Haricot Verts are Awesome!

Beautiful beans!

Haricot verts [ar-e-ko-‘ver] is French for “little tiny baby green bean”. Okay, maybe that’s not a direct translation, but you get the idea. Green beans are picked young, while they are still thin, tender, and sweet. I love ‘em!

Right now I’m seeing excellent haricot verts at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market. They have the small green ones as well as an immature yellow wax bean. So good you can eat them raw, you really don’t want to cook these guys too much. I’ve been blanching them in salted water for just a couple of minutes and dropping them into a shock bath (ice water to halt the cooking). After I drain them I use them in salads, like a nice Nicoise with a hunk of grilled albacore tuna on top.

The other day I quickly sautéed a couple of fistfuls of both green and yellow haricot verts with one clove of chopped garlic, some butter, and olive oil. A tiny splash of white wine and a pinch of salt completed it.

The beautiful yellow and green baby beans were superb. Fresh and tender and mild — they were delightful accompanying my steak!

Aren’t my beans lovely?

Grilled Citrus-Marinated Chicken Paillard

To keep the chicken cutlet moist, be sure to let it rest for five or six minutes after cooking!

The French word paillard {pahy-yahr} describes what Americans call a cutlet — a pounded or thinly-sliced piece of chicken or veal or pork that is then cooked any way you like — grilled, sauteed, etc. For a quick-and-easy meal I like to take chicken breast cutlets and marinate them for a few hours with garlic and loads of minced herbs in citrus juice, in white wine, sometimes apple juice. I might do this in the morning and come back to them for an early dinner. You can heat up a grill-pan or the outdoor barbecue and have the chicken fully cooked in under fifteen minutes. Throw in a simple salad and a whole-grain starch (think quinoa or brown rice) and you’ve a got a very healthy, completely yummy dinner.

Yesterday I bought four pre-cut chicken breast cutlets from the market and marinated them in the following mixture:

  • the juice of one small tangerine
  • the juice of one small lemon
  • 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 small shallots, minced
  • 2 garlic cloves, smashed and minced
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh chives
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 tablespoon Konriko Greek Seasoning (use whatever, Bay Spice works)
  • 1 teaspoon chilli flakes
I mixed this up and poured it over the chicken cutlets, which I’d put into a large mixing bowl. Using my hands I turned the cutlets in the marinade until they were coated uniformly, and then I transferred them to a heavy-duty ziploc bag and put that on a plate in the refrigerator. I usually like to marinate chicken for four to eight hours, but if you’re pressed for time a minimum of 30 minutes will get a little flavor into your white meat chicken.
About four hours later I took out the bag of marinating chicken and left in on the counter to come to room temperature for about 45 minutes. I preheated the oven to 325° F. I took out the chicken and wiped most of the marinade off the meat. I added a little more olive oil and seasoned the chicken with kosher salt and cracked black pepper.
I heated a well-oiled grill-pan over high heat until smoking-hot. I grilled the cutlets for about five minutes on either side and then popped the whole pan into the oven for another five minutes. I removed the pan and let the chicken rest on the cutting board for another five minutes.
I sliced the cutlets into strips and served them with a wedge of fresh orange and a leafy salad on the side. A delicious, light dinner!

Try to get some good grill marks on the chicken!

Butter-Poached Maine Lobster with Meyer Lemon Beurre Blanc

The bright red log in front is poached lobster roe!

At the end of last summer I spent five days at Thomas Keller’s justly famed Michelin-starred restaurant The French Laundry in Napa Valley taking a special Culinary Programme (note the pretension of the continental spelling). I observed and assisted in prep, took a tour of the garden, and basically hung around trying not to get in the way for most of the day. I picked up quite a bit in terms of their operations (which doesn’t really relate to my work as a private chef) and their meticulous yet artful approach to food (which does have some bearing on my work). It was occasionally strenuous but always fun, and I loved the dedication, shared by all, to some ideal of achievable perfection. The professionalism in all layers of the organization was admirable.

The class culminated in an epic 22-course meal that left me stuffed, stunned, drunk, and reeling from sheer sensory overload. It was memorable to say the least. If you’re interested you should check out my pics and observations from that meal, which I immortalized in a post a few months back. Links are below.

My first day at the Laundry I assisted in breaking down 75 lobsters. It was an interesting technique which I’ve subsequently employed a number of times since. The gist of it is that you blanch or “steep” the lobsters in boiling water for just long enough to extract the meat from the shells. A few minutes prior to service you poach the lobster meat for a short spell in melted butter. The end result is very, very tender lobster, beautifully prepared and gorgeous to behold.

I named them George and Gracie. And then I killed them. And then I ate them.

For this most recent Valentine’s Day (which I consider the phoniest of consumerist holidays) I decided to replicate this technique at home for my wife Regina. Regina is about seven months along in her pregnancy and has been downright fiendish about crustaceans. Crab, clams, shrimp, etc. The only thing she’s more insatiable about is cheap ice cream treats, but that’s another blog post for sure!

Regina is a lobster lover from birth, being a native-born Bostonian spawned with a silver (perhaps plastic) lobster fork in her hand. But the raging pregnancy hormones have intensified her primal urges and when this butter-poached lobster dish hit the table she tore into with a gusto not normally associated with “ladylike” behavior. But that’s one of the many reasons I love her — she’s just as energetically “omnivorous” as I am.

Anyway, this dish looks fancy, and in fact it does have a number of different elements going on, but don’t be intimidated. All the techniques involved are straightforward and not too challenging. I say, go for it! For your wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, or anyone else you want to impress, making this dish would elicit a big “wow!” And you don’t need to wait for Valentine’s Day to come around again; make it any ole time.

The full name as it would appear on a nicely-bound menu is: butter-poached Maine lobster with wilted pea tendrils, potato puree, pan-roasted radishes, and Meyer lemon beurre blanc. In this post I’ll go over the steps for preparing the lobster and give you a basic recipe for lemon beurre blanc. Wilted pea tendrils can be subbed with quickly sauteed spinach or mustard greens. The potato puree is a very creamy, refined mashed potato; below I’ve provided a link to my simple mashed potato recipe. Whip in a little extra cream to that recipe and you’re golden.

