Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Unemployed Fighter Pilot's Cookbook: A Jug of Wine, a Sock, and Thou

As a fighter pilot in the Korean War, David Elliott had to think quickly, reacting to situations where one false move could mean the difference between life or death. He is no less so in the kitchen, where despite being blessed with almost every gadget known to chefdom, he sometimes revisits the thrill of flying by the seat of his pants - or in this case, by the soles of his feet. When a recipe for Chateaubriand called for coarsely crushed - not ground - peppercorns, he came up with a novel solution.

"Have you ever tried to crush pepper with just a hammer and an anvil?" David exclaimed incredulously when asked for the origins of his method. "It gets all over the place. You end up needing a broom, a dustpan, and eye protection."

Fancy footwork: David's sock makes a natural vessel for pounding peppercorns.

The results are one step closer - pun intended - to another cooking adventure with the Bobby Flay of 11th Avenue. With occasional detours for Shrimp Creole, tempura, and the occasional Cajun meatloaf, beef is what's for dinner almost every night. Even with a highfalutin' name like Chateaubriand, he keeps it simple: meat, fire, and a dash of improvisation.

The right tool for the job... Or was it the left foot?

"Probably a better approach to improvising is that I grew up on a farm," said the boy from Walters, Oklahoma. "Everything broke often and the fix was from a list of things, like bailing wire, binder twine, cowhide, canvas, staples, and nails. All cowboys carried a Barlow pocket knife and fence pliers, which combined, made [sort of a] cowboy's Swiss Army knife. The pliers had a hammer, a staple puller, a wire cutter, a crimper, and a pry bar. With that combination and those supplies, one could fix almost anything but a computer."

This particular recipe called for shiitake mushrooms, Marsala wine, and beef demi-glace. David used a dried mushroom melange from Costco, some undrinkable red wine from Colorado - they're not known for wine, that's why he cooks with it - and some McCormick beef base. Despite the massive sodium content, the sauce still had a certain je nais se quoi to it.

Magic (dried) mushrooms for the chateaubriand rub.

After the mixture of mushrooms, wine, the beef base, and various spices had cooled a bit, David slathered it onto two small tenderloins that he had prepared. He said that the price of tenderloin triples when you buy it pre-trimmed, so he gets his beef from Costco and does the work himself. This yields lots of great tenderloin scraps that are perfect for Beef Bourguignon or Beef Stroganoff later.

Ay, there's the rub. To beef, perchance to eat - in about 40 minutes.

While the chateaubriand was being cooked, we prepared David's quick but impressive asparagus with sesame seeds. After blanching a small bunch of asparagus in boiling water, the spears are dunked immediately into a pan of ice water. After they cool a bit, they are sautéed with a bit of olive oil and sprinkled liberally with sesame seeds. d

Ice, ice baby: asparagus gets dunked in cold water to stop it from overcooking and to keep it gorgeously green.

Finally, the chateaubriand is done. David pulls it out of the oven and lets it "rest." I just love cooking terminology. The chef and sous chef also need a "rest," and do so with a bottle of good cabernet sauvignon.


Finally, it's time for plating. Actual dinner plates are a slight improvement over the standard issue mess kit plate, even though civilian plates seldom have compartments to keep the gravy separated from the peas. David deglazes the pan with its drippings and creates the sauce that will put the "eau" in the chateaubriand. We assembled our plates with the beef, asparagus, and a couple of tomatoes that baked in their little tanning salon of a toaster oven, encrusted with parmesan cheese.

The Vicomte - and Tim Allen - would have been proud.


  1. LOL! hey joanie! jos turned me on to your blog. nicely done! remind me if i ever meet david, not to eat anything with crushed pepper in it! :)

  2. Nice!


  3. Joanie, home cooked meals can be great, but watch out for those hot peppers, and how much a pilot has to drink. Take care and LOL. bob