Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Share My Strength: Spread the Word

I know it's the end of the month, and for many of you it's bill-paying time. I hope you're being careful with your holiday budgets so as not to take out a second mortgage to pay for the new Wii for your kids (or, um, yourself). However, if you have a few bucks left over, please consider donating to Share Our Strength. There are thousands of charities out there that do really great work, so if you already have a cause you support, thank you. If you're looking to give a little something extra this holiday season, I hope you'll consider SOS.

More than 34 million Americans (just over 10% of our population) go to bed every night not knowing where their next meal is coming from. This is what is known as being "food insecure." Of those 34 million, 12 million are kids. And, it's not who you might think -- many food insecure families are those in which a parent was recently laid off, is sick, or passed away, and because they were already living paycheck to paycheck, they have to scramble to figure out how to afford the basics like the monthly electric bill and food. They're people who "didn't think it could happen to me." But it does. And, let's face it -- no matter what a parent's socioeconomic circumstances, the fact that any child goes to bed in America not knowing if he or she will be able to EAT the next day is wrong. It's just wrong.

There are plenty of food-related charities out there, and I'm sure many of you already donate to the ones in your local area. Good for you, and thank you for supporting them. The reason I like Share Our Strength is because in addition to the work they do supporting local nonprofits across the country, they have a national focus on addressing the root causes of poverty and hunger. I've been in Washington for 21 years, and have spent many of those years doing consulting work in the national non-profit arena. I've been following Share Our Strength's work on this issue for many years, and I think they're incredible. They're a rock-solid organization with strategic goals, a strong infrastructure, an important mission, and above all, a good heart.

If you can, please send a little money their way. I will match 10% of the total donations received by December 31.

Here's what to do:
Click here to donate online (and list French Laundry at Home as the "honoree").

Or, you can mail a check to (write "French Laundry at Home" in the memo section):
Share Our Strength
ATTN: Amy Zganjar
1730 M Street NW, Suite 700
Washington, DC 20036

Thank you in advance for any amount you're able to give. Please feel free to email this post to your friends, family, co-workers and others, or post it on your favorite food forums or blogs to help spread the word. Again, I'll match 10% of total donations made by the end of the year. Let's see how fast you cats can clean out my wallet.

Note: I'd like to be able to publicly thank everyone who made a donation, but I also understand if you'd like to keep it quiet. So, let's make this an opt-in: if you've made a donation and want to be included in my public thank-you list, shoot me an email to tell me under what name you made the donation and how you'd like me to list your name or organization publicly. I won't list dollar amounts, unless there is a significant gift that I believe deserves some special recognition and the donor agrees.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

"Chips and Dip": Potato Chips with Truffle Dip

I've had a hard time getting started on writing this entry because I had a rather unpleasant experience with Dean & Deluca regarding the black truffles for this dish. I debated whether or not to even bring it up here on the blog, but decided to do so.

I have always been forthcoming about not just my cooking, but also my shopping experiences as part of this project. Up until this most recent experience, things in the shopping department have gone rather smoothly. I'm really lucky to have access to some amazing vendors, and I've only been disappointed in the quality of my ingredients twice -- and know that it was my haste in making the decisions that caused the quality to suffer.

I've always been open about sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to cooking The French Laundry Cookbook, and now, unfortunately, I have to share the dishonest. I'll be fair; but in being fair, I have to take a swipe at what many consider to be a reputable purveyor of fine foods.

Let me start off by saying that this isn't my first time tasting, smelling, cooking with, or eating black truffles. I know what they're supposed to look like, and I know what they smell like. However, because this was the first time I was buying black truffles on my own, I did a lot of research before making this purchase. It's been a tough season for truffles, and they're more expensive this year than in past years. I was going to order them online from Urbani, and in hindsight, I wish I had.

Instead, to save money on shipping costs, I called all my local purveyors to find out their prices and sources of black truffles and was pleased to learn that the charcuterie department at Dean & Deluca in Georgetown said they carried fresh black winter Périgord truffles. Their prices were comparable to other sources, and by having them available locally I wouldn't have to pay for shipping. I was thrilled.

When I got to the store, I should've trusted my instincts and turned right around and gone home once I saw they stored the truffles on a bed of rice in the charcuterie case. But, I gave them the benefit of the doubt (stupid me) and bought the truffles I needed to make not just this dish, but a few others in The French Laundry Cookbook that called for black truffles. I asked them to wrap the truffles in damp paper towel before putting them in the plastic container for me to take home.

When I got home and did the prep for the dish, I got out my truffle slicer and sliced one truffle. You'll see in the photo further down this post that what they sold me were not fresh black winter Périgord truffles. They're brown on the inside, not black. They didn't look or smell like black truffles I'd worked with before. Instead, they appear as if they were preserved summer truffles (Click here to see what the insides of different truffles look like) or perhaps Oregon black truffles.

