After three days of work, occasional stress, and a couple of failures (this molecular gastronomy thing is not an improv-friendly medium) the day arrived and I threw down another eleven course meal- although with a very different feel than last year. The number eleven was coincidental, though now it’s probably going to have to become a tradition. Lucky me.
The more casual and homey vibe was the direct result of my markedly lower level of preparedness for the meal; up until this morning a bunch of the dishes hadn’t taken shape in my mind, so I just busied myself with the components I knew I needed and let the rest work themselves out. The last couple of bursts of inspirado actually happened in the middle of last night; Milo woke me up, as he has been lately by coming into our bed, and during the tossing and turning portion of the program I seized upon the remaining details for a couple of dishes.
Here’s the play-by-play, in order. The wines overlapped courses, since there weren’t enough drinkers to put away a bottle with each course.
First, since the marshmallows I tried to make from the El Bulli cookbook didn’t quite work out, as an amuse-bouche we had home-cured salmon with a sudachi-caper emulsion and scallion cream. It was like bagels and lox without the bagel.
Next, a little charcuterie plate of the newly ready batch of duck prosciutto and the pâté we made the other day: pork with brandied figs and pistachios.
Then, salad: fennel and jicama tossed with a silky avocado cream (avo, lime, oil) passed through a tamis and then dressed with my version of everyone’s favorite takeout sushi place carrot-ginger dressing- an emulsion of carrot and ginger juice with sesame oil, ponzu, and our watermelon hot sauce. We changed over from the Champagne to a 1999 Kistler Vine Hill chardonnay.
Next came the soup: a strained purée of leek, yam, black radish, and celery root in chicken broth.
I bought some scallops yesterday and brined them in kimchi juice, since I had made a batch a couple of weeks ago to be ready for this dinner. Kimchi juice is a wonderful brine. I sliced them thin and garnished them with our homemade ponzu and minced jalapeños.
Here, we turned a corner and began the heartier, more wintry dishes. To go with the pork and beans (brined pork belly cooked sous-vide at 65˚ C for 8 hours and then seared, with scarlet runner beans pressure-cooked in dashi, served with kimchi and our barbecue sauce) I opened one of our dwindling supply of Pleiades XVI. It’s superb, and this is the kind of food it does best with.
Traditional Thanksgiving flavors appeared here in the form of duck confit atop a confit/gratin of sweet potato I made by baking rounds of spud in spiced cream on low heat for three hours. The purple wiggles were beet juice-cabernet noodles made by blending the juice with methylcellulose and then filling a syringe with the juice and injecting it into simmering water. Around this time I opened and decanted a 1999 Barolo “Marasco” by Franco Martinetti. And yes, that’s crispy duck skin on top.
For red meat, a little roulade of lamb neck; I saw the neck at the butcher’s and grabbed it, then trimmed, seasoned it with ras-el-hanout, rolled it up with activa, and vacuum-sealed it so it would hold its shape. Once set, I rubbed it with a sage-rosemary-garlic pesto and browned then braised it in wine for six hours until meltingly tender, and served it on slow-caramelized turnips with some of the jus. For the sauce, I simmered dried chanterelles and dried apricots until soft, then blended and strained them, adding cream, to finish. The inspiration for this combination came from Khymos, where this month’s “They Go Really Well Together” is chanterelle and apricot; they share a similar flavor compound and the idea lodged in my head until the lamb neck came along. They do go really well together, and with lamb neck. To complete the orgy of awesomeness, I puréed some of our raw mustard greens with garlic and oil, then strained it to make a bright green mustard oil.
As a bridge to the desserts, next up was seared foie gras with our grape jelly- disolved in wine, then reduced so that it jelled on contact with a cool plate- and peanut butter powder made by mixing fresh-ground peanut butter (unsalted) with tapioca maltodextrin. Everyone enjoyed the rich riff on PB&J.
Then, sweets. Christine made my Mom’s cheesecake again, but this time we made a spiced pumpkin purée with a little gelatin and spread it on top, then topped it with a cranberry-cabernet glaze once the pumpkin gelled. Dreamy.
And last, a barely-sweetened dark chocolate mousse I originally planned to make into ice cream but it was so damn good that I left it alone. A few cocoa-dusted coffee beans garnished this very adult conclusion to the meal.
