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Get Tonya Thomas’ recipe for a Maryland Rockfish Reuben from ‘Back of House,’ a new Baltimore cookbook to benefit restaurants

“Back of House” is not a typical cookbook. Absent are the glossy, colorful shots of perfectly plated food, and in their place black-and-white photos depicting the frenetic pace of life in Baltimore’s commercial kitchens.

White paper tickets pile up during service. Smoke billows from a grill, steam emanates from a pasta colander. Heat, pressure, invention.

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“It’s definitely a snapshot of Covid-times,” said photographer Joe Giordano, formerly of City Paper, who released the book this week with editor Jess Mayhugh. It combines Giordano’s photos with recipes and essays from Baltimore-area cooks, from Dylan Salmon of Dylan’s Oyster Cellar to David and Tonya Thomas of H3irloom Food Group. Taken together, it’s a celebration of the behind-the-scenes workers who make the hospitality industry hum — even in the midst of a global pandemic.

“Back of House,” which is available to order online through self publishing platform Blurb, comes from a restaurant phrase used to delineate behind-the-scenes workers like cooks and dishwashers from customer-facing “front of house” roles like servers, hosts and bartenders. All proceeds from the sale of the book ($50) go to the Baltimore Restaurant Relief Fund, which was created to benefit businesses and workers during the pandemic.

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“It’s a little on the pricier side,” said Mayhugh, but, “We’re making zero money on this. There’s no middle man and every single dollar is going to the Restaurant Relief Fund.”

A new cookbook benefits The Baltimore Restaurant Relief Fund.
A new cookbook benefits The Baltimore Restaurant Relief Fund. (J.M. Giordano)

By focusing on small, independent restaurants, Giordano said he hoped to contribute to a richer understanding of Charm City’s food offerings beyond crab cakes.

“Baltimore is a knickknack shelf for New York and D.C.,” he said. “No one cares about our cooking scene if it’s not crab.” But readers of “Back of House” will, in fact, find a few crab recipes, including a family recipe for crab soup from home cook and blogger Amy Langrehr, who pens the newsletter Charm City Cook.

When it came time to seek out recipes from area restaurants, Giordano enlisted the help of Mayhugh, who spent years covering restaurants for Baltimore Magazine and is now an editorial director at the website Thrillist.

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“Every chef we contacted was so incredibly busy already,” Mayhugh said, whether they were preparing for the upcoming dinner or determining their next pivot. And yet they all dropped what they were doing to help out. “It cemented for me that when you reach out to people in hospitality…no matter what they’re doing, they will help you out,” she said.

Tonya Thomas called her decision to contribute a recipe with husband and business partner David Thomas, the former chef at Ida B’s Table who won praise for bringing innovative twists to staples of soul food, “a no brainer.”

“What do you need?” she remembers asking, before saying, “We’ll make it work.”

They found time despite busy schedules. In addition to running their own catering company — with a specialty line of hot sauces — the Thomases recently opened The Sinclair event space in Baltimore’s Bel Air-Edison neighborhood. Ida B’s, which they left in March of last year, became another pandemic casualty, closing down for good this spring.

Below, find Tonya’s recipe for a unique spin on a Reuben sandwich which features kimchi made of collard greens in place of the more typical sauerkraut.

Blackened Maryland Rockfish Reuben by Tonya Thomas, The H3irloom Group

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons butter, softened

2 tablespoons oil

8 slices pumpernickel bread

8 filets Maryland rockfish

1 ½ cup blackened seasoning

½ pound collard green kimchi (see below; highly suggest to make ahead of time)

¼ cup sweet potato remoulade (see below)

Directions:

1. Preheat a griddle or frying pan to medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons of oil. Completely coat rockfish filets with blackened seasoning. Pan sear on both sides. This should take approximately 3-5 minutes per side. Remove rockfish from the pan and set aside.

2. Butter one side of each of four slices of bread, and place the slices buttered-side down on a large piece of wax paper on a flat surface. Add rockfish filet to each piece.

3. Using paper towels, squeeze out excess moisture from the kimchi. Divide the kimchi among the sandwiches, and top each with one tablespoon of sweet potato remoulade. Top with the remaining bread slices; butter the side facing out.

4. Preheat a griddle or frying pan to medium heat. Cook the sandwiches on one side until the bread is toasted. Use a spatula to carefully flip the sandwiches and finish cooking on the second side. Cut the sandwiches in half before serving.

Sweet Potato Remoulade

Combine the following ingredients:

⅓ cup mayonnaise

1 large sweet potato, baked and peeled

2 tablespoons minced garlic

3 tablespoons honey

Salt to taste

Collard Green Kimchi

Ingredients:

2 bunches of collards

2 ½ spring onions

½ cup shredded carrots

½ cup shredded radish

3 tablespoons sea salt

2 tablespoons Sosu pepper sauce

1-1 ½ garlic cloves, crushed

1 tablespoon sugar

½ tsp fresh ginger

¼ onion

Directions:

1. Rinse the collards, then quarter them lengthwise, discard the stems, and chop the collards laterally, which should leave you with the largest pieces measuring about 2 inches on a side.

2. Now that we have small pieces of collards, it’s time to salt them. Place the collards in a clean plastic bag or equivalent (with no holes) and sprinkle salt over each layer. You may have to add a little water. This will create a brine solution with the collard juice.

4. To ensure the collards are properly salted, sprinkle salt onto your wet hands, then rub it into the collard pieces. Once finished, tie up the bag and set it aside for 5-6 hours. Check it after 3 hours to ensure that everything is alright, stirring the mixture if necessary.

5. Take the collards out of the salt solution and rinse it if necessary. It should be a lot softer than it was. Again, remove surplus water. Place collards in a sealable plastic bag or glass jar. Add the spring onions, chopped into small pieces. Add carrot and radish. Crush the garlic and ginger in a press and mix in. Add onion.

6. Add the Sosu and sugar.

7. Mash the Sosu into the leaves the same way as you did with the salt. It’s a good idea to wear gloves while doing this.

8. Put the containers aside for three or four days in a cool location. After that, store it in the refrigerator.

9. Finally the kimchi is ready. It should be soft in consistency, but not too mushy, with a little crunchiness left in the larger pieces.

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Yield: 4 Servings

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Prep time: 30 minutes

Standing: 4 days

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 4 days, 50 minutes

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