Monday, March 30, 2009

Royal Foodie Joust: Asparagus, Almond & Lemongrass

Chilled Almond Soup with Asparagus Cream & Lemongrass Churros

Over at Foodie BlogRoll, this month's Joust challenged us to create a dish with asparagus, almond and lemongrass. My mind immediately jumped to an almond horchata, but morphed into a cold almond soup. As with all of my recipes, I rely on super top quality ingredients:

For the soup, I took 1 C. of blanched almonds. I put them in the microwave for 2 minutes, stirred, 1 more minute, stirred, and continued on 30 second blasts until browned and fragrant. I put them into a blender with about 3/4 C. of filtered water (adjust to get a consistency that you like). To counter the mealiness of the soup, I added 2 T. of citrus infused Spanish olive oil, and then a hint of French grey salt (the earthiness of grey salt was perfect in this dish), and 1 T. of lemongrass drinking vinegar. A few minutes of blending and I had a really tasty soup - done in minutes!

Next I blanched asparagus tips and processed them into a mush using some of the blanching water to create a paste. I whipped 1/2 C. of cream until stiff, and folded in the asparagus paste. I did not season this at all since the other two components would be a bit salty.

Finally, I cut a lemongrass stalk into 1 inch lengths, threw them in boiling water for 15 minutes of hard boiling. I put them in my mini-prep along with a bit of the boiling water and blitzed until it became a rough paste. In bowl, I combined the lemongrass paste, 1 egg, 1 T. of melted butter, 1/4 C. of almond meal, white pepper and salt, and just enough AP flour to create a pipeable batter. Mine was the consistency of cornbread. I put the batter into a piping bag and piped into hot oil to make my churros. Once browned, I removed them from the oil and salted with Spanish sea salt. You can see in the pics that I did both sticks and croutons. I preferred the croutons, but the sticks made for a better pic.

The whole dish took less than 20 minutes to complete and was quite good.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Recipe: The Ultimate Peanut Butter Pie

(I have updated this recipe on 7/12)
After months of testing and eating, I believe I have come up with the perfect peanut butter pie.

I won't bother you with the crust or extras - I used Pierre Herme's tart dough and lined the base with ganache and toasted nuts - you can do a graham shell or anything you like. The quest here was for the filling.

I had been struggling with the fact that most PB pies used cream cheese in the recipe. That's just not the way it should be. A peanut butter pie should be strongly flavored of peanut butter and nothing else. The consistency should be light, but not so light that it feels like you're eating a tub of Cool-Whip. But it shouldn't be dense like Alton Brown's which was a massive Reese's Cup.

An eGer sent me on a path of peanut butter pudding or pastry cream which was just the paradigm shift that I needed. I dub this pie as perfect!

My Ultimate Peanut Butter Pie:
1/2 C. Crunchy Peanut Butter

2/3 C. Sugar
1/4 C. Cornstarch
1/4 t. Salt
2 C. Milk
4 Egg Yolks

1/2 C. Heavy Cream

First, I'll start with the fact that you can use a jarred peanut butter if you want - just choose the most intense flavor you can find. When I made my own, I used LeBlance Roasted Peanut Oil because it is so strong and it provided a perfect flavor for dilluting with the other ingredients.

Second, I used Julia Child's technique for pastry cream to speed the process along.
In a large microwavable bowl (I use my iSi silicon bowls), zap the milk until it starts to steam. Whisk in the sugar, starch, and salt. Zap again for 60 seconds. Keep zapping in 60 second intervals until you come to a soft simmer. In a separate bowl, lightly beat the yolks. Pour some of the hot milk mixture into the yolks and whisk to temper. Pour the yolks back into the large milk bowl. Whisk well. Zap another 60 seconds. Whisk. Zap. Whisk. Continue this until it starts to thicken. Reduce your zaps to 30 seconds. When you get a pudding-like consistency. Pour this hot mixture over the peanut butter mixture and combine. Cover with saran wrap making sure that skin doesn't form, and bring to room temp.
Once at room temp, take the cream and whip it until stiff. Take 1/4 of the whipped cream and fold it into the peanut butter cream. Then take all of that mixture and gently fold it into the rest of the whipped cream. Pour into your pie shell or parfait glass. Chill at least an hour and enjoy.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Peanut Butter? You're damn Skippy!

