Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The best meal of my life

My (37th) birthday was Thursday, August 19th. Being mid-week we opted to delay the official celebration until Saturday the 21st. My favorite restaurant in the world is McCrady's, headed up by Chef Sean Brock, so it was the obvious choice.

I have met Chef Brock a few times, and about a year ago he said to let him know when I was coming in to McCrady's and he would do something special. I have the most over the top case of hero worship for Chef Brock that you can imagine. It would be like Geddy Lee offering to sing "happy birthday" to a Rush fan, or a tween girl getting a hug from Justin Bieber. So I was over the moon when he made this offer, but I was too timid to do anything about it. We dined in anonymity at McCrady's several times until I finally worked up the courage to e-mail Chef Brock and take him up on his offer. He responded and we exchanged a couple of e-mails so he could get an idea of what to do.

So it was with an incredible level of excitement and more than a little nervous anxiety that we arrived at McCrady's for 6:30 dinner reservations. We were seated and offered a wine list but no menus. The waiter knew Chef Brock had a special menu for us which was going to remain a secret. Our only choice was whether to do wine pairings, which we did.

What followed was a dining experience the likes of which I never imagined existed. We have dined at Providence, one of three Michelin 2 star restaurants in Los Angeles, and La Pergola, which at the time was the only Michelin 3 star restaurant in all of Italy. When we travel we seek out highly regarded restaurants around the world. I can say without hesitation that this meal at McCrady's set the standard for all future fine dining experiences I will have.

I didn't write down the courses and I didn't want to take a camera to interfere with the experience, so I don't know exactly what we had. As the courses kept coming we joked about which course we were on. We lost count somewhere around seven or eight. Chef Brock came out three times to do tableside preparations and explain dishes. The last time he asked if we knew how many courses we had already had. We guessed nine. "This is number thirteen, and there is only one more," he said with a wry smile.

The first time I looked at my watch it was 9:30. I think that was around course eight. We finally left a little after 11:00, making this the longest meal I have ever had, and it eclipses any other dining experience I have ever had. It wasn't just the personal attention and it wasn't just my hero worship for Chef Brock. The food and service were spectacular. The plating was breathtaking. The flavor, texture and temperature combinations were simply sublime.

And I have to give a very special thank you to my life partner, Myron. He treated me and one of my dear friends to this spectacular experience. It was not the most expensive meal we have ever had, but it is the best. I am glad I was able to share it with him.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Why I always brine meat

Normally meat loses about 30 percent of its weight during cooking. This is because as meat cooks the fibers bind to each other more tightly, which forces out moisture. Also, as the meat cooks and the proteins bunch up the meat shrinks. That's why it's important to rest meat before you serve it. It gives the protein time to relax and the juices flow back into the meat. You can exert some control on this process by brining the meat.

Here is what happens: The salt in the brine causes some of the proteins to break down, or denature. As the proteins denature the salt binds directly to them, which prevents the proteins from binding to each other when they cook. As the meat cooks and the muscle fibers tense up they can't grab other muscle fibers and wring out the moisture. The end result is a jucier steak, pork chop, chicken breast or piece of fish.

Did I just say fish? Why yes I did, because there is also an aesthetic reason for brining. Have you ever noticed when you cook meat -- but especially fish -- that some weird looking foamy white stuff comes out and looks like egg whites when it cooks? That's because it's the same protein that's in egg whites. As the muscle tenses up during cooking the albumin liquefies and gets forced out. This is the protein that brining breaks down. So if you brine your meats first this protein won't ooze out, giving you a nicer-looking end product.

Below is a chart showing some general guidelines for brining different meats.

I also brine steaks and roasts in a 10% by weight brine for 24 - 72 hours. That is 3.5oz salt to 1QT (32oz) water. (Technically it's 3.555 oz, I round down to make it easier on me. And yes, I use a scale.) You can add other ingredients to further enhance the flavor, such as garlic powder, onion powder, cardamom, cloves, tamarind powder, cayenne, preserved lemon, or just about any other spice. Just be careful about adding too much. Since it will get soaked into the meat you can end up with a very oddly flavored end result.

I find that meat brined in a lower sodium brine for longer is more tender and flavorful when cooked, but that's simply my observation. Your mileage may vary.

Image from Check out that article for more information and tips on brining.