Food is a process

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

Eating

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.