Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Christmas Wrap(Up)

Twas four days before Christmas and all the Beard House could hear
Was the laughter and giggles
Of Table 1's good cheer

About a Top Chef's food we chatted and tasted
Exposing each course's virtues and vices
Little wine was left wasted

When the time finally came to go back out in the cold
A renunion was in the plans
Ere the New Year gets old

I have been to countless James Beard Foundation events, but I have never seen a table bond like this over the course of an evening.  Top Chef winner, Stephanie Izzard's food was certainly quite good, but it had stiff competition from the conversation and companionship at the table.  I think I will just call it a draw.

A big storm the weekend before Christmas blanketed the area in a beautiful coating of snow.  Come Christmas day it was the best of both worlds.  The streets were clear, but the snow was still around adding that Norman Rockwell factor to the day.

I originally had a hard time convincing my mother to come over.  But as Christmas day neared, she was getting excited about the prospect of getting out for a day.  She had a blast playing with her old cat and watching the yule log on TV while I plied her with food.  I left her in her room blissfully full and stocked her fridge with leftovers.

The standing rib roast came about great, done to a nice medium rare.  My rustic desert was maybe a tad too rustic, but these things do happen.  The Duckhorn cab we had with dinner was just perfect.  If not for the price tag, I would drink it every day.  It tasted especially fine after dropping mom off, kicking off my shoes and glowing in the dying light of a Christmas day.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

Sam T. Cat says "Have a Merry Christmas or they won't take this stupid hat off me."

May your holiday be filled with laughter, love and leftovers!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Comfort and Joy

In our place, you are never more than ten feet away from a cookbook.  It helps that our place is only 1200 square feet, but you get my drift.  Grant Achatz, Thomas Keller, Julia Child, Lidia Bastianich are all within arms reach to dispense their culinary secrets.  Yet, whose cookbook do I grab for first when cooking something new, a widowed homemaker from Saint Louis.  To top that, she self published her first edition.  Well, now there is a ninth edition and some 18 million copies of it have graced kitchens around the globe.  I am referring to Irma Rombauer and "The Joy of Cooking".

Irma published the first edition in 1931 as a way to support her family.  I'm sure she had no inkling that the book would still be relevant over 75 years later.  Its friendly tone and encyclopedic coverage of the culinary world, "Braised bear anyone?", have made it indispensable to the kitchen novice and master alike.

So when E requested mac and cheese for dinner, I knew exactly where to turn.  "The Joy" had to have a recipe.  It most certainly did.  It was the classic recipe with a bit of a twist.  Make a bechamel sauce, make some pasta, melt some cheese in the bechamel, etc.  The twist came in assembling the dish for baking.  Put half the pasta and cheese sauce mixture in your baking dish.  Put some shredded cheese over that layer.  The extra cheese is then topped with the other half of the cheesy pasta goodness.  Cover with browned bread crumbs and bake.  Well, that extra step added different texture and more concentrated cheese flavor to the dish that I really liked.

I purposely only included enough of the recipe to tease you all into breaking open your own copy of "The Joy of Cooking" or to seek it out.  I'm sure you know someone who has a copy.  The book, or maybe it should be referred to as "The Book" has  added a great deal of comfort and joy to my life.  My first paperback edition literally fell apart from years of use, each stained page telling a tale.  Certainly try out the mac and cheese recipe, it will bring you much comfort and will be a joy to make and eat.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Short Ribs Were Nestled All Snug in Their Sauce

Busy, busy weekend here in Sautoir Land.  Was in the Great White North yesterday.  Well, just Connecticut, but it was north of here.  The cold rain and wind today did not make heading outside to visit mom and run errands a pleasant diversion.  I'm typing this while I'm getting ready to go a Holiday Party here in the building.  I think it would be tacky to where slippers, but I am tempted.  While all this is going on, I have my favorite dish bubbling away in the oven, zinfandel braised short ribs.

There is just something about this dish that I, and everyone I served it to, just love.  It may be the fruity but spicy flavor of the zinfandel, the meatiness of the short ribs, or just the plain heaping load of comfort you get from a braised dish.  Best of all, it usually tastes better the next day, so it's a perfect make ahead dinner.

I like to use Rosenblum or Rancho Zabaco zins to make this dish.  They are both really nice wines are great prices.  I picked up a Rosenblum for under $10 today at my normal wine store, so you can probably get it cheaper at Costco or some other bulk retailer.

Anyone angling for a Christmas gift of a Le Creuset dutch oven, this is the perfect way to plant the idea.  "If I had that La Creuest dutch oven, I could make this all the time and it would taste so much better."  I can't guarantee success their, but I can insure that you will not get coal in your stocking if you prepare this.

2 tablespoons of canola oil
2 pounds bone in beef short ribs
2 medium onions
3 medium carrots
2 cloves of garlic
1 750ml bottle of Zinfandel
2 cups of beef, chicken or veal stock
Fresh or dried thyme
2 Fresh or dried bay leaves


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit
  2. Pour bottle of wine into a sauce pan and reduce by half over high heat
  3. Heat oil in dutch oven or other large, heavy pot with a lid
  4. Season short ribs with salt and pepper.  
  5. Brown short ribs on all sides
  6. Slice onions into 1/4 inch slices
  7. Cut carrots into 1/2 inch slices
  8. Peel and crush garlic cloves
  9. Remove ribs to platter.  Pour out all oil except for about 1 teaspoon
  10. Sweat onions and carrots
  11. When onions have softened add the garlic cloves, cook for about 1 minute
  12. Add back ribs
  13. Add reduced wine to dutch oven
  14. Add stock to ribs are covered
  15. Add thyme and bay leaves.  Several sprigs of thyme if fresh, 1 teaspoon if dried.
  16. Bring to boil
  17. Cover dutch oven and place in oven
  18. Cook until ribs are exceedingly tender, about 2 1/2 hours
  19. Remove ribs
  20. Strain and defat cooking liquid
  21. Boil until sauce reduces and thickens a bit, about 10 minutes
  22. Put ribs back in sauce
  23. Eat, drink and be merry.  Or let ribs sit over night, then eat, drink and be merry.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Bocuse D'or Blowout at Bar Boulud

The thrill of victory... the agony of defeat.   We all know those immortal words from ABC's Wide World of Sports.  In the wide world of culinary competition, the US was more akin to the hapless ski jumper falling off the jump than any of the jubilent winners seen in the opening montage.  Many big players in the US culinary world are trying to change that.

For those of you who do not know about the Bocuse D'or, it is very simple to explain:  Culinary Olympics.  Young chefs represent their countries in a high pressure cooking event, judged by a veritable pantheon of culinary gods.  Throw in throngs of rabid, flag waving fans and you get the picture.  Yes, throngs of rabid, flag waving fans,  at a COOKING competition.  I kid you not.

