Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Good and the Bad of Restaurant Cookbooks

I ended up making a couple recipes from restaurant-chef-penned cookbooks this past weekend. One was an example of why Thomas Keller is my culinary hero and the other was an example of why it's hard to recommend many chef cookbooks... Let's start with the bad.
Due to a hard-to-pass-up sale ($5.49/lb.), I ended up with a two pet lobsters on Saturday. Their names were Bob and Mr. Pinchy. I wanted them to look good for their photo op, so I ran them a nice hot bath... but, as you can see from the picture above (that's Bob on the right), I apparently had the temperature too high. I think Bob and Mr. Pinchy would have wanted me to make the most of this tragic situation, so I decided to make a recipe from Alfred Portales' "12 Seasons Cookbook" that I'd been wanting to make for years but had never gotten around to (and had never had 2 lobsters at my disposal to make). The lovely picture in the book looks like this:
(We'll come back to that in a minute...) After dismantling Bob and Mr. Pinchy, I had a good-sized bowl of lobster meat:
I made a quick batch of mayonnaise to use in the dressing
then chopped the lobster meat and set it aside along with some diced steamed beets, celery, and fingerling potatoes, a chiffonade of romaine, and a bit of the mayo. (Look at all that lobster!):
This is where I start to have some issues with Mr. Portales. Let me begin by saying that I understand food photography and I know that pictures in cookbooks tend to be an idealized, arranged-with-tweezers version of what the dish could look like at it's finest. (One of the nice things about books photographed by Petrina Tinslay, who does all of Donna Hay's books among others, is that the food looks absolutely gorgeous but in a natural, un-fussed-with way...) Alfred Portales apparently sort of made a name for himself by plating tall stacks of carefully arranged food in his restaurant back in the day - a style which has since gone out of fashion (along with serving food in martini glasses... ahem) - so I was prepared for fussy presentations in his pictures. What I wasn't prepared for was reading a recipe's instructions and seeing that they could not possibly result in anything even remotely resembling the pictured dish, as was the case with this lobster salad. I had never cooked with beets before, but even I knew that if I were to toss everything on the above plate together (as the recipe instructs), I would end up with a hot pink mess. (You will note the absence of said hot pink hue in the book's photo.) I actually did this to one serving just to confirm my suspicion (yep... hot pink...), then opted to just sprinkle the beets over the plated lobster salad for a less fluorescent version (served with thinly sliced avocado):
You can still see a few hot pink spots from where a beet barely touched the salad as it tumbled past... This is the type of chef recipe that can seriously irritate a (high-strung) person, and I'll probably hesitate to open that book to find a good recipe in the future... It also wasn't substantially better than just dipping the damn lobster in some melted butter, which isn't really acceptable given the amount of tedious prep involved in making this dish. (Especially relative to the alternative recipe, which is: Cook lobster. Melt butter. Combine in desired proportions as you eat.) Anyway... On to the good...
Above is the cookbook photo of the Citrus-Marinated Salmon with a Confit of Navel Oranges and Pea Shoot Coulis (the coulis is in the gravy boat in the picture) from Thomas Keller's French Laundry Cookbook. I'll save you the suspense and let you know right now that mine will not look like the dish in the picture (if only because mine is not topped with $100 of caviar), but it could. What I love about Keller's cookbooks is that he'll tell you exactly what you need to do to make your own version of the amazing food that comes out of the French Laundry kitchen. Whether you can find the quality of meat and produce that his purveyors bring him (you can't) or have the technical skills and patience of the team of chefs involved in the preparation of each dish (your probably don't) is another story... I tend to opt out of following his fussier instructions when cooking for myself, but I appreciate that they're there in case I have a few extra hours on my hands and want to try to blow a dinner guest's mind...
This is actually a pretty easy recipe, as far as this book is concerned. A side of salmon is covered in a marinade of sugar, salt, white pepper, and zest of limes, lemons, oranges, and grapefruit, then lightly weighted and left to cure for ~3 hours in the refrigerator. Meanwhile, you supreme the oranges and confit the segments in simple syrup with a splash of vinegar. The pea shoots (uncooked in the picture on the right above) are blanched, puréed, and strained, then loosened with a little butter just before serving. When the time comes to cook the salmon, you rinse off the marinade, pat the salmon dry, then allow it to come to room temperature for ~45 minutes.
The recipe calls for poaching the fish in olive oil 110°F at this point, and this is one place where I chose to go astray (largely because I didn't want to be left with a gallon of salmon-infused olive oil that I would end up having to throw away). I decided, instead, to get all trendy and make my first-ever attempt at using the much-touted sous-vide method. For this, I rubbed the salmon portions with olive oil (to get a little of the flavor that the poaching would have provided) then vacuum-sealed them in a pouch. I heated a water bath to 110°F using my free (family-discount at a yard sale) electric wok rather than the $900 thermal immersion circulators that masters of the technique use. I cooked the salmon for 10 minutes (the wooden skewers are in there just to make sure the packet doesn't touch the bottom of the wok, which may be warmer than the desired 110°F).The wok held the temperature perfectly (which was a pleasant surprise since I had been pondering more expensive alternatives). I plated a small pool of the pea shoot coulis, topped it with navel orange segments, then laid the salmon across the top and garnished with chives:
(Next time I'll make the citrus powder to sprinkle around, which I totally forgot this time.) No points for French-Laundry-like presentation but, like I said, this is largely due to my refusal to properly follow directions... This was a really interesting dish. The salmon looks raw but is completely cooked, and is somewhat reminiscent of the best gravlox you've ever had in your life. The bright fruitiness of the orange segments and the fresh vegginess (?) of the pea shoot coulis were a great compliment to the salmon... If only I'd had an extra $100 burning a hole in my pocket with which to buy some caviar, this may have approached genius... I guess my point here is that, among other things, I appreciate that Thomas Keller never tries to make me turn a lovely plate of ingredients into a hot pink mess.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Awesomeness Personified

