Say it's Thanksgiving Day, or Christmas morning. You have a house full of relatives--nephews, great-aunts, cousins-in-law, all of them "big eaters"--and a kitchen devoid of food. Your cupboards contain about as many foodstuffs as a Third World country. You've been unfairly saddled with the holiday hosting responsibilities and are feeling hostile and not a little passive-aggressive, so your approach has been to avoid shopping for dinner altogether. Your approach has been: Fuck the family.
And, indeed, now the family is fucked. Or is it? Is there any way to make a decent holiday meal with the stuff you can find at the stores that are open--at the 7-Eleven on the corner, or the neighborhood Walgreens? The Stranger, no stranger to hostile holidays, decided this year to find out by putting a few celebrated local chefs to the challenge: Could they make holiday dishes using only ingredients you can find in a convenience mart or drugstore? Can a four-course meal with all the fixin's be born of such squalid bounty?
Sure, it was something of a hostile act to shove a bag of processed-food ingredients at an award-winning chef and say, "Do something with this." But our city's culinary impresarios proved their mettle. The only two rules were that the chefs couldn't use any extra ingredients other than simple binding agents like flour or oil--stuff that's always on hand in anyone's kitchen, however empty--and they were allowed to reject only one ingredient we provided. Chef Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez, at the Harvest Vine, used them all--impressive, to say the least, considering what he had to work with. --Christopher Frizzelle
(113 Blanchard St, 770-7799)
Chef: William Belickis
Ingredients purchased at: 7-Eleven (362 Denny Way, 443-0711)
List of ingredients:
1 bag of Doritos
1 vegetable tray (including celery, cauliflower, carrots, and ranch dip)
1 package Oscar Mayer bacon
1 can of sardines
1 toasted-cheese muffin
1 box of Triscuits
2 single-serving packets of mayonnaise
1 can of cranberry sauce
1 canister of cherry Kool-Aid powder
1 pack of melon-flavored breath strips
Most chefs I know would be pretty comfortable in a convenience store: After all, they work weird hours, and end up craving doughnuts or burritos or Slurpees in the middle of the night just like everyone else. But watching Mistral's William Belickis move through the Denny Way 7-Eleven is like watching a spaceman explore a new planet. He glides along as if gravity were somehow lower in the convenience store, and he investigates the selection with quizzical detachment.
Usually, Belickis lives his culinary life without compromise: His restaurant Mistral provides the kind of hyper-refined dining experience most people save for significant birthdays and wedding proposals. Every course is cooked to order and frequently customized for individual diners. A goal at the restaurant, Belickis says, is to empty out the refrigerators every night and to start new and market-fresh the next morning.
So back in the 7-Eleven, the days-old tray of precut vegetables seems almost as unfamiliar to Belickis as the Cheez-Its. When I ask him what kind of junk food he does eat, he points to the closest snack, and tells me he'll occasionally eat some Chex Mix. I don't believe him.
Belickis has been charged with making hors d'oeuvres for the Holiday Desperation Dinner. He seems unfazed by the utter crap he's been given to work with--it's just a new challenge, as if he'd been handed a brace of woodcock by a hunter friend. With crisp professionalism, he gets to work sifting Dorito crumbs and observantly browning two or three ratty cauliflower florets in Oscar Mayer bacon grease. He does wince occasionally, like when the sardine can burps out a foul smell, or when the fragrance of toasted-cheese muffin assaults the air.
Somehow Belickis has a purifying effect on the chemical-addled food. His "vegetarian crab cakes" (minced veggies bound together with a combination of ranch dressing, Dorito dust, and crumbled Triscuits) taste curiously crabby. Another appetizer--a mince of bacon shards, browned cauliflower, and the sardines, bound together with a little condiment-bar mayonnaise (a canapé custom-tailored for Oscar the Grouch)--has a certain aggressive logic, at least until the fishy aftertaste kicks in.
I have to admit, I had been hoping for something a little more engineered. Sure enough, once Belickis has melted down some canned cranberry sauce and added a jolt of cherry Kool-Aid and a few melon-flavored breath strips, he puts the violet liquid into a whipped-cream canister. He squirts a little of the stuff onto his cutting board and it sits there quivering in a tense, foamy droplet. The foam tastes like nothing from this planet, unless you count the edible underpants I had to eat for another, quite different project.
