Friday, August 31, 2007

Cream of Blueberry Soup with Yogurt Charlottes

Remember that song from A Chorus Line: "Dance 10, Looks 3"??? Or when someone says, "Wow, you have a GREAT face for radio!"??? Um, yeah. That pretty much sums up my experience with this particular dessert.

Taste? The best.

Presentation? Not so much.

I'll explain it as I go.

Up first? The yogurt charlottes. The first thing I did was combine some cream with some of the sugar in a small saucepan and bring it up to a simmer, stirring until the sugar was dissolved. I then soaked a gelatin sheet in some cold water to soften it, wrung out the excess water and stirred it into the hot cream and sugar until it was dissolved:

Then, I stirred in the whole milk, plain yogurt and let the mixture come to room temperature:

Time to pour them into little 4-ounce stainless steel molds! The kitchen supply store didn't have any, but what they did have were 3.5-ounce plastic molds in one sheet, so I took a chance and made them using these:

I covered them with some aluminum foil and put them in the refrigerator for about a day and a half. Next, I made the crème anglaise. I scraped the seeds from a vanilla bean into a saucepan, added the vanilla pod, cream, milk and some sugar and brought it to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar:

Separately, in a bowl, I whisked 5 large egg yolks with some more sugar, tempered it with the hot cream mixture, then poured the tempered yolks back into the saucepan with the cream mixture and stirred it until the custard thickened and coated the back of my wooden spoon. Sound familiar? Yeah -- you read about this process a few posts ago when I made the ice cream... because crème anglaise is pretty much pre-frozen/melted vanilla ice cream. I don't have a photo of the final crème anglaise, but melt yourself a bowl of vanilla ice cream and you'll get the picture.

The next thing to do was make the tellicherry pepper syrup. The Co-op was fresh out of tellicherry peppercorns, so I used regular black peppercorns instead. Here's the mise en place:

This was the easiest part of the whole dish. I just put all these ingredients into a saucepan, brought it to just under a simmer, and let it cook for 45 minutes. I then strained it and there was about 2C of syrup when all was said and done:

Next, I did the blueberry soup. Again, pretty easy. I brought a cup of white wine to a boil, then added some lemon juice and zest:

I simmered it until it had reduced to a quarter-cup of liquid. Then, I strained the liquid into a larger saucepan, added the blueberries, and cooked them over medium heat until they began to burst:

I then added a cup of the tellicherry (or, um, black) pepper syrup and some sugar, and simmered the mixture for about 15 minutes:

Then came the fun part -- I had to pour this hot blueberry mixture into a blender (in parts, of course, since there were so many blueberries) and liquefy it. I had visions of the blender top flying off, despite my practically sitting on it to ensure that wouldn't happen, and coating my kitchen in blueberries, much like the projectile-vomiting-pie-eating-contest scene in Stand By Me.

Alas, and lucky for me, that didn't happen. I successfully liquefied and strained the blueberries and let the mixture chill in an ice bath.

Once it had chilled, I poured some of the crème anglaise into the blueberry liquid to make and further chill the cream of blueberry soup:

At this point, as far as I was concerned, everything was going swimmingly. The afternoon had progressed nicely, I'd made plans to have dinner with my neighbors, and in return I would treat them to this dessert. I was a happy camper. And then, the dacquoise reared its stupid head.

I've shown how to make dacquoise here. This was almost exactly the same recipe, but with almonds instead of hazelnuts. I'm not sure that's why this didn't work. In fact, I thought I did everything right, but these suckers were just a mess and didn't crisp at all. They got sort of crispy around the edges, but then remained chewy in the middle of the baking sheet.

Looks like someone needs a pastry class, eh? What an annoyance. But wait, there's more. When I went to get the yogurt charlottes out of their molds, they were set nicely. And as soon as they hit the tray I was removing them to, they started to get all glurpy. Time to improvise, as my neighbors were due to arrive in two minutes.

So, what do you do when your charlottes are glurpy and the dacquoise is pissing you off? I am about to blind you with some serious f-ing science right about now. You pour the soup into the bowls, add the yogurt charlotte the middle (like a dollop of sour cream in a savory soup), then crumble the dacquoise on the top (like tortilla chips in a Mexican soup). Ta-da!

Those of you who own The French Laundry Cookbook can turn to page 266 to see what this was supposed to look like, and then have yourselves a good laugh. Especially you, Stephen Durfee. You probably created this recipe because you knew someday I would want to make it, and would crap it up somehow. I know how you roll, you wiley little coyote. I bet you're cackling up a storm out there. Fine. Be that way. See if I care. Crap. I do.