I spent most of the day preparing for Thursday. In no particular order, I trimmed a deboned lamb neck, seasoned it with ras-el-hanout, sprinkled it with activa, rolled it up, gave the outside a good rub with a sage-rosemary-garlic paste, and vacuum-sealed it to set it in a nice torchon. I made a chanterelle-apricot sauce with cream for the lamb. I made chicken broth from last night’s carcass. I made the custard for the barely-sweetened dark chocolate-espresso ice cream. I made savory walnut marshmallows, adapted from the El Bulli cookbook. I brined a hunk of pork belly, and cooked the pork terrine with pistachios and calvados-cider soaked figs in the water bath for four hours at 66˚ C.
There was probably some other stuff too. It’s particularly funny because I’m still not sure what I’m making. I’m tired. I made osso buco for dinner, on brown rice, with steamed yellow cauliflower, the mustard-heavy green mash left from yesterday, and a wonderful jus made from the braising liquid reduced with some beef demi-glace. We had a 1999 Ciacci Brunello. Milo, ecstatic, ate all of our marrow. It was good. I’m going to bed.
Christine’s Mom arrived this evening for the week, and I spent some of the day trying to get ahead of the Thanksgiving to-do list. I made barbecue sauce, blended it with 1% agar, and froze it so tomorrow it can go in the fridge to begin clarifying via syneresis (this is a method whereby a liquid is gravity-strained through a protein mesh in the fridge, thus making it clear but keeping all of the flavor; it works with gelatin, too, but supposedly agar takes less time. We shall see.) Milo and I also ground about 5 pounds of pork shoulder and fat with a heap of garlic, herbs, and spices into a mixture which will furnish us with both an elegant terrine (with brandied figs and pistachios) for Thursday as well as a humble pasta sauce for Wednesday night.
Milo and I also trudged out into the garden to get some things for dinner. Since it actually broke freezing today, I can’t complain, but it wasn’t exactly balmy. We dug potatoes, and picked a variety of greens to make mash- frisée, endive, radicchio, and mustard. He reminded me to pick lots of endive, just like every other 4-year-old in America would, because everyone knows that’s the best green for mash.
That’s ice on the potatoes; I had to beat these out of the Earth and trim some mushy parts off because they weren’t deep enough to be properly insulated against the hard freezes. Mulch? What? We combined the potatoes with our last little kabocha squash and a sweet potato to make a nice tuberous medley for roasting with garlic cloves and woody herbs. I will never cease to be amazed by the powers of the waxy coating that winter squash develop; this was taken seconds after cutting the top off of a squash that was cut about two months ago and has been sitting around, outside and then in, since then:
I salted a good chicken, sprinkled a little 5-spice and ras-el-hanout on it, and put it in the oven with the veggies about an hour before their ETA. (Not the Basque separatists.) Once the bird came out- right on time, as they walked through the door- I made a gravy with the drippings plus garlic scape pesto and a little of the fish broth from the fridge. For those of you who haven’t done it yet, ADD PESTO TO YOUR CHICKEN GRAVY.
Another totally simple, traditional meal, elevated by the extraordinary freshness of the ingredients plus a bad-ass gravy and seriously tangy mash that tied it all together from both ends of the spectrum- albeit with a substantial assist from a Pleiades XV. I thought these were gone, but my recent archaeology in Vermont revealed a hitherto unknown stash of a few fifteens so I brought them home. The XVI is better, no doubt, and there will be no future bottlings, but this one has charm to spare in a rounder, fatter, more conventionally Californian style.
So the epic fish saga continued; I originally intended to grind up the rest and make fish ball soup, because it’s still dead cold out and a tangy, spicy soup seemed like a good plan. Also, it would have afforded me the opportunity to write “fish balls” numerous times in the post. But as is so often the case, I changed my mind come prep time, after a pretty painless sojourn to the store for the first wave of stocking up the week’s vittles. Actually, it was the second wave, since I went to the butcher’s yesterday. And so you’re just going to have to suffer through a post in which I only mention fish balls about a third as many times as I would have if I had actually made fish balls.
