Sunday, March 25, 2007

Corsu Vecchiu with Spiced Carrot Salad

I've been powering through these cheese courses because they're easy, and honestly, because I love cheese. Who doesn't? This dish marks the 5th out of 10 cheese dishes in the French Laundry cookbook, and I'm getting a little melancholy. I'm going to have to hold off on doing the rest of them right away so I can intersperse them throughout the rest of this project.

The Corsu Vecchiu with Spiced Carrot Salad was lovely, easy, and eerily reminiscent of a carrot-raisin salad my mother used to make. I will say that I don't like raisins -- never have -- and I've never been a big fan of carrots and raisins together. But, add in some CHEESE and I'm a happy camper. Everything's better with cheese. As long as it's good cheese, that is. And the Corsu Vecchiu that I got at Arrowine was delicious. Nutty, a little stinky, creamy, and with just enough heft to balance the carrot and raisin sweetness.

Let's get started on this dish. The first thing I did was make some carrot powder, which involved shredding carrots and letting them dry out on parchment paper in a 200-degree oven for about 4 hours. Here's what the dried carrots looked like right before they were ground into powder:

You can see the finished powder in the final photo in this entry, but don't skip ahead because you'll miss all the juicy parts of the story. (I am such a bad liar.)

The next thing I did was make a spice powder for the carrot reduction. Here's the mise en place for the spice powder:

I warmed the spices in a small sauté pan:

Then, ground them into a fine powder in a coffee bean grinder, and stored it in an airtight container:

Okay -- powders done and the house didn't burn down. I am officially awesome.

Here's the mise en place for the rest of the dish:

First, I strained the carrot juice into a small saucepan, brought it to a boil, skimmed off the scum, and let it reduce for about 15-20 minutes. When it had reduced to about 2T, I added a pinch of the spice powder, removed it from the heat, and let it sit on the stovetop until I was ready to use it in the carrot mixture.

Next, I put the raisins into separate saucepan, covered them with water and the fresh-squeezed lemon juice and let them simmer for a few minutes until they started to get plump:

When they were done plumping, I puréed the raisins with a little bit of the cooking liquid, and then strained the purée. I set it aside to work on the carrots. I shredded the carrots in the food processor and added the brunoise to them. I didn't rephotograph the brunoise prep because you can find that here. It turned out better this time, so I kinda wish I'd shot it, but you get the general idea.

I mixed the carrots with the brunoise in a small mixing bowl, and then poured in the carrot juice reduction:

Next up? The cheese. All hail Corsu Vecchiu:

Plating was easy: a tablespoon of the raisin purée topped with the shredded carrot salad. On top of that, fanned out slices of Corsu Vecchiu, topped with a spring of chervil. And, do ya see what's on the side? Oh yes, my friends. That would be carrot powder. It had a much nicer consistency than the tomato powder from the Haricots Verts. Here's the final dish:

Would I make this again? Probably not. It wasn't bad or difficult, it just wasn't amazing enough to warrant a repeat performance.

Up Next: Lemon Sabayon-Pine Nut Tart with Honeyed Mascarpone Cream.

Brands Used:
Corsu Vecchiu cheese from Arrowine
Produce, herbs and spices from Takoma Park-Silver Spring Co-op
Odwalla carrot juice
Pavich organic golden raisins
All-Clad cookware
Cuisinart food processor
Hamilton Beach blender

Music to Cook By: We Get There When We Do; Suddenly Tammy

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Ashed Chevreaux with Slow-Roasted Yellow and Red Beets and Red Beet Vinaigrette


One simple word. Five letters. And one of my favorite foods in the world. But it wasn't always that way. I hated beets as a kid. I loved the pickled red-beet eggs that were a staple at every family picnic when I was growing up (Amish country, represent!), but the beets themselves made me gag. It wasn't until I went to Egypt nearly 10 years ago that I fell in love with beets. And it's not like beets are the national root vegetable of Egypt. I just happened to have a very lovely dinner in a restaurant in Cairo with some friends and work colleagues and I decided to give beets a try. And I was forever hooked. Red, yellow... doesn't matter. I love beets in almost any size, shape, color, and preparation. And, that's one of the reasons I enjoyed making this dish. The other reason? My new boyfriend, Ashed Chevreaux. More on that later.

