Thursday, July 31, 2008

French Laundry at Home Extra: Q&A with Carol, Part Deux... and my dinner at Alinea

Okay, so after the first Q&A, even MORE questions came in, so this will be Part Two of Three... but never fear. If you don't see your answer here, it's a-comin'!

Q. How large a complement of pots and pans do you have?
The New York Times and food bloggers love to write about how few items a well functioning kitchen needs, but you often have so many pots going at once. So what ARE your cupboards filled with?

A. Great question; and, a few of you submitted similar variations on this theme, so let me try to expand on what I think about this topic in general. I thought when I started this project that I was pretty well equipped, until I realized how many times things get strained or passed from one pan or pot to another. So, because I don't have lots of large containers as many restaurants do, I doubled up on some saucepans and stock pots, as well as sauté pans, too, now that I think about it. I also bought some extra strainers and cutting boards just so I wouldn't have to stop what I was doing to clean the only ones I had. Thankfully, I live in an area of the country where we have many, many places to buy quality kitchen goods at deep discount (I'm lookin' at you, TJ Maxx, Marshalls, and Home Goods), otherwise, there's no way I could afford to have as much All-Clad as I've amassed over the past two years.

I think when food experts write about how few items a well functioning kitchen needs, they're probably talking about how you don't really need all that stupid crap that's advertised that, honestly, I think makes cooking a lot harder in the long run. It's not difficult to properly chop an onion. It just takes practice. Whacking it through one of those onion choppers damages the internal structure of the onion and you lose the taste of it and it also won't cook evenly. So, I'm pro-having enough pots and pans to make complex dishes easier to pull off, but I'm anti-gadget, because I think they're a waste of money. I really had almost everything I needed to do this project -- I just doubled up on a few things so that I could be more efficient and spend more time up to my elbows in good food, not dish soap.

Q. Do you agree with Ruhlman that veal stock is THE fundamental a home cook should implement in their kitchen? Is it really that much better than chicken stock?

A. Yes, I do agree with Michael that veal stock is a key fundamental in the home kitchen, and one that, for a long time, has been overlooked. I understand that sometimes finding veal bones can be a challenge because they're not readily available and sitting in the meat section of your local grocery store. That said, with a few phone calls, you could probably source some, and I think making veal stock is worth the effort because it can be used to create some amazing dishes. You don't have to do it The French Laundry way, and could use this simpler execution which still yields a great end result. As to the second part of this question, you're comparing apples to oranges here, because veal stock and chicken stock are two very different things and used quite differently -- so one's not "better" than another. Obviously, you can't make chicken corn soup with veal stock, just like you can't make a truly velvety bordelaise sauce with chicken stock.

Q. What do you always have in your larder?

A. I was going to take a photo to show you, but because my kitchen is so narrow and oddly shaped, I can't get a good shot of it, so let me give you the list of what I almost always have on-hand (I'm typing this answer from the butcher block in the kitchen as I do a little live inventory for ya): kosher salt, sea salt, pink salt, grey salt, a few different kinds of peppercorns, peanut butter, olive oil, canola oil, truffle oil, lemon oil, about nine different kinds of vinegars, Saltines, wheatberries, quinoa, oatmeal, Cheerios, vanilla beans, curry powder, saffron, raw sugar, regular sugar, light and dark brown sugar, five different kinds of wheat, baking soda and powder, corn starch, tapioca, corn meal, one box of Kraft Mac and Cheese for emergencies, club soda, tonic water, molasses, Karo corn syrup, Old Bay, PAM, Newman's Own spelt pretzels (aaaand, I just ate one and they're stale and chewy -- ew), and a bag of walnuts that got jammed way in the back that I'm throwing away because I think they're about 2 years old. I also have a random assortment of ground spices (cumin, cinnamon, etc.), but I rarely use them, so I think I'm going to have to toss everything (I'm seeing a bottle of dried dill that I'm pretty sure moved here with me when I bought my house 11 years ago) and start over.

It's an interesting time to ask me this question, because about three times a year, I put myself on a food-buying moratorium and force myself to use what I've already got so that I can more easily clean out the pantry and wipe down the shelves before restocking. I'm in the middle of one of these use-it-already! phases, and it's kind of fun and certainly a challenge when all you have left is quinoa, tapioca, and sherry vinegar and nothing in the fridge that goes with any of it. That's when I know it's time to hit the market.

Q. What products (not food-related, but kitchen-related -- for instance, I love Barkeeper's Friend) do you favor?

A. I use Dawn dish soap, Method hand soap, Cascade in the dishwasher, and I use Barkeeper's Friend when I need to. I am obsessed with Goo Gone, and love to get sticker residue off new purchases with it. I also have a bottle of some sort of magic lemon oil that I use on my butcher block island twice a year, and it smells so great. That's about it.

Q. By the way, how in the hell do you keep your stove so disgustingly clean?

A. Hilarious that FIVE OF YOU asked this question, or a variation of it. Here's the deal -- I have this disorder I like to call controlus freakitis, the symptoms of which are as follows: the inability to allow stains or other crap to remain on my stovetop or counters when I'm done cooking; the inability to "close up shop" for the night with dirty dishes left in the sink; and, an obsessive need to maximize the space and efficiency in my dishwasher so that it becomes an integral step in the cooking process. I start all major cooking efforts with an empty and clean sink, an empty dishwasher, and an empty trashcan, and I clean as I go -- meaning as I'm done using an item, it gets rinsed and goes right into the dishwasher. And, the counters and stovetop just get a spritz of whatever cleaning solution I have (usually 409 or Fantastik) and a good wipedown. I actually like the cleaning-up part when I'm done cooking. It's freakishly relaxing and is a pleasure to see the morning after. I'm also one of those nerds who scrubs the shelves of her refrigerator once a month.

You can rest assured I'm not an over-the-top OCD case -- my windows are filthy and I hate cleaning other rooms in my house. Ugh. I just like a clean kitchen. It makes life lovely.

Q. Pristine (minus your own notes) French Laundry Cookbook, or does it hold fond stain memories?

A. Speaking of clean.... kidding. I was so afraid to get my copy of the book all mucked up and nasty in the beginning, but now I'm happy there are blops of sauce and oil stains throughout. The cover is still in decent shape, but the binding is getting a bit ragged. It's in great shape, though. Let me show you what mine looks like:

Now, in contrast, let me show you a photo of my friend, Andy, using his. He's a chef at The Sheppard Mansion, and you can tell he has used his quite a bit for inspiration:

Q. Why no advertising on your site?

A. When Lee Gomes from The Wall Street Journal was working on his story about cook-through blogs, we had a bit of a back-and-forth on this very issue. I didn't start the blog as anything but a fun hobby, so the idea of running ads never occurred to me. As I thought about it more and was approached by some folks to run ads, philosophically, it didn't (and still doesn't) feel right to earn money (even if it would only have been 50 cents a month) replicating someone else's work. Yes, I know the writing is mine, but it just didn't feel like the right thing to do. In the past year, I've been approached by a few big advertising syndicates who wanted to run ads on my site, and apart from the ethical reasons I just listed, I couldn't do it because you can't control what ads run on your site. And really, it's just not appropriate or appetizing when you're reading this blog to see an ad for a laxative for nursing moms, an eco-toilet, or a fast-food chain. So, it's ad-free. For good. I'd rather people donate money to Share Our Strength or a charity of their choosing than have me earn money from cooking my way through this beautiful book.

Q. What are your favorite inspirations for cocktails to pair with meals? I'm always curious about the mixed drink concoctions of dedicated cooks. And/or what's the best Keller/wine pairing you've had so far?

A. I'm glad you asked this question because I definitely have an opinion on this issue. I love when I go out for dinner and there's a knowledgeable sommelier who can help me figure out what wines go best with certain foods, because this is an area I really don't know a whole lot about. However, what I don't like is when people (whether it's restaurant staff, friends, associates, or salesmen) become "that guy" about wine and go on and on and on about vintages and years and weather conditions and notes and nose and all the other terms that just make me go cross-eyed because really... I just want to enjoy what I'm eating and enjoy the wine I'm drinking. I don't need a twelve-minute lecture or explanation -- just make a suggestion, give me two VERY SHORT reasons why, and let it go. I'll ask questions when I'm ready, but chances are I've already lost interest because I really just want to taste it and see how I like it (this pet peeve also comes into play when you get stuck with a server who just feels the need to explain in great detail every item on the menu as if you can't read *cough*my waiter at Hook a few weeks ago *cough*).

