Saturday, March 29, 2003


The first time I had an amuse-bouche was at The French Laundry. Specifically, their signature amuse-bouche, the creme fraiche and salmon tartare "ice cream cone." And I loved it.

Since then, amuses have shown up at most of our dinner parties, and I pay attention to them whenever we get one at a restaurant. I love the concept of a little pre-dinner snack, one that showcases a particular ingredient or offers a unique presentation.

So when I got re-hired, one of my first purchases was Rick Tramonto's amuse-bouche, a cookbook devoted wholly to the concept. Chef Tramonto is a reasonable expert on the subject; his Chicago restaurant Tru became so well known for their amuses that they now offer an all amuse "flight" menu.

His enthusiasm for these little bites carries through in the pages of his books. And while the ideas are definitely inspirational, it seems to me like some of the recipes could use some work. While I loved his idea for using a blood-orange aspic with oysters (which we did when we hosted a Champagne tasting), the actual aspic was pretty, um, solid. Rubbery even. One gets the sense that he really likes gelatin; his all-purpose vegetable aspic calls for 2 cups of vegetable stock and 20 sheets of gelatin. This seems excessive.

His saffron-Champagne sorbet came out pretty grainy, though it tasted great. Good enough in fact that I'll probably take the time to dig out my Harold McGee and Shirley Corriher food science books and research sorbets so that I can improve his recipe with my own.

But some of the pictures are stunning. He had a set of glass staircases made on which to present caviar, and it's probably for the best that I'm on a budget, because he sells them. Not that I eat caviar all that much, but you could present virtually anything on that and have it be stunning. I don't know how much they cost; I've been afraid to ask. He uses interesting platings, kept simple as befits the nature of the amuse, but interesting nonethless.

The final analysis: if you cook, and you are as enraptured with these bites as I, it's probably a worthwhile book to pick just for inspiration. If you want to incorporate amuses into your dinners, it's probably also worth it as a starting point. But it's definitely worth doing a trial run of a dish before you serve it to guests, as the recipe may not come out as well as you think.

Thursday, March 27, 2003

Pâté. It's not just for breakfast anymore.

As long-time readers know, I've taken a fair number of classes at the California Culinary Academy 5? 6? I've lost count. But I also have the absolute worst luck at picking classes. All but two of the classes I've signed up for have been cancelled. Not permanently; it just seems that the classes I choose, and the dates I choose to take them, are horrible combinations.

For the most part, this has all worked out; the class is offered a couple weeks or a month later, and I'm all set. But this time I didn't get so lucky. I had signed up for Pâté and more class in mid-February. Shock of shocks, it got cancelled. They offered me a swap for another class that day, but the only other class I was interested in was also cancelled. See, I really do have bad luck with this. So I opted to go for the March 22 class.

As Wednesday ended, I was psyched. Normally they knew by now if the class was going to be cancelled.

I got the call Thursday morning. I was the only person signed up for the class.

But this time, I was out of luck. The class isn't being offered in the next quarter, and who knows when it will turn up again. So the coordinator proposed a compromise (again, I wasn't interested in any of the other classes being offered that day). She would move me to the "Wonders of Brunch" class, and the chef (who was incidentally the same chef I had for my home butchery class, though I didn't know that at the time) would incorporate some ad hoc pâté work.

I will give Chef Toby credit: he did his best to incorporate an advanced home cook into a class full of people who were interested in a different kind of class. Many seemed to think that cooking class meant the chef cooked for them. But you can only do so much with such diverse interests.

So he had me salt-cure some salmon for gravlax first. Not really pâté, but he wanted to give me exposure to some charcuterie in general (I'm all for this, by the way). Okay, I've done gravlax lots of times before (I have some curing in the fridge right now, in fact), but the nice thing about Chef Toby's teaching style is that he's eager to teach the basics in a very casual style and then give you the room to do your own thing. His philosophy on gravlax is simple: take equal parts salt and sugar, in abundance, and drench the fish in them. Wrap. Weight. Sure you can add other flavorings (dill is traditional), but that's the process reduced to its bare minimum. I will probably never again need to re-look up the technique for doing gravlax.

The pâté portion was similarly structured. Since this was a last minute addition, he did his best to find me ingredients, but was only able to scare up two quarts of chicken livers. Then I got my five-minute demonstration on how to do your basic offal pâté (that's good offal, not bad awful). Process livers (or whatever) in a blender, pulsing to prevent things from getting too warm. Add in an egg white. Keep processing slowly. Turn the blender on, and then pour in some cold cream and another egg white. Salt. Adjust until it looks like a liver milkshake. Strain and pour. Top with spices. Bake in a bain-mairie at 375 until the pâté jiggles slightly in its container (mine were done after 20 minutes). Chill. Serve. That was it. He left me with two quarts of livers, a hand wave at the shelves of spices, and a blender, and I was on my own.

