Good vs. Evil – An Evening with Anthony Bourdain & Eric Ripert

For me, the privilege of attending an evening discussion between two of my heroes from the culinary world,  is comparable to seeing Jay-Z, Paul McCartney or Michael Jordan in their heyday. When I heard that Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert were performing in Tampa, I had to go. I almost didn’t get my chance though.  I didn’t know about the show until two days before the show. How could I have been so far out of the loop to have nearly missed an opportunity like this? None of that matters though, because I got my ticket thank goodness. Being of little means, I went with nosebleed seats. All the orchestra seats were sold long before, so that left me with the balcony. Besides this wasn’t Guns n’ Roses or anything, I didn’t need to be in the pit.

As I approached the theatre, a strange feeling came over me. It was like the feeling you get when you know you’re in the wrong place, like you don’t belong. This was an older crowd, people were scurrying around with both chefs cookbooks like little children trying to get a certain Mouse’s autograph at Disney World. I found my way to where the lame and infirm go to squint. These were my people, and broke or not, we were going to be a part of the festivities.

The lights dimmed and Anthony was introduced. He came out alone to a large spotlight shining down on two arm chairs and a folding metal chair in the front of the stage. He introduces Eric by giving him a good old Tony-roast, mercilessly delivering lines like, ” He’s got 4 stars from the New York Times, year after year after year, he gets 3 Michelin stars year after year after year. A close associate to the Dalai Lama or something. You know him you love him Eric Ripert!”

He comes out and sits down on the folding chair and immediately says, ” Why is it that usually, the most beautiful theatres stick me with the crappiest chair?” If the crowd wasn’t already enamored by Eric Ripert’s genius with seafood, then his charm sealed the deal. He went on to talk about his disdain of Gordon Ramsey’s television shows here in the States, how they’re scandalous and distasteful, promoting intolerance and humiliation. How they potentially inspire an entire generation of young chefs to act like idiots. He  says, “If you want to be a chef, you have to be a leader. The only way now to be successful is to lead by example.” That to me was the most moving part of Mr Ripert’s interview. Mostly, because it came as a shock that he was being so outspoken and honest on the topic.  After listening to Eric speak candidly and humourously for the better part of 30 minutes, about his restaurant, other chefs, eating Ortolan and punching guys in the face, anyone in the room saw that his passion for food as whole has never wavered through the years.

Then came Tony’s turn to be interrogated. First question?

Eric: Are you a chef?

Tony: Yes!

Eric: Whatever…

Later, when discussing an incident on the Martha Stewart Show where Tony was unable to make pasta in a timely manner, Eric asked, “You went to the Culinary Institute of America right? You were a professional chef for 28 years? But you do not know how to make pasta? So I have a question. You say you’ve been in the Kitchen for 28 years. Did you ever work in a good restaurant?”

Tony took his punches like a champ, as he’s always done when his abilities are questioned. He said that the success of his book “Kitchen Confidential” came at just the right time, as he was 44. The two things he misses about the chefs life are the feelings of accomplishment and the beers after a hard dinner service. I adored his views on vegetarians, which he has stuck to since his first book which describes the “Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit.” He respects ones altered lifestyle in the privacy of their own home, but wonders how vegans travel to a place like Vietnam or Thailand and stay vegetarian. Humans, for the most part, are omnivores, out of necessity, and they’re not too freaking happy about it.  The rest of the interview was Eric continually badgering Tony about some of the controversies stemming from No Reservations, politics, and his jealousy of the “stars” of the food network, as well as that “nice old lady with a basket of vegetables”,  Alice Waters (owner of Chez Panisse).  He insists he isn’t angry at  any of their success, he’d just like them to stay on their side of the street and he’ll stay on his.

As the night began to wind down, Tony and Eric both stood up and stretched while showing half-nude photos they of themselves taken for different books and magazines to try and embarrass the other. Then the folding chair was removed and they sat down on the more comfy looking armchairs. What followed seemed like the least rehearsed and likely most heartfelt conversation. It was simply a 20 minute chat between the two friends about the responsibility a chef has to feed his customers good food. Again, they discuss the importance of being a role model to the new generation of cooks. A chef should care about the integrity of the ingredients that he or she cooks, while at the same time providing a memorable experience for their guests. It brought a smile to my face when they discussed something I’ve been trying to preach for a while,  which is the cost of buying natural and organic to serve ourselves and loved ones, is far less than having health issues your whole life because of being pumped with growth hormones, additives, preservatives and chemicals. Gone are the days when a chefs only concern is delivering a great tasting meal, they must now seek out local, natural, and sustainable ingredients to create that meal. That means changing the way menus are thought out, which means more work. Next they started getting the crowd in a frenzy when they spoke out against the practices of the Monsanto Corp. and their seed peddling ways. Monsanto basically controls all the seed in our country, in an effort to remove all proprietary value a farmer would own of his crop. Not only are they in the practice of genetically modifying seeds, they do so in a way that causes the crops to be unable to reproduce more seeds. So farmers are forced to buy more seed every growing season, and if they to sidestep the process, Monsanto sues!