I posted a recipe for pan-roasted radishes a few days ago, so you can try that simple tip if you like. Baby turnips work as a substitute, and roasted baby beets are an excellent choice as well. You’ll notice from the pictures that I drizzled a little green-hued oil on the plate as a garnish. That’s scallion oil and it’s super-easy to make. I plan on posting a short recipe for that in the next day or so.

The tails cook first.

To steep the lobsters you need to start with two lobsters (one for you and one for your lover) weighing in at between 1.5 and 2 pounds each. You’ll need two pots — one to put your lobsters in and one to boil the water in. Put your lobsters in one and put enough water to fully cover the lobsters in the other. The pot (or any big container large enough to accomodate your victims) with the lobsters should go on the countertop near the sink, the pot with the water on the stove. Be sure to roughly measure your water as you’ll need to add about a 1/2 cup of white vinegar for each 8 quarts of water you boil. I also like to throw in the water a couple of lemons, sliced.

Turn the heat up to high and cover with a lid. While waiting for the water to boil be sure to snip off the rubber bands holding the lobster claws. I use a pair of kitchen scissors to cut them off and then pull them out of the pot with a pair of tongs. Don’t get your fingers near the claws!

An ice bath stops the lovely crustaceans from overcooking.

When the water boils set up an ice bath to immediately cool your lobster after it’s cooked; this can be as simple as a big bowl with lots of ice water in it. Also, you’ll need to put on some heavy-duty rubber gloves to break down the lobster so put these within reach. You need a kitchen timer as well; I use my phone, but of course an old crank-timer will work. Set the timer to three minutes.

When the water comes to a rolling boil pour it quickly over the lobsters. Start the timer and put on the gloves. When three minutes have elapsed pull the lobsters from the water with some long tongs. Grasping a lobster by the head in one hand and the tail in the other, twist firmly to separate the two sections. Drop the tails in the ice bath. Now, twist off the two “arms”, the sections containing the claws and the “knuckles” of the lobster. Separate the knuckles and put into the ice bath with the tails. Return the claws to the boiling water. Set timer for five minutes. After the arms have steeped for five minutes, place them in the ice bath to cool.

You can discard the bodies or use them to make lobster stock. Or you could roast them in the oven and eat the innards — there’s some good eating in there, althoughth it’s not for the faint of heart as the viscera can appear a bit grisly: but the tomalley (the soft, pale-greenish stuff) is excellent, as well as any roe. In fact, if you see anything that’s blackish-green and sort of tubular, you should save it and poach in the butter along with meat. That’s the sweet, dense lobster roe. The flavor is mild, slightly briny, and dipped in a little butter it’s delicious.

Shelled, par-cooked lobster meat. Yeah, baby!!!

Now that you’ve par-cooked the lobster you need to remove the meat from the shells.

Do the tails first by grasping the thin, stiff back flipper and snapping it upwards toward the smooth back of the lobster tail. It should break off cleanly, revealing the slender tips of the lobster tail. There are two ways to remove the meat. You can either carefully snip the shell off of the meat with a pair of kitchen shears, or you can forcefully push the lobster meat through the entirety of the shell with your forefinger by applying pressure through the hole you just made in the very end. The first method is easier but more laborious. The second method takes practice, but once you get the idea it’s much, much faster. Novices should probably try the first method.

To remove the digestive “vein” of the lobster you can either cut a slit along the top of the tail meat and carefully remove the vein, or you can try removing the vein with the use of a pair of large tweezers or a small bamboo skewer. The tail is segmented, as you can probably tell. You can puncture little holes between the segments and root around inside the meat of the tail to find the vein. Pull out carefully with tweezers or use a skewer to hook underneath the vein to pull it free. The vein is also evident at the meaty “front” of the tail, as well as underneath the back flipper. You might have to delve in several areas of each tail to make sure you’ve removed all of the vein, as it is fragile and can break easily. This second method can be a pain in the ass, but you’ll have a lovely lobster tail, uncut along the back and mostly unmarred. During the removal of the vein, if you notice a chunk of blackish-greenish lobster roe, you should save it and cook it and eat it.

To remove the meat from the knuckles you can either crack them open with the back of a heavy knife (or a crustacean hammer) or use kitchen scissors to cut off the shell. Try to pry the meat out cleanly if you can.

To remove the meat from the claw first wiggle the small pincer side to side and snap it off. Using the back of a heavy knife crack the claw shell in the thickest part. You don’t want to smash the shell and the meat inside, just crack it enough to free the claw meat; so try to regulate your force when you try to crack it. At The French Laundry once the shell is cracked and the bottom part of the claw shell is torn free, the claw is held by the tip and the meat is flicked downward and released with a quick movement. I found this to be a great technique for breaking down large quantities of lobster, but it takes a little practice. I recommend cracking the claws enough so you can gently pry out the meat in one nice piece with your fingers.

If you want, you can trim off the claw tips and discard them, leaving just the “mitt” of the claw, the palm of the claw, if you will. Although I’m not a big fan of the claw tips (they can be tasteless and rubbery), Regina loves them so I left them on for this recipe.

At The French Laundry the lobster meat is poached in buerre monté, which is a butter emulsion, meaning that the butterfat and the milk solids are bound together and don’t separate as long you keep the liquid under approximately 190° F. I don’t bother with this level of refinement at home. I think you can just poach the meat in plain melted butter and get fantastic results.

Of course it takes a ridiculous amount of butter. I melted over low heat two pounds of butter — one salted, one unsalted — in a small pot. I used a candy thermometer to keep the butter under 200° F. I poached the tails for about four minutes and then added the claws. I poached the meat another eight minutes and then added the knuckles, which were already fully cooked so I just had to warm them for one minute. I turned off the heat on the butter and then assembled the plate.

You can use clarified butter or beurre monté if you wish, but I like the milk solds.

I quickly sauteed the pea tendrils in a little olive oil with a tiny bit of minced shallots. The beurre blanc was warm on the stove. The potato puree was finished. The roasted radishes were warm.

So I mounded a little pile of potatoes in the center of a warm plate and I placed a little pile of the wilted pea tendrils adjacent to it. I put half a lobster tail on the potatoes and added a little lobster knuckle meat around it. I topped the tail with a beautiful lobster claw, which I brushed with a little more melted butter. I sprinkled a tiny bit of fleur de sel over the lobster. I drizzled a little meyer lemon beurre blanc around the lobster and dolloped a bit of the green scallion oil over the beurre blanc. I scattered a few roasted radishes on the plate. I added that tiny baton of butter-poached lobster roe to the plate. And that was the dish! It was superb!