You can imagine the rather dubious expressions of my classmates, walking by and seeing me pouring big gobs of chicken livers into a blender. Several of them (argh!) said they had almost signed up for that class. I'm not sure I provided the best advertisement (the coordinator thinks she might slip it into appetizers and canapés next time around which was a class I was marginally interested in just because it might give me ideas for amuse-bouches).

I hunted down Chef Toby and asked him more questions. The best way to do a terrine. Flavor combinations. That sort of thing. And while I had downtime, I helped some of my classmates how to poach eggs and gave them a small demo on cutting gravlax.

For the most part, I had fun. It's not as much as I would have gotten out of a full-blown class on the subject, and it's really hard to imagine I'd have spent the same amount of money on this class, but there's something fairly useful about getting a couple hours to just try blending pâté a whole bunch. You get a feel for it, a sense of what's going to happen as you do new things. It's the kind of cooking I try to move towards all the time, one based on intuition and not recipes.

And, incidentally, the pâté was fantastic. I brought a bowl of the paprika and curry version I made to the table with me and shared it with my tablemates at the midday lunch. Everyone liked it. I may even serve it at our next brunch.

A note on the pictures: my camera ran out of batteries right as I was starting to go around, so here are just a few.

Caviar and gravlax eggs benedict.
You can see the creme fraiche on the french toast. But you can't see the Brie stuffed inside.
My contribution to brunch. I made a lot of pâté.

Monday, March 24, 2003

Definitions and Weight Watchers

A reader recently suggested adding a dictionary to the site, to help explain terms that I use casually but forget that not everybody knows. She is not the first to suggest it (especially given my love of German wines and all the confusing terms which go with them), but I finally got around to doing it. You'll find a glossary link at the top of the page. It is, needless to say, a work in progress, so please feel free to suggest food or wine terms which I should put in there.

But since I tend to be verbose, scrolling all the way to the top of the page might be a pain. So I've set it up so that I can link to specific terms from within the text. The JavaScript is simple enough that it should work on any modern browser. Try it and see with the specific terms she cited: amuse bouche, Selles-sur-Cher, and Tete de Moine.

As always, comments are welcome.

Since I don't feel like writing up my cooking class from the weekend right now, I leave you with this wonderful site sent to me by my friend Deborah. Be sure and click on each of the pictures to get the great commentary that goes with them.

Friday, March 21, 2003

Dinner Party - Behind the Scenes

As promised the other day, I'm doing a special "Behind the Scenes" for our most recent dinner party (see a couple entries down the page for the menu). It's intended to be a glimpse into how we prepare for our dinner parties. Most of these things, I should point out, border on insanity. I try and hand make as many items as possible, and this is, for good reason, not a route that everyone takes. Still, some of you have asked, and so here's my first try.

So how do two people put together a multi-course dinner party in a tiny apartment with a galley-style kitchen? And it is two people, because while I am in charge of all the food preparation, Melissa is the person who cleans the apartment and sets the table so that I can spend vast amounts of time in the kitchen. She is also the person who entertains the guests while I continue to be in the kitchen for the last-minute stuff, of which there is inevitably a ton.

Here's a synopsis of my calendar for the week:
Sunday - 1 week before the dinner
Do a trial run of some of the dishes, especially those I'm unsure about or have never made before. So we ate steak on spaetzle with asparagus (sans morels) with a chicken stock based sauce (not beef stock, which I'll use for the real meal but have a limited supply of), and I made molded chocolate shells, meringue cookies, and lemon curd.

Monday - 6 days to go
Finalize the menu. Well, almost all the menu. I know my second amuse-bouche will be a savory sorbet, but I haven't figured out which one yet. And I still need some sort of relish to go with the cheese, but everything else is more or less figured out (though some last-minute additions get made regardless).

Revive the starter. Most of the time my sourdough starter lives in the fridge, on a two-week feeding cycle. So a few days before I want to make bread to go with the antipasti platter, I have to get the starter up to strength. This involves twice daily feedings, and a lot of sticky flour goo on the sink.

The other thing I have to do tonight is practice some food sculpting ideas I have. I buy a daikon radish at the farmer's market and spend the evening trying to carve flowers. I'm not happy with them, but later that night I have an idea on how I might improve them.

More food sculpting practice. I basically decide that my daikon radish idea isn't going to work out, so I'll be going with regular radish flowers.

Make the biscotti. The nice thing about biscotti is they keep for a while, so I figure I might as well make them a few nights in advance. This necessitates toasting some hazelnuts and going through the annoying process of getting the skins off. Anyone who tells you that if you toast the hazelnuts, the skin will just slide right off is partly lying to you. The skin on some of the nuts will indeed come right off. Some of it requires being rubbed in a clean towel. But some is stubborn, so you do the best you can and just decide to live with the results.

Biscotti cooling on a rack
The Shopping List. With virtually every dish and condiment figured out (still don't know about that relish to go with the cheese, but I have figured out that I'm doing the saffron-champagne sorbet), I can write down a list of everything I'm going to need (plus random other essentials which we've run out of in the past week or so). It fills four columns on a good-sized index card.