I moved ahead with making the dish, but saved the rest of the truffles, didn't use them, and called Dean & Deluca to find out why they sold me something other than what they claimed were fresh black winter Périgord truffles. The charcuterie manager claimed not to speak English and hung up the phone. I called back and spoke to an assistant store manager who claimed that the truffles actually were from Italy, or maybe Oregon (he didn't know for sure), and he didn't know why I was told otherwise. When I asked for a refund, he hemmed and hawed and after I told him I might have to call the Washington Post's food section to get their help in figuring out this "mystery," he finally agreed to give me my money back.

When I shared my experience with one of the company's customer service managers, she told me this was not the first call they'd received about this store with regard to its truffle sales. She said that when you order them from Dean & Deluca online or via their 800#, they are shipped directly from France. At this point, I don't know who to believe, so I probably won't go to them again for something this pricey.

I went back to the store for a refund, and the cashier and floor manager were overly apologetic and refunded my money without question. So, the lesson in all this is buyer beware. I don't plan to buy truffles from them again, and based on this experience, I'll think twice about buying anything other than a cup of coffee or pastry from their café. Honestly, I was thrilled and surprised to be given a refund. I didn't think they'd keep their word.

I'll also confess that during all this back and forth with the store and the company, and even writing about it tonight, I feel a sense of apologetic guilt. Maybe guilt isn't the right word to use, but with other more important things going on in the world today, it feels uncomfortable to bitch and moan about something as extravagant as truffles. Were they expensive? Hell yes. Can I afford them? Yes. But that's not the point. What it comes down to is the fact that I can't stand being lied to, or having someone think they can pull the wool over my eyes on something that is so easily proven or figured out. I think that's what bothered me more than anything -- that they assumed I wouldn't know anything about this product I was dropping a few benjamins on and that they could get away with selling me something inferior for the same price as something far greater.

I was really pissed off about this the day it happened. I fantasized about suing for millions of dollars and retiring to the beach. I dreamed of standing next to the charcuterie counter for weeks on end telling every customer not to buy the black truffles. Today, I feel like the company did what they have the power to do: refund my money. Will they correct their employees' description of the product? Probably not. There's nothing I can do about that. And, I'm not so angry that I'm raging all over the Internet and demanding a boycott of Dean & Deluca. That's stupid. I didn't trust my initial instincts, and I got burned... so I take responsibility for my part in this, as well. From now on, I'll continue to do my research and be aware of what food is supposed to look/smell/taste/feel like... no matter what the price point.

Whew. Now that I've gotten that off my chest, I want to write about this dish. Despite the inferior truffles, it didn't suck and it was really easy to make. Here's the mise en place:

I preheated the oven to 300 degrees and melted the clarified butter. I peeled and sliced the potatoes into thin ovals, and sliced the truffle:

I put a Silpat onto a baking sheet, brushed it with the clarified butter, and sprinkled kosher salt on it. I laid the potato slices on it, careful to keep them in the order they were sliced. In between two potato slices went a truffle slice.

I brushed the top of each potato-truffle chip with clarified butter, then placed a Silpat on top of them, followed by another baking sheet to weigh them down and keep them flat:

The French Laundry Cookbook instructs the user to bake the potato chips for 25-35 minutes in a 300-degree oven. I know my oven temperature is reliable, so I was surprised to see that these suckers needed to be done at a higher temperature for longer. I ended up having them in the oven for almost an hour: half an hour at 300 degrees, then up to 350 for 15 minutes, then 375 to get them to start to get golden brown. Even after all that, you'll see in the final shot that they're not evenly brown. I'm not sure if it's because the potato slices or truffle slices weren't thin enough, or what caused these not to work as I'd hoped. They stayed together (as you'll see in the final plating photo), but they weren't up to my expectations.

While they were baking, I made the crème fraîche truffle dip. I minced the remainder of the truffle I'd sliced for the chips:

In a bowl placed in a larger bowl of ice, I whisked the crème fraîche until it was stiff. I mixed in some of the minced truffle, truffle oil, salt and pepper:

Right before serving, I garnished the top of the dip with the remainder of the minced truffle. Here's the final plating photo:

I don't know if the chips are supposed to get completely crispy; mine didn't. They weren't mushy or droopy, but I don't think they were done correctly. My neighbors came over and we sampled them -- spooning a little bit of dip onto each chip. The kids tried them, but didn't love them. There was no escargot-level gagging, but it wasn't something they were fighting over. The adults enjoyed them and the plate was emptied pretty quickly. None of us were necessarily ooo-ing and aaahhh-ing over them, but they added a little warmth on a cold winter's day.

Would I make them again? Not with the cost of truffles this year. The crème fraîche truffle dip was lovely, and I was thrilled to have some left over so I could toss it with some penne for dinner the next night.

Onward and upward, as they say...

Up Next: Black Sea Bass with Sweet Parsnips, Arrowleaf Spinach, and Saffron-Vanilla Sauce. I was planning to do a whole series of truffle dishes this week, but I'll get to those when I can order real truffles. Stay tuned.