For a moment he hesitates: Where should he put the foam? "I've used everything!" he complains. But then I point toward the veggie tray and he comes up with a solution. It's good to know, somehow, that Belickis shares the American instinct for filling celery, even if it is with cranberry-melon foam. --Sara Dickerman
(7314 Greenwood Ave N, 706-7703)
Chef: Daniel Braun
Ingredients purchased at: Pine Food Store (701 E Pine St, 322-7744)
List of ingredients:
1 box of Ritz crackers
1 bag of red hot Corn Nuts
1 bag of mixed nuts
1 can of Minute Maid frozen orange juice concentrate
1 40-ouncer of MGD
Here is what I learned. With enough butter and a little time, onions, no matter how lumpy and dirty, can be melted into submission. And they taste pretty good with sweetly caramelized apples. Ritz crackers, it turns out, cannot be baked into a pie crust, for reasons of fat-to-flour proportioning I can't really explain. The flavor of Corn Nuts (especially red hot Corn Nuts) will pretty much take over any dish they're in. (I also learned you can make an onion taste like bacon, but that's another story.)
The mystery bag from Pine Food Store--an ill-stocked, seedy, glaringly lit convenience store usually containing at least one aggressive drunk--boasted all of the above, plus mixed nuts, frozen orange juice concentrate, and a 40-ouncer of MGD. When I revealed these to Daniel Braun, the boyish chef at Carmelita, a very good vegetarian restaurant in Phinney Ridge, he grew a little nervous. "I have to go think about this," he said, and stalked off. The photographer and I amused ourselves by arranging the ingredients into various sunlit still lifes.
But Braun was a good sport, and quickly got to work, reducing the pathetic little apples and onions to elegant, translucent slices. He can do this, by the way, while looking straight at you and answering questions about mashed potatoes. As the onions and apples cooked away, Braun asked if he could add ginger. I allowed powdered ginger, because who doesn't have an old box of powdered ginger moldering away in the back of a closet?
The crackers and nuts and Corn Nuts were first pulverized, with butter, into the pie crust mentioned above, which soon became a first-rate kitchen disaster (bubbling, overflowing, and looking like something out of Alien). For his second try, Braun made a crumble topping out of the same ingredients, lined two mini bundt pans with it, then filled them with the apple-onion mixture. These went into the oven, and Braun set his fellow chef Andrew to work making a sabayon of egg yolks and a spoonful of the orange juice concentrate.
(Andrew also fed us an incredibly tasty snack of creamy pumpkin soup, a gorgonzola flan with tangy-sweet fig compote, and a salad dressed with smoked-onion vinaigrette that was unbelievably bacony.)
As for the beer, what else could we do? We all drank it while Braun cooked.
When the concoction came out of the oven, Braun set it, now a rich brown with a shocking orange top, in the middle of a little plate and gave it a swirl of yellow sauce: Here was, in menu-speak, caramelized apple-onion crumble with an orange zabaglione. We tasted it, and it did have some nice moments--the sweet, melting apples and onions, and the rich orange sauce. The Corn Nuts, however, stubbornly remained Corn Nuts, with their delayed hit of pepper. "This is awful," Braun said, looking crestfallen. The photographer asked Braun what he would do when people came into Carmelita and requested this new dish, and he gave her a look of such polite horror that it seemed a good time for us to leave. --Emily Hall
by The Harvest Vine
(2701 E Madison St, 320-9771)
Chef: Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez
Ingredients purchased at: Walgreens (2400 S Jackson St, 329-6824)
List of ingredients:
1 canned ham
1 bag of original flavor Bugles
3 peanut-butter-filled chocolate Santa Clauses
1 bag of trail mix
1 can of peas
1 box of cream cheese
1 jar of instant coffee
1 candy cane
Every day of the year at Walgreens, that great American drugstore, you can obtain the meager makings of a not-so-meager holiday dinner. Listed above are the items I loaded into a cart on my way to the Harvest Vine to see the gregarious and dramatically mustachioed Basque chef Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez. As I unloaded the bag, his prep cook said to him, "If you can do something with this, then I'll really know you're talented."
Jiménez got right to work, taking the ham out of its can--yellow fat flopped onto the counter--and slicing the center of the meat into six long quarter-inch-thick slices. (He discarded the rest.) On three of the long ham slices he placed a slab of equally thick cream cheese, and then on each of those three stacked the other three slices of ham.