They followed the Monsanto bashing with some nauseating “Pink Slime” talk. I understand how anyone could eat a fast food burger if they actually knew what was in it. To make Pink Slime you basically take the most undesirable cuts of meat and fat that usually come in contact with  feces, the cuts that used to be exclusively incorporated in pet food, and whip it with ammonia until it turns into a pink paste. As Mr. Bourdain stated, ” Industry analysts insist that Pink Slime is vital in keeping fast food costs down in this country. Americans are demanding low costs without sacrificing eating animal proteins.” Eric’s response was ” I don’t think you need to eat meat proteins everyday.” this was met with rousing applause.

They went back and forth about how most “gourmet” dishes used to be the food of the poor. Tony for instance said,  “Escargot Bourguignon…do you really think it was a “gourmet” to eat snails for the first time? No it was a broke son of a gun! Sitting there starving, who a snail crawl by.”  Then in a hilarious impersonation of Eric said, “Maaaybe,  I puut a liitle beeet of  gaaarliiic and buuudder on it?”. The point is that food can be delicious regardless of where it comes from, there’s a reason Tony and Eric have traveled the world in search of new and exciting foods, in hopes that it will inspire all of us to do the same.

Finally came a disaster of a  Q&A segment that I wish I could have missed. This wasn’t Tony or Eric’s fault, but the idiot crowd members including those in the seats next to me. Just to give a few tips for potential Q&A participants.

1. If you want to humble brag and make it all about you when asking a question to a person who is proven more interesting than yourself, keep your mouth shut. We all dont care that your trip to Singapore last month was awesome or that you spent 65 days in India last year.

2. Ask a question. Do not make a statement promoting your own cause. You will get booed. By everyone. Including Tony Bourdain.

3. Don’t invite the speakers “out for a drink”  in front of a few thousand people, because you know an epic dive bar in town they would love. We all know “The Hub” is cool dude.

4. Don’t cry.

Aside from a very timely and poignant question about Food Trucks made by a very nice lady, the people of the Bay area didn’t do themselves any favors in my mind. I doubt we will see a Tampa edition of “The Layover” in the near future.

It was very special night for me and I hope to do it again soon. If either Bourdain or Ripert or both are ever in your town to do any kind of performance and you are a lover of food culture, don’t pass up the chance.

Snackin’ on Salsa with Jessica Pietri

Well we’ve got a special post for you guys today, our first guest post on Eat a Duck. Jessica Pietri of Pietri Photography and the blog Tired Yet Inspired, also happens to be quite the gastronome. She’s whipped up a great salsa recipe that’s sure to get your juices flowing. Hopefully this will be the first of many guest appearances as we try to get the community involved in an effort to share our food related experiences!

Chips and salsa, it’s the perfect snack!  I love that I pretty much always have the ingredients for this recipe.  It’s so quick and honestly, too easy. 

What you will need:

• 2 Cans (14.5 oz) of Whole tomatoes, Drained

• 1 Can (4 oz.) of Diced Jalapeños (I only use half a can.  My child can scarf down a whole bowl of salsa on her own and I don’t want to take any chances with it being too spicy for her little tummy.)

• ½ Cup of Yellow Onion

• 1 Teaspoon of Garlic Salt

• 1 Teaspoon of Salt

• 1 Teaspoon of Cumin

• ½ Teaspoon of Sugar

• 1 Teaspoon of Lime Juice

• Cilantro (I never measure this part out.  I use a decent amount though, because my family loves cilantro.)

Put all of your ingredients into a food processor and puree to a smooth consistency.  Serve with tortilla chips. 

This post also gives me a chance to mention how much I LOVE my Ninja Master Prep food processor.  This food processor/blender does everything I need it to.  I use it to make salsa, hummus, smoothies, soup, everything!  The blades are mega sharp (I’ve learned my lesson while being careless while cleaning them).  It literally takes seconds to puree/blend anything I put in it.  What I loved most was the price.  I was very doubtful when I saw it on sale, but I’m cheap so I got it anyway.  It completely impressed me and it still does every time I use it!

What’s your favorite quick go to snack?

Svenska-Floridian Strawberry Cookies

Sometimes, when I’m milling around my kitchen whipping up my latest tasty treat, I’m not always sure that everyone will like what I’m making. It’s not because I lack confidence, it’s simply inevitable since creating something that appeals to every palate is exceedingly difficult.

