By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
A little brisket, a nice slice of homemade challah, some red wine, maybe. What's not to like?
For Stacey Bran and Jason Adolf, the cooking, that's what. After all, the couple's combined skills in the kitchen max out at peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and tacos. Those are not exactly appropriate offerings for the Friday night potluck dinners they've been invited to since getting engaged and joining the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue a year ago. So they just bring the wine instead.
That was before they decided to step up and take their turn at the helm of a dinner to celebrate the Sabbath. It was time to repay their new circle of friends with some hospitality of their own. And actually cook something, a thought that frightened them.
"HELP!" Adolf, 30, wrote in his plea to Chef on Call. "We'd like to host a Shabbat dinner for 20 people but have no idea what we're doing."
Adolf, a manager for a federal IT contractor, particularly wanted to learn how to cook brisket, and we already knew the go-to guy for that: chef David Scribner, who was featured in the Food section 11 years ago, when he was at the now-defunct Felix in Adams Morgan. We enlisted Scribner, chef/partner at Surfside in Glover Park, to go to the couple's Ballston apartment to help them get over their fear of cooking -- and to leave them with a repertoire of dishes that would wow their dinner-party guests.
This time around, Scribner updated the succulent version of the pot roast that was just like the one his mother used to make. He ditched Lipton Onion Soup mix, replaced clunky aromatics with cipollini onions, and added some modern side dishes: root vegetable and potato gratin and steam-seared green beans with preserved lemon and garlic. He also fulfilled his students' request to learn how to make challah, no small feat given the couple's inexperience.
The cooking bug didn't hit Adolf until he met Bran, 31, on JDate, a Web site for Jewish singles. She had been an interior designer for restaurants and luxury hotels until getting laid off recently, meaning the time was right for her to learn to cook, too. (She's starting from scratch; her mother "makes about 12 things," she said, "three of them well.")
Her way of doing things and Scribner's are opposite: She likes rules, and Scribner eschews them. "I need the finite," she said. "I don't like guesswork."
"But if you prepare yourself for the fact that nothing is going to be right, you can adjust as you go," Scribner countered. His theory is, if you fail, you fail. "It's not world peace. It's just food."
It might not sound like it, but Scribner, 40, is not casual about food. He brags that he was not formally trained, never apprenticed with hotshot chefs and does not like to use recipes. But his method reveals that he spent time with knowledgeable mentors who wear their hearts on their plates, as he does. He specifically lauded chef Carole Greenwood, for whom he worked for a few years until last year, when he opened Surfside with partners. Now, in addition to his restaurant duties, he runs a private catering business, Chefdavidscribner.com, and helps his wife, Valerie, raise a 4-year-old and 2-year-old twins.
As if to prove his assertion that cooking is a process of correcting mistakes, Scribner made a few missteps during the lesson but then righted himself and produced an utterly satisfying meal. He also managed to teach a lot of techniques along the way, chief among them searing, braising, roasting and sauteing.
He started with the challah and pretty much broke every rule of breadmaking. A milk and butter mixture he'd set on the stove to warm boiled over. He had warned that he might not have recalled his old recipe accurately, and he was right. There was too much flour in the dough, so he adjusted as he went along, adding more milk until he achieved the sticky consistency he desired.
"You're not really supposed to wing breadmaking, but there it is," he tossed off nonchalantly. Scribner left the dough to rise, uncovered, and moved on to the next task.
He took a whole brisket, easily 12 pounds, cut it in half and opted to prepare the second cut, with its extra flap of meat (interspersed with fat), instead of the leaner first, or flat, cut. He trimmed it and seasoned it liberally with salt, pepper and garlic powder as he extolled the virtues of searing in a super-hot pan.
"We want to have smoke coming off of it, PSSSSSHHHHHH, making that sound, getting all brown and crusty on the outside," he enthused. "Searing is an active process. It's exciting!"
But when he put the meat in the pan, it went "pishhhh," sounding more like a little bit of trapped air being let out of a radiator.
"What's going on right there is not searing," he confirmed. The deep-sided braising pan Scribner had brought from his restaurant was bowed on the bottom and barely made contact with the ceramic cooktop it rested on, so it did not get hot enough.
No matter. He switched to a saute pan he had also packed. He seared the meat and then the cipollini onions and garlic in it; returned the lot to the braising pan with water, tomato paste and bay leaves; then covered the pan and relegated it to the oven to braise.
When Bran asked how she would know when it was done, her teacher responded: "Just stick a fork in it. When it's done, it's done."
Meanwhile, the challah dough, against all odds, had ballooned. Scribner turned it out onto a floured granite countertop and encouraged Bran and Adolf to work it over.
"You feel it has some lumpiness to it?" he asked. "That's not good. It's because I stopped halfway and added more milk."
No worries; the chef kneaded the dough into submission, pulled off three knobs, rolled them into strands and braided them. In minutes he had made three small loaves and then taught his students how to make four more.
And off went the pan to another corner of the kitchen so the loaves could rise.
From the way Bran worked the dough, it was obvious that she had a natural affinity for baking, though she probably didn't recognize it that day. Not much of a red-meat eater, she didn't even want to touch the raw brisket, which Adolf called "man-brisket" and couldn't resist working on. Bran preferred to layer the sliced Yukon Gold potatoes, celery root, butternut squash and rutabagas, sprinkling them with herbs and drizzling them with cream.
They both had the same question all Chef on Call students have: how to make sure all the dishes come out at the same time.
"It never works out," Bran said.
Scribner had a refreshingly honest answer.
"It doesn't for chefs, either. It never works out for anybody like that," he replied. "You have to sort of judge it. What things you're going to cook on the fly, like the green beans, that are just going to get sauteed in very hot oil at the last minute. What things can retain heat, like the brisket, and can be held in a low oven for a long time."
He made it sound so random, but he was finishing that conversation while everyone was inhaling plates full of brisket and creamy gratin, and eating lemon- and garlic-tinged green beans with their fingers.
And then there was the bread. When had he even put it in the oven? The loaves had baked into each other like Parker House rolls. They were crisped and brown on the outside, sweet and soft on the inside. Perhaps the crumb was a bit dense, but considering the beating the dough had taken, the final product was nothing short of miraculous.
Scribner arrived that day with no cadre of assistants to prep before him and clean up after him. He did his own dishes as he went along and left Bran and Adolf's kitchen as he'd found it. Instead of a pristine chef's coat, he wore a striped, short-sleeved polo shirt, khaki pants, a half-apron and a sun visor stamped with the Surfside logo. Had it not been January, he could have been on his way to play golf.
"This is exactly what we wanted to learn," Adolf said. "This is like Grandma's house: Shabbat dinner, Passover brisket, nice and hearty comfort food."
When they re-create the dishes for their friends, they might need to make adjustments depending on who will attend. Dairy and meat don't mix at strictly kosher gatherings, so the gratin Bran liked so much might be a no-go. But changing course won't be a problem. They can always call Scribner, and he'll help them roll with it. That's what he's all about.
David Hagedorn, chef and former restaurateur, can be reached at email@example.com.