One of the most frequently asked questions I get about this project is, "What's the most expensive dish you've had to make?"
I hem and I haw because it's hard to know for sure. For some dishes, I already have a lot of the ingredients on hand, for others, I need to buy most of the ingredients from the outset. Some dishes require me to run the dishwasher three times a day, and others require me to power the oven and stove for hours at a time; those are costs that are hard to estimate, but they're costs nonetheless.
I think it's fair to say that anything involving foie gras tends to be on the pricey side, as would anything involving ingredients that need to be shipped overnight, or that I have to drive more than 5 miles through stop-and-go city traffic to pick up.
I am sensitive to the fact that food prices continue to rise, and I do understand what I cook for this blog may seem extravagant to some. However, I need to be honest here and tell you that I really don't spend time thinking a whole lot about what these dishes cost to make, because a) I love doing it, and 2) I don't mind spending money on food.
The way I see it, everybody has different passions and hobbies -- arts and crafts projects, decorating, working on cars, restoring furniture, buying lots of clothes and shoes, collecting novelty items, etc. It just so happens that food is a major hobby and passion of mine, so when I do my monthly budget, this blog becomes its own line item. I definitely plan ahead financially to make sure I can make these dishes with the best ingredients available. I'm also lucky in that I'm child-free and work from home, so money that might for others go to cover expenses related to raising kids and commuting, for me goes toward food instead.
Now, with all that said, I did do some back-of-the-napkin math on this dish and figured out that it probably is the most expensive one in the book, because it requires the use of 12 lobster bodies. That means, I had to buy and use 12 lobsters, then save their bodies (legs and trunk) to use in this dish. There's no lobster meat in this dish, so I had to make the lobsters, use the meat in other dishes (or eat it plain) and then save the bodies in the freezer (a seafood mafioso move, methinks) until it was time to make this dish.
When I was a few months out from making this dish, I had four lobster bodies already in the freezer. I had eight more to buy and make over the next little while until I could be ready to go with this dish. Luckily, my parents gave me a gift certificate to BlackSalt for Christmas to help defray the costs of this project -- which was such a generous thing for them to do (thanks again, Mom and Dad!). So, that helped cover the cost of some of the additional eight lobsters, but if you wanna do the math of 12 lobster bodies, each lobster weighing 1.25-1.5 pounds apiece, and whatever the going rate is per pound for fresh, live lobster, factoring in mileage to go get the lobsters.... then there you go.
So, knowing the costs involved, my mind turned to return on investment, or ROI as we businessfolk like to call it. I counsel my clients to think about ROI when they're making decisions related to marketing, advertising and PR, and so naturally, I hoped that by spending this much moolah on a dish, I would get a significant bang for the buck when it came to the end result. Would spending my hard-earned money then working for three days with 12 lobster bodies, some vegetables, and gelatin yield a near-orgasmic culinary experience? Would hilarity ensue when the neighbor's dog got ahold of the lobster bodies and dragged them to all four corners of my house? Or, would it be a huge catastrophe and require the assistance of the local fire brigade?
Let's just say: none of the above. However, because you crazy people love it when one of my dishes goes haywire or I nearly puke while eating it, I'll tell you now -- you're in for a hell of a read.
Now, where was I? Oh yes: I had four lobster bodies and needed eight more. Eight? Eight. If you've been a longtime reader of this fair blog, you know I kind of like to name my shellfish. I couldn't name all eight lobsters Celine (although I wanted to), so I had to think of a group of eight I'd be willing to sacrifice the lives of in the name of cuisine. I didn't need my lobster-naming strategy team for this one at all because, really, when you think of the number eight, you naturally think of The Bradfords!
Mary, Joanie, and Susan...
Nancy, Elizabeth, and Tommy (aw, Tommy is karate-chopping Elizabeth over the head; oh, those crazy kids!)...
And, little Nicholas...
Eight is enough to fill our lives with love, indeed!
