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A FRANK Tale: Side B

Photos in this blog appear courtesy of Christian Eggers, unless otherwise stated.

It has been 1 year, 1 month, and 2 weeks since I blogged last.  I’m lame.

Actually, I’m just incredibly busy.  FRANK’s momentum has skyrocketed (along with its popularity…we’ve got almost 8,000 people on our list now) and it has kept me so busy I’ve barely had time to breathe, let alone blog.  This summer, a feature article written about us in Edible Dallas magazine was nominated for an Eddy Award!  (This is a nation-wide award recognizing superior journalism from the entire network of Edible magazines.)

Also, the Dallas Observer did a feature article on us as part of their series on counter-culture in Dallas.  Their brand-new food editor, Beth Rankin, joined our table for a night and we had such a great time meeting her.  Beth is the new generation of food writer.  Less critic, and more proponent.  Championing local, sustainable foods and chefs working in unconventional ways.  Celebrating the food scene rather than tearing it apart.  Encouraging folks to get out and explore new food concepts.  I think Dallas readers will voraciously digest her work!

But today I’m FINALLY carving out a little time to write about our latest dinner series: Side B.  Before we have to start working on our NEXT dinner series!

Adrien looks SO thrilled to be smooching me. Photo courtesy of Melissa Hennings Photography. Thanks, Mel!

Adrien looks SO thrilled to be smooching me. Photo courtesy of Melissa Hennings Photography. Thanks, Mel!

Last year (when I wasn’t blogging at all), Jennie proposed a unique FRANK theme.  “Side A,” where every course was inspired by a song.  There’s no shortage of songs that reference food, so a menu came together pretty quickly, and the audience LOVED it.  (Of course, the songs accompanied the dinner.)  Over the course of the year that followed, “Side B” became the single-most requested encore theme by our return diners.

So in June of 2016, we did Side B.  Creating a menu from music requires a bit more time than creating a menu based on a cuisine or an ingredient.  First of all, we have to compile a list of songs that reference food or ingredients, either literally or metaphorically, but then we have to curate that list to only include songs we’d want to play during dinner.  While there were lots of ideas sparked by Nina Simone’s epic “Strange Fruit,” the context of the song is horrific and disturbing to those who know it, and for those who don’t, the pace of the song would drag down the energy of a communal table even if you WEREN’T listening to its tragic words.

After compiling our list of curated songs, then it was time to create a menu based on them.  Jennie and Adrien and I each individually dreamed up our own 6 course menu based on the list, and we came together one afternoon to compare menus and extrapolate our master FRANK menu from them.  Turns out, there was a lot of crossover in our menus, so the main menu came together rapidly.

sideb

What was a bit stunning to us AFTER we created the menu, was that it was predominantly classic foods from the American South.  We didn’t intend for that to happen.  Often, our menus bounce around the globe from course to course, and we certainly expected that to be the case since our source of inspiration was song lyrics from artists as disparate as Snoop Dog, Willie Nelson, David Bowie, Rufus Wainwright, Led Zeppelin, and Peaches.  We assumed the menu would be wildly whimsical and somewhat schizophrenic.  But we took a breath and stepped back and looked at it…and it was like a little roadtrip from Charleston to New Orleans.

How is that possible?

Thinking about it more deeply, I’m not sure it’s all that strange.  Southern cuisine…the only truly iconic, identifiable, legendary cuisine to come out of the US (though some will argue with me on that)…has its roots in Africa.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, virtually every kitchen in this country was powered by African slaves, and later, the free descendants of African slaves.  Their traditions and ingredients and techniques are the backbone of Southern cooking.

Similarly, their musical traditions formed the backbone of our music traditions in this country…influenced, of course, by folk music traditions of other immigrant populations, just as those same populations left their mark on our cuisine.  And American music stretched out its influential fingers to the rest of the world, inspiring even the great rock bands to come out of the UK.  But it all traces its roots back to the cultural influence of the slaves.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that, although Peaches and Robert Plant and Ella Fitzgerald and Adam Levine inspired the menu, it all came back to the American South.

To start, what better than a deviled egg?  I can remember, as a kid, eating no less than 6 deviled eggs at a time at church potlucks…barely chewing them as I crammed them in.  I LOVED deviled eggs.  Somewhere along the line, I lost touch with them…as did lots of folks in this country…until a resurgence in popularity over the past few years.  Now you see them as starters in even the trendiest and most-chic of restaurants.  And that’s a good thing.

An Akaushi (ie "red cow") bull

An Akaushi (ie “red cow”) bull

Ours was decidedly NOT traditional.  Rather than basing the filling of the deviled egg on the yolk itself, we stuffed ours with raw beef, taking inspiration from Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s lyric “Baby, I like it raw!”  (Though he decidedly was NOT talking about beef.)  We used tenderloin from the Beeman Ranch…an incredible Texas family ranch that’s producing the ONLY legally-certified Akaushi beef in the US.  Akaushi (properly pronounced “ah-kah-OO-shee”) translates from the Japanese as, simply, “red cow” and is one of 4 heritage breeds of cattle that can legally be called “Wagyu.”  You see that word a lot on menus these days, particularly in reference to burgers.  Sadly, when you see “Wagyu burgers” being advertised, it’s very rarely 100% certified Wagyu beef.  If it was, that burger would be $30.  TRUE Wagyu beef is breathtakingly expensive because of the stringent genetic and animal husbandry requirements the Japanese government places upon that label.  The cattle must be pure-bred, one of the 4 approved breeds, DNA-tested, and trace its heritage back to established family lines.  Their diet is strictly designated…some are fed all the beer they want to drink, and the spent-grain leftover from beer and whiskey making, and get several hours of massage every day.  Most American ranchers would rather just raise the classic Angus cattle and not worry with the beer and the massages…but the Beeman family adheres to the strict standards of the Japanese government, and are the ONLY ranch in the US that can legally market Akaushi beef.  The quality is extraordinary.  And it’s really a crime to apply any heat to their tenderloin at all.

I admit…for the majority of my life I was terrified of the idea of raw meat.  Growing up, ground beef and brisket were pretty much the only beef I ever ate, and brisket is too tough to eat raw, and ground beef from the grocery store will surely kill you if not cooked to well-done.  I remember the anxiety I felt the first time I was pressured into eating steak tartare.  It was in Europe on a writer’s press trip.  The other writers on the trip were far more cultured than I, and when the tartare came to the table, they were all drooling with excitement.  I tried to excuse myself to the bathroom, but they saved me a portion when I returned.  By that time, they had all finished and were moaning about how good it was, and waiting see what I thought…so discreetly slipping it into my napkin wasn’t an option.  Trembling, I forked the pile of little raw cubes into my mouth…and fell in love.  It was nothing like I expected.  Succulent, savory, tender.  Like my first oyster (which happened on MasterChef and I was equally terrified of), I’ve been in love ever since.  But I’ve always vehemently resisted putting tartare on the menu at FRANK because I assumed the majority of the public felt the same way about raw beef that I did.  And about half our diners did confess that it was the first tartare they’d ever eaten.  But MANY people try things for the first time at FRANK that they’ve always been scared of.  And the tartare deviled egg was a huge hit.

