Sunday, September 9, 2007

"Oysters and Pearls:" Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca with Malpeque Oysters and Osetra Caviar

Man, re-entry from summer break has been tough. I don't know about where you live, but here in Washington, everything shuts down during Congress' summer recess. Life is hell leading up to the moment our nation's elected officials go back home, and things don't heat up again until Tuesday morning after Labor Day (unless you're in Larry Craig's office, then all bets are off. Yipes.) For those of us who live and work in the nation's capital, August is the only time to really unwind and check out. For most people in America, Labor Day is a fun and relaxing three-day weekend. For Washingtonians, it's either forced fun for three more days -- we will go to the beach and we will LOVE IT because our freedom is soon coming to an end -- or it's sulky, bratty behavior because we know Tuesday morning all hell is going to break loose.

The last three weeks of August were blissful and restful, but this past week was a typical post-Labor Day week here in town. Phones ringing off the hook, back-to-back meetings and conference calls, school bus traffic adding to rush hour again, no parking spaces anywhere, college students packing the streets of Georgetown, and you couldn't get a seat at a bar anywhere. I started my days at 7 a.m. and didn't finish working until 8 or 9 at night. Short breaks to grab food when I could, but spent most of the time working in clients' offices, meeting on the Hill, hanging out in TV and radio studios, or on campus for a new class I'm teaching at Georgetown.

In short, this week was hell. Why am I telling you all this? Because I had a mini-epiphany this week. I had NO TIME to cook, and for the first time ever, it really bothered me. I really resented having to work, and that the clients who pay me were taking time away from this project. I love my work, I love what I do, and I have the most amazing, smartest, best clients ever... but I got pissed off every time I drove past the market or slumped onto the sofa at 9:30 with some Thai carryout and saw The French Laundry Cookbook staring at me from the dining room table. Poor thing looked so neglected and so unloved. I know I said in my previous post that I was going to do the beet and chocolate extravaganza, but I didn't have time to make a grocery list, or source any of the ingredients I needed for anything. Honestly, even if I'd had the time, I wouldn't have had the brain power to do it.

On Friday, I woke up earlier than normal, finished my work in record time and got my ass back in the kitchen. I leafed through my planning notebook (yes, I've mapped out the dishes based on seasonality and prep time; Nerd Alert!) to see what I could pull off easily with little effort, minimal prep time, and readily available ingredients. And guess what my only option was? Oysters. My favorite.

I quit my bitchin' and headed off to BlackSalt to pick up some oysters. On the drive there, I tried to psyche myself up. Told myself this time it would be different. I was so desperate to cook that it would HAVE to be good. I promised myself this dish wouldn't suck like EVERY OTHER OYSTER DISH I'VE EATEN MY ENTIRE LIFE.

They didn't have Malpeque oysters, so I went with Canada Caps instead. This dish was supposed to serve 8 people, using 16 oysters, but I decided to halve the recipe because I was still feeling surly and annoyed that of all things, I was making a stupid oyster dish. I also skipped the osetra caviar because its market price is about $85-95/oz. and really... knowing how much I hate oysters, I wasn't going to spring for that since there was a greater than 99% chance my friends and I were going to throw away our individual servings after taking one bite to taste. So no caviar. Sorry.

Here are the oysters:

I put them in the refrigerator to keep them cold while I soaked the tapioca in milk for an hour. I used small pearl tapioca and whole milk:

I poured the tapioca right into the measuring cup and sat it on the stovetop, so it could get indirect heat from the warm oven. Putting it in a warm place helps speed up rehydration of the tapioca pearls.

After an hour of soaking (during which time I sulked about the fact that I was going to have to touch and look at those stupid oysters), I started the ball rolling on everything else. This is a quick dish with lots of steps that need to happen one after the other.

The first thing I did was pour the tapioca/milk mixture through a strainer, and then rinsed the tapioca pearls in cold water. I poured them into a small Le Creuset pan and let them sit on the stovetop while I started on the oysters. Looks like someone's beanbag chair exploded in here, doesn't it:

For the oyster prep, the first thing I did was strain the oysters and their liquor. Next, I cut pieces of cartilage out of snotwads... er, um, I mean I trimmed the oysters, removing the muscle and any other extraneous outer pieces:

After doing this, I whipped a half-cup of cream until it just started to hold its shape. I thought about using my Kitchen Aid for this, but instead used a new whisk my friend Jayme sent me as a gift. I put the whipped cream in the fridge for a few minutes until I needed it for this dish.

