Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Poubelle Winter Feed

I've mentioned the Poubelle Feeds before: the amazing semi-annual food-centric parties thrown by our friends Tom and Carol. We've been to a few of the winter and summer feeds, and for the last summer feed I got to work in the kitchen. I guess I did an okay job, since I got to work the winter feed this time around.

The summer party is a lot of work, but the winter feed is a different beast altogether. It's a smaller crowd (around 40 to 50), but there are more dishes (fourteen, this year) and everything is homemade. If you want a guest-eye view of the party, check out Tom's archives (the link takes you to the appetizers page, from which you can progress) and Carol's pictures.

I want to talk about the backstage view. It's probably not a surprise to learn that making fourteen fairly involved dishes requires a lot of planning and effort. I went down a week early to help with the gnocchi, the foie gras terrine, and the crab bisque; William and Tom were there all day Friday doing yet more prep work. And all three of us non-Toms got to his house early in the morning to slice and dice our way to the big event. (Tom, of course, had been there all night).

Working with this crew is fascinating, especially as the new guy on board. I so rarely get to just hang out and cook with three other food-obsessed types that I didn't notice the hours go by. The day is mostly spent prepping. I scooped out carrots and turnips for the "Vegetables Round & Pointy", fried beignets, toasted pain de mie, stuff like that. Everyone else did pretty much the same, dealing with all the tasks that needed to be done before dinner.

Sound boring? It's not. The crew cracks jokes (with a pop-culture lexicon that I, possibly the youngest person there, sadly don't possess), chats about food stuff, catches up, tastes various things as they get made, and jokes good-naturedly while chopping, prepping, and cooking. We're all focused on our tasks, but we all are comfortable enough in the kitchen that we can talk about other things at the same time. It really is just a pleasant way to pass the day. It wasn't even incredibly hectic, though Tom correctly predicted that we'd be coasting our way to a frenzy at service time.

The coasting comes in large part from Tom's planning. I've been to a few winter parties; I've seen the lists. But seeing the lists and living by them for a day are different levels of appreciation. When Tom makes up the lists, he draws up detailed to-do lists for each of the fourteen dishes. Once that's done, he re-sorts them by time. But since the to-do list might simply say "prep mirepoix, small dice" each item has a number attached to it that refers back to a legend which maps numbers to dishes. And the list, incidentally two pages of small type, only covers the day of and the day before. It doesn't mention the items made a week or more in advance, like all the stocks that got used, which Tom made well in advance and froze. Or the foie gras terrine I helped make the week before.

Organization is also important. Each dish has a tray associated with it, and prepped ingredients in various containers are put into the right tray for the dish, so that when any work needs to happen, all the ingredients are right at hand. Items are labelled so there's no confusion. It's a simple set of techniques, but it works marvelously.

The only downside to being on the kitchen staff is that you don't get as much to eat. The kitchen team missed out completely on one of the dishes, scallops in a saffron-vanilla sauce on a bed of wilted greens. But we got bites of everything else, which we ate in between assembling the next set of dishes. Only when the desserts were served did we get a chance to sit out with our friends and loved ones and enjoy the festivities.

But in the grand scheme of things, I'd take the kitchen position any day.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Thanksgiving, finally!

Prepping for the feast to come
Ah, Thanksgiving. This is becoming my favorite holiday. It has mostly escaped the capitalist blitz that now encompasses both Halloween and certainly Christmas. It's not tied to a particular religion (as much as Christmas could be said to be a religious holiday these days), and it's all about food.

It's a chance to stop. Take your time. And take at least a moment to remember the good things in your life that you so often take for granted. Your wife, your friends, the fact that you have a roof over your head. It's a chance to join your friends and family around a table and share the bounty of a generous feast.

This year, again, we co-hosted a Thanksgiving dinner with our friends Tim and Mitch. They kindly let us use their house, make a disaster of their kitchen, and otherwise disrupt their normally quiet household.

But as insane a cook as I can be, I have not yet done a whole Thanksgiving dinner solo. We ask people to either bring dishes or help out in the kitchen. Even I recognize my limits.

Here is the breakdown of what we had for the fifteen people who sat down for dinner, and you can see why it took me so long to write it up!

The Appetizers
Mitch made edamame shumai for everyone to enjoy. I did a search on edamame shumai on Google but I don't often see the two of them together. I know what edamame is (soy beans, still in their pod), and I've learned from my search what shumai is (shrimp dumplings), but edamame shumai is still a mystery. Anyone with a good explanation should write me (see the link at the top of the page), so that I can understand it better.

