Saturday, March 27, 2004

Popularity Contest

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First of all, thank you all! You've made obsessionwithfood.com so popular that I exceeded the data transfer limits imposed by Earthlink. These are sizable limits, and I'm happy to see so many people checking the site (there are about 140 of you on a daily basis).

But this has caused some distress. I've had to upgrade my account and Earthlink is lame so they can't just set some flag on my existing account; I have to transfer my domain name and move everything to a new server (get this; no automatic way to move all my files from one Earthlink web space to another one). So I apologize for the up-and-downness of the site.

The upside is that I have lots more space for pictures and the like, and other services I can use. I think I get some limited cgi support so might be able to do some neat interactive stuff. But that is all for the future; right now the emphasis is being functional again!

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Huh?

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A lot of you know that I like Cook's Illustrated. I'll often start with their recipe for some base component of a dish, and expand from there. They do exhaustive trials on their recipes, and regularly debunk myths, or explain the science behind them.

Because of this, they try and get the most bang for their buck by publishing books which essentially repackage recipes from the magazine. This is understandable; I'm sure they invest a lot in each recipe, and it makes sense to leverage that as much as possible. As a freelancer, it's a skill I should learn.

So I wasn't surprised to recently see them advertising Baking Illustrated, and I was only marginally surprised when they sent me a "evaluate for 30 days" copy. The book itself looks fine, though I probably won't keep it. I have several exhaustive baking books; I don't need another one. It was what was included that was so surprising.

Seems like they've started a "Great Restaurants of America" collectible coin set. They are promising me that each new book they send me will come with a bronze coin. Lucky me. One side shows the restaurant, the other the founder. The first one, which came with Baking Illustrated is for Antoine's in New Orleans. They promise to highlight restaurants that have helped shape the American culinary landscape. And my book came with a handy rack for holding up to five of them.

This just seems plain weird. Where did this idea come from? Who thought this would be a valuable addition? How much extra am I spending on my magazine subscription from them because they need to fund this? Cook's Illustrated should focus on their strengths, not try and compete with The Franklin Mint.

My friend Tom wondered a while back if Cook's might have "jumped the shark"--passed the acme of their efforts, the term presumably coming from the episode of Happy Days where Fonzie waterskis over a shark in Florida. He made some good points, but my little bronze coin (which I'll be sending back with the book, despite their exhortation to keep it regardless of my decision about the book itself) might have clinched it.

Hopefully there's still time for them to step off the path and get back to what they do best.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

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Spring is in the air, and even a not-so-young-anymore boy's thoughts turn to love. I sit at my desk, and the sunny day causes thoughts of a certain comely shape to flit through my mind. I count the moments until we will see each other again.

My smoker and I have an occasional love affair. Tim and Mitch, whose garage is where the smoker lives, encourage frequent trysting, but time is short, and smoking food is an inherently time-consuming activity.

But I decided it was time for another rendez-vous, so we made plans to eat dinner with Tim and Mitch (they are generously willing to let me cook for them on short notice), and we invited Melissa's shopmate Ashley and her sister Whitney to join us.

(I should note. Another guest photographer, this time Tim. Though of course we were at his house, so that does make him the guest, or us? His full set of pictures is at his mac.com page. I've chosen my favorites.)

I was in the mood for smoked trout, so the day before I bought four whole rainbow trout at a local butcher/fishmonger. The clerk (who has handled some odd requests from me before) asked if I wanted them prepped in any way. I said, "Are they scaled and gutted?" "Yes" "I'll take them as is". Heads and tails and bones and all.

When we arrived at Tim and Mitch's, I knew that dinner was going to take a while. As I say, smoking is inherently time-consuming. So I brought some bread and pumpkinseed oil for appetizers.

For an opener, I made a nice little dish (and it didn't present well, so you don't get to see pictures). I sautéed some ham, and then steamed some cauliflower. When the cauliflower was done, I cut it into sixths, piled some ham close by, and topped the cauliflower with a raisin-nutmeg vinaigrette (made with raisin butter and olive oil that I infused with freshly grated nutmeg). Given the casual nature of the evening, it was perhaps a little too small. Cutting a cauliflower into fourths might have been better, but when you've got one cauliflower and six people, you do the best you can.

