Sunday, September 30, 2007

Pan-Roasted Breast of Squab with Swiss Chard, Sautéed Duck Foie Gras, and Oven-Dried Black Figs

You know squab = pigeon, right? So you can see how some people might not be altogether thrilled to taste this dish. I have no qualms about eating pigeon (after eating pastilla in Morocco, bring it on, I say), and when I set about finding three squab to make the dish, I kept coming up empty-handed. None of the markets around here carried squab. Well, that's not true. One Asian market did, but when I opened the refrigerator case and felt a gust of warm air blow out, I high-tailed it out of there and hit the Internet. The French Laundry Cookbook recommended buying squab from D'Artagnan, which I eventually did, but I googled "squab" to see who else sold it, and compare prices just for kicks. Imagine my surprise to find a web site called Seriously, For all your squab needs. I toyed with the idea of buying my squab from them, just so I could come here and tell you I bought my squab from, but it wasn't really clear from their web site exactly where those squab were coming from, so I stuck with D'Artagnan. Wanna see 'em?

When people find out that I like to cook and that I'm doing this blog, one of the first questions I get is, "Do you watch Top Chef?" I tell them I do watch the show, but that there's really no such thing as "reality TV" so I take most of it with a grain of salt. I watch it more for the guest judges because hello, Eric Ripert? Daniel Boulud? Andre Soltner? Sirio Maccione? I'll listen to any wisdom they choose to impart, but I can't say I've learned a whole lot from any of the cheftestants in any of the three seasons. Today, however, I will confess that unbeknownst to me, I actually learned something from Top Chef this season. Remember the episode when the Quickfire Challenge was to race against one another to chop onions, shuck oysters, break down chickens, and whisk egg whites? Remember how Hung so awesomely and perfectly cut up those four chickens in about six seconds? When I saw those squab sitting on the cutting board, I thought, "hmmmmmm, I think I'm going to handle these squabs Hung-style" and I did. And, it was awesome. I have a great knife, and even though these birds were a little smaller than chickens, I didn't hack off my hand in my zealous butchering. Here's a shot of the squab breasts with wing attached in the frying pan:

I'm getting a little ahead of myself, so let me backtrack for two seconds. Or two days, actually, because that's when I made the oven-dried figs. I bought a box of black mission figs from the market, cut each one into six wedges, laid them on a parchment-lined backing sheet, and dusted them with confectioners sugar:

I put them in a 350-degree oven for a half-hour and then stored them in a container in the fridge until I was ready to complete and serve this dish. You'll see the dried figs in the final plating photo.

I also prepped the foie gras during the two days leading up to this dish. To see how to prepare foie gras, you can click here. That link also shows how to do squab spice, which I used in this dish, as well.

Alrighty-roo, back to present day. I got a pound or so of Swiss chard from the market, washed and dried it, then cut off the stalks and cut the leaves into two-inch pieces prior to sautéeing it in a little bit of butter.

Again, you'll see the final chard in the plating photo.

I heated some canola oil and put the squab in the pan, skin side down for about 4 minutes, then turned them and cooked them for another 3 minutes, then let them rest while I heated up the Quick squab sauce (again, see pages 228-229 in the book) and cubed the foie gras.

I started plating just before cooking the foie. First on the plate was the squab sauce, followed by the chard and dried figs. I then cooked the cubes of foie gras and put a piece on each plate, then added the squab breast. I did not cut and then french the wing prior to cooking as the book suggested, because I was a little pressed for time this particular evening and decided to forego that step. I also did not diagonally slice the squab breast into three pieces because, again, I did not manage my time properly and this dish was going to be pre-dinner treat for my friends and neighbors and I didn't want to delay their dinner plans. But enough excuses out of me; here's the final dish:

Are we at Hooters? Stop staring at my rack.... I'm referring to what looks like a chicken wing on the plate. Maybe I should've frenched those wings, huh? Forgive me Thomas Keller, for Hooterizing one of your gorgeous, gorgeous dishes (see the photo on page 175 of the book for what this really should look like). And, I'm sorry about the turd-tastic looking figs in the photo above. They looked much better in real life -- not like doody at all. There were some mixed in with the chard as the book directed, but I also put some extra ones on the plate because hey -- who doesn't love figs?

The foie made the house smell great, and the dish was delicious. This was the first time some of my friends had eaten foie gras, and there were mixed reactions, which is totally to be expected. This was also the first time many of us had eaten squab, and the two ten-year olds who tasted it said upon eating their first bite, "Hey, this tastes like eggs!" I had only eaten the squab with all the other elements of the dish, so I took a small bite of squab on its own and really tasted it. Yep, tastes just like a hard-boiled egg.

This dish was very rich and hearty, and I liked it. Would I make it again? Probably not. It's expensive for something that didn't really deliver a one-two punch of awesomeness. I did like the dried figs, and I think I'll make some more to nosh on over the next few days. They were delicious. The chard was better in the duck dish. It was a little disappointing in this one.