You know where the truffles came from; not gonna beat a dead horse
Vermont Butter & Cheese crème fraîche
Potatoes from Whole Foods
Saveurs truffle oil

Music to Cook By:
Sondre Lerche; Faces Down. A friend of mine had Lerche's music on his iPod because he'd heard a few of his songs in the movie "Dan in Real Life." I've since downloaded a few of his albums and I'm really loving them. Lerche's music is lively and lovely, and while he hails from the same land as one of my favorite bands EVER -- A-ha -- his sound is completely different. I especially like his cover of "Let My Love Open the Door." It's sweet and earnest without being twee.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Chestnut Agnolotti with Fontina and Celery Root Purée

There are four agnolotti recipes in The French Laundry Cookbook, and this is the third one I've made. The sweet potato-bacon agnolotti is still the best one, but this one wasn't bad at all. I've had kind of a crappy week -- especially compared to last week. I came home from Portland last weekend sick with a sinus infection and bronchitis, and also ended up having to have a double-root canal this past Thursday, so I've gotta be on a comfort food/soft food diet for the next few days. I thought I'd tackle the Chestnut Agnolotti because I needed something to cheer me up a bit and knew this would do the trick. I was also getting tired of chicken soup, chicken broth, and other chicken-related liquids. Alright, you didn't come here to hear me whine; you came to be dazzled by my sparkling wit, ravishing beauty and crafty food maneuverings. Let's get it on.

I rarely cook with or eat chestnuts; it's just something I never think to do, so I was pleased to have this opportunity to work with them. It reminded me of the chestnut tree next to the playground of my elementary school. While the chestnuts were still in their prickly pods, we used to pick them up off the ground with our mittened hands and throw them at each other... that is, until Guy Stringfellow (yes, that's his real name) hit Donna Bishop in the face with one, and our fun quickly came to an end. It was almost as traumatic as the time Brad Hagens stomped on a taco sauce packet and got it all over Stephanie Rodgers' dress. This is what passes for big drama when you grow up in a town of 800 people in rural PA. Drive-bys with hot sauce and chestnut pods. Good times.

The market was out of fresh chestnuts, so I went to Rodman's and bought some jarred fresh chestnuts instead. They had been steamed, then vacuum-packed, so I didn't roast them prior to using them. They were already pretty soft. I cooked them in some water, vegetable stock and a bay leaf for about 10 minutes over medium heat. I puréed the chestnuts in the food processor and slowly added in some of the reserve liquid, forming a thick purée.

I pushed the purée through a tamis into a small saucepan and over very low heat added mascarpone, butter, and a little white truffle oil. I also threw in a little salt and pepper to enhance the flavor.

I covered the bowl of agnolotti filling and chilled it in the refrigerator.

I already had pasta dough from a previous agnolotti dish, which I'd frozen then thawed in the fridge before preparing for this dish. I rolled out the dough, filled the agnolotti (they still looked like lopsided ravioli despite my best efforts, and put them on a baking sheet in the freezer to stiffen a bit while I made the sauce. I didn't photograph this step, but you can see it in a previous agnolotti post.

I cooked some sliced onions and chopped garlic in a little bit of butter, then added the rough-chopped celery root, Yukon Gold potatoes, and enough vegetable stock to cover the whole she-bang. I simmered until the vegetables were tender, then drained them, reserving the liquid. I love the way raw celery root smells, but I love even more how its smell changes as it cooks. It goes from fresh and crisp to almost-floral and finishes sweet.

I scraped the vegetables through a tamis to make a purée and then put the purée into a medium saucepan. I added some cream and brought the mixture up to a simmer for about 10-12 minutes. I then whisked in the Fontina cheese and cooked in until it was melted. I passed the sauce through a strainer into a sauté pan, leaving a smooth, silky, creamy, delicious sauce which I kept warm over a low heat.

I already had a pot of salted water boiling, so I added the agnolotti to the water and cooked them for about 3-4 minutes. While they were cooking, I stirred some butter and a dash of white truffle oil into the sauce. I strained the agnolotti and put them in the sauce and tossed them around a bit until they were covered with sauce. Here's a shot of the final product:

Huh. I'm not sure that photo is all that appetizing, but this dish sure was. It was creamy and delicious, and really lovely. Sweet and salt played nicely together and the texture of it was just perfect. I took some around the neighborhood for folks to sample (we had a few parties people were setting up for, so I brought the food to them), and they loved it. It was a little rich, so I could only eat three or four of them. Still not as good as the sweet potato agnolotti, but it was very good... and really easy to do. It reminded me how much I miss eating chestnuts. I think the last time I had roasted chestnuts was in New York when I was enroute to the airport seven or eight years ago and made the cab driver stop so I could get a bag of roasted chestnuts to eat on the plane on the way home. I remember how it made the cab smell, and the security guys at the airport were totally drooling, too. This dish also made me wonder if that chestnut tree is still in the playground at my old elementary school. I bet not. But if it is, I think I need to go pick up some chestnuts when I go home for Thanksgiving and wing them at my brother... just for old times' sake.