Meanwhile, one of his prep cooks used a food processor to grind half the bag of Bugles and a spoonful of instant coffee into a tasty dust. Jiménez smashed several yellow M&M's (from the trail mix) with the side of a knife and added flecks of candy shell to the dust (hardly enough to seem to matter, but it would prove important in the end). Then he rolled the glistening ham-and-cream-cheese stacks in the Bugles/coffee/candy dust until they looked, as he said under his breath, like giant fish sticks. Then he pan-fried them in a little olive oil.
In another pan, he cooked the canned peas along with a handful of raisins and almonds (also from the trail mix). Half of the peas and nuts, flavored with a pinch of salt, went onto the plate, and the other half--brace yourself--went into the food processor, along with several spoonfuls of tap water, to be puréed. What's more, he sliced open the peanut-butter-filled chocolate Santa Clauses, scooped out the peanut butter, and dropped the peanut butter into the purée, too. Then he warmed the purée on the stove; it would be, I suddenly realized, the sauce--a sweet (albeit green) sauce tasting of raisins and peanut butter (and, weirdly but somehow acceptably, peas).
Jiménez placed the ham-and-cream-cheese stacks--rolled in Bugles dust and instant coffee--into the oven, so the interior cream-cheese layer would melt. When he took them out, the breading on the ham had become a caramelized crust (thanks to the sugary candy-shell flecks) that, in the end, balanced very well with the salty meat. Chef Jiménez laid the three long stacks of ham in an H shape (he said he would call the dish "Husky Christmas") over a pile of peas, drizzled the sweet green sauce over it all, and sprinkled the plate with pulverized candy-cane powder.
It was surprisingly tasty. One of the prep cooks asked if he could have some. He ate a bit of it, looked at his boss, and said, "Pretty fucking good as far as I'm concerned." Jiménez himself tasted it and said, "I can't believe myself." --Christopher Frizzelle
by Essential Baking Co.
(1604 N 34th St, 545-3804)
Chef: William Leaman
Ingredients purchased at: 7-Eleven (999 NW Leary Way, 782-5270)
List of ingredients:
1 package salted sunflower seeds
1 individual-sized "bowl" of Corn Flakes
1 bottle strawberry Nesquik
3 Hershey's chocolate bars
1 package gummy Stingin' Red Ants
1 tin peppermint Altoids
1 Designer Whey zero-carb candy bar
1 package red Hostess Zingers
1 plastic Jesus toy
4 wooden dreidels
Everybody knows the holidays are actually ordinary days in disguise. Roasted turkey is cloaked in gravy. Dead evergreens are dressed up in lights and ornaments. Tables are covered in cloth. Families act happy.
The same goes with dessert: With the proper disguise--chocolate, of course--boring basics like breakfast cereal can become a meal's finale, as William Leaman at the Essential Baking Company showed me. I arrived with an assortment of dessert hopefuls from 7-Eleven, plus a plastic Jesus and a quartet of wooden dreidels from Archie McPhee. In two hours, Leaman--Essential's chocolatier and pastry chef, who creates ornate chocolate sculptures and flavors candies with things like whiskey and raspberry jam--cranked out a platter of small sweets, with the help of his own stock of organic Belgian chocolate.
Leaman began by examining the 7-Eleven ingredients and making a plan for each element. He had a lot to contend with: sunflower seeds, cereal, strawberry milk, gummy ants, Altoids, red Hostess Zingers, and a zero-carb chocolate bar (which also promised "zero laxative effect"). Leaman was stumped on that bar, finally chopping it into bits and cautiously tasting it. "Not bad," he said. "Wait, there's an aftertaste." The carbless bits were tossed in a bowl and set aside. The bright red Zingers, however, were tossed in the trash.
First, Leaman fired up his chocolate "enrober"--a long conveyor belt with a vat of chocolate on one end that coats candies with a chocolate shell. While that warmed the chocolate to about 82 degrees, Leaman chopped the Hershey's bars, put them in a bowl, and poured hot Nesquik over them, whisking until melted. The mixture--slated to become a mousse--was put in a cooler alongside Jesus, who was chilling.