The main course, of course, was smoked trout. But Ashley and Whitney brought some asparagus to roast as a side. I'm afraid I didn't monitor it too closely, so the asparagus became very tender. It was good, but lacked the crunch which would have been a nice textural contrast to the fish.

For the fish, I seasoned the insides of the fish with salt, and then smeared horseradish over the meat. I tossed in some green garlic, pressed the edges of the belly back together, and smoked over hickory chips for 30-40 minutes. I had hoped for apple wood, but apple wood seems to be hard to find before the barbecue season starts. One of the lessons a relatively new smoker user has to learn, I guess.

To serve with all this, Melissa and I brought two bottles of Grüner Veltliner. We started with the Salomon Undhoff 1999 Reserve, and moved on to a 2001 Bründlmayer Grüner Veltliner. Same grape, same country, but the two wines are vastly different. The Bründlmayer smelled like dust and stone and ash; it was just plain funky (we opened one on New Year's Eve which smelled similar). The Salomon had a fruitier smell with a more obvious pepper component. Of course both had a rampant acidity.

We also had a cheese course, courtesy of the cheese club we belong to from Cowgirl Creamery. It featured a number of English cheeses whose names escape me right at the moment. Tim and Mitch shared one of their wines with us, a Romanian Pinot Noir. It was interesting, a lot of fruit but some good complexity and interesting qualities.

Finally, we had dessert. Tim brought cookies (from Zocalo Coffeehouse), and Tim and Mitch always seem to have ice cream in their freezer. This time they had eight zillion different kinds, so people mixed and matched.

So when will my romance with my smoker continue? There are a lot of hot days coming up, though!

Saturday, March 13, 2004

Culinary Artistry

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Back near Thanksgiving, my friend Tom reminded me of a book I had bought a while before, but hadn't much looked at since (this occasionally happens with food books; I have enough that not all are as well-read as I would like). The book was Culinary Artistry by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. I re-examined it, and it is now a common reference.

The front portion of the book tries to answer the question "Is Food Art?" The authors collected opinions from chefs around the world, and tried to assemble them into a greater whole. They don't come down on any one particular side of the issue, but instead they provide more fodder for debate. It's a tough question, to be sure. I tend to be in the "for the most part no, but every now and then yes" camp.

But the bulk of the book has you thinking about how food works and how one should think about preparing it, and it is this that I turn to again and again these days. In particular, the book features an extensive flavor pairing chart that showcases ingredients that various chefs have found to work well together. There are often names of dishes from different chefs, and every now and then recipes, but for the most part it's about giving you the information about good flavor pairings and letting you work from there.

Here's an example of how I used it recently. We got a pomelo in our first produce box from a local farm, and knowing it was like grapefruit, I looked up grapefruit and I saw fish and mint (among other things). Fish, grapefruit. Suddenly I thought of a pomelo salsa, perhaps garnished with mint. Now take a look at our dinner party with Reza, James, Jean, and Dan. Anything about that opener sound familiar? (Incidentally, for those bakers out there, Regan Daley's In the Sweet Kitchen has a similar extensive flavor pairing chart which is more focused on sweets). When I looked up carrots, I found ginger and almonds; check out the amuse-bouche from that same menu. Actually, most of that dinner party was done without recipes with combinations I was inspired by from this book.

Other sections are illuminating. Contrasting courses in a menu (note how at that same dinner party I went from spicy to earthy and back to spicy a few times). How chefs have evolved over time. Sample menus that have worked well. There's lots of good information here, and I discover new items every time I open the book.

For you serious cooks who want to break free of recipes and do your own thing, I think Culinary Artistry is a great reference.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Is My Blog Burning?

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Clotilde proposed the second "Is My Blog Burning?" event focusing on tartines, or open-faced sandwiches. The basic idea is that all the participating food blogs post their own tartine experiments on the same day (that would be today)

Above is our "leftovers tartine". Here's the recipe:

  1. Save an extra turkey from Thanksgiving (can be done 3 1/2 months ahead)
  2. Make turkey stock from other Thanksgiving turkeys (can be done ahead of time; freeze stock)
  3. Have an elaborate dinner party so that you have leftovers (can be done several days ahead of time)
  4. Braise a turkey leg in some turkey stock. When the turkey is cooked, remove it from the pan and reduce the stock (I wasn't able to skim the fat that came off the meat, so I ended up with a glisteny sauce)
  5. Slice an onion thin and caramelize it
  6. Wilt a bunch of spinach leaves (remember they cook down quite a bit)
  7. While the spinach is cooking, toast four pieces of a sourdough bread. I used the loaf that I botched for said dinner party, but any kind can be used
  8. To assemble: lay two pieces of toast on a plate. Spread mustard on each one. Top with wilted spinach. Top with braised turkey. Top with caramelized onions. Ladle sauce over the plate; the bread will absorb it as dinner progresses.

