Sunday, February 25, 2007

Cream of Walnut Soup


I'm totally divorcing the tomato confit and running away with this soup. Seriously, I am. You can't stop me. We're registered at Bloomingdales.

This is a dessert soup, although I'm a big advocate of making it whenever the hell you feel like it because it is now my favorite item in the whole cookbook (so far, of course). It was really easy to make, even though there were multiple steps involved over the course of about 45 minutes. Here's the mise en place:

The first thing I did was toast the walnuts and rub off any excess skin. Next, I chopped the nuts and added them to a saucepan with the cream, milk and vanilla pod and seeds. I brought the mixture up to a simmer, then cut the heat a bit and let it cook ("low and slow" for all you TWoPers - ha!) for about 45 minutes.

While the walnut mixture was cooking, I made the poaching liquid for the pears:

It was so easy -- boil a bottle of white wine (I used a Sauvignon Blanc), then add water and sugar, bringing it up to a boil again. Then, I removed it from the heat and added the juice of one lemon (which I strained twice to remove all the pulp and seed particles).

Next, I peeled, cored and sliced a pear into eight segments, which I then poached in some of the poaching liquid for about 20 minutes. I even made the parchment lid Keller recommends, but I wasn't that impressed with its performance:

I ended up having to use my regular pot lid to get these to soften the way they were supposed to. When the pears were soft enough to get a knife through, I put them in the blender with one-third cup of the poaching liquid, and pureed it:

By then, the walnut cream mixture was done cooking and needed to be strained. I strained it through a fine-mesh sieve (throwing away the walnuts and vanilla pod) into a different saucepan. Next, I fired up the blender again and while the pears continued to puree, I added the hot walnut cream mixture to it.

When it was finished blending, I poured it through yet another fine-mesh sieve into yet another saucepan so that I could keep it warm until some friends came over to sample it. The French Laundry serves their Cream of Walnut Soup in demitasse, but mine are in the attic and I didn't feel like getting them out, so I used my grandmother's green shot glasses again (they made their first appearance on this blog in the Parmagiano-Reggiano Crisps with Whipped Goat Cheese):

This was incredible. My friends and I just stood in the kitchen, shot glasses under our nostrils, enjoying the warmth and delicious pear-vanilla-walnut-scented goodness. I love pears, and haven't eaten one ever since I developed an allergy to them, but I didn't have any weird allergic reaction from them when trying this soup. Maybe the poaching helped eliminate whatever it is in a pear that gives me the metallic-mouth, scratchy skin feel.

After slowly sipping the first shotglass of the soup, we each had seconds... and then thirds. How awesome to have two recipes in a row that I not only want to marry and/or bathe in, but that I would make again and again. This one took no time at all -- seriously, I did it all in an hour. Maybe a little less. But, even if this took six hours to make, I'd do it -- it's that good. So, if you have the French Laundry Cookbook at home, and you feel like trying one of the recipes, next to the Gazpacho, I'd say this is the second-easiest. And, so far, the tastiest. It makes you close your eyes and smile. And, it really does reinforce the notion that we taste with our noses.

The book says this recipe started out as a sauce for bread pudding, which completely makes sense once you taste it. It certainly rivals the best bread pudding I've ever had (Multnomah Falls Lodge; which also had an AWESOME gift shop, and by awesome, I mean that it was full of wacky Christian crafty items that had absolutely NOTHING to do with Multnomah Falls, Oregon, Washington, or the Columbia River. Whatever.). Anyhoo, sipping this soup is a combination of how you feel when you eat really good bread pudding accompanied by a glass of crisp, cold, white wine, sitting next to a crackling fireplace while the snow falls outside. And, you're wearing a cashmere rollneck sweater. And probably some pants, because otherwise you'd get cold. Maybe. Unless you enjoy not wearing pants. Hey, I'm not judgy. Much. But seriously, put your pants on, sicko. Sheesh.