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Meyer Lemon Beurre Blanc

You need:

  • 1/3 cup lemon juice, Meyer lemons preferred
  • 1 tablespoon finely minced shallots
  • a pinch of sugar
  • 1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes about a 1/2 inch in diameter
  • about 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt or fluer de sel
  • a pinch of white pepper
Do this:
Into a small saucepan heat lemon juice and shallots over medium-high until boiling. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook for about three minutes until the shallots are soft. Add the pinch of sugar and whisk into the juice. Now whisk pieces of butter one by one into the juice, creating the sauce as you do. You need to whisk continuously during this process, allowing each butter chunk to disappear into the lemon juice before adding the next. Season with salt and pepper and strain out shallots through a small strainer. Hold the sauce at room temperature until ready to serve. You can re-warm the sauce gently over low heat before you plate your lobster, but you’ll need to whisk it continuously to prevent it from breaking.

An alternate presentation!

I had a little leftover lobster meat, beurre blanc, and scallion oil. For another course that night I put some of that lobster meat on a plate with the two sauces and topped it with a little bit of crispy pancetta. I barely had any appetite left by that point, but my wifey scarfed it down with relish, declaring it delish!

A tip: you’ll have lots of leftover butter lightly infused with lobster flavor, most of which you can’t use for anything else. I did manage to recycle a bit and make an amazing lobster scramble for my breakfast the next morning, utilizing a bit of that fantastic butter.

Related posts:

Roasting radishes: http://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/pan-roasted-radishes/

Mashed potatoes: http://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/11/01/mashed-potatoes-the-potato-chronicles-pt-11/

The French Laundry dinner: http://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/08/22/the-french-laundry/

The French Laundry garden: http://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/08/25/the-french-laundry-un-tres-beau-jardin/

My copycat French Laundry dinner: http://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/08/20/my-laundromat/

My copycat French Laundry dinner menu: http://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/08/21/my-laundromat-the-menu/

Another look at lobster: http://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/05/02/big-ass-lobster-part-two-the-demise-of-felix/

A Perfect Pommes Anna is Awesomely Delicious

A beautiful and delicious classic French potato presentation.

My torrid love affair with potatoes continues. I’ve been revisiting all my favorite potato recipes lately and so far I’ve blogged about homemade tater tots, homemade potato chips, crispy pommes frites fried in duck fat, and delicious potato wedges. The classic French dish of pommes Anna is one of my favorite potato dishes. If done correctly it’s a perfect synthesis of crisp potato and soft, tender potato in one delightful dish. I’m not sure who the lovely Anna was who inspired this dish, but she was obviously one helluva woman! This is a gorgeous, perfectly-conceived side dish; in a way it’s very French — simple, earthy, rich, and pretty. It’s not very hard to make, but it requires a little time, a little care, and fair amount of butter.

A few tips: don’t peel the potatoes until you’re absolutely ready to form the potato cake. Russets oxidize quickly and will turn a “russet” color. Also, when forming the cake work quickly. Only the first layer requires precision to look nice. And the best pan to use is a non-stick saute pan. You really need two of the same size. One to brown the first layer and one to flip the mostly-cooked cake into. Finally, this recipe will feed only two to four people as a side dish. You can make two small pommes anna for more people or a large one in a larger pan. However, keep in mind that larger pommes anna will be much harder to flip to brown both sides

Slice the potatoes very thin. I used an inexpensive Japanese mandolin.

You will need:

1 & 1/2 pounds russet potatoes
1/4 – 1/3 cup melted unsalted butter, preferably French
salt and pepper

Now do this:

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F.

Peel the potatoes and slice very thinly on a mandolin. Put an 8-inch ovenproof saute pan on the stove and turn the heat on low. Brush about a tablespoon of melted butter in the bottom of the pan.

Add a layer of potatoes in an over-lapping “rosette” pattern by laying one slice down, adding another halfway over the top of the first, and continuing this in a circle following the edge of the pan. When the last slice meets the first, tuck the leading edge under the first slice. Put a slice or two in the middle to fill in the gap created by the circle. Brush this layer with melted butter and sprinkle with a tiny bit of salt and cracked black pepper.

Continue layering potatoes, butter, salt, and pepper until you’ve used all the slices.

It’s important to make the first layer of potatoes pretty. This will end up being the top of the cake!

Now, turn the heat up to medium-high and brown the bottom for about six to eight minutes. Using a spatula, gently press the potatoes from the top to compress the cake. Add a final sprinkle of salt and pop the pan in the oven. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until a skewer is easily inserted through the entire potato cake.

Your pommes anna is oven-bound.

Now comes the tricky part. Gently shake the pan to make sure the pommes anna isn’t sticking at all.  Take another pan of the same dimensions and place over the top of the first pan. Using pot holders or a couple of kitchen towels, carefully and firmly grasp the pan in both hands and flip the whole thing upside down, so that the potatoes are now in the clean pan with the browned side up.

Alternately, you can try to slide the pommes anna onto a plate, invert the hot pan over the plate, and flip the whole thing until the plate is on top and potatoes are upside-down in the original cooking pan. I find the first method easier, but you’ll have to try the second technique if you don’t have two identical pans.

Either way, place the pan with the potatoes on the stove-top and brown the uncooked side over medium-high heat for about six to eight minutes until crispy. At this point you can let the potatoes sit out at room temperature until ready to serve. Heat it up at 375 degrees for five to ten minutes right before dinner.

This is actually double the recipe. I made two 8-inch pommes anna the other night.

Cut into wedges and serve on a platter. It’s a great side dish with roasts of all kinds — beef, chicken, or pork. Leftover pommes anna makes a killer hash-brown-type breakfast potato.

Make this classic potato dish immediately! I bet you have the ingredients in your pantry right now.

