Food is a process

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Cauliflower Panna Cotta with Osetra Caviar

All right! I'm finally contributing to Luigi's beautiful blog. I'll take a moment to discuss the making and eating of the Cauliflower Panna Cotta with Osetra Caviar.

First of all, the caviar. None of us had ever had real caviar before so this was an interesting treat for all of us. The recipe called for beluga, but as that was unavailable we settled for Osetra. I have no idea what impact this had on our experience. At $50 an ounce this was one of the most financially indulgent dishes on the menu. I was afraid that as good as it might be, it would be all too similar to the excellent $12 roe at Trader Joe's. Was it salty? Yes, I suppose it was. But it was so many other things. I'm not going to go on and on about it but it was incredibly intense and complex. It had a certain tang that was really interesting. I'm even tempted to say fruity in a way, though others may disagree.

The panna cotta was incredibly simple to make. First I simmered sliced cauliflower. When the water had mostly evaporated I added heavy whipping cream and continued simmering for ten minutes. It then went into the blender and then through a chinois. I then added gelatin (in the form of sheets) and poured it into ramekins to set. The panna cotta was topped with an oyster glaze which was also very simple. Two oysters and their juices were put into a small bowl along with a bit of water and allowed to sit overnight. The next day the oysters were discarded and the liquid was strained. I then added gelatin and fresh pepper and allowed it to set in the fridge, stirring occasionally. I then spooned it on to the panna cotta and swirled it around to great a beautiful shiny surface.

These two recipes get me thinking about other possibilities. The panna cotta could be made with most any vegetable or even fruit. The glaze could be made with anything that imparts flavor from soaking in water. Or for that matter you could just add gelatin to any liquid. Gelatin is fun. I'd like to play around with it some more.

The finished dish was beautiful. The panna cotta was incredibly subtle and as you can imagine very creamy. It was the perfect bed for the intense caviar. I had left over panna cotta and had it the next day. I have to say that without the caviar it wasn't that worthwhile. The flavor was so delicate and it didn't seem worth eating all that cream to me on it's own. Hopefully we can get a picture up soon. If you have one Luigi, feel free.

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.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

French Laundry Day - making gnocchi

First, there were gnocchi.

I had made them a few weeks in advance. On memorial day, to be precise. I went in to work, then realize that there wasn't anything that strictly required my presence, so I decided to go home and cook instead. I didn't know what I was going to cook yet, just that I felt like cooking. And I had this new cookbook and a whole afternoon of time...

Gnocchi Thomas Keller-style are quite simple, actually. The only difference from most recipes for gnocchi is that he wants you to roast the potatoes in the oven instead of boiling them. The reason for this is that roasting does not incorporate moisture into the potatoes, so that you will need to use less flour and fat for the dough to come together, which results in a lighter, fluffier gnocchi. It also means that the whole thing takes a lot longer.

So first you stick about 2 pounds of russet potatoes in the oven at 400˚ F for a couple of hours, or until you can scoop out the flesh of the potato with a spoon. How do you know when the potatoes are done? Well, if you're like me, you take one out, split it lengthwise, and check whether the flesh comes out easily. If it doesn't, stick the whole thing back in for another half an hour or so.

After the potatoes are ready and the flesh is scooped out (while they're still hot – for some reason Mr. Keller seems to think that the whole thing will fail if you let them cool too much) you have to press them through a potato ricer. Which I didn't have. What I did have, instead, was a stainless steel strainer (best $5 of my life) so that's what i passed them through.

You will be left with a fluffy mound of potato flesh on your counter. Shape that into a volcano, that is a little mountain with a depression in the middle. Then you add some flour in the well, then three egg yolks, then some more flour. Then, quickly, you're supposed to "chop in" all the ingredients with a dough scraper, until they've come together to form a dough. Once again, lacking a dough scraper, I used the next best thing: a big-ass chinese cleaver. Chopping the ingredients in requires getting your hands a bit more dirty than the description lets you imagine: you will have to get in there and massage the dough into shape, but in the end you do end up with a veritable, big ball of dough. A giant gnocco, so to speak.