There is a lovely lady at work who brings in homemade baked sweet treats regularly. Every time, she kindly offers me a sample of her wares. I have to say, she really knows her way around the kitchen. Sometimes when it’s slow we’ve been known to converse about food, wine or our favorite chefs. It’s great for me because my job has nothing to do with food, save for the odd Omaha Steaks package zipping past on its way to some hungry consumer. About a week ago she brought in a gigantic flat of Plant City Strawberries. They were the most beautiful shade of ruby-red. I was surprised when she gave me a whole carton to take home for myself. Surprised, because if our places were reversed, I’d have eaten all of them myself without sharing a single bite. All of us Floridians know what time it is, it’s strawberry season. We’ve the got the little beauties coming from all directions. So many it seems, that we resort to giving them away to our co-workers for goodness sake!

With my strawberries in tow, I promised my buddy at work that I would try to make something for her using her sweet gift. A few days went by and other things preoccupied my time and kitchen. One day after dinner, after everything calmed down at the house and there was nothing good on T.V., I got bored and started exploring the fridge. I had completely forgot about the promise I had made just a few days earlier. When I opened the produce drawer, it hit me! Shortbread cookies, with macerated and roasted strawberries on top. This was perfect because the strawberries were starting to lose their crimson luster.

I already knew the recipe I would use. I had read an article in Bon Appetit about one of my wish list restaurants called Faviken in Sweden. The chef, Magnus Nillson, shared a recipe for one of his favorites, whole wheat shortbread cookies. With the recipe in mind, I began taking inventory to see if I could pull if off with what I had in my pantry. These ingredients are all basic staples one should always have on hand. I tweaked a few things to give it that “Logan Flair”, but I feel like I respected the original concept and created a nutty, hearty cookie that isn’t just an empty sweet. You can make the strawberry part ahead of time, because it takes a while to pull the juices from the fruit, or you can make the dough a day or two in advance as well just to have it ready to go when the time is right.

Ingredients for Cookies

  • 2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup light brown cane sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 1 stick of unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 large egg, room temperature
  • 1 large egg yolk, room temperature

Ingredients for macerated strawberries

  • 20 strawberries cut into rough chop
  • 2 Tbsp light brown cane sugar
  • 1/2 tsp almond extract
  • juice from 1/2 lemon
  • zest from 1/2 lemon

Preparation

  • Place strawberries, 1 Tbsp sugar, lemon juice and almond extract in a bowl. Let sit 1 hour. strain jus through sieve, into a small sauce pan on low-mid heat.  Put strawberries back in bowl and add last Tbsp of sugar. Let sit again for 15 minutes while the strawberry liquid is reducing. Strain strawberries once more into sauce pan. Let liquid reduce for another 15 minutes. Combine reduced juice/syrup and strawberries together and set aside. You should end up with a loose preserve.
  • Pre-heat oven to 400°. Whisk flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in a large bowl. Add butter; using your fingertips, rub in butter until coarse meal forms. Whisk egg and yolk in a bowl; add to flour mixture; stir just to blend.
  • Butter 2 non stick cookie sheets. Measure dough 2 tablespoons at a time and roll into balls. It might take a while to get used to rolling the highly crumbly dough. Be patient. Place on prepared sheets, spacing 2″ apart. Make an indentation in center of each ball; fill each with 1 teaspoon of strawberry mixture. Bake cookies until golden, 12–14 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. You have to do this immediately!!! These cookies are very fragile. Don’t ruin them! 

Let me explain a few things before you go out and conquer this great recipe like a modern-day Leif Ericson. The reason I spend the time to extract the juice from the fruit, instead of just cooking everything down together in a sauce pan, is because you’ll lose that distinct strawberry flavor. All you’d end up is a sweet mushy goo, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but we’re going for a punchy strawberry flavor here. It really doesn’t take much effort. You can go off and do something else like make the dough while you wait. Also, I add salt instead of using salted butter because I want to feel the coarse grains in the finished product. This cookie is not what I would consider super-sweet. It’s just plain good. I described it to all that partook as a cookie/scone hybrid because those are the characteristics that I saw in the texture and taste. They might not be for everyone but they were a hit at the office. This recipe makes about 14 cookies, so do some math if it’s not enough to feed your crew. Skål!

Break the Silence of the Lamb

So how did winter treat you? Fairly mild you say? I didn’t even break out my heavy coat, not once. For the most part, I wore shorts all season. Now, not only is Spring in the air, it’s strutting around like it owns the place. Hold on a second Spring! You’ve already played your biggest hits, such as “Screw up everyone’s sleep cycle,”, and “The Pollen Polka”. But we are running out of time for that springtime song and dance. So why not make like Zorba the Greek and take a little excursion from your dull existence, and what better way to do that then by cooking up a little lamb?

Since this is the time of year one traditionally eats this lovely beast, I thought it’d be a great time to share my method for preparing it. The term “spring lamb” was used in the past to refer to the time of year when you would find most lambs being born. It was also used to suggest meat of a higher quality. Thanks to some of the advancements we have today, high quality lamb can be raised all year round. Of course, here at Eat a Duck, we always suggest you purchase the highest quality product. Something grass-fed, hormone free and delicious. It’s best to spend the extra couple bucks, because lamb is most likely not a staple in your pantry. On that note, now let’s get started with these astonishingly simple recipes for your personal degustation.

