11/20/2011

Restaurant Nirvana?

I spent the beginning of October in wine country, specifically Napa and Sonoma, eating and drinking my way through a superb vacation with my husband, John, and daughter, Briana.  It was full of vineyard tours, wine tastings, and, of course, some incredible meals.  The absolute pinnacle of our stay started with a call from a little restaurant in Yountville that happens to be the center of the culinary universe.  We were on a wait list, and they wanted to know if we would be interested in reservations that just became available for dinner.  Oh yes, please!  And so began our dining adventure at The French Laundry.
The nine course tasting menu changes daily, and with a few clicks through the internet, it was simple to get a good idea of what our upcoming dining experience would entail (best description, and my personal favorite, was Westchester Foodie’s rendition).  Admission:  I am photographically challenged in restaurants.  For someone who occasionally writes about food, this is not a good thing. So, I will apologize in advance for not only the quality of the pictures but the lack thereof.  Here’s an overall visual of our tasting menu:
Part of my desire to see and taste what all the excitement is about comes from what I’ve read about chef Thomas Keller’s vision and drive for fine dining perfection.  My expectations were high, but not unreasonable – like when I was a teenager and my friends would want me to meet the guy who was destined to be the absolute ultimate boyfriend.  At first, I would be thrilled that he’s everything they said, but then, eventually, I’d become upset that I wasn’t starry eyed in love.  Unfortunately, my recent date with French Laundry almost prompted me to say the classic line “it’s not you, it’s me”.  It was not the sublime dining euphoria I was expecting. Simply put, I was not swooning.  Maybe I need a culinary psychologist, but I’ll let you be the judge.

Built in the 1900s and at one time a French steam laundry (hence the name), The French Laundry looks quite unassuming from the outside.  Described as the epitome of fine restaurant dining, once we stepped inside the transformation was palatable.  We found ourselves speaking in hushed, almost reverent, tones as we read over the tasting menu in the small but elegant dining room.  No detail was too small from the clothespinned, starched white napkin to the flawlessly set table.  Our server expertly guided us through the menu courses, impressively describing each one.   In fact, I began to feel that his demeanor was almost too perfect.  I started to slowly look around the room at the other tables and became almost mesmerized by the staff.  They definitely strived to be seamless in their service, but it was like that faucet drip that you notice just before drifting off to sleep that now keeps you up all night.  I couldn’t stop watching their movements as they served and cleared the courses from the tables around us.  Briana described it as synchronized serving (like a restaurant water ballet), but I felt it was more like I was surrounded by Stepford servers.  It became distracting instead of invisible, as I became obsessed to observe if mistakes were made.  I looked for the rogue server -- the one who broke out of the robotic persona by dropping a glass or spilling a sauce. 

I purposely refocused my attention on the main reason we were all here – the food – as an amuse bouche of gougeres (what I lovingly call cheesey puffs) came out.  They were golden and warm, with a surprisingly liquidy center.  Keep in mind that this “giveaway” course was not only the best picture of the evening, but in retrospect possibly one of my favorite dishes. 
Our first true course was the signature dish of Oysters and Pearls.  The playful description of the custardy tapioca being the “pearls” of this dish was brilliant.  The oysters were immersed in a tapioca custard, while a quenelle of white sturgeon caviar floated off to the side.   The dish itself was visually boring, almost grey looking, with the caviar as only a slight contrast.  My first bite was creamy, rich and briny, but I was distracted by the texture.  Daring to go out on a descriptive limb, it was spherical.  Now that’s a newfound foodie concept, but it clearly describes the roundness of the tapioca, oysters and caviar rolling around in my mouth.  
I had the unique opportunity earlier in the week to tour the gardens and orchards of Peter and Gwyn Jacobsen who supply produce to The French Laundry (more on that in an upcoming post).  I was anxiously anticipating the Veloute of Musquee de Provence Pumpkin because the oddly shaped and huge Fairy Tale Pumpkin I saw at the farm was the main ingredient.  The soup was thick and comforting.  With the addition of pomegranate seeds and walnuts, it tasted like Thanksgiving and Christmas pureed in a bowl. 
The next two fish courses were forgettable and disappointing.  The Australian Hiramasa, farm raised yellowtail or king fish, bordered on bland except for the nice acidic pop from the pickled baby eggplant.  Sadly, the other signature dish of Sweet Butter Poached Main Lobster “Mitts” was surprisingly rubbery.   My frustration stems from the fact that I read all about the process of blanching then slow poaching these lobster claws in buttery goodness.  Why, oh why, were they not the velvety, tender morsels I was so looking forward to? 