The US has not fared well at this event.  The last time this event was held, the powers that be asked some of the top US chefs to get involved in preparing the US team for competition.  They asked and got none other than Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller to throw their toques into the ring.  You know this is serious when you can get these two to help out.  The US did okay last year, but they are looking ahead to doing much better.  So, they held a fund raising dinner last weekend at Bar Boulud in NYC.  I decided to make the sacrifice and eat a terrific meal for the team.

Saturday was the worst weather day we had in a while.  A constant rain mixed with snow fell the entire day.  While nothing short of a full on blizzard would have stopped us from going, we got dressed up and headed out into the tempest.  We arrived at Bar Boulud in less time than we thought and headed downstairs to the event.  A glass of cold champagne and some warm company soon put the poor weather out of our minds.

It was a much smaller event than I imagined.  Since about 200 people were at the Top Chef Bocuse D'or event, I was expecting about the same.  There were only about 40 people at this event, but they were dedicated.  Two couples came up from Philadelphia for the event.  One couple was even taking the train back that night!  It's about a 90 minute train trip, so those people can only be described as hardcore.

Some really tasty appetizers were making the rounds when the man himself, Chef Daniel Boulud showed up.  He made his way through the crowd, greeting all.  We soon were seated for dinner and Chef Boulud gave a talk on how he was recruited to help out the US team and gave a quick preview of the dinner menu.  "When in doubt, serve foie gras" is how he described the inspiration for the first course.  The dinner was mainly Lyonaise holiday dishes.  The standout was the poached chicken with truffles under its skin.  Yes, it did taste as good as it sounded.

The conversation at the table was almost as good as the food.  With topics ranging from Lady Gaga to law school.  The evening flew by.  Flew by so fast that we missed our ride home and had to have another car sent to pick us up!  At least by this time, the rain and snow had stopped and NYC was resplendent in its Yuletide trimmings.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving Thanks to the Day Before Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day, kitchens across America join in the collective cacophony of pots and pans banging together in an attempt to get the feast to the table.  My kitchen is no different, joyful in the din of making dinner.  The day before Thanksgiving is a different matter entirely.  Then it is only me, the cat, and perhaps a glass of wine, as the building blocks of the blowout are quietly prepared.

The day before Thanksgiving used to mean hand to hand combat with traffic as I made my way to my parents.  Even when I started making the annual dinner, it was a battle to get out of NYC to get home.  One dish may be thrown together, but rattled nerves and razor sharp knives are not good bedfellows.  Then one year, due to an unexpected plethora of vacation days, I took the day off.  The scales fell from my eyes as I saw how easy, and relaxing, it was to crank out dish after dish.  When the big day dawned, I was so much more relaxed and in control having made about 60% of the meal already.

Yesterday was no different.  I was sipping my coffee as I prepped onions and carrots for the turkey stock.  Popping them in the oven, along with a pair a turkey wings, gave me the added bonus of having the house smell like Thanksgiving two days in a row.  Soon the cranberry sauce was out of the way, the dessert was cooling on a rack, the first course was in the oven and I was prepping  veggies for the stuffing.  I had spent the whole day in the kitchen, rocking out to a countdown of the 1043 best classic rock tunes and having an all around good time.  Led Zepplin provides the best soundtrack to dice an onion by, just in case you were wondering.

Rich Turkey Stock for Gravy  

One large onion
Two medium carrots
Two turkey wings
Vegetable oil
Thyme or other fresh herbs
Pepper corns

  1. Peel and roughly chop onion 
  2. Peel and roughly chop carrots
  3. Place in roasting pan with turkey legs and drizzle oil over everything.  Just a small amount of oil to  facilitate browning.
  4. Place pan into a preheated 450 degree oven for one hour or until wings are brown
  5. Place wings and vegetables in a stock pot.  Add water to cover.  You are looking to have at least a quart of stock at the end of cooking, so be sure to add more than a quart of water.
  6. Pour roasting juices from pan into another vessel so that the fat can be removed.  Add defatted liquids to stock pot.
  7. Deglaze roasting pan with water.  Add the liquid to the stock pot.
  8. Bring to a simmer and cook for one hour, skimming the scum off the top of the stock.
  9. After one hour, add the thyme, pepper corns and other fresh herbs to the pot.  Cook an additional 2-3 hours until the stock is dark and rich tasting.
  10. Strain into a large vessel using a colander.
  11. Re-strain using a small mesh sieve if desired.
  12. Restrain yourself from drinking it all, you need it for gravy remember.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Top Chef Live! Well, Sort Of

The cooking competition show "Top Chef" has cemented its place as the official foodie water cooler topic. Whether the discussion is on the food or cooking, or one of the many dramas that occur when you place so many people, in such close quarters under so much pressure.  When I received an e-mail touting watching an episode of Top Chef with Tom Colicchio, Padma, Daniel Boulud, Alain Sailhac, Gavin Kaysen, plus Top Chef contestant Kevin I was so there.  Especially since it was a benefit for the American team competing in the Big Show culinary competition The Bocuse D'or.

The Bocuse D'or is best described as the food world's Olympics.  Teams from around the world compete under the intense scrutiny of the world's best chefs while screaming fans wave the flags of their favorite country.  Gavin Kaysen,  executive chef at Cafe Boulud, was a competitor in the Bocuse D'or and gave some insight into being through the culinary gauntlet.

I arrived a little early at the Astor Center where the event was being held.  I should just move into this place since I seem to be there like everyday.  There was a huge throng of people milling about outside waiting for the doors to open.  Then, as close to a red carpet moment as I will ever likely to experience, Chef Tom Colicchio arrived and bounded up the stairs.  Soon Daniel Boulud and Alain Sailhac joined him inside.  The doors were soon opened to the rest of us and the party began.

Given the nature of the event, the chefs preparing the food gave it their all.  All of the passed appetizers were on the north side of wonderful.  Some wonderful cocktails, wine and champagne rounded out the comestibles.

The event was pretty crowded so you soon made fast friends with the people next to you.  The people were in a very festive mood, probably brought on by the wonderful cocktails, wine and champagne mentioned above.  I was soon running into friends left and right, only to loose them again in a sea a food obsessed humanity.

A few minutes before the airing of "Top Chef" was to start, Tom Colicchio, Padma, and Kevin took the stage to say a few words.  Then the show began.  With all the people, chatter and other noise it was kind of hard to actually watch the show.  But was it better than sitting on my easy chair, eating chips and watching it at home?  Oh yeah!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Lost Legacy

A family recipe is sometimes passed done with as much thought and care as an English estate.  "Not just anyone can be the custodian of my recipe" has been proclaimed by countless grandmothers over the years. Other recipes beg to be passed on, but find no willing takers.  Some, miss their chance to continue in the family lore and are lost.  My father's potato pancake recipe is one of those.

No one made potato pancakes like my father, at least no one that I have met.  They were not the latke type made out of shredded potatoes.  His were made from a batter and had a lightness about them that only led to you eating more of them.  Everyone loved them.  They became a symbol of family and celebration.  Nothing would make me happier to whip up a batch when far flung branches of the clan stopped by.  Only one problem, my father didn't teach me how to make them.

