Sunday, August 30, 2009

I Got a Golden Ticket! My Day with Chef Thomas Keller

I have seen the light! More exactly, I was fed the light. Saturday's dinner at Per Se was definitely one of the best meals I have had in my life.
Several months ago, I received an e-mail from American Express. It was their standard monthly e-mail listing of upcoming events for cardmembers. There, among the concerts and sporting events, was Chef Thomas Keller doing a demo at the French Culinary Institute followed by dinner at Per Se. I was so in. I immediately lunged for the phone to dial in when I noticed that tickets were not on sale yet. As the days wore on, the memory of the event slowly faded. Another e-mail from Amex reminded me of the event, and it has been on sale for some time now. This time I did lunge for the phone and dialed in for a reservation. I was lucky and space was still available. It was a total Charlie Bucket finding the golden ticket in a Wonka bar moment.
I waited for the day with the same excitement of a 6 year old waiting for Christmas. When the day finally arrived, I had to find chores around the house to keep myself from showing up 4 hours early and pacing impatiently in front of the FCI. The rain that was falling all day ended as I left for the bus to NYC and the FCI.

I entered the FCI and was directed to the theater where all the big time demos are done. If you've seen "Chef Story" on PBS, you've seen this room. There before us, was an array of pastry from Chef Keller's Bouchon Bakery. It was hard to pick one to eat as they all appeared wonderful. I took a seat and waited with bated breath for the class to begin. Chef Keller and some assistants were a blur of activity getting things prepared for the demo. Satisfied that the mise en place was complete, Chef worked his way through the audience greeting all the participants.

The demo was part cooking class part philosophic discussion. Chef Keller explained his view on the importance of ingredients by talking about some of his suppliers. The suppliers he use are just as dedicated to creating the perfect ingredient as Chef Keller is in creating the perfect dish. The lady who in Vermont who makes his butter that had to go out and buy more cows to create the amount of butter that was ordered. The sheep farmer that can document everything about the lives of his livestock. The complete perfectionism of his Italian olive oil producer. These products are outstanding because the people behind them are outstanding.

Most chef's are expert multi-taskers and Chef Keller was no exception. Chef Keller was able to carry on a discussion of the various issues of organic, sustainable, and being green while poaching a lobster tail in butter and making a corn pudding. Some very interesting issues were raised as he made a lobster stock. What should a farm that has farmed naturally for decades but does not want to pay the government to have an organic label slapped on their produce be called? Is it better to support a farmer that does incredible artisinal products but has to ship them to the restaurant?
The actual cooking being done was not overshadowed by the discourse. We were witness to true culinary alchemy. None of the dishes demoed were out of the reach of a home cook. The ingredients were common, but what elevated them to the celestial level? One word, technique. The lobster was not simply boiled. It was boiled for a few minutes then taken apart. The tail meat was removed from the shell and poached in beurre blanc(YUM!). The claws and legs went back into the water for a few more minutes of cooking. The bodies were cleaned and used to make a lobster stock. The meat was removed from the legs using a rolling pin. Who ever thought of that was a freakin' genius, it worked so well. Corn kernels were juiced then heated in a sauce pan. The natural corn starch made the puree thicken into a corn pudding. It makes perfect sense that that would occur, but again, who thinks like that. The answer is obvious, Chef Keller. During a Q & A session after the demo, Chef left us with this pearl of wisdom, cooking is all about product and technique.

With the demo over, it was time for round 2. This necessitated a wardrobe change as I needed to throw on a suit for the dinner at Per Se. Per Se is located in the Time Warner Center. The word urban mall is bandied about when discussing the Time Warner Center and it is pretty apt. A mall with the world's most exclusive and pricey food court that is! I was a few minutes early so I browsed Williams Sonoma trying to cool down from the infinitely hot subway station. I took a series of escalators to the fourth floor and entered Willie Wonka's chocolate factory, oh I mean Per Se.
Before dinner proper started, we were treated to Champagne and various appetizers. Among the offerings were the famous salmon cornets. This is a salmon tartare served in a cone shaped tuile with a red onion creme fraiche. This is Chef Keller's philosophy in a bite or two. Really high quality ingredients, prepared with the utmost attention to technique. They also taste amazing. In one or two bites you get a spectrum of flavors and textures. While we were greedily shoving little bites of heaven into our mouths and washing them down with gulps of Champagne, Chef Keller was leading small groups on tours of the kitchens. We were going to get a glimpse of the guts of the chocolate factory.