You can use any cut of the animal. Depending on which you choose, you’ll have to alter your cooking method, marinade allowances and serving size. I chose a half loin and half rib chop because I had them in my freezer. However this recipe isn’t specific to those cuts. It’s not even bound to the baby sheep. You could use, chicken, pork, or maybe even fish if its firm enough to hold up. Just trust me on this one though, lamb is the right choice for you. If you’re planning on using say, a leg, or a shoulder, you will probably need more liquid than I call for, because you’re going to want to really penetrate that wonderfully mild gamey meat with copious amounts of flavor.

Two loin racks will feed about 4 people. Make sure to trim the fat thoroughly off the bone and around the actual loin. You can ask the butcher to “French” your chops, but I’d advise against that and just do it yourself. Here’s why. Most importantly, if you’re cooking a smaller cut you will be cooking your meat quickly. If you don’t trim enough fat off, you won’t cook the fat through and you will have white, uncooked fat that will probably make you sick. Next, you end up paying more for less. If you trim it yourself, cutting out the meat and fat in between the bone to expose it, you are left with meat and fat scraps. If they do it, it goes in the trash and you pay them for the service of taking away your flavor. Trimming your own meat will give you some experience to build your skills as well as give you some tasty bits you can grill up and eat while dressing the salad. So I’ll give you an entire menu from start to finish you can execute with as little stress as possible. First let’s get started with the lamb.

For the marinade:

4 garlic cloves chopped rough

1/4 sliced sweet onion

The juice of 2 whole Meyer lemons

Zest of 1 of those lemons

1/4 cup dry vermouth

1 tsp coarse sea salt

1/2 tsp oregano

1/4 tsp mint

1/4 tsp chili flakes

2 racks will yield 4 servings

Combine everything inside a heavy-duty zip lock bag. Squish it around and put it in the fridge for at least 2 hours. When you’re almost ready to cook, take out the meat and let it reach room temperature. Pat dry while you get your grill hot. Crank it to about 450°-500° if you can. Cook on each side for about 3- 4 minutes per side, rotating a quarter turn at the 2 minute mark for better grill marking. Let sit and serve on a plate in a pile, next to a Greek Cobb Salad. For the salad, simply chop tomato, cucumber, green,onion, Feta, Greek peppers and kalamata olives finely and uniformly. Lay them in rows atop chopped iceberg lettuce and serve with a simple vinaigrette of olive oil, sherry vinegar, juice from the kalamata olive jar, oregano, salt and pepper.

To top off the lamb, I made a confit of garlic and red onions that used the same flavors of the marinade. It’s easy and bursting with sweet tangy flavor to cut the richness of the lamb. Don’t worry if the amount of garlic makes you stumble and bumble. It will break down and caramelize to a mild perfection.

This is all you’ll require:

2 heads of Garlic peel and kept whole

1 medium red onion  chopped into a medium dice

1/2 cup olive oil (enough to really coat the cloves)

Juice of 1-2 Meyer lemons plus the zest from one depending on their juiciness

1/4 dry vermouth

Salt and pepper to taste

Cooking the confit takes more time than it does effort. All you do is put the oil in a medium-sized sauté pan on a med-low heat. Once the oil is heated, place the garlic cloves and onion strips in the pan and cook until both begin to soften. Possibly 10 minutes. Add vermouth and zest. Continue cooking another 10 minutes. Add Juice, salt and pepper. Let everything cook down as long as it takes to be able to determine if more salt or lemon is needed. Once it’s done, the garlic and onion will be sweet, soft and caramel in color. If you press a fork to the garlic and it smooshes, it’s done.

Finally, the easiest and most brilliant thing I can claim as my own idea, since “Everyday I’m Trufflin” was already taken, was to serve  this Greek feast alongside an idiot proof roasted cabbage. Turn the oven to 400. Slice the cabbage (with stem and core intact) about 1 inch thick. Drizzle generously with olive oil, since the cabbage will soak up a lot of it. Sprinkle with garlic salt and onion powder and shove in the oven for about 15 minutes. Once the outside edges begin to turn a dark shade of brown and dry out, you know it’s ready for consumption. The inside will be tender and the outside will have a slight char to it.

I know you’ll enjoy this meal because it’s got wonderful complimentary flavors, tons of different textures and it will make you look past that lame forgettable winter.

Summertime and the Eatings Easy

Winter is over! Well who are we kidding there was no winter this year. Spring will take, oh, two weeks to pass, and then it’s summertime! So I wanted to share 3 of my favorite recipes for greedy consumption on balmy summer days. Now I’m not as accomplished a chef as my colleague, but if I’ve learned anything in my 26 years, it’s that the simplest things often taste the best. So don’t be afraid, these recipes takes at most 10 minutes and involve very little cooking at all, so you’ll be cranking them out like a pro soon enough, just don’t tell your friends how easy it was. Alright, let’s get this going!