I would pop into the kitchen when he was making batch, only to be shooed away.  Then he got sick and thoughts were directed elsewhere.

Gray and rainy days find me in the kitchen, trying to reverse engineer those pillowy cakes of memories.  Trying to get the taste, texture and timelessness just right.  But I know, that they will never be my father's pancakes.  I can already hear the family proclaiming "These are great, but their just not Uncle Ray's".  You just can't whip up a batch of legacy.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Please Don't Eat the Hero Triscuit

Each model faced a cruel and heartless scrutiny.  The deserving ones were coddled and handled like royalty.  The rest were  dismissed with a sniff of derision and a wave of the hand.  They left in silence, no howls of protest.  The compliance of the models could only be accounted for with one reason, they were snack crackers.  But even in the world of snack foods, looks can get you pretty far.

Last weekend I spent in a kind of Bizarro World version of my usual culinary life.  Taste was not even in the backseat, but left at home to fend for itself.  The weekend was all about how the food looked.  More specifically, how the food looked in a photograph.   I was lucky enough to snag a spot in the Food Styling and Photography Workshop at the Institute of Culinary Education.  Here Jim Peterson, Jamie Tiampo, Laurie Knoop and Matt Noel would try to impart their collective knowledge of this subject.

Taking a good looking photograph of food can be a challenge.  I'm sure all you bloggers out there know exactly what I mean.  Making the food good looking enough to photograph was another aspect of the class that I frankly had almost zero experience in.  My models were of the natural, meal next door type.  They also didn't last long in the biz as they(rather we) found it totally consuming.  Getting your meal ready for its close up was the milieu of Laurie Knoop.

Laurie graduated from culinary school, but did not want to work in a restaurant.  Through a friend, she pursued food styling and now owns her own food photography studio.  Laurie told us all the secrets of getting food to look good in a photo.  Sometimes, the best way is to not use the food at all.  Crisco mixed with various sugars and strawberry jam was a dead ringer for strawberry ice cream.  Instant mashed potatoes made many appearances in the bag of tricks.  As a substitute for the icing you don't see in a cake and to fill up a deflated looking roast chicken to only mention a few.  Many of the tricks she taught us are no longer used that much, at least in the higher end publications.  But at least we have them in our back pockets if we ever need them.  She also taught us myriad ways to keep real food good looking for the shoots.

Jim Peterson, Jamie Tiampo and Matt Noel showed us many ways to get a photograph of food to look great.  The only way to have a great photograph is to have great light.  They showed us many ways to manipulate natural light to have the effect you want to achieve.  The best part of this, most of these techniques are cheap and some even free.  Foil is a great reflector.  If you crumple it up a bit, it throws off a nice, mottled light.  Mirrors are great as well.  A small mirror can be used to spot light an area that you want to draw attention to in a photo.  Foam boards of different colors are also great reflectors.  The different colors can evoke some interesting atmospheres in your shots.

We were finally let loose to try our hands at food styling.  Our first task was to create a still life.  My teams eyes were drawn to this beautiful acorn squash.  We decided to do a still life of autumn's bounty and starting collecting our "stars".  We picked up some props to best showcase our work and started styling the still life.  When we were going astray, one of the instructors would gently guide us back to a more aesthetic form.  Our final still life was a far cry from the starting one and miles better.

We were challenged with more involved projects as the weekend progressed.  Shopping in the Union Square Greenmarket for ingredients to style was disorienting.  Again, back in the Bizzaro World of looking for good looking food not good tasting food.  We did find some dramatic ingredients and made a pretty good photo if I may say so myself.  Jim and Jamie did most of the photography in the class.  It was interesting to see the different styles between the two.  We were able to shoot pictures of our food as well, which provided some interesting comparisons once I got home.

My Photo

Jamie Tiampo's Photo

For our final project, we had a choice of protein and were allowed to run wild with the rest.  Judging by the final photos, it seems everyone learned quite a bit in this class.  The most important lesson learned was to never eat anything on a photo shoot.  Once an art director ate the hero cookie at a $70,000 shoot. That's really putting your money where your mouth is.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Risotto Road to Enlightenment

Last night, a funny thing crossed my mind while I was making a risotto, nothing.  I was so enrapt by the process, that I must have went a good 10-15 minutes without the usual mental chatter.  It was just add stock, stir, add stock, stir.  I was completely living in the moment like a Zen master, until E entered the kitchen and interupted my reverie.

This got me thinking about the meditive properties of cooking.  So many of the usual tasks of cooking are repetitive and require your full attention.  When you really look at it how different is prepping vegtables from the Zen meditation practice of zazen.  Instead of foucing you mind by sitting still and counting breaths, you focusing your mind on slicing and dicing.  When you are dicing an onion, you world collapses to job at hand, the only sound you hear is the snick of the knife slicing through the onion and hitting the board.  It's nearly magical that this simple task can hold the chaos of the world beyond the kitchen is at bay, at least for a while.

While "What is the sound of one hand whisking" will probably not be made an official Zen koan anytime soon, the forced mindfulness of cooking may bring us closer to inner peace.  It certainly helps me.  And, you get to eat your path to elightenment.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Reflections of Maremma Workshop at the James Beard House

It was a glorius fall day.  The rake the leaves in a pile and jump in kind of day.  The kind of day when a glass of apple cider tastes just that much better.  So, wracked was with mixed feelings, I headed to my cooking event.  The James Beard House was hosting a cooking workshop with the Apicius School of Hospitality.  Maybe they would have apple cider there.

Each year, the Apicius School of Hospitality makes a pilgramage from their home in Florence, Italy to the James Beard House.  The chefs maximize the the use of their frequent flyer miles by both cooking a dinner and running a workshop.The workshop usually features some of the recipes from the dinner.  During this trip, the cuisine of Tuscany's wild Maremma region was the star.

The kitchen of the Beard House was abuzz with activity as we made our way in for the class.  There were so many chefs crammed into the kitchen, it looked like the 6 train going to a Yankees game.  We found a spot along the counter, eager for the lesson to begin.  A introduction to the school and the chefs served as the preamble to a discussion of the dishes to be prepared.  Groups were formed, sleeves rolled up and the cooking began. 

Well, at least a little participation in the cooking began.  Most of the cooking classes at the James Beard House are demos classes do to the relatively small size of the kitchen.  It's called the James Beard House because well, it really was James Beard's house.  So picture a professional kitchen shoehorned into your house and you pretty much get the picture.  The Apicius people do always have a hands on portion to their workshops, but we never get to prepare the dish from start to finish.

The first dish was Terrina di Melanzane e Pomodoro, a tomato and eggplant terrine.  This dish was a standout taste wise and presentation wise.  The goal was to make it look like a piece of tuna on the plate, which it did.  This was like a Halloween costume for food.  The eggplant looked a lot like fish skin and the tomato was a near dead ringer for raw tuna.  A taste catapulted it beyond something nice to look at to a bonifed taste sensation.  It just burst with an explosion of tomato flavor set off with a spicy spark of eggplant.