I went to see The National in concert at House of Blues on Saturday night with my friend Sarah, and they totally rocked my world. I have loved this band for a while, but I was still surprised by how hard they rocked the live show. The band sounded amazing, and Matt Berninger (primary songwriter and lead vocals) was working this quirky, self-deprecating, wine-swilling, tortured-artist vibe that killed me... It was just ridiculously freaking awesome. I don't really know how to properly put it into words...
Above are my camera-phone pictures from the show... taken with my phone's truly pathetic resolution. (The band was much closer in person, as well as being less pixelated...) The picture on the bottom right is an attempt to show the piano/keyboard guy working his accordion. This was my first time seeing a rock accordion, and I hope it is not my last. They were also sporting a horns section, and the occasional lead-guitar-goes-over-to-be-the-second-piano-player situation. I find I prefer live shows from bands with a bit of instrumental diversity. And, damn... I could listen to the lead singer all day. Which, in fact, I pretty much did today. You know it was a good show when the first thing you do is go home and listen to the albums every chance you get... and spend the rest of the day singing the songs in your head... Just: wow.

Even having had to pay the extra $25 for baseball-game-day parking rates (HoB is across the street from Fenway and apparently there was a game going on) wasn't an issue after this show... They played most of the tracks from Boxer, a lot off of Alligator (saving a seriously awesome rendition of Mr. November for the encore, as I sort of suspected they would), and also sang a few new tracks from the album which will be released "tomorrow" (the metaphorical "tomorrow," that is...) and which may or may not be called "How the Leprechauns Died." I can't wait...

Monday, May 18, 2009

Food, Wine, and Friends...