Now, on to answering the question at hand. I don't pair cocktails with meals. Before dinner, along with some little things to nosh on, I usually serve wine or offer an apertif -- such as my longtime favorite of Lillet blanc with a splash of club soda and a thin slice of lime or orange. During dinner, I offer both a white and a red (because I have friends who have allergic reactions to one or the other, and would prefer a white wine with steak as opposed to, oh I dunno, ending up in the ER in anaphylactic shock). And after dinner, coffee. If I'm having a party where the focus is more on the bar with heavy hors d'oeuvres, then I have all the classics on hand to make traditional drinks: martini (gin-only), Manhattan, Side Car, etc. I can't stand this current trend of mixing a bunch of crap in a shaker and calling it a "-tini." Drives me crazy.

As for the best Keller/wine pairing I've ever had, at Per Se, we had a lovely wine with the cheese course that was just delicious... but here at home, I just serve whatever I have on-hand if anyone wants anything, because I'm not really serving these tastings in a full menu -- they're just one-offs, most of the time.

Q. When it comes to food-related books (not cook books), what are your must reads? I’ve always loved cooking but I never really read about it until I picked up Ruhlman’s first book a few years back. I read it in a few hours and it really solidified my dream to give up corporate America and do what I really love. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get to fulfill that dream but I love to read about others who do.

A. It's no secret that I am a fan of Michael and his writing. I also really love Russ Parsons' books How to Pick a Peach and How to Read a French Fry. I refer to Harold McGee quite a bit when I want to know more about the things I'm reading in some of these books, as well. Here are some of my favorites: Appetite for Life; The Apprentice; Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant (one of the best covers, ever); Like Water for Chocolate (the book is so much better than the movie); A Cook's Tour; Comfort Me With Apples; and probably the very first food-related book I ever read, What's For Lunch, Charley. I have a huge stack of other food-related books I've been skimming, and stopping and starting, but sometimes I just get fooded out and need to read about something else. When I travel, I love to take along one of Kimberly Witherspoon's great compilations because they've got great short stories by and about so many great chefs -- it allows you see another side of their lives.

I have to confess that many of the policy- and issues-related books about food and food culture sometimes get to be a little too much. They're incredibly well written, don't get me wrong, and they pack a powerful punch that gets people to sit up and take notice on the issues they may not think about day to day. It's just that I deal with policy and politics every single day of my life with work, and when I want something pleasureable to read, these kinds of books just don't top my list.

If you're interested in food books that other people love, there's a Chowhound thread about it that might be of interest.

Q. My question revolves around movies. Some food movies are great (Mostly Martha, Big Night, Dinner Rush); some, eh, not so much (Simple Irresistible with Sarah Michelle Gellar as a chef (!), No Reservations). Are there any scenes that inspired you during this magical ride as much as the music you cook to?

A. Without a doubt, a huge inspiration is the feast scene in Big Night -- the drama, the big reveal, the table of friends -- I just love the whole movie. It's a great cast, and probably in my top 5 favorite movies of all time. Mostly Martha (the original) is a great film, as well. And, I also watch Babette's Feast from time to time, as well as Bread and Tulips. Some may disagree with me, but Tampopo made me want to rip my ears off, and I found Eat, Drink, Man, Woman and Tortilla Soup just not my thing.

I actually like movies that incorporate food into the storyline and give it a symbolism that you don't really even get, or think about, until long after it's over. Rebecca Epstein has a great list on Gastronomica's web site of the roles that food has played in movies.

Q. What kind of cook were you before you tackled TFL cookbook? Did you debone, fillet, etc. before or just as part of the experience?

A. Before my grandmother died ten years ago, she used to joke with me that it's too bad women today didn't do the whole "setting up house" transition with their mothers when they left home after high school (or college) and got married, because she was convinced that the only thing I knew how to make was macaroni and cheese, with the occasional hot dog. Not long before she died, she and my grandfather came to my house for Sunday lunch, and I think she almost fell out of her chair when I actually pulled together an entire meal from scratch. So, that's a very roundabout way of saying that before starting this project, I wasn't a very technically advanced cook (I'm still not), but I also wasn't microwaving stuff or hitting the prepared foods bar at Whole Foods. I was somewhere in the middle.

I always liked to experiment in the kitchen, but it really wasn't until I started working from home seven years ago that I could set aside the time to cook when I wanted to. I had decent knife skills, I could flip an egg without a spatula, and I had a pretty good handle on the basics, but also knew I had plenty of room to grow. That's why this project has exceeded my expectations beyond anything I could have imagined -- it's really pushed me waaaaayyyy far beyond my comfort zone, and it's made my everyday cooking that much easier.

I'm not great at deboning or filleting, but that's why there are lovely people in the world called butchers and fishmongers. I like to let the experts handle the things that I would otherwise screw up, and therefore potentially ruin a lovely piece of meat/fish/what-have-you.

Q. What is the best ingredient/technique/recipe you've discovered since starting this blog?

A. Without question, the best ingredient/technique/recipe I've discovered is none of those three things, per se. The biggest takeaway or lesson has been all about patience, communication, and focus. Have I used ingredients in new ways as part of this project? Yes. Have I cooked things I've never cooked before? Yes. Has my opinion on certain foods changed? Absolutely. But it would be way too difficult to try and narrow it down to one or two things and call them the "best." It's much bigger that that, for me. I'm not at all patient in my everyday life. But in the kitchen, I've been able to be more patient, and really focus on what I'm doing so I can see how food changes color and smell and texture and taste throughout the process. And, doing this blog has really reinforced my notion that more often than not we really need to step away from the computer and enjoy the company of others when it comes to food. There are so many amazing food blogs, web sites, and forums out there -- but I so much more enjoy getting out to the markets and getting to know the folks who grow the food I use... and I really love cooking these dishes because it means that at least once a week, I have a house full of people I get to eat, drink, and laugh with, which is perhaps the most important thing of all, for me.

Q. What is it you most love about cooking?

A. Two things: solitude, and togetherness. I love to cook alone. I really do. I have many well-meaning friends who, when they come over, would love nothing more than to pick up a knife and start chopping, or stir something in a pot, but I love to be in the kitchen alone when I cook. It's just my thing. Depending on what I'm making, I do enjoy having my friends hang out in the kitchen with me, chatting away and drinking a nice glass of wine, but because of my controlus freakitis (see above), I prefer to cook alone. Now, when it comes to the whole eating thing, there's nothing better than sitting down at the table with friends as they chatter and talk and laugh and pass the food around to serve themselves, and then ............ complete silence, as they take their first bite. Sometimes, it's a nail-biter, especially if I've tried something new, but I love it when they take absolute pleasure in what I've made. It's so gratifying.

Q. With your obvious love of music, which 5-10 albums do you think French Laundry At Home fans should have on their iPods?

A. You're joking, right? This is almost impossible to answer. Let me give it a shot:

Boston; Boston
Styx; Paradise Theatre
Deee-Lite; World Clique
Green Day; Dookie
Beastie Boys; Licensed to Ill
Ella Fitzgerald; everything she ever recorded
Louis Prima and Keely Smith; everything they ever recorded
Prince; Purple Rain
Howard Jones; Dream Into Action
Janet Jackson; Rhythm Nation
Lyle Lovett; Joshua Judges Ruth
Madonna; The Immaculate Collection
Steve Miller Band; Greatest Hits
Whatever compilation has "Jam on It" by Newcleus on it

.... yeah... this isn't working, because I'm leaving so many great artists, songs, and albums off the list. That's why I think iTunes is so wonderful, because I can create playlists of whatever I want. Sorry, I tried to answer this one. I really did. It's just too hard.

Q. Did you have huge 80s permed hair and acid-washed jeans to go with your fine music selection?

A. Whoever asked this must know me well. Yes, I had a perm. Yes, my permed hair was held in place with many cans of AquaNet. I only had one pair of acid-washed jeans in my lifetime, and they were also pleated and had pink ticking. They, sadly, did not have laces up the side, or those awesome cut-out hearts.