If you’ve eaten at FRANK or read my blogs, you know that our signature “63.5 degree egg” almost always makes an appearance on our menus.  For this dinner, we just took the creamy, custardy yolk from the slow-poached egg and bathed the tiny beef cubes in it, along with some caper, horseradish, raw shallot, and baby pickles.  It was a bite for the history books.  We actually thought we had invented the steak-tartare deviled egg, though it turns out some other restaurants have done it before.  But it sure was a great moment when we came up with it!  We picked a song from our beloved Dallas artist The Reverend Horton Heat to accompany Ol’ Dirty Bastard: “Eat a steak, eat a steak, eat a big ol’ steer…”  And we also loved the funny song “Ham and Eggs” from Tribe Called Quest, but there was no ham yet in our vision of the tartare deviled egg.  So we got a country ham from our friends at Laraland Farms, and no ordinary ham, at that.  The folks at Laraland raise a rare heritage breed of pig called Red Wattle, which has a long and colorful history in the US, and is the single most delicious pig we have on this planet.  We cubed up the ham, dehydrated it in the oven, and processed it until it was the texture of salt.  We used this to season the egg, so we were able to play, “I don’t eat no ham and eggs cuz they’re high in cholesterooooooool” as the guests chuckled, licking their lips.  It was finished with chive and lemon zest.  It was an epic deviled egg, to say the least.

Deviled egg tartare: Beeman Ranch Akaushi tenderloin, 63 degree yolk, horseradish, caper, cornichon, ham salt

Deviled egg tartare: Beeman Ranch Akaushi tenderloin, 63 degree yolk, horseradish, caper, cornichon, ham salt

For the salad course, we KNEW we had to serve a peach salad.  Not only are there tons of songs that reference peaches, it’s peach season in Texas right now, and forgive me if you live in Georgia, but the best peaches in the country are raised right here!  Mona at Lola’s Local Market in Melissa gave us the first crop of peaches from her Uncle Ron, and they were a huge hit!  (By the way, don’t ever put peaches in the refrigerator, or buy them at any place that has them refrigerated.  When a peach drops below about 50 degrees and it’s not dead-ripe, it develops a fuzzy, chunky texture on the inside known as “wooly peach.”  The flavor can still be great, but it’s not pleasurable to eat.  Leave your peaches on the countertop until they are soft, then eat them immediately!  It’s really, REALLY hard for a restaurant to serve properly-ripe peaches, because the day they ripen they have to be served…within 24 hours, they’ll be too soft to serve.  This is why you rarely see peaches on menus!)

"What else is in the teaches of Peaches?" Photo by Vice Cooler.

“What else is in the teaches of Peaches?” Photo by Vice Cooler.

There’s NO shortage of “peach” songs, and we probably could have played 10 or more for this course, but we picked Snoop Dog’s “Peaches and Cream,” (along with Beck’s song of the same title), Prince’s “Peach,” and a cute song from In the Valley Below called “Peaches.”  And, of course, we had to play a song from one of our VERY favorite artists, who goes by the name Peaches.  If you don’t know Peaches, you probably should.  This Canadian music teacher-turned-artist is absolutely insane, in the best way possible.  Her songs tend to be pretty raunchy, and she loves blurring the lines of gender, beauty, and sexuality, but her music is just so darn fun!  One of our favorite songs of hers is “F–k the Pain Away,” and the lyrics are wayyy to explicit to post here, but check out this film school student’s graduation project where he edited Miss Piggy clips to perfectly fit the lyrics.  It’s one of the greatest things ever.  I love, love, LOVE Peaches.  (Thanks, Justin, for being the first person to introduce me to her music.  I became so much cooler because of that!)

The peaches and cream salad scored a lot of votes…many of which were, surprisingly, from men who confessed that they normally despise salads.  And salads are so often a throw-away course on a tasting menu.  Five ingredients tossed together with a bold dressing.  Not ours!  In addition to the obligatory fresh peaches and creme fraiche, we had spicy arugula, some prosciutto, thinly shaved cucumber, fresh basil, local plum tomatoes from Mona, Swiss chard stems, toasted pumpkin, chia, and hemp seeds for incredible crunch and a lingering, nutty-sesame flavor, and dressed with a tarragon lime vinaigrette.  And, finally, celery.  Often a throwaway ingredient in salads, celery absolutely shines when paired with peaches.  The contrasting texture and flavor is TO DIE FOR.  Next time it’s peach season in your area, make yourself a salad of celery and peaches.  It’ll blow your mind.

Peaches and Cream Salad  with arugula, celery, cuke, tomato, prosciutto, basil, toasted seeds, tarragon lime dressing

Peaches and Cream Salad with arugula, celery, cuke, tomato, chard stems, prosciutto, basil, crispy seeds, tarragon lime dressing

And while we’re talking seasonality…NEVER buy peaches outside your local peach season.  (In Texas that’s mid June through mid July.)  You’ll normally find them in your grocery store year-round, but when you start seeing TONS of them, that’s usually when they’re in season locally.  Outside peach season, those peaches are being shipped in from halfway across the globe, they have to be picked well before they ripen, and they have to be kept refrigerated during transport, which ruins their texture.  Peaches are downright nasty out of season.  So enjoy them indulgently when they’re fresh and local, and don’t touch them the rest of the year.  (That will make your first bite of the first peach of the season that much more orgasmic!)

Next up was a course inspired by Bob Dylan’s song “Country Pie.”  (Again, not sure he was REALLY singing about actual pie.)  There are tons of songs about pie.  Last year we used “American Pie” for the dessert course, and served a knock-out cast iron skillet apple pie, served warm with homemade cinnamon ice cream and salted caramel sauce, so this year we figured we’d use a pie song for a savory course.  This one was simple in terms of the number of ingredients, but spectacular in flavor.  It won “best course of the night” virtually every night of the 3-week run.  A goat, wild mushroom, and allium pie with homemade goat cheese and citrus herb sauce.  Americans don’t eat enough goat meat.  It’s delicious.  (In the right hands.  I spent 2 weeks every summer at church camp in deep West Texas, on a goat farm, and we had barbecued goat for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Ugh!)

Our pie filling was ground goat belly from an extraordinary local farm, Triple J.  The Jasso family have a unique business model for a small family farm.  For most small farms, the animals that are raised there have to be taken off the farm to be sent to a finishing farm, or to the processing facility.  (ie, slaughterhouse)  This means a VERY scary ride on an 18-wheeler or a train to get to the facility, which is sometimes several states away.  The Jassos go to extraordinary expense to maintain a USDA-inspected processing facility right there on their small family farm…meaning their animals spend their entire lives in the pasture and never get herded onto a scary truck.  You can pick your animal directly from the pasture if you’re buying a whole one!  They offer goat, lamb, beef, and chicken.  It’s an extraordinary local resource for the Dallas area.

chant2In addition to the goat, we included tons of members of the allium family…the group of vegetables that includes onions, garlic, shallots, leeks, chives, etc.  (This allowed us to play Marvin Gaye’s fun “The Onion Song.”)  And to match the bold flavors of the alliums and goat, we added wild mushrooms!  It was such a wet early summer here in Dallas that we had chanterelles exploding all over the place!  I picked no less than 10 pounds within a couple of miles of my house.  And not no measly, bug-eaten, floppy chanties.  Big, firm, beautiful, pristine, apricot-smelling chanterelles, the kind you normally find in the Pacific Northwest!  I honestly think chanterelles have become my favorite wild mushroom.  The flavor is incomparable.  A perfect foil for bold-flavored goat!

