Thursday, October 25, 2007

Chocolate Cakes with Red Beet Ice Cream and Toasted Walnut Sauce

When my brother and I were little, we spent many a Saturday night with our grandparents or our grandmother and inevitably, as we'd take a break from playing cards with them or putting together a jigsaw puzzle, we'd eat ice cream with pretzels on the side. Sometimes it was chocolate ice cream, sometimes cherry... and every so often, we'd have peach ice cream, which is a miracle unto itself. But what made it taste so good was the preztel. There's just something about breaking off a piece of pretzel and scraping a bite of ice cream onto it. The combination of those tastes and textures that I loved back then I still crave today. Whether it's eating ice cream in a pretzel cone, or having a dish of pretzels nearby, I need that combination. I tried a variation with peanuts and Marcona almonds once, and it wasn't the same. Ice cream and pretzels -- now that's magic.

I knew I'd love this dish because on paper it looked like a fantastic combination of crunch and salt and sweet and creamy all on one plate. Anything made with bittersweet chocolate I knew I'd love, but beet ice cream? How could you not love that? I'm starting to drool and I don't want to short out my Mac, so let me get to the goods here, folks. I've kept you waiting long enough, I know.

The first thing I did was prepare the ice cream. The French Laundry Cookbook instructs the user to put a few beets through a juicer and proceed accordingly. I borrowed a friend's juicer for this dish, and when I plugged it in, it popped and sparked and promptly died. Luckily, I already had a bottle of beet juice in the pantry, so I used that instead, and thus skipped the whole adding of the pulp section later in the directions. Here's how I made the ice cream: I reduced 2 cups of beet juice over low heat until I had about a quarter-cup left. I removed it from the heat, covered it, and put it in the refrigerator. Next, I combined the milk and cream in a saucepan with a splash of beet juice (instead of pulp), brought it to a simmer, covered it, turned off the burner, and let it sit for 30 minutes.

I then strained the liquid, measured three cups of it (pitched the rest), and put it back in the saucepan. I added some sugar, and brought it up to a simmmer, dissolving the sugar by stirring as it was cooking.

In a separate bowl, I whisked 8 egg yolks (I thought about using 6 instead, but went with the full 8 and I'm glad I did) with the rest of the sugar. I then spooned in some of the hot milky beety mixture to temper the yolks and sugar, then poured the yolk mixture back into the saucepan where I kept it over low heat, stirring until it had thickened a bit more.

I poured the mixture through a strainer into a bowl sitting in an ice bath. I let the mixture come to room temperature before putting it in the refrigerator overnight, along with the beet juice reduction.

The next morning, I poured the beet reduction into the custard mixture, stirred to incorporate it and put it in my ice cream maker for about 25 minutes until it was ready to be scooped into a container and put in the freezer for a few hours:

You guys, this ice cream is soooooooo good. I'd be content to eat it on its own, so I'm glad this recipe made enough for me to have leftovers.

The next thing I did was make the walnut syrup and candied walnuts. I roasted the walnuts in the oven for about 15 minutes:

Then, I rubbed off their skins, which I found a strangely satisfying task. I had already made the poaching liquid (to see how that is made, click here), so I brought it to a boil, then added the walnuts and let them cook until the liquid had reduced:

I poured the walnuts and syrup through a strainer and put the syrup in the refrigerator for plating later. I placed the poached walnuts on a parchment-lined baking sheet, salted them liberally, and toasted them in the oven for about 35 minutes. When they were crunchy, I took them out of the oven and let them cool, then put them in a container to save them for plating:

Next, it was time to make the chocolate cakes, since they needed about two hours to cool after baking and I was on a deadline. The oven was already preheated from making the walnuts, so I prepped 10 4oz. souffle molds by spraying them with some nonstick cooking spray. You'll see in one of the later photos that my souffle molds were really more of a custard mold. I couldn't justify spending the money on buying more equipment when I already had something I thought would work just as well.

To start, I melted 8 oz. bittersweet chocolate and 8T butter in a bowl over a pot of hot water. I removed the bowl from the heat and let it come to room temperature. In the meantime, I whisked 3 eggs with some sugar over that same pot of hot water, then placed the bowl on my mixer stand and whipped it until the eggs had cooled and tripled in volume:

I folded in the melted chocolate/butter mixture as well as a quarter-cup of heavy cream, which I'd whisked until it had soft peaks. I spooned this mixture into the ten molds and put them in a roasting pan in a warm water bath:

These guys went into a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes, after which time I laid a sheet of aluminum foil over top and let them back for another 20-25 minutes, until the tops were shiny and the cakes set. I took them out of the oven and out of the waterbath and let them cool in their molds on a baking rack for about two hours.

We're in the homestretch, and the only thing I had left to do was make the beet chips. I love beet chips, and I keep forgetting how easy it is to make them at home, and I'm happy to be reminded of it through this dish.