Before I get started on this write-up, let me say a little something about two new (to me) food purveyors I went to for ingredients to make this dish. The first is Arrowine, where I got the goat cheese (chevreaux). It's well known that the Maryland suburbs of DC are not exactly known for their great choices in wine, cheese, and other fine foods shops. It's actually pretty grim. The northern Virginia suburbs are more known for their great cheese shops and specialty foods stores, so even though it was a bit of a schlep to drive out of Maryland, through DC and into Virginia to do some exploring, it was well worth it. I had heard about Arrowine through some folks on (a DC-area food forum) and was anxious to try it out. I called ahead to make sure they had the Ashed Chevreaux, and they did. When I got there, the staff could not have been more pleasant and lovely to work with. So, if you're in the DC area and want to do a cheese field trip, go to Arrowine (4508 Lee Hwy. in Arlington, VA). The staff is incredibly knowledgeable and friendly.

The second food purveyor I want to give a shout-out to is a tiny little food co-op in Mt. Rainier, MD called Glut. The town I live in has a VERY well known food co-op, but I tend to find their prices exorbitant and the staff a little (okay, a LOT) annoying and self-important. So, I crossed county lines into Prince George's County (eek! kidding, sort of) and made my way to Glut (4005 34th Street; Mt. Rainier, MD) to buy the beets and the beet juice. Incidentally, they were the only store I could find within a five-mile radius that sold bottled, organic beet juice (which this recipe calls for). I don't have a juicer at home, or I might've made the beet juice myself. Wait, no I wouldn't have. Me? Beets? A juicer? My walls are already red, but the prospect of me trying to make juice out of something so potentially disastrously wall- and cupboard-staining is a bad idea. Maybe another time. Or never. But, the Glut food co-op was a nice little find, and because it's only 10 minutes from my house, I think I'd go back there again instead of dealing with the non-showering/bathing pomposity at the co-op six blocks from my house.

Alright, I've blathered on enough. Let's talk about the food.

The first thing I did was wash my lovely beets (get your minds out of the gutter, you sickos):

Next, I wrapped them individually with a few drops of canola oil in each foil packet:

I roasted them on a tray in a 300-degree oven for two hours. Of course, I roasted many more beets than the recipe called for because I wanted to be able to eat beet salad the rest of the week. Yes, it's an addiction. Call A&E. Schedule my Intervention episode now.

While the beets were roasting, I made the Beet Vinaigrette. Here's the mise en place:

Yep -- it's just beet juice and red wine vinegar. I brought the beet juice up to a simmer, then added the vinegar and reduced this mixture until it was nearly gone, and was quite syrupy and incredibly fragrant:

I peeled the roasted beets and sliced the red ones into disks and the yellow ones into batons. The French Laundry Cookbook suggested the yellow beets be cut into disks and the red into batons, but the size of the beets I bought did not allow for that, so I did the old switcheroo.

Next, I opened the Ashed Chevreaux from its paper wrapping and marveled in its ashed, moldy glory. Here's a photo, and although it's a bit blurry, I hope you can get a sense of what this cheese looked like:

I'm a big fan of moldy cheese like this. As soon as I saw this one in particular at Arrowine, I knew I was going to fall in love with it. I cut it into six slices in preparation for plating.

For plating, I first did a few swirls of the Beet Vinaigrette, which I topped with a red beet disk. On top of that went five or six yellow beet batons. On top of that went a second red beet disk, and the final topper was a slice of the goat cheese. I also tossed some baby beet greens in olive oil and sea salt and garnished the dish with it. Here's the final presentation:

This recipe also called for beet powder, which I did not make. I'll try it another time, but I didn't have the time to do it this go-round (it requires a good 7 hours of roasting in a low oven, and it just wasn't feasible for me to do this week since I'm not comfortable doing it overnight while I'm sleeping). I already feel like I scored victory with the tomato powder, and I've also already successfully made carrot powder for next week's dish, so I didn't want to tempt fate.

The beets were sweet and tender, and the texture was perfect. The Beet Vinaigrette was lovely and quite sweet (it was a big hit with "M," one of my 10-year old kitchen helpers from time to time, as she kept dipping pieces of dark chocolate into it before eating them to help clean the plates). The Ashed Chevreaux was creamy and smooth and just pungent enough to sit in your nose for a few seconds while the sweetness of the beets met up with it. I could've done without the beet greens on the side, but they were pretty and added some additional textural contrast that wasn't offensive, so it was okay.