But let's talk for a minute about how gooooooooooooooooooooood this tasted. A certified PlateLicker™, that's for damn sure. We swirled the yogurt into the soup and enjoyed the crunch of the dacquoise in some of the bites. The textures weren't off-putting in the least, and it was rich enough to be a real treat, but clean enough to make you forget about all the cream and sugar throughout the dish. In fact, my ten-year-old neighbor "M" ate every last drop AND took home the leftovers. Usually, she tries a bite or two of these dishes and lets the rest of us pick over the rest of her plate like the vultures we are. When she ate this, she was hunkered down over the plate, spoon to mouth every six seconds, not a word coming from her mouth.

That, my friends, is success, indeed.

Up Next: Chocolate Cakes with Red Beet Ice Cream and Toasted Walnut Sauce

Organic Valley milk and cream
Eggs from Smith Meadows Farms
Stonyfield Farm yogurt
Vanilla bean and almonds from TPSS Co-op
Fruit from Whole Foods
Mint from neighbor Linda's garden (thanks!)
Bogle sauvignon blanc

Music to Cook By: Simple Minds; Once Upon a Time. Since I've gotten back from vacay, I'm feeling a tad retro and am listening quite a bit to music from my high school years, and loving it. The food-memory connection is so strong for so many, but the music-memory connection is equally as strong for me. This Simple Minds cassette didn't leave my rockin' two-toned gray Ford Escort at all from 1985-86. We'd pop out the sunroof, store it in the trunk (remember those days?), and jam out (sort of) to Simple Minds, Tears for Fears, Roxy Music, OMD, INXS, 'Til Tuesday, and a-Ha in the school parking lot during lunch. I also had a curly perm back then, but won't talk about that because HOLY CRAP WHY DIDN'T SOMEBODY TELL ME HOW BAD I LOOKED?!

Friday, August 24, 2007

Salad of Black Mission Figs with Roasted Sweet Peppers and Shaved Fennel

"Shot through the heart, and you're to blame, darlin' you give love a ....."

No, that's not right.

"I'm a cowboy, on a steeeeeel horse I ride... I'm wanted (want-eh-eh-ed) dead or..."

Nope. That's not it either.

Wait a minute. I think I got it.

"Whoooooooooaaaa, we're halfway there... whoooooaaaa-ooooa, livin' on a prayer..."

That's more like it.

Folks, today we've reached an important milestone here at French Laundry at Home -- no, not a guest appearance by Jon Bon Jovi, but instead, the halfway point of my French Laundry at Home project. Today's entry will recap the 50th French Laundry dish I've recreated and written about here on this humble little blog of mine.

50 dishes = almost 6 trips to The French Laundry. Wow.

I know #51-100 will be more challenging (hello, sawing a pig's head in half, and butchering a whole baby lamb), and I hope they'll be just as much fun. Thanks to all of you who keep reading and commenting and emailing me, and in general being so supportive of this project. You guys make it all worthwhile.

I'm still going through the re-entry phase of getting back from vacation, so my head's a bit hazy and I didn't take photos of every step in the process of making this salad. Bear with me... I think you'll get the gist.

Remember the figs?

Well, this time, I used only Black Mission figs, which are the really dark ones in that photo. I sliced 8 of them into quarter-inch rounds, placed them on a plate and drizzled them with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, gray salt, and finely minced shallots:

While those marinated (for about an hour), I got the peppers ready. I roasted a red and a yellow bell pepper over an open flame:

I rotated them and roasted every nook and cranny until their skins were popping and cracking and came off easily. I julienned them and put them in a bowl with some more minced shallots:

Sorry I don't have a photo of the shallot preparation process... but you guys are becoming old pros by now, aren't you? You know what a shallot looks like. It's this:

Oh, I just crack myself up. See what going out of town for a week does to me? Turns me into Henny Youngman, only not.

Alright, where the hell were we? Oh yes, peppers and shallots in a bowl together. I added some balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and a little bit of salt and tossed it all together so it, too, could marinate for an hour:

Here's where I'm a dorkus malorkus and completely left my camera IN THE OTHER ROOM (why I even took it out of the kitchen I have no idea) so there's no photographic evidence (other than the plating) of the fennel salad. Although, it's kind of a misnomer to call it "salad" because all I really did was take a small bulb of fennel, trim off the ends, level the bottom, and slice it very thinly on my mandoline. I then put the slices in a bowl and tossed them with -- you guessed it -- olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and salt!

I also mixed a little bit of fennel oil with a teeny-tiny bit of balsamic glaze, which you'll see in the final shot -- it looks really cool.

Time for plating (and for me to take a nap because clearly my brain is still on vacation). It's a layered dish with a fig slice on the bottom, topped with pepper, then another fig slice, then some more pepper, then topped with a fig slice. Then on top of that? Some fennel salad. Everything smelled so fresh and delicious. I sprinkled a bit of fennel powder on each plate (which I made by grinding then sifting fennel seeds), and some of the fennel oil/balsamic glaze combo. Here 'tis:

I love serving these French Laundry dishes at certain times in the afternoon when the sun shines into my dining room just so. That light was just gorgeous this afternoon. So, how'd the fig and fennel salad taste? I thought it was delicious. I think my tasters agreed. One of them took some home for her husband and I got a rave review from him a few hours later. I liked the crunch of it, and I liked that nothing really overpowered anything else. There was balance in this dish between sweet and savory and different textures of crunchiness and chewiness that I loved. Not sure I'd make this again because I don't really love peeling peppers, but I'd entertain the notion of doing something else with these flavor combinations that's for sure.

