The Chef: Shawn McClain (Green Zebra)
The challenger: Michael Carlson (Schwa)
The ingredient: Blood
It's probably not a coincidence that Michael Carlson chose fresh blood as the challenge for Shawn McClain of the vegetarian restaurant Green Zebra. "My staff was horrified," McClain says. "I brought in special dishes to keep everything from touching. . . . Nothing will ever be found in Green Zebra like this, and my advance apologies to anyone I may have offended in the process."
McClain notes that blood used to be a fairly common ingredient, but "times have changed and tastes have changed." People in the U.S. aren't as accustomed to eating the whole animal as they once were, though blood is still often used in Europe, Asia, and South America in blood sausage, soups, and other dishes.
The blood McClain used was from a cow, and came frozen in a plastic tub from Paulina Meat Market. He would have preferred pig's blood, he said, but he wasn't able to find it. "I think cow's blood has a distinct really high iron richness to it. It's darker in color. And if I were to do a taste test side by side, which I don't want to do, yeah, I would say it'd be a distinct difference in the flavor. I think the pork would be a little bit more subtle."
He decided to make a sort of blood sausage cake, using grits as filler and forgoing the casing. Asked if he'd thought about trying anything different, he said, "Absolutely not. No. Which is kind of the way I work. I don't like to play around with food too much. I just go by instinct and hope that it will pull together."
McClain sauteed garlic, onion, thyme, garlic scapes (the shoots that garlic bulbs send up as they grow), and Chinese sausage before adding the blood to the pan. "I've discovered working with fresh blood that you definitely want to keep it moving and stirring, because once it starts to heat it will really start to coagulate and bind quickly," he said. "It'll scorch too, because it's congealing on the bottom of the pan." Adding grits, he cooked the mixture on the stove top until the blood started to thicken and the grits were cooked a little. He then transferred it to a small earthenware dish and baked it for about half an hour, let it cool overnight, and cut it up and pan-fried the slices. "Let's call it—maybe a blood grit cake? I don't know, how does that sound?"
A sunny-side up duck egg, grilled sourdough crostini, and Chicago-style deli pickle relish completed the dish. The last ingredient "was serendipitously found when I was getting the blood, and I have to tell you, it was a small lightbulb," McClain said. "It just seemed like a great foil for the richness of the blood cake. A lot of richer dishes tend to have pickles or things next to them, so—why not."
Grated horseradish, for a little additional brightness, went on top. "That's for you, Michael Carlson," McClain said as he finished off the dish. "It's dedicated to you." He thought the grits gave the blood cake enough texture to hold together without becoming too dense. It did taste like blood "a little bit. You get that natural meat iron flavor, but it's a cooked flavor, not raw, like a raw meat/tartare/carpaccio flavor. But it's good. I surprised myself. Who knew?"
But when asked if he's planning to work with blood again, he didn't hestitate: "No, not in the near future. You never know; never say never. But—yeah, pretty much say never."
Nick Lacasse of the Drawing Room, working with whelks, or sea snails. McClain has never cooked with them, but "I've tasted them, and they are good. I'm kind of selfish that way; I wanted to have him be able to teach me."Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon
Fresh blood and grit cake with fried duck egg and Chicago-style deli relish
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 garlic scape, chopped fine
2 oz sweet Chinese pork sausage, chopped
1 tsp fresh thyme, stemmed and chopped
1/2 onion, minced
2 T stone-ground grits
16 oz fresh blood, preferably pig's, but you may substitute cow's
1/4 cup flour
4 fresh duck eggs
2 T butter
1/4 cup olive oil for cooking
Sea salt to taste
4 T green deli relish
1 T fresh parsley
4 slices country bread
In a small sauce pot, heat one tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat. Add garlic and scape and cook until browned. Add sausage, thyme and onion and cook until soft. Add blood and grits and lower heat to low. Stir contently for eight to ten minutes or until blood thickens. (You may need to add a touch of water to keep it from thickening too much.) Remove from stove and place into a half quart earthenware dish and bake at 350 degrees F in a water bath for 20 minutes or until cake springs back to the touch. Remove and chill overnight. Once cool, slice cake into four portions. Dust with flour and pan fry until outside is well browned and warm throughout. Meanwhile, fry duck eggs in a butter sunny-side up. Saute country toast in butter until browned and crisp. Serve blood cake with fried eggs and toast and garnish with green relish that has been mixed with a little fresh parsley. Serves four.