I wish I had had some time to put together a wine pairing for this, but I've always had a hard time finding a wine that can stand up to beets. A pairing for goat cheese is no problem, but to find something that doesn't clash with beets has been tough for me. I welcome your recommendations. You should know that I am one of those genetic freaks known as a supertaster (even though it sounds cool, it sometimes sucks because there are foods that I simply cannot enjoy, as much as I want to), and sometimes have issues with certain foods and how my tastebuds react. For example: cilantro tastes like soap dipped in battery acid; plain coffee tastes like I'm being poisoned; grapefruit is intensely bitter; and, peppers with even the smallest amount of heat make my tongue go all wonky. So, with that in mind, I challenge you to find a wine that can stand up to beets and goat cheese that will not make me spit it out because it tastes bitter.

Up Next: Corsu Vecchiu with Spiced Carrot Salad

Brands Used:
All-Clad Cookware
Ashed Chevreaux from Arrowine in Arlington, VA
Beets and Biotta bottled Beet juice from Glut food co-op in Mt. Rainier, MD

Music to Cook By: Steve Miller Band -- Greatest Hits; and I challenge any of you to come up with better lyrics than "you're the cutest thing I ever did see; really love your peaches, wanna shake your tree." How did they not win more Grammys for songwriting, I ask you?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Salad of Haricots Verts, Tomato Tartare, and Chive Oil

I've had the WORST cold for the past week... ugh. Because of all the snot lodged in my brain and sinuses, my taster was a little off so I haven't been intrigued by food much, if at all. All I've wanted to do since last Sunday night is curl up in bed, sleep, whine, ignore my clients, and blow my nose. And not necessarily in that order. But you didn't come here to hear me bitch and moan, so let's talk about food.

I started to feel better Friday night so I rallied, went to the market, and bought what I needed to make this dish. I crapped out again Saturday morning and early afternoon, but rallied again Saturday evening with a burst of energy to do some prep work (Tomato Confit and Tomato Powder). The Tomato Confit, as always, was a joy to make. I didn't re-photograph the process, because it's already captured here.

As you may recall, in an earlier effort to make the Tomato Powder, I set my microwave on fire. This time, thanks to some helpful commenters, I decided to dry the tomato pulp and skins in my oven at 250 degrees for seven hours. Yes. Seven hours. Can't wait to see my gas bill next month! But you know what? It worked. AND, I think it made a difference in the taste of the final dish. But I digress... let me get back to the Tomato Powder for a sec. Here's a shot of the dried out tomato:

And, here's a shot of the finished powder after grinding it in my coffee grinder:

Those dark spots in both photos aren't charred bits of tomato. It's the lighting in my kitchen. So, with the Tomato Confit and Tomato Powder done the night before, the rest of the dish was easy to do this afternoon before my neighbors came over for a tasting.

I don't have my usual photo of the complete mise en place for this dish because a) I was doing ten things at once (writing a speech, cooking, cleaning out TiVo, folding laundry, yakking on the phone, dancing to my iPod... you get the drill) and I just forgot; and 2) I made this in stages over two days, so I didn't really have a full-on mise en place in the beginning. Fine, fine... I'll shut up now.

About an hour before serving, I made the Tomato Tartare. This involved taking the Tomato Confit, fine-chopping it, adding some balsamic vinegar, minced shallot and minced chives. Here's the mise for the Tomato Tartare:

Once it's mixed together, I let it rest in the fridge until I was ready to plate. Again, apologies for the lack of "after" shot of the Tomato Tartare. You'll see it in the final plating shots at the end, I promise. At least I didn't forget to take those. Jeesh.

The next thing I did was blanch the haricots verts (French green beans). Here's the before:

And after:

So pretty. I then whipped some heavy cream until it began to thicken enough so that the whisk left tracks in the cream, folded in some red wine vinegar, and then tossed the green beans around in that mixture. Commenter Todd (from the Risotto post) mentioned that the recipe made WAY more cream than was needed, and he was right. But, the ratio of cream to red wine vinegar is hard to do in small portions, so I'm fine with throwing some of it away. Apologies for the lack of photos of this step. Again, I was distracted. I think it was at this point that I was on the phone (again) teaching my mom how to cut/paste something from WordPerfect into email. Man, I suck. Sorry, guys. And gals. And sorry, Mom for swearing on the phone. Love you. Kisses! Hi, Dad!

So, now it's time to plate the dish.