Up Next: "Chips and Dip" -- Potato Chips with Truffle Dip


Chestnuts from Rodman's
Herbs, produce and Fontina cheese from Whole Foods
Crave Brothers mascarpone
365 organic butter
Saveurs white truffle oil

Music to Cook By: Sigue Sigue Sputnik; Flaunt It. This album came out my senior year of high school, and I listened to it through my freshman year of college. I found an old box of CDs in my attic the other day and I found this one, so I immediately loaded it onto iTunes. I think this was one of the very first CDs I ever bought -- back when CD players were $500 and CDs were $21.99 and came in those tall cardboard packages so that they could be displayed in the record store more efficiently. The beginning of "Atari Baby" cracks me up because there's all sorts of random German being thrown around, which I totally forgot about, so I listened to this while I made the agnolotti. Seemed fitting somehow, although I'm nöt qüite süre why.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Sally Schmitt's Cranberry and Apple Küchen with Hot Cream Sauce

Before all you language experts and fluent German speakers email me to correct my umlaut usage, let me just say, “I KNOW.” I know there’s no umlaut over the “u” in “kuchen” – it’s just that I have a thing for umlauts in general (they crack me up; no clue why), so don’t be surprised when you see my nonsensical use of umlauts in this post. Hey, if Mötley Crüe, Motörhead and even The Onion can do it, so can I.

I’m not sure when the seeds were planted for my obsession with jokingly Germanicizing (Germanifying?) the English language. Was it from watching Hogan’s Heroes as a child? Growing up in Pennsylvania Dutch country? Listening to the Crüe as a teenager? I’m not sure. All I know is that at some point in college, my friend, Marisa, revealed that she, too, was a fan of speaking with a faux German accent. That was 20 years ago, and it continues today (we also still remember every tap dance step we did when we starred in our college production of “Anything Goes,” but that’s a story for another time, or maybe never). I know that somewhere along the line, we also became obsessed with Hans Zimmer, and every time a movie ended and we did not see his name in the credits, we would say in our fake German accents, “Yah, Hans Zimmer did not do zah muzik for zis movie.” We also add “hoffen” and “schlugen” throughout our sentences (especially when we’ve been drinking), because for some reason we STILL find it hilarious.

When I noted in a previous post that I'd be making this dish in Portland for Marisa and her family, she posted a comment asking if I needed any special equipment to make this dish, and our email exchange was this:

From: Carol
Sent: Monday, November 05, 2007 10:58 AM
To: Marisa
Subject: Kuchen

Yah Hans, zee only gatchit I vill need for mein kuchen is das 9"
rounden cake panen.

From: Marisa
Subject: Reply RE: Kuchen
Date: November 5, 2007 2:44:44 PM EST
To: Carol

Zas ees donen. Ve haf dat panen fur das kuchen shlughen.

I imagine when we’re in adjoining suites in the nursing home, the nurses will wonder who these crazy fake German ladies are. It’s just our thing. Don’t be a hätër. If I could find a way to add umlauts over consonants, I would. I’m that annöying. Some people prefer more cowbell; I say bring on the umlauts.

So, how apropos for one of the dishes in The French Laundry Cookbook to be a kuchen (German for "cake"), and that I knew I’d be visiting Marisa in Portland the weekend I wanted to make this dish. It’s not something that is served at The French Laundry, but in fact was created by The French Laundry’s previous owners, Don and Sally Schmitt, who are now transforming the Anderson Valley in Northern California.

The weather in Portland was cold and overcast, so it was the perfect time to make this dessert. It is perfect to make during that transition from fall to winter. And, when you have produce availability like Portlanders do, I can envision so many different varieties of this kuchen.

The first thing I did was to make the batter. I creamed the sugar, butter and eggs in a bowl, and in a separate bowl mixed together the flour, baking soda, freshly ground nutmeg, and salt.

I added the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients a little bit at a time, and also mixed in some light cream in between dry ingredient additions. I then put the batter in a buttered 9” cake pan:

Next, I peeled these gorgeous Golden Delicious apples:

After peeling them, I cored them and cut them into quarter-inch wedges. I put them core side down into the batter and attempted to make a ring, but instead took a slightly different approach, as you will see below. I rinsed the cranberries under cold water:

I added the cranberries to the center of the kuchen where there were no apples, and also sprinkled some around the outside along the ring of apples. I then sprinkled on some sugar and cinnamon:

This lovely little cake pan of goodness went into a 350-degree oven for 45 minutes. Here’s what it looked like as it was cooling on the countertop:

The kids came home from school, Marisa and her husband, Rön, came home from work, and I was so happy to have contributed to the family meal that night. We ate the most delicious Thai food for dinner and when we were done, Marisa’s daughter, “A,” and I started preparing the höt crëam säuce to pour over each serving of kuchen.

We put some sugar, heavy cream and room-temperature butter into a small saucepan and heated it over low heat until the butter had melted. Then, we cranked up the heat a bit to bring it to a boil. After it had come to a boil, we brought it down to a simmer for about 8 minutes, until it had thickened:

“A” was such a great helper in making the sauce. She poured in the cream, measured and dumped in the sugar, and let me know when the butter had melted. She kept an eye on the flame to let me know when she thought it might be too high because we didn’t want to burn the sauce. Even though she’s only five years old, she loves to help in the kitchen, and asked really good questions throughout the whole process. So thanks, “A” for your help. You’re going to be quite the cook someday, I can tell.