Freshly-rendered lard sold at virtually every decent Latin American market.

Freshly-rendered lard sold at virtually every decent Latin American market.

The pie filling was wrapped in an herbed crust made with lard.  NOTHING…and I mean nothing…beats lard as a cooking fat.  But we don’t use it in this country any more, which is kind of weird considering the prevalence of butter pastries.  Lard has less cholesterol, less saturated fat, and more healthy monounsaturated fat than butter.  (ie…lard is BETTER for you than butter.)  My lard pastry recipe takes less than 5 minutes to make, unlike a lengthy butter pastry, which involves careful cutting of butter into the flour and lengthy chilling times.  But it’s still impossibly flaky and richer than a butter crust, but with LESS overall fat.  And while we’re talking about lard, DO NOT go to your normal grocery store to get it.  The only lard sold in conventional grocery stores has been hydrogenated to ensure it remains solid at room temperature.  That turns it into a trans fat, and changes its baking properties at the same time.  Go to your local Latin American market, where you’ll find freshly-rendered lard next to the pork rinds/chicharones.  It may be semi- or entirely liquid.  That’s fine.  That’s the good stuff.  It will solidify in your fridge, but you can leave it on the counter for several days at room temp.  Bacon fat works the same way as lard and can be substituted, but remember that it has a distinctive smokey flavor, as well as salt, so omit some salt in a recipe where you’re subbing bacon fat for lard or unsalted butter.

We served the pie with homemade goat cheese using raw milk I got from a wonderful local goat farm.  I won’t say which one, because they may or may not be licensed by the state to sell raw milk to the public.  You can get legal raw goat’s milk from either Latte Da Dairy in Flower Mound (but their customer list is VERY long, so you may only be able to buy if they’re in full milking season), or from the Hidden Valley Creamery in Argyle.  Chevre (French-style goat cheese) is scorned by many people because of it’s bold flavor, but if you make it yourself, fresh, it’s downright divine.  (SO many people at the table said they hated goat cheese, but loved ours.)  Making chevre, or fresh goat cheese, is astonishingly easy, provided you have mesophilic cheese culture, rennet, a thermometer, and some cheesecloth.  Click HERE for the recipe.

And to finish off the pie, Adrien made a “frim fram” sauce.  He’s known for doing these fresh herb sauces, versions of which are found in many cuisines around the world, from the chimichurries of Argentina to the Salsa Verdes of Italy and Spain.  You take tons of fresh green herbs…cilantro, parsley, basil, mint, anything you have, and puree them (stems and all!) with fresh alliums (garlic and shallot at the least), good olive oil, and some type of acid (citrus, vinegar, wine, or a combo) and you get this intensely-bright flavored puree.  The jazz classic standard “Frim Fram Sauce” seemed as good a fit as any, and we picked the Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald version, though everyone and their dog has recorded it.

This course was one of my favorite things we’ve EVER made at FRANK.  The flavor was just incredible.  Rich and bold from the goat, chanterelles, and alliums.  An impossibly flaky, rich, savory crust with herbs baked into it, topped with crispy puffed wild rice.  Then the rich, tangy cheese, and the bright herb sauce to cut through the richness of everything.  Simple food, not that many ingredients, and very rustic in presentation.  But soul-filling.  And super local.    Click HERE for the full goat pie recipe.

Hand Pie of local goat and foraged chanterelles, with housemade chevre and "frim fram" sauce.

Hand Pie of local goat and foraged chanterelles, with housemade chevre and “frim fram” sauce.

After such a rich dish, the palate needed a break, so we made a really nice, tart, bright sorbet of clementine and tangerine juice (a la “Tangerine” by Led Zeppelin, and “Clementine” by our friend Sarah Jaffe.  Look that song up, it’s one of the loveliest I’ve heard in a long time, and if you don’t know Sarah Jaffe, you need to!)  When we tasted the base, it was lovely and tangy and sweet…but missing something.  Normally, the answer to that question in the professional kitchen is “It’s missing acid,” but this was ALL acid.  We added some cayenne pepper for a bit of heat, and that did it!  We served the sorbet with a pourover of tequila.  (Not necessarily classically Southern, but much enjoyed in the South in modern times!)  It was topped with some lime zest and a dash of chili salt.  Like the yummiest margarita ever!

Clementine Tangerine Cayenne Sorbet with Tequila Blanco

Clementine Tangerine Cayenne Sorbet with Tequila Blanco

For the main attraction, we served up a punchy jambalaya, from the classic New Orleans song by the same name.  It’s been covered by everyone from The Carpenters to Elvis, but Hank Williams made it famous.  (Written, however, by an obscure artist named Moon Mullican, whose version is still the best!)    Traditionally, jambalaya is a dish of rice with sausage and chicken, with its roots VERY firmly in African culinary tradition, and influenced by the cuisines of Spain and France…the cultural melange that created both Cajun and Creole cuisines.  We decided to also add some crawfish to the jambalaya, since it’s in season right now, and it let us play Elvis’s fun little song “Crawfish.”

Plating the main course

Plating the main course

Despite the crawfish, the local organic chicken, and the smoked Andouille sausage, the most expensive ingredient in the dish wasn’t the meat…it was the rice!!  Back during the Plantation era, a type of aromatic rice was being grown in the Carolinas that became so popular in the kitchens of Europe that it became known as “Carolina Gold” in the same way that oil is referred to as “Black Gold.”  Back then, the trade routes from Asia weren’t as well established as the trans-Pacific crossing, so the exotic aromatic rices (Basmati and Jasmine) from the East were far too expensive, so the aromatic rice from the Colonies was in high demand.  This rice was aged for 2-3 years in barrels with laurel leaves (a relative of the bay leaf) which perfumed it delicately.  But as the US agriculture system began to industrialize after first World War, Carolina Gold fell out of favor with both farmers AND chefs.  Cheaper Jasmine and Basmati rice was coming plentifully out of the East, and because Carolina Gold was an old heirloom variety, newer improved varieties could produce MORE rice per acre of farmland, AND it could go to market without being aged for several years first.  So…the rice went extinct.  A few seeds were saved in the seed banks of the South Carolina ag extension service.  Visionary chef and restaurateur Glenn Roberts rediscovered the rice while researching America’s culinary history, and convinced a handful of farms in South Carolina to begin raising the rice again.  His unique company Anson Mills is now one of the only sources for the rice, and it comes at a pretty penny!  $80 for 10 pounds.  Plus expedited shipping, as the rice needs to be kept refrigerated or frozen to preserve its aroma and quality.  One of the cool things about Carolina Gold is its flexible starch profile.  Some rices, particularly short grain, are excellent for producing creamy rice dishes like risotto.  Some, like the long grain, are good for producing sticky, clumping rice.  And some of the extra-long grain varieties can produce fluffy, individually separate grains that don’t stick together…perfect for serving rice on its own as a side dish.  Carolina Gold can do it all, depending on your preparation method.