The remaining varieties included pollock, cod, and turbot, and since we had turbot the other night I put that back in the fridge and cut the other two into regular-ish squares, then dredged them in seasoned flour. We had just enough oil to get about 3/4 inch deep in our smallest pan- I forgot to buy more- but the pieces were small enough that with one flip they’d cook just fine. The lack of oil did pose a problem for the tartar sauce I wanted, since I normally like to make mayonnaise with a neutral oil. But I used olive oil, with dribbles of both sesame and truffle, plus a little mustard, garlic scape pesto, yuzu juice, and a little liquid from a jar of cornichons, then folded in some minced cornichons. We had just run out of capers this morning as I used them up on a bagel with cream cheese and homemade fennely-spicy gravlax. It was worth it.
I used the mandoline to bang out some Japanese yam fries, and baked them with generous olive oil- shaking frequently- until they were nice and brown. Before dark, I ventured out into the frigid twilight and grabbed numbly at a variety of greens in the garden- kale, chard, mustard, and collards. They got a spin in the processor with garlic and just enough oil to make a thick pesto. I gave all the fish pieces another dredge in the flour mixture and fried them in batches until all were brown and beautiful. And that was dinnner; it’s funny- after all that, in the picture they do kind of look a little like fish balls. Milo invented mixing green mash and tartar sauce together to make an even better sauce for yam and fish alike.
Christine had a girls night out tonight, but it started a little late, and outside it’s Witchtit, Wyoming cold, so I made a little extra food figuring that she would need an appetizer prior to going out. I had some fantastic ingredients to work with; yesterday I stopped off at my new source for ultra-fresh premium seafood and received around 10 pounds of various goodies, including a whole turbot skeleton and many fillets of cod, pollack, the turbot, and cusk.
As soon as I got home I turned the skeleton- plus a carrot, an onion, and a few herbs- into a big pot of fish stock, and strained it into a smaller pot for today and a container for the freezer. The turbot fillets I gave a quick dredge in seasoned flour and crisped in a pan, with baked kabocha and wilted kale on the side. I took two good-sized pieces of cusk and marinated them in yuzu miso and sake that I had stirred together until smooth.
Today, the real action began. I took the fish stock and used it to make a simple risotto- using sushi rice- which I finished with garlic scape pesto. While this was going, I made carciofi alla Romana with three artichokes (winter is artichoke season, so get used to these) and steamed a mix of chopped collards and red kale. Once the greens were bright green and tender, I rolled them in paper towels inside a dish towel, squeezing them into a nice tight cylinder. They give off a lot of moisture, so the layers are a good idea. Sliced into rounds like sushi, and garnished with our homemade ponzu and grated bonito, this made for an excellent- if untraditional- oshitashi.
The second course was risotto with an artichoke on top and a healthy pour of the glorious artichoke-infused oil in which they caramelize at the end of the braise plus a little squeeze of lemon. It could have used a flurry of parsley chiffonade, but I forgot to pick some, and once it’s dark and the garden is covered, I don’t go back outside for a damn garnish in this cold.
Last, I took the marinated cusk and cooked it in a medium-hot pan to get a good brown on both sides, then added a little wine and agave and let it steam for a minute to cook through. The resulting pan sauce was rich, deep, and sweet. My intention was to have this be like Nobu’s black cod with miso- one of his signature dishes, and one of our all-time favorites. The texture of this fish is different; it’s less firm and oily, so the result was not the same, though the taste was excellent. I was pretty overjoyed at how it looked in the plate that I made specifically for this type of dish- like a delicious little Japanese garden.
Milo and I made short work of all this, and Mommy got to have a small tasting plate- just for warmth, you understand- before leaving. I enjoyed a 2004 Girardin Rully 1er cru “Les Cloux” which could use another year or two to fully emerge from the sour, dumb period that most good white Burgundy goes through, but after being open for a bit it had all of the requisite flavors and qualities needed to do the complicated Italo-Japanese dance steps required by the food. Imagine Marcel Marceau performing Butoh in a trattoria and you’ll have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about.
Last night’s lasagna was easily the best I have ever made, but it was not exactly light fare (eating some cold leftovers today, I noticed the unmistakably grainy texture of beef fat, and was reminded that decadence has a price.) So to give our arteries a bit of a break, but keep the comfort level high, I put some yellow-eye beans out to soak early in the morning. Very early.