I've been on the hunt for the perfect peanut butter pie recipe.

And because I am the way I am, I went out and roasted my own peanuts to make my own peanut butter.

It was easy really. Toss your raw nuts in peanut oil, a bit of salt (I used Sel Gris), and roast until very fragrant and getting nice and brown. Then get an intern or employee to shell and skin all of the nuts. This method will work with most nuts. Then process the nuts slowly adding peanut oil until you get the consistency that you're looking for. I added a bit of honey for good measure.

Then it was off to find the perfect pie. I started with my long lost big brother - Alton Brown.

It was very good, but it wasn't a peanut butter pie. His recipe makes a great Reeses Peanut Butter Cup - dense and rich. I then headed to Paula Deen (I should have known better), and got exactly what you would expect, "Dump a pound of butter into a gallon of cream." It was tasty but not quite what I was looking for.

When I lived in New Orleans I used to go to the soul food restaurants in the projects with some of my friends. These and a pseudo famous restaurant on the far side of the Quarter were my culinary guides at that time. I remember a puffy, luscious, very peanutty pie in a graham cracker shell. I don't remember any cream cheese, but that seems to be the way most folks go these days.

So onward I ploughed! Next was Amy Eber's recipe from eG. I naturally added my own touches. Instead of a graham crust I used Herme's chocolate tart shells, and I lined them with a bit of ganache and peanuts.

Amy's filling includes cream cheese, but it wasn't overpowering. This is a very good recipe.

It was good enough that I got to thinkin'! What if I replaced the cream cheese with mascarpone or quark or...(you know how I am, always thinkin'). I wasn't up for that adventure just yet, so I opted to fill a shell with Amy's filling, then topped it with a grapefruit mousse. Now we're talking! This was very good (not what I'm looking for, but very good)!

And so my quest continues. I want 1)A strong PB flavor and 2)No cream cheese tang. If you know the recipe I'm hankerin' for...send it my way!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Recession my rear is in recession!

I won't insult you by saying my ego doesn't drive much of what I do. When I create a pastry, a huge part is that an idea is in my head and needs to come out. But another part is my need to hear someone say, "Wow!" That feeds me. So why do I say this? Well, honestly because its the first lead in that came to mind.

You see, business has been good. So good that I can't do the frequency of posting that I normally would here. And so good that I'm not getting to play nearly as much. I started cooking full time last August, and I've been working hard to improve my skills and consistency ever since. During that time I would get a comment or two daily about how much someone loves my food, but two weeks ago something changed.

A big change was the weather. Its warm now and folks can sit outside to eat at lunch. Our dinners have also caught on and more people know that we're doing dinners-to-go. The result is a doubling of my workload. I'm having to be even more focused, more efficient and less whiny.

And what's cool about this is the number of positive comments I'm receiving now. About one out of every three customers actually makes the effort to tell me how much they enjoyed the meal. Like they'll seek me out to tell me. They'll come in the kitchen while I'm throwing green chile against the wall to tell me. It feels good.

Today someone said to me, "This food was so wonderful. The meal was really a blessing. Thank you." How cool is that?! And I get that daily. I didn't expect this type of response - this emotional connectivity between me, my food and my customers. But its there and its great.

What I secretly want to say is, "If you think these sandwiches are good, you should come to one of my dinners." But that would be pretentious, wouldn't it.

(stay tuned - my big peanut butter exploration is almost finished and should be a fun post...maybe this weekend.)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Molecular Gastronomy: Intention & Meaning

I have the good fortune of having a neighbor and friend who 1) is the ultimate intellectual, and 2) is a fan of my cooking. After my recent MG presentation, he posed a question from which we have been engaged in a running discussion. I'll share it here.

His original question:
What is the role of joke or pun in MG cooking?