See also:
Potato Wedges:
http://www.spencerhgray.com/2011/09/crispy-potato-wedges.html
French Fries:
http://www.spencerhgray.com/2011/09/pommes-frites-french-for-french-fries.html
Potato Chips:
http://www.spencerhgray.com/2011/09/light-crispy-homemade-potato-chips.html
Tater Tots:
http://www.spencerhgray.com/2011/08/homemade-tater-tots-yep.html
Garlic & Lemongrass Home Fries:
http://www.spencerhgray.com/2011/06/crispy-garlic-lemongrass-home-fries.html
Baked Mashed Potato Casserole:
http://www.spencerhgray.com/2011/04/pommes-regina.html

Groovy Granita: Orange Flesh Melon

We’ve had a mini-flash heat wave for the past couple of days. and I’ve been craving ice cold refreshment. I made this totally impromtu and delightful granita. It was extraordinarily easy, but it does require the use of a good juicer to remove as much pulp as possible from the melon juice. You need pure, sweet juice from very ripe melons for this granita to have a robust, fruity flavor. I wanted to make a dessert without the addition of any sugar, and so at the market I picked the ripest, most fragrant melon I could find. It turned out to be a variant of honeydew, with huge sugar and vibrant orange flesh. Yummy on its own au natural, this melon was even better frozen!

Sweet and flaky ice crystals make for a soothing fruit slush.

I juiced about one and half large melons, which yielded about five cups of juice. Next, I skimmed off the foam that collected on top. I chilled the juice for about an hour in the fridge and then strained it through cheesecloth to remove any additional pulp. Into a pyrex baking dish (any shallow baking pan with a 2 1/2-inch lip will do) I poured the juice; I put the uncovered dish in the freezer on a level shelf.

An hour later I checked out my granita. It was starting to freeze nicely and ice crystals had formed at the edges, like a pond in early winter. Using a fork I stirred the frozen stuff and moved it around. I checked again in an hour and fluffed it up again with a fork. It was looking pretty good, but not totally frozen. I left it for a few hours more, and at dinner time I dragged a fork through it to scrape up more ice, creating a light, flaky texture.

It was delicious and very cooling. The flavor was fantastic and the color was groovy. 

I haven’t try this yet, but I suspect that this would be great with a splash of white rum or a mild, white tequila. Perhaps with some fresh mint leaf. Maybe next time.

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The French Laundry

First of all, I’ll apologize for the quality of the pictures; some are dark, muddy, underdeveloped. Some pics I’ve had to tweak ‘in post’ to give you a decent idea of what the dish looked like. Like most elegant restaurants the lighting at The French Laundry is pleasantly muted, which makes it hard to get good food shots.

But you’ll see I got some decent photos of our entire dining experience. Because it IS an EXPERIENCE and not just a meal. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime meal (although this was my second visit) and as such it’s a roller-coaster of sensations; it’s so over-the-top that the meal bludgeons you with a seemingly unending array of supreme tastes. Each dish is immaculately conceived and executed. Each dish is designed with taste and sight and smell in mind. Every nuanced aspect of the meal shows the care and consideration that marks Thomas Keller as one of America’s most revered chefs.

Their iconic clothespin and napkin fold.

The meal was truly astonishing. A standard tasting menu (and there are only tasting menus, nothing is a la carte) is nine courses, but Regina and I, along with my coworkers Virginia and Cezar, had a special VIP menu of 16 courses with well-chosen wines. Cezar, Virginia, and I had just completed a rigorous five-day course at the Laundry. I was in the Culinary Programme, and my friends learned about service. The culmination of our class was a remarkable meal of unparalleled excellence.

Which is not to say that I LOVED everything I ate, or that everything rose to the level expected from a three Michelin-starred restaurant. But the food was creative and always interesting. Detailed and very, very specific. I’ll walk you through the meal.

First a glass of fantastic champagne. Sorry I can’t recall the producer or the vintage. The wines were all spectacular, but I can’t recall all we had. In brief, in this order: Champagne, Sancerre, Riesling, Meursault, some French red (Rhone variatel I believe.), a big California meritage, and a fantastic Sauternes.

The initial bit of food was a tiny gougere, a savory profiterole stuffed with melted gruyere cheese. It was perfect, a single delicious morsel of goodness.

A little gougere filled with gruyere.

Next up was their signature salmon cornet; finely ground sushi-grade salmon tempered with a bit of smoked salmon, chives, and lemon oil. A quenelle of this salmon is formed and perched atop a tiny, crispy ‘ice cream cone’ filled with creme fraiche seasoned with a bit of minced shallot. This lovely canape is perfect and a delight.

The French Laundry’s signature salmon cornet.

Chilled Cantaloupe Soup

The first course of the written menu was Chilled Cantaloupe Soup with Bayonne Ham and Mint. The server poured the chilled soup into a small bowl lined with a mint gelee. The soup represented a burst of pure fruit flavor — sweet and luscious. When I dragged my spoon along the bottom of the bowl the mint jelly melded gently with the soup, preventing the sweetness from being cloying. As did the single leaf of fresh spearmint and the tiny sliver of salty ham. The single bit of ham was a surprise note that gave this simple and direct dish complexity and depth. 

“Oysters and Pearls”

Another signature dish is the “Oysters and Pearls”, consisting of two tiny, trimmed Island Creek Oysters (from Massachusetts) barely cooked in a vermouth beurre blanc layered over a “sabayon” of tiny pearl tapioca. A quenelle of cold white sturgeon caviar balances perfectly with the warm creaminess of the rest of the dish. This dish is a model of perfection and not so easy to duplicate exactly. I’ve tried and the results lacked the elegance of Keller’s original. While in my Culinary Programme I assisted in trimming the oysters; I had to shuck the oysters carefully and then trim very precisely with tiny scissors all around “the pearl” of the oyster, which is the rounded, plump part in the center. Trimming away the mantle and all the other fringe bits of the oyster is challenging as you don’t want to puncture the flesh of the “pearl.” It was, frankly, a pain in the ass! The efforts undertaken to make each and every dish perfect is on display in the attention to detail of this very specific and perfect dish.

Almond ice cream over plums with a tiny rice cracker.

Since Cezar doesn’t eat shellfish the servers brought him a tiny treat in lieu of the oyster appetizer. A tiny scoop of perfect almond ice cream over a sorbetto of plum, with a sliver of red plum and a tiny mince of Asian Pear. It was a lovely, simple thing with a palate-cleansing appeal.

