Steve Legato
A sculpted piece of cutlery, bent into shape by Ali Ahmad, seperates the two dining rooms at R2L, where guests of chef/partner Daniel Stern feast on his whimsical dishes and a panoramic view that stretches 40 miles over the Delaware River from the 37th floor of The Residences at Two Liberty Place.
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My Favorite Gear November 2010

Daniel Stern / November 2010

At his two Philadelphia restaurants, the regionally inclined MidAtlantic and fine dining R2L, chef/parther Daniel Stern pinpoints the workhorses that make his culinary life easy and fun.

It's pretty funny thinking back on getting started in the kitchen. There was the time that I knew I loved cooking and the time it hit me that this is what I should be doing. There were about 20 years in between those moments, and much of it was spent getting my formal education. Along the way I always worked in restaurants or in my mother's bakery. But it wasn't until I had left graduate school, still confused about what I was supposed to be doing, that I really put my head into this.

My favorite gadgets are sort of like when I'm asked about my favorite dish: It's always the next one I'm working on. When I worked for Daniel Boulud a long time ago, he told me that I shouldn't get too attached to any one knife, such as the $20 Asian cleaver I had bought on the Bowery. When one day it broke in half and I had to get a new knife, I finally understood what he had told me. I can extend that to kitchen equipment. The five pieces listed below are some of the things I get to play with now, and they're pretty representative of what we all are working toward in the kitchens at MidAtlantic Restaurant and Tap Room and R2L: a balance between the past and the future, traditional and modern.

[Electrolux Thermaline Pressure Braising Pan]

This is nothing less than a supercharged pressure cooker. This thing is crazy! When we first looked at it in the Electrolux test kitchen in suburban Philly, they told us you could cook something like 500 pounds of rice in 20 minutes. Not really a selling point for us, but what's amazing is that something that can do such heavy lifting can also produce things that require finesse. The floor plate on this is several inches thick, so it takes a bit to heat up but once it does, the heat distribution is incredibly even and it retains the heat very well. The first project for us was to get our stocks just right in the pressure cooker mode. Now we get crystal clear chicken and veal stocks with great body without cooking things to death overnight. It's amazing for caramelizing proteins or for sautéing vegetables, etc. Close the lid, though, and lock it down, and it's a new world for making short ribs or corned beef or osso buco. When we opened last winter, we had venison osso buco as a component of a dish, and here is where you could really see the difference. In a traditional slow braise overnight in the oven, the shanks just got too dry and basically shrunk down to next to nothing. But just a few hours in the pressure braiser gave us very plump and very moist shanks that lost next to none of their volume. Plus, the meat remained very tender and very juicy.

[Electrolux Air-O-Steam Combi Oven]

The combi oven helped us reinvent the French fry at R2L. Seriously. Through a lot of trial and error and many kinds of potatoes, we finally were able to achieve the flavor and texture we were looking for with minimal mess and incredible results. We cut potatoes into fries in the traditional manner then blanch them in the combi, foregoing the initial oil blanch. In addition to the fry, it's a great tool for roasting and poaching proteins. The fact that you can slowly caramelize bones for a roasted stock or sauce or gently poach tenderloins or chickens and control the moisture inside the chamber gives us the ability to keep things tender or prevent products from burning. We get perfectly browned bones or very juicy chicken. I poach a lot of meat for some of our preparations, and this oven helps us keep slow gentle temperature with the right amount of moisture.

[Homemade Smoker]

Even though it's possible to smoke in the combi, I never really feel that I can get the smoke completely out of it, so we went old school and built a smoker out of a legless Weber Smokey Joe grill, lava rocks, some tubing, and a hotel pan with lid and perforated insert. I couldn't quite find something I was comfortable with for cold smoking, and this contraption really does a great job with our pork and salmon. I can put lava rocks and a combination of hickory and apple or mesquite, depending on what we're doing, into the bowl of the grill. I do smell like smoke for the rest of the day, but the results are worth it. A couple of weeks ago I was playing with some kielbasa for MidAtlantic and hot smoked it inside the chamber, and with some heat adjustments it came out fantastic. It's always been about playing with food for me, so getting to use the basic elements to build different flavors into whole dishes continues to leave me wanting to do more.

[Harsch Gairtopf Fermenting Crock]

From the high-tech to the very low-tech. A couple of years ago I purchased a traditional earthenware fermenting crock and also picked up another 10 gallon one at a flea market. I had done a lot of research on pickling, fermenting, and canning when we opened MidAtlantic. There's a whole world of ketchup and condiments with vibrant sour tangs waiting to be made. The first real project was mushroom ketchup. The great thing about doing this was that you really have to wait for at least a week or two to find out what you did. It took a few tries to get the seasoning just right. Basically it involved finding the correct proportions of mushrooms, water, spices, as well as time and temperature. There were some moldy batches, but eventually we came up with some fantastic pickled mushrooms, which we pressed to extract the juices we reduced and pureed with some of the mushrooms to produce the ketchup.

From there we did big wedges of cabbage mixed with onions, garlic, and turnips for our homemade sauerkraut. It isn't just throwing things in there and waiting, though there is a certain element of that. Each batch is different, but they all share that alive taste. In this age of things being measured precisely and chefs trying to manage flavor and texture down to the fraction of a gram, it's refreshing to cook the grandmotherly way and have just your hands and instincts to guide you. One of my favorites was making homemade miso out of lentils, which, like the mushroom ketchup, took a few attempts before we were able get going with that great funk that miso has. When we opened R2L, I used to make a sauce for hamachi [seared on the grill, then poached to still rare inside in olive oil] and steamed clams. I reduced miso, tarragon leaves, and vermouth by half, then added heavy cream and reduced by half, then pureed it all in a blender.

[Rotisol Rotisserie]

This rotisserie at MidAtlantic is a powerhouse jack of all trades. We have a new item on the menu of slow-cooked veal ribs with veal cheeks. We take the ribs and the cheeks and lightly cure them overnight and then put the cheeks in veal stock and mirepoix and tomatoes, lay in the ribs, and slowly roast/braise them overnight on the shelf attachment/rib rack. They get wonderfully glazed and caramelized, and the drippings help make a great sauce. We serve them on a bed of creamy lima bean polenta with tomato and orange blossom preserves. We can also turn that into a hot smokehouse for our house-made hot dogs and smoked sausages. Even vegetables! Shallow braised short ribs come out amazingly well, with a beautiful glaze and great fat content. We just marinate them and set them in a rich fortified broth with lots of garlic and vegetables and leave them on the rack with a very low flame, close the doors, and baste occasionally, and then let them do their thing overnight. And forget about it with the drippings! You have no idea: some crusty garlic toast set in the drip pan and some roasted potatoes and leeks! That really makes the long days worthwhile.