I took three small-ish beets, peeled them, and sliced them thin with my mandoline:

I dusted each one with flour and put them in batches of about 20 into a pot of 275-degree canola oil. Each batch took about 5-7 minutes to cook until they stopped bubbling and were crisp.

I drained them on paper towels (still the ugly floral ones, which is why there is no photo of them), salted them, and got the dishes ready for plating.

Here's the final dish: a spoonful of walnut syrup, topped with the chocolate cake, which sits next to a scoop of beet ice cream and some candied walnuts, topped with a little bit of confectioners sugar, then topped with beet chips.

I can hear you asking, "Carol, that looks delicious, but, dude, why is there potting soil on the plate?" Yeah. The cakes completely fell apart and I had to dig them out of the molds with a spoon to get them on the plate. Pastry is not my forté, as you are clearly learning if you've been a longtime reader of this blog. I need some pastry lessons - STAT! But let's talk about how this tasted... there are no words. Well, that's not entirely true; I could use words like delicious. Sumptuous. Magnificent. Beet-tastic. Salty. Sweet. Crispy. Creamy. Magical.

I love when a dessert mixes textures, tastes and temperatures successfully and blows you away. What I also love about this dessert is that I could have served any of these elements separately and they could've stood alone and been delicious. But when you mix them, they are more powerful and make you linger at the table a little longer to see if anyone doesn't finish theirs so you can swoop in and clean that plate yourself.

I'd make this dessert again in a heartbeat. And, now that I have some extra beet ice cream in the freezer, I'm heading out to the market in a few minutes to pick up some pretzels to go with it. Anybody up for cards?

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

Beets from Glenville Hollow Farms
Organic Valley cream and milk
Eggs from Smith Meadows Farm
Walnuts from TPSS Co-op
Bogle Chardonnay
Scharffen Berger chocolate
365 organic butter
Biotta beet juice

Music to Cook By: This is almost embarassing to admit, but -- Stephanie Mills: Greatest Hits. I can totally hear you laughing at me. Shutty! "I Feel Good" and "Feel the Fire" (her duet with Teddy Pendergrass) are just awesome. And "Home"? Love it. It reminds me of college, but I'm not sure why. I know I went through a bigtime Anita Baker phase back in the day, and I recall listening to Stephanie Mills on WPGC here in DC, but I can't tell you why I started downloading her stuff and listening to her again. I'm glad I did, though.

Friday, October 19, 2007

White Corn Agnolotti with Summer Truffles

As my parents, friends and every teacher I've ever had from kindergarten through college can attest, I have verbal diarrhea. Actually, it's more like verbal explosive diarrhea because it's less of a constant yammering and more that sometimes I hear things unexpectedly shooting out of my mouth and while I can't stop it from happening, I'm half-horrified and half-amused at myself for being this way. Most people think things. Me? I actually think them out loud. Verbally. Loudly. Sometimes inappropriately. Like I live in a nursing home or something.

A prime, albeit tame, example of this is when I strolled down one of the exterior aisles of my local Dean & Deluca a week or so ago, meandering past the cheese and charcuterie cases. I happened upon a small, laminated sign declaring the availability of the last of the season's summer truffles: "Yay, summer truffles! You have summer truffles, oh yay!" to no one in particular other than myself... or so I thought. In fact, this was one time I thought I was thinking it, and not actually saying it out loud. Loudly. People around me stared as if I had just farted in church, which really... I think those people probably need to get a life, because, c'mon! Summer truffles! Yay!

I'm really excited to do some of The French Laundry dishes with black truffles in the next few months, so it was nice to have a little teaser of things to come. I rarely cook with truffles because they are so pricey, but summer truffles are far less expensive ($22/oz. as opposed to black truffles at $75/oz. and white truffles costing about $325/oz.) so this was a fun dish to do. You'll see I still can't quite get the agnolotti shaped just right, but I'm going to practice. I'm kind of kicking myself for not asking the folks at Per Se to show me theirs (ooooo, dirty) since it was on the Vegetable Tasting Menu that night. I was just too caught up to remember to ask.

This dish didn't take all that long to do, now that I know what I'm doing (sort of).
I made the pasta dough first, because it had to rest on the counter for an hour. You've already seen how I made the pasta dough here, so I didn't re-photograph that step this time 'round. While the dough rested, I pulled together the filling, and then made the sauce.

The first thing I did was bring some vegetable stock and water to a boil in my small Le Creuset pot. I whisked the liquid and poured in the polenta, continuing to whisk it until it came back up to a simmer. I cooked it over low heat, stirring it until it formed a ball, and the cornmeal didn't taste raw anymore:

Next, I made the risotto for the filling. I brought some more stock and water to a simmer in one saucepan, and put the Arborio rice in a separate saucepan. Once the liquid had come to a simmer, I poured small quantities of it into the pan with the rice, and stirred until each bit evaporated. When it was finished cooking, it too was in the shape of a sticky ball, and I fed it through my meat grinder twice to grind it:

I put the polenta into a clean saucepan over low heat, then mixed in the ground risotto. When they were sufficiently combined, I added some mascarpone and butter and continued to stir until everything was combined. I put some corn juice (you can see how I made that here) into a small saucepan over medium heat and whisked it until it thickened and added it to the polenta/risotto/butter/mascarpone mixture.

I rolled out the pasta and put the corn filling into a pastry bag and piped a tube of it down the middle, then formed the agnolotti:

I put the agnolotti into the freezer for a few minutes while I handled a few business calls and emails, and prepped the ingredients for the corn/truffle/chive sauce. I also started a pot of water to boil so that it would be ready for the pasta when I was ready to cook it.

I out the rest of the corn juice in a small saucepan and whisked it over medium heat until it had thickened. I put it in the blender, and then mixed/blended in some room temperature butter. I strained this mixture into a sauté pan and turned the burner on low. The water was boiling by this point, so I put the pasta in the water.

To finish the sauce, I added just under a cup of blanched corn kernels, minced truffle and minced chives:

I drained the pasta and put it in the sauté pan with the sauce, and at the last minute drizzled a few drops of white truffle oil on top. On top of each serving, I shaved a teeny bit of Parmiggiano-Reggiano cheese:

The verdict? It was good, but not as good as the sweet potato/bacon agnolotti. That combo was so good, I've been searching the Internet to find a way to have my wisdom teeth grow back, so I can have them removed again to justify eating this filling as my mushy food for a week or so.

Back to this dish, though. I like the smell and taste of truffles, and I love corn, but this one needed some salt or something else to bring out the flavor a little more. I went back and re-read the ingredients and instructions, and there was no mention of salt, which I found surprising. The only time salt was used was in blanching the corn (which I did a few weeks ago and then froze it to thaw later for this dish). I also salted the water I boiled the pasta in, but it wasn't enough. This dish needed some salt. I added my own at the table, but I think if I ever made this again, I'd use it elsewhere in the preparation.

I had leftovers of this one, and let me tell you, it gets better the second day. Even though I think I made my pasta sheets too thick this time, it was still pretty good. Again, not as good as the sweet potato/bacon agnolotti, but not a bad showing.

Wine Pairing: Joseph Drouhin, Chablis-Les Clos. Yes, you CAN pair a white with truffles, and this one worked better than I thought it would.

Up Next: Chocolate Cakes with Red Beet Ice Cream and Toasted Walnut Sauce (for realz this time, yo)

Summer truffles from Dean & Deluca
Estancia polenta
Corn from Musachio Produce
Bellino Arborio rice
Parm-Reg and chives from Whole Foods
Vermont Butter & Cheese Co. mascarpone

Music to Cook By: Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova; The Swell Season. Whether or not you've seen the film "Once," you should have a listen to these two. It's on the strummy-strummy-la-la side, but it's a little more coarse. I heard them on a KCRW podcast a few months ago and have been downloading their stuff ever since. Their song, "Lies" is so beautiful, although I can understand why someone on Amazon tagged it with "makes me want to smash my radio." It's all about perspective, I suppose. On another tip, I've also been listening to a lot of Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings and digging their groove. Look at me and how cool I am with my "digging their groove." I am such a fresh hep cat. Their album "100 Days, 100 Nights" is fantastic. They also have a tune called "Hook and Sling Meets the Funky Superfly" that I just love. Their music is what I play to clean up after a day's cooking because emptying the dishwasher is more fun when you can bust a move.

Monday, October 15, 2007

French Laundry at Home Special Edition: My Dinner at Per Se

Guess where I ate dinner Friday night?

Yep, Per Se.

I had to be in New York on business this past weekend, so I called a few days prior to my trip to get on the waiting list. I never expected to get in and had given up hope and made reservations elsewhere, when lo and behold, I was sitting in Le Pain Quotidien in Chelsea, sipping a lovely coffee when my Blackberry started going batshit. I answered the phone, and it went a little something like this:

Me: "Hello?"

Per Se: "Hi, Carol, it's [name withheld] from Per Se."


Per Se: [Giggling] "We just had a cancellation for a 9:45 seating and I'd like to see if you would like to join us."

Me: "WWWWWWOOOOOOOWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!!!!!! I mean, yes, ahem, of course. I would be honored."

Per Se: "Great; now, do you need to check with your other party to ensure that time works for them?"

Me: "That person will be DEAD to me, should they decide they cannot make it. We will be there."

Per Se: "That's great -- we can't wait to have you join us."

Me: "Me too. I think I'm going to go pass out now."

Per Se: "Ha, ha, ha, I hope you do not do that."

Me: "No, hyperbole is my middle name. I'm actually going to go dance up and down the street like a moron and grin from ear to ear like some kind of mental patient."

Per Se: [probably wondering if they should even let me in the Time Warner building] "Oh, Carol, you are so funny. See you tonight!"

And that, my friends, was my Friday afternoon. Knowing I would be having the most amazing dining experience later that night, I decided to let my giddiness carry me into the West Village where I promptly dropped way more money than is necessary on the greatest, most awesome Hayden-Harnett bag at Verve. I justified the expense by telling myself that I needed a special accesory-related memento for my evening, and thus this new bag would henceforth be known as my "Per Se bag." Hey, I'm a girl. We do stuff like that sometimes.

I went back to my friend Todd Fries' apartment and we gabbed for a bit, showered, changed and got ready for dinner. Am I a total nerd in admitting that it felt like going on a first date? (Not with Todd; he doesn't play for my team, plus we've known each other since we were four) It really did. I was a little giddy, a little nervous, but really hopeful and ready to get going. I even put on eyeliner, people. Eyeliner. That should tell you how excited I was for this evening.

We got in a cab and rode uptown and just kept saying, "I cannot BELIEVE we are going to Per Se" and giggling like a bunch of doofuses (doofi?). We got there, sat in the bar area for a few minutes (where I had the smoothest, coldest, best Sidecar I've ever had), and then were seated at our table. We were on the upper level, right in the center, with a full view of the other 15 tables and the beautiful view of the park and the skyline across Columbus Circle. (note to self: eat at Per Se when it is snowing because I bet the view outside the windows is stunning then, what with the lights and all.)

I didn't photograph the food, because, well... because I didn't want to. It didn't seem right. I will, however, share with you what we ate. We thought about doing the wine pairings, but knew that with this much food, we'd want to go easy on our wine consumption, so we stuck with one bottle for the course of the meal: a Turley White Coat. Turley is so hard to find that whenever I see it on a restaurant's wine list, I have to have it. It worked well as a white, and heavied up when it needed to instead of having a red.

Ready for the food? Good. Here we go:

Salmon Tartare in Cornets

Gruyere Gougeres

Egg custard with truffle and chip

"Oysters and Pearls": I actually danced a little bit in my seat as they were presenting this dish; I was so happy to see it and even happier to taste it. It was outstanding, and makes me want to cook it all over again and spring for the good caviar. It made the dish even better, if that's possible.

Sautéed Hudson Valley Moulard Duck Foie Gras with Musquée de Provence Pumpkin, Tokyo Turnips, Wilted Dandelion Greens and Sauce Périgourdine: Without a doubt, one of the best flavor combinations I've ever eaten. The foie gras was seared to perfection, and the pumpkin was a nice surprise. This dish was so flavorful and texturally appealing that I will try this at home sometime. We had some really nice bread with this dish, as well as a few selections of butter, which both Todd and I would've happily eaten out of its little container, no bread required, it was that good.

Fillet of Pompano Doré with Red Kuri Squash, Rainbow Swiss Chard Ribs, and Green Pistachio Butter: It was delicious, but not a standout. You'll see why as I continue to share the menu with you because everything else just blew this one away by far.

"Macaroni N' Cheese": Again, a pure delight to be able to eat something that I've already made for this blog. If I do say so myself, mine was pretty damn good, but the version at Per Se was so rich and fragrant and just fantastic. It was really rich, and just gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous.

Aiguillette of Liberty Valley Pekin Duck Breast with Confit of Fennel Bulb, Compressed Mission Fig, Anise-Hyssop and Saporoso Vinaigrette: Duck me. Duck me hard. Duck me six ways 'til Sunday. This was was my favorite.

Pan-Roasted Ris De Veau with Ragout of Benton's Smoked Tennessee Ham, Corn Kernels, Collard Greens, and Black-eyed Peas with Mustard Seed-Veal Jus: As they brought this dish to the table, they were just two feet away when I could smell a pork product, my siren song of culinary indulgence. This dish was smoky and hearty, and even though Todd said he might have issues eating veal or anything veal-related, he loved this dish and rolled his eyes in delight at the first bite. I must say, I love sweetbreads and these were the best I've ever tasted. I don't think I ever would have been able to come up with this dish, because to me sweetbreads, ham and corn is not a combination that is top of mind. But it will be now, because this was fantastic.

Snake River Farm's Calotte de Boeuf Grillée with Crispy Bone Marrow, Abalone Mushroom, Rissolée of Fingerling Potatoes, Haricots Verts, and Sauce Bordelaise: Two bites into this one, and we're starting to feel the pain of indulgence. Crispy bone marrow?!?!?! Whose awesome idea was that? The beef itself was succulent and the preparation overall was perfect. Crispy bone marrow. I want to bathe in it... or at least eat it more often. Wow. Just wow.

Tete de Moine: Guess what?!?!? No frakkin' sauerkraut! Woo-hooooo!!! Instead, it was served with Marinated Greenmarket Carrots, French Green Lentils, Cilantro Shoots (which I picked out and put on my bread plate because, ew), and a Toasted Madras Curry Oil. The lentils were delicious. Much better than with stupid stank-ass feet-smellin' sauerkraut.

Chevre Noir with Extra Virgin Olive Oil-Poached Vine-Ripe Tomato, Young Lettuces, Brioche Crouton, and Kettle Garlic Soup: Again, feeling more pain of eating so much, but one sip of the garlic soup and I was re-energized to keep going. That garlic soup was amazing, but the combination of the cheese, tomato and brioche were so lovely.

Pomegranate Sorbet with Almond Pound Cake, Comice Pear Jam, and Per Se Granola: Dear Santa, this year for Christmas, I would like forty bajillion jars of the pear jam from Per Se, okay? Thanks. Love, Carol.

Palet D'Or: This was a chocolate dish that featured beaucoup de pamplemousse, which in English is grapefruit, which in Carol language is "glarrghhhh" because grapefruit whacks out my palate as badly as cilantro does. So, I asked if perhaps I could have the "Coffee and Doughnuts" dessert instead (because I had seen someone at another table have it, and it wasn't on the menu). So, what did they do? They prepared the chocolate dish using mint gelée and other chocolate and mint combinations, AND brought me the cappucino semifreddo and a doughnut. Both these desserts were beyond compare. I can't WAIT to make the "Coffee and Doughnuts" at home because now I know how good it can be. And, their willingness to try something different with the grapefruit substitution was so kind and wonderful. I love them all, I really do. (even you, Stephen Durfee... don't think there ain't enough love to go around when it comes to pastry chefs)

Gingembre et Pomme Vert with Granny Smith Apple Consomme and Frangipane Croustillante with Ginger Ice Cream
: I was so full by this point that I barely remember how it tasted, other than I know I didn't hate it. I was still in the love-haze from the Coffee and Doughnuts, that I've sort of blocked this one a bit.

Following the dessert service, they brought out a tray of chocolates with so many different options I just can't remember them all. The two we enjoyed the most were the "root beer float" and the "peanut butter" chocolates.

Following the meal, our table staff took us on a tour of the kitchen, prep areas, offices, and walk-ins. We met the staff (they were breaking everything down because it was 2 a.m. and yet they all had a smile and a friendly hello for us), we met and thanked Chef Benno, and got to see the video conference system they have in the kitchen to check in on The French Laundry. We got to see what was going on in The French Laundry's kitchen: everything from viewing the menu to seeing who was at work at which station. That was pretty damn cool, but not as cool as checking out all of Per Se's produce, meats and other items to be used in the coming days. I'm a little jealous that Saturday night's diners were getting rabbit, but that's okay. I got to see if before they did, and it looked beautiful. I'd never smelled a fresh yuzu before, either, and got to do that (ah, the simple things that please a nerd like me). Being able to go behind the scenes to see how it's all laid out and done was really remarkable, and I'm so grateful we were able to do that.

It almost goes without saying that the food was amazing and beyond compare. But I also have to take the time to tell you how wonderful the staff was. From the moment we were greeted until we were walking out the door with our goodie bags in hand (they gave us a few bags of macaroons AND a ton of chocolates), everyone was really cool and fun and so knowledgeable about everything. They were a delight, and our waiter in particular was just outstanding.

After that meal and such an amazing experience, I have to ask: is it medically possible to have a food hangover? I'm pretty sure I did. With all that food in my system, combined with the excitement of the night, and a fantastic bottle of wine, I slept fitfully and woke up Saturday morning feeling a little off. I spent some time with one of my clients that day, but took some time in the afternoon to walk in the crisp, fresh air, which helped. I had no appetite most of the day Saturday, but was rarin' to go on Sunday. I had a big event for one of my clients, after which I went to a late lunch with a friend and her family. We ate at a little place on W. 57th near 6th Avenue, and who should appear outside the window right where we were sitting? Eric Ripert. Hailing a cab with his wife and kid, and I couldn't even carry on the conversation I was having with my friend's father because I am a huge nerd and was completely and totally awestruck at seeing Eric Ripert in the flesh (well, maybe that's wishful thinking; he was clothed).

So, Per Se, the Dalai Lama, and Eric Ripert all in one weekend. Life doesn't suck, that's for sure. I smiled the whole flight home.

Up Next: White Corn Agnolotti with Summer Truffles

EDITED TO ADD: Some have emailed to ask me this (some people were nice about asking; others not so much), so I want to be explicit about my reply and let everyone know that this dinner was not comped or discounted in any way, shape or form. I paid for it out of my own pocket.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sweet Potato Agnolotti with Sage Cream, Brown Butter and Prosciutto

Nothing says "autumn's here" like 85-degree weather, eh? Here in the DC area, it feels like the middle of July and I'm not happy about it one bit. I'm used to September being warm, but once the calendar page turns to October, I want cool days and chilly evenings. I want to sleep under a pile of blankets because there's a cold, crisp breeze coming in through the open bedroom windows. I want to walk out onto the front porch one evening and smell my neighbor using his fireplace for the first time of the season. I want to wear long-sleeved shirts, sweaters and scarves, fer cryin' out loud. And, I want to wear my awesome new totally sexy leather boots. So, c'mon fall... where the hell are you?