Entering into the first kitchen you are blinded by how clean and shiny everything is. I'm sure there are operating rooms that are not this clean. You then notice some things that make these kitchens special. There is a flat panel tv showing a live view of the French Laundry's kitchen in Yountville, CA. A quick scan of the ceiling reveals a camera giving a reciprocal feed of Per Se's kitchen. You notice intriguing signs hanging on the walls. The phrase "Sense of Urgency" is posted under every clock. The word "finesse", along with it's dictionary entry is over the exit to the dining room. You may have noticed that I have been using the plural when referring to Per Se's kitchens. That was not a typo as they have two. One for the main dining room and one for the private dining room. The coolest feature was a room dedicated to the production of chocolate. See, the Willie Wonka references were not totally out of left field.

We sat done for dinner and the parade of amazement began. A server approached the table with a bottle of Champagne. First, I thought is was the same Champagne we were drinking when I noticed the tell tale shield shaped label of Dom Perignon. Holy shit, they were pouring Dom Freakin' Perignon, vintage 1999. It was like tasting stars, as the Monk Dom Perignon is credited with saying. The first course was the perennial favorite "Oyster and Pearls", a sabyon of tapioca with oysters and caviar. This is one of those dishes were you scratch your head when reading the description, but totally get it before the first bite is swallowed. These disparate sounding ingredients form a delicious whole. The next course was a panzanella salad with heirloom tomatoes and lobster claw meet. No mere hunks of bread for this panzanella, a piece of bread was sandwiched between two silpats and toasted in the oven until it was paper thin and crisp. Our old friends the butter poached lobster and the corn pudding made their appearance. The lobster was great but that corn pudding was a standout, sweet, creamy and corny in a good summertime kind of way. These two dishes were paired with a white burgundy that was absolutely dynamite.

We moved on to a Snake River Ranch steak with a sauce bordelaise that was great. There was only a small amount of sauce, so there was no place for the steak to hide any imperfections. Needless to say, no imperfections were apparent. A meritage from California was served with this course. A meritage is California's ode to the red wines of Bourdeaux, made from a blend of grapes. I have run out of superlatives in describing the wines served with this dinner. The wine was no exception, it was spectacular. Dinner began to wind down, the cheese course came followed by a pair of desserts. The desserts were paired with a Loire Valley dessert wine that was great. It wasn't overly sweet and had a nice acidity to it. It paired well with the strawberry sorbet and collection of small pastries that were served.

The night came to a close and we were presented with two gift bags! They contained a copy of Chef Keller's latest cookbook "Under Pressure" along with olive oil, wine, pickled veg tables and other goodies. I struggled under the weight of the gift bags into the Wonkavator. Oops, sorry, real world no Wonkavator. I struggled under the weight of the gift bags onto the escalator and into the night, thinking about one of the best culinary experiences of my life.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Bringing the Heat

This year I planted a cayenne pepper plant just for fun. The plant care tag placed in the soil of the plant said that it was produced a lot of fruit. Man, talk about truth in advertising! I've harvested about a dozen pepper so far and there are about a dozen growing on the plan right now. This is just one little plant in one window box! So, when life gives you cayenne peppers, you have to make Cajun food.

In my usual improvisational manner, I set out collecting ingredients. I got an inspiration to do shrimp and andouille sausage over grits. I bought a half pound of large shrimp, a 15 ounce can of fire roasted tomatoes, and an andouille sausage. I raided the pantry and the fridge for the rest of the ingredients and I was ready to go.

I sliced one Vidalia onion thinly, one sweet red bell pepper was cut into strips, two cloves of garlic were sliced thinly, and to add some fireworks two cayenne peppers were sliced thinly. I peeled and deveined the shrimp. The shells were stored in the freezer for a future shrimp stock. I cut eight ounces of the andouille on a bias. With everything prepped, I was ready to cook.

