Lift the fillets so that the butter can get underneath the skin of the trout. The butter will turn the skin a golden brown, and will regulate the temperature of the pan.
8. Add a squeeze of lemon juice to the pan, and place rind in the pan as well, be careful as this will case splatter as well, so if you have a gas range momentarily turn off the heat and than put it back on, otherwise you’ll end up flambéing your trout.
9. Add shallots to the pan, quickly spoon the brown butter in your pan over the trout fillets until the flesh is no longer translucent and has become an opaque white.
10. Remove fillets from the pan, skin side up, and pour the contents of the pan onto the fillets.
11. Dry fillets with a paper towel, and now your done with the protein portion.
BULGUR WHEAT TABOULEH (starch protion)
2/3 C Bulgur Wheat (cook according to directions, and cool)
1 ea Green Onion (chopped along a bias)
1 t Sesame Seeds (Black)
1 t Shallots (finely chopped)
1 T Red Onion (chopped)
1 t Lemon Juice
1 T Butter
1. Place saute pan under high heat, and wait until it begins smoking.
2. Add butter, wait until it browns, and add the shallots, be careful that they don’t burn.
3. Add Bulgur Wheat, flip the pan so that the Bulgur wheat is evenly coated with butter.
4. Add all other ingredients, add a dash of salt, and adjust for taste.
5. Bulgur is done when the grain becomes crispy on the outside, but still soft in the inside.
ASPARAGUS & DATES (vegetable portion)
3 ea Asparagus ( bases gently peeled)
2 ea Dried Dates ( rehydrated in hot water, for about 10 mins, and than halved)
1 t Canola oil/Olive oil blend
1 t Butter
1 t Shallots
1. In a hot saute pan, and wait until it shimmers.
2. Add dates and wait until they brown, ~20 seconds.
3. In the same pan add the asparagus and wait until they become charred on at least one side.
4. Finish with butter and shallots, season lightly with salt.
BASIL OIL (sauce portion)
30 ea Basil leaves
1 ea Garlic, clove
A/N Extra Virgin Olive oil
1. Blanch Basil leaves in boiling water, less than 5 seconds, and than shock leaves in ice water.
2. Squeeze out as much water from the blanched basil as possible.
3. Place Basil in a blender with the garlic clove and add just enough oil so that basil can be blended until smooth.
4. Adjust with salt to your taste.
1. Sauce plate first with a light drizzle of basil oil around the edges of your plate.
2. Place Bulgur Tabouleh in the middle of your plate with cooked dates mixed in.
3. Place finished trout on top of the tabouleh
4. Arrange asparagus so that it looks pretty on the plate
5. Put a light smear of the basil oil on the edge of each trout fillet.
We’ll be making a go of our very own rooftop garden this month. Plans have been brewing among our kitchen crew since the first hint of spring, and images of tri-color carrots and candy-striped radishes have danced in our heads all winter long. Despite a few serious logistical concerns (having no direct water line would make for a tricky irrigation system, figuring which crops could withstand the colossal amount of full sun our aluminum tinned roof absorbs on a hot summer day could be somewhat limiting, how do we protect the tiny sprouts from the torrential 50mph winds often experienced on roof level, how much weight can this old building even support, and most importantly who will haul up the stacks of 40 lb. soil bags four flights of rickety stairs?) we resolved to move forward.
As the garden grows we’ll continue to document and share the progress with you.
Before we get into it, let me introduce myself. Hi, I’m Nate and you may remember me from previous mentions like The Sum is Greater and Shot Clock. I’m excited to be back working with the Rux crew again and thought I’d write up a guest post on the blog…
Two Thursdays ago I had my first experience washing dishes for a restaurant. Stationed at the north end of the kitchen I reigned supreme with a floor to ceiling drying rack above, a ginzu-3000 spray gun beside, a proper three-compartment sink below, and the world’s fastest automatic dishwasher. My shift began at Noon as the cooks trickled in, barely scenting of their pre-work cigarettes. During their prep I commenced the jet-streamed spray down, the scrub, and the sanitation process. Andres, the seasoned mogul of the soapy empire bequeathed his techniques before his departure:
– “Don’t use your fingers to scrub the pans. You’ll tire quickly. Fold the Scotch Brite, crush it with a fisted hand, and go to town on the stainless steel. Apply Bar Keepers friend when necessary.