Alright, y'all... I'm wiped. Be back in a couple of days when my brain has rejoined the rest of my body and I no longer have sand in between my toes.

Up Next: Cream of Blueberry Soup or that Red Beet Ice Cream/Chocolate Cake Thingy. Not sure yet which one I'll get to first, but both sound amazing.

All produce from Whole Foods
Antica Italia olive oil and balsamic vinegar
Fennel seeds for fennel powder from the TPSS Co-op

Music to Cook By: Bon Jovi; "Slippery When Wet", and the new one "Lost Highway" which I will confess to liking more than I thought I would. It's nothing like the music from their good old days of 1986, which HOLY CRAP WAS 21 YEARS AGO (Marisa, it's been nearly 21 years since we walked home from The Black Rooster at 3 a.m. singing "Living on a Prayer" with its "ooo-wah-oo-wah-oo" bass line open, followed by our re-enactment of all the choreography from the entire Janet Jackson "Control" album). Back to Bon Jovi for a second. I had totally forgotten that they did "Runaway" which was one of my favorite songs in 1987. Slippery When Wet is a damn good album. If you haven't listened to it in awhile, dig it out or download it from iTunes or something and enjoy. As for the new album, some reviewers have called it Bon Jovi's "country album" which it is not. It's more Americana roots rock, which is very different. And it's good -- there are two tracks in particular I love; one is "Seat Next To You" and the other is "Whole Lot of Leavin'." I just realized that I have been listening to Bon Jovi for more than half my life. With that revelation, I must now spend a few hours in front of a mirror looking for gray hairs. Wow, my life is rich and full.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Share "My" Strength

Greetings, everyone!

I'm taking a break from cooking for a few days because today is my 39th birthday and I'm at the beach this week with good friends enjoying the sunshine and ocean, fresh seafood and produce, and many, many games of cards, bags of Twizzlers and Turtle Chex Milk (diabetes, anyone?) and bottles of wine.

I didn't mention this in my previous post, but I do want you to know I'm about to reach the halfway point in The French Laundry at Home. On August 24, I will have completed 50 of the 100 dishes in the book; can you believe it?

In honor of this milestone, I'm kicking off a philanthropic endeavor that I hope you'll want to take part in. One of my favorite nonprofits is Share Our Strength. Here's what they're all about (from their web site):

Since 1984, Share Our Strength® has led the fight against hunger and poverty by inspiring and organizing individuals and businesses to share their strengths. We have raised over $200 million to fight hunger around the globe. We have invested critical funds in over 1,000 hunger-related organizations to help the most effective organizations sustain their efforts and maximize their capacity to deliver results. Today, our priority is to end childhood hunger in America ensuring that the nearly 12 million American children facing hunger have access to the nutritious food they need to learn, grow and thrive.

I don't know about you, but I was lucky enough to have a full-belly childhood, and to think that there are 12 million American kids who go hungry every year makes me angry and sad. I worked with Share Our Strength through one of my clients a few years ago, so I know these guys walk the walk. They are incredibly well respected and they're doing good work. Not only do they work with local nonprofits all across the country to provide food, they also offer nutrition education programs for those on limited budgets, and they do a lot of disaster relief work. Friends of mine worked with Share Our Strength in New Orleans and Biloxi in the weeks and months after Hurricane Katrina, and they were blown away by how much of an emotional impact a simple sandwich can have when you've lost everything.

So, here's the deal: click here to donate, and make sure that you list "French Laundry at Home" in the space where they ask for the name of the "honoree."

Then, at the end of the year, I'll check in with the Share Our Strength folks to see how much we've raised and I will match 10% of the total donations with a personal donation of my own. That's right -- 10%. If you guys collectively pony up the big bucks, then I will, too. I know I have some incredibly generous readers out there, so either donate now, or join me in making a matching gift.

This post won't be the last time you'll hear about this. Shortly, I'll have a donation link on the side nav of the site, and I'll post reminders from time to time. But if you're so inclined today, please think about helping out.

I feel incredibly lucky to be able to open my fridge and have so many options of what to eat on any given day. I'm doubly lucky because I have the resources to shop for and cook some of the most incredible food as part of this project. And, I'm infinitely lucky because through this project I've been able to tap into a vast network of people and places I'd only dreamed about. It's because of all these things that I want to do something for others. And, I think Share Our Strength is the right way to go.