I heated a sautoir over high heat then added just a teaspoon of oil. I browned the sausage and removed it to a bowl. The onions, red bell pepper, and cayenne peppers were cooked in the same pan as the andouille. When the vegetables were soft, I added the garlic. The garlic was cooked until fragrant. At this point I added a 15 ounce can of fire roasted tomatoes with their juices. Be sure to scrape up any tasty bits stuck to the bottom of the pan(sucs in chef speak). Let this cook for about 15-20 minutes until it starts to resemble a sauce. At this point add the andouille sausage and the shrimp. Cook until the shrimp is just cooked through.

You can serve this with some nice crusty bread, pasta, or as I did it over some cheesey grits. the cayenne peppers and the andouille sausage added a nice spiciness to the dish. The grits were the perfect counter point to the piquantness. A nice cold beer, a glass of Riesling or a Gewurztraminer pair nicely with this dish. Pop in a zydeco CD to set the N'walins mood and you'll be transported to the Big Easy.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Hoboken Heirloom Tomato Festival

Hoboken loves it festivals. Art, religion, ancestry, and just plain good times are celebrated with equal gusto here in the Mile Square City. Every August for the past 10 years, Jersey's favorite summer crop gets the spotlight.

The Heirloom Tomato Festival is a low key affair, only occupying the passage way in front of the Hoboken Historical Museum. The physical size of the festival does not seem to diminish the buzz it generates judging by the lengthy queue of people waiting to pay for their bags of summer's bounty. An equally long queue was formed at the highlight of the festival, the tasting table. There, spread out in a sea of reds, yellow, purples and greens were about 25 varieties of heirloom tomatoes cut up for your tasting pleasure. Pink brandywines, ramapos, yellow plum, mortgage lifters and others formed a gastronomic gauntlet for the festival goers to taste their way though. Each bite added to the lively discussion of the pros and cons of each variety.

The festival would not happen without the Catalpa Farms in Wantage, NJ. They provided the 1,000+ pounds of tomatoes along with corn, peppers, garlic, tomatillos and other products of their land. This is an event where everyone is a winner. The people get access to wonderful, locally grown produce. By buying the produce, the people support the farm and the Hoboken Historical museum.

The late blight has played havoc with the tomato harvest in the Northeast. It was great to see one of NJ's icons, the tomato, alive , well and ready for its closeup.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ed Mitchell, BBQ Maestro

The mission of the James Beard Foundation is the promotion of American cuisine in all its varied forms. When people hear cuisine, they immediately think white table cloths, fine china and wine lists the size of phonebooks. But American cuisine encompasses myriad choices such as fine dining in San Francisco, lobster shacks in New England, and the smoky barbecue of the South.

Ed Mitchell is a legend among the BBQ cognoscenti. With numerous TV appearances, including beating Bobby Flay in a ribs throw down, he is getting noticed outside of his usual area. Judging by the lines for his food at the Big Apple BBQ, the message is being received.

I was very excited to hear that Ed had accepted an invitation to cook at the James Beard House and was packing up his pork for a trip up North. A sold out crowd was greeted with moonshine mojitos and some very tasty appetizers. I don't know what it is with pork liver, but like the "Swine and Wine" dinner a few weeks ago, a liver dish was the standout. In this case, it was liver pudding served on a ginger snap. A very strange sounding combination, but it really worked well. The zestiness of the ginger snap melded well with the richness of the liver pudding. The other appetizers were also well received, especially the bacon wrapped figs with goat cheese and the North Carolina mountain trout mousse with cracklin's.

In a break in the usual routine, we were invited to head out back and get our own pork for the first course. Both chopped pork and pulled pork were on offer for the diners to grab to make their own sandwiches with. Back at the table, cole slaw and bread were waiting to enhance the pork. Of course, it really did not need any enhancement. This is the dish that Ed is rightfully known for.

Fried green tomatoes were served with an arugula salad dressed with a bacon-sherry vinaigrette as a second course. All the components of this dish worked really well together. The zippy acidity of the Fire Road sauvignon blanc from New Zealand proved to be the perfect foil to this dish.

