Wednesday, December 7, 2011

gnocchi with venison and rosemary

This one is one of the dishes that presented me with an interesting challenge. Sure, i could buy venison somehow. But when people eat venison, isn't it usually venison they hunted themselves? With this -- one of two venison dishes in the book -- and a wild boar dish, I wondered if i shouldn't be going out and harvesting a wild animal. And part of me still thinks I should.

Here's the thing: I know nothing about hunting. I've shot a gun about three times in my life, and I was probably pre-teen last time it happened. And it was never at anything more animated than a beer can.

So there was a little bit of talk about me going hunting while I was in Texas. It was deer season. I was intrigued. Then I heard that it was going to cost me at least $300 to get an out-of-state license. I needed like a pound of venison (actually, about three pounds for the two venison dishes I have to do.) That seemed extreme.

Then I heard our Texas friend Tam already had plenty of venison in the freezer from a previous hunting season, and while I was in Texas, I could use that meat and Tam's kitchen. Done and done. 

The meat was sooo lean. I've never seen meat with no fat on it before. I mean none. I was a little unsure how it would stand up to long cooking. But I did what I was told and assumed the best.

For the rest of the dish, I got to go shopping at a farmers market in San Antonio and at Central Market, a store I really wish was here. 

Oh, and the rosemary. Well, I sort of didn't buy that. At home, I'd just go outside and pick some rosemary. I sort of did that in Texas, too. Except in Texas, I picked the rosemary from a plant that was technically landscaping outside the Culinary Institute of America. Shhhhh.

Once I got the meat, this dish was pretty easy. It just simmers in red wine for a couple of hours. 

And the gnocchi go together fast. Just boil the potatoes, mix in a little flour and egg and shape and boil them. To get the potatoes ready for the other ingredients, you'd usually pass them through a ricer. I didn't bring my ricer. So my potatoes were meticulously mashed with the back of a fork. Here is what one gigantic, uncooked gnocchi looks like:

That got separated into about 60 individual gnocchi, then boiled.

Then toss them with the ragu and it's done.

I added a little but of micro arugula on top because they had it at Central Market. And I thought it looked cool. Not in the recipe. I went a little nuts.

Once the meat was cooked and shredded, it was still totally … I don't know if "tender" is the word, because it's all shredded up. There's really nothing there to be tender. But it was a really nice texture, and seemed to soak up a lot of the reduced wine sauce and tasted great with the gnocchi. I get a little testy about gnocchi if they aren't the right texture, but these stayed pretty light. I'd do this again anytime.

Particularly if I have access to venison again, I guess.

Up next: Christmas baking.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

5 autumn vegetables

This one came together fast as I was planning Thanksgiving dinner. I was shopping at Whole Foods for the annual feast, and I saw Jerusalem artichokes. I didn't have any of Ted McLaren's Jerusalem artichokes left, and I wasn't sure the general availability of them throughout the year, so I figured I better get on it.

The other four Autumn vegetables were all things I knew I could pretty much get anytime. Butternut squash. Leeks. Parsnips. Celery root.

About celery root. It's sort of ugly.

But it cleans up nice.

The first time I had celery root was at a grand tasting at the Epcot Food and Wine Festival in 1999. Tom Gray, the chef at Bistro Aix in Jacksonville, was there and served a mashed potato and celery root puree with seared halibut. I immediately loved the taste of the puree, and decided I would, henceforth, ALWAYS puree celery root with my mashed potatoes, because it was so good.

I've tried it a bunch of times. Never really got it right. Invariably, I don't cook it enough and it ends up chunky and texturally unappealing. I've tried other dishes where it is roasted, and it just never seems right. It always seems undercooked.

So imagine my surprise when I read the directions for this dish, and there is no step in which the celery root is cooked. It is cut in julienne, and thrown in raw.

And it was the first time I've ever made celery root where it tasted right. Go figure.

The other thing with this dish was it called for goat cheese ricotta. No one here has that. Well, except the Dancing Goat lady at the farmer's markets around here, but i didn't have a chance to get to a market she was at before Thanksgiving. I have made goat milk ricotta before, and it would have been perfect for this application, but my cooking timeline didn't really have room to add "make ricotta." So I looked for alternatives.

My favorite cheese store makes ricotta, and that would have been a good choice. More on that later. That store also had a very fancy brand of goat cheese that I had not seen there before, one that is oft suggested in the book. It isn't ricotta, but I figured I'd splurge and use that. I got two packs of it, for a total of about 8 oz., and about twice that many dollars.