Following that, we got our hands dirty making Tortelli Maremmani di Ricotta di Pecora ed Erbette di Campo sul Sugo di Carne e Salsiccia, sheep milk ricotta with a beef and sausage ragu.  We channeled our inner Mario Batali's making pasta dough with the well method.   The wall of the flour well was gently broken down, incorporating into the egg mixture forming a rough dough.  This proto pasta dough needed to be kneaded until it was no longer sticky to the touch.  We allowed the dough to rest while one of the chefs demoed how to make the filling. 

Fresh from its nap, the dough was sent through a pasta maker, making a thin sheet.  This poor, unsuspecting dough was the guinea pig for our inexper tortelli making.  Let's just say that whatever gene Italian grandmothers have for pasta making, was completely absent from our group.  It did give us a new found respect for the pasta makers out there.  That reverance caused everyone to lick their plates clean when this course was served.

As a special treat, the chefs brought along some wild boar strip loin.  This was just browned on all sides in a pan and finished in an oven.  I would like to know what kind of life this wild boar had.  It was melt in the mouth tender.  I guess the forest this boar was from featured massages at the very least.

The event was capped off with a Crostata di Ricotta served with a pistachio creme.  A lovely desert wine, not available in the US, was served  with this course.  The chefs and sommeliers smuggled it in, hidden in their luggage.  Contraband wine always tastes sweeter, so good thing this was a desert wine.

It ended up being a glorius fall day in a different kind of way.  It was a blast trying to make tortelli and relsihing in a really great meal.  I guess it was better than jumping into a pile of leaves after all.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


The wine snob raises the glass of wine, swirls it deftly, as his nose probes for all its secret aromas.  He takes a sip, swishes it around his mouth and spits it out into the waiting bucket.  He proceeds to describe the wine in prose even more purple than the permanent wine stains on his teeth.  Then, as a finale, he declares the exact grape, area, producer and vintage of the wine.  The crowd is stunned with awe in witnessing such an amazing  feat.

The above is the cliched version of blind tasting.  To actually get such an amazing amount of detail correct is more the exception than the rule, but if you pay attention to what's in your glass, it's amazing on how close you can get to the above scene.  Hopefully, sans stained teeth.

Last night, Fred Dexheimer, a Master Sommelier, gave a class in blind tasting at the Astor Center.  To get the Master Sommelier certification, one must pass a grueling test consisting of general wine knowledge, wine service and a blind tasting of six wines.  Only about 100 people in the US have this designation and most people who have it took the exams several time to pass it.  So, I was ready to absorb whatever knowledge he had to impart.

Fred started off with a brief description of how wine is made.  He had a great slide using Pacman to demonstrate how yeast eats sugar to make alcohol.  Right then, I knew this was going to be a great class.

As he moved through the steps of tasting a wine, he was framing the lessons in the context of discerning more about the mystery in your glass.  How the color of the wine changes with age so you can at least place the vintage of the wine into newer or older.  He talked about how climate affected the alcohol level and viscosity of wine.  You could then use this information to place the wine into a warm growing region or a cool growing region.  Is the nose of the wine more fruity or more earthy?  This gives you important clues into whether it is a wine from the Old World or a New World upstart.

We finally got to put our new wine tasting acumen to the test by blind tasting seven wines.  I know, I know, it was a tough assignment, but you have to do what you have to do.  The wines were all from standard grapes and regions so they be great wines to cut our blind tasting teeth(taste buds?) on.  We worked our way through the wines starting with three white wines.  Fred led us through the FEW TAL tasting steps.  That is Fruit, Earth, Wood, Tannin, Acid, and Length.  The class no problem of identifying the first wine as a New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

We soon started sipping and zipping our way through the wines, throwing around adjectives like barnyard and pencil lead like the most jaded wine critic.  We did great in identifying the wines.  Only the last one had the class a little confused, about half thought it was a Zinfandel, the other half a Syrah.  I was in the Zin camp myself and was a little disappointed to see it was indeed the Syrah.

This was a really fun and informative class. Fred Dexheimer proved to be a great instructor, making the material really fun to learn.  Now please excuse me, I have blind wine tasting to practice.  

Friday, October 16, 2009

Mastering the Art of French Cooking, LIVE!

Wednesday was whirlwind of activity.  I had to attend a meet and greet with the CEO, had to present the findings of the project that was driving me to distraction for the past couple of weeks, speed off to a James Beard Foundation event, then rush downtown to a class. I did not plan a day like this, but when the Lords of Chaos have you in their sights, these things happen.

The Astor Center has launched a new series of events entitled "Great Cooks and Their Books".  It combines getting to know some of the icons of cooking better by cooking recipes from their seminal cookbooks.  The series started off with what may be the most seminal of them all, Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking".  Curious, I signed up for the event.  Then my calander got stuffed like a sausage.

The Lords of Chaos took pity on me after I presented my findings and everything just fell into place.  At 6:00PM I was rolling up my sleaves and donning an apron, ready to get down with huge quantities of butter.  Entering the kitchen, I knew we were in for an evening of fun.  Old episodes of  "The French Chef" were playing on flat panel TVs to set the mood.  The instructor, Carl Raymond, was very friendly and engaging.  He got the dough kneading by asking each of us about our cooking experience and our relationship with Julia.  There were some experienced cooks, some novices, some who have had a long relationship with Julia, others have never heard of her until the movie "Julia and Julie", and one who spoke very little English.  We would not have enough time to cook all of the classes recipes, so we broke into teams to tackle a few recipes each.  I found myself on Team Salad Nicoise with two very fun Japanese women.  Other teams were tackling boeuf bourguignon and tarte aux pommes.

Before breaking into our individual teams to tackle Julia's dishes, Chef Carl demoed several techniques.  Chef Carl shares my cooking philosophy, learn techniques not recipes.  Once you understand a technique and how food reacts to it, you can pretty much just scoop up some ingredients at the market and make dinner.  Carl made a mayo, demoed how to saute, and made a Hollandaise sauce.  He did this ala Julia, no bain marie(double boiler) and whole butter.  I might have heard the faint whirring sound of Escoffier spinning in his grave, but the Hollandaise sauce came out great.  We then broke down into our groups and had at it.

Salad Nicoise is a classic French composed salad.  By composed, it is not all mixed together, but rather the ingredients are arranged artfully on a plate.  It consists of cooked potatoes, cooked green beans, tuna, olives, tomatoes, and greens.  We had lots of prep to do and we got at it.  Despite my Japanese team mates unfamiliarlarity with French cooking and Julia Child, they were quite adept and we soon became a Salad Nicoise machine.  We soon had all the components of the salad ready and the vinaigrette prepared.

I was pulled into Hollandaise making and left my two teammates to plate the salad.  No one informed them about the nature of composed salads, so they preceded to mix everything together.  I looked up from my whisking to see two giant piles of Salad Nicoise.  The plating looked good though as they were artfully placing ingredients on top of the dish.