Now that you've met my eight new lobsters -- all of which were lovely and delicious in their various preparations -- AND we've gotten the obligatory 80s sitcom reference out of the way, let's take a look at what the 12 lobster bodies looked like at the start of this dish:
Kinda creepy-crawly, huh.
I put the lobster bodies in a large stockpot in which I'd already heated some canola oil. I forgot to quarter them, as the book suggested, but didn't realize it until I was done with the first day's work. Doy. Aaaaaaaanyway, I sautéed them for 2 - 3 minutes, then added chopped carrots, fennel, shallots and mushrooms:
I continued cooking this over medium-high heat for about 15 minutes, until the vegetables had started to soften. I then added vermouth, water, garlic, tarragon, and tomatoes, brought it to a boil, then simmered it for two hours. The smell of this pot of lobstery goodness made me incredibly happy. I kept finding reasons to go outside and come back in so I could marvel in the wonder of how amazing my house smelled while this was cooking. Mmmmmmmmmm.......
I strained the stock into a separate pot, pressing down onto the lobster shells to make sure I got as much liquid out of there as I could:
I threw away the lobster shells and the vegetables that were in the strainer. I poured the stock (about 4 quarts) through a chinois into yet another stock pot, and didn't force anything through this time so that it would remain as solid-free as possible. I let the stock cool to room temperature, then skimmed off the fat that had risen to the top.
I refrigerated the stock overnight and before I went to bed, I cooked some lobster roe so that it became lobster coral (which I needed for the clarification raft as well as the final plating) by putting it in a plastic bag, squeezing out all the air, then holding the bag in boiling water for a few seconds -- look at me, bein' all cool and doing something sort of sous vide:
I kept the coral in the bag until I needed it the next day.
So, now we're on Day Two of the Lobster Consommé en Gelée. Things had, so far, gone well and I was really looking forward to tasting what I thought was going to be a truly outstanding dish. The thought of the saltiness of lobster really concentrated in a consommé along with some whipped crème fraîche to complement the lobster... I was getting excited about how great this was going to be and what a freakin' superstar I would be among my friends and neighbors because they were going to fall all over themselves eating this and begging for me to make more. Sometimes, I can be a real idiot.
On Day Two, I prepared the clarification raft. You can't make consommé without clarifying it and removing all the impurities and other gunk, otherwise, it won't be clear, as all good consommés are. So, you make what is called a clarification raft, which, when it cooks, traps all the impurities and brings them to the top and out of your stock. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me show you the steps. First, I ground some carrot, fennel and onion in the food processor:
In a small bowl, I whisked some egg whites and lobster coral until frothy:
Then, I mixed the vegetables with the egg whites and lobster coral together in the same bowl:
I took the stock out of the refrigerator and put it on the stovetop. Before turning on the heat, I added the ground vegetables and whisked eggs to the stock, whisking it in to make sure there were no clumps. I turned the heat on low, and continued stirring with a wooden spoon until the liquid reached 128 degrees.
When the temperature reached 128 degrees, I stopped stirring and brought the stock up to a simmer. As the stock simmered, the solids rose to the top, began cooking, and formed a raft. so far, so good.
I cut a small hole on the right-hand side of the raft as a "breather hole" for the stock. The book tells you, and I know from having made consommé before, that you have to be really careful about the heat and not let the stock come to a boil, because you don't want the raft to break apart because it will cloud the consommé and not really do the job it's supposed to do. It's acceptable to have one or two spots where the stock simmers up through the raft, but no more than that. That's where I think I made a mistake in making this dish. I kept the heat so carefully moderated and watched that pot like a hawk for the hour it needed to simmer, but there was one point at which the stock got too hot and it bubbled up through and really broke the raft. You'll be able to see what I mean in the photo below, I think:
See how on the right hand side (at two o'clock on the diameter) it broke and the cooked egg white part of the raft bubbled up back onto the top of it? Grrrrr.....