My immediate reaction was that I don't create food and joke or pun, but rather, use all of the tools at my side to activate the diner's experience. I wasn't satisfied with that answer, nor was the questioner.

He then responded:

I respect your answer that you do not intend to make a culinary pun as you shape or create a dish. Rather, you say, your and others' aim is that of any artist--to fashion the elements of the world (in your case, food) to engage the senses. Any appeal to humor or to the mind is adventitious.

It's impossible to argue against intention, but I can quibble about the result. While a reaction of surprise or a laugh may or may not be welcomed by the molecular gastronomist; when such reactions occur, they become part of the art. Praxiteles to now, artists are stuck with it.

I misspoke when I used the terms pun, joke, and humor interchangeably. Humor (and the jokes within that category) depend on elements of cruelty or limitations. Puns and wit come from confusions of meaning. I suppose Jeff Foxworthy, Rita Radner, and Jack Benny would be the joke tellers and George Carlin, Calvin Trillin and Woodie Allen would be musing over meanings or the lack of them.

Take an example from your Tastings. There are dozens, but the icy beet balls will do nicely. (You did have one real pun in the menu: the tuna that was prickly pear and not Charlie.) If you had made the beet ice into brown boxes so that the diner would not have expected anything but mystery, there would have been no wit. Instead, you made
shiny, red, beet-sized balls look mysteriously like and unlike beets (another fruit, perhaps?). And the taste was beet but the texture was sorbet and the ball was icy, not fibrous, most unbeetlike but very beety. Had you had diners from Africa, the beet balls might have worked because fruits often are red and round or may have proved as unpunny as brown boxes. The effects of your art depends, like all art, on what's in our heads or experience.

Where would Michel Guerard have been without Auguste Escoffier? Not very far, because the half of an arugala leaf touching a squiggle of vinaigrette and a dot of organic horseradish would have been nonsense without memories of boats of Holladaise and reductions with double butterfat cream. Nobody would dare giggle at Guerard's productions, silly as they were, because it was all a serious business, sinking the 3,000 calorie-gourmand juggernaut. While the actuality may have been missing, memory of those heavy Escoffier courses and the diners' expectation linger and give substance, importance, clarity to la cuisine minceur.

So we know beets and caviar and apple juice, and discover, happily, that we were mistaken. Tricked, not by the cook magician, now you see it and now you don't, the David Copperfield among the pans. No, tricked by the George Carlin of the burners. You're so smart, name what you've known since you were sensing and you name wrong. Here's something new.

While the trick is incidental to the creator of the taste, it is crucial to the interpreter of the taste. The puns and irony of technoemocional may not be the motor that drives the scientists in the kitchen but they are the lure that keeps the diner at the table.

I then responded:
I can accept the use of pun, but I don't think it is quite as honed of a term as whimsy. Pun assumes a level of intention or concreteness that isn't present in my cooking. Whimsy, on the other hand, connotes a temporality and fluttering of interpretation. I think of a dandelion bloom floating through the air. The white billow seems to move effortlessly, and when you go to grab it, it swirls around your hand only to head off in a different direction. An inability to predict pattern or course is by design in my cooking (with some exceptions where I'm being much more direct - and not coincidentally, these are the dishes typically created near the end of my process when I am fatigued).

And so, whimsy is my word of choice, and that unpredictability and potential for uncertainty, is what, I believe, lures the diner back to the table. Trickery creates a power dynamic that I do not wish for in the dining experience - and trickery comes from the use of pun - "Ha! I fooled ya!"

And his response:
Each point in the creation and consumption of a dish may deserve its own motivation.

I could accept whimsy as the motivating characteristic for you as you think about and then make a confection, just as I could accept whimsy for Lewis Carroll as he begins to tell of a little girl and a rabbit. But whimsy is the most evanescent of reasons. Almost whimsical, I should say. Like a liqueur its punch is soon evaporated, leaving only a trace or two of its inspiration.