I mostly want fall to be here because as much as I love all the fresh produce that summer is known for, my favorite season for cooking is fall. I love to make a big pot of chili on a Sunday for my football-watching friends. I love when a warm oven takes the chill off the evening as I'm cooking dinner. I love the arrival of squash, root vegetables, and the hearty produce in the farmer's market that means winter is just around the corner. I want to be buying things to roast, braise, stew and simmer so that as I watch the giant, hundred-year old pin oak in my backyard shed its leaves, I can enjoy my very favorite season and all the flavors and smells it brings.

So, let's just pretend it's 50 degrees outside and I'm wearing my new boots -- damn the torpedos and full speed ahead with a fall menu, I say. After the loveliness that was the Linguine and Clams last week, I craved more pasta with a little something more substantive than clams. Something pork-y and salty and good. What could that be? Oh, I dunno... BACON?!!!???!

This dish had so many good things going for it: bacon, sweet potatoes, homemade pasta, bacon, sage, bacon, prosciutto, brown butter, bacon, crème fraîche, bacon. Did I mention there was bacon in this dish? Oh, I did? Good. Because there was, and in all honesty, it could've used more. Bacon is the one thing that compels me to question how anyone could ever be a vegetarian.

Let's talk about the dish because there were a lot of flavors and textures, all of which worked really well together. If you have The French Laundry Cookbook but haven't dared to make anything from it yet, try this dish. The smells alone will make you grin from ear to ear... but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The first thing I did was put the sweet potatoes in aluminum foil with a little pat of butter in each one:

They baked in a 350-degree oven for about 90 minutes, and when they were done, I peeled them and put them through a ricer into my little Le Creuset pot:

Next, I lightly browned some diced bacon in a skillet:

Hello, lover.

I drained the bacon and added it to the sweet potatoes, and then added a pinch of squab spice, a little salt and pepper, and a few tablespoons of butter to make the agnolotti filling:

I put this in the fridge to chill while I made the pasta dough. By the way, is it weird that whenever I type or say the words "squab spice" I hear it in my head as "Squab spice, squab spice, squab, squab, spice" a la the theme to "Square Pegs"? Oh, it's not weird? Whew. That's good. I was beginning to wonder.

The next step was to make the pasta dough. You will be happy to know I did not resort to store-bought pasta sheets or any other reasonable facsimile thereof. I made this shiznit all by my damn self. Here's how it went down:

Pile of flour with a well in the middle for egg, egg yolks, milk and olive oil:

Some swirly-swirly circular counter-clockwise hand movement action to mix the eggs and pull in the flour as I danced this mess around (hi, CIA textbook editors; I am here for all your technical writing needs; call me!:

Shaggy ball o' dough:

Then, after 20-25 minutes of kneading, the final product:

I wrapped it in plastic wrap and let it sit on the counter for an hour while I did some work. After that hour was up, I cut the dough ball in two and used half of it for the agnolotti. I put it through the pasta roller attachment for my Kitchen Aid mixer, and unfortunately had it on the wrong, way-too-thin setting. I shredded the heck out of it. Not even shredded... just annihilated. Destroyed. Beyond recognition. Seriously, call Northrop-Grumman or something because I could totally take down terrorists with my pasta-roller setting skillz. There are no photos of this screw-up because I was so mad, and swearing was taking up all my energy. But imagine some circa 1981 high school girl's frosted, permed and feathered hair and make it eleventy billion times more damaged than that.

I took the other half of the pasta dough back out of the fridge, let it sit for a minute, cut it into two pieces and fed it through the pasta rollers on the correct setting. I followed all the feeding, folding, turning and re-feeding instructions in The French Laundry cookbook, and it turned out okay. Not great, but okay. Clearly I need practice. I laid it on the butcher block and got the filling out of the fridge:

Using a pastry bag, I piped a line of filling down the sheet of pasta:

I tried to follow the book's instructions for how to fold, pinch, then cut the agnolotti, and mine ended up looking more like ravioli:

You'll see the final cut and presentation of it in photos to come. Making this wasn't difficult, it just didn't look like I wanted it to look when I studied the photos in The French Laundry Cookbook. Oh well, I've got a few more opportunities to get it right. After I cut the individual agnolotti, I put them on a cornmeal-dusted baking sheet and stored them in the freezer until I was ready to cook them. I had some other things I needed to make before that happened.

To make the sage cream, I blanched one-third of a cup of sage leaves, cooled them in an ice-water bath and blotted them dry with paper towels. You'll see in the photo below that I folded the paper towels inside-out because I'm embarrassed that I accidentally bought paper towels with tacky flowers on them, and I'm already judging myself for the tackiness of said towels, so I figured you would, too, because after all there aren't any wars or famines or serious problems in the world, and I know everyone on the entire Internet is laughing at my impossibly tacky flowered paper towels:

Okay, you can stop mocking my paper towels now. Note to self: Call Bounty and ask them why the hell they can't just make plain white paper towels ONLY, so I won't make the same mistake again. Gah.

