29 January 2009

Modern Taste of Charleston: Chef Aaron Deal of Tristan

(figure in far right, pondering)

My first taste of a James Beard Foundation dinner did not disappoint. It was intimate, lively, extravagant.

The appetizers packed the most lively punch of flavor:

- "Charleston She-Crab Soup with Parsnip Crème" with a thick texture that melted in the mouth. Served in espresso cups.

- Winter Radishes under a lemongrass vinaigrette served alongside a White Miso Sauce captured even veggie-phobic Marcus's attention. The radishes themselves were gorgeous. Two varieties of pure white and then (if I remember correctly) "watermelon radish", apparently named for its marbled fushia coloring. The miso sauce was very thick yet light, letting the radish stand on its own.

- Duck Confit with Organic Maple Syrup and Toasted Pecan stole the show. The maple syrup was complex and not too sweet - it had been aged in bourbon casks. It may have been the best duck I've ever eaten, which says a lot. Served on a crisp of polenta, with the duck confit shredded on top.

The butternut squash terrine beginning the meal was a little lifeless, but things picked back up with the "Kilroy was here" sparkling Shiraz (2006, Barossa) served alongside a nice if unimaginative beet and chèvre salad.

The white tuna was incredibly meaty, no doubt augmented in its punch by its envelope of pancetta. The accompanying Tahitian Vanilla Broth was delightful. Chef Deal's adeptness with meat was confirmed with his veal short rib, proving that even a notoriously delicate meat can stick to one's ribs (provided some form of bacon is involved). The wine pairing here was also good: Clarendon Hills "Sandown" Cabernet Sauvignon (2004, Clarendon). Smelled and tasted mostly of chlorophyl-rich grass.

Finally, the foie gras pot de crème defied this blogger's low expectations (as neither foie gras nor sweets are her favorite thing). Yet the foie gras was subtle and heightened by crunchy sea salt. The accompaniaments of Cashel Blue Cheese and pickled grapes (pickled for 3 weeks in a long list including red wine vineager, star anise, black pepper, and cloves) lifted it out of the sugar doldrums.

I feel an affinity to Chef Deal's palate: meaty goodness, crisp heirloom veggies, and a less is more attitude with sweetness. My good opinion of him was confirmed when I asked for his favorite cocktail.

"Grey Goose on the rocks"

Showing a certain similarity to Rachel Ray's answer to the same question, and the truism that a chef also must be an alcoholic on some level. I'm not sure if the inverse is true for me, however. My own taste for quality, straight liquor probably only signifies my rearing in Eastern Europe.

16 January 2009

Angela's Best Chocolate Chip Cookies

A guest article by Angela Williams, who makes chewy yet crispy chocolate chip cookies of a special magnificence. I especially like how the taste of salt emerges through the sweetness, and the depth of the dark chocolate. She may be a poet, but I'm trying to convince to make these cookies full-time. Enjoy!

The only reason I can think of that people like my cookies so much is due to the butter, salt, and quality of the chocolate chips. I use more butter than is advisable for human consumption. Not really, but to make four dozen chocolate chip cookies you have to stir in two sticks of butter (and I use salted even though unsalted saturates more of the flavor but I looove salted butter). In fact, salt is a necessary ingredient—salted butter and half a teaspoon of salt. It'll offset the sweetness of the granulated and brown sugar.

Next, the chocolate chip issue. Use quality chocolate. I use Ghiradelli's because its chocolate is the closest to gourmet. You can use Tollhouse or Hershey's, but let's face it, those are run-of-the-mill blah chocolate chips and most likely use bad, bad ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup (even regular corn syrup makes the chocolate heavy). You want to taste chocolate, not sweetener. If the chocolate doesn't match the dough's quality, you'll have an uneven cookie. I like to use milk chocolate chips but bittersweet is the best chip to satisfy everyone. That said, I think I made Christie and Marcus worship this particular batch of cookies because I specifically used dark chocolate (60% cocoa).

Last, always understand your oven and its settings. Never leave the cookies in for too long because then they'll dry out. If the recipe calls for 375 degrees (such as mine), then put your cookies in for 9-10 minutes only. The edges should be so lightly brown you can barely tell. The chewier the cookie, the yummier. And always, always hand mix! You'll get a much better texture and you'll burn calories, all at the same time. What could be better than that?

The Best Steak Sandwich

Last night we ate NY Strip Steak (my favorite cut for its big flavor and chewy texture) with oven toasted, rosemary and thyme-rubbed potato wedges. It tasted as good as it sounds. Today, however, I was blown away with the power of the leftovers, transformed into a steak sandwich.

First, as to the meat: I firmly believe that the only good-tasting meat is happy meat. Meat needs to be happy throughout its chain of being, meaning that it needs to be raised in reasonably clean and comfortable environment, slaughtered humanely, and cooked with the utmost respect. I got the four gorgeous examples in the picture from our butcher's at Gourmet Garage. I first let the meat become comfortable at room temperature, and sealed it up on both sides with a simple yet heavy seasoning of Maldon salt and fresh ground pepper. A smear of of extra-virgin olive oil on top helped it both brown in the oven and not stick to the pan. After the meat seemed relaxed and feeling good in its salt and pepper dressing (I let it sit out for maybe 45 minutes, which was fine in our cold winter apartment, but might not be recommended by food safety experts), I stuck it into a searing hot broiler, cooking it for about 3 minutes on both sides, to a nice medium rare. (I typically eat my beef on the bloody side of rare, but I was looking for something more like comfort-food this time) Crucially, it rested for at least 5 minutes while I was setting the table. This all resulted in extremely flavorful steaks. I served it with a dallop of compound butter (thyme, shallot, lemon juice, salt, pepper, unsalted butter) to smear into the meat. So simple.

Today the steak's punch of flavor was intensified as the compound butter had worked its way through the meat overnight.

I sliced the left-over steak up and toasted the remaining leg of yesterday's baguette. A smear of the aioli (garlic, salt, egg, and good oil, emulsified) kept everything moist and flavorful inside. On top of the steak went slivers of Castellano cheese (like an aged Manchego), and a handful of peppery and crisp arugula. It's the best thing I've tasted in a long time, if I may say so myself, and I highly recommend it. Now I just need a glass of Chianti to call it a meal...

15 January 2009

White House Chef: Walter Scheib

The James Beard Foundation is my new favorite organization. It's dedicated to excellence in American cuisine. Need I say more?

In addition to their famous dinners, they host a series called "Beard on Books", bringing in interesting food writers on a variety of subjects.

Today master storyteller Walter Scheib graced the upstairs dining room of the James Beard House with at least 40 audience members crammed in like anchovies in good olive oil. He kept us in cahoots with tales of the antics and sometimes strange palates of the Clinton and Bush families. W ruined one of his first state dinners by not knowing dining protocol; having rejected a far-too avant garde green soup, all of his guests had theirs taken away mid-bite. Scheib ran a mini cooking school for Chelsea Clinton prior to her first classes at Stanford. Pick up his book if you find politicians and/or food interesting. It's a thoroughly entertaining read, although I wish after hearing him today that there was an audiobook version.

07 January 2009

Battered Sausage and Chips

Salt, vinegar, and lots of brown "chippy" sauce cover my deep fried sausage and fat, golden chips. Edinburgh's Royal Mile includes a tiny techno shack run by lovely Poles that happens to make the best version in the downtown. Its warming effects lasted all the way to the Mound, nearly to Princes Street. Frankly, this is the only way to follow up a visit to Per Se...

January is the happiest month

Let the celebrations begin! January heralds much rejoicing: finally being home again after too much family time, Obama's inauguration in thirteen days, and lovely presents and house guests over New Years have left us champagne, wine, and Whiskey Galore! (Which is a fun old movie if you've never seen it)

Pictured from left to right: Macallan 12-year-old single malt, W. & J. Graham's Malvedos 1996 Vintage Port, Tattinger, Sassoalloro Jacopo Biondi Santi (a 2005 Supertuscan), Booker's Bourbon, Ö Oregon Pinot Noir NV, and a Bollinger Special Cuvée. Central is a beautiful present of a hand-blown glass turn decanter.

05 January 2009

New Year, Fresh Faces

Different household names I've discovered this holiday season in the UK:

1. Tamasin Day-Lewis and her spectacular memoir, Where Shall We Go for Dinner? I haven't finished it yet only because I intend to draw it out and savor the stories for as long as possible. So far the story brings in a cast of characters that reads like a Who's Who of both the culinary and literary worlds. She includes interesting recipes at the end of each chapter.

2. Gino D'Acampo's cookbook, Buonissimo! (Italian food has never been so sexy) has great photographs and comprehensive yet creative recipes for Italian classics and staples. I'm a sucker for Italian (having spent my early childhood in Rome) and beautiful men, this fits both points to a T.

3. Tessa Kiros's wonderfully illustrated cookbook is based around colors, a truly charming philosophy of food. She's half Cypriot, half Finnish, but there are also strong Italian influences from her husband's family. I cannot recommend her whimsical book enough: Apples for Jam

Per Se Menu: December 11, 2008

December 11, 2008
Happy Birthday Christina and Marcus
Chef's Tasting Menu

The meal begins with two amuse-bouches: a crisp brioche ball filled with melted gruyère that disappears in one bite, and a miniaturized play on the ice cream cone with a scoop of minced smoked salmon and crème fraîche filling the cone.

1. "Oysters and Pearls" for Marcus
"Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar

White truffle custard topped with black truffle ragu served with a chive potato crisp for Christina

2. "Carnaroli Risotto Biologico"
White Truffles from Alba and "Castelmagno" Cheese

3. An extra course of a Floridian crab claw simply served on a hunk of ice with an aioli dipping sauce

4. Grilled "pavé" of Covia with Tokyo turnips, broccolini florettes and pickled mustard seed vinaigrette

5. Scottish Langoustines "à la plancha" with "boudin blanc", heirloom beets, and "mousseline au raifort"

6. "Aiguillette" of Liberty Farm's Pekin duck breast with sunchokes, Piedmont hazelnutes, and garden mâche with duck jus

7. Rib-eye of Elysian Fields Farm's lamb "en persillade" with "mousse au Pimenton", "socca" crêpe, Holland eggplant, and sweet peppers with lamb sauce for Christina

Pan roasted sirloin of Blackmore Ranch's Wagyu with crispy bone marrow, forest mushroom-potato "mille-feuille", and braised rainbow swiss chard with "sauce bordelaise" for Marcus

8. "Le Sarlet" with globe Artichokes, haricots verts, and young lettuces with black winter truffle "aigre-doux" (a dish that neither of us remembers eating)

9. Red verjus sorbet with per se raisins, grape tuile, and gingerbread crumble

10. "Banoffee" with devil's food cake, chocolate "marquise", and malt "crémeux" with banana-crème fraîche sherbert for Marcus

"Pomme-beurre noisette" with a "confiture" of granny smith apple, "financier", and Tahitian vanilla "bavarois" with "glace au beurre noisette" for Christina

11. "Mignardises" of chocolates and other confections that went on for at least four more courses.

To drink we had René Geoffroy's "Empreinte" champagne from Cumières, a 1er Cru to start. We moved on to the Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir "Laurène" from Dundee Hills, Oregon. Our third (half bottle, that is) was an Australian with a cool story called Lost Highway "Torbreck-Shiraz/Roussanne" from Barossa Valley. We finished with the 2005 Hourglass Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley.

We wet our whistles with sparkling wine and finished with espressos and mint tea.

The portions were definitely too big this time around. Ideally each course should be finished in two to three bites, leaving you wanting more.

Per Se, Part Deux

It took a long time to digest my second visit to Thomas Keller's Per Se. Marcus and I had prepared for the grand event by saving every last quarter in a single malt 12 year Balvenie box for about a year, and we then made the reservation exactly two months before the date (as normal people must). We had last visited the restaurant in July 2007, and it had been the culinary apex of both our lives.

Throughout the entire meal I felt a certain resistance to the song and dance of three Michelin starred dining, a feeling which I am now able to identify mostly as a fear of falling too far down the rabbit hole into utter dependency for tastes I cannot regularly afford. Yet it also had to do with the meal not quite living up to its former glory. Marcus agreed that the execution of this December meal didn't seem nearly as thoughtful or impressive as what we had experienced before.

It perhaps speaks to this diminution in attention to detail that the chefs no longer hold a nightly meeting about the next day's menu; planning now happens the morning of the same day. Whereas I can still recite from memory the first menu from a year and a half ago, my recollection of the meal from a couple weeks ago is much more spotty because it simply wasn't as memorable, with a couple of exceptions. There was the fresh crab claw flown in from Florida that we were rewarded with after we revealed we were friends with author Phoebe Damrosch, the author of the thoroughly entertaining memoir Service Included chronicling her time as a waiter there. There was also the extravagant white risotto served with a snowstorm of white truffle from Alba. I found it instructive how little it was cooked; the grains were largely a chewy, al-dente core, and the overall texture was very liquid rather than gooey. Marcus had an incredible piece of Wagyu beef, perfectly achieving that ineffable designation of au point.

On the other hand, my Elysian Fields lamb dish definitely didn't make the cut. The minced smoked salmon topping Keller's signature brioche cornetto smelled and tasted fishy, like it had been out of the sea and in the fridge for too long. It's also a little odd that neither Marcus nor myself remember having one of the dishes listed on our menu, the "Le Sarlet" of globe artichoke and black truffle that was supposed to have been served between the red meat and sorbet courses. Finally, I made a mistake in choosing a half-bottle of champagne that turned out to be too sweet over the single glass of Krug I had been craving to start off the meal.

It would be disingenuous only to bitch about the short fallings of what is still an impressive and enjoyable restaurant, but based on our night it seems that quality control at Per Se, once militant, is now relaxed. While it's true that everyone has bad days, I am less inclined towards leniency in judging an establishment with pretensions to perfection. I left wishing that the kitchen would wake up from its nap. Our head waiter was terrific, going out of his way to fulfill my wish for the evening to come out understanding the taste of truffles. However, the food verged on lazy, lacking an injection of energy and imagination. No new scotch box is being filled for our next visit, we're taking a break from Per Se... at least until someone else offers to pay for it.

01 January 2009

Happy New Years!

Greetings from the heather-colored countryside of bonny Scotland, in the outskirts of the small Borders town of Jedburgh, where Marcus's family lives in an ancient converted farmhouse. My, but it's cold.

Hogmanay was spent steeped in cava (a Recession alternative to champagne), and finished with an elaborate feast in the style of Nigella Lawson's Christmas recipe book. We began with parma ham bundles filled with fig, and brown bread canapés topped with horseradish mayonnaise, smoke salmon, red cabbage, and a single sprig of dill. Next came ginger ale soaked roast ham, red cabbage cooked with blackberries, fresh lasagna noodles filled with butternut squash and nutmeg scented creamy ricotta, and incredible potato skins filled to the brim with cheesy goodness and even a bit of bacon. A chocolate "Christmas log" cake decorated with powdered sugar "snow" rounded it out.

Have you sung Auld Lang Syne yet? I propose that to counter the many problems spilling over from 2008, all New Years Resolutions for 2009 should focus on increasing joy and pleasure. Somewhat selfishly, mine is to take a professional massage course with my partner. 

I am sending a particular bit of holiday cheer to this blog's creative partner, Miss Aleksandra Markovich. Thanks to her, The Girls Who Ate Everything is the only foodie blog with a correspondent in Afghanistan. Although security is obviously an issue, she brought us a description of a cuisine influenced by India with appearances of both naan bread and lassi drinks. I am certainly looking forward to hearing more as she enjoys the rest of her tour in Kabul.