Food is a process

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Do you believe the reviews on Yelp?

Quick question: Can we trust the reviews on Yelp? Or are they just part of the coolness contest that the site so blatantly promotes? I mean, paying young hotties to come to your corporate parties? Come on, can a foodie wannabe trust them? add'em

Friday, December 16, 2005

Gruyère Cheese Gougères

Gruyère Cheese Gougères
Originally uploaded by ilmungo.

Last Sunday we hosted a Winter Feast in honour of our friend Indre, who successfully defended her Ph.D. dissertation. Nick and I cooked a seven course meal. Most of the dishes were taken from the French Laundry cookbook, by culinary sensei Thomas Keller. Some others were recreations of dishes that Nick had at his brother's restaurant in Aspen. Each dish was carefully paired with its "perfect" wine.

The evening opened with these Gruyère Cheese Gougères, served on a silver platter as a fun bite-sized appetizer to eat with your hands. They are lighter than air and mostly empty inside, infused with just the right amount of cheese flavour.

These are relatively easy to make, considering it's a Keller recipe. Pretty straightforward. You bring some water and butter and salt and a pinch of sugar to a boil, then dump in all at once 5 ounces of flour — a side note here: I love that Thomas Keller gives weight equivalents for dry ingredients in a lot of his recipes. It is much easier to weigh out 5 ounces of flour that scoop it into a cup and a quarter — and stir over a medium flame until a ball of dough forms, about 2 minutes. Take it off the heat and tranfer to a bowl. Crack in four eggs and mix until a smooth batter forms, which should be at the soft-peak consistency. If too stiff (which was the case in mine) add an egg white. Then add lots of grated gruyère cheese.

This results in a sticky and dense batter. Transfer it to a pastry bag fitted with a rather large tip, and pipe it onto a silpat-lined baking sheet in tablespoon-sized mounds, spaced about 2 inches apart (they will spread and grow in the oven). Before you put it into the 450 degrees pre-heated oven don't forget, as I almost did, to sprinkle some more grated gruyère onto each single puff ball. Bake 7 or 8 minutes, until the gougères hold their shape, then turn the oven temperature down to 350 and bake another 20-30 minutes (20 was enough for me), until golden and delicious. Serve hot.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Hello Me, how about dinner and a movie?

I expect this to be very hot. Serrano and poblano peppers, chili powder, cumin, fennel seeds, and enough cilantro to deodorize an outhouse. But when I bit into my little culinary creations, I soon discovered that yes, the spiciness was clearly there, but enough of a balance with those crucial neutralizing components, such as the soba noodle bed for the tuna and the queso blanco on the stuffed peppers, allowed someone with little armor for heat to enjoy it. I’m referring to the meal I prepared for my date-with-myself night. Since Indre is in Rome, I thought I’d spend the evening cooking, blogging, and watching movie. It was definitely a Woody Allen night, so I checked Hannah and Her Sisters out of the Palo Alto Public Library. Cooking wasn’t quit as fun without my favorite sous chef with me, but I put on some Lester Young, poured the last glass of my week-old Chianti, and got to it. I’m proud to say that I even put out a place mat as setting for my plates and silverware, which I never do normally, but I couldn’t bring myself to light the candles; I’ll save those for Indre. Here’s what I prepared, all of which can be found in a fabulous collection called The Strang Cookbook for Cancer Prevention (reference below). Starters and Sides: Portobello mushroom-stuffed chiles rellenos Black Bean Soup Entrée: Chimayo chile-crusted Ahi tuna with soba noodle-cucumber salad and cilantro-honey vinaigrette Wine: 2003 Bien Nacido Pinot Blanc from Bonny Doon (Santa Cruz Mtns, CA) Some notes on the dishes: As I mentioned above, each of the dishes would be on the spicy side. This I could tell by looking at the recipe. Incidentally, the Portobello mushroom-stuffed peppers is a recipe created by a Miles Angelo from the Cairbou Club in Aspen, Colorado. Nick, isn’t Alex in Aspen now? It got me thinking whether he, the restaurant he works at, you know…..nah… Now, I’ll admit that I don’t know my peppers and chiles. In fact, I don’t know the difference between peppers and chiles, if there is one. Undeterred, I trusted my ability to read the little signs in the produce section and allowed myself one strategic “do you have…” question. I still don’t know what chimayo chiles are, but I came home with some nice poblano peppers (dark green, resemble but are slightly thinner than green bell peppers). One thing I learned is that these peppers are called "poblano when fresh and "ancho" when dried. I bought a few extra so I had the poblanos for stuffing, but also used them for the chile sauce. I particularly enjoyed the method of marinating the Portobello caps in this recipe; just a simple lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper combination, but it tasted fantastic, especially given the wine I chose (see below). What attracted me to the black bean soup was the number of other vegetables included in the recipe. Maybe I’m a little naïve, but I always assumed that black bean soups are essentially all black beans and a little spice. But this one includes many other fantastic ingredients, like carrots, celery, onions, and red bell pepper, which ultimately give the soup a hearty and complex flavor. I may have put a little too much garlic in; it called for three cloves minced and I used three big mofos, so I definitely felt protected from bay area vampires. I took several short cuts with the tuna because I growing increasingly hungry. But I will say that the soba noodles had some heft since they were organic whole wheat noodles from Trader Joe’s. For the cilantro-honey vinaigrette, I used mesquite honey from Northern Mexico (I thought it appropriate, though I had never tried it. I’m a card-carrying lover of wildflower honey). As it turned out, the mesquite honey tasted similar to common clover honey, when tried alone, and was completely inconsequential when pureed with the cilantro. As for the wine, I picked up the bottle when I visited Bonny Doon last year. I hadn’t tasted this Pinot Blanc, but I am very much in love with the Pinot Noirs that come out of the Bien Nacido vineyard. I’m guessing that the wine was oaked for some months, since it had that fatty, buttery side to it, but I may have been misled a bit because I think I took it out of the fridge too soon, so it wasn’t properly chilled. It’s strong citrus bouquet, especially of lemon and honey, made it a surprisingly good pairing. I say “surprisingly” because, well, I chose it. Pensiero, L., Oliveria, S., and Osbourne, M. (1998). The Strang Cookbook for Cancer Prevention. Dutton Books: New York.