In all, this dish didn't suck, but I didn't love love love it. The lesson I learned from making this dish, however, is that if my current career becomes too much of a burden, I've already got the innate skillz to be a line cook at a place where orange terrycloth shorts are still in fashion. "Delightfully Tacky, Yet Unrefined" goes their slogan. Yeah, that pretty much sums me up.

Up Next: Agnolotti -- either the sweet corn, or the sweet potatoes. Maybe both!

Squab from D'Artagnan
Swiss Chard, figs and chives from Whole Foods
Foie Gras from Hudson Valley

Music to Cook By: Maximo Park; Our Earthly Pleasures. I first heard Maximo Park on a KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic podcast. I listened to the segment and thought, "eh, these guys aren't bad." I downloaded a few songs and forgot about them. Lately, when my iPod is on Shuffle, a Maximo Park song ends up on the rotation, and everytime it does, I like it. So, I downloaded their albums and I really like them. They're a little Smiths and Smashing Pumpkins, with some 80s singer-songwriter, and a dash of punk. Perfect music to hack squab by!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Roulade of Pekin Duck Breast with Creamed Sweet White Corn and Morel Mushroom Sauce

Guess what you can pre-order on Amazon? Michael Ruhlman's new book -- The Elements of Cooking.

As you know, Ruhlman is the writer behind The French Laundry Cookbook, as well as a host of other wonderful books. In a piece he wrote to share why he wrote this latest book, Ruhlman said:

It's a way of thinking about food. I wanted to write a book that would have told me, ten years ago, everything I needed to know in order to learn the rest. In order to put good food on the table for my family, in order to make it through a night of service on the line without having my ass handed to me. The Elements of Cooking is a glossary of cooking terms. It is opinionated but it is not dogmatic -- I tell you what defines a braise, and I'm right, but people will argue with me, and I want them to. The Elements of Cooking is a reference book, but it also describes a way of thinking about food, describes a way to be aware in the kitchen, how to see.

Doing French Laundry at Home has already changed the way I look at, think about, and prepare food. I've never had any culinary training, and I'm grateful for books like The French Laundry Cookbook and now The Elements of Cooking, because they can only make me better at the one thing I love to do most, whether I'm marinating foie gras or making a grilled cheese sandwich. You all know I'm a big fan of Ruhlman, and I've already pre-ordered the book. I hope you will, too.

On to the food!

In contrast to the last post in which the mere thought of cheese and sauerkraut made me gag, I was really looking forward to making this dish. Duck and corn with a morel mushroom sauce? Sign me the heck up. Keller's approach to duck in this dish is something that seemed very appealing to me. I rarely make duck, but I do order it in restaurants when the preparation sounds like it will be good. Most of the time, it's overcooked or dry, and seeing this recommendation of a roulade was something I never would've come up with on my own. I couldn't wait to try it.

This was the last week to get fresh corn at the farmer's market, so I loaded up and bought way more than I needed for this dish. It was fun to sit out in the front yard and husk the corn, then come inside and cut it off the cob, blanch and freeze the extra. The weather was beautiful and it reminded me of when I was a kid and my mom and grandfather used to sit outside our house doing the very same thing. It was such a treat to have "fresh" corn in the middle of winter back then, and now I'm looking forward to the very same thing this winter.

I shucked the five ears of corn required for this dish, three ears of which went into the blender to make a purée. I poured the purée through a strainer and let the corn juice drip through into a bowl:

This yielded a little over a half-cup of corn juice. I blanched the other two ears worth of corn, cooled it in an ice bath, drained it, and dried the kernels on paper towels. I put both the corn juice and the corn in the refrigerator until I was ready to do the final steps.

The next thing I did was get the duck ready. I ordered duck breast from Hudson Valley when I bought my foie gras, so all I had to do was cut off the skin, cut it in half, and cut both halves into rectangles. I seasoned the underside with a mixture of salt, pepper and ground allspice:

Next, I blanched a few leaves of swiss chard for the roulade:

After they'd been in the boiling, salty water for about 3 minutes, I put them in an ice bath, then dried them in paper towels. I laid them on a cutting board and removed the center rib. I rolled each duck breast lengthwise, then wrapped it in swiss chard -- 2 leaves per duck breast:

I then wrapped each roulade tightly in plastic wrap and put them in the refrigerator for a little more than an hour:

During this time, I soaked the morels in a few changes of warm water to clean them and get them ready for the sauce. When the duck had sufficiently chilled, I removed them from the refrigerator, brought a pot of water to 190 degrees and put both roulades in the water for 7 minutes:

While they were cooking, I made the morel sauce. I melted a tablespoon of butter in a skillet, added the mushrooms, then added a third of a cup of "quick" duck sauce (if you have The French Laundry Cookbook, it's on page 228, and it's anything but quick), followed by some chives, shallots, some brunoise and parsley. I removed it from the heat and stirred in two more tablespoons of butter:

By this point, it was time to take the duck out of the water and let it rest for a few minutes before slicing it. While the duck was still wrapped and resting, I made the creamed corn. I whisked the corn juice over medium heat until it thickened, then stirred in 4 tablespoons of butter, then added the corn kernels and a little bit of salt and pepper. You'll see the creamed corn in the final plating.