A grilled pork loin with beautiful grill marks was the next dish to grace our plates. While the pork was excellent, it was upstaged a bit by the sweet potato hash.

Next up were the Flay felling ribs with macaroni and cheese. They were indeed ribs worthy of accolades, they were simply falling off the bone mounds of goodness. A banana pudding rounded out the dinner that was over all too soon.

Ed Mitchell came out after dinner bringing with him the other chefs that helped him prepare this wonderful dinner. Lauren Thompson, Executive Chef of The Pit, Corey Palakovich, Executive Chef of Empire Eats and Matt Scofield, Chef at Sitti all received well deserved kudos from the crowd. As the Q and A session was going on, a huge storm was raging outside. This provoked a few more questions to be asked as no one wanted to venture out in the tempest.

It's going to be a long wait till the next Big Apple BBQ after getting this extended taste of Ed's food. A road trip to NC may have to be planned.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Your Food is Ready for Its Closeup

Since I can't fit all of you into my kitchen when I'm whipping up some dish, I have to try to share it the best way I can. Since the last time I tried to e-mail an aroma did not work out, I have to take photos. Here are a few things I've learned along the way.

1) Shoot your food RAW. While you may indeed be taking a photo of uncooked ingredients, I meant to take a photo of your food in the RAW format if your camera can do it. RAW is an uncompressed format that basically saves the info from the sensor in your camera as is. It allows the photographer to fix a multitude of sins later without affecting the original image. You can always revert to the original without any ill effects. Every time you save a JPEG file, it degrades a little bit from the compression. Downsides to RAW files are that they are huge compared to a JPEG and you will have to convert it to a JPEG at some point if you want to share it.

2) Play with your camera. Without film processing costs hanging over one's head, digital photography lets one shoot with abandon. Just look at all the photos on Flickr, Picassa, etc. Feel free just to shoot at things you see around the house. Be sure to try all the controls on your camera and learn how they affect your photos. Play with natural light, flash, etc just to get comfortable with the effects. When taking a photos of your food, take a lot. You can just delete them if you are not happy with them.

3) Take off the training wheels. You can take great photos letting the camera do all the thinking. I take many photos this way myself. Learning how to set aperture, shutter speed, etc your self will open up new creative outlets for your shots. Aperture is especially important to food photography as it allows you to control how much of the dish is in focus. The larger your aperture(small f number), the less depth of focus. So if you want to concentrate on that perfect tomato in the front, open up that aperture and focus on the tomato. Done correctly, the background will be rendered in an agreeable blur. This blur is call bokeh in photo lingo.

4) Get up close and personal with your food. Taking a photo of the entire dish is great. However, sometimes just concentrating on one part of the dish makes a more compelling photo. You can choose to make a grill mark, the pooling of juices on the plate, or a bit of parsley garnish on top to be the focal point of your photo. Try shooting your food from different vantage points. Look for interesting angles that will make your food pop.

Taking photos of you food opens up an another creative channel in which you can express yourself. It's also lends a more lasting quality to something as ephemeral as food. Long after the dish is eaten and the dishes washed, you have a photographic souvenir of you deeds in the kitchen.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Getting Sweet on Amy's Bread

Approximately once a month, the James Beard Foundation hosts an event called Beard on Books. These events bring in authors of culinary books to read from their works and answer questions from the audience. Many food world luminaries have graced the dais here: Danny Meyer, Alex Prudhomme, David Kamp, and Barbara Fairchild just to name a few. Today Amy Scherber and Toy Kim Dupree of the beloved Amy's Bread read from their new cookbook.

Since the first loaf exited the Hell's Kitchen(the NYC neighborhood not the TV show) oven in 1992, Amy's Bread has become a NYC institution. Chef Scherber envisioned a neighborhood bakery where locals came in to literally pick up their daily bread. As the bakery became more popular, the public requested sweeter offerings. Initially reluctant, Amy's Bread began to offer cakes, cookies, pastries and more. Now, the bakery has a separate kitchen and bakers to prepare these sweet things. The growth of the this side of the business led Scherber and Dupree to write a cookbook of their recipes, "The Sweeter Side of Amy's Bread".

