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Hatch Green Chile Peach Pie

A FRANK Tale: The Godfather

Photos in this blog appear courtesy of our friend Stephanie Casey at Real Fine Food.  Follow her on Facebook and Instagram, also!

With FRANK pulling in some crazy press recently (a Dallas Morning News article called us “The Best Restaurant in DFW” and Modern Luxury featured us with 3 other restaurants as “Best of the City”), the pressure has been on to do MORE of them.  “Why not try 8 seatings for the next one?” Jennie proposed.  We had never done that before.  7 was the max.  We’re never afraid of a challenge, so 8 it would be.

Yours, truly, as Don Vito Corleone, with an actual bottle of the Corleone family's "real" business: Genco olive oil. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey.

We’ve developed a tradition of hosting an Italian feast at FRANK every winter.  While Italian is great in any season, there’s just something about the gray, dreary winter that makes you crave pasta and spicy tomato sauce and crusty bread and good red wine.  Adrien, who has now become a FRANK fixture, and Jennie were sitting around tossing out menu ideas one night and The Godfather came on TV.  For both of them, NOTHING is more important than The Godfather, so menu planning stopped while they watched the film…until they got to the spaghetti and meatballs scene, and they both simultaneously screamed, “FRANK GODFATHER!!!”  We had long been tossing around the idea of menus inspired by our favorite films and bands, so it seemed to be a perfect fit.

The only problem was that I had never actually seen the Godfather, so as they were excitedly babbling to me about menu ideas, I was a bit lost.  Until the word “Sicily” was tossed out.  Because Sicily is a special place for me.  My partner’s sister and mother live there.  Some of my fondest travel memories are from Sicily.  I adore the food, the island, the people…

Yours, truly, below a crumbling fairy-tale castle perched on a rock crag in Erice, Sicily. Sicily is my favorite European travel destination. Castles, Greek temples, Norman ruins, beaches, volcanoes, wine, cheese...and almost no tourists.

So all that really remained was for me to watch The Godfather for the first time.

I know, I know…it’s pretty inexcusable that I had never seen it.  One of the greatest films of all time, by most standards.  So I saw it.  And it was great.  In fact, I felt like I had seen it before many times…it’s that good.  (Or just that omnipresent in pop culture.)

We wanted the menu to both be an accurate introduction to Sicilian cuisine, and also have direct inspiration from the film, and here’s what we came up with:

Image courtesy of Stephanie Casey

For the amuse bouche, we decided to start with a dish that’s so distinctly Sicilian and is so pervasive in their culture that there’s not really anything else MORE Sicilian that you could start with.  Arancini, pronounced “ah-ran-CHEE-nee.”  A crispy fried ball of cheesy rice that sometimes has a nugget of meat or peas in the center.  Arancini is the first thing I ever tasted in Sicily…we literally drove straight from the airport in Palermo to a gas station nearby, and I was told to go inside and get an arancini.  I had no idea what to expect.  The clerk pointed me to a case that looked not unlike a hot dog case, filled with giant crusty balls the size of softballs.  I shelled out my 2 euros (about $3 at that time) and sank my teeth into a food memory I’ll never forget.  Crunchy-crisp on the outside, sticky and gooey and rich on the inside.  So filling.  So fulfilling.  Arancini are the hot dog of Sicily.  Every gas station has them.  Street carts sell them on every block.  For our version, we made it considerably smaller and used wild mushrooms and white truffle to flavor the risotto on the inside, so technically it was arancini di funghi.  And while we’re talking technicalities…arancini is the plural, so if you’re only eating one, you’re eating an arancino.  (More on this later.)  And if you’re familiar with Sicily, you know they have their own distinct language that’s similar to Italian, but not quite.  So you may encounter the spelling and pronunciation “arancine” in some areas of Sicily.  This is one of the more popular amuse bouches we’ve ever served at FRANK.  When Jennie does her end-of-meal quiz about which course was the diners’ favorite, it’s rare for the amuse to get more than 1 vote per night, but the arancini got multiple votes every night for best dish.  It was pretty freakin good:

Wild Mushroom and White Truffle Arancini. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey.