Q. Who did you think was hotter, Andy or Paul in OMD?

A. Neither one of them floated my boat, actually, because I was too in love with Stewart Copeland (nerd alert!) and the lead singer from A-Ha.

Q. What's your culinary holy grail (besides cooking thru TFLC)? A food item, a dinner cooked by someone, a piece of equipment?

A. I was just talking about this question with a friend of mine, because I think my answer would have to be something I wouldn't have said a year or two ago. Before I started this project, I think my answer would have been "dinner at The French Laundry," but now that I know that's going to happen and now that I've had my world view of food changed pretty dramatically over the past two years, I think my culinary holy grail would be to own a few acres of land on which I would plant the most amazing garden, as well as have a few chickens for eggs and for eating. I'd love a normal-sized farmhouse, with an upgraded eat-in kitchen and a large dining room with a long table and many, many chairs so that I could throw some great dinner parties. Oh, and unlimited funds to make all this happen so that I could just plant, grow, cook and eat all the time, without that pesky thing we call work getting in the way.

Q. Not having slogged through the archives yet, have you found any techniques/combinations that you could forget about? (I'm channeling my own go at FL's eggplant caviar [with blinis and peppers] that yielded only so-so results.)

A. What do you mean you haven't slogged through the archives yet? Don't you know it's a great procrastination tool while you're at work? I know it's cliche, but I really did learn something from every single dish I've done here. Granted, some of the lessons were that I didn't like a particular ingredient, or that I was able to change my mind about something (yay, oysters!), but ultimately, there's nothing I'd dismiss or completely forget about.

Q. What will you blog about after you've finished French Laundry at Home?

A. I'll soon announce what my next project will be, but there are some other things that have to fall into place first. The Travel Channel's Andrew Zimmern wrote about me on his blog not too long ago, and wondered if anyone would be daring enough to cook his or her way through the upcoming Alinea book. Without revealing too many details too soon, I can tell you that doing just that is on my agenda as part of a bigger project I'm currently developing and plan to launch in the fall. I've known about the Alinea book for some time now and have been anxious to see the final product. And, now that I've eaten at Alinea, it's all the more exciting, and personal, and something I really look forward to doing.

So with that, I'd like to spend a little time telling you about my dinner at Alinea. As you may or may not know, Alinea's chef/owner is Grant Achatz, who once worked at The French Laundry. Grant recently won the James Beard Award for Best Chef, and The New Yorker recently ran what I thought was a really beautifully written piece on Grant's culinary background, his approach to food, and his recent battle with tongue cancer. What I love about Grant Achatz is his inventiveness, creativity, and risk-taking -- all of which are imbued with a sense of culinary familiarity, if that makes sense.

For instance, take a look at the menu my friend, Claudia, and I were served:
None of those flavors are strange, and very few were new to me... nearly everything listed on that menu was something I'd eaten before. But.... I'd never eaten these flavors in quite this manner. For instance, we've all probably had a caprese salad: slices of fresh tomato, slices of fresh mozzarella, fresh basil leaves, with a drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper. Now imagine a plate being brought to the table, then gently placed in front of you as the server describes the frozen mozzarella foam, the tomatoes prepared seven ways, the basil ice cream... honestly, there was a part of me that wanted to roll my eyes at the frozen mozzarella foam, but I couldn't. I really couldn't. Why? It was so damn good it made my head explode and my eyes roll back into my head. It was really fun and inventive and just off-the-freakin'-charts good.

We got the chance to meet Grant that night, and it was an honor to meet the man behind such a wonderful meal. It's funny, but he looks quite serious and stern in his photos, but he has one of the most engaging smiles I've ever seen. His kitchen was humming, but in a very quiet sort of way.

In all, it was a really fun night that opened up my palate in ways I hadn't done before. My friend, Claudia, took some photos and did a more thorough write up. Me? I'm still processing it and trying to find a way to describe it without solely relying on gutteral sounds and comic book action hero noises. I can say this: I came home from Chicago the next day looking at food through yet another whole new lens.

Up Next: French Laundry at Home Extra -- Bearnaise Mousseline

Read My Previous Post:
Pacific Moi with Fresh Soybeans, Scallion and Radish Salad, and Soy-Temple Orange Glaze

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Pacific Moi with Fresh Soybeans, Scallion and Radish Salad, and Soy-Temple Orange Glaze

Oh people, I am in love. With a FISH of all things. Is that bad? I mean, I think I can find room in my heart for one more culinary luv-ah. Move over, bacon... slide a little to the right, bordelaise sauce.... Bloomberg, you stay put, honey. We'll slide that moi right there beside ya. Perfect.

I can't decide how much of my moi-love is about the fish itself, or the double-secret-probation covert ops it took to get this delectable fish out of the Hawaiian waters, onto a plane to the east coast, and into my hot little hands.

First, let's start with some background. Moi (pronounced "moy") is rare for home cooks to come by here on the east coast. In fact, now that I think about it, I don't think I've ever seen it on a restaurant menu here, either. The only place I've seen moi on a menu was in Maui 10 years ago; I didn't order it then, and boy am I kicking myself now. Centuries ago, it was the fish of kings -- and only the wealthy and privileged were able to eat it. Today, it's sustainably farmed in Hawaiian waters and enjoyed by all Hawaiians.

So, how did I get this rare little fishy in my kitchen? Back in February, when I was buying monkfish (ugh, THAT was a disaster of a dish), I told my fishmonger, Scott, that I needed to get my hands on some fresh moi -- not Cryovac™ed and frozen, but fresh outta the water. He laughed and laughed and "there-there'd" me until I snapped his ass back into reality and said, "No. Dude. I really do need some moi. Can ya help me out?" I think right after that he said something like "Fat chance, you crack monkey" and then suggested I book us two tickets to Hawaii to go pick some up -- and believe me, I was tempted.

Over the next few weeks and months, everytime I went to BlackSalt, whether to buy fish in the market or have lunch with friends, I'd pester Scott with my need for moi. He'd say, "Yeah, yeah, I'm workin' on it" which I bought hook, line and sinker (ha!) time and time again. Finally, I said, "Dude. I'm really ready for this moi. Can we get some, or do I have to *gulp* make a substitution?" His reply was: "You're not gonna believe this, but I think I can get us some."

Aw yeah.

There was much back and forth on how we were getting it: where's it coming from // I can't tell you // Are you just gonna hack up some catfish and tell me it's moi // No, really, I know this guy // Oh really; that sounds credible // He's a customer // But is he also a reputable fish purveyor // Not exactly, but he can have some moi flown in because he, like, knows some people // Are you serious and is this legal // Um, I think so // Oh boy, you think so; so when's it coming // I can't say; it will be kind of last-minute // But I'm a control freak and I need to know every detail or else I will have to pace the floor and brush my hair for six hours until it is even more shiny and perfect // Oh, can it, sister // Beep boop boo beep // What are you doing // I'm pressing the numbers on my phone to annoy you so you'll tell me when the fish will be here // Oh fer cryin' out loud, I promise, it'll be any day now // No really, when's it coming // The red dog flies at midnight.

After one or two false alarms and one delivery mishap by the lovely folks at Fed Ex, my phone rang early one morning with Scott on the other end of the line saying the moi had arrived. I jumped out of bed, showered and got dressed, and hauled ass over to BlackSalt to pick it up lickety-split. It was so pretty and lovely before he filleted it for me. Sadly, I do not have a photo of that because I suck and in my haste to get there so quickly, I forgot my camera. Sorry. However, thanks to the good people at the University of Hawaii, I can show you their photo of a whole moi, ready to be cooked and eaten with love:

Gorgeous. And, let's all give Scott Weinstein a big round of applause for providing me with the right fish for this dish so that I didn't have to use monkfish, canned tuna or some shit.

::: clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap :::

Nicely done. Now, let's move on to the dish.

The first thing I did was prepare the radish salad. Using my mandoline, I julienned some green onions (not the best-looking cuts you'll ever see -- whoops), carrot and radish:

I put the julienned vegetables in a bowl of ice water to hold them until I was ready to plate.