You title your whimsy. Do you call it, Mole Feathers, like some perverse entry in a Chinese menu, having no connection to the diner's experience? Nope. Here whimsy takes flight and like Carroll you move into the realm of metaphor, paradox and pun. To return to my original example, the beet that looks vaguely beetish but doesn't feel like a beet while somehow being the heightened, concentrated essence of beet. The pun is the shape and color: you could have made a tiny, brown box for the beet, but as the fellows with the pillowed place mats would say, "It's the whole experience." The chef wants me to anticipate something. The chef wants me to contribute to the experience. It's participatory gastronomy. If it were pure whimsy, a sort of extemporaneous randomness, I could have no such anticipation and would refuse to participate.

At the titling and plating, whimsy becomes comic play--George Carlin or Woodie Allen. When I see, smell, feel, and taste, my mind is responding not to the whimsy but to the altered meanings, because the pun was based on my anticipations. Laughter, surprise. Even shock. At the end, as the taste melts from my tongue, the pun becomes whimsy
perhaps. A pun explained, after all, is an unsuccessful pun. I would never read Through the Looking Glass to a kid and laboriously explain the ins and outs of Red Queens and late Hares. So we would want the experience to be recorded as something other and, as you suggest, whimsy does nicely for the diner, too, as an aide memoire.

And my response:
Ah, but we are two prisoners tapping messages through a concrete wall, never to have direct contact and thus never to fully come together. I cook for you (and for the sake of creation). You eat for you (and for the sake of consumption).

You suggest a dismissiveness in "whimsy," where I give it intentionality. Would the argument change if I eliminated titles to my dishes? I think not. Would you not be enticed if there were no titles? Again, I think not. So let me jump to a recent dish that I saw.

A chef created a liquid nitrogen "cooked" sherbet sphere. What the diner saw was a 4" sphere resting in a bowl with no utensils in site. Not a joke. Not a pun (to my understanding). But it had whimsy. The only way to eat it was through exploration - ultimately the diner realized they had to smoosh the sphere with their hand causing it to shatter, and then they were able to eat the sherbet shards by hand (liquid nitrogen caused them to become essentially astronaut ice cream). Is it a pun because it isn't what it appears? - I think you would say yes. Whimsy is a "fanciful or fantastic device." The ball is still sherbet. It may not take the form that you understand it to be, but the ingredients are the same, simply the freezing process has changed. However, the definition of whimsy seems more appropriate here. And so when I look at the beet dish, I see the same thing. While I am presenting the dish in a slightly askew manner, it is ultimately beets.

Okay, enough intellectual-esque spewing :) I agree, pun is certainly appropriate to define much of the experience. An air of whimsy certainly permeates the same experience, and so maybe (sorry the post modernist is oozing out right now) our definition is as fleeting as each dish and diner.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Round Cake Project v1.4 (aka Grapefruit Celery Cake)

Here is one of those long overdue projects:

Somewhere on web I found a pic of a round cake set inside of a regular spring form. I hadn't seen that construction anywhere so I wanted to give it a go. This timed with a neighbor bringing me a big bag of grapefruit (and for those who are regular readers, you'll be able to follow this logic) which made me think of celery which then made me think of szechuan peppercorn, which culiminated in black tea and honey. It all made me anyway.

So, I infused lychee black tea into suagaro honey:

I then used that to make Amernick's honey cake which is one of my favorite cakes (the best version I've made has had Big Tree Farms mango blossom honey). The challenge was the round top cake. I tried three other techniques, none of which allowed the cake to release, but finally I oiled and floured, added a couple of parchment strips and oiled and floured again, inside of a my iSi silicone mixing bowl. It worked, but it wasn't perfect and certainly wasn't as easy as I would like. I think someone needs to invent a bowl like this with a drain plug on the bottom to release the pressure (send me a lil' something once you make it big with that idea).

You can see that it fell a bit, but that was okay since I needed to cut it down, and that gave me a nice scrap. I had also added some szechuan into the honey which is a great combination.

Next, I added a layer of szechuan white chocolate. I would not do this again. I originally thought this would provide a moisture barrier against the mousse, but I now think I want the mousse to something to grab onto. You'll see in later pics how there is slight separation.