Jambalaya is traditionally made with long-grain rice that sort of clumps together after cooking.  But since Carolina Gold is so flexible, Jennie chose to make the jambalaya in a style similar to risotto, coaxing out the starch to yield a creamy, smooth texture.  We had more than 1 diner with roots in Louisiana say, “Don’t ever tell my mom this, but that was the best jambalaya ever!”  Virtually all were pleasantly surprised by the departure in texture.  Jambalayas can be somewhat dry.  Not ours!  Big bold flavors from fire-charred red peppers and roasted tomatoes, and plenty of heat from traditional Creole spices.

Mona's pig Lola, the namesake of Lola's Local Produce, enjoying some local produce

Mona’s pig Lola, the namesake of Lola’s Local Produce, enjoying some local produce

To accent the jambalaya, give diversity to the dish with added veggies, and stick within Southern tradition, we garnished it with succotash…a Southern classic “hash” of corn and fresh beans or peas.  Mona provided us with tons of farm-fresh veggies from near McKinney to make this glorious succotash which included speckled butter beans and cream peas, sweet corn, as well as okra…that maligned African vegetable that can be so slimy you can’t even fork it.  That slime was put to good use thickening gumbos in Cajun tradition.  (Creole gumbos were traditionally thickened with filé, the ground up leaves of the sassafras tree.)  For more on the difference between Cajun and Creole cuisine, which are NOT the same, read my blog on our New Orleans dinner.  To minimize the sliminess of okra, slice it and soak it in vinegar for 30 minutes.  Then rinse well in a colander, as the slime will come out like crazy.  After rinsing, cook in small batches in a VERY hot pan, and the slime (officially called “mucilage”) will all come out and the moisture will evaporate, leaving the vegetable perfectly cooked and slime-free.  High heat and small batches are the key, in addition to that vinegar soak, which lightly seasons the okra and makes it delicious!  Of course, we played that Deee-lite classic “Groove is in the Heart” with the lyric “My supper dish, my succotash wish!”  I may or may not have performed that line to our audience.  There may or may not have been requests for me to perform the full song.

Crawfish Jambalaya with local succotash

Crawfish Jambalaya with local succotash

Dessert at FRANK is usually a fairly grand affair, but we decided to pull the songs “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” by Rufus Wainwright (one of my favorite singer-songwriters) and Kelis’s “Milkshake” and do something out of the ordinary…a tobacco-infused chocolate-milk milkshake!  Folks rarely cook with tobacco, even though its flavor can be used in very unique and delicious ways.  I’ve had tobacco ice cream at Uchiko in Austin, and a tobacco and peach julep at Ida Claire in Addison (which you MUST check out if you live in Dallas!), so we decided to head the tobacco route.

HOWEVER…tobacco contains a toxin that is absolutely deadly in the right dosage.  That toxin is a stimulant called nicotine, which is the 2nd most popular recreational drug in the country behind ethyl alcohol (ie…booze.)  When you smoke or chew tobacco, you only absorb some of this nicotine.  But when you actually EAT tobacco, your digestive tract pulls considerably more nicotine than you’d otherwise get from smoking or chewing, making it dangerous to eat tobacco unless you’re being careful about the dosage.  I’ve published a blog backed up by studies from the National Institutes of Health that may well be one of the only solid references on the internet about cooking with tobacco.  Click here to read it.

We turned the tobacco chocolate ice cream into a milkshake with bourbon (so we could play Willie’s “Whiskey River,”) and made it a DIRTY milkshake by adding some crunchy ingredients that resembled ashes (in keeping with the cigarette theme, plus that allowed us to play Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes”): toasted brownie crumble, toasted hazelnuts, some freeze dried berries, and a few pop rocks (for good measure and surprise).  And to finish, we piped in apple wood smoke in the top section of the mason jar we served it in, so that as diners opened the lid, the smoke came out:

Tobacco Chocolate Milkshake with bourbon, smoke, and "ashes"

Tobacco Chocolate Milkshake with bourbon, smoke, and “ashes”

The diners got SUCH a kick out of the presentation, and while the dessert wasn’t quite as substantial or complex as a typical FRANK dessert, it was a huge hit regardless.  (The nicotine content in the milkshake made your tongue tingle!)  And after such a huge, rich meal, a country milkshake was the perfect thing to cap it off.

We have a handful of diners that fill last-minute cancellations for us, and have dined at dozens of our dinners.  We always ask them, “How did this fare with previous menus?”  See, restaurants normally have largely-static menus.  Some items may change 3 or 4 times a year with the seasons…but for the most party, they cook the same thing night after night, week after week, month after month.  (With maybe a few specials or a tasting menu based on their regular menu thrown in for variety.)  They get to perfect their dishes based on the feedback from hundreds of diners across hundreds of days.  At FRANK, our menu changes completely every single time we open, and we haven’t repeated a dish in 4 years. Which is why we’re always a little nervous, since we’re always a brand new restaurant each time we open.  So we’re eager to hear from these “regulars,” most of whom have eaten every single menu over the past few years.  We often hear, “Oh, this one I think was my favorite.”  But we heard that SO many times with this menu, with such vehemence, that we may have crowned a new all-time-favorite FRANK.  Certainly, the music theme had much to do with it.  But like Jennie says, Music and Food are One.  They’re each composed carefully of different flavors, different harmonies, different textures, different voices.  Creating a dish is like writing a song.  No wonder they go so well together…

How to Find Chanterelles

A Golden Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius) I found in the DFW area June 2, 2015

It’s official…Chanterelle season has started.  How do I know?  Because I found one yesterday.  The Chanterelle season in the US normally begins in early June in the southern areas along the Gulf coast.  North Texas doesn’t usually start seeing them until later in June, but the recent flooding has brought them early.  Northern climes may not see them until early fall, so if you’re wondering when they fruit in your area, a Google search will likely be more helpful than I will.  And, as always, Chanterelle season is ENTIRELY dependent upon rainfall.  No rain, no mushrooms.  The best time to search begins 2-3 days after a heavy rainfall in hot, humid weather, and continuing for 2-3 weeks after that rain, especially if it keeps raining.

Chanterelles are among the easiest wild mushrooms to identify, and they grow in every state but Hawaii.  They have NO deadly look-alikes, and the only possible toxic (but not deadly) mushrooms that could be confused with the Chanterelle are easily identified, as well.

Chanterelles do not have gills, like most of the mushrooms we are familiar with.  Instead, they have blunt “ridges” that run down the underside of the cap onto the stem, and these ridges distinctly fork or split along their path:

Jack o’Lantern mushrooms (Omphalotus olearius) have paper-thin gills that do not fork.  This single identifying characteristic is enough to clearly distinguish between the two.  The other rule of thumb to help identify a chanterelle is that chanterelles NEVER grow on wood.  Ever.  Jack o’Lantern mushrooms always grow on wood, normally in clusters.  (However, they may be growing on wood that is buried beneath the surface, so Jack o’Lanterns may sometimes appear to be growing on the ground.  Still, they almost always grow in clusters, and Chanterelles almost always grow singly, though there may be several in a small area.)