To get things started, we served up a panzanella salad.  Panzanella (“pan-zuh-NELL-uh”) is popular across much of Italy and Sicily, though it originated in Tuscany.  It was a way to use up stale bread left over from the night before.  The bread would sit out all night and get dry, and the next day they would toss those crusty crumbs with tomatoes and let them get a little moist, and serve it up as a salad.  We made our own bread (of course) and then tore it into chunks and sauteed it in garlic olive oil until crisp.  Then we tossed the chunks with a citrus vinaigrette and heirloom tomatoes, and some lovely baby beet greens from Garden Harvests Farm in Waxahachie, which is co-run by Jessica Longoria, the sister of the awesome artist Sarah Jaffe, who’s a friend of Jennie’s.  Jessica delivered our beet greens in the rain the morning before our dinners began, and I’m not sure I’ve ever worked with a more lovely salad green.  (Find Garden Harvests produce at Green Grocer on Greenville Ave, or Urban Acres in Oak Cliff!  For those of you who seek out local produce, you know exactly how hard it is to find in the winter, so this is a gold mine!)  To complete the panzanella in true Sicilian fashion, we had to have seafood on the plate.  Sicily is an island, and seafood makes up the vast majority of the protein Sicilians consume.  And if there’s a quintessential Sicilian seafood…it’s octopus.  “Polpo.”  The waters of the Mediterranean and Tyrrhenian Sea teem with octopus, and every Sicilian grandmother has her own secret for transforming this normally tough, rubbery creature into a tender, mouth-watering masterpiece.  Adrien’s favorite meat is octopus.  He made it on MasterChef.  In fact, it’s the very first memory he has as a child…seeing and eating octopus for the first time.  Octopus makes a lot of Americans squeamish.  Those brave enough to try it typically have it at a sushi restaurant, where the traditional Japanese preparation leaves it quite rubbery and tough.  The Japanese appreciate this texture.  But Americans typically do not, so one taste of octopus, and most Americans wash their hands of it for life.  Which is a shame.  Because octopus is truly an extraordinary meat in the hands of an Italian cook.  I will never forget my first taste of Italian grilled octopus.  I actually wept, it was so delicious.  Fork tender, smokey, almost dissolving on my tongue.  So we serve octopus as often as we can at FRANK, to help change people’s minds about it.  And every night, people were tasting it either for the first time, or VERY reluctantly for the second time.  I don’t believe a single bit of octopus was left on any plate during all 8 dinners:

Octopus and beet green panzanella. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey.

Next up was something I knew had to be on the menu…caponata.  (Or capunata, depending on where in Sicily you are.)  The Sicilians invented this dish, and it’s served on virtually every menu at every restaurant on the island.  It’s a combination of vegetables, always with eggplant as the primary, stewed in vinegar and honey.  It is served both hot and cold, often as a salad or side dish, but occasionally as the main dish.  And I can’t get enough of it.  I’ve been perfecting my own version of caponata for years and have served it at dozens of dinner parties.  Mine has eggplant, celery, onion, shallot, garlic, and tomato, seared hard in olive oil until crusty, and then combined with capers and green olives.  Then the seasoning is made perfectly sweet-sour with homemade apple cider vinegar and honey, and I fold in lots of fresh basil.  It’s a flavor explosion.  We served it on top of a crispy polenta cake, with a 63.5 degree egg from our flock of hens.  On top of the egg was a pesto of basil and pistachio, a nut which made Sicily famous across the ancient world for producing the finest pistachios (or “pistacchios”).  It was a great course, lots of unique textures and flavors, and a big hit:

Crispy polenta cake, eggplant caponata, 63.5 degree egg, pistachio pesto. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey

Boozy sorbets have become de rigueur at FRANK as a palate cleanser before the main course.  And to this point, our food has been largely Sicilian, but not necessarily Godfather.  So when thinking about what type of boozy sorbet could accomplish both tasks, we immediately went to brandy, since so many scenes in the film involve the drinking of it.  We don’t drink enough brandy in this country.  Brandy is what you get when you distill wine, and for the majority of brandies, that means grape wine.  (Some classic American brandies are distilled from pear wine, cherry wine, etc.)  Somewhere along the way, brandy fell out of favor, but it’s really an amazing spirit.  Especially the ones that are carefully aged.  We decided to pair the brandy with blood orange, for several reasons.  First, because the most famous blood oranges in the world are grown in Sicily and have a protected geographic status within Europe.  And second, because oranges are a major symbol within the Godfather film series.  It started out as an accident.  During the early shots of the film, Coppola realized that the set and lighting was very stark, dim and monochromatic.  Scrambling around for a splash of color that wouldn’t interfere with the shot, oranges ended up getting placed in various scenes…and coincidentally, they seemed to appear in scenes that related to that particular character’s imminent demise or disaster.  When Vito Corleone gets ambushed and shot, oranges spill all over the road around his body.  Just before producer Jack Woltz’s horse gets beheaded and placed into bed with him, a large bowl of oranges sits in front of him as he converses with Tom Hagen.  At the meeting with the heads of the five families, bowls of oranges line the table.  (Weeks later, all the heads are murdered.)  On the day of his own death, Don Vito Corleone cuts up and eats an orange with his grandson just before plummeting to the ground.  Coppola mused that this was all an accident in the first film, but they loved the theme so much they continued in the subsequent films, and oranges are all over the place.  So we combined the orange and the brandy into a sorbet of such high proof that we had to freeze it with dry ice to get it to solidify…and folks devoured it:

Blood Orange Brandy Sorbet. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey.