We sliced the kuchen and poured a bit of the hot cream sauce over the top and down the sides. Honestly, I would have been really happy to take a bäth in this stüff.

Wanna see the final product? Of course you do:

This dish was so easy to make, and really quite delicious. I love cranberries and I’m delighted that they’re in season right now. The apples were soft, but not mushy, and the cranberries were tart, but also finished sweet at the end of each bite. The cake part of the kuchen was spongy and delicious, and the addition of the hot cream sauce really tied everything together nicely.

If you have The French Laundry Cookbook and want to make something from it for your family’s Thanksgiving dinner, I highly suggest making this for dessert. It’s gorgeous, smells wonderful, and is something you’ll add to your repertoire and make for years to come. This is a dessert that makes people happy and makes time in the kitchen more fun than usual, as is seen in this photo of “A” cracking up when she noticed what word is spelled by using the first four letters of the word “butter”:

Portland is a very cool city, and thanks to all you Portlanders who emailed to tell me your favorite places to eat and shop. Our schedule was a little bit hectic, but we did get to Voodoo Doughnuts (maple-bacon doughnuts, yummmm) as well as Caprial’s Bistro. I also got to spend time in my favorite grocery store, New Seasons. I know; I’m such a nerd – who goes on vacation and admits to having a favorite grocery store in a city? I had to go there to buy my supply of Stumptown Coffee beans – my favorite is “Hair Bender.” I like me some rocket fuel coffee in the mornz.

Speaking of coffee, I had the great fortune to meet and spend some time with Michael Ruhlman over a cup of coffee while I was in Portland. He was promoting his new book, The Elements of Cooking, at Portland’s Wordstock Festival. I’ve been a big fan of his writing for many, many years, and it was a great honor and joy to finally meet him. If you haven’t read any of his books yet, I strongly urge you to do so. He’s a remarkable storyteller and a gifted writer who covers somewhat technical topics in the most approachable way I’ve ever read. And, for those of you who regularly read the posts and comments on Ruhlman’s blog, I can report that in Portland, his hair was indeed quite awesome.

Before I go, one last thing: if you were on Southwest flight #3882 on Sunday night, I apologize if my chair-dancing to Timbaland’s “The Way I Are” and Justin’s “LoveStoned (I Think She Knows)” was distracting in any way. I was too busy writing this entry to realize I was popping and locking all over the damn place until the guy on the aisle laughed as he asked me what I was listening to. He’s just lucky I didn’t start beatboxing, because that would have been awesome. And by awesome, I mean completely humiliating.

Up Next: Chestnut Agnolotti with Fontina and Celery Root Purée

Apples, cranberries, nutmeg, eggs and cream from New Seasons
Flour, sugar, salt, cinnamon and baking soda from Marisa’s pantry

Music to Cook By:
Because I had the house to myself, I had the TV on in the background tuned to General Hospital while I was cooking, and can I just say that I even though I haven’t watched this show in years, I’m not at all surprised to find that the Quartermaines are still as zany as they’ve ever been. We listened to quite a bit of music while I was in Portland, but the one song that is stuck in my head is perhaps one of the most annoying ones, ever. Remember this jingle from the 70s? “You can roll a Rolo to your pal; it’s chocolate-covered caramel. You can roll a Rolo to your chum; it’s chocolate and it’s chewy and it’s lots of fun. You can roll a Rolo to your friend; it’s chocolate-covered caramel from end to end!” Marisa started singing it in the car FOR NO REASON OTHER THAN TO SONG-POISON ME, and I STILL can't get it out of my head. Thänks ä löt, yöü bïçh. Mwah!!!!! I mean Mwäh!!!!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Fricassée of Escargot with a Purée of Sweet Carrots, Roasted Shallots, and Herb Salad

I’m writing this post during my flight to Portland, OR, and based on my scientific research over the past few hours, I would like to state for the record that Southwest is the fartiest airline. Man, people, what the hellz? I’m dying up here. It’s awfully hard to write about food when I’m suffocating from other people’s gastric distress (I’m looking at you, stripey shirt guy in 7C). But let’s change the subject, because bleeaaaerrghhh.

This flight excluded, this week has most certainly been a great week of feeding my two great loves – food and music. Monday night, I went to see The Police (for the second time this year), and Wednesday night, I met Tony Bourdain and heard him speak at an event. And, I’ll wrap up this week of cul-cha with a Saturday meet and greet with Michael Ruhlman. Am I a lucky girl, or what?

The Police were fantastic, despite the fact that some of their tunes have been reworked to be a little more 4-4 instead of the old school change-up beats we’ve come to expect. I blame Sting. Certainly my boyfriend Stewart Copeland would NOT elect to change the rhythms in such a way. No sir, no how.

Bourdain was a riot and had the crowd in stitches from the second he opened his mouth. F-bomb count: 58. He’s quit smoking, by the way, so bravo Tony. He couldn’t have been nicer about this blog, and for that I am grateful. He’s good people. He's touring to promote his new book, so if he's coming to your town, try to go see him.