Jack o’Lantern mushrooms are not deadly, but they will land you in the bathroom for a couple of unpleasant days, so you certainly don’t want to eat them.  (Though, reportedly, they DO taste good!)  However, you may want to pick a Jack 0’Lantern if you find one, because their gills glow in the dark!  (Thus the name, along with their pumpkin-orange coloration.)  Take them into a pitch-black closet and wait there a minute or two for your eyes to adjust, and you’ll see the eerie green glow:

Also, when you break open the cap or stem of a Jack o’Lantern, the flesh inside is the same orange color as the skin.  When you break open a Chanterelle, the flesh is pale, creamy white.  So there’s really NEVER an excuse to confuse a Jack 0’Lantern mushroom with a Chanterelle, it’s easy as pie to know which is which.  Still, some careless folks find an orange-ish mushroom on the ground and, without even looking at it, take it home and cook it up.  Don’t be one of those folks.

The only other look-alike for Chanterelles is the False Chanterelle (Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca).  Many people eat False Chanterelles, though they don’t taste nearly as good as real Chanterelles, but some folks report adverse reactions to them, so it’s best to avoid them when you find them.  Falsies have gills that look halfway between the blunt, shallow ridges of the true Chanterelle, and the thin gills of the Jack o’Lantern:

Falsies have forked gills, just like Chanterelle, but they are much deeper and narrower, much more like the gills you’re accustomed to seeing on storebought mushrooms.  Also, the edges of the cap turn downward on a Falsie, and a true Chanterelle’s cap edge is wavy, irregular, and thin, especially when mature.  Still not sure?  Break one in half and smell.  A falsie smells like a mushroom.  A Chanterelle smells like fruit…kind of like apricots.

Chanterelles come in a variety of colors and sizes.  Some are bright red (Cantharellus cinnibarinus), some are small and yellow (Cantharellus minor, or yellowfoot), some are dark blue or black (Craterellus fallax, or black trumpets), but the most common are the Goldens (Cantharellus cibarius), which range in color from yellow to orange, and can grow to a couple of pounds each or larger!  This makes all but the black trumpets very easy to spot on the ground as you walk through the woods…they stick out like sore thumbs because of their bright coloration:

Ah, but the all-important question…where do they grow?  Chanterelles are mycorrhizal (my-cor-RYE-zul) mushrooms, which means they develop relationships with trees.  Mixed hardwood forests are always the best place to find them, around oaks, maple, beech, poplar, and birch.  In the Deep South, folks find them beneath blueberry bushes.  In mountainous areas, look for white pine and Douglas fir.  You’re looking for moist habitat, so focus your search along creekbeds and areas where water flows after a rainfall.  Many folks will follow old trails or logging roads through old forests and find them by the bucketful along the edges of the treeline.  What is most important, though, is OLD forest.  Land that was cut 10 years ago will not have enough healthy, mature trees to support Chanterelles.

Unlike the elusive Morel (which you probably know I’m obsessed with), it can be downright difficult NOT to find Chanterelles if they are in season, there has been enough rain, and you’re looking in the correct type of forest.  If there’s enough summer or early fall rain, many people will easily find 10-30 pounds per person in an afternoon of foraging.  Here in North Texas, our summers tend to be very dry, so we rarely have an epic Chanterelle OR Morel season, as our rains come in the spring, and then it quickly gets hot and dry.  But if July sees lots of thunderstorms, the Chanterelles will be out in force!  So get ready…

If you are interested in wild mushroom foraging, you MUST carry at least 2 reliable field guides to cross reference, and NEVER eat ANY mushroom you cannot positively identify, beyond a shadow of a doubt.  In many cases, this means taking a spore print.  (Guides will explain how.)  I highly recommend the books by David Arora, as well as Mushrooming Without Fear, Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America, and National Audubon Society Field Guide to  North American Mushrooms.  However, a regionally-specific guide is even more indispensable, so look for a field guide to your state or region, as well.  Eating the wrong wild mushroom will kill you.  But I’ve been foraging for wild mushrooms for years and never been sick once, because I always follow the golden rule: “If in doubt…throw it out!”

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Easter FRANK…a Tale of Texas Foraging

After my seemingly endless blog about the underground restaurant FRANK that I run with my bestie Jennie Kelley from season 2 of MasterChef, I though I’d be done writing about FRANK for awhile.  However, our Easter seatings in March were so incredibly epic and special, and so many of you have requested the story behind the menu, that I guess I’ll weave that tale in with the stories of our spring foraging in Texas.

Foraging, or harvesting food from the wild, used to be a way of life for many people in this country.  It still is, for some.  In fact, my family foraged out of necessity during a particularly impoverished part of my childhood.  I grew up fairly close to the earth…raising sheep and pigs and chickens for meat, and my grandparents knew quite a lot about the wild foods that were abundant in South Texas.  The gardens of my grandfathers fed not only our families, but many in the small hamlet of Lytle and the communities of South San Antonio where I spent my early childhood.

So foraging has always been near and dear to my heart.  Nowadays, foraging has been rediscovered by “foodies” and it has become terribly trendy to eat foraged ingredients at $100-a-plate restaurants (like FRANK…ahem…)  From the earliest days of FRANK, Jennie and I knew we wanted to do many foraged menus, but it takes FAR more work to pull off a foraged dinner than to pick your ingredients from the garden or buy them from farmers.  And, while foraging can be done in ANY season in the Dallas area, spring is ideal because there’s a LOT of wild food around, and the poison ivy is just beginning to wake up.

Poison ivy and poison oak abound in the parks and green spaces across North Texas.  These plants produce an irritant called “urushiol” (pronounced “yoo-ROO-shee-awl”) that can cause a severe immune response in humans that produces wicked-crazy blisters on the skin.  (Interesting factoid: cashews are rich in urushiol and have to be steamed to break down the toxins.  So even when you buy “raw cashews” they are still cooked to remove the poison, they just haven’t been roasted yet.)  The rash typically breaks out a day or two after exposure, and can last for a month.  Contrary to folklore, poison ivy doesn’t spread on your body after exposure (unless you continue to be exposed to the urushiol oils from unwashed clothing or shoes, your dog, etc.) and you can’t pass it from person to person by contacting the rash (though if you still have the oil on your body, you CAN pass it to other people).  Humans are the only known creatures that respond to poison ivy.  And luckily, I’ve been literally WADING through poison ivy in shorts and a t-shirt my entire life, and I’ve never had an issue.

That is…until foraging for FRANK the past few weeks!  I got the rash all over my body, even on my face!  The best way to deal with poison ivy is to immediately dust any area that came in contact with the plant with baking soda or corn starch.  This helps to dry out the oils.  (There are also some commercial soaps that will bind to the oils more effectively.)  Once you’ve done this, you can shower gently, but DON’T scrub, as you may drag the oils across your skin, increasing the exposure.  The rash will develop anywhere from a day to 4 or 5 days after exposure, and at that point, you just gotta keep it as dry as possible.  Baking soda is a fabulous remedy, as is prescription-strength steroid cream, and the old standby, calamine lotion.