1. Summer Pasta
This appropriately named dish has been a favorite of mine since I was a kid. I remember my dad whipping up a huge bowl of it on a lazy Sunday afternoon, we’d sit poolside and enjoy a couple of bowls with a crisp Chardonnay (yes my parents let me drink wine) and then lay in the sun as it warmed our topped off tummies. For all of these dishes, the key to achieving those heart stopping flavors is fresh ingredients. This may be the easiest pasta to make in history. All you have to know how to do is chop and boil noodles, that’s it! Here’s what you’ll need:

• 4-5 Large tomatoes (for the best results, get yourself some organic heirlooms)

• 2 Large fresh bufala mozzarella balls, in water if possible (bocconcini or ovolini work well also)

• 1 handful of fresh picked basil

• Garlic (I’m not putting an amount on here because what’s enough for me is usually life-threatening to most, for the uninitiated, go for 3 or 4 healthy cloves)

• Copious amounts of Extra Virgin Olive Oil

• 1 lb Linguine (long noodles work better)

• Salt & Pepper to taste

Yields 5-6 servings

To start, chop up your tomatoes, mozzarella, garlic and basil roughly and throw it all in a large mixing bowl. Pour in the EVOO until you can see it pooling in between all the components. Do this first because the oil brings out all the flavors of the tomatoes, garlic and mozz so they meld into a deliriously delicious stew. While the contents of the bowl work their magic, get a large pot of water on the boil. Please, for the love of Dio, add salt to the water, LOTS of salt. It should make the noodles salty when you test them, if you got some in your mouth it should feel like you got hit by a scalding hot wave at the beach. This is important alright? Once you get the pasta nice and al dente, drain it and pour it over the tomato and mozz mixture. Now don’t toss just yet, let the heat permeate down to the bottom, this is key, because the mozzarella will start to gently melt. When you start tossing, you should see long strings of bright white cheese pulling up with the noodles. Once everything is well tossed, give it another few minutes to cool down. Trust me, this pasta is much better when it gets a little closer to room temperature, even better straight out of the fridge. Now just grate a little fresh Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano on top and you’re good to go! If you somehow have extra tomato mixture, it makes an awesome garlicky caprese salad on its own.

2. Basic Pesto Genovese

Another childhood favorite, mom used to make this when I was sick or just because, absolute comfort food. This one is even easier than the last. You don’t even need to chop anything this time and you’ll still end up with a delicious, authentic Northern Italian dish.

• Basil (you should fill your food processor to the point where you need to push the leaves down to make them fit)

• 1/4 cup pine nuts (toasted if you can, also walnuts work very well if you want to save some money)

• 4-5 large garlic cloves

• 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

• 1 lb fusilli (pasta with crevices works the best)

• Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Yields 5-6 servings

Simple instructions here. Throw everything into a food pro except the olive oil. Give it a few seconds to chop everything to pieces. Then, while it’s still spinning, slowly pour the olive oil in. I didn’t specify an amount here because it depends on the consistency you prefer. Ideally, it should settle to the center of the mixer slowly. You don’t want it too runny or too stiff. Again, salt your water, boil some fusilli or rotelli or another kind of noodle that has crevices to hold the sauce. Once it’s cooked, place the noodles in a bowl, pour the pesto and mix well. Let it cool a bit and serve with more freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano.

3. Jep’s Eggplant Sandwiches

This is an absolute staple during the summer for my family. Nearly every weekend, if you drop by our place in Vermont, you’ll catch the seductive aroma of eggplant sizzling in olive oil. This is another one of those dishes that has me hooked worse than Mark Renton from Trainspotting. Here’s what you’ll need:

• 6 Small ciabatta loaves

• 2 large eggplants

• 4-5 cloves of garlic

• 1 handful of Italian flat leaf parsley

• Extra Virgin Olive Oil

• 1/2 lb Prosciutto di Parma

• 2 fresh bufala mozzarella balls

• Salt & Pepper 

*Optional – Balsamic Glaze (you can find this at Whole Foods or your local fine Italian Specialty shop)

Yields 6 sandwiches

If you have a mandolin, it will make this job so much easier. You can use a knife but it’s difficult to get the thickness to be consistent. Assuming you do have a mandolin, take the eggplant and run it along the long side until you get a healthy pile of 1/8″ thick slices. Get yourself a large high-sided pan and coat with a generous pouring of the EVOO. You need the olive oil to nearly cover the eggplant but not quite. Cook on med-high heat until they turn golden brown on both sides, be careful because at this stage it’s extremely easy to burn them. Place the slices in a 9″x9″ baking dish, sprinkle some garlic and parsley on each layer as well as a few shakes of salt and pepper. The heat from the eggplant will slightly cook the garlic as the layers build up (try a slice, you’re looking for a nice sweet caramelization and a salty finish). Once your eggplant is done and settling, get going on the bread. Slice the ciabatta loaves and brush each side with olive oil, place them in the toaster oven or oven and broil them until golden brown. Take a garlic clove and slice off the end, use this to rub the bread. Now you start building your masterpiece. First three slices of Prosciutto, then a couple of slices of the bufala mozzarella, finally a healthy mound of eggplant and a little drizzle of balsamic glaze if you so choose. Push down on the top piece of bread to get all the juices to soak into each nook and cranny. Now EAT IT! Quick before I smell it and steal it from you! 