The next step was making the orange glaze. I'm pretty sure I've mentioned this somewhere on the blog before, but I have carpal tunnel syndrome. I'm afraid to have the surgery to correct it (I've heard too many awful stories about how it actually makes things worse), so instead, I make concessions in my everyday actitvities to accommodate it. One of those concessions is buying fresh-squeezed juices instead of squeezing the citrus myelf. I've had the fresh juices from Balducci's before and they're really, really good, so I bought a small bottle of their orange juice to use in this dish. The idea of squeezing enough oranges to provide two cups of juice was painful enough in thought, let alone execution. So, I started with some orange juice, which I reduced over medium heat until it had gone from 2 cups to just under a half a cup:

I removed it from the heat and set it aside while I prepared the soybeans. Now, I suppose I could've driven all the way up Georgia Avenue to the Asian supermarket to find fresh soybeans, but the chance of them having any is usually slim-to-none, and I was driving right past my favorite Japanese restaurant, Murasaki, on the way home from picking up the moi, so I decided to just get the edamame from them so I didn't have to blanch them when I got home -- they were already steamed in salt water.

I removed them from their pods and put them in a small saucepan with some tomato diamonds, brunoise, and a little bit of butter and heated the mixture over low heat until it was warmed throughout:

I reheated the orange glaze to a simmer and whisked in two tablespoons of butter as well as the soy sauce, and kept it warm over low heat:

I removed the julienned carrots, radishes, and green onions from their ice-water bath, patted them dry and tossed them in a bowl with some minced chives and some lemon olive oil:

Last, but most certainly not least, it was time to cook that lovely, lovely fish:

The French Laundry Cookbook suggests serving pieces that are 3.5"x1", but I made my pieces a bit larger than that because this fish was expensive, and I wanted to make sure I didn't waste a single bit of it. I seasoned each of the pieces with salt and pepper:

I then cooked them, skin side down first, for about 3 minutes, then flipped them over to the fleshy side for just under a minute. To plate, I started with the orange glaze, on top of which went the soybean mixture. On top of that, the moi; and, on top of the moi went the radish salad:
Ooo, ahh... just a little bit... ooo ahhh, a little bit more... ooo, ahh... just a little bit, you know what I'm lookin' for.... baby, please... you're all I neeeeed.....

Nothin' like a little Gina G. dance-mix-love-ballad for my moi.

Let me talk about how full-bodied this fish is. I know that's probably a strange term to use when you're talking about fish, but I don't care. It had heft to it, but wasn't steak-y. It was heavy, but not too fishy tasting. It had enough fat in it that it was silky smooth, but it was also light on the palate and really, really delicious. The skin was crispy and perfect, and I couldn't have been happier. I also really loved the soybeans, but do you know what the hit of the night was? The orange-soy glaze. For as much as we loved the fish (and we all really did), the glaze took it waaaay over the top and turned a grand slam into... um.... a shut-out-filled World Series win, or whatever baseball analogy suits best (I'm crap at sports, so YOU figure something out). There was just enough soy sauce to cut the orangey-ness of the orange, and the consistency of it was perfect. And, the radish salad added a nice, sharp crunchy and cool complement to the dish that, when I read the recipe I though I might not like, but it tied it all together really nicely.

I think this dish is really easy to pull off. If you have your very own Scott, then have him or her pull out all the stops to get some moi. If you don't, TOO BAD FOR YOU. Kidding. (sort of) You could make this dish and substitute some halibut, or maybe some pompano... something with a fatty, almost buttery texture and you'll be set. It is soooooo worth trying, even for the orange-soy glaze on its own. You won't regret it, I promise.

Up Next: Q&A with Carol, Part Deux... and my dinner at Alinea

Moi from BlackSalt
Edamame from
Produce from Balducci's

O Meyer lemon olive oil
365 organic butter and canola oil
Fresh-squeezed orange juice from Balducci's
Kimlan soy sauce (even though its name makes me think of ChemLawn - boooo)

Music to Cook By: The Little Ones; Lovers Who Uncover. Another KCRW find and a CD from Red Light Management (thanks, guys!). I love their pace and their musicality, and there's just something about these guys that makes it fun to cook to AND fun to clean up to. They recently worked with the guitarist from the Mighty Lemon Drops, which is the band I was seeing at the old 930 Club the night that paragon of virtue Marion Barry was arrested for smoking crack with Rasheeda Moore at the Vista Hotel. Good times.... good times.... anyway, they have a great sound and remind me of Echo and the Bunnymen, which is maybe why I like them so much. I think you will, too.

Read My Previous Post: Hearts of Palm with Purée of Marrow Beans and Field Greens

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Hearts of Palm with Purée of Marrow Beans and Field Greens

One of the greatest things about The French Laundry Cookbook is the wealth of stories throughout the book. One of my favorite stories is about John Mood, the purveyor from whom The French Laundry gets their fresh hearts of palm. Mood served in Vietnam, after which he became a commercial pilot following his military service. He then bought some acreage in Hawaii and, with a business partner and fellow grower, turned his peach palm-growing hobby into a full-time business. It's the stuff dreams are made of, and I hope someday to be able to visit his farm because not only would it be a fantastic excuse to go to Hawaii, but because his farm looks so lush and green and fragrant and peaceful.

I'm sad to say that I was unable to procure fresh hearts of palm to make this dish. I tried ordering it from a number of sources as well as through a few chefs locally here in DC, but nothing panned out. I couldn't bring myself to order 100 lbs. of it (one option, and a rather expensive one at that), or wait until October when a different purveyor would have some ready and was willing to send me just 25 pounds (again, still really expensive and not too timely). So, I had to settle for canned hearts of palm and make the best of it. The good news is, even with the canned stuff, this dish is off-the-charts good, so I can't even imagine what it'll be like when I do get my butt to Hawaii someday, take over someone's kitchen, and make this there.

As you know, the dishes in The French Laundry Cookbook are served in tasting sizes. I usually have 6 - 8 people over to try what I make as part of this project, but when I made this dish, my usual crew was on vacation, out of town on business, or tied up with their kids' sports schedules. So, I thought it was a great opportunity to turn this into an entree-sized serving and invite my friend, Kerry, to lunch. Even though we live just five blocks away from one another, we hadn't gotten together in awhile, and our timing was perfect, so we enjoyed this dish for lunch (along with a few glasses of wine) and had a lovely afternoon. If you have the opportunity to schedule a lunch for two sometime soon, you might want to try this dish. You won't be disappointed.

I soaked the marrow beans overnight the night before I made the rest of the dish. That morning, I drained and rinsed them, then put them in a pot with some cold water and brought them to a simmer:

After they'd simmered for a minute or so, I removed them from the heat, drained them and rinsed them under cold water until the water ran clear. I put the beans in a medium saucepan and covered them with cold, homemade vegetable stock along with some carrot, leek, onion, and tomato as well as a bouquet garni.

I brought this to a simmer and cooked it gently for about an hour. After they'd cooled a bit, I drained the beans (saving the liquid, but discarding the veg), and set aside 3/4 C of them for the sauce.

The remaining beans (another 3/4C or so) went back into the liquid and reheated a tad while I ground some homemade brioche into fine, fine breadcrumbs.

I removed the breadcrumbs from the food processor and in their place put the hot marrow beans (I drained them and the liquid went bye-bye), which I puréed, then added the breadcrumbs back in to purée some more:

Then, I added some mascarpone cheese and kept the purée action going:

This is a point at which I debated calling Kerry and canceling lunch because I really could've just eaten this stuff with a spoon. It smelled amazing, and was so silky smooth. But alas, it was not meant to be, because there were (canned) hearts of palm to be filled with this gorgeous stuff.

Hey, at least they're cultivated and not, um, whatever the opposite of cultivated is.

I cut these hearts of palm into pieces that were 1-2" long, then hollowed them out:

Then, because I accidentally sliced my pastry bag with a knife a few weeks ago and haven't picked up a new one yet, I had to put the marrow bean filling in a ziploc bag (shame, shame, shame) cut a hole in the tip and pipe that stuff into these hollowed-out hearts of palm:
(notice how I kept that photo underexposed because it's so embarrassing?)

I put the filled hearts of palm in the fridge to chill while I prepared the bean sauce in which these hearts of palm would eventually sit.

