digestif dinners

I just got back to Chicago after a few fun filled days in Arizona working with the boys of Digestif. I met the chef, Payton Curry, back in October while we were both participating in the Food and Wine event, Eats3. I had invaded his kitchen to get ready for my chef demo and we pretty much just hit it off. Aside from the curly hair in common, we have similar styles. Our food is not overly fussy, our kitchens have a fun vibe while everyone in them is still focused on putting out great food, and we both like to have a good time but know when to get serious. So after a few days of hanging around we decided it would be fun for me to come back down in December and do a wine dinner.

So I headed down and a few minutes after I got to the kitchen we sat down for their daily meeting. As I looked around I realized that not only was I the only chick, but I was the only one without a crazy mustache. Payton had made a comment about how any women that had started in the kitchen had not lasted very long and I could sort of see why. Sure a group of dudes that hang around each other for twelve hours in a day sort of speak their own language, but I find it pretty entertaining. Plus it turned out that though I assumed we would be listening to screaming music all day, they liked to rock out to the 80s. My kind of kitchen.

Zac, one of the cooks who run the charcuterie program, had brought in some beautiful locally raised Red Wattle pigs for the week. Watching the guys all gather around the table to break down the pigs and then sew them up with a giant needle and some twine was awesome. Almost creepy for a moment if you intently watched Zac’s face and saw the intensity and pure joy he and the other boys were getting, but that is what it is all about. Just thinking about those pigs being artfully turned into sausages and terrines and head cheese and other house specialties still makes me hungry.

I went straight for the pork bellies that I found back in the meat cooler. Braised pork belly makes me happy…and when served with scallops make me even happier. My first step was to get the bellies in brine overnight and get a nice stock made for the braising liquid. A nice dark stock, with lots of red wine and a couple of simple spices like fennel seed and mustard seed would work perfectly. So I got these things started and we headed out to try another new local restaurant, Noca.

Scottsdale is much like Chicago in that the chef community is very small, or seems it. Zac’s roommate is one of the cooks at Noca so we were lucky enough to sit at the chef’s counter and do a tasting. Early on, the chef, Chris Curtiss, held up a hunk of Kobe beef to show us what we had to look forward to. I would not be surprised if Zac still has that as his screen saver on his cell phone. Each course leading up to it made it worth the wait. We had a beautiful chestnut soup with small truffles raviolis and freshly shaved truffles that was the highlight for me. The texture was velvety and the flavors just made me smile. When it came time for the Kobe, I knew that I was way past being full, but there was no way I was not eating that beef. If you could have seen the marbling, you would be unable to resist as well.

The next morning we were all in the kitchen bright and early to get ready for dinner #1. (The first dinner sold out rather quickly so we decided to do two.) My main focus was braising that pork belly. I got it in first thing and moved on to some other projects. Hours later, when I pulled it from the oven, it tasted like porky goodness. Though it needed a bit more love. I began reducing the braising liquid to enhance the flavors then added some coconut milk to add even more richness. I sautéed some onion, garlic and tomato, added in the pulled pork belly and then simmered it in the now very flavorful broth. My final scallop dish would be served with sunchoke puree; coconut braised pork belly and a chilled salad of Satsuma orange, cerignola olive and shaved Brussels sprouts.

The rest of the meal was great and I had a ton of fun working with the mustache men. Payton served his version of liver and onions which I just wanted to dive in to. And the cannelloni were filled with delicious beet greens that had been stewed with suckling pig. Need I say more? I have been out of my old restaurant Scylla for a while now and this made me miss it a lot. The intensity of working on the line and the satisfaction of watching the guests enjoy the meal. Plus kitchen people are just fun to hang out with, and these guys are certainly no exception.

I guess next time I will have to bring some of the stache guys down to The Drunken Goat to do a dinner with me. I am sure as long as it has not yes reached the sub zero temps I can get them out here to hang.