Sunday, February 13, 2011

Love: What, How, When. And Cardamom Ice-Cream.

When you parse out words like I do all day, and when it is the week before the ultra-commercialized Valentine's Day, you cannot help but dissect love, everything about it. What it is. How it is. When it is.


Love is action. You do it. You make it happen. It is not a lingering feeling inside of you but rather a ball of fire that forms from within and expresses itself through action, the action of...loving. Love is the verb that wakes you up, the force that gets you going through the day, the perpetual act you perform when you call a close friend, when you plan a celebration, when you pick up a thoughtful gift, when you comfort the person next to you, no matter who they are. Love is the action that parallels your every pleasure, your every kind gesture, your every soft touch. It is an inner power that carries out in so many ways. You love - from the smallest things to the grandest ones. The leap you take to love is fulfilling and selfless at same time. It feels good to love. It satisfies. It expects nothing back.


No matter how hard I have tried, and I have tried very hard, no matter how non-religious my views are, I found no better way to describe how love is than this:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never ends. - 1 Corinthians 13:5-7


Love, the verb, occurs always. It happens. It knows no calendar. You love not on Valentine's Day more than any other day, but every single day, every hour and minute- love. There is no set of rules, no schedule, no timeline. Love is perpetual. All the time. Every place. Every breath is filled with the action that is love.

So today, right now and always, for the one you love, a sweet treat- cardamon ice cream.

Cardamom Ice Cream, a Charlie Trotter-adapted recipe.

Ingredients: 2 cups heavy cream; 10 cardamom pods; 1 tablespoon orange zest; 4 egg yolks; 1/4 cup sugar.

Grind the cardamom pods in a (very clean) spice mill or coffee grinder that you only use for spices.

Add the ground cardamom and orange zest to the heavy cream, blend, and place it in a nonreactive pan over medium-low heat until it comes to a very gentle simmer. Remove from heat. Cover and let it steep for 30 minutes.

In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar until the yolks become a shade of yellow lighter and the sugar is dissolved.

Reheat the cream mixture to a very gentle simmer. Temper the eggs by adding very small amounts of the hot cream mixture to the eggs and stirring continuously until you add about 1/2 of the hot liquid in. Then pour the egg mixture in with the rest of the hot cream mixture.

Return the pot to the stove on medium heat and stir continuously with a wooden spoon the mixture forms a custard that coats the back of the spoon, probably 3-5 minutes.

Strain through a tamis or fine mesh sieve into a bowl set on ice water. Stir until cool to touch.

Place in the ice cream maker for 25-30 minutes, depending on your type of ice cream maker.

Freeze, enjoy, love.

Photography by Jennifer Olson.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Simple, Thoughtful Cooking

It was a hot August night when I first saw Dakota Soifer from across the meadow at Cure Farm in Boulder. The farm was buzzing with diners ready to take their seats. The white clothed table was set on a path flanked with rows of arugula on one side and herbs on the other. The sun was mercifully setting, the drink service was painfully slow, appetites ran high. From the make-shift kitchen in the back, Dakota was cooking with a calm and a playfulness that nearly seemed to contradict each other- easy, rhythmic, pleasing.

Months later, I came across a Facebook page for a restaurant-soon-to-open in Boulder. Dakota was opening Café Aion, in an unlikely location, with a dubiously small budget, suspiciously little professional help in opening a new business, and hardly any hired help on the remodel of a space that needed significant work. A do-it-yourself-project that now, knowing what I know about him, makes perfect sense.

Dakota grew up in a small town in Maine. His father worked as a chef for years, but left the kitchen to chase an equally creative and labor-intensive path as a carpenter. His mother, a woman who successfully pursued a PhD in Eastern religions, worked part-time as a college professor and cooked ceaselessly with inspiration filtered through her studies (think endless versions of Asian dumplings), the seasons, and a vast family garden.

The family of four shared a home built by his father. A tree ran through the middle of the dining room and kitchen, centering the house around food. They raised chickens, some for laying eggs, some for eating. Mom used a large garden to supply her cooking with everything that would grow there. She canned everything. She made blue-ribbon winning pies; dad grilled; the boys reluctantly helped in the garden.

By the time high school came around, they would travel 30 minutes each way to school every day. Simple kids who loved the outdoors, they swam, hiked, climbed, or plainly played in the mud. And they always loved helping in the kitchen. In the summers, the Soifer brothers took jobs with an uncle in New York. He owned a catering company and had the two teenage brothers working hard. At the ripe age of 22, admittedly in over his head, Dakota had a real job as a chef cooking for big concerts in central park.

