Thursday, May 31, 2007

Chootneh, loov?

That's my super-serious Scouse accent for chutney. Why, I don't know, except that whenever I think of the word, I hear it in my head that way. Maybe because when I first fell in love with the stuff (in earnest, I mean–when I discovered the real deal, not some bastardized American version), it would have been in a sandwich shop in Cambridge, circa 1989. I was there studying and, between tutorials, we'd walk the windy streets to a little shop for cheese sandwiches–the kind made with that good, hard English cheese, like maybe a Gloucester–and the question that always came when I ordered was, "chootney, loov?" To which my answer was always a resounding "yes, please!"

Now, most of what we ate that trip was not to my liking as we were shuttled about to stuffy scholar dinners, which, though often impressive, high-table, formal affairs, introduced us to the likes of halibut mousse and creamed sherry. And lets remember, I was 17. So as you might imagine, the daily cheese sandwich with chootneh was a high point. I even enjoyed it more than all the teacakes and sweeties that came later in the afternoon. And to this day, I could still be happy with a daily ploughman's lunch of good bread, sharp cheese and chootneh–those strong, satisfying flavors are always welcome with me.

Anyway, all this comes to mind since I've taken the notion to create a few chutneys that capture island flavor. These won't be the pub-style chootnehs, like the homestyle stuff I've just recounted above, they'll be more exotic and adventurous with tropical ingredients. But before I dove in, I wanted some advice from the chootneh champ herself, Alison McQuade of McQuade's Celtic Chutneys. Alison's chutneys have been taking the Bay by storm, and they've found their way into top markets and restaurants, like my beloved Cowgirl Creamery. Plus, Alison's been a faithful reader of this blog since the beginning, so I figured she'd be up for the project. And true enough, she was. We met at the Ferry Building for brunch, on what turned out to be a foggy summer morning, and sat outside anyway. The damp weather seemed to bode well for chootneh making, and Alison smiled, "it reminds me of home."

So, we explored all kinds of island ingredients. Papaya and passionfruit. Coconut and curry. Cinnamon and Allspice. And I settled on a few combinations from which I expect heavenly results. And of course I'll recount all my findings once I've completed the experiment. But really, when it comes to chootneh, sometimes the best ones are the simplest. The kind you find on a cold, foggy day–served on a rustic white roll with hard white cheese–and wash down with a Guinness. The kind you eat on a day like today. Good thing The Pelican Inn is so close by. Better yet, good thing I have that standby jar of Branston Pickle in the fridge.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

French Laundry reprise

Well cheeselings, I survived the French Laundry experiment, though my stomach is still distended and my palate is still spent, a full 48 hours after the event.

I'll try to give you the rundown with accompanying photo essay, but to be frank, articulating each culinary nuance and flavorful flourish would take all day. And despite what many of you think, I don't sit here in my jammies and pink fuzzy slippers blogging the days away. There are fledgling veggies to be tended, chutneys to be invented (more on that to come), and frillies to be mended. That last one's not likely to happen today, or in the next long while, as the old Singer's been gathering dust, having taken a backseat to all the kitchen activity in recent months.

So, let's get on with it then.

First, naturellement, le mise en scene:

Kelly, our hostess, opted for a casual setup with small plates and wine pairings around the kitchen island. The low lights cast a warm, coppery glow that felt like an elegant brasserie, and I so appreciated the decision not to seat us around a formal table in straight-backed chairs, clinking silverware and minding manners. This way, no one hesitated to lick fingers, double dip or dive into the saucepan with torn hunks of rosemary bread after a particularly luscious course.

And now, the food.

Cornets with Wild Salmon Tartare and Red Onion Creme Fraiche

Kelly made these delicate little lovelies and in the spirit of their creator, gave them a playful name when she had to alter their shape due to equipment restrictions. Rather than forming them into cones, she used a cannoli mold and thus, dubbed them salmon cannoli, a nice nomenclature nod to the always clever Keller.


I made these and gratefully found the recipe straightforward, though it seemed heavy on the salt. I suspected something was off when I tasted the pate au choux batter, and my suspicions were confirmed when all agreed the finished pastry was far too salty. I have to think the full tablespoon of salt listed in the recipe is a mistake–it's hard to imagine Keller's gougeres tasting like a salt lick.