Having a garden that grows most of these ingredients is a big help both in convenience and savings. Even if you don’t have a garden with eggplant, tomatoes and basil growing in your backyard, all of these dishes are easily accessible, and with the exception of the sandwiches, are super-fast and delicious recipes that you’ll keep coming back to when you’re strapped for time but still need to impress. I’d love to hear what you think of them if you guys end up trying these yourselves! 

S&L Restaurant – Lakeland, FL

When I was about 10, my dad schooled me on how to cook a proper hamburger. He said he learned his technique from watching his mom make them in a skillet when he was a boy. She learned it from watching a man make what was known at the time as “grease-burgers”, which you used to buy for a quarter at the local farmers market back in the 50’s. The name grease-burgers, according to my dad, was earned because they were cooked on a flat top and basically fried when the fat or “grease” rendered out of the patty. This is the method I always use to make burgers at home. It gives the meat a great crust on the exterior, as well as keeping all the flavors from the fat intact. With all due respect, grilling in my opinion is a less than a desirable method of burger cookery. If you have some confidence and can cook at very high temperatures you can still get a medium rare doneness in a skillet, without sacrificing that nice greasy char.

There are many things I’ve been ashamed of during my three decades on this planet. Eating two gallons of ice cream the day after I broke my wrist when I was 17. The time I was escorted out in a wheelchair at Universal Studios for allegedly being “too drunk to stand”, I was never formally charged. Finally, and this will shock many of my closest friends to the core, never once in my life had I eaten at the local legendary burger joint S&L Hamburgers. To this day it defies logic why it took so long for me to make the trek down to no mans land for a tasting of what everyone, at least inside the city limits, considers the best. If you knew how many times I’ve driven past and noticed the parking lot overflowing with cars and a line of people outside the building, you might slug me right in the gut. Have I not been preaching that if it’s good it’s worth waiting for? Just yesterday, I stood waiting for my beignets from The Poor Porker, when a woman who might or might not be immediately related to me, approached the general area and asked “Are they really good enough to wait this long?”.  As we know by now, long lines, waiting and an overflowing dining room are usually a sign of good things to come.

The moment arrived when I committed to a lunch with a friend that worked in the area. He texted me around 10:30 to ask what I wanted to order. I thought it strange to even ask since we were going to sit down and have our meal inside. He filled me in on how they do things to get people from having to wait an extraordinarily long time. If you call them in advance and tell them when you’ll be there, not only will they reserve you a table, they will have your meal ready as your arrive. Talk about a great concept!

We met at 12:00 and I got there early. I really wasn’t sure what to expect inside. Was it going to be some grimy dump that people just have gone to for years because of force of habit? That happens a lot you know. I even looked online for a menu or pictures, anything that would help me prepare for my visit. I couldn’t find anything but a blurry half of a menu from 3 years ago. It’s as if this place doesn’t exist to outsiders, save for a handful of short, mixed reviews.

Walking in, you’ll likely find a group of minions huddled around the counter, counting the seconds until their rations are ready. They’re all waiting for take out orders. There isn’t much space to breathe inside, it’s narrow and lined from wall to wall with small tables that are all filled with either hungry patrons, or soon to be stuffed ones. The aroma of sizzling beef emanating from the flat top, would send Wimpy into a state of euphoria, though he’d still have the gall to pay for his burger days after consuming it. To be honest though, after sounding a little wimpy myself, S&L is very pleasant inside. The waitresses are sweethearts and very accommodating, which is impressive, considering how fast paced and cramped the room is.

Our order wasn’t placed due to my incompetence. I couldn’t decide what to order before hand, based on what little information I could find online. When we sat down, my dining companion ordered a bacon cheeseburger without bothering to look at the menu. Less than 10 seconds went by and I spotted the patty melt. Easy choice. With onion rings. Easier choice. You always have the option to “bigger” size your burger for a $1.00. Easiest choice I made all day since deciding to rise and shine. My bud followed suit and requested his “bigger” as well. Peer pressure is a wonderful thing.