– During service, you get first priority on hot water. Don’t let anyone get near your store. It rinses the plates and pans, but most importantly it keeps the front’s glasses streak free.
– The line cooks need sauté pans. Keep them well stocked. Pick them up as soon as they’re done. That means they’ll be barely red-hot. Fold a dry bar towel in thirds and grab the handle. Yell out, “Hot, coming through.” Don’t forget to keep the fry bowls, sizzle plates, steak plates, pork plates, calamari plates, salad boats, and soup bowls in circulation too.
– The front of the house needs glasses, flatware, and plates. Keep them happy with a regular fresh washing.
– Everything is priority. Attack all simultaneously.”
Inheritance in hand I took reign of my jurisdiction for the next ten hours, breaking for 4 minutes to swallow my family meal and calamansi juice gifted from one of the cooks.
Amidst the regularity of motion, I entered that clichéd zone where the surroundings faded away. An inner dialogue emerged. I was feeling the weight of the oncoming evening. This was no post dinner party clean up. Already my wrists were fatiguing and my hands started to wrinkle. I called them Grandma hands when I was a wee lad swimming with dolphins and Lego boats in the bathtub. Two decades later I was climbing up the ivory tower receiving the marks of membership with scholarships, fellowships, grants, and a masters degree. My pursuit to be a good Chinese son, a professional, an academic, and just smart was in conflict at 6:15 PM. What in the world was I doing here? Wouldn’t I be better slotted elsewhere? I have been groomed for roles unlike this.
A lifeline then jolted my dwindling state. Inner grumbling morphed into what some have called the zone, a Zen moment, an epiphany. Monotony and rhythm evoked a thought inspired by Brother Lawrence, “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clutter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.” Quite a different outlook from mine. Here the screaming demands for clean pans, plates, and flatware paired with cramping hands and achy shoulders prompted Brother Lawrence not toward humiliation but toward humility. Dare I say even joy. Challenged by this ascetic’s example, I chewed my slice of pie and considered this quandary a Lenten moment.
The evening pushed forward. White noise from sizzling vegetables ebbed and flowed with laughs of happy diners outside. I felt good. Chef checked on me regularly, making sure my countenance was positive. During more frantic cycles Jenny, the expediter, and Gabe, the Garde Manger, would slip beside me and help load the dishwasher. Around 10:45 I thought that I was moving steadily, but all those around me observed otherwise. Chef and Jenny forced me to take 5 on the loft. They pushed a plate of hanger steak in front of me. “This is only the half way point,” Chef warned me, “You need to eat something.” Slouching on the wooden bench I stared aimlessly. I just relished those moments away from water so that my hands might dry. I wasn’t hungry. I wanted to keep attacking that growing pile, get through the rest of the evening, and finish well. At last midnight struck as the last kitchen tongs steamed their way out of the dishwasher. I was finished.
The restaurant dishwasher, I learned, plays a crucial role in the kitchen brigade. He inaugurates a vessel to hold carefully composed dishes and reincarnates it back into the cycle. Without him the kitchen would not function. He is integral as much as the cooks, the hostess, the wait staff, the diners. He operates in a position that is not often highly regarded. It is not a flashy role. But indeed it is a necessary one. This position supports an entire system.
After a single evening among the suds I glimpsed briefly the challenges, weight, and fulfillment of being a dishwasher. I tip my proverbial hat to Andres and all the kings of the sinks. May you continue to renew tired plates and pots with vigor; may you receive joy as you serve your coworkers and diners.
* Nate, this blog’s author, oscillates between host, server assistant, resident artist, expediter, and friend at Ruxbin. He is an aesthete with who gravitates toward gourmand behaviors and community development. Check out more of him at www.natechung.com
Nearly every dish we serve at Ruxbin has been developed over the course of several weeks in thoughtful layers to achieve a proper balance of flavor and texture without compromising the integrity of the ingredients. But in opportune moments that come to us in the form of a quiet Sunday dinner service where the kitchen is alive and ready to build from the mise en place they have worked all afternoon to prepare, there is a flash of inspiration and in a matter of minutes, a series of savory treats appear in the window pass. Some make it to the tables of our guests to enjoy as an amuse-bouche. Some are gobbled up on sight.