I put the blanched sage leaves in the blender and chopped the heck out of them. In the meantime, I heated some crème fraîche, butter and salt over low heat until it was smooth. I turned the blender on low and poured the creamy mixture through the opening of the lid to make the sauce. I poured the finished product through a strainer into a large skillet and let it sit on a low-heat burner:

I let this sit on the stove for a few minutes while I brought the water to a boil for the agnolotti. During this time, I sliced some prosciutto and deep fried some baby sage leaves in canola oil to use in the final plating. When the water came to a rolling boil, I put the agnolotti in and cooked them for about 4-5 minutes.

I took them out of the water with a strainer-spoon and put them into the sage cream sauce. I let them warm in the sauce while I melted some butter and heated it until it was a nutty brown color.

My friends started arriving at this point and everyone who walked in the house was delighted by the smell. My 10-year old neighbor "M" looked at everything and wasn't sure she'd like it. She watched me plate it and nibbled on her fingernail in curiosity.

First on each plate went six agnolotti and some of the sage cream sauce. I drizzled a bit of brown butter on top of that, then topped it off with prosciutto and the crispy fried sage leaves:

If I had been served this dish at The French Laundry, I think I would've jumped up out of my chair, thrown my arms around Thomas Keller, and planted a hundred kisses all over his face. This dish is that good.

It's beyond a certified FrenchLaundryAtHome PlateLicker™ -- it's one of the best things I've ever eaten. EVER. I may have to come up with a new category or designation -- perhaps it shall be called a ThomasKellerFaceKisser™. Is that wrong? If it is, then I don't wanna be right.

The pasta was cooked to perfection and the sweet potato-bacon filling was creamy, hearty (but not heavy) and delicious. The sage cream and brown butter were silky and warm and lovely. The prosciutto added another layer of porkiliciousness to the dish, and I was most surprised at how much I loved the crispy deep-fried sage leaves. I actually toyed with the idea of not making them at all, but I'm glad I did. I haven't always been a big fan of sage because it can be so overpowering in a dish. But here? It was a much-needed and perfect balance to the rest of the elements on the plate.

This is a dish I will add to my rotation of things to make to impress someone, or for a holiday, or hell, just because I want to. And, I'm happy to report that I have a little bit of the filling and some of the sage cream left over, so I'll toss that with some fresh fettucine for lunch tomorrow, or maybe do an omelet filling or topping.

I can't wait to make this again. Who wants to come over?

Wine Pairing: Imagine Chardonnay, 2004; Chalk Hill. This wine makes me happy. It's Chalk Hill's best-kept secret.

Up Next:
White Corn Agnolotti with Summer Truffles (I promise, the beet ice cream and chocolate cakes are coming soon)

Sweet potatoes from Musachio Produce Farm
King Arthur Flour
365 butter and sage from Whole Foods
Antica Italia olive oil
Eggs and bacon from Smith Meadows Farm
Crème fraîche from Vermont Butter and Cheese
LaQuercia prosciutto

Music to Cook By: Annie Lennox; Songs of Mass Destruction for kneading (thanks, Pastrymann; you were right -- it is a great album) and Calvin Harris for cooking. They couldn't be more different from one another, but I love them both equally.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

"Linguine" with White Clam Sauce

Forgive me, Thomas Keller, for I have sinned. It's been seven weeks since my last confession. What did I do this time, you ask? Did it, once again, involve oysters? No. Softshell crabs? ACK! No. It's more egregious than that: I used store-bought pasta instead of spending eleventy billion hours making my own capellini. Before you assign penance, O Wise Keller, please let me explain.

It was a hell of a week. One of the worst in the last 10-15 years. Work was beyond annoying, and the calls just wouldn't stop all week. To top it all off, not only did my dog require $900 worth of medical attention, I also found out I have skin cancer. [NOTE: I'm not turning this into a cancer blog, so if you want to learn more about malignant melanoma, you can click here. I am fine because I caught it really early and I've already had the spots removed and everything else tested normal. But I'm only going to say this once: please people, wear sunscreen, year-round, anytime you are going to be exposed to the sun -- even if only for a few minutes.]

Because it was a crap week, I tried various things to cheer myself up -- things that typically work when I'm in a funk. Taco Bell's Crunchwrap Supreme. Didn't work. Seeing someone trip and fall down on the sidewalk. Not even a chuckle. Making fun of America's Next Top Model. No go. I wanted to cook, but nothing seemed appealing or desirable in the least. I decided I wanted to make something from The French Laundry Cookbook, but I wanted relative instant gratification as a result. I wanted something cozy and warm and sort of fall-ish, but wouldn't take 27 hours to braise or reduce, nor involve three days of prep, nor placing any orders with (sorry, people, I still think that's funny).