“Tataki” of Big Eye Tuna.

The next dish was billed as a “Tataki” of Big Eye Tuna with Bartlett Pear, Fairytale Eggplant, Broccoli, and Pili Nut. Served on a heavy wooden block lined with silver, the dish was lovely to behold but I felt the parts (all exquisite) did not equal a greater whole. The marinated and seared tuna had a delicious silkiness about it, but the marinating (as well as the smears of sweetened soy and mirin sauce) obfuscated the essential sweet flavor of good rare tuna. The crisp, panko-crusted dice of fried eggplant were tasty, the broccoli lent a nice herbaceous bitterness, the slices of pear sweetened in Asian pear juice were lovely and delicious, and the Pili nut (like a flavorful Indonesian almond) added much-needed crunch. But the dish as a whole was unfocused.

Custard of truffles and egg.

Not unfocused at all was the Hen Egg Custard with a Ragout of Perigord Truffles. Creamy, unctuous, robust with the flavor of the lovely, earthy fungus, this dish was a slam-dunk. Luscious and crazy-good.

Slow-cooked brisket with apple-wood smoke.

The next dish was a remarkable thing: BBQ Brisket “Fumee a la Minute”. The chefs cook Wagyu Brisket sous vide for twelve hours and then crisp the beefy nugget, serve it on a mound of horseradish creme, and top it with two tiny cippolini onion rings crusted with panko. It’s served in a tiny, glass-domed dish that they fill with apple-wood smoke via a mechanized pipe. In the kitchen I was surprised to see that they used the same sort of pipe that I witnessed (or perhaps even smoked from) being used by my stoner buddies in college. When I duplicated this dish at home I bought an identical pipe from a head shop in Culver City.

Anyway, when the dish was brought and the dome was lifted, a small cloud of aromatic smoke wafted up into my face. A trace of smoke lingered on my palate as I ate the tiny, delicious morsel of beef. It was heavenly. The sauce was perfect and the cute little onion rings divine. A great dish. Surprising, interactive, fun, tasty.

Tiny onion rings perched akimbo atop “smoked beef” with a horseradish cream.

A lovely Viennoise roll.

At this point they brought out bread and butter. Perfect little Viennoise rolls, tiny baguettes, lovely pretzel rolls, and whole grain rolls. They were all perfect and great with two kinds of butter. One from a farm in Petaluma and another from a Vermont Creamery.

A delightful salad.

Next up was the “Jardiniere de Legumes d’Ete” with “Fines Herbs”.  It’s basically a salad, composed of tiny, perfectly trimmed vegetables mostly from their own garden across the street. A baby carrot, half a radish, shavings of red carrot, a sliver or two of romano beans, a single cucumber blossom, a tiny tree of broccolini,  a smear of black truffle puree, and a simple little vinaigrette with herbs. Every bite was fresh and delicious. And the plate was absolutely gorgeous, although my pic doesn’t really do it justice.

Australian black truffles shaved over tagliatelle.

A small pile of fresh tagliatelle pasta was tossed in a bit of butter and cream and over the top was shaved a ridiculous quantity of fantastic black truffles from Australia. Two servers talked about how this one guy in Australia inoculated 45 hazelnut trees with truffle spores from France and for the past few years he’s produced these remarkable truffles full of flavor. They certainly were excellent and more robust than the black summer truffles you’d get right now from Europe. The dish was simple and excellent: the pasta was superb and the truffles were profound, earthy, and rich. So fantastic!

Cezar is not a fan of truffles, so I ate his portion too! Silly guy. 

A phenomenal white wine! One of many wines.

Lovely cod wrapped in zucchini blossoms.

The fish course came next: Atlantic Cod “Confit a la Minute” with Squid, Jingle Bell Peppers, Romano Beans, and Pimenton. The impeccably fresh cod is wrapped with scallop mousse and then with the petals of zucchini blossoms. It’s formed into a log and poached in plastic wrap until just set. Slices are then cut for a single order and then the fish is butter-poached until just cooked through. The disc of fish is set atop a puree of yellow pepper with thin slices of baby bell peppers and romano beans. A single leaf of wild arugula and a tiny fried zucchini blossom complete the tableau. This dish was mild, tender, and lovely.

Ash-roasted beet.

Cezar eschewed the fish and so our server gave him a fun, interesting dish of roasted beet. The baby beet is crusted with vegetable ash from a local farm. The ash is formed with egg whites and flour (probably) and made into a little boulder around the beet. The whole thing is roasted, cracked open table-side, and then the tender beet is sliced like a tiny roast. The beet is placed on a plate with baby vegetables. Cezar’s dish was surprising and fun, but I’m glad I got my cod!

Delicious lobster tail but overcooked. Coffee-chocolate sauce did not really work.

The lobster course was next: a Butter-poached Lobster Tail with Black Misson Fig, Piedmont Hazelnuts, and Coffee-Chocolate Emulsion. A mixed bag, this dish. I really wanted to like it (especially since I’d assisted in killing some fifty lobsters that week), but I’ve cooked much more tender lobster for certain, and frequently. And the coffee-chocolate sauce simply did not work. The fig was good, as was the crispy hazelnut dust, but the whole thing was underwhelming, especially for dedicated lobster junkies like Regina and me.

Our first red wine glass was ludicrously large.

Foie Gras Mille-Crepe

The next dish was also a trifle disappointing. Moulard Duck “Foie Gras Mille-Crepe” with Sea Urchin, Buckwheat Crepe, Pickled Cherry, and Almond Sherbert. The foie gras was layered with crepes and then cut into little slabs. The sea urchin on top was spectacular and the foie itself was delightful. But the dish felt crowded and without a focal point. The pickled cherries were good but lacked the zeal of good, fresh cherries. We all agreed it was our least favorite dish.

The duck breast was superb.

Liberty Farm Pekin Duck Breast with French Laundry Garden Apples, Black Walnuts, Wild Ramps, and Nasturtiam was wonderful! The duck was perfectly cooked, rosy, tender, and moist. The smudge of black walnut puree was magnificent and the apples perfect. A great, balanced dish. Flawless.  Regina declared this “AMAZING!”

The best of the “main” courses.