With all the prep done (which took about 4 minutes in total), it was time to cook. I put some milk and cream into the saucepan with the oyster trimmings and brought it to a simmer. I then strained it into the pan with the tapioca pearls and threw away the oyster trimmings left behind in the strainer. I cooked the tapioca on medium heat for about 8 or 9 minutes, until it had thickened a bit. I then reduced the heat a tiny bit and cooked it for another 6-7 minutes until it was done -- meaning the pearls were translucent and the mixture sticky. I turned off the burner and let the pan sit for a minute or two while I got the egg yolks ready.

I cracked four egg yolks into a bowl and mixed them with some of the oyster liquor:

I whisked them over a saucepan of hot water for about 3 minutes, creating a sabayon, then poured it into the tapioca. I added some freshly ground black pepper, some creme fraiche, and the whipped cream I'd made earlier:

I poured the mixture into custard dishes while I got the sauce ready:

To make the sauce I combined vermouth, minced shallots, a little bit of white wine vinegar, and the rest of the oyster liquor in a small saucepan and cooked it over medium heat until most of the liquid was gone. I then whisked in 8 tablespoons of butter, one tablespoon at a time. While I was adding and whisking each tablespoon of butter, I put the sabayon in a 350-degree oven for about 5 minutes. The last touch on the sauce is adding fresh, minced chives, and the oysters, just to warm them. Here's a shot of the finished sauce:

At this point, I'm smelling the sabayon in the oven and the sauce on the stovetop and inside my head I'm hearing Scooby Doo say, "HhhhRRRrrrrr????" because I'm expecting to smell something horrid, stupid and annoying, and damn if this dish isn't smelling AMAZING. But I know oysters. And oysters know me. And I am sure at their weekly oyster meetings they devise ways in which when they know they're going to my kitchen they can emit a lovely scent, but will resort to their usual nastiness and ruin a perfectly good dish. Because oysters are totally like that.

With a heavy sigh and a feeling that perhaps I may have a shellfish persecution complex, I took the sabayon out of the oven and spooned the sauce (with a few oysters in each serving) over the top. Here's what the dish looked like right before we tasted it:

And after we tasted it? No one vomitted. No one gagged. No one spit it into the sink. No one scraped their tongue with a spoon to remove all traces of oyster from their palate.

We all just sat there in amazement, not able to speak. The dish was good. Nay, it was GREAT. But my first bite consisted only of the tapioca/sabayon with a little sauce. I hadn't yet eaten an oyster -- just something that was oyster-infused. I took a deep breath, spooned some sabayon, sauce and an oyster and stuck it in my mouth. The texture of the oyster made my face twitch and contort like the Tasmanian Devil, but it was good. I thought I might be gacked out by the tapioca's texture, but in thinking about it while I was making this dish, I have fond memories of eating tapioca vanilla pudding for dessert growing up (it wasn't as good as chocolate pudding with the cool skin on top and the warm pudding underneath), so I figured I'd be okay with the texture and the taste. I still can't quite handle the texture of an oyster, though. Bleargh.

All in all, this dish was another certified French Laundry at Home PlateLicker™. We were beyond surprised, and when one of the kids didn't finish his serving, I ATE IT. You know what that means? I ATE TWO WHOLE SERVINGS OF AN OYSTER DISH. Someone call CNN or the Pentagon or something.

I will caveat this amazing experience by saying that if you've been playing along with The French Laundry Cookbook and using your own mad math skillz as you're reading this entry, you will notice that I halved the amount of oysters, but kept everything else at its regular amount. Everything still tasted oyster-y, but all the other foods and flavors held their own. Butter, chives, cream, milk, shallots, eggs... you name it, it wasn't overpowered by oysters. They were complemented by oysters. And that was awesome. And to be honest, I think the caviar might've overpowered everything, and I was happy with it just as it was. The shallots were a distinct highlight in flavor and texture -- a bit of a surprise, but a nice one at that.

People say Thomas Keller is a genius, and I've never doubted it for a minute. But now I know he's more than that, because he got me to eat an oyster and like it. I just hope he doesn't expect me to try soft-shell crabs again. EVER.

Up Next: Not sure, but it'll likely be the Tete de Moine, or the Chocolate/Beet dish.