With it, we drank some wine our friends Brian and Anisa brought us from Argentina. The 2001 Trapiche Medalla, which is a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec (I don't have any Spanish at my disposal, so I'm inferring from what I could read on the label). It had a lot of plummy, earthy smells, with smoke and vanilla from the oak. The alcohol was very noticeable on the nose. In the mouth its tannins were finely gritty and it had a short finish, though the earthiness lingered a while. It was a bit overwhelmed by the mustard on the tartine (not surprisingly; there are few wines that can stand up to that much vinegar), but didn't do too badly against the food.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Reza, James, Jean, and Dan

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First off, we have a special guest for this post. Our friends Jean and Dan are both great photographers, and we had them and another couple, Reza and James, over for dinner. When Dan mentioned he had brought gear to take photos if we wanted, Melissa and I had no problem saying that, oh yes, we wanted. He had special lenses, a tripod, and of course a great eye. So the pictures are a little bigger than normal to showcase his great work.

We started our dinner with individual plates of oil with zatar spice and greek yogurt. We got this idea from Crossroads Market in Hayward, an unexpectedly great source for interesting ethnic products. The dinner had a guest photographer, and this dish featured a guest plater. None other than Melissa, who also made the long trek down to Hayward to get supplies. She took charge of the appetizer, which we served with slices of freshly baked pita bread (also from Crossroads) and small cube dishes with almonds in them.

We did a smaller appetizer than normal because I did two amuse-bouches. The first was a cauliflower panna cotta with a layer of black truffles (as with Valentine's Day, "Black Truffle Sauce" ). I think I've hit a new level of cooking; I took a recipe from The French Laundry Cookbook and made it more work than the original. Whether this represents a step up or a step down I leave for you to decide. Chef Keller's recipe has the panna cotta topped with oysters. My version required me to make half the batch of panna cotta, let it set, add the truffles and make the other half of the panna cotta to put on top and then let that set before serving. The flavors worked very nicely, though I had hoped the sandwiched truffles would infuse the panna cotta more. I served them in clear glasses so people could see the truffle layer.

The second amuse was mini-wontons. I brunoised some carrots and ginger, and wrapped them in a wonton wrapper to make a little roll. I wet the outside of the wrapper and then dipped that in ground up almonds, which didn't coat the wontons but adhered sporadically, making a nice random pattern. When the guests arrived, I heated up some oil and dropped in the wontons. The carrot and ginger cooked, the wrappers browned nicely, and they made a nice little present to bring out to the guests (I just carried a plate and let people take one each).

If you're serving a wide variety of dishes like this, a good bet for the wine is Champagne, which is very food-friendly. Plus it gets people in the mood for an evening of fun. We used a Cuvée 1997 from René Geoffroy à Cumières.

The opener was a roasted striped bass fillet with a pomelo fennel salsa, garnished with mint powder. We started getting a produce box from a farm, and our first shipment included a pomelo, which is essentially a sweeter grapefruit. I know you're all shocked that I used fennel in a dinner party; more likely you're shocked it's not in every dish. But it pairs well with grapefruit, so adding in some onions, chile, and vodka made a flavorful salsa which complemented the fish nicely. I made the mint powder by mincing some fresh mint and microwaving it on low power for twenty minutes (another technique from The French Laundry Cookbook). The mint powder was more subtle than I would have liked. And though it looked pretty, I'm not fond of garnishes that add nothing to the dish. Perhaps I dried it out too much in the microwave.

To choose the wine, I used a tactic known as "bridging" where you find some flavor in a wine and pair it with a dish that has that ingredient. This can be (and often is) overused, with chefs monotonously pairing every dish with some wine that has many of the same flavors, but it works well when applied judiciously. I prefer to use it when the target flavor in the wine is subtle. In this case, I used a Griffin Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand. My tasting notes listed a subtle grapefruit aroma, so I figured that it would work well with the dish, especially since the acidity would hold up to the salsa.

