$20 Dinner with Zeb Stevenson
Parish's chef cooks up a family meal full of Midwestern memoriesThursday June 26, 2014 04:01 am EDT
One of the most highly publicized Atlanta dinners in recent memory was inspired by a dare. The challenge was indirect, but when journalist Kate Abney (then-managing editor for JEZEBEL magazine, now a CL contributor) suggested to chef Zeb Stevenson that Atlanta diners weren't ready to embrace blood as an ingredient, it was like handing him a big red button that read "DO NOT PUSH."
Stevenson likes pushing buttons.
Four months later, Atlanta chefs Tyler Williams, Josh Hopkins, and Ryan Smith joined Stevenson in the kitchen to create an intricate procession of blood-based dishes such as ox blood strozzapreti pasta and hamachi bloodline. Forty adventurous foodies gobbled up each course.
Stevenson has been working his way up the ranks of Atlanta's kitchens for nearly 15 years. He's made a name for himself by pushing boundaries with his bold, unapologetic cooking style. When Stevenson left his post as executive chef of Livingston last spring, he commemorated the event with a 12-course Last Supper blowout. As the story goes, Stevenson's plan was to roast a whole lamb slaughtered by a local shepherd earlier that day. In a weird twist of rifle-malfunctioning fate, Stevenson returned with his intended lamb, but also a second, younger one that happened to be in the wrong pasture at the wrong time. Stevenson de-boned the smaller one, trussed it up inside the larger one, and threw the Frankenbeast on a spit.
On this muggy afternoon at his East Point home, there will be no whole animal cookery. There will be no blood. The former Cornell art major and Parish's current executive chef is focused on something much more fundamental. Today he'll cook a hearty, family-style meal inspired by his grandmother for less than $20. He says cooking on a budget is a skill all chefs must posses.
"Whether or not I get to keep my job is based, in some part, on whether or not I can make my budget. And it sucks. Nobody likes it because chefs want to feel like we're just being creative all the time. But it's a business and we have to be profitable, so we find ways to embrace our cheapness," he says.
Blue-collar frugality runs a bit deeper for Stevenson, though. The meal he has planned harks back to his Indiana childhood when, at times, food was scarce. First, there will be a chilled salad of charred green beans, protein-filled lentils, candied lemon rind, and olive oil. Next, braised sirloin steak with mushrooms and leeks. Finally, a disc of crispy Yukon Gold hash browns on the side. To Stevenson, the term peasant food means "cheap shit that will feed your family."
"We ate a lot of spaghetti. We ate a lot of anything with ground beef in it. I remember my mom used to try to come up with inventive ways to turn one kind of meat into more, like putting more grains and oats and stuff like that to make it last. It didn't help that I always had the appetite of a sumo wrestler," he says. "But that's why I chose lentils and braising the cheap cut of beef because those were two things we ate a lot of."
He points to the bag of lentils resting on a long, rolling butcher-block island in the middle of the kitchen.
"This bag of lentils that we picked up today costs 99 cents and I, by myself, could live off of it for a week. I've done it."
They'll need to chill in the fridge once they're cooked, so he starts boiling the olive-colored beads in a small pan of water. Stevenson warns about salting the water and the conversation takes a sudden, scientific turn as he elaborates on why.
"Essentially, the salt binds the protein in the lentil and significantly slows its ability to denature. So when you cook beans, legumes, lentils, anything like that, you should cook them in unseasoned water and then season them afterward," he says.
Stevenson is neat and methodical in the kitchen. You can tell by the way he sets up his workstation with ingredients and tools lined up in rows. In the corner behind him is a gas stove surrounded by speckled black countertops and tall white cabinets. Stevenson's BFF, a friendly pit bull named Oliver, hangs out by his feet. Overhead a pot rack hangs, displaying assorted, heavy-looking pans.
"A lot of times with these old houses the original kitchen is tiny, and so I love this. I really do. I wanted to have a place to put a pot rack so I could hang my copper pots and it would feel like home," he says.
He peels off large sections of lemon rind with a vegetable peeler. Each swipe releases a spritz of the fruit's flavor-rich essential oils and lemon perfume fills the air. He moves to the bushy, fern-colored leeks and chops the tops off. They go into a cast-iron pot on the stove along with a healthy pour of olive oil. He splits a fat bulb of garlic in half and runs his knife blade through a patch of parsley before throwing the stems and garlic in with the leek tops to brown. After a few minutes, he adds water to what will eventually become a flavorful braising stock for the sirloin.
After working for years as a line cook, Stevenson snagged a spot at the well-remembered Dick & Harry's in Roswell, where he worked under Atlanta Fish Market opening chef and Buckhead Life alum Harold Marmulstein. Stevenson describes Marmulstein as his mentor, referring to him as "the man who taught me how to really cook."
In 2008, Stevenson signed on to open the Atlanta outpost of Jean-Georges Vongerichten's flagship Manhattan restaurant Spice Market as executive sous chef. From there he went to work under Gary Mennie at Livingston for about a year before taking the helm in 2009 after Mennie's departure. Stevenson won the Food Network's cooking competition show "Chopped" in 2012, and opened Proof & Provision in the basement of the Georgian Terrace Hotel later that year. He split with Livingston in spring 2013 and eventually landed his current gig at Parish in Inman Park.
Charring green beans in a wok is a trick he learned from Vongerichten at Spice Market. He tosses the beans with an effortless flick of the wrist. As the natural sugars caramelize, he explains, the charred bits of skin will add a deeper flavor to the naturally sweet and snappy beans. He adds matchstick splinters of raw lemon rind to the mix.