First on the plate was a drizzle or two of Chive Oil (YUM!). I used some of the Chive Oil I'd prepared for the Warm Fruitwood-Smoked Salmon dish. You can see that prep process here.
On top of the Chive Oil went a few tablespoons of the Tomato Tartare. The book said to use a 3" ring mold, but I couldn't be bothered. God, I'm such a mamby-pamby when I'm not feeling well. On top of the Tomato Tartare went the haricots verts in red wine vinegar cream. Then, on top of that went some frisée tossed in olive oil and a pinch of salt. Before I continue, may I just state for the record that I really, really hate frisée? Detest it. Hate, hate, hate it. I always have to pick it out of salads because when eaten, to me it has the texture of chewing on dental floss. [Wow, I am so awesome to mention both mucus AND dental floss in a post about fine food. How much do you hate me? I'm skeeved out, myself, thankyouverymuch.]

But, I soldiered on and took one for the team (mixed metaphors ROCK), and added the frisée. Then, the final touch -- a dusting of Tomato Powder.

Here's the final plating of the dish:

This was delicious. The Tomato Tartare and green beans played nicely together -- a sharp taste, but not off-putting in the least. The textures were good, although I really could not eat the frisée. Fech. The Chive Oil was noticeable, but complemented the dish nicely. And I can't say enough about the Tomato Powder. I scoff at powders as a rule, but this one was nice and worth the repeated attempts to get right. Or at least close to right. It was less of a fine powder and more like the size of a grain of salt. Or maybe sand. But it wasn't gritty. It was smoooooth and tasty. It just wasn't fairy dust.

I'd make this dish again, no question. Please: anything that requires Tomato Confit is a GIVEN repeat-recipe in this house.

Up Next: Ashed Chevreaux with Slow-Roasted Yellow and Red Beets and Red Beet Vinaigrette.

Brands Used:
All-Clad Cookware
Produce from Whole Foods
Organic Valley heavy cream
Antica Italia balsamic vinegar

Music to Cook By: I'm almost embarrassed to admit this, but it was Salt-N-Pepa's Hot Cool & Vicious.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Wine Spectator Interview: Thomas Keller

If you're a fan of Thomas Keller, then this article may interest you. It's honest, thoughtful, and a nice Monday morning read. Enjoy!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Carnaroli Risotto with Shaved White Truffles from Alba

Let me start off with a disclaimer: I didn't shave white truffles on this as a garnish. Oh, quit yer bitchin'. I missed the end of white truffle season by about a week, and none of the vendors I trust to sell me good truffles had any left. So, I made this exactly as the book said, but without the fresh white truffles shaved over it (which the French Laundry Cookbook says is optional, by the way... so THERE.). It was rich and creamy and delicious, and I'll certainly make it again when truffles are back in season.

This risotto dish was a really easy two-step process. Here's the mise en place for the first stage of the cooking process:

The first thing I did was heat the oil in a heavy sauté pan, to which I added the onions, cooking them until they were soft and translucent. I then mixed in the rice and stirred for a few minutes. Next into the pan went the wine. I cooked and stirred and cooked and stirred and then cooked and stirred some more until the alcohol smell was gone and all the liquid had evaporated from the pan. It's at this point that the rice starts to get that toasty smell -- yum! I upped the heat a bit and added the vegetable stock.

I brought the mixture to a boil, then reduced it to a simmer for about 5 minutes. Next, I drained the rice and pressed it into a non-stick 9x13" baking pan, which I put into the fridge to chill for a few hours while I ran errands (which, by the way, let me tell you -- people do NOT know how to drive in this neck of the woods. Green means "GO" you idiots).

Here's the mise en place for Stage Two of the Risotto (which you do right before it's time to serve it):

I took the rice out of the refrigerator and put it in the heavy sauté pan with about a half-cup of vegetable stock and simmered it until the stock evaporated. I repeated this step about four times until the rice was al dente.

Next, I removed the risotto from the heat and stirred in the butter a little at a time, then beat in the whipped cream, cheese and a little bit of salt. The last step was to briskly stir in a generous amount (3 T) of white truffle oil.

I know I've said it before, but I'll say it again: will someone PLEASE invent Smell-O-Vision(TM) for the Internet? White truffle oil is amazing on its own, but when I added it to the risotto, wow. Just wow. I can't say enough about how much I love this stuff. I always have it on hand because it's great to use when roasting vegetables or macaroni and cheese. It's worth the cost; I don't care what anybody says. And, in this dish, it was necessary since I wasn't going to be garnishing it with fresh white truffles. Instead, I roasted some asparagus and used the tips as a garnish:

Rave reviews all around. It's incredibly rich, but it's something that's hard to eat slowly -- it's that good. Not quite good enough to bathe in (I'm lookin' at YOU, tomato confit) but I'll definitely make it again.