And now…the main course.  In Italy, meals have a very specific structure.  First comes the antipasto, or appetizers, then comes the primo or first course, which is usually pasta (but can be soup, polenta, risotto, etc.), and then comes the secondo or primary course, which is the meat course.  Pasta is almost NEVER served as the main course in Italy.  But we did it, because of The Godfather.  There’s not much actual cooking in the Godfather, but there’s a famous scene where Clemenza is teaching Michael to make spaghetti and meatballs…because if he ends up in prison, he’ll need to know how to cook for the boys.  When Coppola was adapting Mario Puzo’s book, he really wanted to keep the spaghetti and meatballs scene intact, because he wasn’t entirely certain the film would be a success.  He mentioned, “If it’s a flop, at least the audience will know how to make a decent spaghetti sauce!”  We knew our main course HAD to be spaghetti and meatballs, and in true FRANK fashion, everything had to be from scratch.  Ever made homemade pasta for 160 people?  No easy task.  It took us an entire day, assisted by our lovely server Lindsay, who is also a brilliant chef herself.  By the time we were done, it looked like a cocaine deal gone terribly wrong…the loft was absolutely covered in flour!

Jennie and Linsday making homemade spaghetti

But there’s nothing lovelier than a nest of freshly-made pasta:

Housemade pasta. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey.

The sauce would have to be truly epic.  Chef Jennie chose the “arrabbiata” style, which is a bold, spicy sauce of tomato, garlic, and red chili flakes.  Making tomato sauce in Texas in December always necessitates turning to a can of tomatoes…it’s actually really hard to get tomatoes worthy of a sauce at ANY time of year, even when you have tomatoes in your garden and let them ripen on the vine.  The best sauce tomatoes are varieties with a high flesh/low moisture content, like Romas and other plum-shaped tomatoes.  You definitely don’t want a “juicy” tomato when making sauce.  The big beefsteak tomatoes have too much liquid and too many seeds to make a superior sauce, and that’s what most of us raise in our gardens.  Luckily, the best sauce tomatoes in the world are grown in the Campagnia region of southern Italy, near the town of San Marzano sul Sarno, and are widely available around the world…though definitely not inexpensive.  I get really annoyed when people turn up their noses at a sauce made from canned tomatoes.  Most canned tomatoes, in particular San Marzanos, are allowed to vine ripen and are canned immediately after picking.  On the other hand, ALL supermarket tomatoes, the vast majority of Farmer’s Market tomatoes, and even many home grown tomatoes, are picked from the vine before ripening, and allowed to ripen off the vine.  This results in a totally different texture, flavor, and sugar profile than if they were allowed to ripen on the vine.  I can make you a far better tomato sauce from the cheapest can of tomatoes than I can from the best-looking and most expensive tomatoes in the produce section of the grocery store.  Every single time.  So unless you have a source for vine-ripened, just-picked plum tomatoes grown in perfect soil in a perfect climate, don’t ever EVER think less of someone for using canned tomatoes in a sauce!  Incidentally, the omnipresent “Roma” tomato is a hybrid of the San Marzano variety, bred for a thicker skin (ie, easier transport from farm to market).  This may have been the best tomato sauce I’ve ever had, Jennie nailed it.

Then…the meatballs.  In The Godfather, when Michael Corleone has dinner with the police chief McClusky and the mafia family head Sollozzo (and ultimately murders them), as they walk into the restaurant, McClusky asks if the Italian food is good there, and Sollozzo says, “Try the veal, it’s the best in the city.”  Neither Jennie nor I are particularly mad for veal, and serving veal can be fraught with humanitarian concerns, just like foie gras.  But we were able to source pastured veal, which is becoming more common than the old-style way of raising veal (ie, keeping the calves tied up in a barn so they can’t move around and develop firm muscle structure).  Pastured veal is from calves that live their life as a normal calf does, grazing alongside its mother so it eats both grass and milk.  The texture and flavor is more similar to beef than old-style veal, but honestly…old-fashioned veal wasn’t really all that great to begin with.  What’s the point of going out of your way to produce a soft, bland meat?  Our meatballs were half veal and half pork, and chock full of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, shallots and garlic, and homemade bread crumbs.  Rolled and seared rustically, and perched atop a mound of that fresh housemade pasta and tangy, spicy sauce with some fried garlic, fresh basil, and tons of cheese on top:

Housemade spaghetti, arrabbiata sauce, veal meatballs. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey.