Around noon, I took a hunk of bacon skin and a bit of lardo, cut them up into morsels, and got them all rendery in the Dutch oven. A bag of our frozen mirepoix followed, and then the beans and their water. Herbs, maple syrup, tomato paste, balsamic vinegar, shichimi, and soy sauce rounded out the flavors. Once at a simmer, it went into a 200˚ oven all afternoon.
Around 5, I pulled the beans out and moved them onto a warm burner to keep going, and tossed yellow cauliflower with garlic, onion, oil, salt, and thyme and put it in a now-hot oven to roast. I sliced some guanciale, got it going, and added halved Brussels sprouts, let them caramelize pretty well, added garlic, deglazed with white wine and lemon juice, and let gently steam until they were soft. In a perfect world, I would have had teff fermenting in the laundry room so that it was all ready to make enjera. But ours is not a perfect world. So I made crêpes with teff and rye flour plus some yogurt for a little fermented tang. Usually I make these with Guinness, because the flavors are excellent together and it makes the crêpes bubbly. But we have no Guinness (see above note on worldly imperfection.)
This was win. Intense flavors, porky richness from almost no meat, melting sprouts, sweet brown cloves of garlic smooshed onto al dente cauliflower- we were all grinning. Milo couldn’t figure out which thing he loved most, and there’s enough left for him to take it for lunch tomorrow.
Man, is it cold. After a freakishly balmy first half of the month, starting last night we were visited by a howling horror of an Arctic chill that sucks your will to live right out of the soles of your inadequate boots and makes you question the moral and philosophical foundations upon which your entire life has been laboriously, diligently, and attentively built.
That’s right, Sarah Palin was in town. She and I had a thing a while back, as you may remember, and she just can’t stay mad at me, goshdarnit.
Also, we made lasagna, also.
Or, as Milo loves to call it, Za-zagna! And much merriment ensues. (Those of you without kids can just go on drinking and rolling your eyes.) We were out and about, going to the doctor for Milo’s appointment- sad, yet funny quote of the day, spoken through tears: “They shouldn’t use needles on skin! Stupid grown-ups!” We also stopped in at Fleisher’s- even though they’re ostensibly closed Wednesdays, I can usually roust someone to hook me up- and I grabbed some of their wonderful pasture-raised ground veal. On the way home, I dashed into a store to grab a couple of other essentials and we were in business.
And thus did tonight’s dinner take form, and encompass both the antithesis of last night’s dinner and the synthesis of a larger dialectic. Seriously, what goes better with lasagna than some Hegel? After yesterday’s bombastic tirade on the Zen Of Cooking: True Amateur Confessions, a nice bubbly baking dish of meaty, cheesy goodness got our Chi all sorted out and back to where it belongs- somewhere in the middle (that would be the Synthesis, for those of you taking notes.) The sad reality is that super-clean cooking like yesterday doesn’t have the balls for this climate. Sometimes a body needs of the bubbly cheese.
So: the veal, cooked down with tomato paste, onion, garlic, herbs, and wine became a first-rate sugo. For the besciamella, I made a roux of butter and flour, but left out the milk; the leftover dashi from last night was an incredible complement to the veal, adding a gentle smokiness and enfolding it in a gorgeous embrace. Layered with organic lasagna noodles (no time to make pasta from scratch) and local mozzarella, it went in the oven to get all snuggly and melty-like.
While this hot meat-on-carb-on-dairy action was taking place, I braised some finely sliced fennel bulb in white wine- a dish I “invented” way back in grad school in Chicago, though at the time I preferred a sweet muscat for the braise. And I made the simplest of salads with some arugula. The fennel had time to get all silky while the lasagna cooked, and everything hit the table at roughly the same time, which, you know, you look for in a dinnner.
Seriously? Dashi béchamel? With veal? Unbelievable. Absolutely perfect. And the rest? Well, it hit spots that we enjoy hitting. Another added dimension to the Hegelian wonderland that was our meal this evening was a 1997 Soletta Cannonau Riserva. I’ve been a fan of this property for quite a while, and this bottle slumbered unnoticed in Vermont until my last inventory. It’s gorgeous; while it may not be transcendental, there is not one single thing wrong with this wine. And it cost around $30. Frankly, I’ve never had a Cannonau that I didn’t like, and most of them made me rush out and find more. Sardinia makes wines of extraordinary value. Go buy some.