Up Next: Salad of Haricots Verts, Tomato Tartare, and Chive Oil

Brands Used:
All-Clad CopperCore cookware
Acquerello Carnaroli rice
Saveur's White Truffle Oil (not the magazine; can't find a link)
Organic Valley heavy cream
Les Fumees Blanches Sauvignon Blanc; 2004 Jacques & Francois Lurton

Music to Cook By: Silversun Pickups, Carnavas

Friday, March 9, 2007

Shrimp with Avocado Salsa

It was early in the day and I knew my parents were headed to BWI that evening to stay in one of the hotels near the airport the night before their early-morning flight to Florida. Knowing there's nowhere decent to eat dinner near BWI, I called them that morning and asked if they wanted to drive 45 minutes out of their way to come have some dinner here at Chez French Laundry at Home before heading to the hotel. It took about 2 minutes of deliberations on their end before they said they'd be here that afternoon. I knew I could easily reconstruct a semblance of the Parm-Reg Custard dish as a first course, then serve the Shrimp with Avocado Salsa, followed by the Carnaroli Risotto (stay tuned for that post!). Three small courses would be perfect before having to head to the hotel for a good night's sleep before boarding the plane at the butt-crack of dawn.

You've already read about the Parm-Reg custards, so let's talk about the Shrimp with Avocado Salsa, shall we?

The first thing I did was prepare the court bouillon in which to cook the shrimp. Court bouillon (a quick stock) is an acidic poaching liquid flavored with vegetables and herbs. It's designed to quickly poach fish and shellfish. Here's the mise en place:

I had to make a bouquet garni for this, which consisted of thyme, parsley and bay leaves tied up in the outer leaves of a leek:

I am a big dork because I love making bouquet garni. It's soooo pretty and green and smells so nice. And I love to speak French (even though I am far from fluent), so I enjoyed being able to say the words "bouquet garni" when I was describing this dish to a friend over the phone while I was doing the prep work. I also began describing all the other ingredients with a half-French/half-English translation, which was really hilarious in that inside-baseball kind of way, but you had to be there, especially when I called shrimp "cravats" (neckties) instead of "crevettes." I"m sure you're doubled over with laughter just reading about it. (cue eye rolling) Dude, I"ll have you know Lorne Michaels is like totally knocking down my door to get me to audition for SNL, but I'm all "Lorne, I am far too funny for your darling little sketch program, please stop bothering me. Gah."

Anyway.... to start the bouillon, I mixed the liquid, vegetables and bouquet garni together in a medium-size stock pot:

After it came to a boil, I reduced it to a simmer, then added the wine, lemon and vinegar:

When the bouillon came back up to a simmer, I added the shrimp (the one laying on top looks like he could be called Nigel, doesn't he?):

The shrimp simmered in the bouillon for only a minute, then I removed them from the pot, put them in a bowl, and covered them with about half of the bouillon:

The shrimp cooled in the liquid and after about 20 minutes of sitting on the counter, I put the whole bowl in the fridge to chill further until I was ready to serve it. You know, this whole court bouillon process required a decent amount of work (and ingredients) and I'm not entirely convinced it made a bit of difference in how the shrimp tasted when they were finished cooking. Actually, I've had shrimp taste better using different (and much easier poaching liquids). It did make my fridge smell really good, though. But again, I'm not convinced it was worth it, or that I'd do it that way again.

Next up was the Avocado Salsa. Here's the mise en place:

This was incredibly easy and I can think of about ten different things I'd serve this with. Or, I could just make it, put it in a bowl and eat it with a spoon -- it's that good. I just mixed the cucumber, onion and olive oil, then tossed in the avocado and stirred gently, then seasoned it with a little salt and pepper.

The plating of this canapé was so simple. First, you start with some forks:

Then, you peel the shrimp and place one on the tip of each fork, with a spoonful of the Avocado Salsa just behind it:

These were pretty good, but not something I'd go through the trouble with the court bouillon to make again. In fact, I was so annoyed with it by the time I was done, I skipped making the tomato diamonds as an additional garnish for the salsa. I just couldn't be bothered. I might look for another way to do the shrimp, but the Avocado Salsa I would make time and time again. It's light and delicious and the red onion wasn't overpowering at all. All the ingredients worked well together. Mom, Dad, and I enjoyed it, and we had a few extra servings so I called the neighbors to come over for a taste, which they were more than happy to do. I think the shrimp needed a tad more seasoning, but it wasn't terrible. It just wasn't a homerun in terms of preferences when thinking about all the other canapés I've made thus far from the French Laundry Cookbook.