One of our first-time diners later confessed to me, “I was expecting FRANK to be this super fancy thing from your reviews, and when you sent me the menu the night before and I saw that the main course was spaghetti and meatballs, I almost didn’t come.  But this is the BEST spaghetti and meatballs I’ve EVER had…can I have some more?!?”  I really loved that moment.  Jennie and I never set out to make FRANK this ultra-sophisticated restaurant serving only haute cuisine.  Our mission statement says, “Our recipes are inspired by classic, traditional preparations, enriched by our collective creativity from years of travel and kitchen adventures. FRANK is food…to the point.”  This cuts to the very heart of my own personal food philosophy.  Some creative chef can come up with a new flavor combination and preparation, and it may be extraordinary and inspiring and incredibly delicious.  But it will NEVER have the impact on another human as a recipe that comes from their family history, something they’ve eaten since they were a child, prepared by those in their life who loved them the most.  A plate of spaghetti and meatballs will have more meaning to more people in this country than anything Jennie or I could dream up out of our own originality.  So rather than take the route that many chefs take…forging their own unique culinary legacy…we tend to focus on taking the foods that already have a centuries-old legacy, and making them as perfect and delicious as they can possibly be.  This is what sets FRANK apart from other restaurants of its type and price range.  FRANK is less about FOOD and more about PEOPLE.  Yes, the food is delicious.  But when you read our reviews, you’ll find, time and again, that people leave the experience raving about the EXPERIENCE.  The people they met and shared the evening with.  And that is fostered through the food.  Jennie loves to refer to FRANK as a culinary sociological experiment, rather than a restaurant.  And I couldn’t agree more.

Dessert.  When I posted on Facebook that we were doing a Godfather theme, virtually every comment mentioned the famous cannoli scene.  Clemenza and his henchman Rocco are ordered to kill long-time friend and family chauffeur Paulie for betraying the Godfather.  After Rocco shoots Paulie, he asks Clemenza what to do next, and Clemenza carelessly says, “Leave the gun…take the cannoli.”  (Little known fact…the actor that played Clemenza improvised that line, it wasn’t in the script, and it became one of the most-quoted and iconic lines of the film.)  So we knew we HAD to have cannoli on the menu.  (Quick Italian lesson…”cannoli” is actually plural, so if you have only one, you have a “cannolo”…or, if you’re in Sicily which has its own distinct dialect, a “cannolu.”  There is no such thing as “a cannoli,” that’s akin to saying, “I’m going to eat a cupcakes.”)  Cannoli are an iconic Italian dessert made of a crispy shell of fried pasta dough, filled with lightly sweetened ricotta.  They are a ridiculous amount of work, which is why they are typically only sold at specialty bakeries.  The pasta dough is like any other pasta dough…primarily flour and eggs, but instead of adding water to hydrate the dough, you add Marsala…a sweet dessert wine from Sicily.  This gives the dough a hint of sweetness and complexity.  We let the dough rest for a day in the fridge to fully hydrate, then rolled it thin in the pasta machine before wrapping around specialized stainless steel cannoli molds, sealing together with egg white, and deep frying until crisp.  Then you have to immediately remove the shell from the mold or it will stick to it…not an easy task when you’re dealing with a 320 degree piece of metal!  Just before serving, we filled the shells with ricotta which we lightly sweetened and scented with orange zest and vanilla.  And each end was dipped in pistachios, the quintessential Sicilian nut.

We were slightly concerned that a single cannolo wouldn’t be a sufficient dessert, and worried that 2 cannoli might be too much or too one-note.  So we rounded out the dessert with some tiramisu, which is an often-bastardized mid afternoon snack in Italy…rarely dessert.  The name “tira mi su” literally means “pick me up” and is commonly taken with coffee in the afternoon to tide you over until a late dinner.  Traditionally it consists of a circle of sponge cake soaked with espresso, sandwiching layers of mascarpone cheese custard.  The recipe morphed into the use of ladyfingers (finger-shaped pastries, normally of sponge cake, but occasionally of cookie-like biscotti), and some pastry chefs added liquor to the espresso for soaking them.  Tiramisu has the distinction of containing a pair of ingredients that are the two most bastardized Italian words in America: espresso and mascarpone.  Even some TV chefs rampantly mispronounce espresso as “expresso.”  I can’t count the number of times Joe Bastianich, an Italian restaurateur whose mother is one of the most famous Italian chefs in the country, mispronounced it “expresso” while we were filming MasterChef.  That’s wrong.  Don’t do it.  Next we come to “mascarpone,” a rich Italian cream cheese that is so mispronounced that the mispronunciation has become more common than the correct one.  You often hear it bastardized as “MAR-ska-pone.”  That’s wrong.  Don’t do it.  The ONLY acceptable pronunciation of mascarpone is:

MAHS – car – PONE – eh

In fact, ANY time you see an “e” at the end of ANY Italian word, it MUST be pronounced.  Like “pappardellE” or “tagliatellE” or “provolonE” or “profiterolE.”  99.9999% of Italian words end in a vowel, which is always, without exception, pronounced.  This is why Italians learning English often insert a vowel at the end of every English word that ends in a consonant.  “I live-a in-a the town-a of-a Dallas-a.”  So even if it doesn’t feel right at first, take a risk and properly pronounce your Italian ingredients!  ESPECIALLY mascarpone.  But I digress…so tiramisu is an afternoon snack in Italy, and consequently, it’s not very sweet.  American pastry chefs have transformed it into the sickly-sweet dessert most of us are familiar with.  But tiramisu in Italy is only faintly sweet.  I make a LOT of tiramisu…it’s my partner’s favorite “dessert.”  (Click HERE for my dessert version with pumpkin custard and caramel-soaked ladyfingers!)  And for FRANK, we did it the old fashioned way, with circles of sponge cake (soaked in espresso and hazelnut liqueur), and delicate layers of mascarpone whipped with espresso and a hint of sweetness, dusted on top with cocoa and a touch of cinnamon.  “Best tiramisu ever” was uttered a number of times, and even written on the FRANK chalkboard.  A fitting duo to end Godfather FRANK:

Orange pistachio cannolo and amaretto tiramisu. Image courtesy of Stephanie Casey.

An epic menu to celebrate an epic film.  But wait…there’s a Godfather 2…and 3.  Will there be FRANK encores of this theme?  Only time will tell.  Thanks for reading, feel free to comment below, and subscribe to my blog in the upper right corner of your screen so you don’t miss any of my excessively wordy food blogs!

A FRANK Tale: REAL Mexico

(Most photos in this blog appear courtesy of Stephanie Casey at Frugal Foodie Dallas, who live-blogged our menu for us!  Thanks, Stephanie!)

We’ve been wanting to do Mexican FRANK for a very, very long time.  Since the beginning, in fact.  BUT…when you live in a place like Texas, which is oversaturated with both TexMex AND traditional Mexican food, it’s not a menu to venture into lightly.  So we were waiting until the moment felt right.  And when Adrien Nieto called us up and told us he had just finished opening up a new restaurant in San Francisco and was free for a month, we knew the moment was right.

For those of you who didn’t watch MasterChef, Adrien was in the final 2 of our season, and many (if not most) viewers who watched it believed his menu was far superior to the final winner.  But if you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know that MasterChef isn’t real anyway.  Suffice it to say that Adrien blew us all out of the water from the first instant we met him.  He was born and raised in Ventura County, but his parents are first generation Mexican-Americans and he grew up absolutely steeped in both traditional Mexican cuisine, as well as the fresh, produce-centered cuisine of California.  This guy is brilliant.  And Jennie and I both felt like we’d be doing our diners a disservice if we did a Mexico FRANK without him.

As we began to conceptualize the menu, it was funny to discover that all 3 of us had very similar ideas.  We wanted to keep the focus squarely on the cuisines of central Mexico, rather than on the TexMex that so many Dallas folks are familiar with.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s a LOT of authentic Mexican restaurants here, but they tend to be small, neighborhood dives tucked away in strip malls and patronized mostly by Mexicans and adventurous folk who don’t mind a menu that’s all in Spanish and servers who barely speak English.  (My kind of places, and I’ve eaten at dozens of them.)  But there’s very little upscale, refined, authentic Mexican food in Dallas, and we wanted to fill that gap, even if only for 2 weeks.

After many hours of back-and-forth, along with research to find out if we could even get some of the ingredients, the menu was finalized:

We named it “Con Gusto” at Adrien’s suggestion, because this means “with pleasure.”  That carries many, many connotations in Mexico depending on the context, and I’ll talk about that at the end of this blog.

We ALL wanted ceviche (“say-VEE-chay”) on the menu, and it’s one of Adrien’s favorites.  Ceviche is raw fish and/or shellfish marinated in a highly acidic citrus dressing.  The acid “cooks” the fish by performing the same chemical process that happens to meat when heat is applied to it…the protein strands in the meat denature, or unravel, in the presence of either or heat or acid, and the normally translucent meat becomes solid white.  Our ceviche contained whitefish and shrimp, along with cucumber, serrano pepper, and shallot, marinated in lime and orange juices and tequila.  However, we put a bit of a spin on it by adding “sangrita.”  Spanish for “little blood,” sangrita is a condiment that is usually served alongside a high quality sipping tequila to cleanse your palate between sips.  In the US at most fancy tequila bars, sangrita is made with a tomato base, but this is a bastardization.  In the Mexican state of Jalisco, where the vast majority of the world’s tequila is produced, sangrita was originally made with reduced pomegranate juice, giving the liquid a dark red color.  So our sangrita was made traditionally by adding orange juice and chile to the very reduced pomegranate “molasses” and we topped the ceviche with it.  Its pungent, dark, sweet, spicy flavor was a perfect compliment to the bright, fresh flavors of the ceviche.  And we served it with a welcome cocktail made of champagne, cactus water, pineapple juice, jalapeno simple syrup, and a candied jalapeno.  A perfect start!