So the dish is ready. I had anointed the salad with pumpkinseed oil that was also about twice as many dollars as it was ounces. I got the toast off the grill and opened the fancy goat cheese. It was brown. Like, grossly brown, with warts. Maybe this cheese is sooo fancy that it has a rind, I thought. So I cut the edge off. Still brown. Then I cut it in half. Brown all the way through. Took a sniff. Lost my breath. Opened the other package. Repeated every step. Was distressed. Tore apart refrigerator and my cooler looking for the ricotta that I thought I had in reserve. Couldn't find it anywhere.

Guests were arriving in about 15 minutes. It was a holiday, so Publix, the closest supermarket, would be closed. While I finished everything else, Pam and Cyndi ran out to Winn-Dixie and bought a carton of ricotta and a small log of goat cheese. We mixed equal parts of the two and spread them on the toast. It wasn't remotely fancy, but it tasted fine.

And that's how Winn-Dixie contributed to this project. Will probably be the last instance. But thanks!

Between the goat cheese that I pitched and the pumpkinseed oil, this might have been the most expensive dish of the project. Certainly the most expensive without meat. Of course, truffle season is here. And there are two truffle dishes I need to do.

As for the salad itself, I liked it a lot. All those vegetables at the top? Here they are all chopped up and ready to go: 

Loved the celery root (remember, best way to cook it: don't). That was the primary flavor, I thought. Everything else was good. But I'll remember this as a celery root dish.

Oh yeah, the toast with goat cheese. Here it is with that. 

Up next: Not sure. Still trying to catch up on those pork chops.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

pork tenderloin with jerusalem artichokes

A couple of months ago, we were doing a photo shoot at the house for a story I was doing for work, and my friend Ted was here. He knew about this project, and has eaten some of the results. He was looking through the Babbo cookbook, and he got really excited when he came across this recipe.

"I'm growing Jerusalem artichokes! You want them?"


Ted grows a lot of stuff. I try to grow stuff, and have had a little bit of success with things like greens and tomatoes.

Ted grows Jerusalem artichokes.

At the time, he didn't know what would come of them, if they would be usable. I shrugged. My alternative was to wait to see when Whole Foods got them, so I was happy to wait out Ted's attempt.

They came out fine. 

The Jerusalem artichoke, also called a sunchoke, is the root of a sunflower-looking plant. So there was a lot of cleaning going on. That's a photo of them at the top of the post (taken, with permission, from Thanks!)

This what they look like when they come out of the ground:

And this is what they look like after they are trimmed and cleaned:

The recipe calls for the chokes to be packed in salt and roasted. Here is what that looks like: 

OK, it looks like a bowl of salt. 

I suspect there is science involved with the salt roasting, but I don't really know what it is. When you salt roast fish, the salt is in sort of an egg slurry and it gets all hard when it cooks, and seals in juices or something. This was dry salt, and sunchokes aren't juicy. I suspect that the salt, being a rock and all, heats up fast, and the direct contact with the food probably applies heat to the food more evenly, and probably more quickly.

But that's a total guess.

Otherwise, we had a pork tenderloin that was rubbed in sugar, chili pepper and porcini powder. Rub anything in porcini powder and it gets better. Don't think about that too hard. The pork gets grilled. I have experience with grilling pork. All over it.

I followed the directions for the cinzano vinaigrette, but I felt like I mostly just got olive oil with a little sweet stuff in the bottom. Luckily, I use really good olive oil. There were blanched green beans.

It was a good dish. Liked the pork a lot. Still not 100 percent sure what to make of the sunchokes, but I'd eat them again. I wish I had had a better balanced vinaigrette. Could have used a little more punch. I probably needed to get rid of the oil in the pan before adding the vinaigrette. Don't know.

FYI: There is one other Jerusalem artichoke dish.

Up next: grilled pork chops w peaches.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

steamed cockles with habanero chive broth

I could almost say this was an easy one. I mean, it's steamed shellfish. How hard is that?

Here's the thing: cockles are little clams. They're kinda cute. But they grow in New Zealand. Technically, right off New Zealand, but you know what I mean. I live in Florida. In Florida, we have clams growing right off the shores. So we get those. Cockles, not so much. I was ready to unapologetically make this dish with Florida clams.

But I've had clams in a few dishes in this project. So I wanted to at least try to get cockles. When I was planning a trip to DC, I figured that was a good time to try. Big city, they probably get all sorts of seafood in from all over the world, right? And this wasn't a complicated cooking procedure, so I felt confident that if I found them, I could cook them there without trying to bring them home.

I was sort of right.