Up Next: Pecorino Toscano with Roasted Sweet Peppers and Arugula Coulis

Brands Used:
Walnuts, vanilla, lemon and pear from Whole Foods
Milk and cream by Organic Valley
Les Fumees Blanches Sauvignon Blanc; 2005 Jacques & Francois Lurton (thanks to whomever brought this to my last dinner party as a hostess gift!)
Hamilton Beach blender
All-Clad cookware

Music to Cook By: Joe Jackson, Steppin' Out (Best of)

Saturday, February 24, 2007


It's another rockin' Saturday night in jolly old Maryland, and time for another French Laundry at Home entry. This time, I decided to be efficient and knock out three recipes in one go. The French Laundry Cookbook contains a recipe for Yukon Gold Potato Blini, followed by two canapés that feature the blini:

1) Blini with Bottarga di Muggine and Confit of Tomato; and,
2) Blini with Roasted Sweet Peppers and Eggplant Caviar.

Both were absolutely delicious and really easy to do, but in a taste-test with my friendly neighborhood guinea pigs (two 8-year olds, two 10-year olds, a 17-year old, and four 30-40somethings), we preferred the Blini with Bottarga di Muggine and Confit of Tomato. And, I will take a moment to confess that if it were possible to marry this particular tomato confit, I would. I'd totally elope with it, no questions asked. No prenup required. In fact, here's a haiku I wrote about my feelings for the tomato confit:

More than Britney loves
Heroin, crack and Xanax
J'adore ma confit

The Blini with Roasted Sweet Peppers and Eggplant Caviar was also really quite delicious, but we preferred the other one just a wee bit. I didn't have the same lusty feelings toward the eggplant caviar, although it was really easy to make. And, the roasted peppers were nice, but they sort of competed in an odd way with the eggplant. Again, completely delicious, but not in the same league as the tomato confit.

Both dishes included elements that had to be prepared a few days in advance, which was great because I love being able to spread out the prep work over the course of a week. It gives me something fun to do here and there for an hour instead of doing things like folding laundry, cleaning, installing my dehumidifier, returning clients' calls, washing behind my ears, having a social life... you know, stuff like that. This was an incredibly hectic workweek, so I was thankful to have these little "distractions" to look forward to along the way. It's one of the (many) advantages of working from home, that's for sure.

Before I dive into the two preparations, let me start out with the Yukon Gold Potato Blini, the foundation of the two canapés.

Here's the mise en place for the Blini:

I first boiled a pound or so of Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled them, then pressed them through a tamis, which yields a much finer, creamier mash than a potato ricer or any other process I've used before.

After they'd gone through the tamis, I quickly whisked in the flour, then the crème fraîche, then the eggs and egg yolk. Lastly, I seasoned it with salt and white pepper. The batter looked gorgeous and smelled a little like Thanksgiving dinner.

Once the batter was done, I dropped about a tablespoon's worth onto the heated griddle to make sure it was the right heat before I made the rest of the blini. I made about 30 of them, 24 of which went toward the two blini dishes. I saved the other six for lunch tomorrow.

For the Blini with Bottarga di Muggine and Confit of Tomato, I had to order the Bottarga di Muggine, which is a salted, dried mullet roe from Italy (also frequently referred to as "poor man's caviar"). Thinking ahead, last week I called ten different markets and specialty stores here in the DC area and no one carried it, so I had to have it shipped to me from a lovely online resource called Far Away Foods. It had an incredibly pungent smell when I opened the plastic, but it has an amazing, rich taste when shredded on this dish. Ordering the Bottarga di Muggine was easy. Making the Tomato Confit was also a breeze, and something I was able to start a few days in advance. Look at these gorgeous tomatoes I was able to find at the market:

The first step was to dunk the tomatoes in boiling water, then an ice bath, and then peel them. Then, I quartered them, gutted them, leaving me with these beautiful tomato petals, which I laid onto a baking sheet with olive oil, salt and pepper, and a sprig of thyme.

They roasted in a 250 oven for about 2 hours. I removed the thyme and stored the roasted tomatoes in the fridge until I needed them for the dish. Once I was ready to finish the prep for this dish, I rough chopped the roasted tomatoes, warmed them in a small saucepan, and added some chicken stock I'd already made and had defrosted the day before. I then added a little bit of olive oil, butter and minced Italian flat-leaf parsley. Once the majority of the liquid was gone, I turned off the heat and let it rest for a few minutes.