Monday, July 12, 2004

More on gnocchi and salmon

I am so ecstatic to see that Nick is writing so much! As requested, I am adding a picture of the salmon dish from our French Laundry Day. Here it is:

scrumptious gnocchi and warm salmon!

A couple of words on my perspective on this dish. I have to say that this was probably my favourite dish of the whole evening, and that's against some stiff competition. Not by a lot, let's be honest, and in the midst of so many amazing dishes, it's hard to pick a winner. But this one hit a particular taste spot in me; it's definitely the kind of dish that I would make for a dinner, it has the Italian roots to it, together with the unexpected pairings and lightness that I look for in a dish, and most of all it gives the illusion of simplicity. The preparation, as Nick mentioned, is not particularly simple; as a matter of fact, when one factors in the making of the gnocchi, the brunoise (extremely finely diced turnips, carrots and leeks blanched in plenty of salted water, then dried and added to the stock) the tomato diamonds (blanch and peel tomatoes, then quarter them, cut away the seeds and ribs so you're left with a tomato petal, then cut on the diagonal to obtain several diamonds) the chive oil, the balsamic glaze (reduce 2 cups of balsamic vinegar to about 1/4 cup), the whole thing is starting to be pretty work-intensive. Not to mention warming the salmon in milk at a tightly controlled temperature. But, the thing is, once it is done and assembled and bit into, the flavors are surprisingly simple and harmonious, they just make sense, like they were supposed to be so.

All in all, it was not just a fantastic dish in itself, but more than that, since it was the official transition between the more "appetizer"-like dishes to the more "real meal"-like stuff, it marked the point at which Emeril Lagasse would have shouted: "Let's kick it up a notch!".

Friday, July 09, 2004

Guilty Solitary Pleasures... okay they're not really guilty

Clementine is gone for the weekend. Most admirally, she is walking 25 or so miles to raise money for breast cancer, along with her father, in San Francisco. I am all alone. However, I'm not panicked. How does one spend a great night alone? Well, I for one, am drinking sparkling wine and just finished eating a fantastic meal, which was a repeat from our French Laundry day. Sort of. The brilliant thing about many of Thomas Keller's recipes is that they can be easily simplified, and that often certain components can be prepared ahead of time and frozen.

The smoked salmon and gnocchi dish is a perfect example. After dropping Clementine off at the airport I headed over to Trader Joe's. I might as well add at this point that Trader Joe's is absolutely indispensible to the thrifty gourmet. If you live somewhere out in the boondocks and you actually don't have one nearby, I pity you greatly. I bought a beautiful piece of smoked salmon loin, some frozen gnocchi, some salad greens and a bottle of Barefoot's sparkling extra dry chardonnay. The bottle is $5 and right on par with some $25 French bottles I've had. A great discovery.

I'll start out by saying that Luigi's Thomas Keller recipe gnocchi were the best gnocchi I've ever had. The frozen ones did in a pinch, but were no comparison. The sauce in the real recipe involves finely dicing several root vegetables and making tomato diamonds (another topic of discussion.) I planned on spending 20 minutes on the whole dish. Instead I sauteed some finely diced onions in olive oil. When they were soft I added some chicken stock (already had it in the fridge) and let it simmer. Meanwhile the salmon was heating in a saucepan full of milk. The idea here is that you gently heat the salmon in the milk for 7 minutes, never letting the temperature rise over 115 degrees. In the proccess some of the salt is leached out. The original recipe requires chive oil and balsamic vinegar glaze. Both of these garnishes take a LONG time to make. However, once you've made them there is plenty left over and keeps well in the freezer. So I took a shallow bowl and made a ring of chive oil around the edge. I then spooned some of the gnocchi in the center. The sauce by the way, was finished by whisking in a bit of butter and then stirring the sauce into the gnocchi. On top of that went a piece of the warm salmon. On top of the salmon I put a bit of the baby greens which had been dressed in lemon oil and twisted in in the palm of my hand. Finally a bit of balsamic glaze went around again. The table was set, the candles were lit and my new favorite CD was put on the stereo: J.J. Cale's Troubador, which is from the 70's. A really great album.