So, thanks in advance for any amount you're able to donate. I'll keep you posted on how much we're raising and who this money will ultimately help.

Be back soon...

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Vanilla Bean-Roasted Figs with Wildflower Honey-Vanilla Ice Cream

Am I a complete and total loser because I sang "now brrrrrring us some figgy pudding" in full operatic voice with rolling "r"s AND a British accent when I started making this? Wait. Don't answer that. [Because I did. I know. I need help.]

I also needed help because there was **GASP** an error in The French Laundry Cookbook. I KNOW. Inconceivable. The recipe for "Honey-Vanilla Ice Cream"? Had no vanilla in it. Had I made it as-directed in the book, I would've gotten honey-flavored white ice cream. Which might have been okay, but I love me some vanilla, so I had to figure out during which step to add it. Before I share with you my totes awsesome kitchen wizardy skillz on how to include the vanilla for all you hep cats out there who plan to try this dish in the future, let me show you the mise en place for the ice cream portion of our program:

Did you count the egg yolks? Oh yes, there are 10 of them. In addition to whole milk and CREAM, so you know this is gonna be rich and wonderful. I've become quite the ice cream addict these days, thanks to a relatively new book I've come to adore:

It's David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop, which has what I believe to be the definitive chocolate ice cream recipe. I don't want to get off-track here, but thanks to my worshipping at the altar of The Perfect Scoop all summer, I was able to figure out how best to add the vanilla to Keller's ice cream recipe to make it work.

In a saucepan, I combined the milk, cream, a few tablespoons of sugar, and a vanilla bean (which I split and scraped and included the contents of it in the pan, as well).

I brought it up to a medium heat, turned off the flame, covered the saucepan, and let it steep for 30 minutes. Next, I whisked the egg yolks with the remaining sugar and tempered it with a wee bit of the still-warm vanilla milk/cream mixture:

I poured the tempered egg yolks back into the saucepan and kept it on a low-medium flame and kept stirring until the ice cream turned into a custard-like texture and coated the back of my wooden spoon. I then poured this mixture through a strainer into a bowl that was sitting in a bowl of ice, stirred in the honey (thanks, Tony R. for reminding me to include this step) and let the mixture come to room temperature, stirring it every now and then. Once it had cooled, I put it in the refrigerator overnight to chill completely:

The next day, I put it in the ice-cream maker for 35 minutes, and then put it in a container to keep in the freezer to harden a bit more:

About 30 minutes before my friends were due to come over, I got the figs ready. Have I shown you the figs yet? I don't think I have. Here they are:

As you can see, I used a combination of Black Mission, Brown Turkey and Calimyrna figs for this dish. I split and sliced the remaining three vanilla beans into one-inch pieces and stuffed one into the top of each fig (from where I'd just cut off the stem). I melted some butter and sugar in a medium skillet and placed the figs in there:

They went into a 400-degree oven for ten minutes and I let them cool for about 15-20 minutes before serving.

Plating was easy -- one scoop of ice cream, surrounded by three figs, and a tiny drizzle of the butter/sugar melty goodness:

My tasters had mixed reactions -- mostly because they are not "fig people," which as an oyster-hater, I cannot judge them. I can only wonder what the hell is wrong with someone that they don't like figs! Ha! Of course, I am kidding.

The ice cream was a huge hit -- it was absolutely spectacular. I love vanilla ice cream, but Keller's use of wildflower honey made it so much better than any vanilla ice cream I've ever had. I love love love figs, so I was happy to eat not only my figs but also all the leftover figs (and then roll my ass onto the couch for a nap). This dish was so easy, and I will definitely make vanilla-roasted figs again. I'll also use wildflower honey as a sweetener in other ice creams and frozen yogurts just to see what kind of difference it makes, because this was gooooooood. I always recommend buying the cookbooks I write about because I think it's important to respect copyright, so in addition to buying The French Laundry Cookbook, I wholeheartedly recommend adding The Perfect Scoop to your collection (link to purchase below). You won't be sorry.

Up Next: Salad of Black Mission Figs with Roasted Sweet Peppers and Shaved Fennel

The Perfect Scoop, by David Lebovitz
Krups ice cream maker
Organic Valley milk and cream
Eggs from Smith Meadows Farms
McClure's wildflower honey
Figs from Whole Foods
Vanilla beans from TPSS Co-op
365 organic butter

Music to Cook By: Tears for Fears; Raoul and the Kings of Spain. There are very few songs that make me stop whatever it is I'm doing, and one of those songs is from this album. It's called "I Choose You." There's nothing significant about the lyrics (actually, they're kind of depressing), it's just the music, the phrasing, and Roland's voice that stop me in my tracks. This whole album is remarkable and a long-time favorite (even though, technically, it's more of a Roland Orzabal solo album, since Curt was pretty much out of the picture by then). The fact that it's been out for 12 years and I still listen to it about once a month says something, I think.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Pickled Oysters with English Cucumber "Capellini" and Dill

I have a confession to make.