I’ve spent so much time discussing poison ivy because it’s the most common enemy you will face while foraging in the summer and fall in Texas, but in spring it’s just beginning to bud out.  Even the bare dormant trunk can spread urushiol in the dead of winter, but when the leaves are out, there’s greater surface area on the plant to contact you.  If you react to poison ivy, or if you’re not sure, wear long pants and long sleeves while foraging, and immediately and carefully remove clothes and shoes when you get home and wash them.

Now…all that said, spring foraging can be VERY plentiful in north Texas (and all over the country, for that matter), so we were dead set on having a foraged menu.  And Easter seemed like a perfect time, because while everyone else was hunting for eggs, we were hunting for delicious wild goodies for our guests!

I am fortunate to live on a big forested park here in Lewisville called Central Park.  It’s nowhere near the size of the famous one in Manhattan, but it’s plenty big enough to be bursting with edible goodies in the spring, and the first things to come up are the wild garlic chives.  Often referred to as wild onions and wild garlic, these alliums are exploding with sweet garlicky-onion flavor and they grow so abundantly in the park that I could pick several pounds in about 15 minutes.  Every bit of this plant is edible, from the little white root bulb, to the flat leaves, to the round hollow stem that sends up a gorgeous little green bulb that later opens into a lovely cluster of white flowers.  In this picture you see a nice bunch of whole wild garlic chives, as well as a few handfuls of the buds.  You can use the bottom white part just like scallions or green onions, though they have a bit more bite to them, so you can also use them like regular onions.  The flat leaves can be sliced and used just like chives or green scallion.  But the buds are the real gem.  Saute them in butter with a bit of sugar and salt, and they are crisp and delicious.  Perfect with scrambled eggs, in tacos, or, like we served them, with sauteed wild mushrooms.  The only poisonous look-alike for wild garlic chive is called “crow poison” and it smells musty and NOTHING like onion.  Wild garlic chives are unmistakeably oniony smelling.

The park also yielded several lovely bunches of wood sorrel, also called oxalis.  Most people refer to this plant as clover, though true clovers (while edible) don’t have nearly the flavor of wood sorrel.  They also don’t have the heart-shaped leaves like sorrel.  Sorrel is one of the most common weeds out there, and if you come across some, it’s so easy to identify and has no poisonous look-alikes.  Next time you run across some, have a taste.  It’s like a burst of lemon and tart berry in your mouth.  So delicious it will shock you!

This is also the time that wild mustard goes crazy in our open fields, and there was plenty of it in the park.  Wild mustard is the exact same plant as the mustard greens you get in the store, it’s just that those have been selectively bred to produce larger leaves and take longer before they send up the blossom stalk.  The flavor of wild mustard is explosive, and all parts of the plant above ground are edible, from the tender, tangy leaves to the peppery broccoli-like buds to the pungent yellow blossoms.  And wild mustard is EVERYWHERE.  Within a 5 minute walk of my house, I could harvest hundreds of pounds of it.  (And I live in a normal neighborhood with a greenbelt park running through it.)  Mustard, in the same family as broccoli, kale, cabbage, and turnips, is one of the healthiest greens on the planet, packed with cancer-fighting compounds, and overloaded with vitamins and minerals.  And mustard is probably the single most common weed anywhere on the globe.  It’s everywhere.  Next time you’re driving past an open space and see little yellow flowers on top of a leafy stalk, you’re looking at wild mustard.  It has no poisonous look-alikes.  If you can find a plant that grows in at least partial shade, it will have larger leaves than those growing in full sun.  The flavor is incredible, so eat up!

I have some favorite spots in the park where I regularly find wild oyster mushrooms after a good rain, and while my normal spots didn’t yield anything, a still-standing dead tree did give us a pound of wild oysters!  Foraging for wild mushrooms can be a dangerous endeavor if you’re not careful, but luckily, oyster mushrooms have NO poisonous look-alikes.  If you find an earth-colored mushroom (it can be any color from white to cream to tan to brown) growing on dead wood that has no central stalk…the oyster blooms right out of the wood from a small stalk on its side…and the gills on the underside run downward along the stalk, you’ve found an oyster mushroom and you can safely eat it.  Wild oysters smell a bit like the sea, and I find them to be incredibly delicious.  Unfortunately, so do the bugs, so unless you’ve found just-sprouted oysters, they’re likely to be riddled with beetle holes.  (That doesn’t always stop me from eating them, but I wouldn’t serve buggy oysters at a fancy place like FRANK!)  Wild oysters grow all over the US.  Look for them on dead wood in damp areas, or after an extended rain.  They are among the most common mushrooms out there.

We also discovered some stupendously-large wild mushrooms on a damp log, one of which weighed over a POUND!  At first, they looked like chanterelles, but it’s a bit too early in the season for them, and chanterelles do not EVER grow on dead wood, only in the soil.  The chanterelle has only one poisonous look-alike, which is the jack o lantern mushroom.  Which DOES grow on dead wood.  So while this mushroom isn’t quite as orange as a normal jackolantern, all its other characteristics indicate that it was.  Jackolanterns aren’t deadly, they’ll just land you in the bathroom for a few days.  I still picked it and plan to dry it out as a mushroom-hunting trophy.  It smelled like cheese and apricots and really impressed our Easter Sunday diners at FRANK.

 

 

The 40 acre park’s last gift to us was redbud blossoms.  The redbud tree is a native to Texas, and while most of us are accustomed to seeing them landscaped into yards, they grow rampantly in the wild, as well.  And virtually nobody knows that the blossoms are truly delicious.  Sweet to begin with, with a slight floral aroma, then tart on the tongue, and finishing with a very green, grassy flavor like sugar snap peas.  They are an incredible addition to salads, with an eye-popping color and a surprisingly crisp texture.  So this gives you yet another reason to be jealous of your neighbor’s tree, burdened down with pink-purple blossoms each spring!

Late March is morel mushroom season in Texas.  And yes…we have morels here.  Lots of them.  I know a guy who pulls out 30-40 pounds of them from a park near Waco each year.  They are found all across the Dallas metroplex in parks that have hardwood trees like elm and sycamore, north all the way into Oklahoma, and south to Austin.  In fact, Dallas marks the westerly boundary of common morel territory before you reach the southwestern deserts.  (Though they are found in moist mountainous regions, and are prolific in the Pacific Northwest.)  So Jennie and I were determined to find our diners some wild Dallas morels.  Unfortunately, it has been an uncommonly dry, hot spring, and morels like damp weather that slowly warms into the 80s but with cool nights.  Some years produce bumper crops of Texas morels.  Some years, experts are lucky to find a handful.  And the reports this year indicated that we’d be out of luck…only a few morel finds have been reported in Texas, most of them near Tyler, but a few north of Denton.  So Jennie and I headed to the hardwood river bottoms along the Trinity River north of Lake Lewisville to see what we could find.