Next up was another dish we each wanted on the menu, but only discovered this when we began pow-wowing.  Stuffed squash blossoms, or “flor de calabeza.”  Squash blossoms appear in many unique ways across the vast culinary landscapes of Mexico, from salads to casseroles to tacos, even to dessert.  But when was the last time you saw them on a Mexican menu?  We decided to stuff ours with an ingredient we were all VERY eager to introduce to our diners: huitlacoche.  (“WHEET-la-COACH-eh”)

This unique ingredient results when a corn field becomes “infected” with a fungus called ustilago maydis, or, in the US, “corn smut.”  It causes the individual kernels of corn to swell massively in size and turn gray, looking like…well…like a mushroom.  In the process, it transforms the flavor of the corn into something that’s still unmistakeably corny, but also earthy and rich, like a mushroom.  In Mexico, when a corn farmer sees these “mushrooms” growing out of his ears of corn, he falls to his knees and thanks God, because it means he’ll fetch 10 times more for his corn that year.  Huitlacoche is a delicacy.

In the US, however, it’s a very different story.  Corn smut is considered a deplorable disease, and the USDA has spent many millions of dollars trying to eradicate it.  When a US corn farmer notices these gray mushrooms growing from his corn, he sets his fields on fire, files for crop insurance, and prays it never happens again…not realizing what a valuable treasure he had been gifted.

Needless to say, finding huitlacoche can be daunting.  Yes, every Mexican market sells canned huitlacoche…but have you ever had canned mushrooms?  Same principle.  Gross.

There is 1 farmer in all the US who is smart enough to deliberately innoculate his corn fields with ustilago maydis and intentionally raise huitlacoche.  His name is Roy Burns and his farm is in central Florida, and he is kept almost completely out of stock of his huitlacoche because in-the-know chefs like Rick Bayless and Jose Andres take shipments every week.  Huitlacoche is highly perishable, so Roy freezes it as soon as it’s harvested, which preserves its delicious flavor.  (Though the texture does suffer a bit with freezing.  However, you’re not likely lucky enough to taste fresh huitlacoche unless it happened to your corn.)  I called up Roy and begged him to ship me some, and thankfully, he did.  It arrived overnight in a cooler…at extraordinary cost, of course!  But completely worth it.

We combined the huitlacoche with some wild mushrooms and garlic, and stuffed the squash blossoms with it.  Then we made a batter similar to a tamal using masa harina (ground corn flour treated with alkaline water) and cornmeal, and dipped the blossoms in this before frying.  The result was similar to a tamal, but crispy on the outside.  We served the blossom on a lovely chilled sauce of crema de Mexicana (Mexican sour cream) with roasted poblano peppers and tons of cotija cheese, which is similar in flavor to Parmigiano-Reggiano.  (I still have dreams about that sauce, it was SO GOOD.)  And on the side was a little slaw of red cabbage, jicama (“HEE-kah-mah”) which is a root vegetable with a crisp texture like an apple and is lightly sweet, and epazote (“eh-pah-SOAT-eh”) a bitter herb whose flavor is unlike anything you’ve ever tasted.  One of our diners exclaimed, “It tastes like tarragon and basil with some rosemary and juniper berry and hops thrown in, along with kale and spinach.”  We dressed the slaw with a vinaigrette of mint and jalapeno.  This may, in fact, be my favorite course we’ve created at FRANK thus far, and it was the runaway favorite at most of our seatings:

The next course was created solely by Adrien.  While he had his fingerprints all over the entire menu, we wanted to give one entire course to him, to let him run wild.  And it turned out to be very special, indeed.  The protein was octopus, or “pulpo” as it’s called in Mexico.  Octopus is a tricky meat.  The vast majority of Americans have only experienced it at sushi restaurants, where the Japanese treasure its ability to be INCREDIBLY chewy when steamed or boiled.  THEY love it that way.  Americans, of course, do not.  So most Americans who’ve eaten octopus have eaten it that way, and said, “No thanks…don’t need to try that again.”  Which is a shame, because, when cooked properly, octopus is one of the most delicious, tender, succulent meats out there.  I didn’t know this until MasterChef, when I tasted octopus from both Adrien (who made it in the semifinals) and from Mario Batali, who is the executive chef at Joe Bastianich’s Los Angeles restaurant Osteria Mozza.  Eating octopus from them was a revelation.  I actually cried.  (Seriously.  Yes, I know I cry all the time, but very rarely does the flavor of a dish make me cry.  Properly cooked octopus did.)