High quality ingredients inspire. Yesterday I made a vegetable curry with cauliflower, sweet potato, carrot, and peas; puréed radish greens with yogurt, fenugreek and mustard seeds; and tofu simmered in one of my patented mutant soups. It started as the dashi in which I cooked the radishes for Sunday’s dinner, then turned into a funky addition to some pappa al pomodoro- Tuscan tomato soup with stale bread- which I made for lunch. That puréed bread soup, with the addition of a bunch of spices, made a decent sauce. With brown rice, it was a perfectly good meal, with a nice variety of flavors- but it didn’t shine. The tomato thing was a little muddy, the vegetable curry a little bland (though the greens were excellent) and these limitations, though minor- and partly rectified with some of our peach-habañero chutney- revealed the lack of detailed attention I paid to the preparation. There wasn’t much time, and I just tossed things around until they were “done.”
Tonight, I finally had some time to get into the exquisite ingredients John and Chris brought me from Japan. The contrast in my approach was stark, and the results were equally different. To begin, check out this bonito shaver (katsuo kezuri-ki.) This right here is the happy, happy place where woodworking and meat intersect, and it’s immaculately crafted to boot. Just opening it up makes me smile. It’s not possible to begin preparing a meal by block-planing smoke-fossilized fish into a handmade box and not be reverential.
In addition, the smell of fresh-grated bonito is as different from the packaged stuff as the sweaty neck of your true love is from her dirty laundry. The aromatic overtones in this fish are nothing short of astonishing. And it’s as hard as ceramic; if you drop it, it shatters like volcanic glass. (Not that I would know about that.) And the perfumed steam that rises from the dashi makes you swoon.
A trip to the store this afternoon furnished me with a couple of Alaskan king crab legs, shiitake, and some watercress, and everything else came from our newly enriched pantry or the garden. The mushrooms, given a good caramelization with garlic, inspired me to open the Tosa soy sauce I made last week; it’s supposed to sit for a month to marry the flavors, but I couldn’t resist the urge to try it out on this most umami of dishes- so I used a splash to deglaze the pan.
Another clove of garlic followed, and then the watercress for just long enough to wilt it, followed by a splash of the ponzu, which is also supposed to sit for a month. Same reason. I garnished the cress with a sprinkle of dried sudachi zest, and quickly made a salad of curly endive with sesame and olive oils and rice and balsamic vinegars for a nice balance.
So I carefully made fresh dashi, adjusted the flavor with shoyu and sea salt, and set it aside to keep warm. I steamed the half-thawed crab legs in a little water and sake just to heat them through, and strained the liquid into the dashi. Meanwhile two bundles of the fancy udon simmered in an adjacent pot. Udon, broth, and crab met very happily. These noodles are incredibly silky; they’re in a different league than the kind we’re used to. The broth was deep, light, and satisfying, and it goes without saying that the crab was super sweet and perfectly supported by the broth. The chervil garnish completed a beautiful combination of flavors. I don’t for a minute think that this would fool any Japanese gourmand, but it was a damn fine soup and made us all happy.
At the end, I warmed some brown rice from last night and topped it with the shichimi-kabocha seed gomasio I made a while back plus one of the über-artisnal umeboshi and a little of the red shiso they are pickled with, which comes along with them in the container, tucked in the corner. And a little later on we had a slice of the banana bread with cacao nibs that Christine and Milo made this afternoon. Since I had neglected to get any sake, we made do with another delicious Bret Bros. Pouilly Fuissé. It’s wonderful wine, and handles these kinds of flavors with aplomb; it was lemony against the sesame oil, acidic against the sweet crab, tropical against the earthy mushrooms, and never overwhelmed the delicacy of the food.
I’ve been waiting a long time to cook like this. These plates I’ve been making were a beginning, and the beautiful ingredients were another requirement that my incredible friends knew I needed, and brought me just when I needed another infusion of inspiration. From now on I hope to be more mindful and attentive in the kitchen (and out) no matter what it is that I’m making. This aesthetic of reverent care and quality materials in the service of maximum sensory pleasure is something I can get behind.