Canada Cap oysters from BlackSalt
365 organic butter
Organic Valley milk and cream
Vermont Butter and Cheese creme fraiche
Eggs from Smith Meadows Farms
Vermouth from neighbor Holly's liquor cabinet (thanks!)
Shallots and chives from Whole Foods

Music to Cook By: Sadly, none. No, that's not a name of a band (although it sounds like it could be); I needed peace and quiet after the week I had, so I cooked in complete silence. I did, however, find myself singing "Oysters and peeaarrr-rrrlllss" to the tune of Prince's "Diamonds and Pearls" whenever I checked the book for the next step in the process and saw this recipe's title. That didn't get annoying. Much. I will give a quick plug to a new artist I've been loving, though -- Eric Hutchinson. Go find him on iTunes and download a few songs. He's fantastic. He's a local Maryland boy who is just now hitting the big time, and he's really, really good.


michael, claudia and sierra said...

good on ya girlfriend. see? we're never too old to be proven wrong or to change our minds. not like i'm expecting you to order a dozen on the half shell and suck them dry - but everything has it's place and obviously these oysters knew theirs, if only in your universe! and really - that recipe sounded amazing.

Anonymous said...

Glad you liked it, despite your worries! :)

Anonymous said...

Just the shot of the sabayon was making me drool, but... you liked an oyster! This may be the only way you will but I am glad it was a positive experience for you.

Unknown said...

I always love it when you try something you think you hate... and you actually end up liking it.

GopherGirl said...

Just this morning, after a hellish week of my own, I was wondering where this week's post was and now, here you are again. Sorry that your week wasn't all that great but I'm glad it ended on a (sort of) high note!

Oh, And I now have "Oysters and Pearls" stuck in my head. Thanks.

Unknown said...

After such a hetic week ,how do you manage to keep that glowing look on your face....have you done something different with your hair?
..that outfit really looks good on you!!!

(comments base on your mission/disclaimer statement to drop you a line and let you know how pretty you look...not based on lurking!!!!!??)

Anonymous said...

I had this at the source itself. Oh gawd, was it ever good, and signalled even more good things to come.

Anonymous said...

Glad to hear that the oysters were a little kinder to you this time around.

I'm also thrilled to hear that you discovered Eric Hutchinson. I stumbled across him a couple of years ago when he opened for a local Philly artist and was totally smitten. It's not often that good musicians are also so funnny.

Anonymous said...

I have had this at TFL twice, and it is one of the best dishes they make. There's a reason it's on the menu every day. I think if you tried it with the caviar, you'd be pleasantly surprised -- it isn't overpowering at all.

Jim said...

*eyes the entry warily* Oysters...tasting good, you say? I will trust you on this one, because like you said in the Monthly Mouthful people need to Suck It Up and yadda yadda yadda.

Still, that first photo is EXACTLY what oysters make me think of. They remind me of those squealing things Jabba the Hutt eats in Return of the Jedi.

pdxblogmommy said...

Hey dammit...someone here stole my name.

I'm glad you didn't cough this all up upon tasting. I'd have eaten around that thing until I was forced mit eine vengeance to eat the oyster. Then, perhaps, I'd have followed that by a stiff shot of vodka to ease the pain.

Oooof...did I say Vodka. Enough of that for now.

I'm always impressed with each entry as is everyone else. But I am STUNNED by the musical silence and I know you better.

No doubt there was some trumpeting.

Carol Blymire said...

All: thanks for your comments, and PDX, there was little to no trumpeting. It was that kind of week. Silence was my friend.

Believe it or not, I think I'm going to make this dish again AND include the caviar. not right away, mind you -- but I'll save it for a special occasion. I've been re-reading some of the chapters in Michael Ruhlman's "Soul of a Chef" and just last night read the story around Keller creating this "Oysters and Pearls" dish. And, I think now that I didn't projectile vomit upon eating it, I need to do it again and do it full on.

I probably won't post about it, but I'll mention it at some point when I do it.

Anonymous said...

My friend J always referred to oysters as, "something a buffalo would cough up" and that's how I felt about them until I had a half-dozen of the little guys at Hog Island Oyster Co. at the S.F. Ferry Plaza. As long as they're little, I can enjoy them. Huzzah for you!

Madam Chow said...

Whoah - I'm impressed. I, too, have yet to meet an oyster that I can like. I'm going to bookmark this one, in case I have a moment of bravery and decide to give oysters another try!

cookiecrumb said...

Ha ha!
I'm glad Claudia directed me toward your blog.
As for the dish, TKeller was asked once why he came up with the combination: Was it something he liked?
He just said "I thought it would be good."

Anonymous said...

Carol - What you have done for me: I have eaten this extraordinary dish twice, once on the west coast and once on the east coast. I own the cookbook, BUT I would never have attempted making it, somehow, it seemed to me to belong only in the restaurant, not in the home. No More! Now, after reading your post, I think I shall make it too. Thank you for the inspiration...