So Adrien did it the right way…first pounding it like crazy to tenderize the meat, then a braise in the pressure cooker to infuse it with delicious Mexican flavors and make it melt-in-the-mouth tender, then a sear on cast iron to give it a nice crust.  Adrien is no stranger to pulpo.  In fact, it is the very first memory he has…in his entire life.  He remembers being on the ocean in Mexico with family, going to a food stall that was famous for seafood stew.  He remembers his Aunt buying a bowl of the stew and passing it down to him.  He remembers seeing the funny-looking tentacles sticking out of the spicy broth.  He remembers tasting it, with its tender texture and rich, spicy flavor.  That was the VERY FIRST THING he remembers in his life.  And, as so much of FRANK is about storytelling and truly special dishes, this was as FRANK a dish as any we’ve ever served.

The octopus sat atop a puree of black beans that were cooked with 2 different stocks, the stock from the octopus and the stock from our short rib from the main course.  He pureed this into a thick soup consistency, then topped it with some chayote squash sauteed with chorizo, lightly dressed arugula, a salsa verde with avocado, and then the octopus.  It was garnished with pickled radishes, one of his very favorite things to eat.  Any time we serve octopus at FRANK, some of our diners get VERY nervous…but just like always, after one bite, they were completely sold:

Next it was time for our traditional “boozy sorbet” course, and all 3 of us are crazy about mezcal right now.  Mezcal is similar to tequila, but instead of being made from the blue agave plant, it’s made from the maguey or American agave plant, which is more commonly know as Century Plant.  You see these in people’s yards from Texas to California, they are very popular ornamentals.  The tough spines are sheared off the plant to expose the heart, which is roasted over an open wood fire, crushed, and fermented into a lightly alcoholic substance that is distilled twice.  The open fire roasting gives mezcal an intense smokey flavor, like a very peaty Scotch.  Most mezcal is made in Oaxaca.  (Side note, mezcal was popular for awhile because some of the cheaper bottles came with worms or scorpions in them.  NONE of these brands is worth trying, avoid them.  A delicious mezcal that is widely available is called “Vida” sold by the brand Del Maguey which markets many varieties of mezcal.)  Mezcal is become VERY trendy right now, and clever barkeeps are discovering all sorts of delicious cocktail combinations.  (One I keep seeing everywhere is mezcal with chartreuse and grapefruit.)  We wanted to keep our flavors authentic, so we made our sorbet with tamarind (a bean pod with an intense sweet/sour flavor, popular in many cuisines around the world), grapefruit, and orange.  Many of our diners were trying mezcal for the very first time, and the sorbet actually got a few votes for best course on the entire menu!

Now, the main course.  This one was inspired by a breakfast that Jennie recently had in Mexico City, where she was offered grilled cactus and cheese.  She was so taken with the flavors and textures that she really wanted to put it on the FRANK menu.  The pads of the prickly pear cactus, called “nopales,” are delicious and have been a staple in Mexico for millenia.  They have a tart, astringent taste, almost as if they’d been marinated in vinegar, which most people are shocked to discover.  The cheese commonly paired with cactus is called “panela,” which is confusing to some people because panela is also the name of an unrefined raw sugar cake that is common in Central and South America.  But Mexican panela is a cheese with a strong, chewy structure, so it can be grilled to a nice delicious crust without melting and losing its shape.  For the protein on the plate, we chose beef short rib, one of our favorite cuts, and also popular in Mexico.  We were able to get USDA Prime short rib from our friend Clark, whose family runs Vintage Beef farms and consistently produces the best beef we’ve ever worked with.  One of the things we love about short rib is that it’s the beef version of bacon…it has that remarkable ability to be both crispy and succulent and juicy at the same time due to its fat content and its high level of collagen.  We braise our short rib for 10 hours at low temperature until it is so tender it’s almost hard to work with.  Then we remove all the meat from the bone and cartilage (very laborious!) and reserve the fat.  Then, just before serving, we saute that meat in the fat, so it’s crispy on the outside, and tender and juicy on the inside.  A perfect meat to place beside the tart, crisp cactus and the grilled cheese.  To round out the plate, we put our famous 63.5 degree shell-poached egg on the plate.  It always impresses folks who’ve never had an egg cooked at the proper temperature of 146F or 63.5C.  (Most poaching and boiling is done in water that’s 200F or higher, which means the white is overcooked and the yolk is still raw.  When you cook an egg at a much lower temperature for much longer, you get a uniform, silky, custard-like texture throughout the white AND the yolk.)  We also passed homemade tortillas around the table, both white and blue corn, and we had made a homemade butter with ancho chile in it to spread on the tortillas, and also offered passion fruit margaritas in addition to wine.  (We squeezed more than 60 pounds of limes over the course of 2 weekends to make these dinners…not an easy task, nor cheap, since the lime shortage has driven the price of limes sky high!)