Wine. K & L opens at 9:00am, which means that if I time it right, I can get there right when they open, buy the wine I need for the dinner party we're going to on Saturday, as well as the wine I need for our dinner on Sunday, in particular a bottle of Champagne for the sorbet and a Bordeaux to go with the steak. And still make it to work at the reasonable time of 9:30.

Chocolate shells. I want to do molded chocolate shells with a basic ganache filling, the fluffy dark chocolate mousse-like stuff that truffles are made of. But this is a multi-step process. First the chocolate for the shells needs to be tempered, a very fussy process which seems to get chocolate all over the apartment, even when I'm confined to the kitchen. Then you pour the chocolate into the molds, and upend it, leaving just a thin coat of chocolate on the insides of the molds, which you leave out to harden to a nice crisp layer. The ganache also gets made, a mixture of cream, butter, corn syrup, some cassis for flavor, and melted chocolate. But I put it in the fridge overnight to let the flavors mellow and blend a bit. Plus, I can't really do anything with it until the shells have fully set. The chocolate that didn't get used for the shells, and all the stuff that came out when I upended the mold, and even the stuff on the scrapers, gets put into a bowl and left in the fridge until Sunday morning, when I'll temper it once again for the bottoms of the shells.

Me tempering make nice pretty shells

Friday is also when I do what I call my "macro schedule," a gross overview of the tasks I'll be doing in the next couple of days, taking into account a dinner party we're going to on Saturday night. This list says things like "start bread" or "fill chocolate shells" for Saturday, and "finish bread" and "sugar coat candied grapefruit peels" for Sunday, plus a whole lot of other things. There's no real specific time on any of these tasks; they just ideally get done some time in the next couple of days and can be done in advance.

I've got more cutting practice slated for tonight as well. This time I want to experiment with a hexagonal versus an octagonal cut for the carrot garnish in the soup. I try both, but Melissa and I both agree that the hexagonal carrot slices are better defined than their octagonal counterparts, so hexagonal pieces it is.

Hexagonal carrots -- tres frou-frou

At 9:30 on a Saturday morning, when sane people are just beginning to stir, I'm walking into Spun Sugar for supplies. Technically, I don't need anything at the store, but since I have so many errands to run in this part of Berkeley, I figure I might as well stop by and see if they have some things that would make my life easier for the actual party (no luck, though I replenish my supply of sheet gelatin).

A short time later, and a short distance away, I'm ten minutes early for the Cheese Board's cheese counter, which opens at 10:00am. My "number" (actually a playing card) is the first one up, so I'm all set. The person at the counter is very helpful as I ask for Cabrales (a Spanish blue cheese) and Stilton, which I actually need for the party we're attending that night (a cheese-tasting party; we're in charge of the blues and wine to go with them. I opt for a Canadian ice wine). She continues to be helpful as I ask for Parmiggiano for the Caesar Salad amuse-bouche, Tete de Moine and Selles-sur-Cher for the cheese course (the Selles-sur-Cher being tacked on to the list at just that moment), and finally a cup or so of Nicoise olives for the tapenade. This all takes longer than you'd expect (or want) because I have to taste all the different cheeses and ensure that they're in good shape. Good cheese purveyors like the Cheese Board do this without being asked.

Next stop, Andronico's right next door. While they have some of the things I want, I opt to not get any produce there because they don't have fresh morels. Since they don't have the morels, this means I'm going to have to go to Monterery Market in North Berkeley, which has one of the two best produce sections in Berkeley (the other one is at Berkeley Bowl). Since I have to get some produce at Monterey Market, I might as well get it all there.

At 11:30, standing in line at Monterey Market, I'm getting a bit anxious. I started my bread dough just before I left, and I'm beginning to hope that it won't overproof, becoming flabby and weak. On the other hand, I'm thrilled, because I not only found fresh morels but quail eggs to top the ahi tuna carpaccio (I would have used chicken eggs as a backup, but I wouldn't have been happy about it). Plus, I notice that their rhubarb looks really good, and decide that my red onion chutney for the antipasti platter has just become a red onion-rhubarb chutney. I do manage to avoid the temptation to buy a watermelon radish, so named for its green skin and red interior. It might look beatiful carved into a flower, but I have committed myself to normal radish flowers.

Quail Eggs

It's probably close to noon when I roll into Ver Brugge, a local butcher and my next-to-last stop (I try and do my meat shopping at the end of the day). Here I buy my steaks, the ahi tuna, and the marrow bones for the ill-fated dumplings.

One more stop at Market Hall near Rockridge Bart station, the frou-frou series of shops catering to some of Oakland's wealthiest residents. I'm here basically for good deli meats, but in particular the prosciutto salami they carry. But while I'm there I notice some Niman Ranch cured ham and figure that would be a good addition to the cheese plate (it was on Friday that I figured out the ginger-lime relish to go with it).

Finally I'm back at home, and have a boatload of stuff to do before we leave for our engagment that evening. I check the bread dough, which seems somewhat overproofed as I feared, but more or less okay, wrap it up, and pop it in the fridge until Sunday morning, retarding the yeast activity and letting the flavor develop a bit.

I get the tapenade made, and wrapped up in the fridge. The red onion and rhubarb chutney cooks much faster than I expected (2 hours), but comes out unscathed, and that too goes into a container for the night. The ganache, now very hard after being in the fridge overnight, I re-melt and whip up in my Kitchen-Aid. This I pipe into the hardened chocolate shells, and with the excessive amount of filling I have left, I make "regular" truffles to bring into work on Monday. Doesn't make any sense to waste it, though they won't be my best-effort truffles.

When we get back from our party that night, I first make the mixture for the sorbet, surprised by the reduction step you have to do (this is why you're always supposed to read a recipe all the way through, so that you don't come home late from a party and say "Oh. I guess this is going to take longer than I thought."). But while it's reducing, I lay the grapefruit peels onto their rack to dry (they had been sitting in their syrup since the last time I made candied peels).

Fall asleep as fast as possible, because tomorrow will be a long day.

Sunday - The Big Day
Up at 7:00am again, and after I pull the bread dough out of the fridge to let it sit at room temperature for 3 1/2 hours, I do the most important thing I will do for the pre-dinner activities: make The List. This is the set of notes that provide detailed information about what I need to do and when I need to do it. Each dish has a column, with all the steps I need to do listed, each one with some sort of time indicator. "early" means that it has to be done early on in the day. "whenever" means the obvious, a specific time tells me when I have to start a particular task to make sure it's ready, and often I'll have events, not times. As an example, my notes for the cheese course say "soup served - cheese out" (allowing the cheese to come up to room temperature) which means that when I serve the soup, regardless of when that is, I need to take the cheese out for the cheese course. In addition, each note has rough plating sketches, some of which resemble the final product closely, some just to give me a starting point.

The List

And then I'm off. The antipasti platter was already partially done, except of course for the bread I've just pulled out of the fridge, and the fried oranges, which I try and get done just before the guests arrive so they're at their best. Radish sculpting starts at 4:00 so I have time to leave them in cold water for an hour, allowing them to "bloom" as the water swells the vegetable.

The table before dinner happens

All of the dishes have a similar list, and I check the list constantly through the day, carrying a pen to cross off items and put them out of my mind. The conserved lemon has to get diced; the tuiles have to be made; the chocolate shells need to get their bottoms put on; the sorbet needs to be made ("early" so it has time to harden up in the freezer); so on and so forth.

And for the most part, dinner goes smoothly. Sure, I'm just about to fry the oranges when our first guests show up at 6:00, so I don't quite have the antipasti ready in time, but I manage to keep everything else on time, even though a bunch of stuff didn't get done. Rather than making a pureed ginger-lime relish, I quickly chop the ginger into tiny dice and toss it in lime juice while I'm prepping the cheese course it will accompany; the sorbet is grainier than I wanted (the price for not doing a trial run); the dumpings dissolve in the consommé (the most painful calamity of the evening, as the consommé came out beautifully clear). This and other disasters crop up all over the place, but as far as the guests are concerned, everything moves at a nice pace and tastes great. As I always say, the number one rule of entertaining (which I'm just now beginning to practice myself) is to never tell the guests what was supposed to be for dinner, or how it was supposed to come out

Melissa is home on Monday, and spends all day running dishwasher loads and trying to recover from the damage I have wrought. Five runs later in our countertop dishwasher, things are more or less back to normal.

The table after dinnerThe sink after

IACP Cookbook Nominees

The International Association of Culinary Professionals has posted its list of contenders for various awards in cookbook excellence. I've read through a number of the books on the list, and I was glad to see Judy Rodgers's Zuni Café Cookbook up for a couple of awards. I of course am hoping that Marion Nestle's Food Politics and Corby Kummer's The Pleasures of Slow Food get awards, but even being nominated is great.

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

One ring to bind them

Yes, I had to use that particular phrase for this post. You can all give a collective groan (for the pun, not the event) as I announce that An Obsession with Food is now a part of the Foodbloggers web ring run by Tang Monkey. Call me conformist if you like, but it's a good way to discover random other food blogs on the net. The controlling graphic is down at the bottom of the page, though it doesn't quite work yet.

Tuesday, March 18, 2003


A few additions and corrections to the last dinner party post. First of all, I neglected to mention that we had a non-drinker as one of our guests, so he drank Gavioli's sparkling blood orange juice, Knudsen's "Just Cranberry" juice and a very funky (and highly gingery) "Great Uncle Cornelius's finest spiced ginger".

Also, I would be very remiss if I did not point out that the coffee we enjoyed with our mignardise course was in fact roasted by our good friends Tim and Mitch, who now own Zocalo Coffeehouse in San Leandro.

Finally, for those trying to figure out what a red orange could be, the chutney I served on the antipasti platter was in fact a red onion and rhubarb chutney.

Monday, March 17, 2003

Change in the Wind

A picture is worth a thousand words
I'm introducing a couple of new features to dinner party posts. The first, obviously, is that I now have a digital camera. So all the space I used to take up with describing platings can now be replaced with a picture. That should make everyone's life a lot easier. But we're still new at the whole thing, so holler at me if you have suggestions. I think our first improvement will be to take our pictures on nice surfaces, not my war-stained cutting board. Just ignore the backdrop.

The second change will start with this dinner party and appear sporadically for other ones. A number of readers have suggested, either directly or indirectly, that I spend some time describing the prep involved to pull off these elaborate affairs. They're a lot of work, and I usually spend a couple full days doing all the cooking, since I hand make as much as possible. So check back in a few days for the "Behind the Scenes" version of this dinner party.

Okay, on to the dinner party itself. I concede Melissa's point that having an appetizer, amuse bouche, opener, main course, cheese course and dessert, each accompied by a different wine, is not standard dinner party fare. Nonetheless, it is the format we have been following for more than a year (which corresponds, not coincidentally, to dinner at The French Laundry). So I'm feeling a bit tired of it. I wanted to shake things up a bit. But Melissa, ever the voice of reason, points out that we do not have an infinite number of plates. Or glasses. Or dishwasher space. So I have to temper my impulses a bit. Still, it should make for some fun experiments. Though, sadly, this will probably be the last dinner party before the wedding; that is taking quite enough of our time and energy.

Antipasti platter
Wine: 2001 Ruggeri Prosecco di Valdobbiadone

The antipasti platter is featured at the top of this entry, and was greeting our guests more or less when they arrived. Along the left side are fried oranges, an idea I took from the Zuni Café Cookbook. The right is slices of prosciutto salami, the top a tapenade which I also took with some modifications from the same cookbook, and an original red orange-rhubarb chutney sits on the bottom (already nibbled on, because we forgot to take a picture before we sent it out to the table; I told you we're still getting used to this). The center garnish is little radish flowers on a bed of arugula. When I took my presentation class a month ago, I thought I'd have no use for making little flowers out of vegetables. But I have to admit they add a certain something to a plate like this.

Amuse Bouche 1
"Caesar Salad"
Caesar Salad

I had fun with this amuse. Since discovering a good source for salt-packed anchovies, I've been eager to put them to use. So I came up with this little bite, which features a toasted slice of baguette, a single anchovy fillet, some romaine and Parmiggiano-Reggiano, and finally a drizzle of 25-year-old traditional balsamic vinegar. The picture's a little indecipherable, so you'll have to trust me. You'll also have to trust that they were delicious.

Amuse Bouche 2
Saffron Champagne sorbet on a cinnamon tuile cone
Alas, no picture for this one. We forgot. This sorbet recipe I took directly from the cookbook amuse bouche by Rick Tramonto. I know the whole savory sorbet fad has mostly come and gone, but it was a way for me to sneak in an extra amuse without using another dish; the entire amuse was self-contained. The sorbet had a very grainy texture, so I think I'm going to have to tinker with the recipe a bit. But as a savory sorbet it was quite good; tart and interesting. And it was a beautiful, well, saffron color. The tuiles I rolled earlier that day, going through the obligatory finger-burning, since you have to roll them right as they come out of the oven.

Ahi Tuna Carpaccio with poached quail egg
Wine: 2001 Meulenhoff Riesling Kabinett
Ahi Tuna Carpaccio with poached quail egg
Another original dish. Don't know how I came up with it, exactly, but it came out really, really well. It may have been my favorite flavor combination. I'm not sure though; I did some nice dishes for this party. To make it, I pounded some sushi-grade ahi tuna very flat, placed a poached quail egg in the center (I poached the eggs earlier), and garnished the whole thing with small dice (that's a pretty small plate, by the way; I fit six of them on my cutting board) of conserved lemon, as well as a dash of wasabi oil, which I made with Pacific Farms wasabi paste. The wine went with it very nicely, and everyone commented on it.

I've discussed the wine before, and everyone thought it went nicely with the dish, the acidity in the salted lemon working nicely with the Kabinett's.

Beef soup
A very simple dish, one we also don't have a picture of. It was a simple soup made of beef stock, bone marrow, and bread crumbs (which sounds unusual until you realize it was supposed to be a beef consommé with a marrow dumpling, but the dumplings dissolved in the consommé; I was glad we hadn't printed a menu). It was not great, but it was certainly enjoyable. I garnished it with hexagonally sliced carrots (check back in a couple of days for a picture in the "Behind the Scenes" portion).

Pan-seared steak with morels and asparagus on a bed of rosemary spaetzle
Wine: 1999 Château Clément-Pichon cru bourgeois, Haut-Médoc
This is a contender for my favorite dish as well. With asparagus in season, I'm trying to use it a lot. Morels are also in season, more or less, but they're still not cheap, so while I'd love to use them a lot, I don't. I poached the morels lightly in some beef stock, which I then reduced and used for the pan sauce I made after I pan-seared the steak. And I'm finally getting my steak cookery down; those pieces were nice and rare. I lightly steamed the asparagus, leaving it with a little crunch but not too much. The spaetzle, unfortunately was the only part of that dish I could make ahead, so I spent a lot of time in the kitchen for this one. Ah well.

The wine was quite nice, very fruit forward with enough structure to stand up to the steak. I meant to get a 2000 Bordeaux (which would have given us a sample of Germany's best vintage in a zillion years as well as Bordeaux's), but this was at the price point I wanted, so it didn't quite work out. Next time, maybe.

Tete de Moine and Selles-sur-cher with Niman Ranch ham and ginger
Wine: 2002 Griffin Sauvignon Blanc
Say cheese!
I've said before that I'm getting a little tired of the "cheese with toasted pain de mie" rendition of the cheese course, good as it is. So I did something a little different. No bread, you'll notice, a little relish on the side (small dice of ginger marinated in lime juice), and of course the ham. It was a nice change for me, and still worked well. The cheeses were great, and the wine matching, especially with the Selles-sur-Cher, was great (not a surprise; Loire valley goat cheeses are phenomenal when paired with crisp Sauvignon Blancs, even if they are from New Zealand).

Lemon Concorde cakes with strawberry reduction
Wine: Bonny Doon Vin de glacière
Lemon Concorde cake with strawberry reduction
Concorde cake was the best name I could find for this dessert, two layers of meringue cookies with lemon curd in the center. I thought that this type of dessert was called a pavé, a chocolate rendition of which I made aeons ago. But that doesn't seem to be right. So I searched for "layers of meringue" and found Concorde cake. So there you go. Two spiral meringue cookies with lemon curd in the middle I'm calling a lemon Concorde cake until I hear otherwise. I couldn't resist adding the strawberry reduction at the last moment; they're just coming into season here.

I'm not sure I agree with the technique behind Randall Grahm's rendition of an ice wine; rather than letting the grapes freeze on the vines (tough to do in California), he pops the grapes into the freezer and then juices them afterwards. I can't find any fault with the wine though; it's a good dessert wine, and well priced. And it went quite nicely with the dessert.

Cassis truffles, candied grapefruit peel, anise-hazelnut biscotti
Coffee, tea
Just in case people were still hungry
I've been playing around with tempering and molding chocolate, and this was the latest batch. The candied grapefruit peel came out so well last time that I did it again, this time allowing the peels to dry before I sugared them, so they not only tasted good, they looked good as well. And the biscotti came out really nicely.

Friday, March 14, 2003

Alice's Restaurant

This just got emailed to me from one of the local Slow Food convivium leaders.

American Masters is the cultural biography series for PBS. For the first time in American Masters 17 year history, they will feature a chef. The film celebrates Alice Waters' influential work at Chez Panisse Restaurant and her commitment to sustainable, small-scale agriculture.

Along with Alice, the film includes interviews with Ruth Reichl, Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser and others including Edible Schoolyard teachers Esther Cook and Amanda Rieux.

The film will air in the first two weeks of March as a PBS pledge show. The show will be broadcast nationally and uninterrupted on March 19th at 9pm. Please check your local listings.

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Home Butchery and Carving

You've got to love the California Culinary Academy. There is no subtlety in the names of their courses. I pretty much knew exactly what to expect from my four hours in the Careme room of the CCA. Basic meat butchery. For the consumer.

Now, this coursework at the real school is probably some large number of days, possibly weeks. As you might imagine, I did not leave the school feeling like some master butcher. But I did get some good advice on a variety of meat prep tasks. The cleanest way to break down a chicken, for instance. Something I've seen in a zillion different books, even good ones, but something I hadn't seen demonstrated, which makes all the difference. Or how to take apart a fish, in our case a might-as-well-be-freshly-killed Striped Bass, entrails and all. And a whole host of other things. Removing the silverskin off of various meats. How to follow seam fat to cut animals into their natural pieces, frenching bones for presentation, and even things like why you don't leave big sheets of fat in place; virtually everyone was trying to spit out the rack of lamb pieces where the top cap of fat was left on, even as we swooned over the version where it had been carefully trimmed of its most noticeable piece of fat.

But the message which Chef Toby tried to send is the same one Jeremiah Tower conveys in his newest cookbook. "Boning" something is nothing more than removing the meat from the bone. Sure, professionals make perfect cuts of meat with nice trim edges, but the real goal is just to get the bones out. He tried hard to give us the fundamentals to approach foreign cuts of meat with confidence.

But the proof is in the pudding, as they say, though in this case it was in the chicken, a 3-pound fryer I bought at the market that I practiced on last night. I have a long way to go before I can break down a chicken even in the five minutes that Chef Toby took, most of which was spent talking to us and pointing things out, but I did manage to get some nice clean cuts of meat off my practice chicken, which I will of course be enjoying for the next few days. And I'm eager to buy a whole fish so I can practice on that. And a rack of lamb. And...

The Apprentice

Jacques Pepin is one of the most recognized cooks in the world. Avoiding the faddish, momentary fame of celebrity chefs, he is instead an icon, much like his good friend Julia Child. His passion for teaching has affected amateurs and professionals alike; his La Technique and La Méthode are classics spoken of with obvious love even by the otherwise irreverent Anthony Bourdain, and his Complete Techniques, the combined form of the two aforementioned books, is one of the most frequently used reference books in my one and a half bookcases worth of food-related books.

And so you would imagine that publishers had been begging him for a memoir. Perhaps they have, but it has not appeared until now, in the form of The Apprentice. I was fortunate enough to get an advance copy (it will be officially released on April 10), and eagerly read through it recently.

It is astonishing to read about the life of a classically trained chef. Not for him the glitzy cooking schools of the modern era; such a concept barely existed at the time. Instead, he was apprenticed in a kitchen at the age of 13, forced to endure the hard life and humiliating existence at the very bottom of the kitchen's pecking order.

But long before that, food was an important part of his life. It had to be, given that he grew up with the deprivations of World War II France. Nonetheless, his family was nothing if not resourceful; his mother made a lifelong career out of buying decrepit, barely habitable buildings and turning them into restaurants which quickly became the centerpoint of the community.

Still, as passionate about food as he has always been, his greatest talent seems to be a generous heap of luck. Securing what was at the time a job as a Treasury chef for his military service, France's turbulent government at the time eventually transmuted that into cooking for General Charles de Gaulle. As he says, though, it was an honor, but there was no glamor attached to it; he was simply one of the house staff. Still, it's interesting to read about the trials of being the chef who had to feed visiting heads of state from around the globe, not to mention the intricacies of formal, classic French cooking.

Eventually, he decided to take some time and visit America, securing a job at Le Pavillion, and from there continued to flit about in the transient life which is the hallmark of the professional chef. In one amusing anecdote, he turns down the chance to be a chef for JFK, just beginning his presidential bid, and instead goes to work for Howard Johnson's. An odd choice from our modern perspective, but he was entranced by the original Howard Johnson's vision, sort of a gourmet chain food concept (a vision improperly handled by his son, according to Pepin).

But again, his luck won out. He became friends with Craig Claiborne and of course Julia Child in short order, introduced to them all by Helen McCully, who was determined to get the few food lovers in the country together and talking.

Luck was not always with him, however. The real turning point in his life was a near-fatal car accident, which left him with dire predictions by hospital staff. Somehow, against what sounds like insurmountable odds, he persevered, and began to start life anew, but this time as a cooking instructor. And it is through this that most of America has come to know him.

All of this is told fairly straightforwardly. Pepin is clearly sentimental about his past, but does not have the common food writer's style of flagrant pathos oozing from every paragraph. You know, the " I tried the first apple of the season, lovingly plucked from the tree by my aged mother, my mouth exploded with the vibrant flavor, and I closed my eyes in silent bliss, too young to have the words to express my rapture". Here is Pepin's description of an early food memory, drinking some milk straight from the cow, which is as close as he gets to overwrought (note that this comes from an advance copy; the actual text may vary):

She had no way of knowing it, but that plain country woman, whose name I have long forgotten, taught me one of the most important lessons of my life: food could be much more that [sic] mere sustenance.
In addition to the relatively direct retelling of his life, Pepin offers us favorite recipes at the end of each chapter, things evocative of that time in his life. While I haven't tried any of them, they sound delicious. But this is not the reason to buy this book. Buy it for the glimpse into a culinary world where "celebrity chef" was a foreign concept, where not every burned-out professional was going to cooking school to reinvent themselves, where food was prepared in painstakingly traditional ways. Buy it because it gives you a picture of the man who has taught us all so much.

Wednesday, March 05, 2003

Italian Wine

Italy has been a winemaking region for a long time. As is oft repeated, the ancient Greeks called the peninsula Oenotria, or land of wine. There are well over one thousand, some say closer to two, different grape varieties grown and turned into wine throughout the country. Wine does not accompany a meal; it is part of it, the flavors and character of the wine hollow without the food Italian cooks are so known for.

But for a long part of recent Italian history, its wine was considered uninteresting and simplistic. It is only relatively recently that "fine Italian wines" has ceased to be an oxymoron. Some of this is exposure; Americans know more about wine now then they did 30 years ago, and they have found out about the great wines Italy does make. But some of it is a fundamental shift in Italian winemaking practices. Newer generations have come forward, determined to make the best wines they could, using new techniques and new grapes.

And so our dinner at bacar last week was aptly named: "The Italian Wine Renaissance". It was to be an intriguing evening; bacar was co-hosting the event with The Italian Wine Merchants in New York City, preparing a five-course menu for us to enjoy with a wide selection of wines.

The last time I went to such an event at the restaurant, I became a zealous advocate of German and Austrian wines. And while I did not have the same level of epiphany, we drank some very nice wine and I learned a lot about the Italian wine scene.

The evening started with a sparkling opener, a Cavalleri Franciacorta, Blanc de Blancs, non-vintage. Clearly a relative of Champagne, I found the flavors in this to be very interesting, though elusive. The only tasting note I registered was some vanilla on the finish. Perhaps I was too busy enjoying the accompanying appetizer, crab & fennel stuffed gougeres, and chatting with our dinner companions to pay close attention.

As we settled in for the evening, servers poured our first two glasses, a 2001 Inama Soave Classico Superiore and a 2001 Villa Sparina Gavi di Gavi, and brought out our first course, seared jumbo day boat scallop on crab & salt cod brandade with micro greens and carrot oil. My tasting notes for the Soave include "plantiness" and "bubblegum" which at first I found distasteful but I found went very nicely with the food. It was in some ways the opposite of its companion wine, which my notes describe as heavily floral on the nose, with a lot of soapiness. A decent acidity in the mouth, I nonetheless found it mildly overwhelmed by the food.

The second course featured wines by a producer who is clearly breaking from old traditions. He leaves the wine on the lees for 2 years. He doesn't use sulphur. Other practices probably cause many a raised eyebrow among his peers: tape recording the fermentation in the barrel and opening the windows to the cellar on full moons. I didn't get a chance to ask him, but I imagine he uses some of the same principles which guide the biodynamique vignerons of France, a controversial growing methodology which goes well beyond organic and focuses on holistic agriculture. Though featured in the Italian wine dinner, he is actually from Slovenia, which sits along the easternmost edge of Italy.

Melissa observed a petrol/diesel quality to Movia's 2000 Ribolla from the Brda region, and my own tasting notes register a smokiness and even a fishiness. Clearly an unusual wine. His 1997 Pinot Nero from the same region had a distinct cherriness with decent tannins and a nice acidity. Very nice, but the Pinot Noir lovers at the table argued that it was not at all a standard expression of the grape. These two wines were served with a pan-roasted Tolinas Farms quail with a a celery root mash, mache & Bergamont orange vinaigrette. It was very prettily plated, the quail crossing its legs daintily on its bed.

Now, those of you who have been counting may have noticed that we are now up to five glasses of wine, glasses that our servers generously kept refilling. However, you are not yet aware of the glass of Txocalina I had upstairs waiting for the event to start.

Hopefully it will thus not be a surprise that here my notes taper off.

Our next course was a pan roasted loin of venison, served on a bed of herbed spaetzel, baby leeks and citrus fruits. The venison I had at the German wine event resonates in my memory to this day. Not only was it delicious, but its pairing with a rosé Champagne was stunning (the event also featured estate Champagnes). I eagerly gobbled down my portion, which was paired with a 2000 Spadafora 'Schietto' from Sicily, made with Syrah, and a 1999 Fabrizio Iuli 'Barabba' Barbera del Monferrato from the Piedmont. My notes claim that I liked the Syrah better on the palate than the Barbera, which I said I liked more on the nose. I preferred the Barbera with the food, however.

The fourth course was a delicious selection of cheeses and accompaniments: taleggio with green apples and pistachio butter, vento d'estate with red flame grape jam, and a sheep's milk crutin with truffles and black pepper water crackers. These were paired with a 2000 Fattoria le Pupille 'Poggio Valente', Morellino di Scansano, Maremma, from Tuscany, and a 1995 Famiglia Anselma Barolo 'Adasi' from the Piedmont. It is a pity that I don't have notes (or memories) of these wines, as Barolo is one of Italy's great wines. We'll just have to make sure to enjoy some on our honeymoon.

The dessert was a delightful selection of housemade biscotti, including chocolate-pistachio, hazelnut-almond, and orange-anise. Made me want to make biscotti again, so don't be surprised if it ends up on a dinner menu in the not-too-distant future. The wine was a 2000 Fattoria Le Pupille 'SolAlto' Maremma, not surprisingly also from Tuscany like the Morellino di Scanscano we had just finished. It was a botrytized dessert wine, and my notes say that the wine maker was formerly at Chateau d'Yquem, an impressive pedigree all by itself.

The final wine we enjoyed wasn't planned for, but was instead something off the normal wine menu which had piqued the interest of one of our dinner companions, and mine as well. A 1995 Kiralyudvar Tokaji, made entirely from Furmint. Tokaji Aszu, the dessert wine, is made primarily with two different grapes, Furmint and Hárslevelü. For those of us expecting something akin to the Tokaji Aszu we all loved, it was quite a shock. Notably acidic, like Tokaji Aszu, but quite dry, unlike its more common cousin. One person at our table suggested that it might go very well with fish.