Compound butters drip with flavor
Special to the Nevada Appeal
My first real job in a kitchen (not counting cutting fries at a burger joint or sweeping the floor in an ice cream parlor, both while barely a teenager) was at a place called Little Annie’s in Aspen, Colo. The owner described it as a casual, family-style restaurant. “Ski Magazine” described it as the local watering hole. And I would best describe it as the kitchen version of “Animal House.”
For most of us living in Aspen in the early ’80s, responsibility was particularly burdensome. In fact its avoidance was a big reason why we were there.
We had guys with degrees in parapsychology and oceanography washing dishes. Cooks who only worked long enough to get a ski pass or purchase a ticket to the next Grateful Dead concert. And Aussies and New Zealanders trying to stay under the radar with expired visas. Harmless reprobates for the most part.
I ascended to the position of kitchen manager (“Don’t call me chef, I work for a living”), not through ambition but by way of being left holding the bag.
My boss, Norm, who was 37 and ready for a walker in our 20-something-year-old eyes, bounced a $400 check at the bar and took off for Denver leaving me to cover until he got back. Days passed, and no Norm.
Finally Ardi – whom I would marry six years later – suggested that we check to see if he had taken his cookbooks. I looked in his desk. They were gone. Norm was gone.
For the next year and a half I managed the kitchen under the disclaimer that I was just filling in for Norm.
One thing I did get out of my days at Annie’s was a proficiency in grilling meat. In a place that only had 17 tables, we would go through 2,000 pounds of hamburger each month. I and the grill became one.
After escaping Colorado and moving to San Francisco, the experience paid off. “California Cuisine” was gaining steam and a major part of the style involved grilling everything.
Which brings us to our topic for today – compound butters. To top all these grilled items we came up with an arsenal of compound butters – essentially softened butter mixed with things like fresh herbs, citrus zests, rehydrated mushrooms, goat or blue cheese – you name it. The butters would be rolled into cylinders, refrigerated or frozen, then cut into slabs as needed and placed on top of the finished meat or fish.
The melting butter mixes with the meat’s natural juices creating its own sauce. And if perhaps through some distraction you overcook a chicken breast or tuna filet, the butter gives back a little of the moisture. The beauty is that it can all be done ahead, lessening some of the stress of crunch time.
The recipes for today are just the tip of the iceberg. You’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly and be ready to experiment.
Two things: Take the time to let the butter soften up before adding your flavorings. I’ve tried to beat cold butter into submission, and it just doesn’t work as well. And two, don’t be shy on your herbs, zest, etc. A half a pound of butter can handle a lot of flavor.
Whether your grill is the size of a small Winnebago or just a little hibachi, compound butters can raise the bar on your backyard barbecue.
Ladies and gentlemen, start your Webers.
I’ve listed some suggestions for serving each butter, but there really isn’t any limits. To roll the butter into cylinders, lay a 12-inch piece of wax paper on your work area. Spread the finished butter along the bottom of the sheet leaving about an inch border and approximating a tube. Roll it up then twist one end closed. Holding the twisted end securely, twist the other one until a uniform tube results. Kind of like a Tootsie roll. Or just place the completed butter in a container, cover with plastic and refrigerate or freeze.
• Brian Shaw and his wife Ardie own the Cafe del Rio, 394 S. C Street in Virginia City.
Cracked Olive Butter
1 cup of soft butter
4 tablespoons rough chopped Calamata or Greek olives
2 tablespoons minced garlic
4 tablespoons minced fresh herbs like thyme and oregano or parsley, tarragon and chives. Not rosemary – it tends to be a little gritty
4 tablespoons sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons dry sherry
1⁄2 tablespoon ground cumin
Salt and black pepper to taste.
Place all ingredients in a food processor and pulse just to combine.
Good on fish, chicken or red meat. Also try it on roasted red potatoes.
1 cup soft butter
2 canned chipotle chilies in adobo, seeded
1 tablespoon minced garlic
4 tablespoons minced shallot or red onion
1 tablespoon orange zest
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
salt to taste
Place all ingredients in a food processor and process until smooth. You can also use a standing mixer fitted with the paddle – just mince the chipotle before adding to the butter.
Use for fish, chicken or pork.
1 cup rough chopped Italian parsley
1⁄2 cup rough chopped cilantro
2 tablespoon minced garlic
1 Serrano chili, seeded and chopped
1⁄2 teaspoon of ground cumin
1⁄2 teaspoon Kosher salt
1⁄2 cup virgin olive oil
1⁄3 cup red wine vinegar
1 cup soft butter
Place all the ingredients except the butter in a food processor and process until fairly smooth but with little green specks. Add the soft butter and pulse just to combine.
Good on red meat or meaty fish like tuna or swordfish.