I was so caught up in my own team's cooking that I did not catch much of  the rest of class in action.  I can tell you that the end results were all delicious.  Every team earned kudos for their work as the serving platters quickly emptied.  As I exited the kitchen into the surprisingly chilly evening, I could have sworn I heard a ghostly "Bon Appetit" carried on the autumn wind.

Hollandaise Sauce, Hybrid Julia Child/Carl Raymond Recipe

  • 3 egg yolks

  • 1 tablespoon of water

  • 1 tablesppon of lemon juice

  • 1 1/2- 2 sticks of room temperature butter, cut into pieces

  1. Beat egg yolks in sauce pan

  2. Add water, lemon juice, and salt and beat until the egg yolks thicken slightly

  3. Place saucepan over very low heat and beat eggs until they reach a thick, creamy consistency.  Be sure not to scramble the egg yolks or you will have to start over!

  4. Remove pan from heat and start beating in the butter, one piece at a time.

  5. Continue to add the butter until the mixture gets to a consistency of a thick cream.  Use of the minimum amount of butter to reach this stage is recommended to prevent the sauce from breaking.

  6. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.

  7. Keep sauce warm(not hot!), serve as soon as possible,

Monday, October 12, 2009

NY Wine and Food Festival

For the second year in a roll, throngs of foodies flooded the streets of NYC making their way to a cooking demo, a wine tasting, the ever popular Burger Bash, or the ultimate thrill of meeting their favorite Food Network star.  Even in a totally food obssessed town as NYC, a certain buzz was in the air, competing with the buzz from the bourbon tasting, but I digress.

I made it to three events this year, a Martha Stewart cooking demo, a wine tasting and a whiskey tasting.  Three very different, but interesting events.

Friday evening I made it to the New School's Tisch Auditorium for the Martha Stewart cooking demo.  I arrived about 20 minutes before the start and already the line was half a block long.  The line moved swiftly and I was able to snag a front row seat.  There, up on stage honing her knives, was the Doyenne of Domesticity herself, Martha Stewart.  It was interesting to see how a large part of the audience was completly besides themselves in the presence of their hero.  A group of foodies from the Phillapines asked her when she was going to pay them a visit back home.  That is dedication.

Martha was going to demo a dinner from her soon to be released cook book, "Martha Stewart's Dinner at Home".  It is a collection of seasonal dinners that will take about an hour on average to prepare.  When I say Martha demoed, I mean she mostly talked while one of her food editors mostly demoed.  The meal itself was very tasty looking:  duck breast with fig sauce, a potato dish based on pommes daphin, braised red cabbage and hazelnut brittle sundae.  After the demo there was a lively Q & A session that had a few very interesting moments.  A gentleman asked Martha what types of pots and pans he needed.  Martha replied, "Be sure they have a triple ply bottom.  It's very easy, go to Macy's, they come in a big, white box that says Martha Stewart on it."  The audience howled.

I discovered two keys to Martha's popularity during this demo.  The first key is that she has a very good rapport with her audience.  She seem genuinely engaged when talking to her fans.  Her second and probably her biggest key is she talks very authoritatively.  She makes statements with such confidence that you just believe her.  Well, most of the time.  I did not believe her when she said she makes her own puff pastry from scratch.

The next day was a completley differnet type of event.  I made my way downtown to the Astor Center to a tasting of Quintessa wines.  The tasting was structured to demonstrate how the area a grape was grown in affects the taste of the wine made from it.  This is what wine afficinados call terroir.  The tasting was led by Augustin Francisco Huneeus from Quintessa wines.  He told the story of how his family obtained the land and how it was planted.  The rolling hills on the property, along with differnet soil types create many different growing environments for their grape vines.  We went on to taste three differnet barrel sample wines made from the same cabernet sauvingnon clone.  The grapes were grown in different parts of the estate.  The grapes did indeed very different wines.  Some of these grapes were grown only a few hundred feet apart, yet the wines they produced were miles apart in terms of taste.  Well, miles apart from a wine geek's point of view at least.  We finally tasted the finished Quintessa wines from three different vintages, 2003, 2005 and 2006.  All three wines were wonderful, but the 2006 needs a few more years to really reach its peak.

A free event was running all weekend at the Astor Center known as "Le French Lounge".  Sponsored by the French government, this was a nice little event showcasing French food and drink.  Wines from the Alsace and Chateneuf de Pape were featured along with Perrier and French beer.  Of course, there was a full selection of French cheese and bread.  Chefs from Le Cordon Bleu were doing various demos.  Doing demos using foie gras.  Free event, free foie gras, free wine.  Winner for my favorite event.

Sunday afternoon, I met up with my friend GT for a whiskey tasting.  The event was held at the trendy steak house STK in the trendy Meat Packing District.  Even the damn pigeons in this area are trendy.  As soon as we entered, a drink was shoved into our paws.  "This is going to be some event.", I thought sipping my "Not Your Father's Manhattan".  We found a table and sat down.  Array in front of us were six glasses of whiskey.  Waiters flitted through the room carrying food as we waited for the drinking to begin in earnest.  A nice spicy shrimp was offered along with a killer maple glazed bacon.  I nearly had to physically restrain GT from taking a whole tray of the bacony bits of heaven.  The tasting began with a tasting of Maker's Mark bourbon.  The brand ambassador gave us the story of how Maker's Mark came to be and what to look for when we taste it.  Again, another brand ambassador(See Dewars DO post).  How do I get that gig?   We switched to the Jim Beam uinverse of booze and yet another brand ambassador.  Our first whiskey here was the bourbon Basil Hayden.  This was markedly different than the Maker's Mark, more spicy and less sweet.  Our next bourbon was Knob Creek.  This pretty much tasted as you expect bourbon to taste.  You get the vanilla and caramel from the barrel aging, along with some citrus and spiciness.  This has been one of my favorite bourbons for quite some time.  We took a quick detour to the land of rye, with Jim Bean's R(i).  This was a very flavorful and spicy whiskey that will probably not be to everyone's taste.

As we were progessing through the tasting, the decibel level in the room was also progessing.  Upward progression.  We were also being treated to another progression, the proof of the whiskies.  While Basil Hayden was a 80 proof beverage, Knob Creek was 105.  We made our way to Baker's 125 proof.  Luckily there were no open flames when we hit Booker's at over 130 proof.  At least all those glasses will be sterile!  Even at those high proofs, these whiskies had plenty of taste and character.

The emptying fo the last glass brought the event to an end.  GT and I made our out into a cool fall evening.  Not that we noticed the cold, but just saying.    

Friday, October 9, 2009

Magic, Martinis and Mario: Having a Cocktail for the Kids

The hoarde of zombies was getting closer and their numbers were increasing at an alarming rate.  Where can we find an escape from our impending doom?  Look, there's Mario Batali in the door of Del Posto with a fist full of salamis beconning us to come to safety.  We run inside and he locks the door.