Despite my often anti-social tendencies, I decided to go ahead and host a little wine-tasting get-together thingy over the weekend. (I find it is easier to be social if being social does not involve leaving my apartment...) It seemed like a good excuse to hang out with my totally awesome co-workers (and and my totally awesome friend Joe) away from work while eating good food and tasting delicious wine. Thus it was that by Saturday night (after a day scaring Pedro to death with cooking smells) this table of yummy food appeared in my living room:
Sarah came by early to be my wing-man in the kitchen (since Steph was too lame to fly over from Santa Barbara to help out...) and expertly folded the awesome phyllo triangles (embiggened below so you can marvel at her craftsmanship), as well as bringing some awesome fresh corn and asparagus to throw on the grill.
I think the Miniature Jalapeño Soufflés (or "Little Spicy Cupcakes," as a friend in Melbourne called them) were probably the favorite thing I made (the smoked salmon and dill spread that a friend brought was pretty darned tasty as well)... There were a couple culinary hiccups, primarily due to working with different ingredients than I'm used to (the cheddar I used wasn't as good as the Tillamook extra sharp vintage white that I like to use when on the West coast, and the blue cheese in the Chicken Liver and Blue Cheese Pâté was WAY stronger than the kind I usually use, so that turned out a lot more funky-stinky-cheesy than usual... I still actually liked it in a strange way, but it's not at all what I intended to serve to guests, and I didn't get a chance to taste the chilled version and discover this until after guests had come and gone... oh, well...)
There was pretty good variety in the wines, with selections from Cali and Oregon. Surprisingly, Oregon (Erath in particular) really got its ass kicked in the blind tasting. We had an Erath 30th Anniversary Pinot from 2000 (which almost certainly suffered from over-cellaring...) that retailed for $30 at the time it was purchased and a 2007 Erath that sells for ~$15 in stores. These were the two least favorite wines of the bunch. Another Oregon Pinot came in 3rd-to-last, but it suffered from following the night's winner: a wine we would sometimes refer to as "Forty Buck Chuck," (referencing, of course, Two Buck Chuck from Trader Joe's and the fact that this wine, the Carlson Pinot Noir, was the work of winemaker Chuck Carlson (whose winery I used to work for in Santa Barbara) and cost... $40). This was the 2004 Santa Rita Hills vintage, and it is one damn fine Pinot, I must say... Foxen (also from Santa Ynez) performed admirably as well with a 2004 Santa Maria Valley Pinot. These were both from my stash (as was the more expensive loser from Erath) and weren't necessarily something you can find in stores (especially over here). The other front-runner, however, was the Sterling Vintner's Collection 2007 Central Coast Pinot - a bargain at $15 and much easier to track down at your local wine store...
I went with a pretty easy meal for dinner on Sunday to make up for hanging out in the kitchen scaring Pedro so much on Saturday: Warm Chicken with Lemon Couscous. This is a Donna Hay recipe that makes me very happy, and is super-summery... just in time for a low of 36°F tonight... The grilled lemon is sort of brilliant, and the sage, capers, lemon zest, and almonds in the couscous are an awesome accompaniment to the grilled chicken.
I also had to test out a new (free! woohoo!) ice cream maker tonight, so I made a batch of the most ridiculously simple yet delicious frozen yogurt. You basically just get out a bowl and dump in two 500g tubs of Fage yogurt (I used one 0% fat and one 2% fat) plus 3/4 cup of suger (I would use less next time, I think) and a 12-ounce bag of mostly-thawed-then-mushed-in-the-bag frozen fruit (I went with blueberries) then stir to combine:
Freeze per your ice cream maker's instructions (I know you're not supposed to have solids in there the whole time, but I didn't feel like puréeing the blueberries or separating juices from solids after mushing them up in the bag, so I just dumped it all in there...) and you have delicious and healthy frozen yogurt:
Not bad for 2 minutes of work and 25 minutes of waiting for it to churn... Imagine the possible variations once summer berries are here...