To assemble the Blini with Bottarga di Muggine and Confit of Tomato, I put a small spoonful of the tomato confit onto a plate (which is hard to see in this photo), topped it with two blini, then grated the bottarga di muggine on top:

Absolutely delicious. And, I have some of the tomato confit leftover, so I plan to either take a bath in it or maybe just top tomorrow morning's omelet with it. Not sure yet which option I'll choose. Seriously, if you're a soap-maker and you can figure out how to make tomato confit soap, I'm sending you a check right now.

Let's talk about the Blini with Roasted Sweet Peppers and Eggplant Caviar. This required some advance prep, as well, starting with the peppers. Again, gorgeous produce:

I roasted the peppers a day ahead, which involved slicing the red and yellow bell peppers in half, gutting them, brushing them with olive oil and roasting them in a low oven for about 20-25 minutes until the skins start to loosen.

I then put them in a covered container while they were still hot, so the skins could steam off a bit. The red peppers were a breeze to peel. The yellow peppers? Not so much. Once they were peeled and quartered, I stored them in the fridge until right before I started the blini.

The eggplant caviar was really fun to make. I know, you must be thinking I need to get out more if I think smooshing eggplant around in some cheesecloth is fun. But it was, so zip it. The first thing I did was slice the egggplant lengthwise and score both halves on the fleshy side. I then covered both fleshy halves with salt, placed them face down on a baking sheet, covered it with another baking sheet, and put two bowls on top to weigh it down. This allows some of the eggplant's natural liquid to be released.

After about two hours of this, I wiped them clean and rubbed them with olive oil. I then put them face down on another baking sheet and roasted them for a little under an hour at 350 degrees. They were just mushy enough to scrape out the flesh easily, but not completely liquified. I scraped out all the flesh, gave it a rough chop, and then tied it up in cheesecloth. The egglant-in-cheesecloth then went into a colander over a bowl in my fridge overnight.

The next morning, I spent a good 30 minutes squeezing all the rest of the liquid out of the eggplant, still leaving it in the cheesecloth. After squeezing out all the liquid, I was left with about 3/4 cup of eggplant. I put it in my mini food processor and pulsed it a few times to loosen it up. I then added olive oil, mustard, garlic and salt and blended it for about 2-3 minutes.

Since I did this ahead of time, I transferred the eggplant caviar to a covered container and stored it in the fridge. I brought it back up to room temperature before plating it.

When it was time to prep and serve the Blini with Roasted Sweet Peppers and Eggplant Caviar, I had to finish the roasted sweet peppers. I took out a few of the strips, minced them, added some chicken stock and warmed it on the stove. I stirred in a little butter, some chives and a pinch of salt.

The finished product consisted of a small spoonful of the eggplant caviar, topped with two overlapping blini which were topped with the roasted peppers (apologies for the blurriness of the photo):

Two things that the French Laundry Cookbook also includes in these recipes were tomato powder and pepper confetti. Because I started a small fire in my microwave earlier in the week trying to make the tomato powder, I decided to pass on these two items until I had some serious time to experiment with them and figure out the best way to do them. Thanks to everyone who posted their suggestions. I appreciate it.

Another ingredient these two recipes included was buerre monté. Because I needed such small amounts of this for these two dishes, I substituted regular unsalted butter. Again, when I have some time to devote to this, I'll make a whole batch of buerre monté that I can use in many dishes to come.

In addition to being nice appetizers for us before a nice Saturday night steak dinner, the other great thing is that these capapés could easily be turned into a nice lunch for 2-3 people -- just increase the size of the blini, keep the same quantity of the sauces, and maybe serve them with a small chopped salad. I'll certainly make them again, and I'm also quite certain I'll be making the tomato confit again soon -- it would be delicious in so many iterations. Including just eating it right out of the saucepan. Or rubbing it all over my body.

Up Next: Cream of Walnut Soup

Brands Used:
All produce and dairy products from Whole Foods
Antica Italia extra virgin olive oil
All-Clad cookware
Cuisinart mini food processor
Calphalon baking sheets

Music to Cook By: Podcasts of the "Ricky Gervais Show" (hint: do NOT listen to these at the gym, unless you want people to turn and stare at you because you cackled out loud by accident whilst on the treadmill); and The Tragically Hip, Fully Completely.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Question up for Comment: Powders

If any of you have made any of the powders in the French Laundry cookbook, please let me know and share your best advice because I just tried making the tomato powder and the parchment paper caught fire in my microwave, and um, yeah... I need some advice on powders obviously. I'm gonna go do some research on my own, but I'll take any advice y'all have because burning down my house is not an option right now.


