Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"Surf and Turf" -- Sautéed Monkfish Tail with Braised Oxtails, Salsify and Cèpes

Me: This is a dish that fell flat on its face, and I really wanted to kick it while it was down.

You: Gee, Carol. Tell us how you really feel.

Let's not pull any punches here. This dish was a disappointment. I take responsibility for some of it (you'll see why in a minute), but I also knew going into it that I would probably have a so-so reaction at best for a number of reasons: 1) the ingredients didn't excite me; 2) I was in kind of a bad mood when I made it; and, 3) oxtails can be tricky and I had a feeling mine wouldn't fare well.

Don't get me wrong -- I love me some oxtail. I actually order it when I see it on a restaurant menu because when they're done well, they're fantastic. And when they're not, well, welcome to my world. It's amazing to me that this dish has me in such a funk that I don't even feel like doing this write-up. I actually considered just posting a photo of the finished dish with a sentence or two along the lines of, "I just don't feel like writing about this, so DEAL with it, PEOPLE." But I did not. You're welcome. I am going to make myself write about every single cotton-pickin' step in this dish, but I will not tell you why it's called "oxtail" even though it's really a cow's tail. And the reason I will not tell you is because I don't know. And I don't feel like looking it up. Stupid, rassin'-frassin' oxtails.

Speaking of oxtails, let's start with that (oh joy!). I marinated them in The French Laundry Cookbook's red wine marinade for about 18 hours:

The next day, I put the meat in one bowl and the vegetables in another, while I strained the marinade through a double-cheesecloth-lined sieve into a saucepan:

It looks like Grimace threw up in that pan, doesn't it?

I slowly heated the Grimace vomit, I mean marinade, until it began simmering. I skimmed the impurities off the top and once it was clean, I removed it from the heat and set it aside for later use.

Time to cook the oxtails. I can't even muster an exclamation point for that last sentence. I patted each oxtail dry and lightly coated it with flour, then seasoned them with salt and pepper. I placed them in a pot in which I'd already heated some canola oil. I seared them until they were a dark, rich, brown color, and then removed them from the pot so I could drain out the remaining oil:

I left the nice crusty bits on the bottom, then added the vegetables from the marinade. I cooked this over medium heat, all the while scraping the bits from the bottom of the pan and allowing the moisture from the vegetables to evaporate -- in all, a 3-minute process.

Next, I added the clarified marinating liquid to the pot, stirred it over medium heat, and reduced it until most of the liquid was gone:

Next, I added heated veal stock and chicken stock to the pot, then added the oxtails:

I covered the pot with a parchment lid, brought it all up to a simmer, then put it in a 325-degree oven for 4 hours to braise. When it was done braising, I removed the oxtails from the liquid and strained the liquid through a sieve, then reduced it to about 1.5 cups of liquid:

At this point, the meat was supposed to be so tender, it should fall right off the bone. I am here to tell you: it. did. not. It held onto the bone for dear life, despite the fact that when I pulled one out at the four-hour mark to check it, it seemed as if it was ready and would indeed fall right off the bone. Ten minutes out of the pot? Not letting go. Oh, and do you know how sharp and pointy oxtail bone is? Do you know what it feels like to scrape and slice your fingers and knuckles as you try to work with it? I felt completely inept and contemplated just chucking it all in the garbage. But I didn't. I pulled and scraped and cut and shredded the required 2 cups of meat from those bones, all while the liquid was reducing. I then added the meat to the reduced sauce, and it was at this time that I remembered my lack of salsify for the next step.

So, salsify. The root that tastes a little oyster-y and has the texture of an artichoke heart when it's cooked. Back in the day, I used to think it was pronounced "salse-ih-fi" with a long "i" (eye) sound. Like somehow by adding salsa to your taco, you were gonna salsify it. Oh wait -- I didn't really think that's what "salsify" meant -- it's just the way I thought it was pronounced. Then, I overheard a well respected chef pronounce it as "salse-ih-fee" and did some digging, and by gum, that's how you really pronounce it. Didn't matter, because when I called every market and farm stand in town to try and find it, no one knew what the hell I was talking about. I even tried pronouncing it the old way. Then, I described it. It's like a long, thin parsnip -- sometimes it's white, sometimes it's black. Here's what it looks like, in case you ever need to find it:

One of the produce guys at Whole Foods tried to sell me horseradish, claiming it was salsify. Upon my insistence that I was not born yesterday and knew what horseradish looked like, he then capitulated and instead insisted they could be used interchangeably because they were, as he put it, "the very same thing, miss." It was all I could do to not throw it at him, make him taste it, double over from the coughing fit that would ensue upon biting into raw horseradish and say, "Good DAY, sir. I said GOOD DAY!" and stomp off. But I did not. No, I was mature and said I'd look elsehwere, which I did, to no avail.

So, I had to skip the whole salsify step for this dish. Is the absence of salsify the reason this was such a disappointment? Maybe. But I'm not going to make it again to find out. I like my knuckles now that they've healed and I really don't need to shred my fingers again with more oxtail nonsense, salsify be damned. Or something.

Aaaaaaaanyway, the last two steps were to do the mushrooms and the monkfish. The mushrooms were easy. I removed the stems from and cut the cèpes (more commonly known as porcini mushrooms) into slices that were about a quarter-inch thick. I put them in a pan with a little oil and some thyme and heated them until they were browned:

I added some brunoise, tomato diamonds, and a few drops of white wine vinegar to the oxtail meat and sauce and kept that warm on the burner. Then, I did the monkfish.

I bought my monkfish already cut into the 8 small medallions I needed, and boy am I glad I did, because have you ever seen a whole monkfish? Oh, you haven't? Well, they're legendary in the looks department, so here you go:

Oh, whoopsie-daisy. How'd that photo get in here?

Okay, for reals, here's a monkfish:

Heh. Sorry 'bout that.

Okay. Monkfish time:

Not so bad once you've seen those first two, huh?

I seasoned my little monkfish medallions with salt and pepper and cooked them on both sides in a little canola oil for about 3 minutes per side. I added a little butter and some parsley at the end of the cooking process and basted the fish with it for a few seconds.