I hate oysters.

What's that you're saying? You already knew that from a previous post about a different oyster dish?

Well, good on ya. Looks like you're paying attention. Gold stars all around!

The real confession is, I made this dish but didn't taste it. It's the first recipe I've made from The French Laundry Cookbook that I didn't even take a nibble of. Why? Two words: pickled oysters. Separate yet equally disgusting tastes/smells/textures that when put together really make me wanna hurl. And for someone who grew up surrounded by all things Amish and Pennsylvania Dutch, I'm supposed to be genetically programmed to like pickled things. I must be a robot, or something, because no can do. So, I only made half the recipe because I could only find three tasters, and none of them were really all that excited about the prospect of this dish. I'm sure it had absolutely nothing to do with the way I marketed it to them, what with the wrinkled nose, armpit farting noises, gagging sounds, spastic Bob Fosse moves, and dry heaves.

I will also confess that I did not spring for sevruga caviar either. Instead, I picked up some invisible caviar -- which really means I decided to forgo the caviar altogether since I didn't want to spend the money on something I wasn't going to taste, let alone enjoy, because I believe that money can best be spent on things I would enjoy more than pickled oysters, such as wine, bacon, cheese, or multiple colonics. Or 300 performances of this. Which, after you click on that link and come back after having stabbed your inner ear repeatedly with a grapefruit spoon, you will truly understand how much I would NOT HAVE ENJOYED THIS DISH, TRUST ME.

And, I'm sure some of you will email me or comment "but the caviar is what made this the best" or "you really should have tried it -- it's quite good" to which I reply, I don't care and no frickin' way.

Alright, enough disclaimers. Let's get to the food.

The first thing I did was get some oysters from BlackSalt. They shucked them for me and saved the shells for the plating. I took the oysters home, rinsed them well and cleaned the shells. Then, I prepared the pickling liquid: white wine vinegar, water, sugar, star anise, cloves, coriander seeds and dill:

I brought the pickling liquid to a boil, turned off the flame, covered it and let it steep for a half hour. I then added the oysters to the liquid and stuck the covered pot in the refrigerator for a day or so.

About a half hour before serving this dish, I made the cucumber capellini. I peeled an English cucumber, and using my mandoline sliced 1/16" thick slices lengthwise:

I then stacked the slices on top of one another (in a few piles so I didn't slice a finger off in the next step) and cut them into thin julienne strips to sort of resemble capellini. I'm sure the staff at The French Laundry do a far better job than I did, but I don't think mine looked too shabby:

More linguine-ish than capellini, but that's okay with me. I put a little bit of rice wine vinegar into the bowl and mixed it around to coat the cucumber and let it sit for about 30 minutes to extract the excess liquid from the cucumber. After 30 minutes, I strained it and squeezed out the remaining liquid and tossed in a little bit of chopped dill.

Time for plating, which was really easy. First on the plate went a bed of seaweed (thanks, BlackSalt!). Nestled in that was the oyster shell. I twirled some of the cucumber capellini around the tines of a fork (like I was twirling spaghetti) and put that into the shell, and on top of the cuke went an oyster. I then topped the oyster with a tiny sprig of fresh dill. The caviar should've gone on top of the oyster, but as you know, I didn't buy any. So, if you're making this at home, the caviar goes on top of the oyster and under the dill.

My tasters had the same reaction, which was "meh." They liked the cucumber a lot, and thought the oyster was unecessary. Perhaps the caviar would've revved up the presence of the oyster, but I tend to think not. And, the thought of caviar and cucumber together is kind of vile.

So, I'm 0 for 2 on oyster dishes here, kids.

Up Next: Vanilla Bean-Roasted Figs with Wildflower Honey-Vanilla Ice Cream (because it's FINALLY fig season and I can barely contain myself!)

Oysters and seaweed from BlackSalt
Star anise, cloves, coriander seeds and rice wine vinegar from the TPSS Co-op
English cucumber and fresh dill from Whole Foods

Music to Cook By: Ennio Morricone; The Mission. I can't tell you a THING about the movie because I was 17 when I saw it, and much more interested in Andrew McCarthy than the tale of Father Gabriel and his merry band of Spanish Jesuits conquering South America and then fighting the Portuguese. Or something. See, I TOLD you I was more into Andrew McCarthy. But this soundtrack is one of the best ever produced. And, I mean EVER.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Heirloom Tomato Tart with Niçoise Olive Tapenade, Mixed Field Greens, and Basil Vinaigrette

I bought some pretty, pretty (and quite tasty) heirloom tomatoes at the Takoma Park Farmers' Market:

So, naturally, I wanted to make The French Laundry's Heirloom Tomato Tart.