Melissa's mom brought appetizers, and they were quite the hit. One was a mushroom, swiss cheese, and beef paté, the other Belgian endive leaves with crab which was raved about even more then the paté.

Melissa also brought along some fruit that she cut up for people to nibble on.

The Opener
Not an appetizer, but the first thing everyone ate, was Carol's butternut squash soup with ginger. I mentioned this last year, but inviting a bunch of passionate food lovers to Thanksgiving dinner is a really good idea; we had great food from our appetizers all the way through dessert. Following on all the good appetizers, this was a great opener, light and flavorful, and as far as I could tell eagerly slurped down (or is it slurped up?) by everyone.
The Bird(s)
Since we did all the carving in the kitchen, this is the closest we get to a glam shot of the turkey
Longtime readers will remember that we got a heritage turkey for Thanksgiving last year, and it was so delicious I placed my order for this year as soon as I could. But I learned a lesson from last year's dinner when they sent us a 13-pound turkey instead of the 18-20 pounder I had ordered. There was lots of attrition at the higher weights, and fortunately Melissa thought of doing a taste test with the breast of a Broad-Breasted White.

So I placed an order for two 13-pound birds. I assumed we'd have the same amount of people, and that would leave plenty for leftovers. There were still problems with the weight (this was the first year that the particular Sonoma farmer I purchased from had raised the turkeys), and so I ended up with one 14-pound bird and two eight-pound birds. This actually worked out much better, since we had fewer people come than I thought would, and so we kept one 8-pound bird in our freezer, and cooked up the other two. Watch for that turkey to appear at some springtime dinner.

The fourteen-pounder got roasted. No brining or anything; it would be a shame to mask the natural flavor of these birds with a salt solution. I just seasoned it a bit and then basted with butter as it cooked. It came out quite nicely. I don't think the big one was a Bourbon Red this year (the farmer forgot to put the breed in the package), because it looked so different. He also raised Narrangassets, so that was probably the specific breed. The smaller bird had more of the look that I remembered from last year, when I definitely got a Bourbon Red.

No, that's not me carving a pigeon. The 14-pound bird was significantly larger than the 8-pounder (which also had its back removed prior to smoking).

The smaller bird got smoked in the Battle Droid for roughly 7 hours over applewood chips. Mmmm. Smoked turkey. I was worried about the chilly temperature outside and how it would affect the cooking of the turkey, but it worked out fine. It may have been quicker in the dead of summer, but we got it to the bacteria-killing point, which is all that I cared about.

The Battle Droid. Sigh....

The Gravy
Nothing terribly fancy here. I made a turkey stock that morning from various chunks of the turkeys, and thickened it with a simple, fairly light roux, which Tom wisely suggested I make with the turkey fat from the roasted turkey.

The Stuffing
I had made some sourdough bread earlier in the week, which I used as the base for the stuffing. I also mixed in some wild mushrooms (chanterelles and oysters and rehydrated porcini which Melissa valiantly obtained from Berkeley Bowl on the day before Thanksgiving) and some smoked sausage which I put in the Battle Droid with the small turkey for a couple hours. I moistened the whole thing with the liquid I had used for the porcini, but I was very annoyed because I completely forgot to put in the turkey organs I had reserved. I've realized that when I cook at Tim and Mitch's I often forget to make the lists that help me to remember everything, even though I obsess about them at home. I also forgot to truss the big turkey. Anyway, look for the organs to be featured at some future dinner as well. The stuffing came out decently; it was inconsistently dry and moist. But the smoked sausage and mushrooms were tres yummy.

The Standards
You can't have Thanksgiving without cranberry sauce, and Chris once again volunteered to make it for us. This is perhaps the one thing a year Chris cooks. He made a fairly straightforward cranberry sauce from Cook's, and this year refrained from also contributing a canned version for those who prefer their cranberry sauce that way. His artistic mentality came through as he got his dish ready for bringing to the table: orange slices and a leaf garnished the top.

And of course you must have mashed potatoes. David on kitchen staff duty was put in charge of the potatoes. I unfortunately told him to make far too many potatoes, forgetting that people were going to take small portions of everything. We threw in some celery root as well to add some more interest, and Tom brought along a bottle of black truffle oil for drizzling on top. I felt bad that I had David make so many; he ended up doing a lot of work to rice them all, and most went to the leftovers containers. A lesson for next year.