On the bottom of the honey cake I placed a grapefruit shortbread that had a very thin layer of tempered 85% dark chocolate - I wanted a crunch, but not so much that it would make cutting difficult.

That whole mess was then placed in my 8" springfrom which was filled with grapefruit bavaroise and frozen.

I then took that block of ice and set it in my 9" springform filled with celery mousse. The pepperiness of celery is still, I think, an incredible flavor in many desserts. Once that was frozen a layer of celery geleè was add and it was all re-frozen.

I'll now add that I've been wanting to improve my photos, so I recently bought a light tent. This is my first photoshoot in that light tent. I had a super high powered light shining on it, but I think my pics I'll be seeking advice on what I'm missing.

I added a few meringue strips to the outside...

and cut into it!

Overall, this is a really good flavor combination. I want to find a lighter cake that will not contrast so much with the bavarois and mousse, and same with the shortbread - I'll probably use Julie Child's hungarian shortbread technique (running it through a box grater) on the next version. More importantly I want to keep working on the round topped cake!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

We sure love Indian food...

and so I made some last weekend for some friends. Nothing fancy, just some palak paneer and aloo gobi

and some great flat bread.

Review: An Edge in the Kitchen

I recently reviewed An Edge in the Kitchen by Chad Ward, a book I highly recommend for anyone who loves to cook but feels not quite up to par with their knives. Go read the full review at The Gastronomers Bookshelf.

An Edge in the Kitchen provides a focused, readable guide that begs to be re-read as your skills improve. Well worth the purchase, this book has allowed me to whittle through countless vegetables with precision and ease, and to make my knives razor sharp.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Recipe: Power Bars

I've got a slight problem. Now that I'm cooking full time in the cafè I'm losing weight. Not much, mind you, but enough that I'm aware of it and wanting to stop it. I'm already on the thin side of the movie alien look, and don't want to get any worse. Seems odd with all of the over weight chefs out there, but I'm constantly running and tasting, and those tastings kill my appetite. So, over at eGullet I presented the problem and came up with the fact that I need an energy bar that's not full of crap, but is good enough that I can scarf a whole pan in one sitting if I want to. eG member, Marmish sent me to the Food & Wine website for their Cranberry-Walnut Power Bars recipe, which I quickly modified.

1 1/4 C Walnut halves
1/2 C Wild rice
1 1/4 C Oats
1 C Yellow raisins
3 T Crystallized ginger, chopped
1/2 C. Liquor chestnuts, chopped
1 C Great maple syrup
1/4 C Palm sugar
1/2 t Salt
1 t Vanilla

Microwave your walnuts (or any other nut) in 60 second bursts until they start to brown and smell toasted.

Next, heat an inch of canola or peanut oil in a sauce pan and get frying hot. Pour your rice into the oil and it should puff immediately. Good ingredients are key here! Get good wild rice. I use Singing Pines hand harvested wild rice. As soon as the popping slows, remove puffed rice with slotted spoon to paper towel to drain.

In large bowl, combine nuts, rice, oats, raisins, ginger, chestnuts and anything else that might be yummy like chocolate chips. In a small saucepan, combine the syrup, sugar (I use palm sugar because I like it but if you must feel free to use white, brown, muscovado or whatever) and salt and bring to a boil. Boil until blurping bubbles form - soft ball stage. Immediately pour in the vanilla and then pour the whole mixture over the dry ingredients. Toss to coat very well and spread in a 8x11 pan lined with parchment. Press enough to make it hold together but not so much that you smoosh the texture away. Let cool, then cut and scarf!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Brie Cones...My Go-To

My catering schedule has been picking up lately and I often need a fast, easy, but really tasty finger food. This is one I've been doing quite a bit. Using a cone pastry form, cut circles out of whole wheat fillo dough using a rubber mallet and a 3" pastry ring. Stuff the dough circles into the cone. Squirt your favorite marmalade into the cone bottom - on this one I used orange marmalade. Then squirt some melted brie on top of the marmalade. Spoon a bit of butter on top and into the oven for about 10 minutes or until browned. Bring to room temp, pop them out of the form and serve! Very fast, very easy and always a huge favorite.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Pot Pie

With some leftover chicken recently we made a huge pot of chicken soup. With some leftover chicken soup recently we made a bunch of pot pies to share with friends :)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Molecular Gastronomy Presentation

Last week I did my first presentation on Molecular Gastronomy (I called it hypermodernist). While you'll miss the joy of my commentary, click HERE to see my slides. Lot's of quotes and references from eG including Tri2Cook.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Good morning honey :)

On far too many mornings, these lil' cuties are my breakfast. They're kind of good for me, aren't they?