When I bought my black truffles in the winter, I made mushroom stock and preserved one of the small truffles because I knew I'd be making this dish when black truffles were no longer available. Just as The French Laundry Cookbook instructs on page 87, I made the stock, plonked in the truffle, then stored it in the freezer. I thawed it for this dish, and kept every finger and extremity crossed that it would still be good (read: not poisonous or gastric distress-inducing) when I needed it.

It passed the smell test, for sure, and since I've already 'fessed up to loving this dish, I can tell you it passed the taste and non-sickness-inducing test as well. Whew.

To make the sauce, I put the stock in a saucepan with some sherry vinegar and brought it to a boil and reduced it by half. Then, I added minced shallots, minced black truffle, the remaining beans, and some diced heart of palm (I used the centers I'd hollowed out) and heated it until the contents of the pan were nice and warm:

I removed it from the heat and stirred in the tomato diamonds, parsley, brunoise, chives, and a tiny bit of white truffle oil and set it aside until it was time to plate:

Time to finish the hearts of palm! I dunked and dredged each of them in flour, milk and ground up panko and fried them in some canola oil in a skillet. This was a quick process, so I don't have any action shots of it (if I had done so, they'd have burned, and that would be not a very good thing).

To plate, I put a ring of chive oil on the plate (which is barely visible in the photo, if at all), on which I put the beans in sauce. I topped it with some of the hearts of palm, and garnished with the very last pea shoots I had (my chervil looked sad and droopy, so it got das boot):

I don't think I mentioned this yet, and I should be shot for not doing so, but did you know that marrow beans on their own taste a little like bacon? They do. I'm not making it up. Extra bonus points for that because it definitely added a little sumpin'-sumpin' to the dish.

The hearts of palm smelled a little farty when they were cooking so I was suspicious about how they'd taste (wouldn't you be?), but when I sliced a little bit of the heart of palm and ate it with the bean sauce? Wow wow wow wow wow! I had set aside the extra hearts of palm on a plate in the kitchen, but brought them out to the table so we could finish them right then and there. I set aside a little bit of the bean sauce and reheated it the next morning and ate it with an egg (over-easy). This dish is going into the permanent repertoire. It was a hit in every possible way, and I think this would be a great one to make if you want to try something out of the book, but haven't yet. The book even suggests a workaround in case you don't have truffle-infused mushroom stock, so there are NO EXCUSES for you not calling a friend, inviting him or her to lunch at which you will serve this and drink wine in the middle of the day and feel like a freakin' rockstar (without the heroin bender or passel of hookers, of course, unless that's your thing, in which case, get away from me).

A+ and smiley faces all around. This one's a keeper.

Up Next:
Pacific Moi with Fresh Soybeans, Scallion and Radish Salad, and Soy-Temple Orange Glaze (and no, even though Moi also comes from Hawaii and is next to impossible to find on the east coast, I did not use canned Moi -- I got the fresh stuff because my fishmonger is like the Colombian drug lord of the fish kingdom and found some for me, but without all the murdering and stuff.)

Roland Hearts of Palm
Dried marrow beans from the TPSS Co-op
Homemade vegetable stock from my freezer
King Arthur flour
Organic Valley whole milk
Edward & Sons panko
365 canola oil
Vermont Butter & Cheese Co. mascarpone
Produce from Whole Foods
Parsley from my garden
Saveurs white truffle oil
Black truffle from D'Artagnan

Music to Cook By:
A little bit of Teitur and some Katy Perry. I downloaded a bunch of their music not too long ago and just dumped all of it into one big playlist. And somehow, it works to have them lumped together -- I'm not sure why. I first fell in love with Katy Perry when I heard one of her songs on the soundtrack of "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" (shut UP!), and I found out about Teitur the last time I was in LA and listened to KCRW on my little hotel room clock radio because I got sick of watching Project Runway reruns.

Read My Previous Post: French Laundry at Home Extra: Q&A with Carol, Part One

Friday, July 11, 2008

French Laundry at Home Extra: Q&A with Carol, Part One


When I put out the call for questions, man, did you guys respond! So much so, in fact, that we're gonna break up this Q&A into two posts -- one now, and one in a few weeks. Because we're near a hundred questions (although some of them are duplicates or very similar in nature) that's still too many for one post, don'tcha think? And, by splitting it into two, it means I can stretch the life of the blog that much further, which pleases me greatly.

But before I get to the Q&A, I want to share some of the great media coverage French Laundry at Home has gotten in the past week or so. The adage "when it rains, it pours" holds true, for sure.

1) Here we are in DCist (thanks, Alyse!): "Chewing the Fat: Carol Blymire of French Laundry at Home"

2) Check out this really great story (with spoilers related to this and a future Q&A) in the Frederick News-Post (thanks, Adrienne!): Cooking with French Laundry

3) Here I am quoted in the Montgomery County Gazette (in an article by the talented Mike Meno) on my town's ridiculous decision to "add their voice to the national voice on a foie gras ban" or whatever the stupid, meaningless resolution was: "City says 'non' to foie gras"

4) And, on the same day I called my townsfolk a bunch of wackadoos in one paper (because, you know, I'm so politically savvy and whatnot), I was featured in a full-page spread in our town newspaper, the Takoma Voice (thanks, Howard and Diana!). The story isn't available online as of today, but should be someday at It's a really great feature piece, and it was an honor to be interviewed by my friend and neighbor, Howard Kohn, who also happens to be an award-winning author and writer for Rolling Stone.

5) One last one -- another WTF about the whole foie gras production ban in my town (which no one raises, in case you were wondering) by Kathleen Miller at The Examiner: Takoma Park City Council Bans Foie Gras Production

* * * * *

Now, on to the Q&A.

If you're just joining us, let me link to a post in my archives that might be worth reading before diving into today's questions and answers. Hopefully, it'll get you caught up on why I'm even doing this blog in the first place, and what got it all started.

Here we go...

Q. How much of what you've been doing has Thomas Keller actually been following himself?

A. There were a lot of questions from you along the lines of "does Thomas Keller read your blog" and "they should totally give you a reservation and VIP dinner at The French Laundry -- can we organize a campaign to make that happen" and "do you think you'll ever meet Thomas Keller, and if you did, what would you say?" And now seems like a good time for me to update you on all that.

Yes, Chef Keller knows about the site. I'm pretty sure he's not hovering over his laptop every day refreshing the page to see if I've posted, but he does know about it. And, as wonderful and supportive as I know your intent was, there is no need for anyone to organize a campaign for me to get a reservation at The French Laundry. I'm actually going there in mid-August to celebrate my 40th birthday. I don't know what's in store for me, menu-wise, because I'm leaving it all up to them. I made the reservation awhile ago because I knew I wanted to book the private room for this dinner, and mere words cannot convey how excited I am about finally making the trip out there. It was fun to see the recent A Cook's Tour episode at The French Laundry because my parents and friends who will be joining me for my birthday dinner there watched the episode, too, and called during the commercial breaks to talk about all the food and the service and how excited they are about this dinner. It's something I've been looking forward to, and I think it's a wonderful way to celebrate not only this birthday milestone, but also a really amazing run with this blog.

Q. That's nice and all, but you didn't really answer the question about meeting Thomas Keller and what you would say if you ever met him.

A. Don't you love how I pretended right there that this was a live interview and I'd dodged that last bit? Oh, I slay me sometimes. Well, I don't need to worry about that hypothetical situation, because *****drum roll, please***** I had the great honor and distinct pleasure to meet Thomas Keller at an event at Per Se in New York in June. I was invited to attend a launch event for his new book, Under Pressure, which is due out this fall. [side note: I'll write more about his new book and my early attempts at sous vide cooking in the not-to-distant future.]

However, the real point of this answer is that I got to meet Chef Keller. It was a little surreal, because standing a few feet away from me was this man I've admired for nearly a decade, and all I could think about was "Oh crap, I hope he's not mad about the sweetbreads monologue, or the fake tripe banter, or my April Fool's Day prank, or any of my crimes against food; or, what if he asks me something about some really obscure cooking technique I've never heard of and I don't know the answer and this is worse than that dream you have where you show up naked at school and I THINK I'M GOING TO PASS OUT NOW." When we were introduced to one another, I had to work hard to quiet my inner monologue of "Wow, I'm about to meet Thomas Keller; Wow, I'm actually meeting Thomas Keller; Wow, he's shaking my hand, and this is really Thomas Keller; Wow, he is really tall; I cannot believe I am at this very moment meeting Thomas Keller; I hope my bra strap is not sticking out; Do I have anything stuck between my teeth; IT'S THOMAS KELLER" so that I could focus on my time with him.