I wake with a start and immediately begin to laugh.  Work has been a little stressful as of late and my subconscious is telling me that I picked out the right person for some relief.

I received an e-mail about a month ago detailing an evening of Magic, Martinis and Mario as a benefit for the Mario Batali Foundation.  It was a bit exspensive, but it was for charity, so out came the Amex and I was in.  The evening arrived just in the nick of time.  A very nice cocktail, containing more ingredients than I can recall, was in my hand.  It went far in assuaging the days ills, as did the parade of appetizers that was streaming from the kitchen.  All of the little bites were quite tasty, but the polpette and the prosciutto wrapped scallops were standouts.

Since this was a benefit event and not just some foodie round up, it did have a bit of a different vibe than what I am used to.  Outside of the silent auction articles, the large number of very tall, very thin women lent a "I'm not in Kansas anymore" athmosphere to the happening.

Soon Mario appeared, working the crowd with ease and enthusiasm.  I only had a chance to exchange a few words with him before he flitted off to the next group of attendees.  I had time for another cocktail before the evenings main event got started.

Cocktail meister extrodinarie, Tony Abou-Ganim, took the stage demonstrating how to make the drink that would accompany the first course, "The Happy Mario".  Mario then took the stage and demoed how to prepare the first course, shrimp with soft polenta.  His years of TV experience was evident with the ease and confidence he showed while cooking, teaching and bantering with the audience.

In between cooking demos, the evenings mc, magician Bill Harris, entertained the audience.  He did promote a festive athmosphere while trying to loosen the attendees purse strings.  Mario retook the stage to demo the second course, merguez sausage with orecchitte.  This was my favorite dish of the evening, the spicness of the sausage was the perfect foil for the sweetness of the pureed carrots.

After a few more tricks and a lot more schtick, Mario was up again making pork chops with cardoons.  This was a very good demo and a very good dish.  This was the "foodiest" demo as Mario got into a discussion of heritage pork breeds and having to cook the cardoons au blanc(with flour in the water).

When these plates were cleard away, the real money making began, the live auction.  I was tempted to make a bid on the 5 magnums of wine when the opening bid was $500.  I would not have made the final winning bid, $6000, however!  The item that generated the most buzz was a Tiger Woods golf event called Tiger Jam.  Two people traded bids until it finall went for well over $20,000!

I wearily made my way back to Hoboken,  laden with a very heavy gift bag.  I was not believing any of the clocks I passed showing midnight.  Alas, they were correct and I did not get to bed till nearly 1:00AM.  The alarm went off in what seemed like minutes, but I was feeling pretty good as I got up to face another day of chaos.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Nuts for Butternut Squash

Fall has settled in here in Hoboken.  A cool breeze is rustling the leaves that are slowly donning their autumn finery.  You need something a warm to stay off the chill and soup fits the bill perfectly.

Last weekend E flew back to California to watch her beloved Cal Bears take on the USC Trojans.  Knowing she will probably need something to lift her spirits after the game(She did, the game was not pretty) I made a batch of her favorite soup, butternut squash.  She likes the soup more on the sweet than savory side, so I added some apples to take accomplish that.  Roasting the squash and some onion in the oven first also tends to bring out a little sweetness.  Here's the play by play.

  • 2 butternut squash
  • 1 large onion, preferably a sweet variety
  • 1-2 tablespoons of neutral flavored oil such as canola
  • 2 apples, preferably macintosh or golden delicious
  • 8 cups of chicken stock or vegetable stock
  • 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg, preferably freshly ground
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • creme fraiche for garnish (optional)
  1. Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit
  2. Cut off 1/4 inch from top and bottom of butternut squash.  Peel with vegetable peeler until the orange flesh is visible.  Cut squash in half.  Requires sharp knife, some force, and much care!  Remove seeds and fibrous material.   Cut into roughly equal sized pieces.  Place in large bowl.
  3. Rough chop onion, place in bowl with squash.
  4. Add oil and stir to coat ingredients.  This will aid in the browning of the vegetables.
  5. Place in single layer on sheet pan and roast for approximately 45 minutes or until slightly browned.
  6. Remove from oven
  7. Add stock to large pan
  8. Core, peel and chop apples.  Add to stock.
  9. Add butternut squash and onions to stock.
  10. Add nutmeg and season with salt and pepper.
  11. Bring to boil and reduce to simmer.  Let soup cook for 20 minutes.
  12. Puree soup with an immersion blender or in batches in regular blender.  Do not overfill blender as hot soup will expand! 
  13. Check for seasoning
  14. Ladle into bowl and garnish with a dab of creme fraiche if desired.
  15. Spoon into mouth until desired level of comfort is reached.


Saturday, October 3, 2009

Dewars Do

It's pretty funny that I'm writing about a Scotch function with the melancholy sound of bagpipes drifting through the air.  Why someone is playing the bagpipes on a Saturday afternoon in Hoboken is anyone's guess, but that's why I love this town.

My friend GT is on every e-mail list there is.  He gets invited to a plethora of events every week.  Granted, most of these events are basically live action infomercials, but they generally feature free food and booze.  There is never anything wrong with free food and booze.  Last Wednesday, Dewars was hosting an event at the new chi-chi W Hotel right here in Hoboken.  I got to tag along with GT to check it out.

The new W is a great looking hotel.  I guess it has to be since it costs north of $200 a night to stay there.  We queued up on the second floor waiting for the event to start.  They had to check everyone's id to make sure they were of legal age.  A quick look at me and you know that I passed that threshold a long time ago, but I guess they have to follow the rules.  Once we were allowed in, we were given the choice of three drinks: Dewars on the rocks, Dewars with ginger ale or a Dewars mojito.  We both opted for the Dewars with ginger ale and availed ourselves to the food.  I must say, for a free event the food was pretty good.  The had tuna tartare, crab cakes, risotto balls and meatball sliders.  Soon it was time for the cheese, I mean the presentation to start.

A Dewars brand ambassador started giving us the history of Dewars along with an overview of Scotch in general.  My only question is "How do I get this gig?  Travel the world and drink?  He gets paid to do this?  Wow!".  His presentation was actually quite interesting.  He then moved into the interactive portion of the evening.  In front of us were an array of test tubes.  Some of these contained the components of the aroma of Scotch: vanilla, orange peel, floral elements, honey and peat.  Along with these were test tubes filled with single malt Scotch whiskeys that exhibited these aromas strongly.  After smelling the elements and Scotches, we got to try our hands at being master blenders.  These guys have a really hard job.  They have to blend 40 different Scotches so that the result always smells like Dewars.  Yes, they do this all by smell.  But just think of the interesting blends they would make if they tasted the 40 different Scotches!  My blend was a disappointment.  I thought I only added a little of the really peaty whiskey, but I must have added too much.