And last but certainly not least…dessert.  I had a hard time selling my idea to Jennie and Adrien, because neither of them like flan.  And neither do I.  But several years back, just before I left for MasterChef, I was introduced to a version of flan that blew my mind at my favorite local Mexican food restaurant, Agave Azul.  The texture was nothing like a traditional flan…it was more like a ricotta cheesecake.  I kept prodding their chef to tell me how he made it, and he never would, so I had to embark on my own experimentations to recreate it.  I finally settled on a Mexican cheese called “requeson,” which is very similar to ricotta.  It gave the flan a rich, irregular texture, removing the jelly-like texture that turns many people off from flan.  After describing it to Jennie and Adrien and assuring them they’d love it, they still weren’t entirely sold.  So I made a batch and took it to Jennie’s place and left it in her fridge for them to taste.  And one bite was all it took.  Our flan was flavored with reduced tequila and vanilla, and we used piloncillo (“PEE-lone-SEE-yo”), the rawest form of sugar, and tequila to make the caramel.  Piloncillo is a fabulous ingredient…it comes in little brown cones which you’ll often see in the produce section at Latin American markets.  They squeeze the juice from sugar cane, boil it down until it’s syrupy and thick, and pour it into cone-shaped molds to set.  Sugar doesn’t get any more raw than this, the flavor is intense and dark and rich.  On top of the flan we put some candied pepitas, or pumpkin seeds, which have been an important food in Mexico since long before the Spanish conquistadores first set foot on its shores.  We also put some raw cacao nibs on the plate…cacao is the pod that chocolate is made from, but in its raw form, its crunchy, bitter, and intensely flavored.  And I can’t tell you how many people said, “I hate flan and was scared when I saw it on the menu, but this was DIVINE.”

And we served the dessert with some Mexican-style hot chocolate, rich and intense with heavy cream, coffee, vanilla, cinnamon, and chiles.

This was a truly fabulous dinner, and as I mentioned in the beginning, Adrien named it “Con Gusto,” which has many contextual connotations in Mexico.  Not only does it mean “with pleasure,” it also means “welcome, what is mine is yours.”  And it also means “with passion.”  If you’ve never ventured beyond the border towns of Mexico, or the Americanized beach resort towns, you have yet to experience the single most striking thing about Mexico…the hospitality of its people.  And food is ALWAYS the first and most important symbol of hospitality there.  If you recall the Thanksgivings of your childhood,when all the relatives gathered for an over-the-top feast…this happens almost weekly in Mexico.  ANY occasion warrants the gathering of the generations, and a ridiculous overabundance of food.  Food is how the people of Mexico show their love for each other, it occupies a MUCH more sacred place in their culture than it does here in the US.  As Adrien spoke about his family’s heritage and what food means to him, he brought things full circle by saying, “It has been so interesting to see what Ben and Jennie are doing at FRANK, because it reminds me so much of my family dinners as a child.  This isn’t a restaurant.  You don’t get this at a restaurant.  These guys are sharing their love with you, and you are sharing it with each other…with all these new friends you’ve made tonight.  Food has the power to make these kind of connections, but a restaurant robs it of that kind of power.  That’s what makes FRANK so special, and so exciting to be a part of.”

I usually spend so much time blogging  about the food at FRANK that I don’t often talk about this, which is REALLY what FRANK is all about.  Our diners sit at an 18-foot long table that we built ourselves out of lumber reclaimed from an old farmhouse in Ft. Worth.  The table is narrow, so the people across from you are very close.  We sit 18-20 per night, so the people sitting next to you are actually touching shoulders with you.  It’s not a roomy experience, to say the least.  But this, combined with a little wine for lubrication, and a few plates of delicious food cooked with love, are all it takes to break down those ridiculous social barriers we’ve put up, to keep our interactions with our fellow man superficial.  “How are you today?”  “I’m fine, thanks, how are you?”  After 2 or 3 hours of dining with complete strangers in this setting, people have discovered new best friends.  I joke at the beginning of FRANK, “Sit next to someone you came with, but across from someone you’ve never seen before until tonight…I promise you’ll be best friends on Facebook by the end of the evening.”  But it’s actually true…deep friendships have been forged around our table.  Occasionally Jennie and I will be walking around Dallas and we’ll come across groups of people who met at FRANK, and now dine together regularly and have become very close.  And while we both love to cook…THIS is why neither of us could ever be chefs in a conventional restaurant, because our love for cooking is born out of our love for PEOPLE, not for our love of ingredients and techniques.

And FRANK has been an extraordinary and rewarding place to let that love run wild!!