To plate, I started with the oxtail meat in sauce, added the monkfish, then topped it with the mushrooms:

It looks pretty, but it was pretty nondescript in the taste department. I'm not a huge fan of monkfish. I think it's really bland and not a fishy-enough texture for me. Some people refer to monkfish as "poor man's lobster" -- which I sort of get, but in this case, it's more like it was a "waste of my time." The oxtail was stringy and not very good, either. The mushrooms were the only thing I liked, and I'm bummed I didn't have the salsify to see how that might've played on the plate.

I don't really know what else to say here. Spay and neuter your pets? Return your tray tables to their upright and locked positions? Goodnight, Gracie?

I know -- how about a big, fat congratulations to the team behind Ratatouille for their Oscar win Sunday night! As you may know, Thomas Keller was the lead culinary consultant, and if you've seen the movie, you'll see his touches throughout. So, congrats Ratatouille team. I sure as hell hope they didn't serve you monkfish and oxtail at Prince's Oscar after-party... which I'm sure you went to, because that would actually be hilarious and awesome all at the same time. Thomas Keller. Prince. That's a photo-op I need to see and that would certainly cheer me up outta this surf and turf funk.

Up Next: "Tongue in Cheek" -- Braised Beef Cheeks and Veal Tongue with Baby Leeks and Horseradish Cream

Oxtails from Union Meat at Eastern Market
Monkfish from BlackSalt
Clos du Bois Cabernet Sauvignon
Produce and aromatics from Whole Foods

Music to Cook By: The Aluminum Group; Little Happyness. I first heard these guys when I was in LA and they got some airplay on KCRW. I love the song "Milligram of Happiness" -- it's got this sort of 60s and 70s pop feel with a modern twist. I love the sound of their voices, and not only is this album great kitchen music, I love driving to it, as well. And really, who couldn't love a group that named itself after a furniture line? But really, how ironic that an album with the word "Happy" in its title was playing while I was making one of the most disappointing dishes from this book? It's like totally like rain on your wedding day or a free ride when you've already paid, or maybe the good advice that you just didn't take, except NOT.

Read my previous post: Per Se, Encore

Saturday, February 23, 2008

French Laundry at Home Special Edition: Per Se, Encore

I am so incredibly lucky and thankful because the planets aligned and thanks to the confluence of the kindness of friends (and parents who are ready to dogsit with little notice), I was able to go to Per Se again last weekend -- this time, with my friend, Claudia, who also happens to write cookeatFRET.

But before I even start to talk about the food, I have to tell you who was at the restaurant lookin' all sexxxy and hungry: David and Victoria Beckham. As if the food wasn't enough to take my breath away. They strolled past our table just after we arrived and sat just a few feet away. Both of them are absolutely gorgeous, and short of Michael Bloomberg showing up to propose to me on bended knee, it was the greatest celebrity sighting one could hope for on a quiet Sunday night.

Okay, now on to the more important part of the evening -- the food and the service. Buckle up folks, I'm taking you on a long and wonderful ride:

Gougères: Delightful. Petite. Perfect.

Salmon Tartare Cornets
: I really wish there were words to describe how good these are. Note to self: Ummm, you'd better figure out what those words are by the time you make these.

Parsnip-Vanilla Soup with Tarragon-infused Olive Oil: Plates and a small bowl with teeny, tiny cubes of pickled potatoes arrived on the table, followed by Mike, our awesome server (more on him later), who poured the soup from a lovely silver pitcher of creamy goodness. It was all I could do to NOT stick my face in the bowl to lick it clean. I am not kidding you when I say that this is the best soup I've had in my entire life. Amd you know what? I've had a buttload of soup in my life. Well, maybe buttload is not the most appropriate or accurate way to describe the vast quantities of soup I have personally consumed. But I digress. Best. Soup. Ever.

"Oysters and Pearls": Even better than the last time I had this at Per Se. I think it was the extra caviar. I'm so spoiled by this dish because it really, truly is the only way I'll eat oysters.

Citrus-Cured Hamachi with Haas Avocado and Chili Glaze: Two little bites of hamachi with the most brilliant combination of avocado and chili, which added a *ping* and an aahhh to go along with the succulently cured velvety, almost butter-like fish.

"Smoke" -- Japanese Sardine and Italian Eggplant Purée with Pimenton Oil: Smoke-filled crystal balls hurriedly arrived on the table. Their tops were immediately whisked off, allowing the smoke to billow out as if the bowl itself had just done a French inhale. At the bottom of the dish was the most perfect rectangle of a now-smoked sardine with a soft, smooth dab of eggplant purée and a smoked paprika oil. Gorgeous. Dramatic. Delicious.

White Truffle Oil-Infused Custard with a Ragout of Black Winter Truffles: Boy, was it nice to see a chip that looked the way it was supposed to, as well as a beautifully cut eggshell. Even though the aesthetic of this dish kicked me in the culinary 'nads, I had to take a moment inside my head to pat myself on the back because my custard and truffle ragout was damn close to being as good as this very dish at Per Se.

Terrine of Grimaud Farm's "Foie Gras D'Oie" with Bartlett Pear Marmalade, Garden Mâche, Crystallized Pear Chip and Balsamic Reduction with Toasted Brioche: This cold preparation of foie was absolutely out of this world. A perfect combination of salt, sweet, rich, clean, fresh and tart. Since there were two foie preparations, Claudia and I agreed to eat half of each. It was hard for us to trade, I think, but I'm glad I got to try this one... even though I got brioche crumbs all over the table, myself and the entire city, practically. Someday, I'll learn how to eat like a lady. Someday.

Sauteed Grimaud Farm's "Fois Gras D'Oie" with Sunchoke Purée, Michigan Sour Cherries, and Pistachios: I'm making this. I don't know how or when or where, but I am going to figure out how to replicate this dish if it is the last thing on earth I do. This was one of my favorite dishes of the whole meal. The foie was so perfect, and went really well with the sunchoke purée. The cherries and pistachios were a gorgeous combination, and with each bite I was reminded of my friend, Kim, who is a lobbyist for the Michigan Cherry Growers Association. Hi, Kim!

Grilled "Pavé" of Bigeye Tuna with Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm, Braised Radishes and English Cucumbers with Persian Lime-Scented Yogurt: On the whole, I'm not a huge tuna fan. It's usually overcooked, or grossly undercooked, and I can't stand the texture of it when it's raw. In this dish, it was cooked to absolute perfection. Every texture and taste complemented one another so perfectly and was brought together by the yogurt, which I really loved. If I could have tuna this way, I'd eat it all the time.