Up next was the beef course and it was unanimously agreed to be a winner! Snake River Farms “Calotte de Boeuf Grillee” with Bone Marrow Pudding, Chantarelle Mushrooms, Tokyo Turnips, Potato, Watercress, and “Mignonette Bordelaise”. Whew, the description alone is a mouthful! The calotte is an unusual cut of beef, since it’s usually part of a beef rib roast, being the super-tender, outer cap of fat-riddled meat that fringes the meaty “eye” adjacent to the ribs. It’s not easy (or cheap) to get the calotte trimmed off the ribeye, but I’m sure that Chef Keller has a special arrangement with Snake River Farms, who have an established reputation for excellent domestic Wagyu cattle.

Wagyu beef is renowned for being especially tender and fatty.  This was no exception; it was deliciously grilled a perfectly moist and pink medium-rare. The Bordelaise sauce was a lovely accent but remained unobtrusive, allowing the fantastic steak to shine. The baby turnips were sweet and tender, the dollops of marrow pudding seductive. The dish was utterly beguiling, and I wanted more! This was a killer dish and a great way to end the parade of savory main courses.

A playful cheese course, but kinda dull.

We were feeling pretty well annihilated by this point, simply wrung out by the excessive richness of the menu, but we girded ourselves for the final salvo(s). Cheese was next, an excellent Cavatina from Andante Dairy, somewhat let down by its pedestrian accoutrements. The ash-rind has been trimmed away, revealing a mild, slightly dry but tender goat cheese, somewhat chevre-like. But the Belgian waffle that accompanied it was nice but only just. The elegant pistachios were pleasant, but the slivers of strawberry added little.  Regina felt the dish would have benefited from a drizzle of honey. I was thinking quince paste or jam or something. Oh, well.

I barely remember this dish.

We had a couple of simple but very refreshing dessert courses. A Santa Rosa Plum Sorbet was nice, sitting on a tiny nest ground black sesame seeds. But I have virtually no recollection of the rest of the dish, and my dark picture revealed nothing. That was followed by a Lemon-Lime “Float”, essentially a perfectly nuanced and direct granita-type slush with lemongrass & verjus. It was 100% refreshing and I’d recommend it to all my friends!

Simple float of lemongrass & verjus granite was very refreshing!

Finally, finally the real dessert! Which was a Tinoori Chocolate Mousse with Gros Michel Banana,  Georgia Peanuts and Salted Popcorn Ice Cream. We ate it, we loved it. By this time we had all achieved sensory overload. Our logic chips were all fried! I can recall nothing of this dish except that it was great!

Tinoori Chocolate Mousse.

A fantastic sauterne, the name of which I haven’t the foggiest.

Except there was more! I had a perfect espresso, followed by chocolate-candied macadamia nuts, followed by beautiful mignardises, little perfect chocolates and four excellent shortbread cookies in a cute cellophane bag.

Even the coffee cup was a lovely thing.

Little bowl of candied mac nuts.

But then, naturally, there was another course, the “Coffee and Donuts”, a coffee semifreddo with a fried brioche “donut hole”, This is such a fun, silly, cute dessert, but it was completely lost on us by this time. Pretty much felled by wine, fats, and overall excess this barely registered. Things were disintegrating fast. Not quite Fear and Loathing in Yountville, but close.

To be fair, the “coffee and donuts” was great, but Jeez, enough already!

Coffee and Donuts.

We didn’t even touch the chocolates!

This meal was by turns miraculous, surprising, magical, overbearing, oppressive, delightful, satisfying, maddening, and yes, delicious. The French Laundry is a remarkable place. It’s definitely worth a visit, perhaps once every few years.The craft and care is very much in evidence. And the constant searching for perfection. And the soul. Nobody tries this hard for nothing.

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My Laundromat

Last night, drawing on my experiences at the French Laundry, I made a multi-course meal inspired by my time spent there in the kitchen. It was a long, complicated menu, but I had a wonderful time trying to make it happen. My clients were delighted, and the dinner was a resounding success!

Seared foie gras de canard with cherry, toasted brioche, pistachio, and C.C. Brown hot fudge.

Chilled orange-flesh melon soup, to be poured over mint gelee with serrano ham.

“Oysters and Pearls” – kusshi oysters, sevruga, tapioca sabayon, vermouth beurre blanc.

I had to create this app “on the fly” for people who didn’t dig shellfish: crispy zucchini blossom with spicy pomodoro.

Testing the smoke effect for the applewood “smoke” short rib with horseradish cream.

Melon terrine, macadamia nut, coconut foam, cucumber, white honey dressing.

Moving fast, dressing the plates.

Why so serious?

Torchon de foie gras with plums, fennel, marcona almonds, brioche.

I didn’t get a shot of the completed dish of butter-poached lobster with corn puree.

Summer truffles for the homemade tagliatelle.

Cooking the tagliatelle!

The pasta was tossed with white truffle butter and creme fraiche.

Not quite finished: veal confit with purple potato puree, braised radish, zinfandel demi-glace.

Arctic char instead of veal, for the peskytarians. With roasted fig (courtesy Jen).

Fromage D’Affinois with honeycomb, truffle salt, cauliflower, rosemary kettle corn (courtesy Trevor).

I had the able assistance of many fine people including Nicole, Trevor, Alan, Mike R., Cezar, Veronika, Virginia, Chloe, Rochelle, Jody, Mike H., and a capable and energetic floor staff.

A special shout-out to K for her birthday. Also to J who asked me to make this fun, over-the-top, and ridiculously great meal with only three day’s notice!

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Bouchon is Tres Bon

I spent the last week in Napa Valley taking a course, a Culinary Programme at The French Laundry Restaurant in Yountville, California. I’ll have lots to share about my experiences at Chef Thomas Keller’s inspirational, Michelin-starred fine dining Mecca soon enough I assure you, after I spend a short while reflecting on my time there. Lots and lots of blog-fodder there for sure!

I was at the Laundry for most of the daylight hours, but I had enough free time to check out the Yountville dining scene. I ate two meals at Chef Keller’s Bouchon, his superb mini-chain of high-end bistros. I’d eaten there last in 2003 and while my recollection of it was positive, it certainly didn’t resonate with me then as it did this past week. I had two very enjoyable meals.

The decor is light-hearted, a refreshing homage to the bistro without any irony.