The Vegetables
We had a number of vegetable dishes to go with the turkey. Melissa's mom Kathy made a salad with a delicious bacon dressing. Joanne brought a corn pudding which was very nice, almost soufflé-like in its lightness. And since I felt we needed one more, the kitchen staff (with Tom as avatar) did a braised fennel, celery, and mustard green dish.
The braised fennel and celery

The Bread
Tom's main contribution (aside from doing the aforementioned vegetable dish) was dilly bread, a long-standing Dowdy tradition. A nice onion and dill flavor permeates the bread, which has a really nice crumb. His girlfriend Carol pointed out that it's particularly good for Thanksgiving, since leftover dilly bread makes great toast. Since I had some the next couple days, I'd have to agree.

Mostly because I had my sourdough starter revived anyway, I decided to make some rolls. They came out well enough though they were definitely more dense than light and fluffy.

The Cheese
We decided to have a small cheese course after dinner and before dessert. Melissa and I belong to a cheese club, which conveniently had a shipment a week before Thanksgiving. So this shipment of Cowgirl Creamery cheeses made up the bulk of the cheese course. Since Mitch is recently pregnant, she is avoiding soft cheeses (Man! No wine or soft cheese for nine months?). So I picked up some aged Capricious cheese to add to the cheese board.

The Wine
We had a bunch of different wines, most of which were contributed by my dad. He and his wife Katy were flying up from Los Angeles, so they were hard-pressed to make something to bring along. Instead my dad let me pick out wine with a budget. His wine included two bottles of the Saracco Moscato d'Asti, which we poured as an apéritif wine. Moscato d'Asti in general is lightly sweet, somewhat fizzy, and very low in alchohol (5-7% by law). The version that Saracco makes has a nice fruity flavor and is very well-balanced. It's the best Moscato producer I've ever tried, and I've tried a number of Moscatos by now. For the main dinner, I chose on behalf of my dad two whites and two reds. The whites were a 2002 Meulenhof Erdhener Kabinett Riesling, a great wine from perhaps my second-favorite German producer, as well as a white Rhone wine which didn't get opened, so Melissa and I enjoyed it recently. For the reds, I picked up a 2001 Ridge Geyserville Zinfandel, and my one splurge, a 2000 Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Domaine de Beaucastel.

But that was not all the wine on the table. I contributed two bottles of estate-bottled rosé Champagnes, my Thanksgiving tradition now. But one of the big surprises wine-wise was a red from Augusta Winery in Missouri, which was contributed by Joanne. The wine is only $11, and is made with the Chambourcin grape. It had a powerful earthiness, good complexity, and a really nice balance. Missouri may seem an odd place to find very good wine, but before Prohibition most considered that state, not California, to be the most capable wine region in the United States. Joanne also brought a Vignoles from the same winery. It was enjoyable, but not the show-stopper its cousin was. Mitch also contributed a 4 puttanyos Tokaji which we drank with dessert (I contributed an Orange Muscat from Sobon Wines).

The Dessert
We had met Robert and Shelley before, but somehow had never found out that they're very into food, and Robert is a really good cook. He offered to bring dessert, which ended up being a pecan pie (or, as he forced us all to say to honor his Tennessee upbringing, pecan Paaa), a lemon cheesecake, and an apple pie. Wow tthey were good.

Melissa contributed chewy chocolate chip cookies, which came out nicely despite my best efforts to mess her up; I used up all the parchment paper the night before, took the best cookie sheets with me for the rolls, and brought the oven thermometer with me, which prevented her from figuring out the real temperature in our erratic oven.

After sating ourselves so thoroughly, a number of us watched Finding Nemo. I've already started thinking about next year!

Coming soon: working Tom's winter party, and a few more book reviews.

Friday, December 05, 2003

East of Paris

If you asked people to name the gastronomic capital of Europe, most would probably say Paris. Certainly I would. At any rate, it's hard to deny that French cuisine has been highly influential, spawning offshoots like California cuisine and modern Vietnamese cuisine.

But because of that, it's sometimes hard to remember that there are other fantastic cuisines in Europe. Most people are quick to come up with Italian, and even Spanish. But what about Austrian? If you had asked me to try and define Austrian cuisine a few weeks ago, I probably would have only said Wiener Schnitzel. Maybe sachertorte.

This is a response which David Bouley wants to change. First with his restaurant, Danube, and now with his cookbook East of Paris:The New Cuisines of Austria and the Danube. In the introduction, Bouley sets forth his agenda for Danube and this cookbook (which is not a restaurant cookbook; it's a personal cookbook from Bouley and co-author Mario Lohninger). He tries to envision Austrian cuisine as it might exist today if the Austrian Empire hadn't collapsed. How would modern trends integrate with traditional Austrian fare? It's an interesting question, sort of a culinary realization of an imagined alternate history.

This was an unusual cookbook for me to look through, and not just because of the exposure to an unfamiliar cuisine. I've gotten so used to the long expositions of The French Laundry Cookbook and the Zuni Café Cookbook that a book that's pretty much straight-out recipes seems like a novelty.

Flipping through the recipes is intriguing. What is liptauer? (a cheese mixture from the town of Lipto with a variety of flavorings). And who knew that Wiener Schnitzel took so much finesse to get right? But as interesting as some of the recipes sound (prosciutto-wrapped striped bass stuffed with szedinger, or paprika-laden, cabbage; or perhaps venison strudel ), the pictures grab the eye instantly. The presentations and platings for most dishes are elegant and yet clearly within the reach of the home cook, much like the recipes themselves.

Since the cookbook is mostly recipes, I decided to make a couple of the dishes in it before posting this review. I made rosti potatoes (basically a large hash brown) which were topped with lemon creme fraiche, smoked salmon, a mustard-chive vinaigrette, and capers (my alternative to their suggestion of caviar). To accompany that, I made a beet salad, where roasted beets are sliced and marinated in a warm walnut-champagne vinegar dressing. To accompany these, I bought some watercress and dressed it with more of the mustard-chive vinaigrette. I didn't manage to get quite the stunning round of potatoes pictured in the book, but both Melissa and I really liked the dishes. They had good textural contrast, and very nice (if fairly classic) flavor combinations. Both dishes we would make again, and I'm even more eager to try some of the more interesting recipes.

Melissa and I are well equipped to do a regional wine pairing with this food; Austrian wines are high on our list of favorites and we have a significant number in our wine rack. We pulled out a Weingut Sighardt Donabaum Tausendeimerberg Smaragd Riesling from the Wachau, Austria's premier wine region. It went, not surprisingly, quite well with the dishes, not overwhelming the food but not being subsumed by it either.

On a personal note, I was disappointed that there wasn't a lot of discussion about the wines of the region in the book. Austria is a great wine region, particularly the Wachau, but the wines occupy a couple of pages in the back, and occasionally feature as ingredients. I suppose suggested wine pairings might have gotten a bit tedious: Gruner Veltliner for this one, Riesling for that, Blaufranckish for this, repeat. But I do feel like Bouley missed a great chance to enlighten the public about these wines (on the other hand, such lack of public knowledge does keep prices reasonable, so maybe I should be glad).

This cookbook also has instances of one of my biggest pet peeves: the dreaded "cook for X minutes at N degrees". This absolutist instruction doesn't allow for any variability in ovens, quality or condition of ingredients, exactitude of measuring or any other item that might be substantially different when you try to cook the recipe at home. And I think it does a disservice to the home cook, teaching him or her nothing except how to dogmatically follow instructions. I far prefer recipes that say "cook until these various things are true, probably about N minutes". That forces the home cook to observe the food, and allows for any number of variables, but still lets one figure out when to start looking so you don't spend every second peering inside the pot. Chicken is done when the breast is at 160, say, not merely when it's been in the oven for an hour at 350.

Still, I now know a lot more about Austrian cuisine than I did two weeks ago, and I have every intention of making more dishes from this book. So it is successful in the main, suffering from problems that many people might not be annoyed by.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Two Great Tastes?

Clotilde Dusoulier has been one of this website's longest and most devoted readers, though she does put forth the hope that Eating Well Cheaply will be revived at some point (much as I enjoyed the site while I did it, I currently prefer being employed with little time to cook than unemployed on a strict culinary budget). After reading this blog and a few others, she has launched her own website about her passion for food: Chocolate & Zucchini. She leads an enviable life: a well-traveled French woman who lives in Paris with her boyfriend. Reading her posts leaves me wistful for my favorite European city, and they keep me coming back for more.

And what does the name mean? Well, it's there on her website if you want to look it up yourself.