One of the things Bourdain talked about was the origin of some of the food we now consider to be gourmet or at least indulgent – one example being escargot. Like Tony said, who was the first, obviously very hungry person who saw a snail chugging along and thought, “Perhaps I should pull that out of its shell and eat it.” Whoever it was, thank you.

I love snails. I remember eating them for the first time in France in 1984 when I was there for a musical exchange trip (shut UP). My dining companions looked at me like I was high when I ordered escargot. I’d already had a glass or two of wine by then, so it’s pretty clear the liquid courage played a key role in influencing my then-15-year old palate. The snails arrived and I remember thinking, “what have I done?” Not wanting to be embarrassed in front of my new friends, I ate them. It was so simple: garlic, butter, parsley and snails. For all the texture issues I had (and continue to have) with oysters and other chewy things, I was surprised at how good these were. I didn’t share them then… not that anyone asked, but I was happy to have them to myself. They were absolutely delicious then, and even better today with Keller’s preparation (which I was very happy to share with my friends). So, here goes...

The first thing I did was soak 2 marrow bones in a bowl of ice water to remove the marrow. Once the marrow slid out, I soaked it in a bowl of ice water in the refrigerator overnight:

The day before serving, I also got the snails ready. The French Laundry Cookbook offers two ways to do this: one using fresh snails and one using canned snails. I called all over the place and no one had fresh snails, so I had to use canned snails. I took them out of the can, rinsed them under cold water, then melted some butter in a small skillet. I added some minced shallots to the melted butter and let them cook for about 2 - 3 minutes. I added the snails and heated them on a low-heat burner for a minute or two:

I put this mixture into a plastic container and stored it in the fridge overnight. Before I went to bed that night, I also made the carrot purée. I thought about blowing off this step, because it seemed superfluous and unnecessary. Here's a spoiler: I was wrong. I made the carrot purée by putting the carrots in a saucepan:

I covered them with cream:

I brought the cream up to a simmer, and continued to simmer them over low-medium heat for about 45 minutes. Once the carrots were tender, I strained them, pressing gently on them while they were in the sieve to try and remove as much cream as possible. I then pressed the cooked carrots through a tamis to finish the purée:

I put the carrot purée (which smelled so clean and fresh, I wanted to eat it right then and there) in the refrigerator and went to bed. The next day, I finished the rest of the prep for the dish. I roasted some shallots with some salt and canola oil in a 350-degree oven for about an hour. I peeled the skins off the shallots and cut them into smaller pieces to use in the final plating later:

The last thing I needed to do was make the red wine sauce. I heated a small bit of canola oil in a saucepan over medium heat. I added some chopped carrots and turnips and sautéed them for about 3 minutes. I added a smashed garlic clove, then deglazed the pan with a cup of red wine and a little bit of port.

I simmered this mixture until it had evaporated and the pan was mostly dry. In a separate pan, I placed the marrow (which I'd drained and chopped into a small dice) and some minced shallots and heated it over low heat for about two minutes.

I then added a tablespoon of flour and stirred it into the marrow and shallots, and cooked it for another minute or two.

In a separate small saucepan, I heated 1.5C of veal stock and a half-cup of water until it was hot (but not simmering or boiling). I added the stock and water to the carrots and turnips, and then whisked all of that into the saucepan containing the marrow and shallots. I then added chervil, parsley, tarragon and a bay leaf and let it simmer for about 10-15 minutes:

I strained the sauce into a smaller saucepan and set it aside while I got the snails ready for their final preparation before plating. To do that, I put minced shallots, tomato diamonds, brunoise, butter and water into an overproof saucepan, and added the snail mixture I'd made the night before, as well as the roasted shallots. I put the pan into a 350-degree oven for 5 minutes, until everything was heated through.

I simultaneously made some brioche croutons (with a loaf of brioche I'd bought at the local food co-op), and reheated the carrot purée.

To plate, I put a few spoons full of red wine sauce into each dish, followed by six snails (and the vegetables that were heating with them), then put a small spoonful of carrot purée next to it, and topped it off with a brioche crouton:

This dish was absolutely delicious. The escargots were hearty and earthy and buttery and delicious. I wasn’t so sure how the carrot purée would fit in, but it brightened up the dish and livened up each bite. It was so wonderful to scoop a little bit of the snail mixture onto a corner of the brioche and top it with a little carrot purée, then chomp down and take that corner bite.

The adults absolutely loved this dish. There wasn’t a whole lot of talking going on – we were contentedly savoring every bite. The kids had other opinions, and weren't shy about letting us know how they felt. The girls, “M” and “S,” loved the brioche dipped in the sauce, and after eating a bite of snail, drank about a liter of water for dramatic effect while they hacked and gagged. My ten-year old neighbor kid, Grant (of the famed Grant Tipton Days), took a few bites and remarked, “it’s good but it’s also kind of gross because I have to keep chewing it. May I be excused?”

Maybe when he's 15, in France, drinking with new friends, he'll boldly order snails on a dare and enjoy them with a whole new perspective.

Up Next: Cranberry and Apple Küchen (from French Laundry At Home’s Portland, OR outpost, complete with gratuitous umlauts and Hans Zimmer references!)