Sunday, February 18, 2007

Gruyère Cheese Gougères

I know, I know... two recipes (well THREE) in one week. Will wonders never cease? I had planned to make the Gougères on Tuesday evening and serve them with a really great chili recipe I've made before, but this afternoon, it started doing this outside:

And when it snows, I get the urge to bake, specifically things that involve cheese. So naturally, I decided to knock out the Gruyère Cheese Gougères ahead of schedule, and boy am I glad I did because now my house smells all warm and comfy. Here are the ingredients:

The first thing I did was mix the water, butter, salt and sugar in a saucepan and bring it to a boil:

Then, I added the flour and stirred it for a minute or two until it formed one ball of dough. Then, I transfered that ball o' dough to my pretty, shiny KA mixing bowl:

Then, with the paddle attachment, I whacked it around for about 30 seconds to cool it. After that, I added the eggs and the Gruyère and mixed it for another minute or two, which makes the batter/dough silky and smelling awfully nice:

If the Internet ever invents Smell-o-vision, then this truly would be food porn, no doubt about it. Wow. I put the batter into a pastry bag and piped out little blobs of it onto two baking sheets lined with Silpat. Right before they went into the oven, I added a little sprinkling of Gruyère on top of each one:

They baked at 450 for about 7-8 minutes, then on 350 for another 22-25 minutes. At the five-minutes-to-go mark, I called the neighbors over to help me eat them, since they taste the best when they're hot out of the oven. Rave reviews all around! Not only did they taste amazing, they looked pretty, too:

You bite into them and they're hollow, releasing a cheesy steam right up into your nostrils that makes the whole noshing experience so much more worthwhile. I sent a few home with the neighbors for the rest of the family to enjoy. We also did another sampling of the truffles and jellies because, well, because they were there and they need to be enjoyed. I'm glad I finally got the jellies done right because eating the two together is a real treat.

But back to the Gougères for a second... these are EASY and really light yet hearty, if you can imagine those two descriptors going together. I'd make these again in a heartbeat. They'd be great for our regular Friday afternoon cocktails, or even as an accompaniment to Thanksgiving dinner. They'd kick the butt of regular rolls, for damn sure. They'd also be really great if you were just going to make a nice salad for dinner.

Up Next: Blini with Roasted Sweet Peppers and Eggplant Caviar... and since I'll be making a ton of blini, I'll also probably do the Blini with Bottarga di Muggine and Confit of Tomato on the same night. Who wants to come over for dinner this week?

Brands Used:
Ingredients from Whole Foods
All-Clad CopperCore Cookware
KitchenAid stand mixer

Music to Cook By: INXS, Kick

BREAKING NEWS: The Jellies, They Are Good.

Hey, if the story about Britney shaving her head can be a "Breaking News" story on, then my FINALLY successfully making these frakkin' Concord Grape Jellies can, too.

Thanks to commenter Andy, I heeded his advice and scraped the gel from the baking dish back into a saucepan and just whisked and boiled the heck out of it for about 7-8 minutes. I poured it back into the lined baking dish and in just two hours -- DING! I had the consistency I needed. I cut them into squares, rolled them in superfine sugar and all is well in the world:

So, thanks Andy. You rock.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Concord Grape Jellies and Peanut Butter Truffles

I fully expected to post this on Valentine's Day because that's when I STARTED this candy combo (and I had even planned to cut the jellies into mini-hearts instead of squares because I was feeling all sentimental), but it's now Saturday night (cue Bay City Rollers) and here we are.

I guess the best explanation for the delay is that I experienced technical difficulties and unexplainable user error in making the Concord Grape Jellies. The Peanut Butter Truffles were as easy as they are delicious. Did I mention easy? 'Cause they were. And also, delicious. That cannot be said enough. Knowing that there are some sitting in my fridge right now is going to make for a very difficult week at the gym, I can assure you. The Jellies can SUCK IT because they didn't work the first two times I made them; and even on the third and final try, they didn't turn out the way they're supposed to. Yeah, I know... way to get mad at the stupid CANDY when clearly I should be mad at myself. I'm so mature.