It's not often in life that we really get to meet our heroes, AND have them live up to our expectations. He was lovely and really kind, and I couldn't have asked for a better day. I'm not going to share every little detail here because it was a very personal experience and I like to keep those kinds of things to myself. I will, however, say that he and his team both at the restaurants and at Workman/Artisan have been incredibly supportive of this blog, and I couldn't be more grateful. So yes, I've met Chef Keller AND I'm having dinner at The French Laundry in mid-August. Life is good and I feel like the luckiest girl in the world.

Q. What is the deal with Bloomberg? I'm a New Yorker, and I admit he has his charms, but I'm not quite getting the devotion.

A. Here's the deal: I like smart, self-made, powerful men who are not over-the-top, self-important egomaniacs. They're rare, and they're to be revered and adored. Michael Bloomberg not only built his own business then successfully held public office, he's also a smart thought leader who epitomizes class, intelligence, business savvy, and the importance of philanthropy -- all of which make him incredibly attractive. His gal pal is one lucky lady, as far as I'm concerned (even though I think I may be a better cook than she is, just sayin'). And, when you live in a city where you have had to suffer through decades of embarrassment from DC Mayor for Life, Marion Barry, I mean, c'mon.... do you really need any further explanation?

Q. What's your take on Bourdain and Ramsay?

A. I've met Tony Bourdain, and thought he was a straight-shooter and a really decent guy. I have not met Gordon Ramsay, but I've eaten in one of his restaurants in London and it was one of the best meals I ever had. Now, I assume your question is more about their public personas, so here's what I think about that: I think Bourdain is Bourdain is Bourdain. If you've ever heard him speak or met him at an event, you'll know what I mean. He is a stand-up guy, true to his convictions and, I believe, honestly humbled and happy with what his life has become. He's well-read and has a great sense of history of our world, which I think is one aspect of his public persona that often goes unheralded. I like the approach of his show on Travel Channel. I'm also thrilled he quit smoking because it'll be great to have him around for another few decades.

I also admire Gordon Ramsay because he's a good chef who cares about food. I prefer his BBC shows to what airs on FOX, but that's largely because the whole contrived reality show editing process here in the States is a bit exhaustive and overdone. I think American television needed a bombastic bad guy to helm Hell's Kitchen, he was a perfect fit, and I don't know anyone who would turn down that kind of money to do it. The way I see it, he's made a series of smart business decisions so that his kids will not have to have the kind of hand-to-mouth, where-are-we-gonna-live-this-week upbringing that he did. I think that's what motivates him -- giving his family the life he'd always dreamed about as a child. So, whether or not I dig how he's portrayed on television, I think he has built an empire he can be proud of. And the man knows his food. And, have you seen his abs? Because wow.

Q. Have you had any "worlds colliding" crossover between this blog and your DC career, or are all your clients/colleagues unaware of your secret culinary talents?

A. This is one of my favorite questions because it's something I've been hyper-aware of since I started the blog. You'll notice that I never really talk about work or work-related issues on this blog, and that's a separation that's important for me to keep. I love what I do for a living (even on the days I whine about it) and I am so fortunate to work with some really great clients and be part of some really important policy and business decisions that ultimately will shape the future of our country.

When I started the blog, I thought it was paramount that I keep my professional life and my food-blog life completely separate (I used to post under a pseudonym, just in case), but inevitably those worlds collided (as I figured they might) and it was good. Earlier this year, I told only a handful of my work-related colleagues about the blog because there was some local media coverage about it and I wanted them to hear it from me before they read it in the papers. From that point on, word got around as often happens in this town, and that, combined with even more media coverage, meant that keeping the two entities separate wasn't possible anymore, but I'm okay with that. By the time the Wall Street Journalstory ran, the final brick in that wall was down and I got calls from people I hadn't talked to or worked with in ages and it was a nice way to be able to reconnect. In fact, on Wednesday morning a work colleague who lives in Frederick, MD opened her morning paper and saw me on the cover of the food section and emailed me immediately, because this was the first she'd learned about this blog.

I have the utmost respect for my clients and the work I do, and because of that, I will never talk about my "day job" on this site or anywhere in public. I can tell you, though, that three of my clients in particular really love food, and now that they know about the blog our work talk often spirals into "what are you cooking this weekend" conversations, which I just love. It reminds me that we're all human and that even in this most political of towns where we tend to take ourselves too seriously from time to time or be pitted against one another on issues or legislation, good food is the one thing we can almost always agree on and it becomes the great leveler. So now, I'm all for worlds colliding because it's made work and life overall even more enjoyable.

Q. How do you find the time to do everything? Work, cook, blog? I think your writing is fantastic and would like to know how you fit everything into one 24-hour day.

A. Aw, thank you. You know, I'm incredibly lucky to own my own business and work from home because it gives me greater flexibility when it comes to spending time cooking and fitting in little prep steps in between conference calls or answering emails. I'm also a bit of a control freak when it comes to organization and time management. It's always been something I'm good at, so having that skill definitely helps get everything done. And, I'm child-free and single, so when my work is done, I get to focus on cooking and writing and seeing friends and living life, and I really feel like this is the happiest I've ever been, so none of it really seems at all like work or anything I feel like I have to "fit in" to a schedule. The one household chore that has suffered, though, as a result of this blog is that I spend far less time in the yard and garden than I used to, and there have been times I've let the grass go too long without mowing that the neighbors walk by and whistle the Sanford and Son theme song.

Q. How is it possible to rock so hard and have a blog that is still fun and amusing week after week? Are you magic?

A. Nope, just human and doing what I love. Everything else is icing. If you'd asked me two years ago if I'd be doing something like this or have all these amazing opportunities coming my way, or readers who are so faithful and wonderful and hilarious and supportive, I'd have thought you were nuts. It's all in the timing, and the willingness to just jump into something feet first and work hard to see if you're good at it, and then make great stuff happen from that point on. Believe me, there are days I don't "rock so hard" -- you just don't get to see them. And you should be thankful for that.

Q. How many marriage proposals are you up to?

A. Heh. I've lost track. Actually, I've gotten some strange email, that's for sure, but marriage proposals? There've been a few, and I appreciate the intent behind it, even though I know it's not really literal. In fact, I got a proposal this week at Whole Foods because I was sporting my "Meat is Murder: Tasty, tasty murder" t-shirt and a guy came up to me (with his wife next to him beaming quite proudly), and said, "My wife has given me permission to ask for your hand in marriage because that's the most hilarious t-shirt we've ever seen." Totally lovely people.

Q. Despite the fact the blog is about making things, you rarely use video, except to mock shellfish before their death. Maybe this was just a practical necessity of doing these dishes by yourself, but to what extent is the picture and text format something that forced you to be more creative? Or at least more expressive of your evident creativity? Do you think of stories to tell while cooking? When do you think about how you will tell the story of a dish, as it progresses or after you sit down to write it up?

A. I love this question because it really makes me think about how to tell you about the whole process of each of these posts. Regarding the video part of your question -- I've been approached a few times about doing video demonstrations on the site, and I've turned them down. I made a decision early on not to do any videos of me making these dishes for a few reasons. First, I'm not a trained chef or cook, so I would hate to be filmed doing something incorrectly and have that out there for other people to learn improper technique. Second, I'd want all the footage to be perfect and gorgeous and well-lit and well-edited and that's really expensive to do and not the point of why I started all this in the first place. And, doing the actual cooking was challenging enough, so I didn't want to complicate it and have to make each dish five times to make sure you get all the shots and close-ups. It's just not economically feasible, nor do I have the time.