Next he butterflies pieces of sirloin, coats them in flour, and pounds each one thin. Once the meat is browned in a searing cast-iron pan, he adds garlic, mushrooms, and leeks, eventually covering it all with the braising stock. A sauce forms and thickens. As Stevenson bastes the sirloin with spoonfuls of peppery gravy, the smell of sweet, slow-roasted meat fills the room.
"Honestly, it smells like my grandma's house," he says. "This is a dish I would eat in some form at my grandmother's after church on Sunday, and I love it not only for the way it tastes, but the way it smells."
When it's time to assemble the meal, he pours a bowl of the chilled lentils and charred beans over hunks of supple bibb lettuce. He pulls the hash brown cake flecked with parsley out of the oven and flips it onto a round glass plate. He places the glistening pieces of steak on a platter with a pair of tongs before smothering it all with the tender vegetables and cumin-colored gravy.
It's a simple meal — tasty, satisfying, uncomplicated. We set the table and serve ourselves family style. The pieces of lemon rind in the salad, freed of any bitterness by the heat of the wok, add a tingly acidity to the earthy lentils and sweet green beans. The hash browns are chewy and crisp in all the right places. And then the meat.
"There's something very comforting to me about it," Stevenson says. "It makes the house smell like home. And isn't that kind of the ennui of being a grown-up? You don't have home anymore, where you grew up, so you're just trying to recreate a feeling in a new place that doesn't really exist."
He looks down at his plate and loads up his fork with another bite.
"This makes me feel good," he says, grinning. "This makes me feel like everything is gonna be OK."
?For the lentils:?
?• 1 cup lentils?
?• 2 cups water?
?Combine the lentils and water. Bring to a boil over high heat and then reduce the heat to low. Cook, covered, for 20 minutes or until lentils are not tough in the center. Drain and cool in the refrigerator. (Note: You will have some lentils left over but this is a good thing.)?
?For the charred beans:?
?• 1 lemon?
?• 1/2 pound fresh green beans, cut in 1-inch pieces?
?• 2 teaspoons sugar?
?• 1/4 cup water?
?Use a peeler to remove the skin from the lemon (try not to get the white pith, it's very bitter). Cut the lemon peel into thin strips (about 1/16 inch wide) and set aside.?
?Cut the lemon in half and squeeze out the juice. Measure out 2 teaspoons of the juice and set aside (we'll use this for the potatoes). Combine the rest of the juice with the water.?
?Heat a dry pan over high heat until it is smoking-hot (if you have a wok — now is the time to use it!). Add the beans to the hot pan and let them char, stirring only a few times, for about 3 minutes.?
?Turn off the heat and add the lemon peel. Stir for 30 seconds. Add the sugar, lemon juice, and water. Pour the ingredients into a bowl and chill in the refrigerator.?
?To assemble the salad:?
?• 1 small head bibb lettuce?
?• 1/2 chopped leeks (or another onion with tops)?
?• 1/4 cup olive oil?
?• Salt to taste?
?Separate the lettuce into leaves. Combine with 1 cup of cooked lentils, the charred bean mixture, and olive oil. Toss together with the shaved onion and season to taste with salt.?
?• 3 cups water?
?• 2 tablespoons salt?
?• 2 medium Yukon Gold potatoes?
?• 12 leaves fresh parsley (sliced into thin strips)?
?Preheat oven to 375 degrees.?
?Combine the water and salt. Stir to dissolve. Peel the potatoes and shred into the salted water.?
?Pour enough olive oil into a small non-stick pan to coat the bottom. Drain the potatoes and squeeze off the excess liquid.?
?Combine the parsley into the potatoes, pack them into the pan and cover with aluminum foil. Bake in the oven for 45 minutes. Once done, carefully turn out onto a plate.?
?For the braising stock:?
?• 1/3 bottle olive oil?
?• Green tops from leeks, cut into 1-inch segments?
?• One bulb of garlic cut in half laterally with skins, reserve three cloves?
?• 3 cups water?
?• Stems from the parsley?
?In a heavy-bottomed pot, over high heat, brown the onion greens and garlic in oil. Once they are nicely browned, reduce the heat to low. Add the water and parsley stems. Simmer for 20 minutes. Strain off the liquid and discard the vegetables.?
?For the sirloin:?
?• 3/4 cup flour?
?• 2 teaspoons salt?
?• About 1 pound sirloin tip steak ?
?*Warning! This part might get messy.*?
?Combine the flour and salt. Dust each steak with the flour mixture and pound thin with a meat mallet. Continue to dredge the steaks in flour and pound the flour mixture into the meat until the steaks are thin and about two times their original size.?
?Using a heavy-bottom pot or Dutch Oven, brown the steaks over medium-high heat in the remaining olive oil for about 2 minutes on each side. Set aside. Don't clean the pot yet. We need all of the lovely browned bits in the bottom for the next step.?
?• 3 cloves garlic, minced?
?• The leeks, julienned?
?• 1 package sliced mushrooms?
?• 2 teaspoons ground black pepper?
?• 3 cups stock (from previous recipe)?
?• 1/4 cup parsley leaves?
?Over medium heat, add the garlic, onions, and mushrooms to the Dutch Oven that was used to brown the steaks. Stir frequently with a wooden spoon, scraping the bottom of the pot. Once the onions have softened, add the black pepper and place steaks back in the pot. Cover with the stock and simmer for 45 minutes. Season to taste.?
?Carefully pull the steaks out of the pot and place on a platter. If needed, turn the heat up to reduce the liquid to the desired "gravy-like" consistency. Spoon the sauce over the steaks and scatter with parsley leaves.?