Up Next: Carnaroli Risotto with Shaved White Truffles from Alba

Brands Used:
All-Clad Coppercore cookware
Seafood and produce from Whole Foods
White serving platter from SurLaTable
Forks from my maternal grandparents, Gordon and Lena Seitz

Music to Cook By: Yaz, Upstairs at Eric's
(and the song "Goodbye, Seventies" was in my head for hours afterward. Damn you, Alison Moyet. Damn. You.)

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Parmigiano-Reggiano Custards with Romaine Lettuce, Anchovy Dressing, and Parmesan Crisps


That's my one-word review of this cheese course. It was, um... meh.

Don't get me wrong -- they were good; they just weren't great. I don't think I'd make them again.

The Parmigiano-Reggiano Custards with Romaine Lettuce, Anchovy Dressing, and Parmesan Crisps is the cheese course the French Laundry serves as its "Caesar Salad." I get where Keller was going with this dish. All the traditional caesar salad elements are there; all the flavors are there; I think I actually just prefer a regular ole caesar salad to this.

Let's dig in.

The first thing I did was make the anchovy dressing. Here's the mise en place:

I pureed the shallots, garlic, vinegar,mustard, lemon juice and anchovies in the blender. Then, I transfered this mixture to my mixer and with the paddle attachment mixed in the egg yolk. Next, I slowly drizzled in the two oils:

When it was finished, it was a lighter color and smelled heavenly:

I don't always put anchovies in my caesar dressing because sometimes I just want to make it spur of the moment and not have to debone the filets or soak them in milk for a half-hour. But after tasting this dressing, I'll take the time and make the effort. It really is worth it. And, this recipe makes way more than needed for this particular dish, so I'm quite pleased that I'll be able to eat caesar salads all weekend to use up some more of the dressing.

Next up were the parm-reg custards. These were the weakest part of the dish. Granted, some of the flaws in the final product may be attributed to user error, but I also will confess that I had a slight texture issue with these. I love puddings and custards and these were the right texture for a custard, but it was an odd texture along with everything it was served with. It was the kind of texture that would make my friend Marisa's shoulder blades twitch. Know what I mean? Anyway, here's the mise en place:

I put the milk, cream and cheese chunks into a saucepan and brought them up to a simmer. I then turned off the heat, covered the pan and let it sit for 45 minutes to let the flavors infuse.

I'm a BIG FAN of parmigiano-reggiano, so it was all I could do to stay out of the kitchen and not stick my face in the pan and smell it every twenty seconds.

At the end of the 45-minute infusing period, I whisked the eggs and the egg yolk in a bowl, and reheated the parm-reg cream mixture for a minute or two. I slowly poured the cream mixture through a fine mesh strainer into the bowl with the eggs, whisking the whole time. I needed a third arm for this step, but I made it work without any spillage. Bravo, me. I seasoned this new mixture with a little bit of salt and white pepper. Next, I ladled about two tablespoons into each of the mini baking molds:

Note how they're fluted and scallopy. Don't use these if you're going to try this recipe at home. The custards are a pain in the ass to get out of the molds once they've hardened. I wish I had gone out and gotten different molds, but I already had these, so I used them. The custards weren't pretty since I had to dig them out and try and reform them for the plating of this dish. Stupid fluted baking molds.

I put the finished custards in a water bath in that roasting pan and put them in a 250 oven for 45 minutes. The book said to bake them for 30 minutes, but they were still really runny, so I ended up leaving them in there (checking on them every few minutes) for 45 minutes. Once they were done, I removed them from the water bath and put them in the fridge to cool.

Next up -- Parmesan crisps. I love these things. I should've made extras just to much on the rest of the weekend. That was dumb; oh well, next time. Here's how you make them: fresh-grated parmesan cheese in small circles on the Silpat on a baking sheet, then placed in a 325 oven for 6-8 minutes:

The last thing I did right before assembling the dish was to do a chiffonade of romaine hearts, toss them with a tiny bit of the caesar dressing, some white pepper, and some fresh-grated parmesan cheese.

Time for assembly:

1) spoonful of caesar dressing
2) baguette crouton
3) parm-reg custard
4) parmesan crisp
5) romaine
6) two large dots of balsamic glaze on the side

In closing, they didn't suck. They just weren't something that makes you say "wow" or "oh my god" or close your eyes and close out all other senses so that you can just focus on the smell and the taste. Like I said in the beginning of this post: Meh.

