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It’s not exactly clear to me why Josh Gibson purchased the variety pack of goat parts at the Harris Teeter near his Adams Morgan apartment. The Teet meat department had originally mislabeled the shrink-wrapped package as lamb, only to cross out the erroneous sticker and properly identify it as goat. However it’s labeled, Gibson’s wife, Sara, sounds relieved when former Colorado Kitchen chef and owner Gillian Clark pulls the meat out of the freezer and cooks it as part of our Shelf Reliance challenge.
“Hoorah!” says Sara, the type to shout such exclamations without self-consciousness or irony, “because we had no idea what to do with it.”
Clark knows what she wants to do with the goat; she just doesn’t have much experience doing it. As a child growing up in Great Neck, N.Y., Clark had a Jamaican uncle who loved stewing up curried goat, that hot, succulent ceremonial dish of the island. “You could feel the skin on the roof of your mouth dissolving,” she remembers about those blazing curries, “but you couldn’t stop eating it.” That’s a nicely exaggerated childhood memory, I think, but I need to cut through the nostalgia and figure out how often Clark’s actually cooked curried goat. “This will be my second time,” confesses the chef, who’ll be leaning on American and Eastern European traditions when she opens her two new restaurants in Silver Spring and Takoma Park.
I have to give it to Clark. She has opted to cook outside her comfort zone, which is the very reason Shelf Reliance can make chefs nervous. I had invited Clark to Josh and Sara’s 1910-era apartment complex with the idea that she would prepare a two-person meal (no restrictions on courses) with whatever ingredients were on hand. For all Clark knew—and feared, as she later admitted in an e-mail—the couple’s pantry could be stocked with nothing but “dry pasta and jarred sauce.” To ensure that Josh and Sara wouldn’t stack the odds in Clark’s favor, I specifically asked them not to make any grocery trips before the chef’s visit.
But even with my edict, Josh and Sara’s pantry essentially served as one fat pitch for Clark to whack it out of the park. The couple make their own chicken stock. They have fresh milk and butter delivered to their doorstep from South Mountain Creamery in Middletown, Md. They grow their own basil.
Their kitchen, in other words, is not really the kind of skank hole that will present the stiffest challenge to a visiting chef (Young & Hungry, “Fridge Festival,” 5/7). At least that’s what I’m thinking as I stand in the narrow galley kitchen, listening to their gastronomic adventures.
Then, as Clark defrosts the goat in the sink, she starts searching the cupboards for that key partner to any plate of curried goat. Finally, she turns to her hosts and wonders, “No rice in the house?” When Sara says no, I can’t help but release my own exclamation: “Awesome!” Clark must improvise. In a matter of seconds, she has her solution: She’s going to whip up a crepe batter and make her own version of West Indian roti.
Clark soon runs into other roadblocks. In pawing through the kitchen in search of aromatics for her stewing liquid, Clark asks if there’s any garlic in the house. Josh points out a latchkey clove sitting in a basket on the table. “One clove,” the chef deadpans. “That’s interesting.” The couple’s frugal, no-waste ways lead to other odd discoveries—a lone potato (“One potato?” Clark asks incredulously. “How does one arrive at that?”) and one decomposing lemon (“That’s turned into a science experiment,” Clark insists before tossing it in the trash).
The couple’s homemade chicken stock, however, makes up for the anemic amount of staples. Clark starts to thaw the container of frozen stock in a hot water bath but quickly gives up and just tosses the ice blocks into the pot. The stewing liquid slowly starts to mix with the flavors that Clark has already released into the pot—oil, mild curry powder, caramelized red onions, browned goat meat, seasonings, Vinho Verde wine, and, of course, that lonely little garlic clove. She would then add bay leaves and let the meat stew for nearly two hours. This is when Clark says, “You sit down with a Red Stripe and wait.”
Sara takes advantage of the down time to ask about Clark’s new ventures in Maryland. The chef’s two-tiered concept, the General Store and Post Office Tavern in the Forest Glen neighborhood, keeps running into delays, Clark tells us. The latest setback is that the basement blueprint had to be redrawn when the original plans were off by 7 feet. The Takoma Park operation, which will feature Eastern European cuisine, has run into more predictable headaches—patchouli-scented busybodies. When Clark mentioned that her place would serve roasted chicken, one gadfly wrote her, “I would expect that rotisserie chickens in the window (even if free range …) are likely to produce some controversy. Remember that this is a downtown where the unofficial mascot is Roscoe the roster [sic]…”
All this business talk has just made Josh hungry. “You can answer this question ‘No,’” he says, “but is there a dessert course?”
The request sends Clark scrambling to remember a flourless honey soufflé recipe created by Ann Amernick, the former pastry chef and co-owner at Palena. Clark’s impatience with desserts is obvious; she wings the dish, taking an educated guess at the amount of honey needed for the base. Her estimate appears off. The egg whites, whipped into soft peaks by Clark’s business partner Robin Smith, can’t hold the heavy honey-egg mixture in place (though I admittedly sampled the dessert after it started to deflate). Honey is pooled at the base of the cup, like an unintended soufflé sauce.
Out in the living room where they’ve set up their feasting table, Josh and Sara say they prefer the dessert that way. “It tastes like a marshmallow,” Sara says, “a toasted marshmallow.”
We all agree that Clark’s curried goat is a home-cooking masterpiece. Though not as fiery as I prefer, the chunks of meat are moist and sufficiently spicy; the heat level, in fact, is intense enough to emphasize the buttery sweetness hiding inside those crepes, which are folded into neat triangles on a plate and covered with goat stew. I can only sit in a satisfied silence as the waves of spice, gamey meat, and rich crepe roll across my tongue. “This is so much better than what I would have come up with,” Sara says.
Clark has even found a creative use for that single potato. She’s made a side dish of browned potato slices and slivers of raw kohlrabi, which are dusted with a chiffonade of mint and dressed with lemon and oil. It’s just the right note of crunch, citrus and coolness to counteract Clark’s Jamaican heat.
As the meal winds down, Josh looks up from his seat and asks Clark, “So, what are we having for dinner tomorrow?”
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