Seeing our friends was an important part of the dinner party. But we also wanted to share with them some heritage turkey, specifically the one we had left over from Thanksgiving. And I had in mind that I wanted to try a mole sauce. I did a trial run of the sauce with Melissa's parents a couple weeks ago (they're so sweet; letting me cook for them on short notice), and there were definitely some issues with it, which, happily, I was able to correct for the party. For the sauce I used some of my "smoked turkey stock", and let the sauce simmer for a couple hours, replenishing the stock as needed. This made for a really nice, complex flavor with a warmth and depth that surprised me. Reza complimented me on the fact that the chocolate and spice were so well integrated. The turkey's dark meat came out rare; very rare. So I only served my guests the breast meat, which made for smaller portions then I would have liked for the main course. But Melissa and I have been enjoying the dark meat, with some extra cooking time, over the last few days (and of course I'm saving the bones for stock).

For side dishes, I wilted some spinach and garnished it with green garlic. I also made a chestnut fritter, which consisted of puréeing chestnuts, seasoning and flouring the mix (the flour was to make the puré more like a dough), dipping dough balls in beaten egg and panko bread crumbs, and frying. I always say you can't go wrong frying, and this dish was no exception.

The wine was easy. Roasted poultry with a subtly spicy chocolate sauce? It practically begged to be served with a Zinfandel, and I didn't want to disappoint it. We served one of our favorite Zins, the Ridge 2001 Sonoma Station.

I've mentioned before that I'm trying to do more composed cheese courses, and I continued the trend with this dinner. I made a dacquoise (a baked mixture of butter, nuts, egg whites and flour) which I cut into squares. On top of that, I placed a slab of Pont L'Eveque cheese. To honor that cheese's Normandy roots, I diced some apples and sautéed them in duck fat. Not normal duck fat, but the fat I had scraped off a foie gras terrine (which I made with the other half of the foie gras that got turned into a torchon for Valentine's Day). On top of that assembly, I put a dollop of Cindy's Raisin Butter, which I discovered at the Fancy Food Show a few weeks back. A really simple but pure raisin flavor, in a spreadable package. I don't often use jarred food for dinner parties, but this was an easy exception to make. Finally, I garnished the whole thing with chopped rosemary. This was probably the course I was happiest with.

Jean and Dan had generously offered to bring some wine, and so I suggested they bring some to go with the cheese course. They gave me a couple options, and I voted for the Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel. Imagine. Me having two Sonoma Zinfandels on the same night. You're all scandalized, I know it. Seghesio, like Ridge, is a reliable producer of Zinfandel, and this wine was quite nice.

This dessert started as something else entirely, and how it evolved is probably a giant post in its own right! But it ended up being very simple, which in the end I think worked best. I've been a fan of tarragon and chocolate ever since trying the combination years ago at Rococo's in London, but this may be the first time I've used the combination in one of my own creations. I piped a small mound of mousse onto a plate, and then made a puddle of the creme anglaise around it. I infused the milk for the creme anglaise with chopped up tarragon, and strained it all out when I plated. The tarragon flavor was nice, though I might have liked it to be less subtle. It wasn't as subtle as the mint, but nor was it as pronounced as I was hoping. Dan was very keen on it, though. The dish was fairly simple to assemble; one has to make the mousse in advance, and I made all the components of the sauce ahead of time so they could be assembled and cooked at the last minute.

For this course, I chose a Domaine de la Tour Vielle Banyuls. I consider Banyuls to be an underappreciated dessert wine, and it pairs very nicely with simple chocolate desserts (it is akin to port).

By now our guests had eaten (and drunk!) a fair amount, but we wanted to close with a simple little mignardise course. I took the peel from the pomelo (which featured in the opener) and candied it. You'll notice that the peel is very thick. I also made mandarin orange madeleines. I plated them as best they'd fit, but against our star-covered table, it looks like some celestial being winging its way through the firmament. The stars, incidentally, are metal stars which Melissa's sister gave her. She scatters them about the table for a nice effect.

Overall, I was pretty happy with the dinner. Things went wrong, and I thought a lot of things fell a little short of my expectations. But, as Melissa will tell you with a roll of her eyes, this is par for the course. Still, I have to grudgingly admit the meal turned out pretty darn well. And those pictures!