that's one big gnocco

Now the hard part is done. Next, shaping the gnocchi. Take a bit of dough, and roll it out into a 1-inch-thick log with your hands:

rolling the dough into logs

Then you cut sections that are approximately 2 inches long. Or more. Or less. You know, it really depends on how big you want each individual gnocco to be. I like them about 2 inches, so there you go. What you're looking for here is consistency, more than anything. Try to keep an even amount of dough in each dumpling. Then you roll each section in the palms of your hands into a little ball, and then roll that ball along the back of a fork (that is if you, like me and unlike Mr. Keller, do not own a gnocchi paddle!). And there you go, you have your first gnocco!

a section and a ball

And here, again, is the simple genius of the chef: he says, boil a little bit of water in a small sauce pan, and drop that first gnocco in. It will be done within two minutes, as soon as it starts to float onto the surface of the water. Then taste it. How is it? Is it coming apart? Add a bit of flour to the dough. Is it too tough? Add a bit of water, or milk. This way, you'll know if your gnocchi are good before you make a jillion of them. Which will take time and patience.

A word about the rolling-down-the-back-of-a-fork thing. It's important. It's not just that it gives them that unmistakable gnocchi shape, the grooves it forms actually have a function: they will hold the sauce in better, whatever you decide to do with them later on. It will be tastier. Trust me. Or not, try it yourself.

Now it's a matter of simply repeating the process until all the dough is turned into little perfectly shaped (well, kind of) gnocchi. Sprinkle some cornmeal on a baking sheet and deposit your newly formed bundles of delish on it as you go along. The cornmeal will avoid them sticking to the sheet. Here's an extreme close-up of a couple of them:

close up gnocchi

Now, it's time to cook. Boil a big pot of water, then salt it (I mean it, this is one of my pet peeves: salt water after it boils) generously. Drop the gnocchi in, delicately. As they rise to the surface, it means they're done. It really doesn't take much time. Have an ice bath ready, and as you take them out of the water with a slotted spoon drop them in until cool. Do this until they're all cooked. Then lay the cool gnocchi on paper towels to briefly dry, and put them on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet so they won't touch each other. Now here's the cool part: stick that baking sheet into the freezer until the gnocchi are frozen solid. Then you can take them out and put them in zip-lock bags, and they will keep in the fridge for weeks and weeks. Once you're ready to eat them, you just toss them into the pan with the sauce, without even defrosting them first. Seriously, you can have home-made, French Laudry-style gnocchi ready to serve for weeks. Pretty cool.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

A "French Laundry" marathon - What is this all about?

There are six of us. We met in the semi-random fashion that Los Angeles affords: casual acquaintances that got together for a girl scout cookie martini (or three) at a pretentious bar on the promenade. It could have been bad, or at the very least not fun. But it not only was fun, we ended up talking about food and cooking essentially right off the bat. None of the inane chit-chat that fills oh so many shallow LA nights out, just an immediate connection. And the talk of food.

But, you see, we weren't friends yet. We didn't really know each other. God knows that people drift apart so easily in this city that you can't afford to assume you'll hang out again soon, you need a plan. So we thought that a good way to get to know each other would be to have dinner parties, in view of our interest in cuisine. This is what we would do: each week, one of us would cook dinner for the rest; we would rotate each week, and couples are not allowed to "share responsibilities": each member of the couple must still provide a full dinner to every one else.

Once again, the potential for disappointment was huge. This sounds just like one of those vague and hopeful plans that never really pan out, there might be one or two dinners and then things would start to fizzle out, the group to break, the dinners would stop. But we actually did it. Are still doing it, as a matter of fact. Sure, we skipped the occasional week, but all in all, over almost two years, we have been turning out fare regularly. Menus have varied from the spectacular to the mundane, but always delicious. Evenings have been mellow, argumentative, rushed, drunken, smooth, surprising, failures, smashing successes, cramped into a tiny apartment, hot as a wood burning brick oven, meticulously planned, improvised, missing ingredients, providing too much food, followed by late night splashes into a cold pool, preceded by a mid-afternoon dip into a warm pool, and everything in between. In short, they have been and continue to be a shit-load of fun.

But the most interesting and satisfying aspect of these dinners has been the learning experience they represent in terms of expanding our culinary prowess. Many times we have thought about having some sort of record of what we cooked, so that we could look back years from now and marvel at our own accomplishments. This is an attempt to finally actually doing just that.