Sunday, May 10, 2009


So, I often find myself half-assedly defending the chain stores (particularly that evil one) that I patronize when in need of bargain household items, but I realized the other day that there is only one food-and/or-beverage chain that I frequent, and only one other that I will go to the trouble of defending in conversation. (I'd probably have to throw Baja Fresh on the list as another place if I still lived in Santa Barbara... Mmmm... Steak Ultimo....)
I'm not actually opposed to chains (and I couldn't care less about the driving-mom-&-pop-stores-out-of-business argument), I'm just opposed to paying money for what is generally really bad food when I could cook something much more delicious, healthy, and satisfying on my own. I can almost understand fast food if you're a person who's not really into cooking, but I'll never understand the sit-down chain restuarants that cost just as much as (if not more than) a "real" restaurant that you could be patronizing instead. I realized recently that I reflexively make disgusted faces when people suggest eating at these places (image below redacted because I don't like naming places/things I loathe).
That being said, the chain I haven't patronized in years but defend for nostalgic reasons is Taco Bell. Yes, the food is totally unatural. Yes, it has only a tangential (at best) connection to real Mexican food. But here's the thing: If you've been drinking beer with your friends for a few hours and suddenly realize that it's 3am and food is a GENIUS idea? There is no finer meal than Taco Bell. I would usually go with the Beef Chalupa Supreme (Supreme means "sour cream," for those of you who aren't in the know... Fiesta means "rice" for some reason, which isn't very festive at all...) and/or a 7-layer, since that was the fanciest menu item back in the day. I'm sure all the new stuff is awesome in the 3am-after-many-beers setting as well, though, because this stuff is scientifically engineered to taste oddly good at just those times... I've never had Taco Bell outside of the 3am-after-many-beers window (except maybe for breakfast on the morning following one of those nights), but I suspect it would not be quite as awesome...
Anyway, the only food-and/or-beverage chain that I do frequent and that I will defend against any and all detractors is Starbucks. Now, I'm originally from the Pacific Northwest, and coffee is one of the things we people tend to be somewhat fanatical about. I don't necessarily go to Starbucks that often if I'm in a city that loves coffee and makes it well (which is to say: a town where you can walk into a random coffee shop and know you're going to get a good espresso). It was hard to find a Starbucks in Melbourne, for example, but I didn't care because there were 7 places less than a block away from my apartment that made far superior espresso. But on the road, in small towns, and in cities that don't understand coffee (I'm looking at you, Boston), Starbucks suddenly becomes extremely important. I remember ordering an espresso at the only coffee shop in Bethlehem, PA (where I spent a summer in college) and seeing the "barista" grab a can of generic-brand instant coffee crystals to use in the espresso machine. I would have killed to have a Starbucks in that town. Similarly, in Boston people seem to think that a certain fried dough establishment is a coffee shop, which... just... No. No it is not.What I love about Starbucks is that you can get a cup of coffee (my drink being a Venti coffee (iced or hot, depending on the season) with 4 add shots) that is somewhere on the spectrum between good and awesome. The beauty of chains is that you can be in any city in the country* and walk in off the street and get exactly what you wanted. During the week I mostly make my espresso at home but, if I find myself out in the world wishing for a tasty beverage, I will head to Starbucks any day rather than taking my chances on a random place (especially in this town).
I say all of this by way of an epically long lead-up to asking the (approximately three or four) people who read my blog a question (which it would be awesome if you answer in the comments): What chains (if any) do/did you frequent (now or in your youth) and/or which ones do you find yourself defending against the haters?

*I say "country" instead of "world" because it took me over a year to figure out how to get what I wanted at the Starbucks locations in Melbourne... Apparently it is very similar to rocket science... or (as some have suggested) I am very high-maintenance...

Fava Beans, Asparagus, and General Springtimeyness

For some reason I was completely feeling the springtime thing this weekend, and the produce selection at Russo's helped to feed that mood. (If I didn't have so many awesome shortcuts to get around my neighborhood, I would have noticed that there was a sneak-preview Farmers' Market 6 blocks from my apartment, which would have been fun to check out... Ah, well. It apparently opens for reals in mid-June.) I've been whining about wanting fava beans for so long that I'd almost given up hope, but (finally) this weekend the favas were looking pretty tasty so I got to have one of my favorite foods: Fava Bean Crostini with Ricotta. The very complicated ingredients are pictured below:
The key to Fava Bean Crostini is to get the best possible ingredients since there's nothing complex going on to mask any sub-par flavors. The ricotta I bought was pretty awesome, but I think I'll make my own next time just so I can say that I make my own ricotta... I think my fava bean obsession started with a Thomas Keller interview I saw, but I learned because of that interview that you need to prepare fava beans in the tedious way (rather than the easy way) to enjoy them at their best. This means peeling off the thin shell before blanching them rather than after (when they slip off quite easily, but at which point you have apparently ruined everything...).
I'll be honest: I'm pretty sure my palate wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the two methods... but it's become a part of my fava bean ritual to do this the "proper" way, and I'm not going to try the method that Keller considers an abomination just to test that... Anyway, this is how it all looks assembled:
Yummy. I'm a person who spends hours in the kitchen quite regularly, but a lot of my very favorite meals are something simple like that: Nice baguette, fresh fava beans, fresh ricotta, sea salt, and a squeeze of lemon. Awesome... Along with my surprise favas, I knew before I went to the market that I'd need to get some dill and asparagus to celebrate the spring vibe. These paired up with some lemons and chicken to make a light and refreshing dish of Chicken and Asparagus in a Creamy Lemon Dill Sauce:
Good stuff. Speaking of lemons, I mentioned this over at my other blog, but whenever I have citrus fruit to juice, for my money the best juicer on the entire planet is the aluminum juicer from the good people at WearEver pictured below. It's strange to me that this isn't being produced anymore (and apparently hasn't been for about 50 years), but you can find them on eBay or at antique stores, and I highly recommend picking one up if juicing citrus fruit is something you ever have to do...
In other news, my new ice cream maker (which the incompetent movers who broke my old one bought for me) arrived on Friday, so I made an awesome batch of Cappuccino Gelato (I'll try to remember to post the recipe soon) on Saturday along with the rest of my cooking...
I'd forgotten how delicious that stuff is, and it's very nice to be able to make ice cream again... just in time for summer... Yet another relaxing weekend where I seldom left my kitchen (much less my apartment) in the books. Luckily, those are pretty much my favorite kind...