Sweet Pea Soup with Parmesan Crisps and White Truffle Oil

Tori made this soup, which was a marvel of delicate flavor layers. She made a veggie broth of sweet peas, carrots and fennel and I was amazed that I could taste all three in a harmonious balance. The soup was drizzled with white truffle oil and served with a reggiano crisp.

Fava Bean Agnolotti with Curry Emulsion

Kelly decided to make this last minute, and I for one, am tres grateful. It was the creamy, dreamy piece de resistance. The fava beans encased in silky pillows were bathed in a subtle curry buerre blanc, and just the thought of it makes me swoon.

Salad of Haricot Verts, Tomato Tartare and Chive Oil

Watching CC assemble this was a lesson in patience and precision. First the chive oil, stenciled with a tin round. Next, the tomato "tartare" gently tamped into a cake. Topped with haricot verts in a cream sauce, assembled crosshatch, like a log cabin. Capped with a bouquet of frisee. And finished with tomato powder. Yes, powder. Not purchased, made fresh that day. And yes, I was well out of my league.

Whipped Brie de Meaux with Croutons and Mache

Here, I whipped the brie and then created quenelles (smooth, oval scoops) and stacked them between crostini atop a port reduction. The side salad was just a simple mache tossed in blood orange olive oil.

"Banana Split" Roasted Banana Ice Cream with White Chocolate Banana Crepes and Chocolate Sauce

What can I say? Jodi's dessert was bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S. From what I understand, this was four days in the making. And yes, it tasted *that* good.

And merci to Terry, house sommelier.

Wow. Blogging that was like actually eating at the French Laundry: a reeeeeallly long affair. Looks like I won't get to last night's lamb or this morning's adventures in chutney till tomorrow. Until then...

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Dinner at French Laundry...sort of

So tonight I'm attending a dinner party for which each guest must prepare a dish from the French Laundry cookbook. At last check, the menu was looking like:

Cornets with Wild Salmon Tartare and Red Onion Creme Fraiche


Sweet Pea Soup with Parmesan Crisps and White Truffle Oil

Fava Bean Agnolotti with Curry Emulsion

Salad of Haricot Verts, Tomato Tartare and Chive Oil

Whipped Brie de Meaux with Croutons and Mache

"Banana Split" Roasted Banana Ice Cream with White Chocolate Banana Crepes and Chocolate Sauce

Luckily, my cheesy ways have ensured that I was assigned an amuse bouche (gougeres) and a cheese plate (the brie de meaux). I was a little trembly imaging the multi-day prep some of the other dishes required. Anyway, you can expect a full report and pictures in the near future.

Here's a preview of our gougere-making. Look closely and you'll see the smallest–but most enthusuastic–cheese fan looking on.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Breakfast is served

Growing up, I was always an Eggs Benedict devotee. It was the weekend staple, if I could get my hands on it, and it was a great aid in helping me put on 15 pounds at the end of my college senior year. For that reason, and the advice of my chef friend John (*never* eat the hollandaise at a restaurant), I've retired the vice.

But sometimes I still crave yolky poached eggs, stacked with other yumminess for breks.

And so I concocted this:

It's simple, savory and still somewhat slim-friendly. With this fresh alternative to ye olde Benedict in my arsenal, I can proudly say, I've never looked back. And frankly, now the old saucy version makes me feel heave-ish.

This has yet to be named, propah, but it's known around the house as "Eggs Jamie."

This recipe should feed 2 hungry humans.

arugula, (weather willing, we'll be picking it soon)
1/2 red onion, sliced into rings
4 slices prosciutto
1/2 c. parmagiano reggiano, shaved into sheets using potato peeler
4 eggy weggs
Couple fingersful of capers
1/4 c. quality balsamic vinegar
4 whole grain english muffins
Sel du mer or any coarse salt
Freshly ground pepper

So first, I slice my onion into thin rings and carmelize them in balsamic vinegar. Put both into a small skillet on medium heat and once they start sizzling, turn the heat down a bit and let the vinegar reduce til it's a thick syrup coating the onions. You'll need to give them the occasional nudge, but you don't have to stir consistently. The goal here is to cook the onions til they're soft, not soggy, and nicely coated in a thick balsamic jus. Once you've achieved this, scoot them into a small bowl off to the side. Now tear your prosciutto into thick strips and add them to the pan. You want to crisp the stuff up a bit, but not so much that it gets tough, You're probably looking at a few minutes, tops. While the pig is crisping up, toast your muffins and make long, smooth sheets of the parmegiano by shaving it with a potato peeler. By the time you're done with those tasks, your prosciutto will be ready to relax on some paper towels nearby.

