Food is a process

Monday, June 21, 2004

Chips and dip - Potato chips with truffle dip

All photographs were taken by the sweet caró.

Thomas Keller seems to take some childish satisfaction from giving fairly low-brow names to actually high-brow dishes. So there is nothing even remotely resembling pub food in his "chips and dip", and the making and assembling of the dish took nearly three hours, it was probably the most expensive dish we served on that day, and the most challenging to make, technically.

As you might be able to see from the picture, the "chips" are very thin slices of potatoes with a very thin slice of fresh summer truffle sandwiched between them, and the "dip" is whipped crème fraîche with truffle oil and minced truffles in it, topped with a generous helping of minced truffles. That's right.

By far the most challenging item were the truffle chips. Nick had been struggling with the chive chips required for the custard dish to come later on for about three days now, so we were aware of the fact the there were going to be difficulties. The problem is that you have to slice the potatoes extremely thin, but still have a constant thickness, so that you can layer them on top of each other and they can "seal" the truffle slice inside. This requires a mandoline. I thought that if you are skilled enough in knife handling (and I am not saying I am, I just thought it was at least theoretically possible) you don't actually need a mandoline, you can just get really thin slices by hand. Nick, however, said that he had always wanted a mandoline, and our new favourite restaurant supply store (Surfas in Culver City; it truly is a fantastic store) sold some for seemingly cheap, along the usually expensive versions, so he decided that it was time he got one, and he did. He was right, and I was wrong: it would have been impossible to get slices that thin by hand.

Turns out that there is a reason why mandolines cost a lot of money: they're all about the precision. The one Nick ended up buying was made of plastic, and as such it was flimsy and uneven, and the resting platform (the part of the mandoline that can be adjusted to cut a thicker or thinner slice) was at a diagonal angle with the blade. The result was that it was impossible to get an even slice out of the thing. After an entire night spent cursing the damn thing and almost giving himself a nervous breakdown, the heroic Nick figured out a technique that involved starting out with very little pressure on the potato, then as the cut proceeds, increasing the pressure so that at the end you'll have a semi-even slice. Not perfect, but good enough for the job. Clearly, since he had spent the better part of a night trying to get the band-aid shaped chive chips done ahead of time (stay tuned for those) the task of slicing the potatoes for the truffle chips fell on me. I took to it with a vengeance.

Technical difficulties aside, the gist of the exercise is as follow: you take a potato (russets work well), peel it, and "round it out", that is you try and get rid of the sharp edges were you peeled it so that you'll have a smooth profile in your chips. Then you start cutting very thin slices. Keep the slices piled on top of each other in the order that you cut them: this will make it much easier to match the edges when it is time to make the mini-sandwiches. One you have enough slices, start assembling the chips.

Ahead of time, you will have sliced a truffle extremely thin, also using your mandoline. Now take a baking sheet, and lay a Silpat on it. "What's a Silpat?", I hear the shy guy in the back asking. Good question. A Silpat (check it out here at the above-mentioned store) is a silicone non-stick baking mat; it's a true wonder of modern technology, and a necessary item in the Keller-wannabe kitchen. It can go from –40˚ F to +600˚ F, and nothing sticks to it, and I mean nothing.

So, get your silpat on your baking sheet, brush it with clarified butter and sprinkle it with kosher salt, and start laying the potato slices on it. One slice, put a truffle slice on it, then the matching potato slice on that, making a sandwich. Then do the next. Then the next, and so forth, until the silpat has no more room. Here is a picture of the prepared, almost finished tray:

Then you take another silpat, brush it with clarified butter and sprinkle it with salt, and lay on the potato slices, then put a second baking sheet on top of that. It's like a silpat/baking sheets sandwich for the potato/truffle sandwiches. Wheels within wheels, man. If you ponder on that while tripping on mushrooms, they say the secrets of the universe will be revealed to you in a whirlwind of synaesthetic bliss.

Here we ran into the first glitch in the recipes: it says to put the chips in the oven at 250˚ F for about 20 minutes, then flip the sheets and bake for another 20 minutes. Well, normally Mr. Keller's recipes are almost magically right, even when you're thinking "no way this amount of ground walnut and this amount of butter are going to make a muffin batter-like mixture", they do. When he tells you, at the end of an incredibly long and complicated recipe: "now you should have about 48 agnolotti" and you count them, they will be 48 agnolotti, plus or minus one. But, if you bake those chips at his temperature for his time, you'll have raw, mushy and floppy chips. That's what Nick found out with the chive chips, and the only way he could make something approaching the gorgeous picture that is in the book, after several attempts, was to increase the temperature and bake them longer.

So we ended up baking the chips for closer to 1 hour at 350˚ F. Go figure. They turned out a bit burned and over-crispy, compared to what Mr. Keller would have served, probably, but at least they would hold their shape and could actually be used to scoop up some "dip". Oh: also, we made two batches of them, which is why we served the first course of the day more than three hours after we had started cooking.

About the dip: this was the easy part of the dish. Take some crème fraîche, put it in a bowl set over a bigger bowl with some ice in it, and whip it. I never knew that crème fraîche can be whipped, but it can. It takes a while, but it will become stiff. Then fold in a bit of truffle oil and a nice helping of minced truffles. We used canned truffle shavings for this, not the fresh truffles, or the cost would have become prohibitive, but it was very good indeed.

That was the first dish we served, as an appetizer, while the girls (well, and adam) were lounging by the poolside. We decided to serve beer with it instead of wine, since it was supposed to be "pub food" (wink wink). Obviously, we didn't go for bud light: given the strong flavor of the dish, we thought that a good strong Belgian ale would stand up to it, and as it turned out the Chimay was a nice pairing. The day was hot, the food delicious and the beer cold. What more could we ask?

On a concluding note, I was personally impressed when Nick refused to bring out some spoons so that we could dig into the dip that was left over after all the chips had been eaten – and trust me, it would have been delicious on its own –, on the grounds that the whole idea was to leave people wanting more of each dish, without getting it. Until the next dish comes along, and it's a whole new exciting flavor. So kudos to Nick for sticking to the original philosophy of meal.

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