I think the culprit of the first two failures could be one of two things: the fact that I was using kosher unsweetened juice instead of regular unsweetened juice, or else it was the type of apple pectin I was using. Because I was blinding myself with some serious f-ing SCIENCE trying to figure this out, after the second failed attempt I went out and bought a different brand of grape juice and had a different kind of apple pectin FedExed from L'Epicerie (have I mentioned yet that I took on a new monthly-retainer client through the end of the year just to bring in some extra cashola to fund this project, 'cause I did). But all this talk about failed jelly candy is bringin' me down, man, so since the truffles worked out so well, let's talk about those first.

It's no secret among those who know me well that I'm a big fan of peanut butter and chocolate together, and these truffles fit the bill and then some. My Aunt Barbara is famous is our family (and in my hometown) for her amazing chocolate peanut butter fudge (as well as for her plain old peanut butter fudge), so I thought of her when I started these. You know how sometimes when you eat something peanut buttery and chocolatey that you just want the salt and the sweet to hit the right notes and not overwhelm one another (like Aunt Barbara's fudge does; and if you're reading this Aunt Barbara, I would not object to eating some of that fudge the next time I'm in PA... ahem.)? That's what I hoped would happen with these truffles, and they FAR exceeded my expectations. I'll definitely make them again and again... they'd make a great hostess gift for a dinner party. Or as a candy exchange with Aunt B, should she decide to take me up on my offer. But enough about that....

Here's what goes into the truffles:

Obviously, the calculator doesn't go in there. Dur. That's in the photo to depict the fact that I had to use MATH to calculate the correct number of ounces of chocolate since it's not packaged in the exact ounceage I needed. First science, now math. Numbers are hard, yo. (not really)

You mix all the ingredients in the food processor for three whole minutes, which made the kitchen smell like the inside of a warm peanut butter sandwich (which in second grade was my vision of heaven):

After everything is mixed, you put it into a bowl and let it set up in the fridge overnight. Then, you use a small (2 tsp.) ice cream scoop to make little truffle balls (is that word ever not funny? I'm 12, I know). However, my mini ice cream scoop broke at the outset of this, so I had to get my melon-baller out of storage (10 pts. if you can cite this reference) and scoop them that way, which meant also rolling them in between my hands to smooth them out. That was some oily deliciousness:

After all the balls (>snerk<) were made, I dipped them twice in melted bittersweet chocolate and let them set, then refrigerated them. Before serving them, you can dust them with unsweetened cocoa powder, or serve them plain.

Thankfully, they could go for a few days in the fridge while I figured out what the hell I was doing wrong with the grape jelly candy. Let's dive into that debacle, shall we? I'm still pissed off about it, can you tell?

The ingredients are simple:

Or so I thought.

Anyhoo, you bring the grape juice, sugar and corn syrup (diabetes, anyone?) to a simmer and continually skim off the foam and other stuff that rises to the top. Then, you pour half of the liquid mixture into a separate bowl with the apple pectin powder and more sugar, whisk the crap out of it, and then pour that mixture back into the saucepan so that it can be whisked again and come back up to a simmer and the whole shebang can thicken. Once it hits 219 degrees and has simmered for 5-10 minutes and has started to thicken, you pour it into a plasticwrap-lined 9x13" baking dish. It's supposed to take a few hours to set into jelly candy. Supposed to. Stupid candy.

The first time I made it, it never thickened even in the saucepan let alone once it was poured into the baking dish. Rassin'-frassin' candy. I chalked up the failure to my maybe not whisking the pectin liquid enough before pouring it back into the saucepan, because I was thinking about getting a haircut later in the week and was squinting at my reflection in the kitchen window to try and picture different hairstyles. Shut UP.

The second time, the liquid mixture was a little thicker and got a skin on the top of the jelly when it was in the baking dish, but that's about it. All I could think of at this point was "Harley David... son of a bitch!"