Now, to poach the eggs. I have to be honest and tell you, not everyone can do this skillfully. I still employ my husband, when he's nearby, to handle this task. For whatever reason, his huevos always emerge looking more artful than mine. I won't give you the poaching lesson here as there are plenty of good references online. Use them.

Now while your eggs are bathing, toss the arugula in a few drizzles of olive oil, balsamic, salt & pepper to taste and capers. Once the greens are well-coated and tasting good, toss in your cheese and prosciutto.

To present the dish, start with your two toasted muffins, as you would a traditional Benedict, then layer the dressed salad, the eggs, and top with the carmelized onions. And honeys, you're going to thank me for this one.

Pining for pesto

As all faithful cheeselings know, all my cooking and eating is craving-driven. That is to say, what I make on any given night is never a result of weekly planning or forethought at the grocery store. Each and every day, usually by lunchtime, I know what it is I *need* to have for dinner. Sometimes the cravings arrive in the form of an entirely "baked" concept like, say, blasted chicken with roast potatoes and minty peas–a perennial favorite. Other times, the cravings are more flavor-based, and pop into my noggin in the form of thoughts like, "I wonder what fennel braised in white balsamic would taste like..." and then a dish is built around that notion.

So yesterday, it was nearing dinnertime, and my daily craving had not yet presented itself. (I wish it would arrive on schedule like Daily Candy in my inbox...."Good morning, Jamie. Today the food you can't live without is snozberries"...)

So anyway, once I started ruminating about the possibilities, it was clear I needed to have something ultra-garlicky. And what better than a summery, zesty pesto?

What's so great about this craving is that you can whip it up fresh in a matter of minutes, and few things taste as good. You'll need:

2 bunches basil, stemmed
1/2 c. good olive oil
1/2 c. grated parmigiano reggiano
1/2 c. toasted pine nuts
3 cloves garlic
pasta (unless you intend to eat it with a spoon, which I've been known to do, much to the dismay of anyone within breathing range)
blender or food processer

First, toast your pine nuts in a dry pan. You can do this in the oven or on a burner, but I recommend the latter so you can keep an eye on the little buggers. They'll burn before you can say "$7 down the drain!" Use medium heat and keep them movin' and a-shakin. Once they're a lovely golden brown, rescue them from the heat and pop them into a blender or food processer. I use a mini FP, perfect for salad dressings and such. Now add your olive oil, basil, reggiano and garlic and give it a good long buzz so everything's well chopped and blended. Beware that sometimes large garlic nuggets remain, having not been completely pulverized by the blade. Fish them out or leave them in for a good liver cleansing.

Now boil your pasta and then spoon this savory spread on top. You don't need much because it's pretty potent stuff. A few lovin' spoonfuls will nicely spice your whole dish. Now eat up, bambinos! Mangia, mangia!

You got ta know when ta hold 'em

Presenting my winnings! Why? Because it was my first attempt at poker, and you can bet this will never happen again. The best thing about this scenario was that our hosts were seasoned sharks, who, I am convinced, invited us over to ply us with tequila and then fleece us. Not so fast, compadres. I'm not a gambler by nature, but I came through and showed them what's what. And I will tell you that the high of walking out of there with all their money lasted a good long time.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Good for what ails you

You know, when you get sad news, sometimes busying yourself in the kitchen is as therapeutic as a good cry. Plus, you can cry while you do it, and just work yourself into a meditative zone of tranquility. I find baking bread is especially good for those moments, as is the taking of baths, the former of which I'm doing now, the latter of which, I need desperately.

Today, I made Barbari Bread, also known as nan-e-Barbari. It's a Persian flatbread I remember eating as a kid when we lived in Iran. Oh, you didn't know I'd lived in Iran? Well, more on that to come. In the meantime, try some of this satisfying bread. The taste of the warm toasty flavor will make your stomach smile and the act of making it will make your heart feel better.