Pan-Seared Maine Sea Scallop with Young Artichokes, Rainbow Swiss Chard Ribs and Fennel Bulb Bâtons with "Sauce Bagna Càuda": Perfect crust on the scallop, artichokes were just the right size, and everything else was gorgeous and added to the dish as it should have.

Arrowleaf Spinach Rigatini with Dungeness Crab, Preserved Meyer Lemon, Petit Basil and Beurre d'Oursin: When they brought this to the table, it looked as if we were having some sort of par-boiled green beans. That's because I wasn't wearing my reading glasses. It was actually little curves of rigatini made of spinach. This was also a huge homerun. It's so rare to have good dungeness crab here on the east coast, that when you have it this good, it makes you want to move to California, Washington or Oregon. And whoever had the idea to do sea urchin butter, I want to kiss you. Hard. On the mouth. For a couple of days. C'mere...

Cavendish Farms' "Caille En Crépinette" with Toasted Piccolo Farro, Butternut Squash, and Cavolo Nero with Quail Jus
: This little breast of quail was really and truly delicious. I think quail can be hit or miss, and most of the time, for me, it's a miss. I was surprised by the pairing with farro, but it worked really nicely. I've never cooked with cavolo nero (Italian for "Black cabbage" even though it's really mostly green; most stores package and sell it as Tuscan kale), but I think I will do so more often.

Rib-Eye of Marcho Farm's Nature-Fed Veal "Rôtie Entière" with Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Tokyo Turnips, Yukon Gold Potatoes, Sweet Carrots and Pearl Onions and "Sauce Blanquette": Best dish of the night, hands down. In the top 10 dishes of my entire life. I'm not kidding. This little medallion of veal (which had been done on the rotisserie) was creamy and nearly butter- or soft cheese-like. It almost made me cry, that's how good it was. I was friggin' knee-deep in the hoopla over this one. I ate it in teeny-tiny bites because I wanted it to last forever and ever.

Comté Saint Antoine with Slow-Roasted Heirloom Beets, Pickled Crosnes, Granny Smith Apples, and Smoked Egg Emulsion: Any time you put cheese and beets in front of me, I'm a happy girl. But add smoked egg emulsion to the mix and I'm doing some mother-f'in backflips. And, add to that a special glass of wine from the same Jura Mountain region as the cheese, and I just had a grin on my face that wouldn't go away. It's like that opening scene of the Gilmore Girls episode when the town is covered in the thousands of yellow flowers that Lorelai's fiance, Max, had delivered to her when he proposed. After eating this dish and drinking this wine as a savory capstone to the incredible meal I'd just eaten, I wanted to skip up and down the streets of Stars Hollow with Free Design singing "I Found Love" in the background.

Guava Sorbet with Tamarind "Génoise," Goma "Nougatine," and Cream Cheese Foam: I can just hear you now: "Seriously? What's up with the cream cheese foam?" I asked myself the same thing and then I just said, "Shut up, self, and try it, you Gilmore Girls-loving dork." It was the perfect thing to follow that great cheese and the gorgeous wine. I think the last time I had anything guava-related was when I was in Hawaii twelve years ago. This was really, really nice, and I loved the cream cheese foam. Quite the surprise, because it was more cream cheese-y than it was foamy. But it was awesome, nonetheless.

"Coffee and Doughnuts": Oh, people of America, do you know how humiliating it was to see this most perfect dessert in front of me? I will say that my semifreddo was damn close to this one, but the doughnuts... oh, the doughnuts. How I long to make them again, and do it right. This dish made me very, very happy.

"Mont Blanc" -- Chestnut Dacquoise, Whiskey-Scented Chocolate Ganache, Cocoa "Sablé" and Vanilla "Icing" with Chestnut Ice Cream: This dessert was absolutely exquisite and really gave me a deep, heartfelt appreciation for every pasty chef out there who is doing his or her thing night after night after night. Everyone rants and raves over a great dinner, but it's rare that we save any of our raves and accolades to single out a dessert. This one deserves heaps of praise. Every flavor and texture was spot-on and I just wish I had the talent to be able to make something like this. It's a very different skillset, and it's rare (I think) to be great at both savory and sweet. I know where my strengths lie, but I hope to get better at my desserts... and this dish set the bar at heights I know I'll never reach, but boy can I learn from how it was composed. Absolutely perfect.

Crème Brulée: Simple, straight-forward, delightful.

Last but not least were our mignardises -- I chose two dark chocolate candies, one with a fennel filling and another with a mocha center. Claudia chose a few as well, one of which was a white chocolate/yuzu candy. Wow. All of them were fantastic, and if only we'd had enough room to try them all. We also had other candies and sweets on the table with our coffee.

During the earlier part of our meal, we were served the most wonderful bread (there are many options to choose from: baguette, wholewheat, potato, rye, etc.) as well as two kinds of butter -- one salted and one not. The butters were just as good as I remember, and we also enjoyed the six choices of salt to sample.

The first time I went to Per Se
, my friend Todd and I ordered the Turley White Coat (in addition to our pre-dinner cocktails), which they did not have this time. Claudia and I vowed going in that we were going to take it easy on the wine front because we didn't want to imbibe too much and have it detract from the copious amount of food we knew we were going to enjoy. She had a few glasses of a really nice red from the Santa Lucia Mountain region (California) and I had a glass or two of a really nice white -- a Pierre Usseglio Chateauneuf de Pape (2006). We also started the evening with a bottle of champagne -- a Pierre Gimonnet blanc de blanc. Our "wine guy," Chris, was such a joy to talk to. I like people who know wine and enjoy wine, but aren't "that guy" about wine. Chris is knowledgeable in a way that's not intimidating, and he was able to pick wines for both of us that we loved. He also tipped us off to the wine for the cheese course, which was really a nice surprise.