Last, but not least, I sliced the roulade and plated everything. First on the plate was a spoonful of the Quick Duck Sauce (not to be confused with duck sauce from a Chinese restaurant -- not even close), topped with some creamed corn, then the duck, then the morel sauce:

I can tell when I'm plating whether or not I've got a winner, and this was certainly was. The duck was a little on the rare side, which I love, but some of my tasters preferred it a little more well done. Regardless, we all agreed this was a big hit. I love that I can adapt it as a main course when I have people over for dinner. The crunch of the sweet corn with the earthiness of the morels, the hearty chard, and the succulent, perfect duck made me incredibly happy. Each bite was a pleasure, and if anyone ever needs to buy me a present, I'll happily take gift cards to Hudson Valley so that I can order their duck and prepare it this way again.

Now that we've established that the duck was a hit, let's talk about the creamed corn for a minute or two or nine million, because WOW it was delicious. This hasn't been a good year for the corn crops in the mid-Atlantic. We haven't had much rain, and our corn yield hasn't been good at all. There's one farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland that redoubled their irrigation efforts to produce good corn (and they still only sold it for $4.75 a dozen), and it was outstanding. It's the kind of corn you don't even have to butter when you eat it off the cob. This quality corn in Keller's creamed corn preparation was outstanding. I had a little creamed corn leftover after plating, so I hid it in the refrigerator from my guests and heated it up the next day for lunch. It's absolutely delicious. I rearranged my schedule on Sunday so that I can go to our farmer's market with the hopes that there might be one more corn-buying opportunity, so that I can make this again. It's that good.

Up Next: Pan-Roasted Breast of Squab with Swiss Chard, Sautéed Duck Foie Gras, and Oven-Dried Figs

Duck from Hudson Valley
Corn from Musachio Produce at the Takoma Farmers Market
Swiss chard, butter, shallots, chives, parsley and morels from Whole Foods

Music to Cook By: Prince; Planet Earth. I'm a sucker for anything Prince puts out; good or bad, it's always interesting and different. While there aren't necessarily any catchy singles, this album is a lot closer to what Prince was doing back in the late 70s/early 80s, and it has a lot of soul with a side order of funk. If you have $10 or an iTunes giftcard burning a hole in your pocket, this is a good album to download. You won't be disappointed, I promise.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Tête de Moine with Sauerkraut and Toasted Caraway Seed Vinaigrette

Before I get started, have you seen the new feature in the right-hand column? Scroll down for a sec and check out "What Else Did I Eat This Week?" which I created in response to regular emails asking how I used leftover ingredients from these dishes, as well as requests for me to share other cooking ideas. I'm keeping this blog focused on one thing -- cooking my way through The French Laundry Cookbook. But, I thought it might be fun to show you different ways I incorporate some of the elements in these dishes into my everyday eating. Plus, you'll get countless opportunities to bust my chops for the inevitable, recurring appearance of Pad Thai and coffee on the list. Everyone needs a vice. Or two.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming... the Tête de Moine with Sauerkraut and Toasted Caraway Seed Vinaigrette. I hate to say it but from the outset, this dish had three strikes against it.

Strike 1 -- Rye bread croutons. I hate rye bread and have detested it from the moment I first tasted it in third grade. Even the smell of it gives me the dry heaves. I may be exaggerating a wee bit (who, me?) but you get the gist.

Strike 2 -- Caraway seeds. Remember the Poli-Grip commercial from the 70s where they show how their denture adhesive is so strong that a little seed can't even get between your gums and your dentures? The seed they used in their demo was a caraway seed, and ever since then I've associated caraway seeds with toothless elderly people.

Strike 3 -- Cheese and sauerkraut. Bleargh. Sauerkraut is something you eat on New Year's Day, and you have it with pork chops and mashed potatoes to bring good luck in the new year. I can't imagine this is a tradition limited to my family or our PA Dutch culture. The rest of you did this too, right? Anyway. Cheese and sauerkraut? Am I wrong to have a visceral reaction to this? THANK you.

This dish took nearly a week to make; the sauerkraut is a five-day process. It all started with half a head of cabbage:

I cut the cabbage into somewhat of a chiffonade and put it in a bowl. In a saucepan, I brought to a boil some champagne vinegar, white wine, salt and sugar. After it came to a boil, I turned off the burner and let the liquid come to room temperature. The first night I did this, I ran across the street to visit my neighbors for a little while, and when I came back in the house, I was assaulted with the smell of feet. I took the shoes that had accumulated under the coffee table and threw them onto the front porch, and still the smell would not go away. I took all the dog's blankets off his bed and put them in the laundry. I ran all over the house trying to figure out what had gotten trapped and died behind a wall somewhere. And then, I walked into the kitchen and saw the liquid in the saucepan... still a little bit warm, but almost room temperature. I'm glad it wasn't a dead animal, and I'm glad I didn't have to throw away all my shoes, but I'm sure you can imagine how excited I was to be prepping something that for the next five days would smell like a 7th grader's gym locker.

Once the liquid came to room temp, I poured it over the cabbage in a bowl:

I covered it with foil and refrigerated it for 24 hours. The next night, I drained the cabbage, rinsed it with cold water, put it back in the bowl, made the vinegar/wine mixture again and soaked the cabbage in it for another 24 hours. After the 5th day of repeating this process, I drained and rinsed it and put it in a baking dish.

I covered the baking dish with foil and put it in a 275-degree oven for 2 hours. When it was done, I let it cool to room temperature and put it in a container to store in the fridge for another day until the cheese arrived at my cheese shop.

Let's talk about the cheese for a minute. Tête de Moine translates as "monk's head." When I picked up the Tête de Moine, it was much smaller than I'd imagined. I had the fleeting idea that I might take the shuttle to New York and have a friend who also happens to be the only monk I know hold the cheese up next to his head to compare, but I opted not to.

To cut the cheese (HA! Clearly, I am nine), The French Laundry Cookbook recommends using a Girolle:

I opted not to buy one and went with the book's alternate suggestion of cutting the Tête de Moine into triangles. Except, I didn't really do that, either, now that I think about it. I'm getting off track here. You'll see how I cut the cheese (sorry, again, nine here) at the end of the post.

Where were we? Oh yes, the sauerkraut is done and the cheese is here. The last thing I had to do was make the caraway vinaigrette. I chopped half an onion and simmered it in water for ten minutes to soften it. When it was done cooking, I drained it and put the onion into my blender. I added sherry vinegar, dry mustard, salt, sugar and white wine vinegar. I puréed the mixture for about a minute, then slowly poured in some olive oil. I then added toasted caraway seeds and blended the vinaigrette until the seeds had been sufficiently ground. I strained the dressing into a small bowl and got ready to plate. I ignored the book's directions to serve this with a rye bread crouton. No can do. I made croutons out of a baguette instead.

To plate, I put a small spoonful of vinaigrette in the center of the plate. I put the crouton on top of that, some sauerkraut to the side, and a small wedge of cheese on the other side:

I will confess that all week my neighbors jokingly asked, "Hey, when are we having that nasty-sounding dish?" and I sort of had to agree. The thought of it was not as appetizing as prospect as some of the other dishes in this book. But I was willing to give it a taste. My tasters claimed to like it, and they finished everything on their plates, but I didn't love it. First, the croutons got a bit chewy because it's so freakin' hot and humid here this weekend. I should've quadruple-ziploc'd them. The sauerkraut was too acidic for my taste. I loved the cheese, and I didn't hate the dressing. I didn't save the leftover dressing, and I'll be delivering the leftover sauerkraut to my neighbor who claims he has a whole mess of hot dogs he wants to eat tomorrow. As for the cheese? That's staying here. It was really delicious and will make a nice afternoon snack all week long.

I wouldn't make this dish again. It wasn't completely sucky... it just isn't something I'll remember fondly.

Up Next: Roulade of Pekin Duck Breast with Creamed Sweet White Corn and Morel Mushroom Sauce

Cabbage and onion from Whole Foods
Tête de Moine and baguette from Arrowine
Bogle Sauvignon Blanc
Caraway seeds from TPSS Co-op
Vinegars, mustard, seasonings from my pantry

Music to Cook By: Art of Noise; (Who's Afraid of?) The Art of Noise. I used to looooove these guys back in 1984-85 and haven't thought about them much since then. For some reason this week, I remembered the title of one of their songs: "Paranoimia" and then remembered the little girl from the "Close (to the Edit)" video. Since then, I've been on an Art of Noise downloading frenzy. Because I made you sit through a post about cheese and sauerkraut, let me leave you on a positive note -- chainsaws and pianos! La, la, la indeed!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Five-Spiced Roasted Maine Lobster with Port-Poached Figs and Sautéed Moulard Duck Foie Gras

You guys!!! Thanks for all the email, comments and kind wishes for my loser move Sunday night. I feel so stupid. People burn themselves all the time, people are starving in Ethiopia, blah, blah, blah.... my hands were throbbing and stinging too much to type last night and I feel like a wuss. And, thanks to these burns, my George Costanza hand-modeling career is OVER... OVER, I tell ya.

Therefore, this dish shall henceforth be known as the Fig Sauce Pan of Death dish. Or, maybe Carol Needs To Learn to Use One of the Six Hundred Forty-Two Oven Mitts and Hot Pads She Already Owns Because Really How Stupid Can One Person Be, I Mean, Doy? dish. Oh yeah, you read that right. I'm bringing back "Doy." "Duh" is overused. I'm goin' old school. 1981, represent! (And no, I did not take any Percocet before writing this, shut UP.)

I'm going to spare you photos of my charred, blistering, bandaged left hand because it's gross and I feel like such a dorkus malorkus. The right hand is less damaged, but equally as unphotogenic; but enough about me... I've numbed myself sufficiently enough to type, so let's talk about the food. Because in spite of all my dumbassery, this dish was good. It had three of the most decadent, luxurious, delicious, gorgeous, succulent ingredients known to man: lobster, foie gras and figs.

The first thing I did was prepare the foie. Wanna see it? You know you want some foie porn, dontcha?

Prior to this photo, I removed the foie from its packaging, rinsed it under cold water, and patted it dry. Next, I put it in a ziploc bag and filled that bag with whole milk so the foie could soak in it for 24 hours:

The next day, I removed the foie from the milk, rinsed it under cold water and let it rest under a damp towel on a cutting board until it came closer to room temperature. Then, I deveined the sucker. Again, no photos of this because it was late at night and I didn't want to drag anyone out of bed to come photograph what I find to be a totally awesome and satisfying process, but that most normal people are repelled by. Some other time, I promise.

After I deveined the foie gras and put it back together, I rubbed it with a combination of white pepper, salt and sugar, put it in a container, covered it tight with plastic wrap pressed against the foie, and then wrapped the whole container in plastic wrap and kept it in the fridge until I was ready to cook and serve it the following evening.

Another prep step the day before serving was to get the lobster meat out of some pesky little lobsters. The recipe called for three lobsters, but I forgot that when I stopped by BlackSalt, so I only picked up two lobsters. One had bigger claws than the other, and he pounded the other one in the head repeatedly for no apparent reason, other than he was being a bit of a dick. Thus, let me introduce you to Ike and Tina:

Tina succumbed to the hot water bath quickly, but Ike put up a fight until the bitter end. I will confess that he was still moving around a bit when it was time to "de-meat" him, even though he had steeped for the requisite 3 minutes. Funny, I thought Tina would have been the survivor. This is one case in which life did not imitate art. Or something like that. Anyhoo, wanna see the gorgeous lobster meat? Man, it's a food porn two-fer tonight:

I put the lobster meat on a paper towel-covered plate, sealed it with plastic wrap, and put it in the fridge overnight.

I spent Sunday afternoon with my family and some family friends celebrating my mom's, um.... forty*cough*something*cough*th birthday... and when I came home, it was time to finish the prep and get the dish ready for serving to my lovely friends and neighbors. Little did they know they were going to play the role of triage nurse the moment they walked through the door. But I digress. Shocker.

Want some fig porn? You know you do:

Those are my lovely black mission figs sitting in the Saucepan of Death, soaking in the port wine as I brought the liquid to a boil. I removed the pan from the stovetop, covered the figs and port with a parchment lid, and put the pan in a 350-degree oven for an hour and a half. While the figs were poaching, I prepped the other fig sauce ingredients. Here's the chopped bittersweet chocolate and ground coffee beans:

I took the lobster meat out of the fridge to bring it to room temperature and get it ready for the final poaching. IN BUTTER. Aw yeah, baby. You know how I roll. Well, how Thomas Keller rolls.

I also got the squab spice mixture ready -- I know... squab spice on lobster? Made me gag at first, too, until I thought about it. It's not actual squab, but what you might use in a squab dish: quatre-epices, peppercorns, cloves, coriander, and cinnamon. Wanna see the before and after?

I sneezed eleventy million times after taking a big whiff, but yowza... this smelled good, and I knew it would be great in this dish.

When the figs were done poaching in the oven, I removed the saucepan USING AN OVEN MITT and plucked three figs out of the pan and put them in the blender with the chocolate and coffee. While they were puréeing, I used tongs to remove the other figs from the saucepan and put them in a bowl. I kept the blender running, removed the plastic center cap on the lid and reached for the fig-poaching saucepan to pour in the reduced port wine and stood there for a second while I realized that the handle was melting my flesh, let loose a very long, loud, creative string of expletives, semi-dropped the pan, saved it with my right hand which was also NOT COVERED WITH AN OVEN MITT because I thought the reduced port wine was more important than the health and well being of my hands which, hello, perform my clients' work all day long, which may or may not sometimes include long-ass run-on sentences like the one I'm writing right now. Now that I'd burned both hands and sworn so much I made George Carlin look like the Dalai Lama, I hastily wrapped both hands in bags of ice AND KEPT COOKING because I am a freak.

I put the puréed mixture into a small saucepan and mixed in some minced shallots and chives, stirring with an ice-covered hand. Whew. I was done. Or, was I. NO I WAS NOT. There was foie gras to be made. Oh joy, oh bliss, oh happy day.

I got the foie out of the fridge, cut six three-quarter-inch slices, scored one side of the slice, seasoned with a bit of salt, and gave the neighbors the ten-minute heads up to come over for a tasting. It's at this point that I remember OH CRAP I FORGOT I ALSO HAVE TO COOK THE LOBSTER MEAT. I quickly covered the foie so it didn't oxidize in the next five minutes.

I melted two sticks of unsalted butter (no time for beurre monté at this point) in an ovenproof (HA!) skillet and sprinkled the lobster with the squab spice and some salt. When the butter had melted, I put the lobster into the skillet and heated it over low-medium heat for about two minutes. I then put it in the oven for 4-5 minutes to finish cooking.

When the lobster was done, I USED AN OVEN MITT to remove the saucepan from the oven. Do you know how hard it is to put an oven mitt over a hand that's wrapped in ice? It's NOT EASY, PEOPLE. But I survived. I channeled my inner Tina Turner and persevered. We don't need another hero. We don't need to know the way home. I'm nothing if not your Private Dancer. I mean, I'm Simply the Best. Ew, no. Oprah. Gag. Whatever. Insert your own Tina Turner reference here.

Okay, lobster is done. Figs are poached. Fig sauce is ready. The neighbors are walking in the door, and it's time to cook the foie slices. I removed the ice packs from my hands and focused on the foie gras. At $75+ a lobe, you don't want to mess with it. Too long in the pan and it turns to liquid. Fifteen seconds on each side, and done. The house smelled so amazing at this point. Time to plate.

First, some fig sauce, then a fig or two topped with some lobster and a splash of melted butter. Last, but certainly not least? A slice of sautéed foie gras.

This dish was rich, decadent, sweet, hearty, salty, fragrant, juicy, warm, and earthy... perfect for the crisp fall weather that we woke up to Sunday morning. My eight-year old neighbor wasn't enamored with the idea of foie gras, until I demonstrated how you can put a piece of it in a hot saucepan and it will be reduced to liquid in less than a minute. That cracked him up. He tried a bite, but didn't love it, and declared the lobster too spicy. The ten-year old tasted the foie, didn't gag, and tasted some more. The adults loved it. Port-poached figs are delicious -- I can see making those and serving them over homemade ice cream. As always, the lobster and foie were delicious. I will say that if I made this particular dish again, I'd use half the amount of squab spice on the lobster. I think it was too much... at least for my enjoyment. All in all, this dish was really, really good. Even though I had to eat it holding my fork between two ice-packed hands.

On an international-relations, call-the-UN note, we had a few small bits of leftover foie gras which we let the dogs try. My neighbor's dog is a bichon frisé, and he loved the foie. Of course he did; he's French. I have a nervous snarky dachshund who looked at the foie in his bowl, rolled his eyes at me, coughed like he was hacking up a lung, and walked away. Germans hate the French even on the canine level. Who KNEW?!

Up Next: Chocolate Cakes with Red Beet Ice Cream and Toasted Walnut Sauce or Tête de Moine (the sauerkraut takes five days to make; I'm on Day 4 and my house smells like feet. Good times...)

Foie Gras from Hudson Valley
Figs, shallots, chives, 365 butter from Whole Foods
Lobster from BlackSalt
Illy coffee
Ghirardelli chocolate

Music to Cook By: "Happy Happy Fun Time" -- perhaps my most favorite iPod playlist EVER. And, no it's not named after a bad Japanese game show, although it sounds like it, doesn't it? You know when you've been in a pissy mood, and a song comes on the radio or shows up in the iPod shuffle, and all of a sudden you're smiling and shaking your butt, dancing around the house (or in your car) like a doofus, rendering you completely unable to remember why you were such a stick-in-the-mud a few moments earlier? Yeah, well, make a playlist of those songs and call it "Happy Happy Fun Time." Here are some of the selections from this playlist that were standouts today: The Heat is On (Don Henley); Stop (Spice Girls); Man in Motion (from St. Elmo's Fire); The Real Slim Shady (Eminem); Barracuda (Heart); Tennessee (Arrested Development); Freedom (George Michael); Wild Thing (Tone Loc); Everybody Wang Chung Tonight (duh); Chori Chori Gori Se (Jimi Mistry); Keep On (Brady Bunch); Got to Get You Into My Life (Earth, Wind & Fire). I'm sure my neighbors looooove when this playlist is on, my windows are open, it's dark outside and the lights are on inside so they can get the full effect of my simultaneous lead and background vocals and exquisite choreography. Why I'm not famous, I'll never know. Meanwhile, maybe the big lesson here is less Happy Happy Fun Time = less Burny Burny Hand Time, no?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Please Stand By...

I burned my left hand (the entire palm and all fingers) pretty badly this evening while making the Five-Spice Roasted Maine Lobster. I also singed a small section of my right palm, so it's difficult (not to mention really painful) to type right now. I'm going to sit here with ice packs wrapped around both hands and hope they're not going to blister as badly as it looks like they will.

This sucks. I feel like such a loser. Note to self, remember which pans on your stovetop were in the oven for 90 minutes and then DON'T PICK THEM UP BY THE HANDLE WITH YOUR BARE HANDS.

Be back soon....

p.s. -- Happy birthday, Mom.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

"Oysters and Pearls:" Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca with Malpeque Oysters and Osetra Caviar

Man, re-entry from summer break has been tough. I don't know about where you live, but here in Washington, everything shuts down during Congress' summer recess. Life is hell leading up to the moment our nation's elected officials go back home, and things don't heat up again until Tuesday morning after Labor Day (unless you're in Larry Craig's office, then all bets are off. Yipes.) For those of us who live and work in the nation's capital, August is the only time to really unwind and check out. For most people in America, Labor Day is a fun and relaxing three-day weekend. For Washingtonians, it's either forced fun for three more days -- we will go to the beach and we will LOVE IT because our freedom is soon coming to an end -- or it's sulky, bratty behavior because we know Tuesday morning all hell is going to break loose.

The last three weeks of August were blissful and restful, but this past week was a typical post-Labor Day week here in town. Phones ringing off the hook, back-to-back meetings and conference calls, school bus traffic adding to rush hour again, no parking spaces anywhere, college students packing the streets of Georgetown, and you couldn't get a seat at a bar anywhere. I started my days at 7 a.m. and didn't finish working until 8 or 9 at night. Short breaks to grab food when I could, but spent most of the time working in clients' offices, meeting on the Hill, hanging out in TV and radio studios, or on campus for a new class I'm teaching at Georgetown.

In short, this week was hell. Why am I telling you all this? Because I had a mini-epiphany this week. I had NO TIME to cook, and for the first time ever, it really bothered me. I really resented having to work, and that the clients who pay me were taking time away from this project. I love my work, I love what I do, and I have the most amazing, smartest, best clients ever... but I got pissed off every time I drove past the market or slumped onto the sofa at 9:30 with some Thai carryout and saw The French Laundry Cookbook staring at me from the dining room table. Poor thing looked so neglected and so unloved. I know I said in my previous post that I was going to do the beet and chocolate extravaganza, but I didn't have time to make a grocery list, or source any of the ingredients I needed for anything. Honestly, even if I'd had the time, I wouldn't have had the brain power to do it.

On Friday, I woke up earlier than normal, finished my work in record time and got my ass back in the kitchen. I leafed through my planning notebook (yes, I've mapped out the dishes based on seasonality and prep time; Nerd Alert!) to see what I could pull off easily with little effort, minimal prep time, and readily available ingredients. And guess what my only option was? Oysters. My favorite.

I quit my bitchin' and headed off to BlackSalt to pick up some oysters. On the drive there, I tried to psyche myself up. Told myself this time it would be different. I was so desperate to cook that it would HAVE to be good. I promised myself this dish wouldn't suck like EVERY OTHER OYSTER DISH I'VE EATEN MY ENTIRE LIFE.

They didn't have Malpeque oysters, so I went with Canada Caps instead. This dish was supposed to serve 8 people, using 16 oysters, but I decided to halve the recipe because I was still feeling surly and annoyed that of all things, I was making a stupid oyster dish. I also skipped the osetra caviar because its market price is about $85-95/oz. and really... knowing how much I hate oysters, I wasn't going to spring for that since there was a greater than 99% chance my friends and I were going to throw away our individual servings after taking one bite to taste. So no caviar. Sorry.

Here are the oysters:

I put them in the refrigerator to keep them cold while I soaked the tapioca in milk for an hour. I used small pearl tapioca and whole milk:

I poured the tapioca right into the measuring cup and sat it on the stovetop, so it could get indirect heat from the warm oven. Putting it in a warm place helps speed up rehydration of the tapioca pearls.

After an hour of soaking (during which time I sulked about the fact that I was going to have to touch and look at those stupid oysters), I started the ball rolling on everything else. This is a quick dish with lots of steps that need to happen one after the other.

The first thing I did was pour the tapioca/milk mixture through a strainer, and then rinsed the tapioca pearls in cold water. I poured them into a small Le Creuset pan and let them sit on the stovetop while I started on the oysters. Looks like someone's beanbag chair exploded in here, doesn't it:

For the oyster prep, the first thing I did was strain the oysters and their liquor. Next, I cut pieces of cartilage out of snotwads... er, um, I mean I trimmed the oysters, removing the muscle and any other extraneous outer pieces:

After doing this, I whipped a half-cup of cream until it just started to hold its shape. I thought about using my Kitchen Aid for this, but instead used a new whisk my friend Jayme sent me as a gift. I put the whipped cream in the fridge for a few minutes until I needed it for this dish.

With all the prep done (which took about 4 minutes in total), it was time to cook. I put some milk and cream into the saucepan with the oyster trimmings and brought it to a simmer. I then strained it into the pan with the tapioca pearls and threw away the oyster trimmings left behind in the strainer. I cooked the tapioca on medium heat for about 8 or 9 minutes, until it had thickened a bit. I then reduced the heat a tiny bit and cooked it for another 6-7 minutes until it was done -- meaning the pearls were translucent and the mixture sticky. I turned off the burner and let the pan sit for a minute or two while I got the egg yolks ready.

I cracked four egg yolks into a bowl and mixed them with some of the oyster liquor:

I whisked them over a saucepan of hot water for about 3 minutes, creating a sabayon, then poured it into the tapioca. I added some freshly ground black pepper, some creme fraiche, and the whipped cream I'd made earlier:

I poured the mixture into custard dishes while I got the sauce ready:

To make the sauce I combined vermouth, minced shallots, a little bit of white wine vinegar, and the rest of the oyster liquor in a small saucepan and cooked it over medium heat until most of the liquid was gone. I then whisked in 8 tablespoons of butter, one tablespoon at a time. While I was adding and whisking each tablespoon of butter, I put the sabayon in a 350-degree oven for about 5 minutes. The last touch on the sauce is adding fresh, minced chives, and the oysters, just to warm them. Here's a shot of the finished sauce:

At this point, I'm smelling the sabayon in the oven and the sauce on the stovetop and inside my head I'm hearing Scooby Doo say, "HhhhRRRrrrrr????" because I'm expecting to smell something horrid, stupid and annoying, and damn if this dish isn't smelling AMAZING. But I know oysters. And oysters know me. And I am sure at their weekly oyster meetings they devise ways in which when they know they're going to my kitchen they can emit a lovely scent, but will resort to their usual nastiness and ruin a perfectly good dish. Because oysters are totally like that.

With a heavy sigh and a feeling that perhaps I may have a shellfish persecution complex, I took the sabayon out of the oven and spooned the sauce (with a few oysters in each serving) over the top. Here's what the dish looked like right before we tasted it:

And after we tasted it? No one vomitted. No one gagged. No one spit it into the sink. No one scraped their tongue with a spoon to remove all traces of oyster from their palate.

We all just sat there in amazement, not able to speak. The dish was good. Nay, it was GREAT. But my first bite consisted only of the tapioca/sabayon with a little sauce. I hadn't yet eaten an oyster -- just something that was oyster-infused. I took a deep breath, spooned some sabayon, sauce and an oyster and stuck it in my mouth. The texture of the oyster made my face twitch and contort like the Tasmanian Devil, but it was good. I thought I might be gacked out by the tapioca's texture, but in thinking about it while I was making this dish, I have fond memories of eating tapioca vanilla pudding for dessert growing up (it wasn't as good as chocolate pudding with the cool skin on top and the warm pudding underneath), so I figured I'd be okay with the texture and the taste. I still can't quite handle the texture of an oyster, though. Bleargh.

All in all, this dish was another certified French Laundry at Home PlateLicker™. We were beyond surprised, and when one of the kids didn't finish his serving, I ATE IT. You know what that means? I ATE TWO WHOLE SERVINGS OF AN OYSTER DISH. Someone call CNN or the Pentagon or something.

I will caveat this amazing experience by saying that if you've been playing along with The French Laundry Cookbook and using your own mad math skillz as you're reading this entry, you will notice that I halved the amount of oysters, but kept everything else at its regular amount. Everything still tasted oyster-y, but all the other foods and flavors held their own. Butter, chives, cream, milk, shallots, eggs... you name it, it wasn't overpowered by oysters. They were complemented by oysters. And that was awesome. And to be honest, I think the caviar might've overpowered everything, and I was happy with it just as it was. The shallots were a distinct highlight in flavor and texture -- a bit of a surprise, but a nice one at that.

People say Thomas Keller is a genius, and I've never doubted it for a minute. But now I know he's more than that, because he got me to eat an oyster and like it. I just hope he doesn't expect me to try soft-shell crabs again. EVER.

Up Next: Not sure, but it'll likely be the Tete de Moine, or the Chocolate/Beet dish.

Canada Cap oysters from BlackSalt
365 organic butter
Organic Valley milk and cream
Vermont Butter and Cheese creme fraiche
Eggs from Smith Meadows Farms
Vermouth from neighbor Holly's liquor cabinet (thanks!)
Shallots and chives from Whole Foods

Music to Cook By: Sadly, none. No, that's not a name of a band (although it sounds like it could be); I needed peace and quiet after the week I had, so I cooked in complete silence. I did, however, find myself singing "Oysters and peeaarrr-rrrlllss" to the tune of Prince's "Diamonds and Pearls" whenever I checked the book for the next step in the process and saw this recipe's title. That didn't get annoying. Much. I will give a quick plug to a new artist I've been loving, though -- Eric Hutchinson. Go find him on iTunes and download a few songs. He's fantastic. He's a local Maryland boy who is just now hitting the big time, and he's really, really good.