The third time (tonight, merely an hour or so after the FedEx guy dropped off the new apple pectin powder), I held my breath. The mixture was definitely thicker in the saucepan and was thicker when I poured it into the pan to set. Things were looking up. However, the book mentions that you should have an offset spatula ready to smooth out the top after you pour it into the baking dish before it sets, but I didn't need the spatula. It was at this point that I found myself channeling Mr. Garrison doing Mr. Hat on South Park when he says, "You go to hell! You go to hell and you die!" to Kyle or Stan or whoever it was that wanted to be excused from school? Classy, I know.

I don't even have a photo of what the final jellies looked like, but if you've ever seen the movie The Blob, well then, there you go.

Not exactly the cute little square rolled in superfine sugar, eh? I don't mean to whine (much), it's just that these Concord Grape Jellies aren't supposed to be that difficult to make. Really, they're not. This seems like it should be a no-brainer, and for someone who grew up in the semi-Amish country in PA in a family full of people who used pectin on a regular basis in canning and other candy-making activities, I'm feeling especially stupid right now.

If you're out there reading this and you've made these successfully, please please please send me an email or post a comment and let me know what I'm doing wrong.

But let me end on a good note: those Peanut Butter Truffles might win a candy smackdown between me and my Aunt Barbara... I'm just sayin'...

Up Next: Gruyère Cheese Gougères

Brands Used:
All-Clad CopperCore cookware
Pyrex bakeware
Cuisinart food processor
R.W. Knudsen organic concord grape juice
Fresh-ground organic peanut butter from Whole Foods
Scharffen Berger chocolate products

Music to Cook By: Journey, Greatest Hits (peanut butter truffles); Daniel Lanois, Shine (Jellies Attempt #1); The Ditty Bops (Jellies Attempt #2); Depeche Mode, Music for the Masses (Jellies Attempt #3).

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Staff Lasagna

I spent most of this weekend in PA with my family and some friends, and I didn't realize until I got there how nice it was to get away from the ever-ringing phone and my laptop here at home. On Saturday afternoon, I hung out with some friends, one of whom was making Paula Wolfert's pork and wild mushroom daube for dinner -- it's a three-day process and smelled amazing. It's dishes like that one that really drive home why I'm doing what I'm doing with this project. Which leads me to something I want to talk about for a minute before I start writing about tonight's recipe...

After being mentioned on Michael Ruhlman's blog last week (which, by the way, was so incredibly flattering and beyond cool), I received email from people all around the world supporting this project and asking me why I'm doing this. My reasons are many. I have always loved the French Laundry Cookbook, and it inspires me on a creative basis in so many different ways. Even though I had never made anything out of this cookbook before January of this year, I often referred to the book for ideas and inspiration when I wanted to try something new. The photography, the writing, the legacy of food that has been served in that kitchen, the experience people have when eating this food both in the restaurant and in my home... all are important to me.

In addition to wanting to challenge myself in the kitchen, I have to be honest and admit that one of my main motivations to cook every recipe in this book is because I am incredibly frustrated and annoyed with TV personalities like Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee crapping up the foodosphere with their shortcuts and stupid recipes designed to get you in and out of the kitchen AS FAST AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE, and I wondered -- when did food become the bad guy? When did it become so urgent to slap a bunch of crap together and call it dinner? I know that a common excuse is that people are pressed for time, or that they just don't think they have the skills to make something from scratch. Those aren't good enough excuses in my book. Let me say that I own my own consulting practice and I'm not a gazillionaire. I don't have a ton of free time, nor do I have unlimited funds. I'm also not a chef, nor have I ever been trained in any of the culinary arts. I'm just a normal person with a normal job who has decided that I'm going to spend time doing something I love and push myself to get better at it in the process. I hope that by cooking this food and writing this blog, people will see that it's possible to take the time to peruse a real cookbook (Julia Child, Mario Batali, Tony Bourdain, and Jacques Pepin are all a good place to start), enjoy shopping for ingredients, set aside time for prep, and cook something wonderful that's sure to not only make your house smell amazing, but provide a new way to bring friends and family around the table to enjoy something you've created.

Let's get started on the lasagna. This recipe is the lasagna that is prepared for the French Laundry staff prior to service.