It has been kick-started by our latest feat. Nick and I, separately and within a week of each other, both came into possession of Thomas Keller's "The French Laundry Cookbook". We started reading it, and we were both blown away. Here was a guy that talked about cooking as if it were a mission, something that is not just a pastime, or a diversion, or even a passion, but as something of great importance. Both of us, Nick and I, were moved by the way Mr. Keller talks about food and cooking: he says that the slow everyday prep work, say cleaning several pounds of artichokes to make barigoule (a classic French artichoke stew) is not a necessary evil on the way to turning out your masterpiece culinary treat; on the opposite, that is what cooking truly is, the slow and focused repetition of movements that have been selected through centuries of cooking as the perfect ones to make an artichoke taste good. He talks about respecting your ingredients. He talks about the fact that this book is not a collection of recipes for 30-minutes "gourmet" dishes for the home enthusiast that is looking for a quick alternative to Wendy's on a weeknight so he can justify calling himself a gourmand to his colleagues at work. It is not four star food adapted for the home: it's four star food period.

Most importantly, he is wonderfully unapologetic about the fact that most of his recipes take a staggering amount of time to complete. I mean multiple days. You have to read a recipe in advance before even thinking of venturing it, because it is likely to have in the ingredient list something like:

tomato powder (page xxx)

and then you look it up, and you're supposed to dry out tomatoes for a looong time in a microwave oven at half power until it's possible to grind it into a powder, and then you use that to garnish the dish. Or you might have to make chive oil. Or gnocchi from scratch. But here's the cool part, he doesn't say: it's not really that bad, it doesn't take so long, or some other comforting notion. He says: "it takes time, so take time. Take lots of time. Go in a slow, focused and attentive manner. You will learn and grow. Love the process, not just the result". Or, you know, something along those lines; not quite so overtly zen-like, but close enough.

It was, at least for me, as if I had always been waiting for someone to say those things, to get me really immersed in the experience of cooking something.

So a plan began forming: we would do a one-time, special, all day long cooking event: Nick and I would cook together (something we had also been talking about for a long time) a menu entirely taken from the French Laundry cookbook. Everyone would attend, and we would be serving food slowly, a dish every hour or so, throughout the day. Everyone would pitch in for the price of groceries, and we would try and pair a wine with each dish. It was an opportunity to experience some food that we would have otherwise never been able to afford on our own (i.e. truffles and caviar - the real deal, not paddlefish roe...), have a nice day by the pool-side (or at least everyone except Nick and I would; we would be busy in the kitchen...) and drink carefully selected wines. And we did it. This is what we served, with the drink pairings underneath:

Chips and Dip
Potato Chips with Truffle Dip
Chimay Première Ale, Belgium

Cauliflower Panna Cotta with Osetra Caviar
Mumm Cuvée Napa 21st Century Cuvée, Napa Valley 1997

White Truffle Oil-Infused Custards with Black Truffle Ragout
Mumm Cuvée Napa 21st Century Cuvée, Napa Valley 1997

Warm Smoked Salmon with Potato Gnocchi and Balsamic Glaze
Fess Parker Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County 2001

Yabba Dabba Doo
Roasted Rib Steak with Oyster Mushrooms, Pommes Anna, and Bordelaise Sauce
David Bruce Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Clara Valley 2001

Roquefort Trifle with French Butter Pear Relish
Fonseca Bin no 27 Port

Velouté of Bittersweet Chocolate with Cinnamon-Stick Ice Cream

What I hope will follow is the account of how these dishes were created by us. Keep in mind that none of us is trained in any way in professional or amateur cooking, we are all home-schooled, so to speak; and, none of us is rich: as a matter of fact, we are all pretty much broke as a joke, and the only way we could afford to do this was by having six people pitching in $50 each, some careful shopping, and the fact that the portions called for are small: the idea is that at the end of each course you should wish that you had one more bite of the deliciously yummy dish, but it's gone. Except that then the next thing comes and it's delicious again, in a completely different way. There's a whole section of the book about this, under the heading "The law of diminishing returns". Just one more reason why we love this book.

We had to face some difficulties in accomplishing these dishes, so maybe there is somebody else out there who is banging his or her head against the kitchen counter because they can't make those damn chive chips to come out band-aid-shaped and perfectly translucent like the picture in the book, and this could help. In the end, it was unbelievably good.

And now let's move on and talk about cooking!