After our amateur attempts, we got to taste the results of the pros.  Dewars uses a process called double aging.  They basically age the Scotch, blend it, then age it some more.  The first taste we had was the blend before the second aging.  It was a nice Scotch, smooth and complex.  We then tasted the finished product and it was an improvement over the first.  Of course, they wouldn't have done things this way if there wasn't an easily discerned difference.  A few other demos were done such as showing how adding some water to the Scotch improves the taste and aroma by taming the alcoholic heat.

Soon the infomercial, I mean event was over.  The Scotch wasn't bad, the food was pretty good and we got a flask as a parting gift.  All three of these things kept me warm on a chilly autumn night walk home.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

If I May Be So Braisin'

My father had a large repertoire of dishes that he prepared expertly.  One of these dishes was by far the most requested, his pot roast.  When family or friends were coming to visit, "Is Ray going to make his pot roast?" was the inevitable question.  Not a pot roast always HIS pot roast.  He was always more than happy to oblige. Now that Fall has arrived and a cool breeze is blowing, it's time to break out the Le Creuset and get braising.

Dad always pretty much followed a set game plan when tackling this dish.  I go a little more improvisational based on what the market has and what kind of mood I'm in.  There are a few key concepts in making a good pot roast or any braised dish for that matter.  Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Tough meat makes tender pot roast.  This is not the time to break the bank on the whole tenderloin.  Chuck makes a great pot roast.  The fat and connective tissue dissolve during the long cooking process ending up in a succulent finished product.
  2. Aromatics make the sauce.  You need a good collection of aromatic vegetables to cook along with the meat to make the cooking liquid very flavorful.  Remember the cooking liquid will be you final sauce.  A great mixture is carrots, onions, celery and garlic.  Leeks work great too.  If you are feeling a little wild, bacon or pancetta are great additions.
  3. To deglaze is devine.  Browning the meat and the aromatic vegetables will leave lots of very flavorful bits stuck to the bottom of your cooking vessel.  These are known as suqs or fond.  Adding a liquid to the pot and scraping these off is known as deglazing.  Some good liquids to use for deglazing are wine(my favorite), vinegar(old school and Dad's choice), or even apple cider.  I like to use a liquid that is a little on the acidic side to cut through the richness of the dish.
  4. Stock up.  You can make a great pot roast using water as you braising liquid, God knows Dad did, but I like to use a good stock.  Veal stock is the bomb here, but it is time consuming to make at home and hard to find in stores.  Home made beef or chicken stock work great as well.  If using store bought, be sure to get low sodium so you can control the seasoning level.  You don't have to use just stock, in fact it's better to mix things up a bit.  I use stock and wine, but stock and water works great as well.
  5. Veg out.  This tip is two fold.  You have to have patience making a pot roast, it may take 3-5 hours to get it perfect.  So rent "The Seven Samurai" from Netflix and pull up the comfy chair.  The second meaning is discard the vegetables that cooked with the meat when there is about one hour of cooking time left.  Those veg have given their all and there isn't much left to them at this point.  Throw in the vegetables that will accompany the dish now.  Carrots and pearl onions are classic.  Peas work really well as do mushrooms, but these you would add just before serving.
So in a more linear fashion, here is an attack plan for your pot roast.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Heat up vegetable oil in a dutch oven or other large cooking vessel with a lid.
Brown pot roast well on all sides.  Remove to platter.  Pour out most of the fat.
Sweat you aromatics in the pan until soft.
Deglaze pan
Put roast back in pan along with any juices that accumulated on the platter
Add braising liquid(s) until the liquid level is 1/3 to 2/3 of the way up the roast.
Bring to boil
Cover and place in oven
After one hour remove from oven and flip roast
Cook additional 1-2 hours checking on roast every 30 minutes.  Cook until a fork will go in fairly easy, but meets some resistance.
When the meat is at this point, strain the cooking liquid, retaining the cooking liquid.
Add the liquid back to the pot along with your new vegetables.
Cook until a fork easily goes into and comes out of the meat with no resistance.
Thicken cooking liquid with flour, a beurre manie(butter kneaded with flour, my preference) or corn starch mixed with water.
It's best to let the pot roast sit a few hours or even overnight before serving.
Serve with mashed potatoes, boiled potatoes or buttered noodles and a nice red wine.

It might take a try or two to get the procedure down, but it's so worth it.  Thanks Dad, still miss you.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Taking the Cure: Charcuterie Class at the FCI Part 3

Every obstacle possible was thrown in my way as I tried to make it to the last session of charcuterie class at the French Culinary Institute.  Just missing the bus, construction on the train tracks, and other wrenches were thrown my way as I hurried to Broadway and Grand.  I made it to the kitchen with just a few minutes to spare for the most interesting class yet.

First up was saucisson a l'ail, garlic sausage with pistachios.  A version of this makes its way onto just about every charcuterie plate.  We cubed up some pork butt and mixed it with TenderQuick(salt and nitrate mixture), sugar, black pepper, red wine(very cold) and garlic.  We chilled this down a bit before giving it a medium grind and mixing in the nuts.  This was put into a medium beef casing so it was a fairly fat sausage.  We pooled are sausages and they were put into a water bath to cook.

While are current project was simmering away, last weeks marque project, the foie gras terrine, was given a taste test.  OH MY GOD, it was good, very, very, good.  Getting elbow deep in duck liver was so worth it.

The garlic sausage was done by lunchtime, so they added an additional element to the meal.  They too were, very, very good.  They did pack a powerful garlic punch.  A pungency that would certainly preclude them from a first date menu. but would satisfy Francophiles everywhere.

Our last hands on challenge was bratwurst.  Bratwurst are emulsified sausage.  You have to make the meat and the fat play nice and mix together as making a mayonnaise or a vinaigrette.  After the ingredients goes through the grinder, they get to take a spin in a food processor with some crushed ice to make a smooth paste.  Before it could be stuffed in a casing, this mixture had to be cooled down.

While our bratwurst was cooling its heels, Chef Pascal announced he had a surprise, he would demo how to make blood sausage.  Making sausages in general is not the most genteel undertaking, but making blood sausage was a very messy process.  The kind of project you do in other people's kitchens.  The family story of Grandpa John unsuccessfully passing on his Polish blood sausage recipe was writ large in the aftermath of this undertaking.

All too soon, our bratwurst was cooked, our stations were cleaned, and goodbyes were said.  This was a very fun, but far too short of a class.  I think we need to reconvene next year to taste the prosciutto Chef Pascal made.  

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Taking the Cure: Charcuterie Class at the FCI Part 2

Throughout the class, Dan Akroyd portraying Julia Child saying "Save the liver!" is on endless loop in my head.  In my hand in an entire lobe of foie gras I am painstakingly removing veins from, with my fingers.  It kind of like playing with the most expensive can of PlayDo ever.

Saturday's class brought us into the world of pates and terrines, mixtures of ground meat, fat, and various flavorings that are slowly cooked.  We would be making a country pate out of pork shoulder and a foie gras terrine out of well, foie gras.  Therefore, liver would be playing a starring role today, sans fava beans and a nice Chianti.

The country pate was up first.  We had to roughly chop some pork, some fat back and some pork liver to get the party started.  The tough part was removing the skin from the liver.  Sometimes, it came off without a fight, most often is hung on with a tenacious death grip.  All the above ingredients were put into a large bowl with salt, sugar, white pepper, garlic, some armagnac and some other spices.  All this was gently mixed together by hand.  Being elbow deep in ice cold liver was not something I am accustomed to doing so early on a Saturday morning.   This mixture was transferred to a caul fat lined terrine and cooked in a water bath until the internal temperature reached 145 degrees Fahrenheit.  This has to sit for a while to reach maximum flavor, so I don't know how it turned out yet.  This is not a class for the immediate gratification set.

We got a little break to taste last weeks ham(Yum!) and to watch Chef Pascal demo the making of a dry sausage.  Then it was on to the foie gras terrine.  Chef demoed how to clean the foie gras then it was our turn.  If you did not dwell on the fact that you were picking through some ducks' extra fatty liver, the task was fine.  It did not have a livery consistency, more like butter.  In fact, it even looked a lot like butter.  Butter that had veins running though it, but what the heck.  This was marinaded in salt, paprika, pepper, Sauternes, and Cognac.  We will have to wait until next Saturday to see how well this turned out.

In the interim, we got to taste our creations from last week.  The salami "Slim Jims" came out great.  The pancetta had a great flavor to it.  The duck confit was also a winner.  One of our classmates crisped up the skin on one of the legs for some extra tastiness.  He was very, very happy.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Daniel Boulud Dinner at the James Beard House

"You win the award for having the hair style closest to James Beard!" exclaimed Chef Boulud.  "Thank you Chef" I some what sheepishly replied.  That's what I get for sitting underneath a photo of James Beard and being, how you say, folliclely challenged.

There was a bit of electricity in the air as I made my way to 167 West 12th Street in Manhattan on Monday.  Even though the entire pantheon of culinary deities have cooked there, there is something special about having Daniel Boulud stopping by and whipping up dinner.  Even some of the James Beard staffers, who have seen it all, eaten it all, had an excited glint in their eyes.

For those of you who do not know Chef Boulud, his is the typical immigrant story.  Young chef from Lyon, France, comes to America, is showered with every accolade available to a chef. builds restaurant empire.  Well, maybe it isn't the typical immigrant story, but you get my drift.

Dinner began with hors d'oeuvres in the backyard.  How I covet that backyard in the city, but I digress.  A fine champagne from Marc Hebrat got the diners into a festive mood.  An array of fine starters soon began arriving from the kitchen, the gazpacho and the tomato basil arancini being standouts.

We took our seats inside and dinner itself began in earnest.  The chef responsible for the course came out and said a few words about it while we hungrily devoured it.  With so many great restaurants in your empire, you also have a small villages population of chefs working for you.  In Daniel's case, a whole lot of really talented, creative chefs in your retinue.

In a dinner like this, it is often difficult to pick a favorite course.  I would have to choose the sweet corn agnolotti in this case.  It was just bursting with the concentrated flavors of summer.

Eventually, the man himself, Chef Boulud appeared at our table.  We had a very enjoyable time talking to the Chef about the dinner, his restaurants, and other culinary topics.  He was very gracious with his time with us because I found out later he had to go to another event later that same evening.

All too soon, we had licked the last morsel off our plates and had to consider the trip home.  We dragged our happily satiated selves to the PATH train back to NJ, relishing a magical night.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Taking the Cure: Charcuterie Class at the FCI Part 1

Charcuterie, the art of preserving meat was born out of necessity in the time before refrigeration.  Today we embrace it because it just tastes so darn good.  Any art that gave us bacon deserves further study.  To that end I returned to the French Culinary Institute for a three Saturday class.

It was deja vu all over again walking into the locker room at the French Culinary Institute.  I was even found my old locker free and waiting for my use.  I quickly donned my chef's uniform and was about to leave when I was besieged by requests for lessons on how to tie the neckerchief.  Once my satorial lesson was over,  I climbed the stairs back to the kitchen where I spent six months of Saturdays learning the basics of French cuisine.  This time, I was going to learn the intricacies of charcuterie.  The giant pig laying in front of the class left little doubt on the source of today's protein.

Chef Pascal would be our instructor in all things cured and aged.  He has quite the sense of humor.  Chef  had the class laughing even before roll was taken.  As we went around the class introducing ourselves, it soon became apparent that about 2/3 of the class was from NJ.  But average that in with a student flying in for the weekend classes from Canada, a woman here for a few months from the Philippines, and one student from Australia and you have quite the geographically diverse class!

Class soon began in earnest with Chef Pascal butchering the 210 pound star of our class, the pig he named Fifi.  In what seemed like a blink of an eye, Fifi was reduced to tenderloins, racks, bellies, and other primal cuts of pork.  Chef took that carcass apart with such skill and ease that Tony Soprano probably had Chef on speed dial.  Chef Pascal then demoed how to turn a pork butt into prosciutto.  Since the process takes about a year, we will not get to taste the one he made in class.  He did have some others at different stages of their aging, including one that was ready to eat.  It certainly was great tasting and I may have to take a trip back in a year to found out how ours came out.

We left the porcine world for a while to make some duck confit.  This time we got to join in the fun.  We had to make the cure mix and bone out two duck legs.  After a short cure they will be cooked in copious amounts of duck fat.  They will be kept in the fat as it cools and forms a covering over the duck meat.  In the old days this was done for food preservation as it will keep the duck meat for about six months.  Now, it is mostly done because it tastes so darn good.

Class was really rolling at a fast pace now.  We jumped right in making the cure to make pancetta, Italian bacon.  It differs from American bacon in that it is not smoked.  These will be ready next week, so I will have to dig up some good recipes to make with it.

Lastly, we made what Chef called Italian salami "Slim Jims".  These are just really thin salamis.  This was the most involved preparation of the day.  Both pork and beef had to be cut into cubes then ground. Spices were mixed into the meat along with some sugars.  The sugars were not to make the sausage sweet, it was a snack for the bacteria.  Yes, we wanted bacteria in our salami.  We would add a culture of a lacto bacillus to our salami and promote its growth.  This good bacteria would prevent the growth of bad bacteria.  It is sometimes left to chance to have this happen, but Chef doesn't like leaving things to chance.

Stuffing the meat into the casing proved a little challenging.  The casings would only fit on one of the stuffing machines, so we all had to wait in line for that one.  The act of stuffing it self was not as easy as it seemed and some mishaps did occur.  One casing burst with a sound so loud our ears were ringing!  Never would I have thought that a little artificial casing would blow up sounding like a gunshot.  

We have to finish up our salamis at home.  We had to let them ferment over night in the oven to get the good bacteria going.  We then have to let them hang out in a place that is 50-65 degrees for 4-5 days to dry.  They are sitting behind me right now in the wine refrigerator aging away.  It's going to be a long 4-5 days.