Roland canned snails from Rodman’s
Produce from Whole Foods
Herbs from my garden
Brioche from TPSS Co-op
Organic Valley cream
Cloudy Bay cabernet sauvignon
Fonseca Port
Marrow bones from Union Meat Company

Music to Cook By: The Tragically Hip; Fully Completely. I admit it: I’ve been watching The Next Iron Chef on Food Network. One of the chefs, Chris Cosentino (Incanto), was recently eliminated. Chris shares the same last name as a guy in Toronto I used to work with, Mike Cosentino, who introduced me to The Tragically Hip many years ago. So that’s how you get from a competitive reality show about food to a Canadian pop band. I’m not random at all.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Braised Breast of Veal with Yellow Corn Polenta Cakes, Glazed Vegetables, and Sweet Garlic

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There. That should clear the cobwebs. Sorry for the delay in posting. Some technical difficulties combined with a few work-related snafus, and a pinch or two of insomnia contributed to my lack of posting 'round these parts last week. Mucho apologieso, mio friendso (I'm sooo international). I'm happy to be back with this lovely veal dish, and am thrilled to let you know that French Laundry at Home is going on the road! I'm headed out to Portland, OR next weekend and I'll be doing a dish or two while I'm out there. Stay tuned!

But let's talk about today's dish, the braised breast of veal. I looooove me some veal. I love how tender it is, how almost-creamy it is, and I wish I made it more often. It's just so veal-y. I also love polenta. And garlic? Well, garlic and I have been totes in love for ages, so back off all you who claim to love garlic more than I. It's simply not possible. I also love to braise things, so this dish was such a perfect two-day project. Now that the weather has cooled a bit, it really feels like fall is here (about time, damnit), and braised veal on a cool fall weekend is something I highly recommend.

A few days before making this dish, I called Union Meat Company at DC's Eastern Market to order the veal breast, and I think we got our wires crossed. I asked for a five-pound "Bobby" veal breast (from a very young animal; smaller than a traditional veal breast). When I went to pick it up, the guy hauled out this ginormous slab o' meat -- like the size of the Bronto-rack that tipped over Fred Flintstone's car. It was a 15 pounder that he ended up cutting 5 pounds out of for me. Not exactly what I wanted, but I didn't really have a choice at that point.

The day before serving it, I braised the veal. I seasoned the veal breast and seared it on both sides before adding the braising liquid. Once it had seared (about 8-10 minutes total), I removed it from the pot and drained off any excess fat. I then added leeks, carrots, onion, garlic bay leaf and thyme and parsley to the pot and let it caramelize.

I put the meat back into the pot (bone side down), and added chicken stock and veal stock:

I covered this with a parchment lid and brought it up to a simmer on the stovetop. I then put it in a 325-degree oven to cook for the next four hours.

While the veal was braising away (and making my house smell all meaty and delicious), I made the polenta. I brought some chicken stock, water and garlic to a boil in a medium saucepan, and then whisked in the polenta. I let it come up to a simmer and cooked it slowly for about 20 minutes, when the polenta flarped and blorped as it thickened. I removed it from the heat, stirred in some mascarpone, butter and minced chives. I then put the polenta into a 9x13" pan and let it cool to room temperature:

After it had cooled, I covered the surface with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator to await the final preparation the next day. With the polenta done and in the fridge, I did a few things around the house while the meat finished braising. This will sound totally nerdy, but the one thing I really dig about this French Laundry at Home project is learning more about how the smell of food progessively changes as it cooks. We all know that raw food and cooked food usually have two distinct scents, but I love being able to distinguish how the smells evolve as the cooking process unfolds. I love to braise meats, but I never really paid attention before to how, hour to hour, the smells change and get richer and more fragrant, and toward the end, even a little sweeter.

When the veal was done braising, I took the pot out of the oven (keeping the handles covered with pot holders so as to avoid new burn injuries), and removed the veal breast to a cutting board.

I removed the rib bones (they slid out with the greatest of ease) and removed all the nasty connective tissue, cartilage, and extraneous hunks of fat. I seasoned the veal with salt and pepper and folded it in half. I placed it on a baking sheet and covered it with another baking sheet, weighted it down with three giant bottles of Volvic, and put it in the fridge overnight.

I strained the braising liquid twice, let it cool to room temperature, and stored it in the fridge overnight. At this point, it was 2 a.m., so off to bed for me.

The next day, I set about finishing the dish so my friends and I could have it as a late lunch.

I got the strained braising liquid out of the fridge, scraped off the nasty, solidified fat from the top, and plopped it (it was a little gelatinous, which is normal) into my little Le Creuset pot to reduce until it had gotten to about 2C of liquid.

While the liquid was reducing, I peeled 8 cloves of garlic and blanched them a few times in water (instead of milk, as I've done before).

I also prepped the vegetable garnish by creating batons of carrot, turnip and celery root, as well as parisienne balls of beet. The French Laundry Cookbook instructs the user to make fluted ovals of turnip, but my knife skills aren't quite there yet. Parisienne balls I can do, thanks to my new, awesome #12 melon baller sent to me as a gift by someone I greatly, and not-so-secretly admire.