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Sichuan, Rock Stars, and Seafood

This week was a bit unusual in that I actually left my apartment on Thursday (a work night!) to go see some friends in a band play their first paying gig at a bar in fabulous Billerica. They totally rocked (in a kick-ass 80's metal cover band kind of way), but I will give them anonymity here in case they are shy:
Sarah and I, along with a couple coworkers, decided to find dinner in Billerica before the show. After recovering from my shock/horror/indignation when somebody suggested that we eat at a certain chain that rhymes with "Billy's," a search of the interweb turned up Sichuan Gourmet, a (relatively) authentic Chinese restaurant not too far from the club where the band would be playing. I don't expect much from Chinese restaurants in small suburbs, and that's OK with me because I actually sometimes enjoy trashy Americanized Chinese food almost as much as awesome authentic stuff. In this case, though, I was really pleasantly surprised. Sarah and I ordered two awesome dishes to share, while the boys ordered these relatively boring chicken dishes:
The first of our awesome dishes was the Fish Fillets in Spicy Chili Oil. This is the dish that got me addicted to Sichuan food when I first tried it at a restaurant in Chinatown in LA (thanks, Qi!), and thus is the dish that I order in every single Sichuan restaurant I check out. This version didn't have the beautifully painful spice that the versions I've had in LA and Melbourne featured... but this isn't Chinatown. It's Billerica. Given that, and the fact that it was still totally delicious, I was pretty happy.
The other dish was the Cumin and Chili Dry Lamb. This dish was like something that had been designed exactly for my palate. I have a little spice grinder at home that I load with cumin seeds, crushed red pepper flakes, and a little sea salt, and I use that to season all kinds of things because it is pretty much my favorite flavor combination. Give me some lamb coated in those flavors (with the spice increased a couple notches, as it was here) and I am definitely a happy camper. Yummy.
I seemed to be in a seafood mood yesterday. I had been planning to do up some soy-and-ginger-marinated cedar-planked salmon for dinner, but couldn't resist the $2/pound mussels when I was buying groceries... I thought the mussels would be a good lunch, and cooked them Mark-Bittman-Style (no added liquid, just letting the juices from the mussels form an intensely flavored sauce with some sautéed shallot, ginger, garlic, and curry powder). I took a picture of the ingredients:
but, given that it was 4pm by the time I sat down to eat lunch (shopping was a bit of an adventure this weekend), I managed to forget to take one of the finished product... You'll have to take my word for it that it was awesome. Dinner was my first attempt at cedar-planked salmon served up on a bed of steamed bok choi.
The texture was absolutely fantastic (moist and tender), but I would have liked a bit more smokiness. I may have over-soaked the plank (since my 4pm lunch delayed dinner). I will definitely keep working on this one, though, because this attempt was pretty great even if it wasn't exactly what I wanted it to be.
Having gotten the seafood cravings out of my system, today I decided to go with something from the red meat genre. I made a Moroccan spice rub for a couple steaks, and also used it as a component in a yogurt sauce (along with greek yogurt, roasted serranos, and minced scallions). This was all supposed to go in a pita with some lettuce, but I didn't have the inclination to heat my oven (and, thus, my kitchen) for pita-making today, so I turned this into a salad instead. It was really light and fresh-tasting, and I think I actually prefer it this way to when I've made it before with the pitas... Not very beautiful to look at, but seriously delicious...
Other than all the grocery-shopping and subsequent cooking, the weekend was rather uneventful... which, after what ended up feeling like a pretty long week, was a good thing. Already looking forward to the next one...