I'm an average photographer, and I'm sure if I spent time learning how to actually use my camera, my photos would be incredible. I think they're good enough to help tell the story of what I'm doing here, so I'm fine with my photography skills. As for the stories and the telling and the writing, what you see here on this blog are cleaned-up first drafts. I don't type while I cook, but I am writing these posts in my head as I write my shopping list, shop for the ingredients, talk to my vendors, do the prep, and cook the dishes. Some of the food I cook triggers a memory or relates to something I've done before. Other times, it isn't until I've finished loading the dishwasher and poured myself a glass of wine, then headed upstairs to load the photos that something clicks and I know the story I want to tell. With some dishes, the stories tell themselves. With others, there are memories or moments that resonate with me, so I'm hopeful they'll also resonate with you. Other times, it really isn't until I've finshed writing the entire piece that a specific learning moment or summary thought hits me and it comes to a more thoughtful close.

But seriously, once I'm done cleaning up the kitchen, I load the photos, open Blogger and start typing. It all unfolds from there. After I write the first draft, I go back and fix typos and grammar snafus, and sometimes add better explanations that I think will help a home cook who might want to try this dish, but that's it.

I love to write, and in my day job, I'm always writing for other people -- whether to represent their business or organization, or ghostwriting a speech or column in their voice. To have the opportunity to write something in my voice is like a gift. Being able to write about and take photos of something I've made is really rewarding for me, and I hope it's been enjoyable for you. Unlike video, I feel like when you read someone else's writing, you get to add your own layer of context around it, too, and hopefully it'll mean something more.

Q. What has been the total food cost to blog the entire book? And what single ingredient/animal part made the biggest dent in your pay check?

A. I answered the second half of this question in the beginning of my most recent post about the Lobster Consommé en Gelée. As for the total cost of this project, I've never calculated it, nor would I publish it if I did. I don't think it's important, and I wouldn't want anyone to feel as though they couldn't afford to do even one dish in this book because there was a big price tag affixed to cooking the whole book. Besides, there are so many soft-cost elements to calculate (water, gas, electricity, auto fuel, time, etc.) that it's not something I'd ever have the time to do, even if I cared to do so.

Q. How long have you had your craving for peanut butter? What kind do you buy? (I share that love for peanut butter.)

A. This one obviously from someone who pays attention to the "What Else Did I Eat This Week" sidebar piece. Hee! I eat peanut butter a lot. Almost every day. Never with jelly. Sometimes with honey. Almost always on toast. And, I do a mix at Whole Foods with their honey-roasted and plain peanut butter -- freshly ground onsite in those little machines that let you self-dispense. Oh, peanut butter... how I love thee (but not as much as bacon, Mike Bloomberg and Bordelaise Sauce).

Q. How does one score an invitation to taste the fruits of your labor, and are there any requirements for this essential position?

A. Here's the thing: if I could have you all over, I would. But that's what the Internet is for. Buy the book (or borrow it from your library), come here and read about the dishes, then go make them yourself. Be the rockstar among YOUR friends and see how much fun it can be. The people who get to taste my French Laundry At Home dishes happen to be two of my closest friends and their families -- and, they happen to live across the street from me, so it's easy to just call them with a ten-minute heads up to come over and taste whatever it is I've made that day. From time to time, other friends have joined in, but for the most part it's been the same group of ten people who've gotten to eat all these amazing dishes, and it's been a really fun journey for all of us. I'm really excited that I've been able to get three younger kids -- ages 9 to 11 -- interested in it, because when I was their age I never would have been daring or confident enough to try this kind of food and be able to talk about it at the level they can. The fact that my friend's son, Grant (of the BURNED HAND lobster jelly fiasco) called me from his dad's cell phone on Christmas Eve to tell me he'd just ordered the veal cheeks at Eric Ripert's West End Bistro here in DC and couldn't wait to taste them was a really cool moment.

Q. Do you have a favorite cuisine?

A. That's a hard one to answer because I can only think of one regional/specific cuisine I really, really dislike and could never even consider as a favorite, and that's Ethiopian food. Absolutely can't stand it. My favorite cuisine would have to be food that actually tastes like the food it's supposed to be. I hate overly spiced food, or ingredients that are crapped up with something else so that you can't taste what it is you're supposed to be tasting. I love food that is made fresh in season, prepared simply, and served in a pleasant manner. So any cuisine, as long as it is good and fresh and not Ethiopian is my favorite. I tend to lean more toward Vietnamese, Thai, and Indian food when dining out, because I have so many great places in my neighborhood that it's an easy go-to AND it's good. I just don't ever cook it at home because I am lazy and would rather get it from someone who knows what they're doing. But, if you forced me to name just one cuisine I had to eat the rest of my life, it'd be French food (with some salads snuck in there, because the French are crap at the kind of bountiful, fresh salads I love in the spring and summer). Or it might be Spanish food. I can't decide. Don't make me decide. Please.

Q. What's your favorite culinary guilty pleasure?

A. It used to be Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, but now it's a toss-up between a chili cheese dog, fries and a chocolate shake at Ben's Chili Bowl or Thai food from my favorite carryout place in town (Thai Derm; Silver Spring, MD). I really don't eat junk food anymore because all the sugar and processed crap was whacking out my system and making me a raging insomniac. When I did eat junk food, my guilty pleasure was Chocolate Turtle Chex Mix. I will apologize in advance for any addictions that result in my connecting you to that wonderful, wonderful stuff. My current favorite culinary guilty pleasure at home is the stash of Girl Scout cookies I keep in the freezer. Oooo, and when the neighbor's kids decide to share their stash of Oreos with me. And rice krispy treats at Starbucks on the way to the radio station. Okay, there, I'm done. No wait, Taco Bell Crunch Wrap Supreme the morning after I've had two too many glasses of wine. There. Now I'm really done. I lied. Chipotle burritos. I swear, that's all. For now.

Q. What is the complete list of things you can't stand to eat? (My biggest one is celery -- blech.)

A. Blech is right on the celery, but for me it's not as bad as and doesn't rank up there with cilantro, tripe, lobster jelly, milk chocolate (tastes like licking a 9-volt battery), hot peppers (because I'm allergic to them and will go into anaphylactic shock), coconut (because I'm allergic to that, too, but hated it anyway before I knew I was allergic), and animal brains. I have a friend who is a chef, and he is trying his damnedest to get me to eat lamb brains. His latest argument was, "but they taste like porridge!" Which, ew. That is not helping AT ALL. I've tried calf brain before and it's a texture thing -- totally grosses me out. I'm not ready to dive into lamb brains anytime soon, no sir, no how.

Q. What is your second-favorite pig part?

A. I'm guessing you're inferring that the pig's head is my favorite part, and you would be correct about that. My second favorite pig part would have to be the butt (even though I know it's technically the shoulder; I just enjoy typing the word "butt" whenever I can because I am 12) or the parts that deliver the best bacon -- the sides, belly and back. The feet can suck it. I'm never making that again.

Q. When recipes turn out badly, what do you do with the food? Do you have a dog?

A. I do have a dog, and he loves certain leftovers, especially if there was cheese involved. However, when a dish turns out badly or ends up being something I really didn't like, those are not usually things I'd give to the dog. I hate to waste food, so sometimes I pawn it off on the neighbors or friends if I think they'll enjoy it, and
I do what I can to salvage a certain element or component of a dish, but unfortunately, some of it does get thrown away, I'm not gonna lie.

Q. What's your favorite hole-in-the-wall food establishment in the DC area?

A. My favorite hole-in-the-wall food place? Oh, that's easy. Citronelle. KIDDING. There are some Peruvian chicken joints on New York Avenue and on North Capitol Street that are really good. I don't know their names because most of the storefronts don't have signs or are called El Pollo (Something or Other) and I get them all confused. I also love Florida Avenue Grill in DC and The Woodside on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. I love a good greasy breakfast, so any hole-in-the-wall place that does that is a favorite of mine. I don't think Ben's Chili Bowl is technically a hole in the wall, but it's also one of my favorite very-casual dining establishments. And speaking of hot dogs, in college I used to subsist on chili-cheese dogs from this guy, Manoosh, who used to park his cart just outside Tower Records on 21st and H Street. I wonder if he's still there. Or alive. Man, those dogs hit the spot at 2:30 in the morning.

Q. What kind of camera are you using to take your food shots?

A. From January - December 2007, I used a Sony Cybershot point-and-shoot thingamajig. Starting in January 2008, I'm now using a Nikon D40 digital SLR camera and I love it. If I only had the time to figure out all the whirylgigs and swoznozzles that make it work even better I'll be a regular culinary Ansel Adams or something. I never use a tripod or light reflectors or special lenses or any of that stuff that other food bloggers seem to use -- I still just point and shoot, but I think this new camera gives me better control over light exposure and focus stuff and all those other technical things I don't really understand but probably should.