After dinner, we paid our tab and did a tour of the kitchen since this was Claudia's first time at Per Se. Another Chris (the same lovely gentleman who gave me my tour last time) took us into the kitchen (we had to pass Posh and Becks' table to get there and I WOULD HAVE EATEN THEM BOTH, dipped in sea urchin butter, had I not been so sated) where we thanked Chef Benno. And let me take a moment right now to let you know that for all the dishes in The French Laundry Cookbook that I refer to as a Thomas Keller PlateLicker™ or a Thomas Keller FaceKissser™, this entire meal was a Jonathan Benno FaceKisser™ for sure. And I would have given him a big old smackeroo had they not still been in the middle of service. That said, it was fun to tour the kitchen while it was still in action. When I toured it last time, things were winding down, so it was a little less active.

Our main server was a really cool guy (from Cleveland) named Mike. Prior to coming to New York to work at Per Se, he was a sous at The French Laundry and worked with Susie Heller and Chef Keller to home-test all the recipes for The French Laundry Cookbook. I was really happy to meet him, and wish I could squire him away for a week or two to have him teach me all the ins and outs of getting some of this stuff right. He was way cool and did not make fun of me for being the giant dork that I am. So, he's alright in my book, that's for sure.

The one thing that stuck in my mind from my first time at Per Se is that from the moment you walk in the door until the moment you head back outside and your feet hit the pavement on Columbus Circle, you are so well taken care of that it's hard NOT to crave that kind of service everywhere you go. But you soon realize that evenings like this one are a rare gift -- and I feel so incredibly lucky to be on the receiving end of such generous, outstanding, beyond-compare service and product not once, but twice.

I will say that unlike last time, this time the staff knew who I was and were well aware of this blog. That has its good points and its bad points. The good is that it felt like they knew a little bit about me and my personality, as well as my love for this food and Chef Keller's and Chef Benno's quest for perfection. The bad is that, holy crap they've seen me F up some stuff bigtime. But let me also add this: I can honestly say without a shadow of a doubt that they were just as nice and gracious to me this time as they were the first time I was there. I felt more at ease because I had been there before and knew, sort of, what to expect. A few of the staff members asked me if this dinner was as good as or better than the first time I'd been there. I was stumped. That's a hard question to answer, because I wasn't even in the mindset of comparing one night to another. For me, it was more like a continuation of the first meal, like turning the page to Chapter Two of a book you're already loving and don't ever want to end. The courses were almost entirely different, so I can't compare and contrast the food. It was excellent both nights. Equally. Same goes for service, although this time I was much more relaxed and felt more at ease in my surroundings, if that counts for anything.

When Claudia and I got back to our hotel after dinner, I took a quick walk around the block to get some fresh air (it was unseasonably warm and there was a light rain, which I love). When I got back, we played the last meal game, forcing ourselves to pick just three courses from our entire evening that we'd have as our last meal on Earth. I chose the Parsnip-Vanilla Soup, the Sautéed Foie, and the Veal... and that took some doing, because I kept trying to rationalize why I should have more than three courses for my final meal instead of just playing by our rules.

We slept well that night, and after coffee the next morning, Claudia and I said our goodbyes and see you soons. I boarded the train back to Washington and ended up sitting across the aisle from the just-retired president of my college alma mater. We had a very short conversation (we were on the Acela's quiet car, so once the train left the station, it was shushy-shushy time), but it got me thinking about college, which then got me thinking about high school and my childhood, and pretty much my entire lifespan up until now. I tend to do a lot of thinking on planes and trains, listening to music and letting my wind wander wherever it's going to go.

By the end of my train ride home, I'd come to the conclusion that I'm one of the luckiest people I know, and as a result, I'm pretty damn thankful. If you'd asked me 10 or 15, heck even 2 years ago if I thought my life would be this fun and joyful, I don't think I could've imagined it. Opening up my head and my hands to food in the way that I have in the past few years -- but this last year in particular -- has been revelatory in so many ways. It's changed the way I take risks. It's shaped the way I imagine other possibilities. And, it's paved the path for new kinds of adventures I'm starting to embark upon. If this meal was Chapter Two in an ongoing story, I honestly can't wait to see what the next few hundred pages bring.

Up Next: "Surf and Turf" -- Sauteed Monkfish Tail with Braised Oxtails, Salsify and Cèpes

Read my previous post: "Liver and Onions"

Thursday, February 21, 2008

And the winners are....

Sock Flowers and Nearly Blind Threesomes!!!

Congrats to ~h~ whose husband turned her distaste for a Hallmark holiday into a sweet moment involving gym socks. As the winner of the ":::sigh::: That's So Sweet" award, she is the lucky recipient of one of my favorite culinary resources, The Professional Chef (8th ed.).

Congrats also to Maggiesara, winner of the "Cuts Like a Knife" award, who will soon receive her very own set of Laguoile steak knives.

And, yes, I know I said I wasn't going to post the winners until tomorrow... but I realized you can see who won by clicking on the poll results anyway, so there you go.

Be back Saturday.

p.s. -- I had a flat tire yesterday in front of my house, and the guy from AAA came out to change the tire and when he did, he accidentally LOCKED HIMSELF OUT of his truck, and had to call ANOTHER guy from AAA to come bail him out. Oh, the hilarity.

UPDATE: I'm having trouble with my outbound email, so I can't get in touch with you, ~H~ and Maggiesara. Will you please use the link in th right-hand column of the blog to email me your mailing addresses so I can get these prizes out to you? Thanks much.

Monday, February 18, 2008

You are sooooooo Vote-a-licious!

Get your fingers ready (heh, dirty!) to do some voting, kids because I've chosen the Valentine Schmalentine finalists. I know I said I was going to choose three great stories and three stories from hell. I kind of lied. Well, not really. I actually narrowed it down to FOUR great stories and THREE experiences that, shall we say, left a lot to be desired.

Oh, and a shout-out to "rt" who obviously thought he was a shoo-in with his "The best was the night I met Mike Bloomberg at a bar in Chelsea and woke up the next morning in his immense apartment being served warm bread and hot coffee... or maybe that was just a dream." story. Nice try, buddy. As a consolation prize, I'll give you the fabled ten points for working a Bloomberg reference into your entry. But that's ALL you get, mister. NO soup for you.

I have to confess that I had a hard time going through these entries and picking finalists. All the sweet stories really were sweet, and all the bad experiences were really and truly heinous, so I did the best I could and chose the stories that struck a personal chord with me. After all, it's my web site, so I get to do crazy stuff like MAKE MY OWN DECISIONS and hope that everybody still feels loved and not left out if I didn't pick you. I still love you. I hope you know that. C'mere... let's have a cuddle.