After the hour-long simmer, I lined a strainer with some cheesecloth and began gently ladling the stock through it -- careful not to further break the raft, or get any big chunks of it in the ladle. I placed the strainer over a large saucepan, and ended up being able to strain a good amount of it (I had to tilt the pot on the stovetop to be able to get as much out of it as I could.
At this point, I had close to 2 quarts of consommé left. There was a little bit of fat floating on the top, so I did as The French Laundry Cookbook suggested and laid a paper towel on the surface, gently gliding it off to bring the fat with it. After three paper towels, I'd gotten it all.
I lined another strainer with fresh cheesecloth and placed it over another large saucepan, then slowly and gently poured the liquid through it to further clean it. I put the saucepan of consommé on the stovetop over medium heat and brought it to a simmer. I let it simmer for about 40 minutes, when it had reduced by half.
While reducing the liquid, I soaked some gelatin sheets in cold water:
I poured the reduced consommé into a bowl set inside a bowl of ice. I squeezed out the water from the gelatin sheets and stirred them into the hot consommé until they had fully dissolved. I let the consommé cool in the bowl set inside the bowl of ice, stirring every now and then, for about an hour. I covered the bowl with foil and put it in the fridge to set overnight so I could finish the dish the next afternoon.
We're now on Day Three of the Lobster Consommé en Gelée. Two semi-screwups: forgot to quarter the lobster bodies, and my raft broke. I fully expected to wake up, rub the sleep from my eyes, plod downstairs to make coffee and while the grinder was having its way with my coffee beans I'd check the lobster consommé and find it hadn't set. Then, I would cry, because there was no way I could start all over again. I'd end up just writing a post that said: Lobster Consommé en Gelée = STUPID and contribute a photo of it to FailBlog.
But, as you will see, the planets aligned and when I removed the consommé from the refrigerator, it was set and was full-on jelly. Lobster jelly. Just think about those two words together for a few minutes. Lobster jelly. Then, think of other kinds of jellies that you like and how you like to eat them. Then, think of lobster jelly in that way and try not to get squicked out.
The final steps before plating were really easy. I grated the rest of the lobster coral so that they would appear as tiny, individual eggs. Then, I whipped some crème fraîche by hand with my trusty whisk, and I defrosted some of the brunoise I had in the freezer and brought it to room temperature.
To plate, I put some of the lobster consommé which was now "en gelée" (pronounced zhel-AY) in a little custard dish, then topped it with the crème fraîche, the lobster coral and some brunoise. If you have The French Laundry Cookbook nearby, please turn to page 33, where you will see what this was supposed to look like.
The rest of you can suffer by seeing what my version ended up looking like:
Hmmmmm. I'm hearing crickets out there as you try to come up with something semi-positive to say. It's no use. Really. I'm fine. I'm at peace with the fact that not only is this pretty unattractive, it was also perhaps the most expensive dish I've made probably ever in my whole life in terms of ingredient costs, AND one of the most disgusting things I have ever spooned into my mouth.
The gelée was not perfectly clear (it was close, though), but the lobster taste was so concentrated it was almost overwhelming, and not in a good way. Texturally, I had huge issues with it, which should come as no surprise. Textures are always my Achilles' Heel. I don't normally have problems with gelled things, but savory jellies and I will not be found sittin' in a tree, K-I-S-S-I... you know the rest of the song.
It absolutely kills me to type these words, but this dish was awful. I've been wracking my brains to come up with some redeeming quality about it, and the only thing I can say is that I probably would've enjoyed the lobster consommé not en gelée and still hot, like soup, before it was reduced during the final stage before becoming gelatinized. The way it smelled when it was warm and cooking was an absolute pleasure, and I think I would have been fine with a hot lobster consommé. No, I KNOW I would have been fine with that. Because I tasted it, and it was good. Cold and jellied? Not so much. Not at all, actually.