Monday, March 2, 2009

A gift from California: Casa Pau Hana olive oil

I'm in the fortunate position that I regularly receive foods and gadgets to play with. A couple of months ago I received two bottles of oil from Casa Pau Hana in Paso de Robles, California.

First some tidbits from googling.
They have two varietals:
Lucca, of which they have 400 trees of 8 years of age
Arbequina clone I-18, of which they have 800 trees of 6 years of age
(who knew such information was out there, and do we care?)
They also won a Silver Medal at the 07 LA Olive Oil Competition.

We've tried these oils for cooking, salads, and sauces. The Arbequina is much more familiar to us, and quite enjoyable. The Lucca was a new one for me - and I've slurped a lot of oil in my days. The oil is very smooth with a buttery start and a pepper finish. I found it a bit mild for my tastes, but could easily work well in a middle eastern meal or as a marinade for cheeses. I would really like to try this for a trick I picked up from a friend who marinates her shredded mozz for a day before she uses it on pizza - her pizza is the best homemade pizza I have ever had. The Lucca has a long finish that is surely enjoyable.

One nice thing about Casa Pau Hana is that they're small enough that they still handwrite their harvest date on the bottles, and aren't all corporated out with websites and fancy marketing. Of course we wish them the best so that they make the big bucks, but we also hope they stay a hidden treasure.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Mardi Gras Memories

I think of my 4+ years in New Orleans, I stayed in town for only three of the Mardi Gras. I mean really, at some point being surrounded by drunken, belligerent, loud people get on your nerves. And so my friends asked me to go somewhere else.

But during my time, I enjoyed a lot of beer, crawfish, and of course, gumbo. This past week I made gumbo for the cafè special, which meant about 30 gallons of the stuff for our friends and customers. Here's the recipe that I used:

3 lb of chicken thighs
2 lb Andouille, cut into small slices

Dusting for chicken: Flour, salt, paprika, cayenne and freshly cracked black pepper

1/3 C. AP Flour
1/3 C. Peanut Oil

2-3 Bell peppers (I mixed green and red)
4-6 Celery stalks, diced
2 Onion, diced
6 Garlic cloves, minced
1 T. Basil
1 T. Oregano
2 t. Cayenne
2 t. Freshly ground black pepper
1 T. Salt, to taste
8 C. Stock or broth

Skin thighs, but don't take all the fat off. Dust with flour and spices to cover. Brown in hot peanut oil in bottom of large stock pot. When both sides are brown, remove chicken and hold.

Brown the sausage until starting to crisp. Remove and add to chicken.

Make the roux. Turn heat up - ideally using a heavy metal pan like a cast iron. Drain oil from browning process, leaving the drippings. Add flour and oil and scrape the bottom of the pan well to make sure nothing burns. Constantly stir as roux transitions from light brown to dark brown, but not quite black. If you feel like things are progressing too quickly then turn heat down a bit. As you get to the really dark brown roux, add the peppers, celery and onions immediately and stir. Then add the spices and combine well. Turn heat down to medium, cover and cook 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the stock or broth and bring to a boil. Boil for 5 minutes, then turn down and simmer, covered, for 2-3 hours. Adjust taste throughout the process. In the pictures you can see that I added a bunch of crawfish during the last 30 minutes of cooking. On one day I added shrimp, so feel free to add whatever you enjoy.

(Sorry about the bad pic)
I also cranked out a bunch of king cakes complete with artisenal baby Jesus' courtesy of artist Suzi Calhoun or Art & Conversation.