Here's a photo of the mise en place for the sauce:

The first thing you do is heat the oil, then add the onions and garlic. The recipe said to mince them, but I prefer a chunkier sauce, so I did a fine chop rather than a mince. Once the onions and garlic are translucent, I added the tomato paste and let that cook through for about 10 minutes. Then, I added the fresh tomatoes. Here's what it looked like:

Then, I simmered it for about 2 hours, at which point it reduced to about a quart of sauce:

After it has reduced, you turn off the burner, add some chopped fresh oregano, and let the sauce cool to room temperature.

The next step is to put the lasagna noodles in to boil, during which time I put together the ricotta mixture:

When the noodles are done, it's assembly time (and might I mention how amazing my house smelled at this point?). A light covering of sauce on the bottom of the pan, followed by noodles, then ricotta, then sauce, and so on, with a hefty dose of freshly grated mozzarella cheese on top. You may notice that this is a meatless lasagna, which was a bit of a surprise when I first found this recipe. I must've read and re-read the page 3-4 times to make sure I wasn't missing the step during which I add the ground beef. Not there.

Here's what the lasagna looks like before it goes into the oven:

And, here's what it looks like when it's done:

I also made the staff salad dressing to serve on finely shredded romaine lettuce hearts:

The salad dressing is really similar to the dressing I make almost every week for salads I make here at home, so that was a breeze. I'm a big fan of homemade salad dressings -- I don't think I'll ever buy the bottled stuff ever again. I've been hand-whisking homemade salad dressings for the last 10 years and it's something I love doing.

The lasagna was creamy and hearty, but really light and not at all heavy or rich. It is something that fills you up, but doesn't make you want to groan in pain if you've eaten more than one piece. I undersalted it, so it need need some additional seasoning once it was served, but overall, I think it was really pretty good. Granted, I will confess that from time to time I have been known to enjoy some Stouffer's frozen lasagna throughout my adolesence (and by adolesence, I mean my 20s and 30s), but this recipe is the way to go. I think it would be easy to add some ground turkey, beef or veal to the sauce if you wanted to add some heft to it, but it's fine as-is.

I served the lasagna and salad with a sliced baguette, many bottles of wine (see below), and had some friends over for dinner. Oh my God, the laughing. I haven't laughed that hard in a really long time, and it was so much fun to get a smart, funny bunch of people together who gave up their Sunday night to be guineau pigs in my test kitchen.

Up Next: Concord Grape Jellies and Peanut Butter Truffles

Brands Used:
All-Clad CopperCore cookware and bakeware
Muir Glen tomato paste
All produce and dairy products from Wegman's
DeCecco lasagna noodles

Wine Pairing: Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, 2004

Music to Cook By: Chicago, Greatest Hits and U2, Unforgettable Fire.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Warm Fruitwood-Smoked Salmon with Potato Gnocchi and Balsamic Glaze, Part II

Let me preface this by saying with the windchill making the temperature outside about 4 degrees, I was happy to have some gnocchi to nosh on tonight. Let's get started with Part Two of the Fruitwood-smoked Salmon dish, shall we? Yes, let's shall.

The first thing I had to do this afternoon (while waiting for my clients to return phone calls and emails) was finish the chive oil. That meant taking the chive puree out of the fridge and covering a glass bowl with cheese cloth so the oil can filter through it.

Then, I poured the chive oil puree onto the cheese cloth and let it sit for an hour while the oil seeped through to the bowl below.

Then, I put the oil into a squeeze bottle, which I did through yet another filter in my funnel (just to make sure it was as "clean" as possible).

With the chive oil done, I prepped my vegetables for the brunoise that goes into the sauce the gnocchi cooks in.

A brunoise [say it with me kids: "broon-wahz"] is a very fine chop/cut of carrots, turnips and leeks -- it's supposed to be little teeny-tiny 1/16" squares, but mine was somewhere in between a brunoise and a mirepoix (slightly larger). I have borderline OCD, but I think you need full-fledged OCD to do a perfect brunoise. But enough excuses. After doing the fine, precise OCD in-need-of-meds brunoise chopping, you blanch each of the vegetables separately and put them aside for use later. Most restaurants prepare tons of this and freeze it for future use. I just did a small amount because I was pressed for time today. Someday, when I have a free day, I'll make gallons of brunoise to store in my freezer. Or, I'll get a life. It's a toss-up.