I'd planned to have my friends in the neighborhood over to taste it but after ten years of friendship, I know their likes and dislikes really, really well, and I honestly couldn't put myself through us all sitting around the dining room table trying to choke down a single bite while trying to be polite about it. I just couldn't. Talk about adding insult to injury. Wasn't gonna happen.
So instead, I made up another serving of it and took it across the street to my friend, Linda's, house because I knew her eleven-year old son, Grant, would want to at least taste it. He's really adventurous when it comes to food and is so great about trying anything once. Of course (and go figure), I walked into their house just as Grant burned the hell out of his hand on a cookie sheet while making snickerdoodles (yum!). As he ran his hand under cold, cold water and then wrapped it in an ice pack with a dish towel, I tried to be cheerful when I said, "Here's something that will take your mind off your BURNED HAND -- some lobster jelly! Woo-hoo!!!"
He grimaced but for a second, then said he'd try it. As I held the little custard dish for him BECAUSE HE HAD A BURNED HAND AND COULDN'T HOLD ANYTHING IN IT, he took a small spoonful of it along with some of the crème fraîche, squooshed it around in his mouth (since you can't really chew jelly), and spit it out into the sink. He asked me to get him a glass of water because HE HAD A BURNED HAND AND NOW MAJOR GAG-REFLEX SALIVARY ACTION GOING ON, and I did. He swished and spit and then drank the rest of the water without saying a word to me, but definitely giving me the stink eye which I more than deserved because I am such a good friend and role model that I forced a CHILD with a BURNED HAND to eat something I wouldn't take a second bite of. Does Dick Cheney know about me and my awesome torture skillz?
I called Grant the next day not only to check on his BURNED HAND but also see if, upon reflection, he had a different opinion about this particular dish and his response was "You know, this was worse than the oyster jelly because at least the oyster jelly didn't really taste like anything, but the lobster jelly taste just wouldn't go away for, like, hours and it kept reminding me how bad it was. FOR HOURS." He said the pain in his hand went away before the lobster jelly taste went away -- even after multiple teeth brushings and tongue scrapings.
If we remove the tripe from the equation (since technically it's not one of the official 100 dishes in The French Laundry Cookbook), this dish was my biggest disappointment. It really bummed me out. In fact, it's taken me a really long time to write this post, and I've been putting it off for awhile now because I was just so gobsmacked at how f-ing badly this turned out.
And now, I feel like an even bigger jerk because not only am I the ass who apparently tortures very young burn victims with my shiteous food, I've now made you sit through 33 photos and a kabillion words about my making a dish that I honestly can't recommend and suggest you not even think about wasting your money on. Unless, of course, you think you might like it, in which case, enjoy, and ew. I think I'd rather go burn my hand on a cookie sheet instead.
Up Next: French Laundry at Home Extra -- Q&A with Carol, Part One (totally gelatin-free!)
Lobsters from BlackSalt
Sheet gelatin from King Arthur Flour's web site
365 canola oil
Produce and aromatics from Whole Foods
Tarragon from my garden
Noilly-Pratt dry vermouth
Eggs from Smith Meadows Farm
Vermont Butter and Cheese Co. crème fraîche
Music to Cook By: Styx; Paradise Theatre. Say what you will, this is a classic album. Yes, I can hear you snickering and rolling your eyes picturing me channeling my inner Dennis DeYoung while gelatinizing lobsters, but dude. Have you listened to this album lately? It doesn't suck. I know I'm maybe a little biased because I once spent a long car ride memorizing the album and can now sing the whole thing start to finish, including all the background vocals and fills, but I don't care. I love this album and you should, too. It should be mandatory for renewing your driver's license and, um, being able to vote that you master the hand claps in "Too Much (clap, clap) Time on My Hands." Right? Agree with me people, or I'm sending you my leftover lobster jelly in the mail. I mean it.
Read My Previous Post: French Laundry at Home Extra -- Q&A with Susie Heller
Monday, July 7, 2008
One of the most frequently asked questions I get about this project is, "What's the most expensive dish you've had to make?"