S&L uses the ol’ grease burger technique. Straight on the griddle, cooked ’til they’re done. They don’t ask your preferred doneness, you get it how they cook it and that’s just the way it is. When the food came out, I realized the error in making my burger bigger. I said “bigger” but I wasn’t aware they were going to try to kill me with meat! I recommend just a single patty so you can leave in a less rotund state.

Visually, the food was sexy, with a nice bit of charred crust encompassing the outer layers. The burger then was subject to the squeeze test. This is very technical and needs to be performed properly by a trained professional to avoid damage. You take the palm of your hand directly on the top of the bun, or rye bread in this case. By pressing down at the rate of 32 pounds of pressure per square foot, for 3/10 of a second, you can deduce if a burger is juicy or not. The test was administered and S&L passed with room to spare. I sampled an onion ring while my burger cooled a bit. It had a surprising hint of beer used to wet the batter. They were perfect and passed the rigorous “Crispness Coefficient and Onion Anti-displacement Test” perfected by my colleague here at Eat a Duck. If you wish to read about the Jimmy’s test on onion rings, please read the review of Hottie Hawgs BBQ.

The burgers were not only huge, they had character. They were everything the legend had made them out to be. I felt joy and pain all at once. With every bite my love for S&L grew, at the same time I cursed myself, for procrastinating all these years. Normally, I’d sit here and give you a long, drawn out description of how it all tasted, but it’s just something you have to try for yourself. The one thing I would give you a heads up on is that, as far as I know, they only use American cheese, which to me is like someone drawing a moustache on the girl with a pearl earring. It’s my fault for not asking if they had other choices, but can you blame me for being stricken by burger blindness? I’ve also been told by many friends that the breakfast is just as good as the burgers that made them famous. Great, now I have even more shame to deflect. I think I might need to lie down for a minute or two. The guilt is to be too much to bear.

S&L Restaurant – 2915 South Combee Road – Lakeland, FL 33803 – (863) 665-0731

S & L Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Eating Rainbow: Take My Word For It

Maybe I’m crazy, but I find such joy in recommending a restaurant that I love to a dear friend, and finding out that they had an amazing meal. It’s been an ongoing theme for me lately. I feel compelled to dig up local treasures and share the wealth to all who ask, and recently I find my search has become more vigorous. Until now, it’s been difficult to have hope in the local food scene. Although, a handful of bright spots have popped up in Central Florida that have renewed that hope. The sad, and honestly quite embarrassing part, is that some of these discoveries have thrived for a while. Some have been around longer than I’ve been alive! What have I been doing all my life? Why hasn’t anyone told me about them?

As a community, we should contribute to making sure everyone has an enjoyable time. That includes the times we’re apart. Times when we want an evening out with the misses or mister, but just can’t figure out where to go. We don’t want to waste that time. We should concern ourselves with getting the most from our wallets. So we all do the same thing, we call our buddy that knows the scene, who will always have your best interests at heart. He tells you about this great new farm-to-table restaurant that opened a couple of weeks ago. He had a chance to go there about a week before. He guides you step by step on exactly what to order. You thank him/her for the help, and they say something like, “Have a great time! Can’t wait to hear how you liked it!” The day comes. Time to go out to eat. You might be excited for this night out, but guess who is filled with nervous anticipation while you have the night of your life? The guy who’s sitting at home watching reruns of Iron Chef. No, not the one with Bobby Flay vs Susar Lee. That’s Iron Chef America. I’m talking about the one where Hiroyuki Sakai faces off against Alain Passard in Battle: Foie Gras! Anyway, I’m “that” guy and I want you to have an amazing meal, even if I’m not there to enjoy it with you ya jerk!

I go to bed early because I want to be fresh, and ready for a recap of everything you devoured. I call you the next morning around 10:30 A.M. This is the perfect time because it’s not too early that you can’t get the majority of your tasks done beforehand, and then spend half an hour discussing things over with me. Here’s how it goes more often than not:

Logan: “How did everything go last night? Please tell me you loved the crispy pork belly with sea beans and cipollini onion puree!”
Friend who should listen: “Yeah…so…here’s what happened. The thing is, umm…we just decided to go to (insert horrible chain) and then go see Journey to the Center of the Earth 2: The Mysterious Island”.

You make me want to cut my head off sometimes. Why do you do this to me? I almost feel the need to cut off communication for about a month, just so I can attempt to process the mental hardship you’ve put me through.

Here’s my point. When you’re having car trouble, you take your car to a mechanic, correct? He tells you that you need a new fuel pump. You say, “Thanks, but I think I’m just going to get a set of wiper blades. That should do the trick”. But you wouldn’t do that because you’re not a moron. The same principle applies to anyone whose opinion you supposedly value. Whatever their area of expertise, out of respect entertain them, they just might know what they’re talking about. Don’t take this the wrong way, you can order whatever you want, just please, have some faith and try my suggestion. I put forth a lot of effort to sniff out the best eateries, mostly for my own benefit but also so I can spread the word to my friends, hoping that they get to share my experience. I literally have nightmares about you sitting in an Olive Garden eating par-baked bread sticks and bastardized minestrone when I told you to go to Enzo’s and order the Dover sole or Penne Vodka, that’s something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. We’re here to inspire more adventurous meals, so live to eat my friends, don’t eat to live.