Leaman then tempered his own chocolate, bringing the mixture to the right temperature so it would harden to a shine. (Leaman is a bit of a food-science geek, explaining things like the molecular construction of candy as he works.) Don't have fine Belgian chocolate at home? Not to worry, Leaman said--melted Hershey's will work just fine for this holiday-entertaining project. "Just don't let it get too hot," he warned. Chocolate, apparently, is particular.
Leaman's chocolate soon covered every ingredient we'd brought. Altoids drifted in mini candy bars, creating after-dinner mints. Corn Flakes drizzled with chocolate were clustered into balls (the biggest success, Leaman proclaimed). Sunflower seeds and chocolate were poured into mini log molds, creating crunchy, salty-sweet candy. The gummy ants were squished into individual dark chocolate bases, sprayed with milk chocolate, then marched through the enrober for a coat of dark chocolate. The cold Nesquik-Hershey's liquid went into a mixer with some cream, becoming a thin mousse, which Leaman dolloped into chocolate bowls and sprinkled with chocolate shavings. The no-carb bars were melted and mixed with peanut butter, but that project was nixed (and the resulting lumpy goo was dumped in a sink). The centerpiece, Jesus' now-cold bust, was sprayed with warmed chocolate from a paint sprayer--the warm-hitting-cold reaction dusted the statuette with a matte layer of chocolate fuzz. Finally, Leaman arranged the elements on a platter: Jesus in the middle on a textured slab of chocolate, tiny piles of chocolate-coated candies and dreidels littered around, and dozens of chocolate ants in army formation around the entire scene. --Amy Jenniges
by Zig Zag Café
(1501 Western Ave #202, 625-1146)
Bartender: Murray Stenson
Ingredients purchased at: Safeway (1410 E John St, 323-4935)
List of ingredients:
1 carton of Dreyer's Gingerbread Man ice cream
1 bag of Cinnamon Imperial candies
1 carton of eggnog
1 bottle of Big Red soda
1 can of pumpkin pie mix
1 cup of pineapple slices
I recall one night when I failed to locate the Zig Zag, a bar and restaurant below Pike Place Market. That night, my memory was certain that it was at the bottom of a certain set of steps, but those steps then led me to the wrong bar or an empty street. To be sure, my memory was hampered that evening by the contents of a bottle of wine I had consumed at Campagne with some rich and rare red meats. I had been to the Zig Zag twice before, in circumstances that found me sober when I arrived and much less so when I departed. During those visits, I enjoyed vodka martinis, the drink that lured me up and down the damned stairs of Pike Place Market.
When I visited the bar last week during the day, I was confounded by how easy it was to locate, and had no idea how, even with the distraction of the wine, I got lost that night. From First and Pine, walk into the market, then down two or so flights of stairs, and there it is to the right. This time around, my visit was a planned affair. The bartender, Murray Stenson, was expecting me, and understood that I would arrive with a small bag with convenience-store items that he had to transform into a marvelous holiday drink. My selection was motivated by nothing but whim. I brought this: Dreyer's Gingerbread Man ice cream, Cinnamon Imperial candies, holiday eggnog, Big Red soda, pumpkin pie mix, and assorted, brightly colored pineapple slices. Stenson was allowed to subtract one of these products, but the rest he had to blend into a cocktail. More importantly, I had to enjoy his invention; it had to be something I might recommend to friends as a festive and intoxicating holiday beverage.
Stenson at first surrendered, said it could not be done. But then he stood back for a moment, thought, and, without saying a word, excluded the pineapple slices and began to make a drink. He got a blender and mixed the convenience-store items with a half-ounce of Beefeater gin, a half-ounce of Stroh rum, and a half-ounce of Strega liqueur.
The result was a pinkish-brownish brew, which Stenson carefully poured into a martini glass. I downed the contents all at once, as a boy may down a spoonful of medicine administered by his mother. But instead of a horrible taste and aftertaste, I found the concoction to be pleasing, even warm. A bit syrupy, true, but utterly acceptable as a holiday treat--the sort of drink that would please a person who is easily delighted by bright and sweet things.
After sipping one more glass of the magic stuff, I returned to the real world and ordered a vodka martini. It was splendidly chilled. I dipped my lips toward the glass in the way that a giant, on all fours, may lower his head to sip from an arctic lake. --Charles Mudede