I plopped two of them on the cutting board and cut 6 half-inch slices out of them. I put those slices on a foil-lined, olive-oiled baking sheet, topped them with some salt, pepper, thyme leaves and olive oil, and roasted them in a 375-degree oven for about 50 minutes.

At the same time, I sliced the rest of the tomatoes into 1/8" slices, put them on a dish towel-lined baking sheet, seasoned them, drizzled a bit of olive oil, covered them in plastic wrap and put them in the refrigerator for a little over an hour

Next, I made the olive tapenade, and you know what? I'm pissed off that every freakin' time I make tapenade, I think of stupid Sandra Lee who on her show claims to "make" tapenade. First off, she pronounces it "tahm-po-nahd," which really? Are you kidding me? C'mon. Then, her narrative goes a little something like this. "Now we're gonna make some olive tahmponad. First, you take some tahmponad you bought at the regular groshry store, add some crushed almonds, stir, and wallah! You have semi-homemade tahmponad." Seriously, that drunk-ass bee-yotch can't pronounce what she's making, and then thinks that by adding almonds (which, ew) she's creating a whole new dish. And, seriously? She says "wallah" instead of "voila." So, thanks stupid Food Network for ruining any positive feelings I ever had for tapenade by keeping that social climber on the air. I know, I know... "so stop watching if she makes you this mad" -- but that's not possible. She's so snark-worthy, and really, there's no better comedy on television today. [/end rant]

Hoo-kay... where was I? Oh yeah, right. Making tapenade. No "m" in there, kids. I bought some really nice niçoise olives from Whole Foods (and say what you will about Whole Foods, their olive bar has never done me wrong), put them in a mini food processor with a wee bit of dijon mustard and some thrice-milk-soaked salt-packed anchovy fillets:

As I puréed the mixture, I slowly poured in the olive oil. Here's what the final tapenade looked like:

A little too much oil in there, huh? I followed the directions to a tee, but I think it needed less oil. It tasted great, it just looks a little greasy.

The next step was making the basil vinaigrette. Despite the 110-degree days we've been having this week, my herb garden is still doing really well, so I plucked a half-cup of basil leaves to use in the vinaigrette:

I blanched, drained and dried the basil before putting it into the food processor. I puréed the basil and slowly added in the olive oil. When it had become smooth, I turned off the food processor and let it rest in there while I finished the rest of the dish.

The final prep step involved puff pastry. If you've been following this blog for awhile, you may recall that I once had to make like 27 pounds of puff pastry dough just to have four ounces of it for this frickin' dessert dish. Boy am I glad I didn't throw all the rest of it away in disgust, and instead wrapped and froze it, because I needed some for the tomato tart. Whew. I took 16 oz. of it out of the freezer, thawed it, rolled it out into an 8x11" rectangle, and stuck it back in the freezer for about 20 minutes so it would be easier to cut.

I cut six discs (five were 3", one was 4") out of it, put them on parchment paper, topped each one with a roasted tomato slice, and baked them in a 375-degree oven for about 30 minutes:

When they were finished, it was time to plate. I added some balsamic vinegar to complete the basil vinaigrette and tossed the dressing with some baby spinach leaves. Plating went like this: center a tomato/puff pasty round in the middle of the plate, top with three cold tomato slices, add a small spoonful of tapenade, top that with some of the greens, then drizzle on a little bit more vinaigrette. Here's the final result:

It tasted even better than it looked. My favorite food in the late summertime is corn on the cob with homemade tarragon butter. I think this tomato tart is running a very close second. Might even be tied for first. The flavor and temperature contrast of the tomatoes was lovely. The puff pasty had absorbed enough of the juices from the tomato, that combined with the butter in the pastry, was a delight. The basil vinaigrette was a winner, and the tapenade just pulled the whole thing together to make it a truly outstanding dish. The adults LOVED this one, and the kids? Not so much. One of the kids is a big-time tomato fan, so he was happy to eat the tomatoes and nothing else. I was happy to spread the tapenade on his leftover puff pastry and devour that.

I'd make this again, for sure, and would adapt it to make a larger tart that could be cut into squares for serving, just to make the overall prep a little easier. I wouldn't swap out the heirloom tomatoes for another kind, that's for sure. Heirloom tomatoes are my favorite varietal, and they made this dish sing. After the Great Cauliflower and Oyster Debacle of 2007, I was beyond pleased that this dish was such a hit. You know what? People can dispute the Barry Bonds homerun record all they want... as far as I'm concerned, Thomas Keller holds the only homerun record I care about.

Up Next: Pickled Oysters with English Cucumber "Capellini" and Dill

Heirloom tomatoes from Glenville Hollow Farms
Antica Italia olive oil and balsamic vinegar
Thyme and basil from my garden
Bellino anchovies
Niçoise olives and baby spinach from Whole Foods
Grey Poupon dijon mustard

Music to Cook By: Under the Influence of Giants; debut album. If Coldplay didn't suck, they'd be these guys.