AHEM. Here are your finalists for the ":::sigh::: That's So Sweet" Award:

My best Valentines was two years ago. I hadn't started to date my boyfriend yet (that was still about two months away), but he was heavy in pursuit. We were having a fundraiser at work. For $5 you bought a small stuffed animal and balloons and then we would deliver it for you. When I was out of the office, he came over and ordered one for me. This was a HUGE deal, because at the time, I worked in an all female battalion (we are both U.S. Marines) and he hated to go over there by himself! He made his purchase and also added a card that he bought. My Marines said he looked very uneasy and nervous when he was there...very cute!

Valentines Day came and near the end of the day, my Valentine was delivered. However, my Marines had mistakenly delivered it to the Battalion Commander's house (that is my boss!). Once they realized their mistake, they went back and got it and brought it to me. When I told him about it later, he was horrified! Especially because my Battalion Commander had read the card.

I thought it was sweet that he had done that for me. But the best part was yet to come. On my way home that night, I was walking up to my apartment and saw something sticking out of the door. When I walked up to it, I realized it was a card. Another card from him. He had run by my house and left me a card. It sounds silly, but I had never felt so special as I ddi that day. To have him to go that little bit of trouble for me, it was great. It was at that point that I realized I was falling for him and like I said before, two months later we started dating. In April, we will have been together two years and they have been some of the best years ever.

Okay, I have to call him now and tell him I love him... :)

I am not a big fan of Valentine's Day. I feel I am far too cool to be celebrating a mundane Hallmark holiday. However, a few years ago my husband asked me what I wanted for Valentine's Day. I scoffed. He asked again, so I told him that I needed some socks, white socks of the athletic variety. He rolled his eyes, and I assumed that was the end of the discussion.

Fast forward to V-Day. I come home from work where I am greeted by said hubby who is having trouble disguising his amusement. I enter our bedroom and perched atop our dresser is a large crystal vase filled with SOCK FLOWERS. He took athletic socks, rolled them into the shape of a rose and attached them to skewers. I could not stop laughing. Then I could not stop crying! His creativity and sense of humor put an end to my Valentine's Day cynicism. Best Valentine's Day Ever!!

My husband and I were engaged when he got into law school in New Orleans. We arrived there and moved in just two weeks before Hurricane Katrina. When the storm hit, we had to leave everything and evacuate.

After months of being displaced and having to find temporary work, we were able to get back to our house in January. We tried to pick up the pieces and make do in a destroyed city. My husband's class had to make up their whole first year in just one semester... needless to say, it was one of the most stressful years of our lives.
It was so hard to find a job in New Orleans when we came back, so I took a position as a legal secretary, which turned out to be a thankless, emotionally exhausting job (I worked for extremely mean, unpleasant people). I was sad to realize that I was going to have to work on Valentine's Day, and I learned that it was going to be a particularly brutal day - multiple filings. I went to sleep as usual the night before, and he stayed up later than I did (which was pretty standard, since he had to study).
When I woke up the next morning and went downstairs to get my coffee, I opened the fridge and saw that he had stayed up late making dozens of homemade chocolate truffles for me. He had spent all that time doing something so lovely for me, even though he was stressed from school. I almost cried right then and there.

Since then, every Valentine's Day he stays up late and makes homemade chocolate truffles for me to discover when I wake up the next morning, and we have a wonderful breakfast of truffles together!

Today J-P and I stopped by Whole Foods to pick up a few things for our Valentine's Day dinner, because we don't eat out on V-Day as a general rule. As we headed back toward the fish counter, a very perky employee beckoned us to come kiss a fish (yes, kiss a fish), for which we would receive, in exchange, a lobster tail. FOR FREE. JUST FOR KISSING A FISH. There were lots of people standing around gawking at the fish, but they were all squicky about actually kissing the thing. But not me, people, NOT ME. I have no such hang-ups. To my mind, the act of kissing a fish is a minor price to pay for a free package of Ho-Hos, let alone a FREE LOBSTER TAIL. So I marched right up, pulled my hair back, and laid a fat one on a wolf fish named Scott Baiowolf (you can't say those Whole Foods people don't try).

It was really no big deal -- slimy and cold, yes, but I've certainly kissed worse. But then I got greedy, and decided I was not happy with just one lobster tail. Since there were two of us, we had the opportunity to score not just one, but TWO free lobster tails. After some cajoling and the promise of sexual favors, I convinced J-P to kiss the fish.

So now we have two lobster tails just waiting to be devoured, perhaps in a cream sauce over fresh pasta, hmmmm? But I know what you're probably thinking -- hey Melissa, isn't J-P allergic to lobster?! Ummmm. Why yes. What a good memory you have! J-P is allergic to lobster! Which I guess just means more lobster for me. *Shrugs* OOPSIE!

But really, in all seriousness, I am one lucky broad. I mean, J-P kissed a fish to win a lobster tail that HE CAN'T EVEN EAT, all for me! What a guy.

  • Sarah: The Few. The Proud. The Valentine-sending Marines.
  • ~h~: Two words -- Sock. Flowers.
  • Liz: Truffle Love in New Orleans.
  • Melissa: She kissed a fish to get some tail.

And now, time to vote for the worst. And let me take a minute to say that all the bad experiences people had were really, truly awful. Fires, tequila, cheaters, abusers... so, for those of you who dumped the mayor or mayoress of asshole city, good on ya. I encourage everyone to go back and read all the stories that were submitted in the previous post, and if any of those psychos sounds like someone you're dating, RUN! None of you hot, sexy chickens deserve to be treated that way. Okay, public service announcement done.

Here are the three finalists for the "Cuts Like a Knife" Award for worst Valentine's Day experience:

The worst one that stands out in my mind is the boyfriend who gave me a Fry Daddy for Valentine's Day. I had never fried food for him. I rarely, if ever, eat fried food aside from french fries. And yet, here was a Fry Daddy. (A month later I dumped him. Two months later, when he figured out that I was serious and I had really dumped him, he turned up drunk and crying on my doorstep. I definitely made the right decision.)

The worst Valentine's Day I had was the year I was 18. It should have been a good day: I had arranged to look at an apartment that I desperately wanted to rent, and I had a late-afternoon coffee-date planned with a guy I had met the week before, and about whom I had high hopes.