Let me fast forward to the sixth course of Snake River Farms “Calotte de Boeuf Grillee”.  Our server explained that “calotte” was the rib cap which is the most tender and marbled section of a rib eye steak.  Snake River Farms doesn’t raise just any ‘ole cattle; their cattle is a cross between Black Angus and Japanese Wagyu.  (Want to sear some up in your own kitchen?  $190/lb from Gilt Taste.) Now I understand first hand why Snake River Farms has dubbed their meat “butter knife beef”.  The meat was purely decadent and rich in ways that I’ve never tasted before.  A tiny “lasagna” square of layered umami packed flavors like truffle and tomato was served on the side.  This course was so over the top, it was clearly the defining point of the tasting menu.  This is where I think my meal should have ended as I had simply hit my palate limit.
I felt myself slipping away in a somewhat foodie fog as I consumed the next three courses of cheese, sorbet and dessert.  They were good, but I was feeling quite done until the “surprise” dessert course.  The slightly frozen custard cappuccino semifreddo and warm donuts was a very creative take on coffee and donuts and turned this tired dining diva into Homer Simpson (ummmmm, donuts). 
Last, but not least, the little sweet tidbits called Mignardises (pronounced min yarn dees) were very French, very small and very delicious truffles in flavors like peanut butter and jelly and meyer lemon.  They made it all the way back to New York unscathed, and the three of us were able to enjoy a bit of The French Laundry in the comfort of our own family room.

Now that I’ve had time to think about our dinner at The French Laundry to be quite fair, it was certainly an amazing, unique dining experience overall which is still being discussed and dissected.   Some of the courses have already been saved in my food memory bank, but they have to share space with other amazing dishes like Daniel Humm’s tomato basil lollipops from Eleven Madision or Harold Dieterle’s farro risotto from Perilla.   The French Laundry wasn’t my culinary soul mate or my restaurant nirvana, but there was something very appealing about Thomas Keller’s world in Yountville where each dish was plated to perfection.

10/07/2011

Totally Tomatoes

Sadly, Tomato season is ending, but there’s still some red, juicy ones out there just waiting to be turned into gravy (a.k.a. tomato sauce).  Roma, plum, egg – whatever you call them  are the best for making pasta gravy.


My mom would “put up a pot of gravy” on Sunday morning, simmering it for hours.  (Note:  There’s been some discussion that one doesn’t “put up” a pot on the stove, and I will have to defer to my siblings to confirm my memory of this term.  Keep in mind that this comes from the woman who would also say “close the lights”.)  Okay, heating up your kitchen might not be wise in the summer, but honestly, the end result is really worth it.  The upside is that the preparation couldn’t be easier.  And keep in mind that this technique can turn even the lowliest winter tomatoes into a flavorful sauce.

It all starts with just a few pounds of tomatoes, but it won’t take long to become a tomato junkie like me purchasing a full box at Meadows Farm in Yorktown. My idea of an impulse buy -~
22 pounds of tomatoes:  $12
Roasted into almost 3 quarts of tomato sauce:  Priceless

The basic recipe comes from one of my favorite food writers and bloggers, Molly Wizenberg (Orangette), with some tweaking from me.

ROASTED TOMATOES

4 or 5 lbs of roma tomatoes (makes about 2 cups of sauce which is just about enough for a pound of pasta)
Olive oil
Kosher Salt
Fresh Ground Pepper
Granulated Onion (not powdered!)
Granulated Garlic (same!)

Dried spices

(I use the mix “Italian Seasonings” because it has everything I need, but it’s fine to separately sprinkle basil, rosemary,oregano or any combination of choice.  Just make sure it’s dried!)

1.  Preheat the oven to 300°F. 

2.  Prep the tomatoes by rinsing and drying them, cut off the ends and slice in half lengthwise.  Place on rimmed cookie sheet in a single layer.  It’s important not to crowd the tomatoes.  Sprinkle with salt, pepper, granulated onion and garlic and dried spices.  Pour olive oil little by little over the tomatoes and mixed with your hands so they are coated lightly all over.  Make sure to turn them all cut side up.

