My gift to mama
Updated: Dec 31, 2018
I am not good at gift-giving. Come the holiday season, I find myself mindlessly perusing malls and websites trying to find something suitable for family and friends. The trouble is, with a few dynamite exceptions, I tend to find things that are just generic and blah that I really could give to anyone; they're not specialized, interesting, or personal. Perhaps this is because I have an atrocious memory and my mind tends to wander, so I don't spend much time listening for clues about what other people want, and when I do remember, it's usually something they want that I think is ridiculous (like today, my mom said she wants a new driveway), which is exactly the reason why I remember.
This is why, approaching Christmas Eve, I found myself considering what I could get for my mother for the holidays, since I would be spending Christmas in the sprawling Cedar Rapids metropolitan area. As luck would have it, I finally thought to myself, "Hey, I am at least decent at cooking... usually..." and maybe cooking is exactly what I had to offer rather than schlepping to a mall and attempting to guess my mother's shoe size.
Enter Crowd Cow, a web service that sells... well, beef. And some other meatsies. Here's the thing, though––Crowd Cow is special in that it sources its beef from small, artisan farmers, usually in the United States, that are producing incredible steaks. They buy a huge amount of beef at one time and then their customers buy "shares" of it, and they usually focus on one producer every couple of weeks. More exciting, they've somehow come across steak from "Olive Wagyu," a farm (?) on the island of Kagawa in Japan that raises Japanese wagyu cattle that produces some of the finest (and rarest!) steak in the world.
For those of you who aren't familiar with Japanese wagyu, it is just simply omfg amazing. Beautifully marbled, rich with umami, melt-in-your-mouth goodness. And, surprise, it's fairly difficult to find in the US. You may hear of sham restauranteurs touting their "Kobe beef sliders" at your local brewpub, but hint: it ain't Kobe beef and probably ain't wagyu, either. Wagyu is a particular breed of cow (much like angus) that was brought over to places like the US and Australia from Japan that is known for producing particularly excellent steaks. Now, don't get me wrong: I have had some knockout steaks made of American wagyu beef, and you can definitely get amazing wagyu beef widely stateside. The "true" Japanese wagyu, however, is a different ballgame.
Japanese wagyu is graded in complicated ways, but suffice it to say that grade "A5" is the absolute best you can find on the whole planet. So one random September afternoon Steven is perusing Instagram for no reason whatsoever and comes across an ad for Crowd Cow claiming they have shares of true Japanese wagyu for purchase, and of course I knew I must check it out immediately. Within minutes, I had purchased an advanced voucher guaranteeing me a share of Olive Wagyu once the holiday season came around. The cows are fed a specialized diet that includes the lees (solid material) of olive oil production––this produces beef that is full of wonderful, umami-laden fats rich in omega 3s.
Of course, as is want to happen with my brain, a small idea (cook the wagyu and a veggie or two on Christmas Eve) became something much more ridiculous: a five-course meal, one that I didn't really have finalized until minutes before I started my midday cooking.
Here's what I had on tap:
1: Halibut ceviche
I had wanted to make a tuna tartare, but excellent seafood is a rare commodity in Iowa (some 1,200 miles from the nearest... uh, sea). I managed, however, to find this gorgeous Alaskan halibut Cedar Rapid's own bastion of food hippiedom, NewPi Co-op. I marinated it in the juice of satsuma mandarins and lime. On top, I put some radish slices I'd marinated in vinegar, mustard seed, and habanero peppers, and arranged in a lovely triple-Venn-diagram form. Add some spruce tip sea salt, a slice of habanero, two satsuma sections, and a microgreen, and you have yourself a killer ceviche starter!
2: Microgreens salad
A company in Iowa City, Urban Greens, makes various melanges of microgreens. I ooohed and aaahed over the selection at NewPi and picked the "bold and spicy" mix, which had a lot of leafy things I'd never heard of and also my bae arugula (easy decision). Used some goat cheese, dijon, and honey to create a creamy dressing, laid some sliced granny smith apples in a very artistic and pleasing fashion on the bottom of the equally artistic and pleasing plate, before plating the salad and topping with coriander and cayenne spiced and candied pecans. Peppery, crisp, and delicious.
3: Chestnut soup
This dish came to me at the last minute. I was planning to shave some chestnut over the terrine you'll see in the next picture, so I instructed mom to buy a single chestnut on her trip to HyVee. She brought home instead a schooner of chestnuts. I recalled how much I'd been wanting to try a Thomas Keller recipe for chestnut soup, for years, in fact, but find chestnuts such a pain in the ass to work with and so had been deterred. But I proudly proclaimed that I could use all of them, and wowwww am I glad I did. Subtly sweet, creamy, and velvety, topped with chives, sunchoke chips, and crushed squash seeds.
4: A5 Olive Wagyu tenderloin
Ah, the pièce de résistance––our stunning cut of wagyu tenderloin from Olive Wagyu in Kagawa, Japan, graded A5. Many people chided me for selecting the tenderloin over some juicier, fattier cuts more befitting of wagyu, but upon tasting, I did not regret my decision. The wagyu was beautiful––magnificently marbled, full of umami, and meltingly tender. Salted with sel gris and seared in a scorching hot cast iron skillet for 90 seconds on each side, and then briefly seared on the sides. After resting, the steak sliced like butter. Each of us got three slices and one "end" piece. It wasn't, and yet was, enough.
I served the steak with a terrine of red kuri squash, which is also called a "Hokkaido pumpkin" because it, too, comes from Japan. The squash was thinly sliced with a mandoline and each slice brushed with brown butter that had been cooked with rosemary. I then reassembled the squash slices and baked until tender. Topped this with a melty taleggio cheese and a sprig of flash fried rosemary. At the center is sea salt and ground black pepper; the wagyu needs nothing more to shine.
We closed the meal with some eggnog ice cream from Dan and Debbie's Creamery in Ely, Iowa, just down the road, which we topped with some Cedar Ridge Bourbon, also from just down the road. The wine we paired with the beef was from Tank Garage Winery in Napa––their 2014 "The Heavy" blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cab Franc. Earthy but not overpowering, and a perfect compliment to the umami of the steak. Thanks to the always fabulous Traci from 1st Avenue Wine House for the recommendation!
While I, of course, enjoyed the meal, it was most important to me that I gave mama a wonderful experience that she would remember; I think I accomplished that. I better have given how much that beef costs and how many goddamn chestnuts I had to shell.