My 20 minute solo version was not the same thing as what we had that day. It didn't look AS amazing. It looked pretty good though. You know what? Despite the infereior gnocchi it tasted outstanding as well. Did I say 20 minutes? I'll definitely be making this quick fix again. Oh yes, and one final thing. I replicated this same meal in a tupperware bowl which will serve as my lunch at work tomorrow.

So I just wanted to connect and share. It's time to get back to my evening of solitude. When logging on to this sight I was so excited to see a new contribution (even 2!) from Caroline. Great writing. I realize that it was a bit of a rough start in a couple of ways and that it was a hard thing for you to be the new kid on our block. We're so happy to have you and it wouldn't be the same without you.

Okay now, whose got the beautiful pictures of the salmon?

The Group

It's true that we are now six. Indre, Nick, Clementine, Luigi, Adam and I.

When I first came in, there were only the original four. They had already been deeply involved in this process of weekly dinners where one would cook for the rest in turn for about a year when I showed up on the scene. They had already surpassed the usual dinner party stages: dinner as an excuse to drink, comfort food, recipes taken from Gourmet magazine. They were at this point well into the really challenging stuff.

The chef of the evening is responsible for everything from the aperitif to the dessert, with an average of three courses in between. The guests bring the wine, which is chosen (white or red + preferred type) by the chef.

I don't even rememeber what I prepared the first time it was my turn. I was so nervous I didn't sleep the night before. I think I probably drank a little too much while I was preparing that meal. Whatever it was.

Now, I do like to cook. But this dinner party group was daunting for many reasons. One, I felt like the fifth wheel. These guys, though now I have come to love all of them dearly, scared the shit out of me. They are extremely well-educated, beautiful, talented people (and also exceptionally kind, though I was too nervous at first to realize it). Nick and Clementine were a couple. Luigi and Indre were best friends, and all four of them had spent many a night together. And I was the new girlfriend of Luigi, not sure how or if I could fit in to this seemingly sacred weekly event.

Two, everyone was in the habit of dressing up, and I had never in my life cooked wearing a skirt or any other nice thing. I am the kind of person who will find a way to douse myself in flour if I wear black, and tomato or coffee if I am wearing anything lighter than that. I drop forks, break glasses, and chop parts of my fingers off. In short, no one has ever accused me of being suave. I love to dress up as much as the next girl, but figure food into that equation and I get a little nervous.

Three, my experience cooking was decidedly limited. I have at times gotten really into baking. But my version of a meal had generally involved a dish that could be served on one plate. Like ratatouille and pasta. Simple.

But despite all of that, I thought it was an amazing opportunity, and a brilliant idea. All of us being relatively young and broke-ish, the fact that a good meal was guaranteed once a week, and the chance to challenge my own sense of what I could accomplish with food seemed to me a wonderful possibility. Not long after that, the knowledge that I would also be guaranteed good conversation and friendly faces put me at ease, and I started to really look forward to hosting.

Adam joined us shortly thereafter, rounding us out to an even six, and adding another big dose of jovial warmth. We don't actually meet as often as before, and I'm sorry for that now. It has turned out to actually be my favorite part of my new life in Los Angeles.

Thursday, July 08, 2004


Imagine eating for twelve hours and not getting full until the chocolate souffle/cinnamon cookie/ice cream/superdark chocolate sauce tower comes out at midnight. Imagine tastes that you've never encountered: the way real caviar interacts with champagne, fresh black truffles, hand made chive oil. Flavors so complex that you are almost grateful for the small portions, portions so small that you revel in the complex flavors instead of being overwhelmed. This, and much, much more mind-expanding culinary experience, was the result of the French Laundry menu.

I felt at the end as though I had lived through some kind of gastronomic rite of passage. I was a shiny new being.

Both Clementine and I had lost our mates to the planning and execution of this for days. We stayed out of the kitchen, or helped with what we could (she mentioned countless trips to the market, up until the last minute). But during the meal, we were not called upon to take care of anything but bringing the occasional dish back inside. With Indre and Adam, we were the Eaters. They were the Chefs. We drank and swam and lounged and digested. They sweated and cut themselves and produced the most amazing meal I have ever had.

We have all taken turns cooking, that's how it started, though I wasn't there at the nascence of it all. Everyone has prepared amazing meals, therefore I've eaten many. This was definitely the most indulgent. This meal was miraculous, transcendental.

Monday, July 05, 2004

Cauliflower Panna Cotta pictures

These are a true testament to the culinary skills of Nick, who is solely responsible for this dish and how amazing it tasted. It would be a crime not to have a picture up, so here it is:

What we're drinking with it is the Napa Valley Cuvée Champagne.

the dish in all its beauty
This is a closeup of the dish.

As always, the photographs were taken by caró.