3. Place in oven and roast for about 4 hours, intermittently rotating and shaking sheets so they don’t stick (just add a little more oil if that happens).  Smaller tomatoes will be done quicker.  About half way through cooking, you will notice the most delicious aroma emanating from that oven.  When they start to turn deep red and begin to shrivel (about 1/3 their original size), yet are still a bit juicy, they should be done.  Remove pans and cool until they can be handled.



4.  Peel the skins off the tomatoes over a large container to catch any juices (the skin should come off pretty easily).  Place the peeled tomatoes in the container.  For a plain tomato sauce, I use my stick blender to puree them into a chunky sauce. 



Want to fancy it up, just sauté some onions, garlic and maybe some anchovies in a pan and add in 2 cups of this roasted tomato sauce (finish with a couple of tablespoons of butter).  But wait, there’s more – leave them whole to top a pizza or bruschetta or just eat as is!  Freeze them whole or pureed, and you will always have a bit of summer on hand for a quick meal.  

10/05/2011

Flatleaver


Flatleaver \flat-lēv-ər\ (noun):  one who leaves a good friend to go to hang out with cooler kids (Example:  The Culinary Goddess is a real flatleaver since she’s been guest blogging for Small Bites.)

I am totally guilty of neglect *hangs head down in shame*, but I swear I didn’t ditch you (ditch (verb): the act of flatleaving).  The past few months, I’ve been doing some blogging for the LOHUD blog, Small Bites.  Liz Johnson, the food editor at The Journal News, has always been my first stop for culinary happenings with this terrific blog.  It even won a first place award for blogging from the NYS Associated Press Association!  My small contribution to Small Bites started out in March when I volunteered to review Iron Horse Grill and Bird & Bottle Inn for Hudson Valley Restaurant Week.  After that I teamed up with my friend and culinary cohort, Margaret Rizzuto, photographer and food blogger, to review Ramiro’s 954 and Le Fontane.  But the fun didn’t stop there – click here for more reviews, recipes and stories.

Much thanks to Liz for giving me the opportunity to write about what I love.  It’s a true foodie adventure for me!  But now, some well deserved attention to the Culinary Goddess.

3/12/2011

It's Mine, All Mine

I know all my recipes are a problem.  I have freely admitted that as much as I love each and every one, I am too dependent on following them precisely.  After reading Think Like a Chef by Tom Colicchio, I realized I had to change the way I cook and begin to trust my instincts.  I went shopping at Eataly for the first time without a recipe in hand, determined to rely only on my own culinary creativity for dinner that night. Here’s how it went:

I wanted to make pasta.  I purchase some fresh tagliolini (but any of your favorite spaghetti will work) and make my way over to produce to see what veggies are in season. I decide on Brussels sprouts (PLEASE don’t stop reading, I promise to make you a fan) and some hen of the woods mushrooms.  Ray, the produce guy, (yes, I’m here so often I’m now on a first name basis with him) patiently weighs and tags my choices. I remember I have some Pat LaFrieda sweet sausage in my fridge already, so my shopping is done.

Back at home, I start with the Brussels sprouts by slicing them into thin strips and sautéing them in butter and oil.  They wilt becoming soft, buttery and delicious (seriously, you will love them).  I decide to separate and roast the mushrooms and use them as a garnish.  To build flavor for the sauce, I start by browning the sausage meat (removed from their casing).  Of course, my vegetarian friends can omit the sausage.  Setting that aside, I use the same pan to sauté the shallots, adding the anchovies with their oil, wine & chicken broth.  I cook up the pasta, add it to the sauce and then toss in the sausage and sprouts.  Top with the mushrooms, a sprinkle of grated cheese, and it looks something like this . . .