So much has already been said about Keller’s attention to detail and the manner in which he strives for perfection, that I feel I can add little. I met the man at The French Laundry and he was personally quite welcoming. I found the man himself to be pleasant, focused, and professional; he wasn’t much in the kitchen, but he was certainly on the scene, his presence and influence felt everywhere like a pulse in the ether. Would that I had an opportunity to pick his brain a bit, not about the inner workings of his restaurant, but about food itself! And not about his rigorous technique, but his inspirations and how they shape his cuisine. Perhaps in the future!
 
Bouchon is Keller’s recreation of French Bistro fare, and his impeccable taste and culinary refinement are again on display. The food is casual but artfully created, the atmosphere is sociable and nearly clangorous when busy, and the decor recalls that classic “bistro” look without any hokum or deliberate irony. It’s a comfortable, inviting place to eat. Service was friendly and professional. And the food was all delectable and mostly superb! If you’re in Yountville, just go! Or visit the sister Bouchons in Vegas or Beverly Hills.

This is not really a review, but a few photos with comments. I recommend Bouchon with only a few quibbles.

The menus are printed on folded wax paper and make a cute keepsake.

The waiter started me with some of the delicious epi baguette made just forty feet away at Bouchon Bakery (a whole blogpost in and off itself!). Shaped like wheat buds, the teardrops of crunchy and yeasty bread was just hot enough to melt the delightful house butter sourced from a small dairy in Petaluma. A great way to begin. I ordered a glass of Sancerre and it arrived quickly — cool, refreshing, and oh-so-French.

Epi baguettes were freakin’ delicious! Warm, crunchy, great flavor.
Terrine de foie gras de canard. Unbelievably delicious.
Succulent terrine.

To begin I ordered some standard bistro stuff — pate and foie gras terrine. Both the Pate de Campagne and the Terrine de Foie Gras de Canard were excellent versions of classic starters. The Pate de Campagne is country-style pork and bacon pate, served with bread & cornichon. Although it appears coarsely chopped and formed, the texture of the pate is smooth, and yet it has a meaty heft at the same time. And it tastes just fantastic — rich, peppery, salty, appealing in every way. It’s perfect spread on bread with a bit of shaved radish of top and a dab of the fabulous house dijon mustard by Edmund Fallot.

Although delicious, the pate almost completely pales compared to the smooth, totally decadent Terrine de Foie Gras. Silken, fatty, rich, insanely seductive. Served in a small glass pot with a hinged lid, the terrine is firm to begin with but within five minutes it softens at room temperature to a point where it virtually melts on your tongue. Spread on little spears of baguette toasted with duck fat, the foie is fabulous.

Pate de Campange is country-style pork pate at its finest.
 A slice of radish cuts back on the fatty nature of the pate. A little mustard helps too!

Salade de Cresson et d’Endives is crisp and refreshing.
Salade de Byaldi is like a cool ratatouille. Tender, sweet squash and eggplant.

It tried a couple of salads too. The Salade of Cresson et d’Endives is crisp and utterly appealing. The red and yellow endive petals are crunchy and refreshing. The Roquefort cheese is creamy, funky, and salty. The perfect walnuts are mild, sweet, not remotely bitter. And tying it all together is a masterfully nuanced vinaigrette bound with a touch of walnut oil. A great counterpoint to the rich spreads.

The Salad de Byaldi was like a cool ratatouille. Just-cooked yellow squash, eggplant, and zucchini are tossed in a simple dressing with gem lettuces. The vegetables are artfully placed atop tomato marmalade and the plate is adorned with a bright yellow zucchini blossom pistou. Oh, and a tiny fried zucchini blossom perches over the little veggie hill. The salad is good if not revelatory.

Although perhaps a bit oversalted, the soft-shell crab was great. 
Great flatiron steak, marred by a thick blanket of caramelized shallots. I still ate everything.

Croque Madame was divine. The pommes frites were not.

The three larger dishes I tried were very good, but not stunning. All were just shy of perfection. The Crabe a Carapace Molle, crisp-sauteed soft-shell crab with wild mushrooms and sauce grenobloise.  The crab itself was perfectly cooked and served over oyster and beech mushrooms sauteed with tiny croutons, bits of meyer lemon, and capers. A tuft of mache (lamb’s lettuce) garnishes the plate. A very nice dish, but a bit heavy-handed on the salt content.

I like the flavor of a flat-iron steak, and this flat-iron Steak Frites was delicious and perfectly cooked to medium-rare. It’s a chewier sort of steak and very beefy. I loved it but the meat was blanketed with a disk of herb butter (which I liked) and a thin layer of caramelized shallots (which I didn’t). The shallots were simply too much and detracted from the steak; it seemed like they should have left it well enough alone. I eschewed fries and got garlicky wilted spinach instead. The spinach was good but only just.

The Croque Madame, that classic sandwich of a grilled ham and cheese doused in mornay sauce (pretty much a bechamel) and topped with a sunny-side-up egg was perfect, the brioche crisp, the egg gooey, and the mornay mild and moist. Totally delightful. But the accompanying French fries were underwhelming. Very little potato flavor, not very warm or crisp.

Anyway, these are minor complaints for a couple of visits that were otherwise very enjoyable. I would not hesitate to recommend Bouchon to anyone.

Check out: http://www.bouchonbistro.com/

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Summer Truffle Sandwich

Today I made these simple (albeit extremely pricey) small sandwiches. I shaved black truffle and tossed the slices in a warm pan with melted truffle butter and some good fleur de sel. I sliced some excellent baguette and toasted the bread in butter in a skillet. I piled the warmed truffles on the slices, formed a sandwich, and ate that thing with gusto (and a glass of Domaine Ott rose)!

This truffle sandwich was ridonkulous, fo shiz.

Le Pigeon Doesn’t Really Take Wing

Regina and I went to Le Pigeon in Portland on the advice of a good friend, a friend who knows food and restaurants well. This was our first meal out as “man-and-wife” and we wanted something interesting, fun, perhaps quirky. Directed toward Le Pigeon, we went with few preconceptions and very little information. Oh, I’d heard of Gabriel Rucker sort of peripherally, having read about his recent honor for Rising Star Chef from the James Beard Foundation. I’d heard that he was inventive, youthful, approachable, humble, and enthusiastic about what he does. I think I’d read about his foie gras profiterole dessert, which sounded just delish! Supposedly Le Pigeon was a place that hewed its own path and aimed high.