On Saturday, we met briefly with Gerard and Alison so they could give me a belated birthday gift since they were too sick to come to the party. So, like secret agents, we met in the AutoZone parking lot and they handed me a bag with a side of wild Alaskan salmon in it. The cloak-and-dagger locale was especially appropriate because he works at the CIA. (The food one, not the one with real spies.) I rushed home and packed the fish in my favorite salmon cure of salt, sugar, shichimi, fennel seeds, and citrus zest.
Then, Sunday morning, Sirkka called to see if we wanted to come for dinner. I mentioned that we maybe sorta had plans with G&A, and thus was a little party organized. Gerard brought some beautiful black bass, and an amazing panzanella of spelt bread, roasted beets, pomegranate, mushrooms, butternut squash, and arugula. Sirkka picked and made greens with bonito and leeks. I had pressure-cooked black radishes with dashi to bring, and since the bass was not by itself going to be enough fish for eight I cut a hunk off the half-cured salmon. Once we were close to eating, I broiled it with pine needles. The bass also got broiled, with a nice marinade.
Some pics of the feast:
The radishes in dashi
The salmon, pre-broil…
I love meals like this. Everything was delicious, and harmonized beautifully with everything else. The wines were good; I brought a Cava Avinyó to begin with some bubbles, then a 2006 Jacky Blot Vouvray “Les Carburoches” to help us cook (I must say that while it’s good, it’s a little tight, and has nothing on his Clos de la Bretonnière, which is rotund and delicious) and last, to eat with, a 2000 Giuseppe Cortese Barbaresco “Rabajà” which really started to get going around the last glass, since I forgot to decant it. The other bottles of this that I still have will make for some tasty treats down the road. Sirkka made a just-sweet pumpkin custard with pie spices and dried cranberries for dessert.
Last night we actually went out- to a reading, and then dinner at the very good tapas place next door. There are some things that I would do differently, but I feel that way at most restaurants. OK, all restaurants. Having said that, we’re lucky to have an inexpensive place nearby that gets good meat and knows what to do with it. If you know what I mean.
I had some lovely double-cut pork chops in the freezer- cut to order on the bandsaw- and some ideas for how to treat them. To start, the yuzu miso that came in John’s insane birthday gift bag has been torturing me with visions of (among other things) slathering it on some gi-nommous chawps (as they call them in my home town) and cooking them sous vide. So I brined said chops in a random mix of water, sake, salt, homemade watermelon-habañero hot sauce, maple syrup, herbs, ginger marmalade, and soy sauce for about 6 hours, then patted them dry. A good schmear of yuzu miso and a quick sealing, and they were good to go (Kristie will surely have a comment.)
So while the chops sat in a 63˚ C bath for about 2 hours, I steamed some of our red potatoes, puréed the pressure cooked cabbage from a week ago with some of our applesauce, and baked half of our last big kabocha. The potatoes became pommes écrasées- mashed with an egregious amount of excellent olive oil, salt, and the wild garlic chives that have reappeared in our freakishly mild November (65˚ today, with copious warm rain- we haven’t had a frost in weeks.) I can say without exaggeration that this is as good as mashed potatoes get; they are hands down better than with butter or cream, and lest you dismiss my opinion, you can take it from my wife, who is a dairy-loving midwesterner: this way is seriously best. It’s exquisite. Make them for a vegan sometime, and have your way with her/him.
I also mashed the squash, but with just a little salt since it was perfect. Once all the other parts were ready, I sprinked salt, pepper, and herbes de Provence on the chops and seared them hard in the iron pan until good and brown on both sides. This way of cooking meat is genius, really, especially for pork. You just can’t overcook it, so it’s perfectly pink and juicy the way all thinly disguised metaphors should be. Tangy, silky cabbage blended with unsweetened applesauce might be the best sauce a pork chop ever got drunk and went home with on a first date.
And to drink, another 2003 Jaboulet Vacqueyras. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it agin: this wine is everything I look for in an under-$20 bottle. It’s like a weekend in the Castro with Tina; fruit, leather, ass, and tannins still feisty enough to cause a good pucker. Over time, you realize that it doesn’t have the sublime middle palate that makes for a great wine, but by then it’s pretty much moot, because you’re waking up broke, sticky, and confused in a strange neighborhood- and your clothes are gone.