The event at the Beard House was fun as usual. A few treats are usually offered at these readings, but Chefs Scherber and Dupree went all out. A table was filled with two types of quiche, scones, cookies, chubbies and other delights. The reading itself was also delightful. Scherber and Dupree traded off regaling the audience with passages from the book. Besides the usual recipes, the book contains some historical tales of Amy's Bread and profiles of some of their customers and employees. A particularly fun story was the profile of one of their customers still going strong at 105! It appears that while an apple a day keeps the doctor away, a slice of cake a day keeps the Grim Reaper at bay.

After a Q and A session, I purchased a copy of the book and chatted briefly with Amy Scherber and Toy Kim Dupree. They graciously signed the book for me before I had to rush back to work.

I did not have a chance to go over the book in detail yet. It does have some amazing photos taken by Aimee Herring. Another feature I really like is that the recipes are given in both weights and volume. It certainly looks like this book will be seeing lots of action in the upcoming month.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Jersey Journeys: Boblink Dairy

This is the first in a series of posts exploring NJ's diverse culinary bounty. A chance to show NJ as more than the corridor of refineries along the Turnpike or the montage at the beginning of "The Sopranos".

If I were to show you photos of northeastern NJ and asked you to guess where the picture was taken, NJ would probably be low on the list of states. The rolling, bucolic scenery is more reminiscent of VT than an area about an hours drive from New York City. Here nestled between state parks, lakes, farms and more legends than you can shake a stick out(check out Weird NJ) is Bobolink Dairy. The owners Jonathon White and Nina Stein White are deeply committed to creating artisan cheese and bread in the most natural ways possible. This means treating their cows with respect and allowing them to be, well, cows. There are not treated as some kind of milk production machines. Bobablink Dairy has been around since 2003, so they are not just reacting to the sustainable hype.

The drive from Hoboken to Bobalink Dairy was quite pleasant. The roadside became more rural with each click of the odometer. Cresting one hill, I was treated to a beautiful mountain vista. That was totally unexpected and I'm still trying to figure out what mountains they were. A sign for the dairy came into view and I turned onto a small country lane. A few more turns and the dairy itself appeared. A sign pointed to the driveway. Only I didn't see a driveway, I saw what looked like a hiking trail. A reconnaissance mission proved that this small, eroded, path heading steeply down hill was indeed, the driveway. I pointed the Saab towards it and hoped for the best.

The driveway looked far worse than it actually was and I parked next to an old oak tree. A quick look around showed that they were not pandering to tourists. The weathered barn lent a certain air of authenticity to the place. I walked into the commercial area of the dairy and was met by a case full of cheese. Not the sanitized, triple wrapped cheese on your grocers shelves, but the real deal covered in molds of many colors cheese. A rack behind the cheese carried many loaves of rustic looking breads. This was going to be good.

A person quickly appeared removing the plastic gloves from his hands. He was busy actually making cheese when I came in. A conversation about the different cheeses they made and quickly segued into me tasting them. The first thing I noticed about these cheeses was the texture. They all had a much looser, crumbly texture than commercial cheeses of the same type. The cheeses did seem to posses deeper, more complex flavors as well. I purchased a cheddar and a softer cheese they call Drumm. Along with my cheese purchase, an olive and onion ciabbatta loaf came home with me. I made my way back to the car, anxious to share my finds with E back home in Hoboken.

For any intrepid souls wanting to make the trek over to Bobalink Dairy here is there website with hours, how to sign up for a tour and how to sign up for a cheese making class:

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Easy and to the Point

I like fussing around in the kitchen making elaborate meals. I don't mind dicing, slicing, or even turning vegetables. I'll debone a chicken and I make stock. But sometimes, even I want to do something easy.

I just threw together some beef kebabs tonight. I couldn't go totally easy, so I marinaded the meat in olive oil, garlic, fresh thy
me and rosemary from the window box, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, dijon mustard and a little red wine vinegar. I had a cayenne pepper from the garden hanging around, so that go thrown into the mix as well. I tasted the marinade as I was making it and adjusted the amount of the ingredients to taste. I put in two pounds of beef and one thickly cut onion in the marinade
and let that sit for two hours.