I went to the apartment. I loved the apartment. It was in the neighborhood I wanted, it was within my price range, it was clean, it was sunny. I wanted the apartment. I raced around town getting a cashier's check for the first 3 months' rent, getting my mother's co-signature on the lease (give me a break; I was a college freshman), and then dashing over to the real estate agent's office. At which point I was told that the owner of the apartment had decided to rent it to his nephew.

The real estate agent's office was under construction, and after I left I realized I had gotten something in my eye. I rubbed and rinsed and rubbed and rinsed, but it kept getting worse. Finally, I went to the hospital emergency room, which was full of people who had been gutshot, or whose noses were held on with duct tape. Me, I had something in my eye. I was not popular in the waiting room. After about 3 hours they managed to remove the piece of plaster dust that had embedded itself in my cornea.

There were no cell phones at the time, but I did manage to call the restaurant where I was due to meet Mr. Right, and explain that I was stuck at the hospital. I got there about an hour late, and -- what a prince! -- he had waited for me. He bought me a glass of wine. Life was good. And then he told me that he was married, that he and his wife were looking for a mistress that they could both share, and that they had decided I was the girl for them.

I spent the evening eating popcorn and watching "Now, Voyager" with my mother.

My worst Valentine's day ever was last year. At aproximately 1am on February 13th I felt sick. 5 hours later (and God only knows how many trips to the bathroom) I really thought I was going to die. I had not been this sick in over a decade and the fact that I could feel where my kidneys were and I couldn't even keep the smallest sip of water down made me wonder how long I could go without having to go to the ER.

I had been dating a guy for about 6 months. He was really great so far, but I wasn't sure if I should call him. Finally at 7am I caved, called him and woke him up, crying about how sick I was. He told me he would come over and check on me. So about 45 minutes later he shows up at the door with a few bottles of Sprite and Gatorade, some Saltine crackers, and a basket of old 80s movies and an original Nintendo. Love, right?

He also immediately threw this stuff on the floor when he walked into my apartment and bee-lined for the bathroom. He, alas, had also contracted this gut wrenching illness. I pulled the sofa bed out and we continued to be sick and miserable together for the next 48 hours, napping, watching the Westminster dog show, and doing shots of Gatorade out of some old St. Patrick's Day shot glasses a friend had given me.

By the second day, we were able to hold small amounts of food down, but nothing complex. I had to have a coworker drop off some soup and jello cups for sustenance. She handed them through the door and I never saw her face. She didn't want to get sick and I don't blame her.

So our first Valentine's day dinner consisted of chicken and stars and cherry jello.

We're still together and if any good could come out of it, it was that our infirm time together helped him realize that he loved me. I mean, you can't be that sick and disgusting in front of just *anyone* right?

  • Liz: She got a Fry Daddy from a drunk crybaby.
  • Maggiesara: She's not really into threesomes or corneal damage.
  • Courtney: Nothing says "goin' steady" like puking your guts out together.

The polls are open until 12 noon on Thursday, February 21st. I'll announce the winners on Friday, February 22nd. And, I'll resume our regular programming with a very special food-related post on Saturday the 23rd -- a post which not only involves something known for its spiciness and something known for its heat, but also FOOD! Confused? You'll just have to wait until Saturday to find out what the hell I'm blathering on about.

Happy voting!

Friday, February 15, 2008


Thanks for all your hilarious and horrifying Valentine's Day stories. I've closed the comments section in the previous post and will read through your stories over the weekend. On Tuesday, February 19th, I'll post what I think are the three best and three worst Valentine's Day experiences, and we'll put them up for a reader vote.

You'll have until 12 noon ET Thursday, February 21st to vote, and I'll post the winners on Friday the 22nd.

I'll be back with our regularly scheduled programming featuring a food-related post on Saturday, February 23rd.

Have a nice long weekend...

Monday, February 11, 2008

Valentine Schmalentine

Despite your voting awesomeness, French Laundry at Home did not win Culinate's Death by Chocolate contest last week. That honor went to the very well deserving Cathy at We love Cathy and her blog, so bravo to her! Your votes did, however, land me in the final Top Ten, so I was honored to be considered as a contender among some other pretty cool bloggers -- most of whom have done a hell of a lot more chocolate dishes than I have, so there you go.

As a special thank you for your vote-casting generosity, I toyed with the idea of making one of The French Laundry desserts last night, posting it today, and wishing you all an early happy Valentine's Day with lots of hearts and flowers, but then I came to my senses and remembered that I think Valentine's Day is actually kind of dumb (shouldn't we do nice things for the people we care about all year, instead of just on one day?), and changed my mind.

Nevertheless, love is in the air here at French Laundry at Home, oh yes it is... and by that, of course, I mean my undying love for all of you who come back to this site day after day wondering what kind of monkey business I've gotten myself into.

So, as thanks for how lovely and sexy and hilarious and dedicated and devoted you all are, I've got a little somethin' for ya' -- a contest.

But this time, it's not about you voting for me! (shocker, I know) It's about me GIVING to YOU. And, it's also a little bit about you telling us all something about yourself, because I'm looking for the sweetest as well as the most awful Valentine's Day experiences you've ever had.

Here's how we'll do it:

Between now and 12 noon ET on Friday, February 15th, use the comments section to share your best and worst Valentine's Day experiences. On Tuesday, February 19, I'll choose and post the top three best Valentine's Day experiences and the top three worst Valentine's Day experiences, and then I'll put them to a vote. Readers will have until 12 noon ET on Thursday, February 21st to vote for who they think should win, and I'll post the winning stories on Friday, February 22nd.

Little admin note here: you've gotta include your URL or email address because I have to be able to verify your entry somehow. Use a pseudonym if you need to -- that's cool with me. But anyone who just posts as "Anonymous" with no way to find you will not be considered, no matter how great the story. Also? Be honest in your storytelling. I have a really good CrapDetector™ and nonsense will not be tolerated (but passive voice obviously just was).

"Um, Carol? Before I put myself out there and potentially humiliate myself with a heinous story of the time I had explosive diarrhea in a public place and then my girlfriend got drunk and puked all over me after the Valentine's Day dinner I prepared for her," you may be thinking, "are there any freakin' prizes?"


The ":::sigh::: That's So Sweet" Award for best Valentine's Day story will receive a copy of The Professional Chef (8th ed.), courtesy of Wiley Publishing.

The "Cuts Like a Knife" Award for worst Valentine's Day experience will receive a set of six Laguiole steak knives, courtesy of me.

So, comments are open, and we're all ready and waiting. Even my boyfriend Mike Bloomberg awaits your Valentine's Day stories with great hopefulness and Americanosity:

So dreamy.

Alright, enough already. Click on "Post a Comment," get to writing and enjoy! For additional contest rules and regulations, please see below:
Net 9 carbs per serving. Do not puncture or incinerate. Active ingredient: yams. This was not a little ditty ‘bout Jack and Diane. Consult your doctor or pharmacist before reading this, as it may interact with certain prescription drugs. 800-588-2300, Empiiiiiiiire. Carol™ is a registered trademark. For optimal results, apply to dry skin. Funds from deposits may not be available for immediate withdrawal. Items may contain traces of nuts. In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking, now heaven knows, anything goes. Please form one line to the left. Do not take if you are experiencing a persistent cough with heavy phlegm. No animals were harmed during the writing of this. Any similarities to a person or persons, living or dead, is not intentional. The statements contained herein may constitute "forward-looking statements" within the meaning of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens are not, nor have they ever been, a few of my favorite things. You may use this as an exfoliant or mask. Sale prices good through 2/15/08. 867-5309. If symptoms persist for two weeks, seek medical attention. Do not read this while operating heavy machinery. Do not use near open flame. All sales final. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Friday, February 8, 2008

"Liver & Onions" -- Sautéed Calf's Liver, Vidalia and Red Onion Confit, Onion Rings, and Vinegar Sauce

My mom and I had a conversation on the phone the other day about a particular meal from my childhood that I really, really hated: liver. Not even liver and onions, but liver with other sides I don't remember because I was way too focused on how disgusting and stinky liver was. Oh, I ate other things as a kid that many people would find sort of disgusting -- hogmaw (pig's stomach stuffed with sausage and potatoes) comes to mind -- but I couldn't stand liver of any sort. Chicken livers -- blech. Calf's liver -- vomitorious. Mom said she doesn't remember my hating liver that much, but I know she's blocked it from her memory because I was such a freakin' brat about some things (okay, many things) that she had to purge at least some of these awful childhood culinary peccadilloes of mine from her brain. I know I would have.

I have a very clear memory of a late spring/early summer evening when I was 10 or 11 years old. I was sitting in our family room watching TV, and as the smells began to waft from the kitchen down to where I was, I wondered to myself, "Wow. Who died in our kitchen and how long has the body been rotting there?" Or had the sewer line backed up? Or maybe my brother was suffering from one of his famous Dorito-induced farting spells? As I walked up the stairs from the family room to the ktichen to sit down at the table for dinner, I realized the smell was actually food-related when I saw what was sitting on our plates at the table. Liver. As we talked about our day, I ate whatever the side dishes were, and tried one bite of liver even though I hated it. I wanted to at least get credit for trying it. But I couldn't get past one bite.

I only half participated in the dinnertime conversation because I was too busy disdainfully eyeballing the nasty piece of liver sitting in front of me. My parents asked me to finish my dinner before I was excused (back then, I believe it was the Cambodian children who were starving). I remember the smell and the texture and the thinness of the cut and the eeeewwwwwwwwww, and came up with the brilliant idea of covering it with so much salt and pepper that OF COURSE my parents wouldn't make me finish it. But, as always, they outsmarted me and told me I had to sit at the table until I'd finished my liver. No TV, no reading, no nothing. So, while my brother got to be excused, I just sat at the table until 9 o'clock that night, head in hands, shifting my body weight as the chair grew more and more uncomfortable, and sighing heavily and dramatically every 15 minutes or so. But I was not going to take one more bite, no sir.

Not long after 9 p.m., my mom quietly took the plate away and just gave me a look -- a look that I knew meant I was supposed to keep my mouth shut, go upstairs, and go to bed. I knew I had been a jerk, and probably could've been excused had I tried one more teensy bite instead of killing that poor, disgusting liver even further with fourteen pounds of salt and pepper, but I was trying to make a statement. I was trying to be an activist. I was trying to.... okay, I was being a brat.

So, even though I am really enjoying all the meat preparations in The French Laundry Cookbook, I was not really psyched about making liver. And really, I hope my mom isn't offended by the story above, because my distaste of liver is not her fault and has nothing to do with the way she cooked it. It's all me and my childlike distaste for liver, or anything grey and mealy. Everyone else in my family loooooved liver, and most of my friends today loved liver when they were kids. Not me. Even when my grandparents or aunts and uncles would order liver in a restaurant, it completely ruined my appetite. Bleeaarrghh.... just thinking about it makes me skeeve.

But as I read The FL Cookbook's description of the dish, and learned I'd be cooking a much thicker cut of liver, I became a little less grossed out by the prospect of making this dish. And, there would be lots of onions on the plate that I could bury the liver in so I could excuse myself from the table without feeling guilty, had I not finished it. And, one of the instructions in the recipe was to melt a pat of butter on top of the cooked piece of liver, and how that can be a bad thing? So, with all those caveats in mind, let's dive in...

The first thing I did was make the red wine vinegar sauce. Here's the mise en place:

I heated the canola oil in my Le Creuset pot over medium high heat, and then added the mushrooms, carrots and shallots, and cooked them, while stirring them around, for about 2 minutes:

I added the parsley and thyme, and cooked this combo for another 2 minutes:

After the 2-3 minutes of cooking, the vegetables began to caramelize, and I added a cup of red wine vinegar and let is simmer for about 30 minutes, until the liquid had almost entirely evaporated:

One of the things I've really learned as part of cooking every dish in The French Laundry Cookbook is how the smell of food changes in increments as it cooks. Because I am fascinated by this (clearly I need a more robust social life), I often will lean over a pot and take a big whiff -- and when I did it at this point in the process, I had a giant hacking coughing attack because vinegar can do that to a person. Holy crap.

Once the pan had become nearly dry, I added four cups of heated veal stock to the pot:

I simmered this sauce until it had reduced to about a cup of liquid.

I then strained it twice (you could probably do it once; I felt like doing it twice because it looked like it needed it) and set it aside in a smaller saucepan (off the heat) while I got to work on the other elements of the dish.