I settled on the "Linguine" with White Clam Sauce (Keller puts linguine in quotes because he really wants you to use capellini in the dish) because I knew I could get everything at Whole Foods in one trip. I was finishing up my shopping when out of the corner of my eye, I saw the fresh pasta case. That capellini was sitting right there, calling to me. I thought about the flour, eggs and pasta roller/cutter waiting for me back home. And I said "F it" and grabbed that pasta out of the case, went through the checkout line, and drove home feeling dirty and ashamed.

So I did it. I bought already-made fresh pasta to use in a French Laundry dish. I will report that the earth did not open up and swallow me whole, and I do not believe North Korea fired any nukes in our direction, so at least things are looking up. But really, I totally feel like the Sandra Lee of the entire Internet. Please tell me I'm not. ::: crickets ::: Oh crap. First skin cancer, and now the entire Internet thinks I'm a Fandra. That's just great.

After I got home and showered off the semi-ho vibe, the first thing I did was make the garlic purée. I smashed some butter onto a double layer of aluminum foil, placed the garlic on top, then sprinkled a teaspoon of salt over them, wrapped up the foil, and put them in a 300-degree oven for a little over an hour:

When the garlic was done roasting, I squeezed the cloves out of the skin, and mashed them through a tamis, leaving this purée:

Everything else after this was easy. At the same time the garlic was roasting, I soaked the clams in a few changes of cold water, then scrubbed the shells with a brush. I put them in a small stock pot along with some garlic, shallot, thyme, bay leaves, and a little white wine:

I used a few more clams than The French Laundry Cookbook said to use, and I upped my other ingredients in the pot accordingly, because I wanted to have enough broth-then-sauce for the remaining pasta I knew I'd have. I covered the pot, turned on the heat, and after about four minutes, I started hearing the little pings and clangs of the shells opening up. I took the lid off the pot and started picking out the clams as their shells opened. I removed each clam from its shell, saved the shells, then poured what was left in the pot through a strainer, then strained it again to prep the pasta sauce:

I started some water for the pasta and made the pasta sauce by whisking some of the garlic purée into the clam broth. I let it simmer and reduce, then added a cup of butter, tablespoon by tablespoon, whisking each until it melted. I added a few drops of white wine vinegar, then strained the broth into a big bowl to await the pasta. I added a ladle of the sauce to the saucepan with the clams to gently warm them.

I also prepped the clam shells for the plating. I found the 18 biggest ones, cleaned them, and got them ready on the platter for plating:

There's a step to this dish -- creating a warm, aromatic rock salt bed upon which to serve the clams -- that I completely blew off because I was in such need of comfort food that I didn't want to take the time to do it. I will do it at some point, because I think it will be gorgeous; I just had to skip it this time to preserve my dwindling sanity.

I put the pasta in the boiling, salted water and strained it after its two minutes of cooking time. I tossed the pasta into the bowl with the sauce, added some chopped parsley and thyme leaves, and mixed everything with two chopsticks (that's the book's recommendation, and it worked like a charm).

My neighbor's son "G" came over to help twirl and set the pasta and place the clams. Wanna see the final dish? Of course you do:

Picture this: three adults, two kids, one platter of clams in the center of the dining room table. We ate them like you'd slurp an oyster out of its shell, and those clams were gone in about a minute. Then, because I knew all of the adults at the table had had a crap week, I brought the bowl of leftover capellini and clam sauce into the dining room, handed everyone a fork, and we twirled and ate the pasta out of that bowl, devouring it in about ten minutes. There wasn't much talking other than the occasional, "Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm" in between (or during) bites. There was a wee bit of wine drinking goin' on, but mostly we just polished off that pasta and then sat back contentedly staring at the empty bowl.

That, my friends, is how you get yourself out of a funk. Pasta, clams, wine and friends. Well, it's how I got myself out of this funk. What do you cook when life is kicking you in the arse?

Up Next: Sweet Potato Agnolotti with Sage Cream, Brown Butter, and Prosciutto

Clams, garlic, shallot, bay leaves, butter and parsley from Whole Foods
Thyme from my garden
Bogle Sauvignon Blanc

Music to Cook By: Sia; assorted. Because of the whole skin cancer thing this week, I had to over-dramatize it for myself and watch one of my favorite things I've saved on my TiVo box -- the final episode of Six Feet Under (I know -- drama queen much?). Remember the long, wonderful final scene in which Claire is driving out of LA enroute to her new life in New York, and we fast-forward into glimpses of everyone's future and inevitable death? One of the reasons that scene was so gut-wrenching and heart-warming when it aired the first time (a weird combination, but the only way I know how to explain it) was the music, which was "Breathe Me" by Sia. After watching that scene, I downloaded a bunch of her tunes, and really like them. It's funny -- when I listened to some of them, I know I've heard them before on television or in a movie, or that they are so reminiscent of other times in my life even though the songs themselves are new. Just like food with heart and soul (thanks, Bourdain), I like that these songs are new and familiar all at the same time. What new music have you heard that you like?