TAGLIOLINI WITH BRUSSELS SPROUTS, SAUSAGE AND MAITAKE MUSHROOMS

1 1/2  lb     Brussels sprouts; halved, cored and sliced 
                 thinly into ribbons (chiffonade)
3       Tbs   Butter
3       Tbs   Olive Oil
1/2     lb     Hen of the Woods (Maitake) mushrooms 
                 (or your mushroom of choice)
3               Sweet Sausages; remove meat from casings
1               Shallot; finely chopped
3  cloves    Garlic; finely chopped
1      can    Anchovies in oil
1/2   cup    White wine
1/2   cup    Chicken broth
1      lb       Fresh taglioline (thin spaghetti)
                 Pecorino Romano cheese; grated

1.   Preheat oven to 400°.

2.   Sauté Brussels sprouts in butter and olive oil until tender and set aside.

3.   Break mushrooms apart and place on cookie sheet. Drizzle with a little olive oil and roast in oven until slightly soft and a little brown. Set aside.

4.  In large sauté pan, heat some olive oil on medium heat. Add sausage meat and brown.  Remove from pan and set aside.

5.  In same pan, add chopped shallot and garlic and cook until soft. Add anchovies with their oil and stir until they dissolve. Add wine and cook for 1 minute. Add chicken broth.

6.  In a large pot of boiling water, cook pasta until al dente. Reserve some cooking liquid.

7.  Quickly reheat mushrooms under broiler for a few minutes.

8.  Add pasta to pan with sauce and toss. Add Brussels sprouts and sausage and heat through. Add some of the reserved cooking liquid if necessary. Serve pasta in bowls topping with grated cheese and mushrooms.

Servings: 4 - 6

11/01/2010

Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater

I woke up this morning to 30 degree weather, with nearly all the leaves off the trees and had the realization that it's November 1st.  Exactly how it became November already, I really don't know, since this poor blog has been caught in a Time Warp of August!  I actually feel like I haven't been doing a lot of my own cooking the past two months because I've been doing some serious eating at Culinary Collaboration events.  But my stove has been lonely (not to mention this blog), so that's all going to change right here, right now.

Fall and Halloween are not really my favorite time of year.  When the kids were little, I made my share of costumes for them -- Peter Pan and Curious George being my favorites.  We would always get a huge pumpkin or two to put outside on the front porch.  Then after Halloween, I would cut them up, cook them, and make pumpkin bread, pie or soup.  My first attempt at cooking a pumpkin was to steam it in a Chinese steamer over boiling water.  Well, that was going just fine until I sort of forgot about the pot on the stove.  Who knew a pot could melt?

Pot in disguise.
Looks a little like a goose, doesn't it?
I've learned so much since then, specifically that those huge pumpkins aren't the best eatin' pumpkins.  A few years ago, I found out about sugar pumpkins.  Sugar pumpkins make the fall season almost bearable for me.  They are the jack-o-lantern's little brother.  They are meaty and sweet (and much easier to cut up).  And I've given up on steaming altogether; roasting is now my method of choice.  It gives the flesh a wonderful toasty nutty essence.  So, I half those little fellows, remove the seeds, rub them with a little olive oil and put them in a 400 degree oven until the flesh is soft (about 30 minutes or so depending on the size).

I let them cool down a bit and then scoop out the flesh.  Using my hand blender, I puree the pumpkin into velvet creaminess.  Once it's all pureed, I can either use it now or freeze it for later.  I love that I can defrost the pumpkin puree anytime and mix it into risotto, knead it into gnocchi or make pumpkin soup!


It may sound very old fashioned given all the cookbooks I own and use, but the one I rely on to always point me in the right culinary direction is my Fannie Farmer Cookbook.



I just love the simplicity and consistency of the recipes.  So here's a warm and comfy Pumpkin Soup recipe that I'm happy to share, adapted from my favorite cookbook.

PUMPKIN SOUP

2     medium     Onions; chopped
2     Tbs           Butter
1     Tbs           Flour
4     cups         Chicken broth
3     cups         Pumpkin puree
1/2  cup           Heavy cream (optional)
       pinch        Nutmeg
                       Salt & Pepper
                       Creme Fraiche or Sour Cream (optional)

1.  Over low heat, saute the onions in butter in a large pot until soft and slightly brown.  Sprinkle in the flour; stir and cook for 2 or 3 minutes.  Gradually add the chicken broth, whisking thoroughly.

2.  Add the pumpkin puree and cook gently for about 15 minutes.  Add in heavy cream (optional) and nutmeg.  Add salt & pepper to taste.


3.  Pour soup into bowls and top with a dollop of creme fraiche or sour cream.  Servings:  8 cups