I found them almost immediately. My pal Carol told me to try Black Salt, which is where she gets a lot of her seafood. I called them, they said they had it, told me the price. But then I ran into a problem I never have in Florida. I couldn't really get there.

It was only a few miles from where we were staying, but we had no access to a car that day. And the Metro in DC didn't go there. And there would be multiple bus transfers. So my pal Melanie set to work looking for an alternative that we could actually get to. She found a place in Bethesda, Md., A&H Market, that was actually farther away than Black Salt, but it was near a Metro stop. Turns out it wasn't really as near a Metro stop as they said, but after a half-hour or so on the train we were there. They had cockles, and we were in business.

Other key ingredients:
Habanero. They are right there in the title. So they must be important. My colleague Chris  had given me a bag full of habaneros from his garden, so knowing I was going to try to make this dish, I brought them with us. I put them in checked luggage. I doubt you can carry on habaneros.
Basic tomato sauce. Sure, I have a freezer full of officially sanctioned sauce at home. But I wasn't at home. And I didn't really feel like bringing tomato sauce with me on the trip. Luckily, Jeremy had this in the kitchen:

That works, right?

From there, it was all just steaming them open and dressing it up with some chives.

The broth was super wine-y, which is good. And the cockles were tender and sweet. And there was a kick from the habanero, but it was subtle.

I bet this dish would be awesome with Florida clams.

Note: We had this dish when we were at Babbo in the spring. And they have the recipe on the website.

Up next:
pork tenderloin with jerusalem artichokes.

Monday, October 31, 2011

mustard-crusted salmon with pressed beet vinaigrette

Well, if there is a way to catch my attention on a salmon dish, it's to add pressed beets to it.

I'll eat beets any way you put them in front of me. Some people say they hate beets because they used to have to eat the nasty ones out of the can. I love the nasty ones out of the can. They're just fine! They're beets! It's like candy vegetable. I don't understand how anyone doesn't love beets.

So let's talk about the beets. First you roast them. Then you run half through the processor and the other half through a juicer. Then you mix the results of those two processes with some sherry vinegar, olive oil and salt and pepper.

I have to say, I think the juicing step was unnecessary. The beets I put through the processor were pretty well bleeding, so adding juice to them seem a little redundant. Maybe I processed them too long? Maybe I roasted them too long? Dunno. All it really did was give me an excellent opportunity to freshly wash the juicer.

But it was awesome. The recipe made about 10 times more than I needed, but I'll find a use for my leftover pressed beet vinaigrette. Don't you worry.

Let's see, what else was there … oh yeah, salmon. It was fine. Good even. The trick was to firmly press the fillets into a boatload of mustard seeds. Here's a closeup:


I was wary. I figured that would be strong. Wasn't. The seeds were really all about texture. It looked cool, and was crunchy. And I kept the salmon minimally cooked, so I liked it too.

Up next: steamed cockles

Friday, October 28, 2011

planked king salmon

Self-inflicted controversy: Mario calls for king salmon. I couldn't find king salmon. So I had a choice: Try to find the prescribed fish, regardless of cost and likely at a potential hit to quality, or get the best I could from what was available to me.

Frankly, it wasn't a tough call on this recipe. I'm totally sure that king salmon is super special, but this dish was on the menu today, and since I'm not a big fan of salmon in any event, I was going with the best available salmon.

In this case, that was a Scottish salmon. And it turns out that the latitude of Edinburgh isn't that far south of that of Juneau, so, I'm totally rationalizing cheating. Still, I sort of hate salmon, so I'm happy to get them out of the way. 

The preparation is pretty simple, especially since I have had cedar planks sitting on my window sill for about a hundred years. I considered cooking it on the grill, because that's what i figured you did with cedar planks, but the book said in the oven, and that was easier anyway. Totally simple, actually. I heat up the planks for 20 minutes, then oil, salt and pepper the filets. 

And they cook for 9. 

And, ta-da: it's magic.

While all that is happening, I chop up cucumbers for the salad, and that goes together in a very familiar way. I've made Asian cucumber salads that seems a lot like this one, with a swap of vinegars and a few spices.

It looks nice on the plate, right? And almost embarrassingly simple. Wasn't even hard to shop for.

So this is the part where I tell you that even though I hate salmon, I looooooooooved this dish. That would be an exaggeration and will have to wait until this blog is converted into a movie, at which point it will be preceded by an emotional, soft-focus montage of me hating salmon before finally deciding to try this particular salmon in a moment of epiphany. There will probably be an Aerosmith song playing. Because if there is one thing I dislike as much as salmon, it is a Aerosmith-backed montage.

For the time being, I'll admit that I did like it. But that brings the number of times I have had salmon that I actually liked up to a total that is still able to be accounted for with the fingers of one hand.

Up next: mustard-crusted salmon, completing the salmon trilogy

Sunday, October 23, 2011

minibar, washington dc, oct. 14

Some blog somewhere recently listed the 11 U.S. restaurants where reservations were hardest to get. It was a little humorous, because I had been to almost half of them. Minibar, Jose Andres' six-seat restaurant within a restaurant was on the list. The process of getting this nearly impossible reservation went much like the others I have gotten. 

I dialed the phone at the appointed hour. It rang. Person picked up.

But instead of just giving me a reservation, she said: 

"Sorry, all the seats for that night are taken already, but we can put you on the waiting list. You're second on the waiting list!"

The nice person made it sound like that was great and likely to be a success. I considered the math, and figured that insomuch as I wanted one-third of the covers they'd be doing that night (six seats, two seatings; so they serve 12 people a night), it was highly unlikely. But I felt confident that if we didn't get in, we'd have fun somewhere else that night. So I shrugged and hoped for the best. 

Three weeks later -- one week before the reservation date -- I got a call that we were in. It was sort of a rush. 

So, with Melanie, Becky and Jeremy, above, all of whom you might recognize from photos of various dinners at my house, we walked downtown, through the National Portrait Museum, up three flights of stairs, to Minibar. 

We were told we could take as many photos as we wanted, which is cool, because not everyone is so accommodating. I've kind of gotten out of the habit of taking photos at restaurants, but since the chefs we're cool with it, and the only other two people at the bar with us also had a camera, I decided to let fire. I didn't take a photo of anything that was time sensitive: i.e., for the most part, melty. But really, the chefs presented each plate on a glass shelf above the bar, and while they explained what it was and how to eat it, there was plenty of time to snap before we needed to eat. 

There were 26 courses. I got photos of most. I will keep descriptions brief.

The first three things came in rapid succession, and I did not get photos. The first was a "cocktail" called the Oaxacan snowball. Irony alert: no snow in Oaxaca. It was a two-bite white ball that tasted like a margarita. 

Next came a "gift" from the chef. It was called the golden nugget, and it was in a jewel box, which we opened and it looked like a chocolate truffle, but was filled with lychee and black garlic. I thought it tasted earthy, like porcini or truffle, but apparently, black garlic. 

Then the Ferro Rocher, which was a chocolateless version of the candy. So, very hazelnutty. 

Then I had my bearings, and started taking photos.

Sea bean tempura. Literally two sea beans, fried. There was an sharp sauce. 

Almond tart with blue cheese. The almond is the half-sphere shell. The blue cheese is the mousse inside. We didn't eat the rocks. Well, I didn't. Jeremy? 

Did not photograph the mint leaf mojito, because it was ice. But I wish I had. It was served on a silver flip flop and a bed of mint. It tasted like a mojito in ice form, and had a syrup on top that tasted like rum concentrate. Very strong. Everyone liked it, but we thought it might have been better if the leaf-shaped ice had been 2-3 smaller leaves, so we could have put a whole leaf in our mouths and let it melt. It was large, there was biting. Minor point.

Steamed pita with avgotaraho. As I google that last word, I learn that it is the Greek version of bottarga, which is cured, pressed roe of tuna or mullet. I felt that the bread was very steam bun-y, but now that I know that, it makes sense that they call it a steamed pita. Nice, aggressive flavor, and a soft bun. Or pita. Whatever. Liked it a lot. Below is a photo of our chefs Charisse and Aitor filling them.

Coco steam bun. Almost didn't take a photo, because it was melty. We were supposed to lick it off the paper. More foam-y than bun-y, a word I thought I made up in the last paragraph, but here it is again already.

Below is a photo I took between courses of some of the stuff that was ready for a subsequent course. I actually have no idea what that is on the plate, but I suspect it might be sea cucumber. But that's later.

Oyster sequence I: An oyster served classically on the half shell with mignonette and a garnish. Well, almost. The oyster was from a chicken, and the garnish was an oyster leaf, a plant that tastes like oyster, apparently. They grow it in Ohio, we were told. Kinda cool. This dish reminded me of the big Top Chef dust-up between Richard Blais and Mike Isabella ... who, coincidentally, used to work for Jose Andres. Hmmmmmmm.

Oyster sequence II: This was an actual oyster, served under a dome that was filled with smoke. I want a smoking gun, though I know I'll never use it. So don't get me one. But I do, because it's cool. And there were little chanterelles. I forget the sauce. I'm not big on raw oysters, but I liked this. 

Zucchini in textures: This was the dish, surprisingly enough, that we were talking about the rest of the night. It was three layers of zucchini. The top was a gel, then a layer of seeds, then a layer of puree. Each tasted distinctly of zucchini, but in a different texture. So, very well named. It was very interesting. Again, I'm not a fan of zucchini, but this was good.

Thai peanut soup: There were two textures of ginger, neither of which I cared for. The frozen peanut puree in the shape of a peanut was really good. I wasn't a fan of the topographical bowl. Made it hard to combine the flavors. Meh.

Sea urchin ceviche with hibiscus: This one was a talker. I've never had sea urchin, because I have never heard a description of it that left me thinking I wanted to. But here it was. It was fine. I had been told the texture was akin to snot. Shrug. Maybe? I liked the hibiscus foam, though. That's the purple cloud. Would be happy with more of that.

Chicken "shawarma": Probably the simplest thing of the night, and maybe my favorite. The chicken is a piece of crispy skin wrapped in the lettuce leaf. The lettuce leaf is secured with what appeared for all the world to be a clear piece of rice paper, but was probably something else. It was structural, not a flavor. You dipped the lettuce into the sauce, which was a yogurt with a super-intense garlic flavor. I'd order this from the minibar food truck, if there was such a thing. 

Fabes con almejas: Beans and clams, or, a study in spherification. The clams were suspended within clam juice and the beans were actually puree, spherified to look like, well, beans. Discuss.

Shrimp & grits: The grits were like large creamy corn gnocchi. Perfect shrimp (I suspect rock, but didn't confirm). I think the broth was chorizo flavored, though I don't remember for sure. It would make sense.

Espardenyes with bone marrow: Espardenyes = sea cucumber. Sea cucumber ≠ vegetable. It's like a sea slug or something. Surprisingly fine, though I am not rushing out for the recipe. And I didn't care for the bas relief plate of the Rockies more the second time.


Charcoal salmon toro with black garlic: Straight forward.

Parmesan egg with migas: From my seat, I could see an immersion circulator behind the barm and see that it was set at 63 degrees (Celsius). So from the time we sat down, I was pretty sure there was a poached egg coming. It was like custard. Always a fan of the egg.

Adam & Eve: I'm not sure what the "bread" of this sandwich was. It was sort of like a meringue, but not sweet. Regardless, it was all about the filling, which was foie gras and apple. So, so rich; so good. Although, on the way home, we were scratching our heads about the name. The apple, we guessed, referred to Eve. Which would make Adam ... a fattened fowl liver? Curious. But when I make my ribs with apple glaze, I'm stealing the name.

This is just a photo of Jeremy staring adoringly at chef Jorge at some point in the meal. If you zoom in, you can see the impure thoughts.

And then it was time for dessert. It is possible the apple and foie was a dessert, actually. But for the purposes of this post, this was the first dessert ...

Vermont snow: There was a metal canister. Charisse and Jorge were looking into it. There was liquid nitrogen, and the associated steam. Then there was scraping. It looked like snow. We were told to wait a minute. Then they poured a maple syrupy thing over the snow. There were maple candies sticking out of the snow, and there were fruity bits -- lychee, I think -- underneath. Light, a lot of fun, a ton of flavor. Liked it a lot.

"Mango" coconut rice: The two things that look like perfectly wedged bits of mango? those are sorbet. Even the skin was painted on to the wedge. Clever. The one in the middle was actual mango, and the funny thing is, that was the confusing part. The rice component was crunchy puffed rice, which was good, but I loooooove me some sticky rice, so that was a bit of a letdown. But the sorbet was great.

Terra(misu): "Eat this in one bite. There's liquid in the center." Cool, but it was pretty big. I managed. Chocolate shell, quick frozen with liquid nitrogen. I presume the flavors of the inner goo were those of tiramisu, but the shell was the whole game. Big chocolatey cool.

Profiterole: A dehydrated meringue that tasted like a passion fruit pina colada. Nice. 

Bacon and chocolate: The bacon was super thin and crispy, and is on the bottom here, so you just see chocolate. Happy.

Fizzy paper: Just a piece of paper, that you are supposed to tear apart and eat. But when it hits the tongue, it gets all effervescenty. Lemon-limey. Very refreshing.

Overall, it was fun, required a lot of thought, a little concentration, and some leaps of faith. I think the best part about it was watching it all happen in front of us. Sometimes when I have people over, I get upset when the plates don't look gorgeous, or when things have cooled by the time I get them out. That's when I'm plating by myself for 8-15 people. Here, there were three people standing over six plates every course. And they all had tweezers. I'm giving myself a break after seeing that.