the long goodbye
October 12, 2008

I planned the menu for six months; the prep list was constructed in fine mathematical detail; the grocery shopping a dance of classical beauty. So, when it turns out to be the Tiny Kitchen's last supper, at least it adheres to the core principles.

Tiny Kitchen is changing locales, movin' on up to President Street, to a luxury of counter space and cabinetry, but an inexplicably tiny fridge and ancient oven boasting the abandoned pots of people who clearly had a knack for takeout. But more on all of that later.

The sendoff times nicely with my menu project dinner for school, titled "The Rebel County" and featuring the food, both traditional and imaginative, of Cork, Ireland's southernmost county, in five courses.

Having finally solved my oyster conundrum, we begin with a half-shell amuse-bouche paired with a cocktail-sized Murphy's stout (a classic pairing—and despite my beer skittishness, I can honestly say it's better than any wine), followed by a granita of lemon and Tabasco, pressed into a lemon wedge scraped clean. The idea is to have the granita as a lemon might follow a shot of tequila—hopefully setting a playful tone. (It does.)

Next up is my "Irish" charcuterie platter: rashers of bacon and corned beef (both from Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn's Charcuterie, the obsessive subject of my Level 4 Production rotation) with an apple-jalapeño pickle, duck liver and whiskey mousseline and brown bread and potato-paprika rolls. The last item is my one menu failure, intended to be flattened into crackers as Joy of Cooking assured me can be done, but after producing two inedible trays of something like overly salty hardtack, I revert the rest of the batch to traditional rolls (which are devoured). I'm always a bit uncertain serving various duck parts to a crowd, but somewhere between courses as I'm dressing precariously balanced plates along Tiny Kitchen counter rims, someone requests that the mousseline please be returned to the table.

The seafood chowder is the dish that started this whole thing, something I've worked to perfect for a while. I make a few new adjustments: crème fraîche; a splurge for Pernod; homemade fumet and a spicy shrimp-chile oil drizzled over the top. In other words, it's decadent. It's the pièce de résistance. It's the might-as-well-stop-cooking-and-go-home, doesn't-get-better-than-this bit of my culinary repertoire. "Will this be served at your restaurant?" one guest asks. Heck, I might build an entire restaurant around this dish.

But even if I think seafood first when I picture good eats in southern Ireland, it's not too long before my mind wanders from the coast over to those iridescent green slopes, peat fires and omnipresent sheep—which is how I conceive of the evening's meat course. I want something that gets that landscape onto the plate. I start to think about food and smoke and the way it hangs in the air in Ireland (and even discover a website devoted to just such a subject). But I don't want a typical sweet-and-sour barbeque accompaniment—I want that other bit of Irish mist quality, a dampness or greenness. So I eventually opt to thicken my favorite parsley coulis with peas for a hit of herbal on the plate. The last element is my favorite idea: an Irish farmhouse cheese flan for that final element of animal earthiness. My local cheese shop steers me toward the particularly pungent Ardrahan. All these flavors (plus a little bit of sweet after all, both in the form of a whiskey glaze and an Aussie Shiraz) explode on the plate. I can't say if it's exactly what the air tastes like in the old country, but something about it certainly works.

Dessert is yet another taste-texture experiment met with great success. The way I make my tea (Barry's, of course) is with plenty of cream and sugar—so it's not a big leap to really tannic tea ice cream (much more tea-like and less sweet than green tea varieties). I spend another two evenings playing with sugar and teaching myself to make thin discs of caramel in perfect circles. And I stack the whole thing on a bed of curd cheese (a.k.a. ricotta), like an outside the box tea sandwich with blackberry topping for tartness.

By this time, we're well into the Redbreast Irish Whiskey, aged 12 years (having followed those Murphy's shooters with half pints of red ale and four glasses of wine apiece). I'm so unabashedly happy; it's one of my favorite memories before the evening has even ended.

It's been a good run in this Tiny Kitchen. All the counter space in all the world can't compete for the memories.