Monday, August 6, 2007

"Fish & Chips" -- Red Mullet with a Palette d'Ail Doux and Garlic Chips

Growing up, fish & chips was the Friday lunchtime staple in my public school cafeteria during Lent (even though I think we only had three Catholics in the entire school). The lunch ladies also offered it pretty regularly throughout the year, and whenever it had been raining or I had just had a particularly difficult class, there was something so good about fish and chips -- which really was institutional Mrs. Paul's fish sticks and, sadly, actual potato chips. Methinks the lunch ladies never really understood that "chips" are not supposed to be potato chips but french fries. Or, they were just lazy. Poor dears...

But fried fish wasn't just a schooltime fave. I also loved the Fishamajig fried fish sandwich at Friendly's, which came with those awesome crinkle-cut fries, and that squeeze bottle of ketchup so you could pipe out a single, thin line of ketchupy goodness on each individual fry as you ate it. And when I say that "you" could do this, I of course mean me. Because I am probably the only person with such borderline OCD that ever did this in the history of Friendly's.

I was never a fan of the Filet-o-Fish at McDonald's -- mostly because we never really ate there growing up (the closest one was 15 minutes away), and also because their tartar sauce smelled like diapers. My mom rarely made fish, and when she did, it was never fried. That's why it was such a treat to have fried fish at school or at Friendly's... even at that young age, I knew it was bad for me, but I didn't care. It was something greasy and delicious.

But what I knew about fish and chips as a child and teenager changed when I was 15 and went to Europe for the first time. Most of the other kids in my traveling group were 17 and 18, so they were psyched to be overseas in search of whatever alcohol they could find and consume without the chaperones finding out. I was determined to find a way to reunite the original members of Clash, or meet Howard Jones. Or both. Plus the drinking.

During the second week of the trip, we were in London and a bunch of us went to a pub to order a Guinness on a dare, and when I saw the menu of food options, I was transfixed and forgot to order my beer. Neverfear, I drank from everyone else's glass while we devoured the three plates of food I ordered -- Ploughman's Lunch, Bangers & Mash, and Fish & Chips with mushy peas. The fish was fresh, was batter-dipped right before deep-frying and the chips (fries, this time - yay!) were the perfect cut, color, crispness and potato-y-ness. I was hooked, and except for a few months in college when I was poor and had to subsist on fish sticks and mac-n-cheese, I didn't want to eat fish and chips any other way.

Now, everytime I go back to London one of the first things I do is browse the stacks at John Sandoe Books, followed by spending a few hours in a favorite pub in the outskirts of Chelsea noshing on fish and chips and mushy peas. I won't even get started on the mushy peas and how much I love them because I've already gone on long enough about why I was thrilled to see that Thomas Keller had adapted one of my childhood and now indulgent-and-rarely-eaten adulthood favorites for The French Laundry.

A week before I knew I was going to make this dish, I called BlackSalt to order the red mullet (or "moo-LAY roo-ZHAY" as we like to call it). Their fishmonger agreed to clean and fillet it for me, which was a huge help. You'll see photos of the fish in the final plating. It's gorgeous, I promise.

Following the order of prep steps in The French Laundry Cookbook, the first thing to make were the palettes. These are little discs of garlic mash with eggs, cream and butter, that looked awfully yellow during prep but were wonderful. Here's the mise:

I put the fresh, hand-peeled garlic cloves in a saucepan, covered them with cold water, brought them to a boil, drained and rinsed them under cold water, then repeated the process two more times. On the third and final go, I boiled the cloves until they were soft, tender, and ready to be mashed:

I took a little over a quarter-cup of the mashed garlic and blended it in a small food processor with the egg yolks, butter and salt until it was smooth. I spread the mixture onto a plastic wrap-lined baking sheet:

It was supposed to be a half-inch-thick layer, and I think mine was between a half inch and a quarter inch. Ooops. I covered this and put it in the freezer for a few hours. When it was solid, I cut six 2" discs out of the sheet and dredged each one in flour, cream and bread crumbs before putting them back into the freezer until right before final prep and plating:

With the palettes done, I focused next on the parsley coulis.

I started with four cups of flat-leaf parsley, which I blanched and gave an ice bath. I squeezed out all the excess water and put the blanched parsley into the blender with just a little bit of water to aid in the purée process. When it was fully puréed, I spread the parsley onto a tamis and let it drain its excess liquid for about 5-10 minutes:

Then, I discarded that liquid and pushed the purée through the tamis, leaving me with about a half-cup of coulis:

The last thing I needed to prep was the garlic chips. Those of you who know me well in real life know I have an irrational fear that the garbage disposal in my sink will turn on by itself while my hand is mashing stuff down the drain. Just like my garbage disposal phobia (which, again, I know is stupid and unfounded), I also think my mandoline is out to kill me. Don't get me wrong, I love my mandoline. I use it all the time, and I have only cut myself on it twice in the many years I've been using one. It's just that when I least expect it, I get these odd visions of slicing my knuckles off. And of course, when I brought it out to make the garlic chips, I had a moment of terror -- envisioning my hands, my fingers, those tiny cloves of garlic sliding over that sharp, sharp blade... and I knew I had to do something. So, I ran to the market to pick up some elephant garlic because it's bigger and there would be less of a chance that I would amputate a part of my body doing something I am not insured to or get paid to do.