I blanched and ice-bathed the veggies in separate batches, and let them sit around for a few minutes while I got everything else ready:

The final preparation was a mad dash to the finish, and made me yearn for a six-burner cooktop. I cut eight rounds out of the veal and eight rounds out of the polenta using my 2" pastry cutter. I lightly floured the polenta rounds, and brushed some mustard on before lightly panko-ing the veal rounds, and cooked both in separate pans (with a wee bit of canola oil). I also melted some butter and sugar in a small sauté pan and tossed the garlic cloves in there to let them cook for a few minutes. I added some minced shallots, parsley and butter to the sauce (formerly known as the braising liquid reduction). And, I lightly sautéed the vegetables (minus the beet balls - ha! - which I added at the last minute) in canola oil, then added butter and chives before serving:

Despite the fact that what I wrote above makes it sound like "yeah, I whipped up some stuff and got it all done really easily at the end," it was a little wackadoo. So much going on all at the same time -- don't burn this, don't undercook that, did I remember to add butter here, is the heat off there??? Even though the environment I'd created was slightly crazy, I felt in total control and knew I knew what I was doing. Sometimes these dishes have so many elements and so many different preparations going on all at the same time that it can feel overwhelming. I think because my brain operates a certain way, I thrive in these kinds of circumstances. It somewhat mirrors my business life and why I am good at what I do professionally. But, I had no idea it would or could translate like this in the kitchen. One of the sales guys at Sur La Table told me that The French Laundry Cookbook is one of the most-returned cookbooks they sell. He said that people buy it, try one dish, fail, and return it. He smiled and said, "I guess they don't know how to read something before they do it. These dishes are special and need to be given special attention when you make them." He's right, to a certain degree, and this dish is a prime example of that. I'm not a professional cook or culinary expert -- not by any stretch of the imagination. But man, am I one organized chick who also happens to love food. So, this book and this way of cooking appeals to me on levels I never thought about before I started this project, but now that I'm doing it, it's really intuitive. In fact, the more I think about it, I've always cooked this way. I create a timeline and to-do list, I clean as I go, and I like to lay things out in an orderly progression. But enough about me, let's get to the money shot.

Everything was ready to go and just needed to be plated. I started first with a few tablespoons of the sauce, and topped it with a polenta round:

I topped that with a round of veal:

Lastly, I added the vegetables and garlic to the plate:

Can you smell it through the Internet? How I wish you could! This dish was amazing. The weather outside was perfect, the temperature and texture of the dish was so well suited, and the overall feel of all the elements as they came together was outstanding.

I served this around 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and was thrilled to have my neighbor's son show up in his pajamas for the tasting. Granted, our front doors are 40 feet apart, so it's not like he had a long commute, but still. Let me explain. Here in the neighborhood, we have what are known as "Grant Tipton Days." This kind of day is named after my 10-year old neighbor kid, Grant Tipton, who has mastered the art of ultimate relaxation on a Saturday or Sunday by staying in his pajamas for a minimum of 24 hours. Grant and his brother are quite active in sports, school, and music, but every now and then, he just needs a day in pajamas that consists of waking up, eating breakfast, going back to bed for an hour, coming back downstairs to watch TV, eating lunch that someone else makes for you, reading a book, watching TV, taking another nap, eating dinner (bonus points when it's leftovers or takeout), taking a shower, then putting those pajamas back on again for the rest of the evening before bedtime. Grant Tipton Days are even better in the fall and winter when there's enough of a chill in the air that you really don't feel like leaving the house because getting out from under a cozy blanket and changing out of pajamas just seems ludicrous.

So, my advice to you is: if you feel the need to have a Grant Tipton Day, have someone make this veal and polenta dish for you. It's a perfect fit.

Up Next: Fricassée of Escargots with a Purée of Sweet Carrots, Roasted Shallots, and Herb Salad

Special Note: Michael Ruhlman's The Elements of Cooking is now available, and I can't recommend it highly enough. It's really great. And, if you're interested in what Thomas Keller and other leading chefs would have as their last meal, or if you want to see Bourdain in the buff, check out My Last Supper. I know what I'd have as my last meal: a glass of Sancerre, steak with carmelized shallots and lardons, corn on the cob with tarragon butter, Oysters & Pearls (I know!), a few squares of dark chocolate, and a glass of scotch.

Veal breast from Union Meat Company at DC's Eastern Market
Roland mustard
Edward & Sons organic panko
Produce and herbs from Whole Foods
Crave Brothers mascarpone
365 organic butter

Music to Cook By: Mocean Worker; Cinco de Mowo. Mocean Worker ("motion worker") is a one-man electronic DJ type o' dude I first heard on KCRW when I was in LA back in April. And, I've had the worst insomnia over the past few weeks, so I've seen "The Devil Wears Prada" nine bajillion times at 3 a.m., and Mocean Worker's "Tres Tres Chic" is in that movie. I needed to be focused when I made this dish because it involved lots of chopping and prep work, and Mocean Worker fit the bill. I usually don't like techno or anything techno-like, but I do like Mocean Worker. Give it a spin and see what you think.