Spice – Lakeland, FL

It seems like some of the most delicious and memorable foods I’ve had, for the most part, have been the least complex. A few choice ingredients given proper respect can linger in your brain forever. This happened on a recent lunch visit to a local Thai/Sushi restaurant simply called Spice. Not to beat a dead horse, but in my opinion, the local food scene here in Lakeland is suffering from rigor mortis. I struggle to think of even five restaurants I’d recommend to a curious visitor. Spice, however, makes the cut. Granted, making the cut in Lakeland isn’t necessarily a glowing endorsement. I will tell you though, judging from specific menu items, Spice is a must for locals. If you go, and you should, you will find yourself dodging the obstacles of house fraus in large SUVs trying to make their way through the parking lot of the encapsulating strip mall that Spice calls home.

Before you even look at the menu, commit to asking for this one thing. As part of my lunch, I was given a bowl of liquid with cubes of non identifiable vegetables. When I quizzically asked what it was, they simply called it vegetable soup. What strikes you first is its amazing clarity. You can see straight to the bottom. I really thought that was visually appealing. It tasted like someone was giving my tongue a big hug on a cold day. The broth had such clean flavors, so distinct and straight forward right off the bat. You got a slap of what tasted like tomato water, which I love, with a soothing bit of lemongrass at the finish. As your spoon dives down into the broth sea like a submarine, you find little cubes of perfectly cooked celery and tomato. To add a final touch of textural composition, there are slices of fried shallot along with raw green onion floating to the top, waiting to be whisked away.

 

Calling this masterpiece “vegetable soup” is an enormous understatement. That’s like sweeping aside Ben Savages’ defining opus, Boy Meets World, as just another show. Tomato and celery consomé, with lemongrass and crispy shallot is a more appropriate description. It’s more attractive than the underwhelming title given to it. I’m not knocking the waitress, as it’s probably easier for a novice of Thai food or sushi to order vegetable soup. This is what makes Spice a success, it’s a great starting point for beginners. People just starting to explore the boundaries of what their palate feels is tasty. The Thai selections are all the ones you’d expect. nothing that pushes the limits, that goes for the sushi as well. The majority of the menu is what you’ll find at any similar place in the area. Lots of rolls that cater to the American sensibility, with about 20% more tradition thrown in. They execute this balancing act extremely well. They are one of the few places in town I can be confident of having a memorable evening with delicious food. What say you?

Spice – 3615 S Florida Ave. Lakeland, FL 33803 – (863) 709-8321

Spice Thai & Sushi Rest on Urbanspoon

Despaña – New York City

My ongoing quest to devour all 101 of New York’s best sandwiches has so far brought me to Alidoro, Banh Mi Saigon, Murray’s Cheese Shop, Parm and Red Hook Lobster Pound. Now at #55, it’s Despaña. This place is a Spanish food importer, bringing a variety of cheeses, cured meats, chocolate, soda and more. Founded in 1971 as a chorizo factory, they have since expanded to serve bocadillos (read: sandwiches), tapas, flautas, salads and pintxos or small sampling bites. They even have a wine shop next door.

photo: www.despañanyc.com

I was there for a bocadillo. The list suggested one called the Picante, which consisted of Despana’s own Chorizo Picante, Mahon cow’s milk cheese, Piparras (spicy guindilla peppers from the Basque region), fresh tomato and aioli. Delicious as that may sound, the siren of Serrano Ham was calling my name and I was drawn to the aptly named, Despaña. This gem involved generous amounts of Serrano ham, creamy goat cheese from Murcia and an awesome tomato-garlic spread. Very simple, so as to let the ham do the talking. All of Despaña’s bocadillos are served on artisan Ciabatta which is airy, crusty and can be compacted to the size of any mouth, oh and it’s delicious.

Despaña did not disappoint. The ham was perfect, moist, tender with a great saltiness leveled out by the smooth and creamy goat cheese. The tomato-garlic spread joined the party by adding a complimentary sweetness with a kick at the end from the garlic. I washed this beauty down with a Kas, which I figured to be the Spanish version of San Pelligrino’s Aranciata, or even my personal heroin, Orangina. I have to say it wasn’t a bad substitute.

 

photo (right): www.despañanyc.com

I think it’s safe to assume that any place that displays whole pig legs in the window is going to have something special to offer. I didn’t even get to sample all the different pork products or cheese available, but I plan to. So far, the sandwich list hasn’t lead me astray. I’m only six sandos in, but things are looking good. Until next time!

Despaña – 408 Broome St. New York, NY – 212.219.5050 • www.despananyc.com
 
 

Despana on Urbanspoon