He came to Boulder for college in 1999, admitted in the contemporary dance program and architecture programs at the University of Colorado. I would have never guessed dance; as it turned out, architecture it was. He fell in love with Boulder, the casualness, the dazing mountains, the appreciation for food.

With college behind him, he headed off to California to cook. He watched Judi Rodgers obsess over creased lettuce leaves at Zuni Cafe. He settled in Napa and grabbed a bite to eat late night at Bouchon weekly because it was right there. He cooked at Julia’s kitchen and fully experienced the big fancy kitchen set on three acres of California gardens vested with 3 walk-ins with motion sensor operating doors. And it wasn’t long until he returned to Boulder and practiced a decently large cooking operation at The Kitchen. Then he hummed along Bella the Bus at Meadowlark Farm Dinners for a summer cooking with what each farm had to offer.

And he was ready, as ready- as a 29 year old, deeply type B relaxed personality, part-time single parent to a toddler named after a private label rum, with no personal business experience, but a deep commitment to his vision- could be. He opened a restaurant with what from the outside looked like a delusional ease. He claims to have been nervous- no trace of nervousness was detected.

Weeks before the restaurant opening, I found myself at Dakota's house. In a home he shared with two room-mates, I was watching some 7 courses exiting a tiny cluttered kitchen. Friends gathered for what was a very casual menu sampling party. Here I was in the middle of an incredible dinner that stood out both in the thoughtfulness yet simplicity of the food as well as in the casual and relaxed atmosphere. There were no pretenses, no formalities - just friends, sharing food.

That is what Cafe Aion became when it opened its doors early April last year. Dakota managed to translate his personality and his style of cooking into a restaurant that captures the essence of his background and vision. The atmosphere and food share a comfort, an ease, and a simplicity that you are hard-pressed to find in many places. A playground for the grownup cook, Cafe Aion thrives on local ingredients, uncomplicated presentations, an intimate environment.

Dakota shared his mother's polenta with ragu and poached egg at Aion for brunch since he opened his restaurant. And not long ago, he shared the process of making it with me.

Anson Mills Polenta with Poached Egg and Tomato Ragu

Polenta: ½ cup Anson Mills polenta; 4 tablespoons butter; salt to taste ¼ cup finely grated parmesan cheese.

Bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Add salt to the water then pour the polenta into the boiling water in a slow stream.

Stir continuously with a wooden spoon over medium heat to prevent any lumps from forming. Continue stirring to bring out the starches out of the grain for 2-3 minutes. Turn the heat down lo medium-low and allow it to cook for 30-35 minutes stirring occasionally. At the very end, add the butter until melted and stir the parmesan in.

Ragu: ¼ cup olive oil; 1 large yellow onion, peeled; 2 medium carrots, peeled; 6 celery sticks; 1 green bell pepper, cored and seeded; 2 teaspoon mixed spices (½ teaspoon fennel seeds; ½ teaspoon cumin seeds; ½ teaspoon coriander seeds; ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes); 2 cups stewed tomatoes, crushed; 6-8 springs of thyme tied up together with twine.

Chop all the vegetables into ½ inch dice. Heat the olive oil in a large sautĂ© pan on high heat. Add all of the vegetables and stir to coat them with the oil. Keep the heat on high to allow the sugars in the vegetables to caramelize and keep stirring until the vegetables soften, about 10-15 minutes.

Grind and mix the spices with your mortar and pestle. Add them to the vegetables, along with salt and pepper to taste.

Add the crushed tomatoes and all of the juices that the tomatoes released, as well as the thyme. Allow it to cook and reduce on medium heat for another 25-30 minutes.

Poach the eggs by bringing a deep pot of water to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons of vinegar per quart of water. Reduce to a simmer and crack the shell of the egg on the side of your pot, gently lowering the egg into the water. With a spoon, nudge the egg whites closer to their yolk. The eggs cook for approximately 3 to 5 minutes depending on the firmness desired. Remove the eggs from the water with a slotted spoon.

To serve, spoon half of the polenta in 2 bowls, add a generous serving of the ragu, and top each bowl with one egg...or two. Add another sprinkle of salt and dig in!

And if you don't feel like making it, head on over to Cafe Aion. Dakota will probably be cooking up a storm in the kitchen.