Perhaps they overshoot?

Cute logo, huh? The dining room is cute too.

The space is cute, in a corner location on Burnside. Tables are communal and with a counter that L’s around the tiny kitchen (sushi-bar style) Le Pigeon seats about 30 in somewhat cramped, urban-style quarters, which meshes with the hipsterish, slightly ramshackle Portlandia vibe that seems so pervasive in this marvelous city. The host was friendly when we entered, seating us immediately at the counter despite having no rezzie. The cooks gave us a cordial “how are ya?” when we sat.  Our server took his damn sweet time getting around to us for our initial beverage, but when he finally did he was attentive and friendly and knowledgeable. Despite that lag in the beginning he was great, and we ended up tipping very generously.

The mustachioed fella (Andrew) was a very cordial guy. Damn good cook too.

The menu was interesting for sure: pigeon crudo, ivory salmon, beef cheeks, sweetbreads — it reads like a love-letter to foodies and Regina and I were hooked fo’ shiz. Was there any way I was going to pass on foie gras? Sweetbreads? Hell no.

I love that the pigeon leg came intact with the foot which, incidentally, was crunchily delicious.

We started with the pigeon crudo, a dish which distills (to unfortunate effect) the chef’s ethos on a single, small plate. Exotic local ingredient, superb presentation, brilliant technique, but too many elements striving for attention, conflicting instead of contrasting. Damn, if that raw (perhaps just barely poached) sliced pigeon breast wasn’t excellent, tender, sweet, and yummy. And the sticks of cucumber lightly pickled with white wine and white pepper is a lovely foil for the crudo. But the paprika-rich guacamole seems imported from another dish. The absolutely fantastic crispy fried pigeon leg is so great I wanted about ten more just to gnaw on, garnished as it was only with a flake salt; the tiny foot was crunchy and delicious bones and all, although my new wife barely gave me a toe to taste(!). But tell me why the creamy blue cheese (not sure which) was there at all? Or the lovely but unnecessary roasted onion puree whipped with schmaltz? Every element on the plate was delicious, and yet the dish as a whole lacked cohesion. It simply didn’t work.

These pictures of Regina eating animal feet are getting way too commonplace.

The foie gras was next and the liver was absolutely stunning, seared crisp and fantastically unctuous, fatty, and appealing. The citrus sauce (a bit like a loose, minced marmalade) balanced the foie gras with sweetness and acidity. The brioche croutons provided a welcome crunch, and the minced parsley and celery leaf added a pleasant herbaceous note. The two preparations of artichoke were not entirely successful. The warm artichoke atop the large brioche crouton tasted like canned artichoke dip and the lovely artichoke salad was delicious in its own right but made no sense for the dish as a whole.

Foie, artichoke, green peppercorn, brioche. The artichoke added little to the dish except confusion.

The foie gras was expertly cooked. 

Up next was the gnocchi with a sauce of creme fraiche, broccoli, and trout roe. I loved this dish. The gnocchi were tender and delicious. The sauce was creamy and luscious. And the trout roe was a clever touch — it added “pop” and tiny bursts of salt on the palate. It was the simplest savory dish we ate, and the most perfectly realized.

The most prefectly realized dish we ate. Gnocchi with broccoli, creme fraiche, trout roe.

Next we got the sweetbreads with veal and bread pudding. Wow, I really wanted to like the dish and ate quite a bit of it, but I must say it disappointed on virtually every level. The sweetbreads (veal thymus glands) were chewy, tasty but very much overcooked, and glazed with something overly sweet. The bread pudding was lovely and nicely seasoned. The braised veal breast that accompanied it was tender, pull-apart, and delightful like the best damn pulled pork you ever had, except for some reason (oversight, perhaps) I found a strip of the inedible, almost plasticine membrane that lines a veal breast and is normally removed during the cooking process. Not cool at all. If it was an oversight, it was truly sloppy cooking, but if it wasn’t a mistake, then what…? And finally, the dish was topped with a gloopy cole slaw with chunks of halved cherries. It’s cherry season right now, so why drown them in some kind of mayo-based slaw. Bizarre, frankly. This dish was a mess and the picture below shows that. Too much going on!

Sweetbreads and veal with bread pudding. Not a fan.

Next up was the excellent lamb shoulder. They braise the lamb overnight in a slow-and-low oven, slice it when it’s cool, and then crisp it in oil (a lot like carnitas) just before service. It’s served over eggplant puree with red bell pepper and a slather of cumin oil. Over the top went blanched and sauteed strips of zucchini. The lamb was excellent — great flavor, great texture, just fantastic. The eggplant was pleasant, as were the peppers. The zucchini was perhaps too plentiful, but it tasted great. This dish was well-executed, well-realized in every way. I loved it.

I loved the lamb.

We were just about stuffed to burst at this point, but Andrew, the awesome line cook, suggested we have a pairing of two small desserts. So we ordered one foie gras profiterole and a tiny piece of the bacon-aproicot-honey cornbread with maple ice cream. Both were fantastic! The profiterole is halved and stuffed with foie gras ice cream. Andrew explained that the profiterole and the caramel sauce were made with foie fat. Yummers! Also, the cornbread was excellent, a perfect balance of sweet and savory. Just dynamite.

Bacon-apricot-honey cornbread with maple ice cream!
Foie gras profiterole. Holy shit it was good!

We ended the meal with a lovely digestif that was a bit like fernet branca. A nice note to end the meal on. Wines overall were excellent. Regina loved her Riesling. I had a White Burgandy, a Chenin Blanc, and a Pinot Noir — all good and relatively cheap.

A lovely digestive.

Iconic chocolates with the check are a nice, tasty touch.

In the final analysis Le Pigeon, for my tastes anyway, tries too hard. The technique is expert, the product is excellent, but many dishes were marred by a showiness that upends many younger chefs. While I understand the urge to be inventive, to strive for new flavors, if a dish is unbalanced it shows. And what it shows is ego, not craft.

Le Pigeon
738 E Burnside St
Portland, OR 97214
(503) 546-8796