No morels in sight after several hours of foraging, but Jennie made her first wild mushroom find in a hollow beneath a fallen tree.  Mica caps!  Which are very edible.  You can see the little boogers hiding toward the bottom center of the photo.  Mica caps belong to a family of wild mushrooms called “inky caps,” many of which are edible, but some of which have a bizarre habit of reacting badly in the digestive system with alcohol.  If you consume alcohol even within several days of eating some inky caps, you’ll vomit violently.  (Compounds isolated from these mushrooms have been used to produce medicines to treat alcoholism, because of this unique trait.)  Fortunately, mica caps are delicious and completely edible, but their dark gills are so small and delicate that they begin to decompose into a black slime soon after picking and need to be cooked within 4 hours.  By the time we began cooking for FRANK, most of them were goners, but we were able to include a few.  And to be sure they were safe for our diners, we ate them the day before and had more than a bit of wine and beer…just to be on the safe side!  I’m not going to to into descriptions of the inky caps because mushroom identification for this species is well beyond the scope of this blog entry.  If you’re interested in mushroom foraging, you need to have at least 2 solid field guides in your possession and make a positive identification before consuming ANY wild mushroom.  Some favorite guides are Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America by David Fischer, The Complete Mushroom Hunter by Gary Lincoff, and for fellow Texans, Texas Mushrooms by Susan and Van Metzler (currently out of print and becoming rare, so snatch it up!)

Along Clear Creek just west of its confluence with the Trinity River, we happened across another very common weed that happens to be eminently delicious…chickweed.  Chickweed grows everywhere, from landscaped planter beds to the deep woods.  It grows prolifically in the Texas winter and early spring, and is one of the most common green things to survive year round.  Chickweed is crunchy and sweet, a great base for salads.  It’s easy to identify with its sturdy stems that spread along the ground, little oblong pointy leaves, and dainty white blossoms.  It grows all over the US, except in the driest desert regions, and has no poisonous look-alikes.  We stuffed several gallon-size ziplocs in less than 5 minutes, and had a great base for our salad.  Chickweed is sturdy and holds up well in the fridge, too, whereas other wild greens like sorrel and mustard can wilt unless you pick them by the root and keep the roots moist until just before prepping and serving.

All foraged greens can be improved by shocking them in ice water for 30 minutes, then storing in the coldest part of your fridge until serving time.  Never dress wild greens until the very last instant, as the acid in dressings can begin breaking them down much faster than store-bought lettuces.

On our hike back to the car, we were viciously attacked by one of the most dangerous of predators you can face whilst foraging:

I jest.  This little critter couldn’t hurt a flea.  This is a 9-banded armadillo, and while it looks reptilian, it’s a mammal like you and me.  Armadillos are common in Texas, and they have such horrible eyesight that they usually have no clue that you’re around.  This little guy was snorting and rooting around in the dirt for bugs and tender shoots and walked right up to my foot before he smelled us and high-tailed it into the woods.  It’s always a delight to run into wildlife when foraging.  It reminds you of the balance of the natural world, and it really brings things into perspective when you realize that this little guy forages almost every waking instant of his life.

The clock is ticking and we have a FRANK to put on in a few short days, but there’s more left to forage.  This time, even closer to home.  Neighbor Sharon has a side yard absolutely bursting with dandelions, so I spent one morning picking the beautiful golden blossoms.  All parts of the dandelion plant are edible.  The roots are roasted and ground to make chicory, which tastes like mild, nutty coffee.  The young leaves are delicious with a pleasant mild bitterness, like arugula, before the plant blossoms.  The yellow petals of the flower are fragrant and floral and entirely edible, though the green sepal that holds the petals together can be bitter.  The blossoms can be added to salads and cocktails, or boiled with sugar and fermented into a very floral wine.  When I shared this photo on Facebook, a delightful fan named Katja Turk mentioned that her grandmothers in Slovenia used to make a syrup from the blossoms that would substitute for honey, which was too expensive for them to afford in the communist era.  She generously shared the recipe with me, and it sounded so intriguing that I had to make it.  It turned out to be Jennie’s favorite component of the entire menu.  Check out the very simple recipe here!  And thanks, Katja!!!

Some of the foraged items on the menu aren’t foraged by us.  Tom Spicer, a local purveyor legendary in the Dallas restaurant community, has a fantastic little shop near the popular Jimmy’s Deli, called Spiceman’s FM 1410.  He’s open to the public, and if you’re ever looking for a fascinating field trip, head to Tom’s place.  He has a massive garden out back, where his employees and friends are usually gathered around a bottle of wine or a pot of something yummy they’ve just cooked up.  And in the front are boxes filled with wild foraged ingredients flown in from the Pacific Northwest.  What he’s got varies dramatically by season, but you’re likely to find wild mushrooms year round, and sometimes fiddlehead ferns, truffles, and the like.  Tom has provided us with black trumpet mushrooms (a cool-season relative of the chanterelle, which also grows in Texas under the right conditions), as well as Oregon white truffles, and some beautiful wild mustard raab (related to the wild mustard we foraged, but with a larger, broccoli-like flowering head).

Oregon White Truffles

So now we’re in the FRANK kitchen, turning all our foraged goodies into 5 courses for our guests.  The first course, which I don’t have a photo of (sorry), is a deviled egg topped with crispy sauteed white truffles.  And these are no ordinary eggs…these are pastured eggs from farmer William Hurst at Grandma’s Farm in McKinney.  (Yes, he sells to the public!)  William’s chickens live the way chickens should…completely free-ranging wherever they please during the day.  (They instinctively return to the safety of the coop at night, when predators are out.)  The label “free range” that you see on egg cartons in the grocery store is misleading.  It just means that the chickens don’t live in a 2′ square cage.  They might live in an 8′ cage, where they can “free range” across all 64 square feet of that cage (along with the other 10 hens living in that same cage).  Or it can mean that once a day the chickens are let out of their cage into a pen for half an hour.  It doesn’t mean the chickens are fulfilling their natural lifestyle, foraging for bugs and weeds all over the pasture.  To get those kind of eggs, you have to either buy from a farmer, or fork over $10 a dozen to get labeled “pastured eggs” at a gourmet market.  The difference in quality is like night and day.  The only drawback to using such fresh, high quality eggs is that they can be nearly impossible to peel cleanly for good presentation.  It takes HOURS to peel the eggs so that they are pretty enough to present to the FRANK audience.  The yolks are deviled with lots of mustard and vinegar, and then we gently saute the chopped white truffles in butter to bring out their aroma and once they are nice and crisp, we sprinkle them on top of the deviled egg.  (We served this course with a glass of champagne accompanied by a whole kumquat that was candied in the dandelion syrup mentioned above!)  This introduces our menu as uniquely American…one of the first true American menus we’ve served at FRANK.