I then prepped more chives for the dish -- this time a fine chop:

I also did the tomato diamonds just like Keller suggested, but for some reason mine turned out more like parallelograms:

(And, a note to all you 9th graders taking geometry who think you'll never need to use the word "parallelogram" ever ever ever as an adult. Guess what? You do. I did. So there.)

This was the last amount of prep I needed to do until about 15 minutes before dinner time.

I invited the neighbors (who are also close friends, so don't think I'm just knocking on doors asking people over -- I love these guys!) over for a taste-test and asked two of the kids to come over early to be my sous chefs. They did a great job, but their greatest accomplishment was the chive-oil decor on the plates. You'll see that soon.

Now, we get to the meat and potatoes of the meal. Well, the fish and potatoes. I cut the fruitwood-smoked salmon into six squares and submerged them in warm milk -- not quite a poach (about 115-120 degrees). They rested in there for 7-8 minutes while I cooked the gnocchi -- first a toss in warm canola oil, then added in homemade chicken stock I had in the freezer, a few drops of white wine vinegar and a few tablespoons of butter.

Then, you let the gnocchi and sauce simmer and reduce/thicken a bit. While the gnocchi were cooking, I mixed a small bunch of arugula with meyer lemon olive oil, minced scallion, and fresh-ground sea salt and pepper.

Then, when the gnocchi sauce has reduced and thickened (about 8-9 minutes), you add the brunoise, tomato diamonds and chives to the pan and let them heat up in the gnocchi sauce. Then, the salmon comes out of the milk and we're ready to assemble.

The kids (thanks, M and G!) did a great job decorating the plates with chive oil. As I mentioned in my previous post, I have no artistic talent whatsoever and I was apprehensive about decorating or drizzling plates with anything, let alone precious chive oil that took two freakin' days to make. It should tell you something that I trust two 10-year olds to do a better job than I could. I love outsourcing. It's what makes America great. Can't let those terrorists win, no sir. Not when it comes to, um, er, chive oil.

Alright, back to the assembling: first on the plate go 6 gnocchi with some of the sauce it's been cooking in; on top of that goes a piece of the milk-warmed smoked salmon; then, it's topped with the arugula mixture which is then drizzled or dotted with balsamic glaze (which I had left over from the gazpacho and the whipped brie). Here's the final product:

And, here are my proud sous chefs with their final creation:

Let's talk about how this tastes (wish you could be here!). The gnocchi were creamy and hearty, and not mushy at all. I've never made gnocchi before, and I have to say that I was damn impressed with my bad self. The sauce was delicious and the salmon was sweetened and less smoky having been warmed in the milk. It also made it a little more flaky, which was nice, texture-wise. The arugula/shallot combo added a nice bite to the dish (as did the balsamic glaze). All in all, I'd make this again. The portion size recommended in the French Laundry Cookbook is a starter, but you could just up the number of gnocchi and cut the salmon a bit bigger and it would make a nice lunch or light dinner.

Let me also take a moment here to say how much I'm enjoying Michael Ruhlman's writing in this cookbook. I'm a big fan of Ruhlman's work, but these instructions and accompanying text are so straightforward without being pedantic or elementary. There's no second-guessing (at least in this recipe) about the order in which you do things, or how exactly to do things if you don't have all the professional implements the French Laundry staff uses on a daily basis. If you haven't read any of Ruhlman's other books, I suggest you do. You don't have to be into food to enjoy them -- he's a great storyteller who from the first sentence draws you into the lives of the people he's writing about. He's done the same with the French Laundry Cookbook, and dangit, I'm glad I'm doing this project.

Up Next: Staff Lasagna (made by sous chef Eric Ziebold for the French Laundry staff prior to the start of service).

Recommended Wine for the Salmon-Gnocchi Dish: Raymond Reserve Chardonnay, 2004 (I'm usually not a chardonnay person, but this stuff is good. Not as good as the Mer Soleil which is like drinking butter, eating lobster, and having sex all at the same time, but the Raymond is good, too.)

Brands Used:
All produce from Safeway
Fruitwood-smoked salmon from Whole Foods
All-Clad cookware
O brand Meyer Lemon Olive Oil

Music to Cook By: Best of the Doobie Brothers. Just because.