Up Next: Shrimp with Avocado Salsa.

Brands Used:
All-Clad cookware
Antica Italia olive oil
All produce, bread and dairy products from Whole Foods
Bellino anchovies

Music to Cook By: Scissor Sisters, Scissor Sisters (because I am seeing them in concert on Sunday night!)

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Pecorino Toscano with Roasted Sweet Peppers and Arugula Coulis

I don't know about you, but every day at around 3 o'clock in the afternoon, I hit a slump. I can't focus on work. I don't feel like talking on the phone. I'm not even interested in reading gossip web sites. Because I own my own business and I work from home, thankfully I can just quit work early when this slump hits... and I often do. Most days I work from 8:30 a.m. - noon, take an hour break, and then work for another hour or two. Around 3 o'clock, I pack it in and go do something I enjoy. Sometimes, it's the gym. Other days, it's joining a friend for coffee or poking around the bookstore. Today, I decided to make Pecorino Toscano with Roasted Sweet Peppers and Arugula Coulis as a little cheese course for my friends before we all went our separate ways for dinner. One friend was off to the DC United game while another was balancing her kids' dinner schedules around their various sporting activities. Me? I was balancing my hectic schedule of what to make for dinner vs. watching last night's episode of America's Next Top Model or the Real Housewives of Orange County on TiVo. Don't you wish you had my life? You know you do.

But enough about my shallow TV-watching peccadilloes. Let's talk about a different kind of cheese. The kind you eat.

Here's the mise en place for the Pecorino Toscano with Roasted Sweet Peppers and Arugula Coulis:

If you've been paying attention, you'll see two ingredients that were preapred for previous dishes. I'm not gonna go all Highlights magazine on you and make you circle which ones they are, but if you've been following along closely and hanging on my every word (which you'd better), you'll recognize the roasted sweet peppers (they're julienned in this photo) from the Blini canapé, as well as the Balsamic Glaze, which first appeared in the Gazpacho.

My neighbor, Holly, loves the balsamic glaze so much that I'm thinking about changing the locks to my front door so that she can't sneak in and steal it when I go to the gym tomorrow. Just kidding, Holly. Don't hit me. Seriously. That would not be cool, because you could totally kick my ass.

Now that you've seen the ingredients (and learned that I have a neighbor who could beat me down if she were so inclined), let's talk about the process of making this dish. The first thing I did was boil the arugula for about 5 minutes until the stems were tender:

Then, after straining out as much of the water as humanly possible, I put it in the blender to make a purée. After it was completely puréed, I slathered it on my tamis for about 5 minutes to let more of the liquid drain out of it:

After it drained a bit, I then pressed it through the tamis to strain it further, then returned it to a clean blender along with some olive oil to complete the coulis:

Next, I tossed the julienned roasted peppers with some balsamic vinegar, minced chives, olive oil, and a pinch or two of kosher salt:

You know, I've always been a girl who loves her olive oil, but with this cookbook, I'm gaining a whole new appreciation for vinegars as well. But I digress... After I let the peppers rest for awhile in their new vinegary home, it was time to start plating. I'd already made the baguette croutons the night before, which was so easy -- just thinly slice a baguette, line up the slices on a baking sheet, brush them with olive oil, sprinkle some kosher salt, and roast them in the oven for about 10 minutes or until they turn a light golden brown.

To start plating this cheese course, I first did a small circle of balsamic glaze on the plate. Inside the circle, I placed a spoonful of the arugula coulis. On top of that went the peppers. On top of the peppers went the crouton, and on top of the crouton went shaved slices of pecorino toscano cheese. And, on top of all that goodness went a little bundle of baby arugula that had been tossed with a smidge of olive oil. Here's what the final dish looked like:

And, I can't let another line of type go by without giving a shout-out to my eight-year-old neighbor, "C," who acted as my chef de garde manger today -- helping plate the final dish, and bringing the dishes to the table so that when my friends came in to sample it, everything looked gorgeous on the table. Here he is with his proud creation:

I gotta say, one of the highlights of doing this French Laundry at Home project has not only been pushing my own cooking boundaries, it's been about spending time with my friends over some good food. We get together quite a bit as it is (especially for Friday cocktails), but it's nice to have a reason to get together, even if it's only for 15 minutes on a Tuesday, to sample some food and have a laugh. And, it's been really cool watching my friends' children eat all these dishes, ask questions about the ingredients, and actually want to help with the preparation. Granted, these are kids who, like me, live in a community where ethnic food is a given, so it's not like this is the most exotic thing they've ever eaten. But, to hear that an 8-year old rolled his eyes back in his head after sipping the Cream of Walnut Soup, or to watch two 10-year olds get excited about decorating a plate with chive oil and balsamic glaze gives me hope that not everyone in America eats every meal from a drive-thru or cobbled together from cans and boxes and thrown into a microwave or a crockpot. It's also nice to know kids who will try at least one bite of almost anything, and who can sit at a table and hold a conversation about their day. Obviously, they have parents who "get it" and who value this kind of behavior/interaction. I feel lucky that most of my friends' children are this way -- and it gives me hope that America isn't going to turn out like Mike Judge depicts in Idiocracy. At least I hope not.

One last thing before I go, and it's sort of related to what I just wrote about in the previous paragraph. A friend of mine who writes a blog about the public relations profession recently wrote a column on "media snacking" and how it's becoming second nature to get information in quick snippets in electronic format. As he was drafting the piece, we talked about how people think we're strange because we still read the print versions of newspapers and magazines. We still read books in paper form. We enjoy a nice meal and spending time face-to-face with people. We like the tangible, the tactile, and the talk that often follows. And if it takes time, that's fine, too.

We spoke about how much has changed in this electronic age we're now in, and how even though some of the advances in technology and communication are important, we're not happy with the sacrifice in quality of communication that seems to be taking place, and not just among the young. We talked about how sad it is to hear adults measuring their self-worth in terms of how many MySpace friends requests they get. And, because my friend knows how much I like to talk about food, we likened the trend of media snacking to real-life snacking. We talked about how the more people spend time mindlessly snacking in real life, the more obese they get because when you snack on food, you gain weight because you're not focused on what you're doing and you're absentmindedly putting food in your mouth, but to what end? Most experts say that the real hunger a person is trying to satiate with snacking is often an emotional hunger -- hunger for connection, for family, for friendship, or for richer, deeper experiences in life.

But what are we trying to satiate through an over-reliance on media snacking? Is it the need to feel smarter, faster? To accumulate as much information as possible as quickly as possible? Like someone who is satisfying an emotional need by snacking on food, are we absentmindedly shoveling in information without really appreciating it, enjoying it, or even remembering it?

The one conclusion we came to is that snacking on food makes you obese. But snacking on information is starving us intellectually and interpersonally. And, that both are bad for you in the long run. Are they one and the same? Probably. But maybe not. You tell me.

So why am I going off on what might seem to be an unrelated tangent? It all goes back to the reason I started this French Laundry at Home project. Much like my distaste for a rampant increase in IMs and text-messaging taking the place of in-person and telephonic conversation, I got fed up on the food front hearing about diets and shortcuts and quick fixes and things that are semi-homemade. I got tired of people (myself included) snarking and bitching, but not really doing anything to move the needle, as they say. In doing The French Laundry At Home, I hope I can show people that, despite what the Food Network and others want you to believe, food is not the bad guy.

Just like I don't want to catch up with friends only via IM or email, I also don't want to buy into the concept that I need to be in a huge rush to get in and out of my kitchen as fast as possible, sacrificing the quality of what I make and how I make it in the process.

And, just like I enjoy spending time with the people in my life, I want others to see that spending time with food -- taking the time to touch, see, smell and taste -- can be rewarding in a similar manner. Much like we stumble day-to-day through our various interpersonal relationships in life, I'm living proof that cooking quality food can be done by someone with absolutely no culinary training, and who instead stumbles day-to-day through her kitchen with a simple desire to show that food doesn't have to be the bad guy and is something that should be honored in a thoughtful, tangible way because it nourishes our bodies much like interpersonal relationships nourish our soul.

In choosing the French Laundry Cookbook, I wanted to not only push myself, but I also hope that someone out there might give one of these recipes a try and see that maybe, just maybe, they might end up liking homemade gnocchi. Or sweetbreads. Or balsamic glaze, if they can wrestle it out of my neighbor's grip.

Okay, I'm stepping down from my soapbox now...

Up Next: Parmigiano-Reggiano Custards with Romaine Lettuce, Anchovy Dressing, and Parmesan Crisps.

Brands Used:
All-Clad cookware
Antica Italia olive oil and balsamic vinegar
All produce and dairy products from Whole Foods

Music to Cook By: Love and Rockets; Earth, Sun, Moon; and The Ramones, End of the Century.