I know elephant garlic is to garlic what leeks are to onions -- not quite the same thing, but sharing many qualities. I know from using it before that elephant garlic is sweeter and a little less garlicky than actual garlic, so I was fine with the substitution and made adjustments along the way to compensate for the flavor change.

I thinly sliced the garlic (tried to to paper-thin, but it wasn't happening. So, I sliced them as thinly as I could. I put them in a small saucepan, covered them with cold milk, brought it to a boil, drained and rinsed with cold water, and repeated. The French Laundry Cookbook says to do it three times, but since I was using a less intensely flavored garlic, I only did it twice.

After the second milk-blanching, I patted the garlic slices dry and put them in hot oil to make the crispy garlic chips. I didn't know it until I started heating the oil that my thermometer had gone kaput -- the mercury was separated into thin chunks up and down the tube, so I had to guesstimate the temperature I was boiling them, knowing that they were done when they turned a certain color and there no longer were bubbles forming at their sides:

I took them out of the hot oil and drained them on paper towels. Now, it was time for the final prep before plating. I brought the palettes out of the freezer and seasoned the mullet with salt and pepper before putting them into a skillet with some canola oil to cook. I put them skin side down first, and cooked them for just a minute or so, then turned them, allowing the flesh side to "kiss" the heat (as Ruhlman so deftly writes) and cook through. I removed the mullet from the pan and let them drain on paper towels and quickly cooked the palettes for a minute on each side in that same pan of canola oil.

Here's the final plating. First in the dish? A spoonful of warmed (and butter-infused) parsley coulis:

Next, a palette:

Then, criss-cross (jump!jump!) mullet fillets:

Atop that? A little parsley salad (parsley leaves, minced shallot, olive oil, salt):

And, last but not least, the garlic chips:

I gotta say, this was a really good dish. The garlic chips need work, though. If any of you have ever made the version from The French Laundry Cookbook or a similar iteration, I'd love to hear what worked and what didn't. Garlic (along with bacon and coffee) is one of my very favorite foods, and I was disappointed that these garlic chips did not meet my expectations. I'm sure it's a combination of using elephant vs. regular garlic, the slices being a tad too thick, and not regulating the temperature of the cooking oil as closely as I would have liked to. But still. I feel like they were the biggest disappointment of the dish. They didn't suck; they just weren't what I wanted them to be. While I would very much like to blame Stephen Durfee (hello, Durfee) for my failure on this particular aspect of this dish, I know that in all fairness I cannot. It just wouldn't be right.

The parsley coulis was delicious -- in fact, all the flavors really complemented one another quite nicely. The parsley salad cut the fishiness of the fish, and the palette was creamy and really stood up to the fish and parsley elements and added a nice touch and texture. This is something I would definitely try again, and it made me yearn for a cold, dark, smoky pub and a plate of hot fish & chips and mushy peas. Is it a bad thing that right after I loaded the plates into the dishwasher I looked up flights to London and tried to convince myself that it would be adventurous (instead of frivolous and wasteful) to fly over for lunch and fly home in the same day just to have those traditional fish & chips again? Off to go check the status of my Amex points and frequent flyer miles...

Up Next: Heirloom Tomato Tart with Nicoise Olive Tapenade, Mixed Field Greens, and Basil Vinaigrette

Special Thank You: Blayne Candy of BSL Productions for the sweet VIP passes this weekend at Virgin Festival, and to Blayne's lovely girl and my friend, Amanda, whose sister owns Vine Floral Design. So, if you need lights, camera, flowers -- now you know where to go.

Brands Used:
All-Clad and Le Creuset cookware
Mullet from BlackSalt
Garlic and parsley from Whole Foods
Eggs from Smith Meadows Farm
365 organic butter and canola oil
King Arthur flour
Organic Valley cream
Homemade bread crumbs using an old loaf of Spring Mill bread
Shallot from my awesome neighbor Linda

Music to Cook By: Helio Sequence; Com Plex, and Love & Distance. These guys are on the iPod playlist I listen to when flying. It always seems they are in the rotation (along wtih Sigur Ros) when I'm flying over the Grand Canyon, making that approach to the west coast. I hadn't listened to them in awhile, so I booted them up during the prep for this dish and had a listen. I'm glad I did. It's music that makes the time go by -- that's the only way I know how to describe Helio Sequence. It's great background music, and it sounds so familiar, even if you've never heard it before.