Thursday, July 15, 2010

In the Brick house

It was a gorgeous, perfect afternoon...almost enough to make you forget that the Seattle we saw outside the restaurant's giant picture windows would normally be a shroud of dreary gray clouds and people clutching coffee mugs close to their raincoats.     Instead, the water was sparkling, the streets were full of happy tourists, kites were flying, and the sun was shining down on everything.   As we settled into the booth at Etta's, putting our shopping bags down and picking up our menus, the four of us sat back to enjoy the view.  

Then the naked guy on a bicycle went by.

Ugh.   We went back to deciding what to order.

We wanted to try everything, partially because it was 2pm and we were just getting around to lunch, but mostly because there was so much good stuff to choose from.   With some guidance from our extremely helpful waiter, we decided on mini crab cakes, an ahi sashimi salad with green onion pancakes, steamed clams in a curry broth, the signature grilled salmon and a Brick.   We ordered that last one, a brunch dish with poached eggs, half in jest, after I went on and on about the brick at the Buttermilk Truck here.  What are the odds, we laughed, that we'd find another edible brick in our lifetimes?    Much merriment ensued.  

It must have been obvious to our waiter that we all planned to try everything, because he proceeded to deliver the meal in courses, one dish at a time.  An absolutely lovely way to do lunch.   The food was lovely, too.   The mini crab cakes, almost bursting with fresh crab meat, came with a remarkably delicious green tomatillo cocktail sauce.  The tuna on the salad was cut beautifully thin, sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds, and served with spicy mixed greens, a salty-sweet dipping sauce, and hot crisp-chewy scallion pancakes.  The broth that the clams came in was so fantastic that we went through almost a whole loaf of sourdough bread getting every last drop.   The salmon looked wonderful, and tasted fine, but we moved on quickly.   We moved on to The Brick. 

The not so gorgeous but super tasty Brick. Photos of the lovely tuna salad and salmon dish were in my earlier post.

It was not photogenic.  Far from it.  Two poached eggs, covered with a bright red-orange sauce, on top of a slab of grits, formed into a cake and fried to a golden brown.   There were some forgettable braised collard greens on the side, but enough about that.  This Brick was UNBELIEVABLE!   The gravy was like the best of summer and winter all in one, with the pungent sweetness of tomatoes and onions, laced with a warm, hearty smokiness that we couldn't put a finger on.  Mixed with the richness of the eggs, it was a tremendous thing to scoop up with a fork.   The grit cake was just crazy good.  Full of butter and cheese and chunks of salty ham hock, each bite soaked up the egg and the gravy and WOW!   Mmm, mmm, good!

While we were eating, a strange clown stopped at the picture window and began doing a bad mime routine for a couple in the restaurant.    Clearly, the sun was having some odd effects on this town.

When we finally pushed our empty plates away, I shamelessly began begging the waiter to see if the chef would possibly tell us the secret of The Brick.   The soul of politeness and solicitude, he said he would ask, but that we shouldn't get our hopes up.   So much did we trust him that we forgot all about it until a new guy appeared at the table.

Him:  Hi there!  I'm Joe.  I'm the chef here, and I'm told you loved The Brick.
Us:  [Mouths open in amazement at this development, such an improvement over the bicyclist and the clown]  We did!  Everything was great, but The Brick!  Incredible!  How'd you do it?

Joe proceeded to tell us all about it.  The gravy being Tom's (the founding chef's) old family recipe, and something he's used in every restaurant he's ever had.   The grit cake being Joe's own invention.  How much he enjoyed cooking for us.   And then, he gave us the secret of The Brick.   It was a surreal, marvelous conversation, and a major highlight of our trip.  The sunny day magic had struck again!

And, since the odds of the sun shining on Etta's if you visit are slim to none, I will pass the secret on to you.

Joe's Brick with Tom's Red Eye Gravy
The gravy is from the owner's wonderful cookbook, Tom Douglas' Seattle Kitchen.  The portions for The Brick here are what Joe uses in the restaurant.  Cut down accordingly when you make it at home.

The Gravy

2 Tbs. bacon fat
2/3 c. chopped onions
1 1/2 c. canned diced or crushed tomatoes
1 c. canned tomato sauce
1 to 2 tsp. Tabasco sauce, or more to taste
2 tsp. sugar
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tsp. cornstarch dissolved in 1 Tbs. cold water

Heat up a large skillet, and add the bacon fat (if you are making breakfast anyway, fry your bacon and just use the same skillet).   Add the onions and cook over medium heat, stirring, for about 2 minutes.  Add the tomatoes and the tomato sauce and simmer for 10 minutes.   Remove the tomato gravy from the pan and coarsely puree in the food processor or blender.  Return to the pan and season with the Tabasco, sugar, salt and pepper to taste.  Add the dissolved cornstarch to the gravy and simmer for another 5 minutes.  Keep warm until ready to serve.

The Brick

Start by making a ham stock:

1 gallon water
3 ham hocks

Cook together for a couple of hours, until the meat literally falls off the ham bones.  Remove meat, tear into chunks, and set aside.

Add to ham stock:

2 c. chopped scallions
1/4 c. chopped fresh thyme
1/4 c. chopped Italian parsley
1 tsp. red chili flakes

Cook for a bit, until stock is nice and flavorful.

Whisk in 1 quart of cornmeal, instant grits, or polenta (ratio is 4 parts liquid to 1 part grits).  Cook for 10-20 minutes (depending on what you used) stirring frequently.   When thickened, remove from heat, stir in 3 c. shredded sharp white cheddar cheese, such as Beecher's Flagship.  Fold in ham hock meat.  Grease a baking pan, and pour the mixture in.  Refrigerate for several hours or overnight.  When ready to serve, heat up a frying pan, and add just a little bit of butter.  Cut grits into slices, then fry until hot and the "brick" is golden brown on all sides.  Serve with poached eggs and Tom's gravy.

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