Course two is a wild salad of mustard greens, lemony wood sorrel, and crisp-sweet chickweed, with redbud blossoms, tossed in a wild garlic chive vinaigrette.  Accompanying this is tender rabbit loin that we’ve brined briefly, then wrapped in house-cured wild boar prosciutto.  (You may recall my blog post about my neighbor Ron bringing me a wild boar last fall, and I built a curing chamber out of an old fridge in my garage to cure it into prosciutto using a traditional Italian recipe.)  We sauteed the wrapped loins briefly to crisp up the prosciutto, leaving the tiny morsels of rabbit loin at medium.  If you’ve never tasted rabbit loin, you just don’t know what you’re missing.  It is meltingly tender, delicately flavored, and a perfect pairing with wild boar.  Our rabbits were raised by an artisan breeder in Quebec up in Canada, where they raise heirloom breeds from France.  (Rabbit remains a VERY popular meat in France and Spain.)  But we had to buy the rabbits whole, so we used the bones and leg meat in another course, to be certain not to waste anything.  At this point we also pass around the homemade garlic chive sourdough, which our guests can spread homemade white truffle butter on.

Next comes the pasta course.  Hand-rolled tagliatelle (a micro-thin pasta just a bit wider than fettucini) with a medley of wild mushrooms and wild onion buds.  While the pasta may be Italian, this is decidedly an American dish.  The mushrooms (wild oysters, wild black trumpets, wild mica caps, plus cultivated maitake/hen of the woods, beech mushrooms, and enokis) are sauteed in very small batches in butter, allowing them to brown up just like meat.  They are then tossed with gorgeous wild onion buds, the unopened flower at the top of the plant, which we sauteed with olive oil and a bit of sugar to open up the flavor.  Then we let them all sit for a few hours, so the flavors can mingle.  The texture is amazing…good crunch from the onion buds, a big variety of textures from the mushrooms (firm oysters, delicate black trumpets, crispy enokis, tender maitakes), and the fairy-like delicacy of the pasta, which was tossed in a tangy, light cream sauce infused with white truffle.  This was a favorite course for many of our diners, and some even said that the pasta surpassed the housemade pastas at Dallas’s finest Italian restaurant in the Bishop Arts District!  (Name not included so we don’t sound like we’re bragging.)

And now the main attraction…probably my favorite course we’ve EVER served at any FRANK.  This is a pink peppercorn encrusted, bone-in venison chop, cooked medium rare.  We got some extraordinary venison racks from one of our amazing purveyors, Clark at Arrowhead Specialty Meats in Lewisville.  (Clark is also happy to sell to the public, and he’s got some amazing stuff…prime Texas Wagyu beef, kangaroo, heirloom duck, local quail, etc.)  The pink peppercorns I foraged on a recent trip to Hawaii from a tree growing in my friends’ neighborhood, and they’ve appeared on the FRANK menu before.  The venison was brined to help keep it moist…venison is a VERY lean meat and it overcooks in a second (remember how I got eliminated from MasterChef?!?) so brining is crucial to ensure juiciness.  And then it’s roasted just to 125F and allowed to coast to medium rare for 20 minutes on the countertop before slicing.

The venison chop is served on a bed of braised rabbit leg meat.  I mentioned earlier that, in order to be able to serve rabbit loin, we had to buy whole rabbits from the artisan breeder.  Not wanting to waste ANY of these very special (and VERY expensive!) animals, we took the rib bones and organ meats and made a rich stock with them.  That stock was used both in the cream sauce for the pasta course, as well as to braise the leg meat.  So first we seasoned and seared the legs:

Then they went into the pot with the rabbit stock, along with wild onions, garlic, and fennel.  (Rabbit and fennel is one of my favorite combinations.)  We braised it low and slow…250F for a few hours, until the meat was fall-off-the-bone tender.  One of the challenges of cooking rabbit meat is that the legs muscles are used so frequently to hop that the fibers can be very tough.  And even a long, slow braise won’t break down the long chains of muscle fibers, though it WILL separate them.  So no matter how you cook it, rabbit legs will always have chewy meat.  But the slower and moister your cooking method, the more the fibers will separate, allowing the braising liquid to bathe and surround them, which means it will be moist when you eat it…and if you get it “just right” then the meat will have a very pleasant body to it, with a bit more “chew” than chicken.

On the plate with our venison and rabbit (2 game meats that our country grew up on) is some seared broccolini and some roasted fingerling potatoes, along with a compound butter made from wild garlic chives.  And the sauce was VERY special, made from a reduction of a “foraged” Tawny Port-style wine I made 5 years ago with wild blackberries I picked near Mt. Rainier in Washington, and wild grapes I picked in the park behind my house.  It was a perfect compliment to the venison.  The final plate:

Of course, that’s not all, folks.  Dessert follows, and is always a favorite at FRANK.  This dessert was a bit more simple than previous desserts, because we really wanted to feature foraged flavors.  3 components only to dessert, and each component’s primary flavor was foraged.  First we’ve got a waffle made with acorn and buckwheat.  The acorns we foraged from a live oak tree and Michael Chen shelled each one of them individually.  Some species of oak produce better acorns than others…live oak acorns tend to be lower in tannins and higher in sugars than most, so they work much better.  But, they are smaller, which means LOTS of shelling!  Once you’ve got the acorns shelled, you put them in a blender with water and puree them into a slurry.  Then you strain the acorn mush in a dish towel and squeeze out the liquid.  Then you return the mush to a bowl with extra water for a series of 15-minute soaks to help extract tannins, which add a bitter taste and “fuzzy” feeling on your tongue (like when you drink a young Bordeaux or Cabernet).  You keep doing these flushes until the water coming off the acorn mush is clear and doesn’t taste bitter.  Ours took only 3 flushes.  Then you squeeze out all the water you can, spread the mush in a baking sheet, and bake at 170F for an hour or so, stirring every few minutes, until the mixture is a dry meal, almost crispy.  Then whizz that in your blender or food processor and you’ve got acorn flour!  It adds a nutty, sweet crunch to baked goods and pastas…but it’s a LOT of work.  We also whizzed up some buckwheat groats in the blender to make buckwheat flour, and I modified my go-to waffle recipe with these wild ingredients.  We were concerned that the waffle would end up dense and thick, but it was light, airy, and crisp.  And drizzled with the dandelion syrup, it was downright divine.  I’d venture a guess that more than half the guests at each FRANK told us it was the best waffle they had ever eaten.

We served the waffle with my infamous Butter Pecan ice cream…a recipe I’ve been perfecting for almost a decade, like my famous pumpkin carrot cake.  Friends demand it each year for 4th of July fireworks.  The pecans were foraged from a local yard and shelled by hand by my neighbor Sharon.

And thus ended what is easily the most epic and involved menu FRANK has served to date.  While it’s cheaper, in terms of cash outlay, to serve a foraged meal, the hours involved in foraging ingredients and transforming them into masterpieces EXPONENTIALLY exceeds that of a regular dinner.  However, our diners all agreed it was very much worth it.

I hope this blog entry encourages you to do a bit of foraging around your home and seeing what you come up with.  Some very edible plants are easily recognized.  If you’re interested in foraging, some books I highly recommend (in addition to the ones mentioned earlier) include The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden, both by Samuel Thayer, and ANY of the classics written by Euell Gibbons, the father of modern foraging.

Please feel free to post comments below, especially if you have your own stories about foraging!