Q. Are you pro- or anti- silicone kitchen accessories? (Hot pads, baking cups, pop-out colanders, etc.)

A. The only silicone items in my kitchen are some spatulas and oven mitts, and I can't say whether I'm pro- or anti- on silicone baking implements because I've never worked with them. I have friends who swear by it and other friends who hate using them and say that it doesn't bake as evenly. I'm happy with all my metal and glass at this point, but am always open to recommendations.

Q. What kind of knives are you brandishing in the FLAH kitchen?

A. I use mostly Wüsthof knives, but I have a Henckels chef's knife I use a lot, and one from Global. It's kind of a mishmash. I have to borrow a friend's sharpening stone every now and then, but that's something I'll pick up along the way at some point.

Q. Do you make all your own stock from scratch? I live in a upscale-ingredient challenged community and I'm not sure I would be able to find bones for veal stock. It's not easy finding any kind of non-standard fare and there are very few real butchers in town. The last one I went to didn't even have chicken breasts on the bone, so finding anything like oxtails or veal shanks or bones for stock would probably result in lots of blank gazes. And if you do make all your own stocks, how do you keep them and for how long?

A. I do make my own stocks and haven't used the store-bought stuff in years. I just prefer to make my own because it's actually cheaper to do so, and they taste better. I freeze the stock in plastic containers and usually end up using all of it in six months, and it's still been really good up to six months in the freezer. Not sure how long you can freeze stocks before they start to lose their great qualities, so if anyone who reads this site wants to chime in on the comments, be my guest.

For those who live in "ingredient-challenged" communities, I hate that it's difficult for you to get what I think should be pretty basic ingredients. Have you asked your local grocer to find bones for you? Or, are there nearby farmers' markets where you could ask some of the vendors where you might be able to find bones or other non-standard ingredients? I know a lot of people love eGullet and Chowhound as a resource, but sometimes, I honestly have to dig out my Yellow Pages and start calling down the list and asking people to refer me to someone else if they don't have the answer themselves -- it's amazing what I've been able to find by doing that. Don't give up -- keep trying. If you have any sort of ethnic markets or stores in your town or community, that's always a great resource.

Q. Do you own Keller's Bouchon? Any interest in it? Not necessarily for continuing your At Home project with it, but even a simple cooking curiosity or interest?

A. I do own Bouchon and I love it.
I love the roasted chicken instructions, and it's definitely a book I refer to when I'm in the mood to make something more bistro-like. Bouchon has really thorough dishes that I continue to learn from, and I think the book is worth having because it tells amazing stories and really gives great access to food that I think anyone should be able to make and enjoy, because bistro food is so wonderfully good.

As with any book of this nature, I think it's important to follow the directions as closely as possible when making these dishes the first few times because a) it almost always yields an amazing result, and 2) the techniques Keller puts you through ultimately make you a stronger cook in the long run.
I get annoyed with people who email me and say, "Oh I tried to make the so-and-so out of Bouchon, but I substituted this for that, decided not to braise it, and then only pan-seared it for three minutes instead of 12, and used canned green beans instead of fresh spinach and it didn't work, so I think the book is stupid and it sucks." Seriously, then why even bother to cook from this book at all if you aren't open to learning a new way to do something and bettering your skills in the process? These are the same people who probably drone on and on about how even though they work at [insert whatever random career you can think of here], they really should've been a brain surgeon, but got a D in freshman-year chemistry and flunked out of pre-med, but really, they are smart enough to be a surgeon if only someone would just give them a chance but not make them go to medical school or do the whole internship/residency thing. I'm of the belief that you have to do the actual work to accomplish something meaningful, otherwise it's pointless to even try. I don't like to half-ass things in life, and when it comes to cooking things that one of the greatest chefs in the world is teaching me through his book to do, then I'm damn skippy gonna do it the way he says because he knows more than I do on this particular topic.

Okay, I'm completely ranting now and it's time to chill. But you know what I mean, right? Good, I knew you did.

Q. What are you favorite "go-to" cookbooks?

A. I own a lot of cookbooks, both current and vintage. I have always collected funky, off-the-beaten-pathcookbooks, and sometimes I even cook from them. Mostly, I just read them and make notes in the margins. In general, though, I rarely cook from cookbooks these days because I've finally gotten good at going to the store or the farmer's market and seeing ingredients I like, and then knowing what I want to do with them when I get home. However, there are times I get stuck in a rut and want to try something new, so over the past few years I've found myself turning to the same 6 or 7 books:

-- A Return To Cooking (not because Eric Ripert is dreamy, which he totally is, but because the food in this book is exactly the kind of food I need when I'm feeling stuck)
-- Happy in the Kitchen (Michel Richard is truly one of the greats on this earth, and this book is absolutely fantastic and gives me great ideas, plus it's just beautiful to look at)
-- 1080 Recipes (Spain's equivalent of Joy of Cooking, and a favorite of mine)
-- The Beach House Cookbook (there's nothing groundbreaking or culinarily stupendous in this book, it just reminds me of summer and makes me happy; it's also a great book to comb through right before heading out to the farmers' market in the summertime)
-- Sunday Suppers at Lucques (divine)
-- The River Cottage Cookbook (sublime)
-- The Zuni Cafe Cookbook (No one who loves food should be without this book; and, a longtime French Laundry at Home reader, Victoria, is cooking her way through this book and blogging about it in a really thoughtful, engaging way and I'm loving it)

One more recent cookbook acquistion of mine is an advance promo copy of A Platter of Figs, which is a book I've only had for a few short months and already love and go to all the time for ideas. I think this book is going to be a huge hit -- and I can't wait for you all to check it out.

I also have an embarassing number of food magazines stacked throughout the house. When I'm having a slow day, I'll sometimes pick up a magazine without looking to see what I've chosen, then open it to a random page and force myself to make whatever it is I randomly chose. Sometimes it yields an incredible surprise that I end up adding to the permanent repertoire (homemade chocolate pudding). Other times, it's a so-so outcome (chicken enchiladas), but at least I tried something new.

Alright, one last one before we wrap up this installment of Q&A with Carol...

Q. Who else's cooking do you admire? We all now admire YOURS!

A. This is a hard one to answer because I don't want to sound like a big cheeseball when I say that I admire anyone who cooks what they love, which I hope would be most every chef and cook out there who does this for a living. There are so many amazing chefs and cooks I admire, it would be impossible to name them all.

It almost goes without saying that I admire Jonathan Benno and the entire staff at Per Se's cooking, because when I've been there, it's been exquisite and delicious. I admire the guys on the grill at Ben's Chili Bowl because they make great food, crack jokes, and bust a move to the jukebox all while getting the job done. I admire whoever came up with the butterscotch budino at Mozza in LA. I admire the cooking of the guy who makes my huevos rancheros at King's Road Cafe in LA. I admire Grant Achatz, because even though I haven't eaten at Alinea yet (but will be later this month), I love his creative leaps and bounds. See, it runs the gamut -- but the common thread is that I feel like they put themselves on that plate, and that's what makes the difference for me.

More than what I eat in restaurants, though, I really admire anyone at home who takes the time to cook and pay attention to what they're doing so they can enjoy the process. For example, I admire the cooking of a longtime family friend (I'm taking about you, G.H.), who loves to spend the day in the kitchen and always turns out the most incredible dinners in a really nice, welcoming atmosphere. I admire my brother, who can turn out a mean pot of chili or an amazing salad. I admire my mom, who had a great dinner on the table every night while I was growing up and showed extreme restraint as I turned up my nose then at foods I now love.

Honestly, I admire the cooking of anyone who has taken time out of their day to prepare something for me to eat. There's no better way to show friendship, care, love or gratitude for someone than cooking for them. So, if you take the time to enjoy cooking, and you took the time to cook for me, then I admire your cooking. It's as simple as that. Even though I just took nine million paragraphs to explain it.

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If you didn't see your question(s) answered here, rest assured, it's coming in a future Q&A.

I promise.

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