Next up, was the onion confit. I used red onion and a sweet yellow onion. Couldn't find Vidalias anywhere -- I imagine we'll get them in the stores in a month or so. In the meantime, here they are:

I peeled and sliced them somewhat thin, but not too thin, and preheated the oven to 300 degrees. I placed the yellow onions in one pan and the red onions in another. I covered both with cold water, brought it to a boil, drained, rinsed under cold water, and did it all over again. Blanching the onions in this manner sweetens the onions and helps remove excess acid.

After the second blanching, I put the onions onto separate dishtowels, squeezed them dry, then returned them to their separate pans. I then added a little butter and salt to each batch of onions, let it melt on the stovetop, covered each pan with a parchment lid, then put both pans of onions in the oven at 300 degrees for an hour:

When they were done, I stirred in a little honey and white pepper into the yellow onions, and set both pans aside (without burning the palms of my hands again) until it was time to plate the dish.

While those onions were in the oven becoming all glazed and creamy, I worked on the wee little pearl onions:

I placed the onions into separate small saucepans, added water, sugar and butter to each, and simmered them for about 20 minutes.

When they were done, the water had evaporated and the pearl onions were tender, but not browned. You'll see the onions in the final plating photo.

The last onion preparation I did was to make tempura onion rings. Anytime I see the word tempura anywhere, I give a little >snerk< because for about three years, the Asian grocery store near my house had a huge sign in one of the aisles advertising "Tempura Butt Mix" instead of Tempura Batter Mix. I know, I'm 9, but I don't care. It's FUNNY. Tempura butt mix. Klassy. And, did I notify the manager of the typo? No, I did not. This is the same Asian market that regularly advertises "Crap Meat" instead of crab meat, so there you go.

Aaaaaanyway, I'd never done tempura anything at home, even though I enjoy ordering it when I'm out to dinner. So, this was a treat to be able to do. Sort of. I think I screwed up the batter a bit because it got clingy and clumpy and didn't really coat the onions like I thought it would. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's back up a bit.

I sliced some of the sweet yellow onions into fairly wide, but not obnoxious slices (about a half-inch each), and made the dry part of the tempura batter according to the recipe in the book -- cornstarch, cake flour, baking soda and salt:

Looks a little tan, doesn't it? Yeah, I didn't realize I'd bought wholewheat instead of regular white cake flour until after I'd already mixed the ingredients and noticed the taupey-beige hue. Oh well. I scooped out some of the dry mix into a smaller bowl, added some sparkling water (3 parts dry mix to 2 parts sparkling water) and then began dunking the onions and adding them to the pot of hot oil I already had going on the stovetop. They only needed to cook for about 2-3 minutes until they'd turned golden brown, it's just that the batter didn't really coat the onions. It merely just kind of globbed on there. They didn't look bad, but they didn't look like what I expected, either:

Kinda looks like the Staff Meal at Bennigan's, doesn't it?

The last step was to prepare the liver:

You'd think with me and all my texture issues that this slab o' organ would gross me out. It didn't. I sliced that gorgeous liver into six pieces -- each an inch thick and about 3 ounces per person. I lightly dusted them in flour, salt and pepper, and then cooked them in a little bit of oil, making sure to sear all sides of the pieces, and cooking it until it felt like a steak does when it's cooked to medium. I removed the liver from the pan, and put them on a paper towel-covered plate, then put little pats of butter on top of each piece, so it could melt down over the liver. That was a thing of beauty, indeed, and I was too wrapped up in the butterliciousness to photograph it. Sorry.

To plate, I spooned some of the warmed-up sauce onto the dish first. I then added a little bit of each of the red and yellow onion confit and topped that with a piece of liver. I cut some fresh chives on top, and added the onion rings on top and the pearl onions on the side. Wanna see?

The liver and onions from my childhood was nothing like this. Back then, and even in most restaurants and diners today, liver is sliced way too thin, looks like a piece of wet cardboard that has sat in raw sewage, and doesn't taste or smell much better. Doing a thicker cut is the way to go. The smell is barely noticeable and it's meatier and allows for some nice crusty brownness on the outside. I loved it, and would actually make liver again this way. Not sure I'd do all the onion preparations, but adding the honey and white pepper to the yellow onions for that creamy confit was really wonderful. I'd do that again, for sure.

This dish got a big thumbs up from everyone around the table. The kids loved the onions, and didn't gag over the liver. And, it didn't stink up the house, like I thought it would.

This was a homerun and a half -- really delicious and quite easy to do. You just have to ask a butcher to give you the thicker cut of meat, instead of buying it already sliced. I found a new butcher in doing this dish, and he was awesome about getting me what I needed. If you have The French Laundry Cookbook and want to try this at home, I'd suggest doing the sauce, the liver, and the onion confit (in the oven). You could get away with not having the onion rings or pearl onions and the dish would be just as good.

Although, I wonder if this guy cared at all about the onions. This looks like a face that says "pur-leez gimme some a dat livvvurrr":

I'm such a sucker. I saved a piece for him and he gulped it down without even tasting it.

Up Next: Pineapple Chop -- Oven-Roasted Maui Pineapple with Fried Pastry Cream and Whipped Crème Fraîche

Calf's Liver from Max's Kosher Butcher (University Blvd. in Wheaton, MD)
Produce and herbs from Whole Foods
Plugra butter
Sourwood honey from my friend, Ann

Music to Cook By: Chromeo; She's In Control (sorry for the MySpace link; I know you're not 14). They do their own version of "Tenderoni" that is quite boppy and I love it. I also love the song "Mercury Tears," except that when I listen to it, it reminds me that my cousins and I used to PLAY with MERCURY in my uncle's dental office (which was connected to my grandmother's house) when we'd have holiday gatherings or Sunday dinners... and then when I think about all those times we played with mercury -- poking it on the countertop until it exploded into hundreds of little mercury balls we'd push back together into one big drop again -- I am quite confident and rather depressed that I shall one day sprout an arm out of my back, or some other hideous disfiguring illness. But please, don't mind me and my potential third arm -- enjoy Chromeo!

Read my previous post: Roasted Sweetbreads with Applewood-smoked Bacon, Braised Belgian Endive and Black Truffle Sauce