When the two hours elapsed I put the meat onto a set of skewers by itself. I put the marinaded onions, along with a yellow bell pepper and some baby heirloom tomatoes on another set. I gave the vegetable skewers a light coating of olive oil and seasoned them with salt and pepper. Having the meat and vegetables on separate skewers allowed me to cook both to the proper degree of doneness. I popped the skewers on my dependable Weber grill and dinner was soon ready.

The vegetable came out beautifully. The were pretty to look at and had a wonderful flavor. The meat tasted great but was a little chewy. Next time we need to get a better cut of beef. Not bad for an improvisational week night meal.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Food, Feasts and Family

Where would we be if we did not cook for each other? This question is usually simmering on a back burner somewhere in my mind, but Pollan's article on the decline of home cooking and Michael Ruhlman's insightful response to it, made me move it to the front of the stove.

So many of my memories are of family gatherings. Cooking Thanksgiving dinner before sunrise so that we can eat at Grandma's at 11AM. The wonderful smell of the turkey thankfully winning the aroma war with Staten Island's Fresh Kill land fill as we sped along to Bayonne. Peeling pounds of potatoes and trimming pounds of string beans on Christmas Eve. The wonderfully chaotic mess of the blue claw feast the day of the annual family crabbing outing.

These are powerful images that encourage me, maybe even compel me, to cook for family and friends. People who do not cook will never have the pleasure of seeing loved ones faces en rapt in eating something they prepared. It may not be the best, or sometimes even edible, but the love of preparing the dish seasons it perfectly.

If I did not cook and if my father did not cook, I would have been robbed of one last good memory of him. My father was suffering with mesothelioma and had spent the lion's share of November 2001 in the hospital. He was well enough to come home two days before Thanksgiving. He was not strong enough to make the meal himself, so he set up court in his kitchen and directed me on how to prepare all the dishes we would be serving that day. If there ever was a Thanksgiving were we truly gave thanks, it was that one. Dad did not live to see Christmas that year.

I now cook Thanksgiving dinner without Dad's input. I cook it for how many, or how few come. I cook that meal, and every meal, knowing that cooking for people is an act of love. People who just microwave some pre-cooked meal or just order in all the time are missing out on a huge part of connecting with people. If you cook a stranger a meal, they are now longer a stranger.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

I Hope This Chicken is Cooked Before the Cock Crows

Everything took more time than normal yesterday. The frittata I made for brunch seemed to take forever to prepare. I'm usually pretty quick in the knife skills department, but I seemed to be moving in slow motion. What were suppose to be quick shopping trips turned into shopping treks and the day slipped quickly by. We came home, did a few chores, then we sat down to relax. I preceded to relax too much and quickly fell asleep.

I eventually awoke and stumbled to get my wallet. I needed to go across the street to the grocery store to pick up some garam masala for the chicken tikka masala I was making for dinner. That's when I realized it was already after seven and dinner would be a long way off.

True to form, the A & P across the street did not have the needed spice mix. I had to walk over to the ShopRite about half a mile away. Luckily, the did have the needed spice mixture. I had to pick up a few other items just to make the walk seem more useful. I finally made it home and began dinner preparation in earnest.

I got my mise en place all set up and started up the grill to cook the chicken I had marinating in the refrigerator. I re-read the recipe and saw that I had a lot of simmering time coming up. A big oops! I didn't do a thorough enough job getting the marinade off of the chicken thighs and they stuck like glue to the grill. I was able to pry them off and get the other side cooked with some elbow grease and expletives.

The second side of the chicken grilled up fine and released its death grip on the barbecue without as much fuss as the first side. It was pretty smooth sailing after this. Getting everything prepped ahead of time prevented dinner from becoming breakfast. In the end, it was a tasty dinner. I don't know if it was the lateness of the hour or the tastiness of the food. When we eat the leftovers, I'll let you know.

A link to Grace Parisi's recipe in Food & Wine is here: