Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Cauliflower Panna Cotta with Beluga Caviar

I contemplated writing a post about the Cauliflower Panna Cotta with Beluga Caviar that went a little something like this:

It sucked.

It more than sucked.

I hated it.

Everyone who tried it hated it.

I would not even wish this dish upon my worst enemy OR Celine Dion.

I am ripping Page 22 out of The French Laundry Cookbook because this tasted like ass. Or what I can imagine ass must taste like because let's face it, many of us say that something tastes like ass, yet, that's not really an honest comparison, because ew.

And, scene.

But as you can see, I'm going to write through the dry heaves that have begun yet again as I sit down to write this entry. I'm doing this for you, America. You can thank me later by never speaking of this dish again. It's gagging me almost as much as those softshell crabs.

You know what, it's a good thing I'm not posting this entry until today because... funny coincidence! I was in New York on business Sunday and Monday and got on the waiting list for Per Se, Thomas Keller's NY outpost. Unfortunately, I didn't get in, but I did chuckle (or rather choke back vomit) when I saw the first item on his Sunday night Chef's Tasting Menu was this very dish. On one hand, I thought it might be nice to taste the restaurant's version of it to see if it really is a masterpiece and I am a moron who couldn't make it properly... but on the other hand, I can imagine no greater embarrassment than puking on the fine patrons of Per Se.

With that appetizing thought, let's get cookin' -- WOO HOOO!!!!!!!

I picked up the oysters at BlackSalt and had the guys there shuck them for me so I didn't shuck my torso in an attempt to open an oyster. Believe me, I learned my lesson the hard way. Shucking oysters is not my strong suit. I have the emergency room bill to show for it. Here they are in their liquid:

Bleeeaaarrrrggghhh. I get the heebie-jeebies just looking at those things. I've tried them so many times in so many different iterations. My Uncle Don used to eat them raw out of the shell, and he gave me one when I was a kid. I almost puked it back up, but didn't want to be embarassed at our family picnic, so I choked it down and saved the crying for later. My grandmother used to make oyster pie, and I could only stomach the potatoes and pie crust because the oysters never seemed to break down when you chewed them and it made me ill. I tried them at a friend's restaurant at the beach, served in many gorgeous preparations. Gag. I even tried them in a Po' Boy at Uglesich's a few years ago and it was bad news. So, you won't be singing "Carol and oysters... sittin' in a tree" EVER.

So. Oysters. Yeah. I didn't need to use these guys until after I made the cauliflower panna cotta, so let's talk about that, even though the topic of cauliflower isn't my favorite, either. Am I the only one repulsed by the smell of this horrid, horrid vegetable? Man, I'm Nelly Negative today. Are you even still reading this? You can skip it if you want to. I won't be offended.

The first thing I did was cut the cauliflower florets (from a fresh head of cauliflower) into half-inch slices. I put them into a medium saucepan, added some butter and enough water to just barely cover them:

I brought the cauliflower/butter/water combo up to a simmer and let it cook for about a half hour, until most of the water was gone. I added the cream and simmered for another ten minutes:

When it was cooked and the liquid reduced, I put the saucepan's contents into the food processor and blended the cauliflower/cream mixture until it was completely smooth:

At this point, I had to open the kitchen windows because it was starting to smell like a bad Southwest Airlines flight I was on a few summers ago with a bunch of tourists who'd just eaten at Burger King before boarding the plane. I strained the cauliflower purée through a chinois and added a wee bit of salt for taste. Then, I soaked a sheet of gelatin in cold water for a few minutes to soften it. I squeezed out the excess water and stirred the gelatin into the warm cauliflower mixture. I then spooned the cauliflower mixture into individual serving glasses:

I put the glasses of gelatinous cauliflower into the refrigerator to chill for a few hours. I also contemplated stripping the walls and repainting them to get the cauliflower stink out of my house. Instead, I just burned the whole place down. Kidding.

Once the cauliflower was set, I made the oyster jelly. Mmmmmmmmm.... doesn't that sound delicious? Oyster jelly. Just what I'd always dreamed of making. Oyster jelly. The one goal in life I hoped to accomplish before I died. Making oyster jelly. The very words I want printed on my tombstone when I die: "She made a kickass oyster jelly."

You've already seen the photo of the oysters lounging around in their own juices, and I'm not going to post it again because I like you and do not want to torture you any more than you are being tortured by having to read this.

I removed the oysters from the liquid and gave them to a neighbor to eat. I strained the oyster liquid twice and put it into a small bowl. In a separate bowl, I put one third of a gelatin sheet into two teaspoons of water. I put the bowl over a small saucepan of hot water and stirred it to dissolve the gelatin. I removed the bowl from the heat and added the oyster liquid. I stirred some more to incorporate everything, then added some pepper:

I put this concoction into the refrigerator and stirred it every now and then until it was the consistency of salad oil. I put a spoonful of the jelly into each glass atop the cauliflower panna cotta:

I put the glasses back into the fridge until they were set and ready to serve. When it was go time, I added a small spoonful of caviar before serving my guests:

How'd it go over with the tasting crew? Let me break it down for you with my mad math skillz. This recipe made six servings. I had four friends over to taste. Four plus me equals five, which means we had an extra serving. When that has happened in the past, we fight over the extra plate, or try to split it diplomatically. That was not the case with this dish. No one finished their own serving, and we couldn't think of anyone in the neighborhood we hated enough to invite to try the 6th one to see if maybe our palates were off. I was happy to throw the extra one down the garbage disposal. It was bad. Really bad. I know the ingredients were good because none of us got sick or anything... we all agreed that this just tasted bad and we didn't like the flavor combinations or textures of any of it. I will confess that I didn't use beluga caviar and used sturgeon instead. But even sans caviar, this sucked... so I know it's not the poor caviar's fault.

I have to stop writing about this now because it's grossing me out to think about it any further. If you're still reading at this point, wow. You should get a medal or something.

Up Next: Fish & Chips -- Red Mullet with a Palette d'Ail Doux and garlic chips

Brands Used:
Oysters and caviar from BlackSalt
Cauliflower from Whole Foods
Organic Valley cream
365 organic butter

Music to Cook By: I made a playlist of all the artists I'm seeing at VirginFest this weekend -- The Police, Beastie Boys, Amy Winehouse, Cheap Trick, The Fratellis, Peter Bjorn & John, Paolo Nutini... the list goes on and on. Just need to keep Winehouse out of rehab until Saturday night!


Sara said...

I had this at French Laundry a few years back. I just consulted my souvenir menu to make sure it was the same thing. I didn't remember anything about the oyster glaze, but sure enough it was there. I am not an oyster fan, but I did like the dish. I do remember the caviar being exceptional, maybe that was the difference?

Anonymous said...

I ate dinner with my mother once when she ordered off the low-carb menu and got a side dish of mashed califlower in place of mashed potatoes. It was one of the most disgusting things I have ever seen, and now this sounds even worse with the addition of the oysters.

klosekraft said...

My mental palate is having a tough time with this one. I love oysters and cauliflower, but I really, really can't imagine them together. I was trying to think of another combination that unlikely, but it's tough. Cannoli cream and pickled green beans? And I don't like caviar, so that's another dissonant note.

Thanks for taking this one for the team. It makes me feel better that I'd have to sell an organ to eat at Per Se.

Anonymous said...

For the past couple of years I've been cooking a 8 course tasting menu out of FL for my mother's birthday. This year I chose the cauliflower dish for the first course and all six people absolutely loved it. Served it with a nice blanc du blanc and sprung for the osetra.

Anonymous said...

Actually... if all the ingredients are fresh, that sounds delicious. I'm a fan of raw oysters and caviar. I think personal preference makes a huge difference in terms of oysters. Definitely an acquired taste matter.

Aaron said...

You are incredibly funny...you kill me. I have a sense of humor, I swear I do, but I don't laugh out loud so easily...but you get me every time!
I love cauliflower, oysters and caviar...maybe I should give it a go?

John said...

Mark Twain said "Cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education."

If that's the case, I'm with you... "don't need no stinkin' education."

Great story....again!!!!!!

claudia said...

well what pissed me off was that 'per se' couldn't get you in. i was assuming that you might rate high enough with this great blog devoted to them for their to have been some exception made. but carol, next time invite celine to dine with you and you will probably get a table stat... anyway isn't it up to about $300 pp?

david said...

actually had this dish at per se in june, and i really did like it. it was a perfect custard texture and the flavors were subtle and warm. i remember hating the thought of it, but it worked for some reason. maybe the mother of pearl spoon; who knows.

Pille said...

Hey, cauliflower is good! But then I also love beetroot, so I'm into unloved vegetables in general:)

spooneroonie said...

Would you feed this to SLoP?

I'm a fan of cauliflower, but there must be cheese and copious amounts of pepper involved.

This looked terrible, but your writing had me waking up the entire house last night with my giggling. Thanks for taking one for the team!

JoP said...

What a bummer that you didn't get into Per Se. I was so ready to read about your experience there. Dang disappointment it must have been to not get in. Sorry your latest FL dish didn't work out.


andrea_lynn27 said...

I agree with the couple other posters.. Had the dish at Per Se but 1) don’t remember an oyster gel on it and 2) the caviar was freaking incredible. But if this recipe had worked out well, you wouldn’t have had such a humorous post! So all was not lost…

french tart said...

i totally burst out laughing, kept laughing and got questions from the people in cubes around me. "what's so funny?". apparently i'm not a good narrator because none of them thought it was interesting.

they suck anyway. people at my work think that Subway is gourmet dining.

Anonymous said...

Ugh, my sympathies. I like oysters, but the texture sounds problematic. I've only been recently been able to tolerate cooked cauliflower: simply roasted with liberal helpings of olive oil, thyme and kosher salt.

Just saw The Police last night -- they were amazing. Have fun!

Jim said...

Guh. Know what I'm thinking of? The nightmarish oyster shot. Put a raw oyster, vodka, Worcester sauce, tabasco, and a few other completely incompatible flavors into a shotglass, slug it, and feel like you just downed a bunch of seawater.

Apparently it's a great hangover cure. If I'm ever hung over enough to eat oysters, I think I'll just lay down and die instead.

Kathy said...

I am cracking up at the thought of burning your house down. But that would not cure the odor; the rubble would just smell like smoked cauliflower. ;-)

Dawn @ RMC said...

I love that you even make the dishes that you don't like and gross you out. That's commitment, man. I would not be so committed. :)

AND, I am jealous of your VirginFestival weekend, especially since The Fratellis will be there. Have fun! You certainly deserve it.

Kent said...

Cauliflower... sick, oysters better whole with juices + a lovely muscadet or some wine along those lines. Mostly however, I just wanted to warn you about Amy Winehouse's recent behavior. http://gabsmash.blogspot.com/2007/07/amy-winehouse-spits-on-fans.html
Stay out of range ;-)
p.s. I <3 your blog

Jaye Joseph said...

I love cauliflower. I love oysters. I love caviar.

Together? With gelatin? I just threw up in my mouth a little.

Diner Girl said...

To all of you who've had this dish at Per Se or TFL and loved it, I'm glad.

To those who sympathize with my intense dislike for these ingredients and think they taste like doody, thank you.

I'm making Fish & Chips tomorrow, and it involves lots of garlic, which I'm thinking is going to dance this mess around, no?!??!?

Anonymous said...

I love your blog! I'm experimenting with the recipes from the French Laundry cookbook as well. I must say, however, that I had the Cauliflower Panna Cotta at the French laundry and I loved it!

pdxblogmommy said...

OK, I love caviar and cauliflower (not together) but oysters are like chewy snot in a shell.

Have I grossed you out? That's what they do to me.

Jaye Joseph, I think I love you.

DG, have fun. I expect a full report.

ann said...

hy-larious! sorry it didn't work out for you! I can't wait for the fish & chips, I'm intriguuuued.

velvetpdx said...

Apparently I have a plebian palate because the idea of oysters as well as caviar just triggers my gag reflex. And cooked cauliflower? Bleh. I'm all about the textures, and anything resembling the phlegm-y/snotty (thanks pdxlogmommy!) side is definitely out! I'm just here to get my DG fix of funnies.

Jason said...

Just found your blog today and I absolutely love it! You had me laughing SO incredibly loud! Thank you...keep cooking.


Cindy said...

I had this dish at TFL (just the cauliflower and caviar, no oysters). It was one of my favorites - I think this is one of those situations where eating the dish is infinitely more enjoyable than the making of said dish.

Keep up the good work!

Lilly said...

I had this a FL in May and it was ridiculously good - and I don't like cauliflower. I had it anyway because it was Thomas Keller, after all... I'm not exactly a convert but, this kind of cauliflower-ness was great. I can't imagine why this didn't make you cry with joy too...

jim w. said...

just recently caught up with all the previous posts, and now look forward to the new ones.

so glad to hear that someone else shares my visceral disdain for cauliflower. the smell alone is enough to make me wretch. my mom grew it when i was a kid, and had TONS of it. she used to make huge batches of it with cheese sauce, then freeze it in tupperware, then she could make us eat it all year, whether we had been bad or not. someone once asked my brother what my mom grew in her garden, and he said "cauliflower with cheese sauce."

love the blog. can't wait to read about your trip to FL. i went in the spring for my 40th, too. it was spectacular. but they didn't serve this dish. there were oysters. and there was cauliflower. but not together.

Me said...

I've also made this for friends and gotten a similar reaction. Personally, I liked it better and better the more I had even though I was ambivalent about it on first bite. The cauliflower's sweetness offsets the salt of the caviar nicely. I think maybe the panna cotta mixture (before gelatine) could be a little less thick though. Pictures of this dish from FTL all seem to have a fairly smooth surface and my mixture was far too thick to do that.

gavlist said...

this is the one I've been waiting for... because I (1) had this dish at TFL and thought it was incredibly delicious and (2) tried twice to make it from the cookbook and failed miserably both times.

I agree with me (above) that the problem seems to be in the pre-gelatinized panna cotta mixture. It's too thick and too coarse - in fact, prepared as described in the recipe, I found it almost impossible to strain without forcing through the strainer, and the resulting texture of the panna cotta was all wrong.

But I tell you that the real thing was delicious.

thanks for your blog - as always, it was a gripping read

Anonymous said...

Your panna cotta looks all wrong.

I had this at FL and it was perfect. The cauliflower part tasted like cauliflower but had the perfect silky texture of a perfect panna cotta. Yours looks a little gritty and definatly too thick. I remember it melting on the tongue. And the oyster gelatin just offered an essence of that fresh ocean flavor that good oysters are supposed to taste like. In my recollection, the caviar just tasted like exceptional salt. I ate this four years ago and can still taste it.

I hope you get a chance to try the real thing someday!

Anonymous said...

As far as the caviar goes, you need the real thing! There's an interesting discussion at Google Answer regarding caviar exports from Bulgaria, complete with contact information:

Bulgarian Caviar

I thought it would be of interest to readers here.

Anonymous said...

Went to Komi last month and they made a cauliflower panna cotta with salmon roe and sea urchin foam. Delicious.

Also, TK is obsessed with straining, so I imagine that the puree went through a chinois about 10 times at the restaurant. That could account for the difference in texture.

Scotty said...

I am a chef and restauranteur and to the envy of many a peer I made the pilgrimage to the Laundry last year. This was one of the courses served that day and in all honesty one of our favorites. The flavors were clean and subtle. Not one overpowering the other so each ingredient could shine. Your site is amazing and i take my hat off to you for attempting what many consider the impossible. You are climbing culinary Everest and should be commended.
A couple of observations from the pictures:
The final cauliflower mixture seems very thick. The Panna Cotta should pour into the glass or bowl and then barely set with the gelatin. It is confusing in the text because he refers to spooning the puree. Strain, Strain, strain some more. A little more cream would fix the consistency. (It is almost like cream infused with the slight flavor of cauliflower). I serve a similar type of amuse made with english peas
The layer of Oyster Gelee is a bit thick. With the new panna, the surface will be flat and the gelee with float the top. Once set it will be 1 mm thick. It is like coating a terrine with aspic. Old school but it does make the cream shine.
The portion of each seems a little big. The entire course is about 3 small bites. serve only enough caviar to accent the panna cotta and visa versa. Perfect balance is Keller's gift.
After reading this blog i doubt you will try this one again but if you do this should help. Keep cooking. there are few that have your courage.