Sunday, September 30, 2007

Mint julep ice cream

During the summer, I'd made, at separate times, fresh mint ice cream and bourbon ice cream, and on the first day of fall, I melded the two to make mint julep ice cream. Should I be invited to or have a Derby Day party next year, this will be as necessary a party accessory as a big hat.

Last time I made the recipes was back when I had that large cookbook library access and had borrowed the Chez Panisse desserts cookbook, which I love, especially for ice cream. But I'd long since returned the book, so I set out to find myself my very own copy. At Black Oak, I found a first-edition hardback copy for $75, but it's not for collecting, it's for coating in sugar and cream, so I kept looking. At Pendragon, they had a bunch of different Chez Panisse cookbooks, but not Desserts. I called over to Mrs. Dalloway's, but they didn't have it either. I looked on Amazon and found a copy, but I'm conflicted about buying from them, so instead I did a web search and found a Lindsey Shere vanilla ice cream recipe. I didn't add the vanilla bean, and after it had turned to that perfect custard consistency, steeped fresh mint leaves in it for 15 minutes, and then after chilling it added the bourbon. I had to add a lot more bourbon to meet the strong flavor of the mint than what I remember the original bourbon recipe calling for, but it didn't seem to impact the freezing process at all.

So how did it taste? Really good. The interesting thing about these two flavors together is that you can get them at the same time. It's almost as if they're playing at different taste octaves, so both can exist simultaneously. It's different than what I think of as complexity in flavor, because complexity builds on the relationship between flavors working towards a new taste. In this case, you got both distinct flavors as separate but very complementary. I think it's what they call harmony, and it tastes so right.
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Friday, September 28, 2007

Taco night

On Saturday, Christina, Nate, Ross, Scott, Alexa, and A.J. came over for dinner. My first idea was to do a first-day-of-fall barbeque, but it was supposed to rain, so then I went dramatically in the other direction and started thinking about soups and cheese and bread, but then Joel pointed out it that it was all a little premature, which was a fair assessment, since it turned out to only rain in the morning and was in the high 60s or low 70s in the afternoon.

So I decided on tacos. Easy to adjust amounts for a crowd and for specific food preferences or dietary restrictions. Plus, I'd already made salsa from some tomatillos Kathryn had given me from her farm box.

I made three fillings: a sort of sweet and spicy chipotle chicken; a garlic, onion, and cilantro shrimp; and simple sauteed green, yellow, and red peppers and yellow onions. In addition to the tomatillo salsa, there were sweet, delicious cherry tomatoes, chives, green onions, sour cream, pieces of avocado, cheese, guacamole, and mango.

And then I made a watercress, citrus, and avocado salad with a limey vinaigrette.

But the best thing was dessert. For the vegan and the lactose-intolerant, lemon sorbet. For the rest of us, mint julep ice cream. More on that in another post.
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Monday, September 17, 2007

Salad of haricots verts, tomato tartare, and chive oil

Time intensive, small, composed of many parts, I thought I'd make my first French Laundry cookbook experience representative, and chose this lovely dish.

The major thing I noticed was that it demands a different approach to cooking. It's not just necessary to read ahead but vital to have a series of bookmarks to make it easy to flip between the ancillary recipes that make up the final product. The many small tasks required a slow, meditative approach.

In the introduction, Keller acknowledges this in a simple way, "Say, for instance, you intend to make a barigoule, a stew of artichoke hearts braised with carrots and onions, fresh herbs, oil, and wine. You may look at your artichokes and think 'Look at all these artichokes I've got to cut and clean.' But turning them--pulling off the leaves, trimming their stems, scooping our the chokes, pulling your knife around its edge--that is cooking. It is one of my favorite things to do."

I just finished reading the Alice Waters and Chez Panisse book, and this quote reminds me of the number of times the author notes that, in the kitchen, the chefs take on much of the slow, repetitive prep work that elsewhere is relegated to helpers. Even when the completion is not near, even before the fire, the assembly, the final tastes and touches, it is cooking.

The French Laundry recipes are distinct in other ways as well. The portions of each of the separate elements are small, so small that I was worried whether or not I'd have enough to make the seven I needed to fill each spot at the table on Saturday night, when Phil and Kathy joined us along with Matt and his parents. But I did have enough for seven perfectly proportioned small appetizers, which reflected the credo, also laid out in another of the cookbook's talky bits, "What I want is that initial shock, that jolt, that surprise to be the only thing you experience...I want you to say, 'God, I wish I had just one more bite of that.' And then the next plate comes and the same thing happens, but it's a different experience, a whole new flavor and feel."

The elements of this dish were: a chive oil, which was really fun to make, and involved pouring hot water over chives to eliminate the "chlorophyll taste" (which I recall from the time I tried to eat a handful of freshly chopped wheat grass) , blending for an extended period, and eventually, straining through a cheese cloth. There was also the rich tomato tartare, composed of oven-dried tomato flesh, chives, shallot, and balsamic. And the lightly cooked haricots verts with a heavy cream and red-wine vinegar dressing, which unfortunately I made too fluffy, but which no one complained about. And a twist of frisee on top.

Additionally, the text of the recipes assumes a relatively high competence and understanding, which I like, but after years of reading very clear, deliberate instructions, is intimidating.
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Verjus sorbet and poached peach

I'm working backwards here, starting with dessert, but as with meal planning, so with meal descriptions. This is the verjus sorbet and poached peach dessert from the French Laundry cookbook. The split in the peach is accidental (I forgot I was cutting the peach into thirds and not halves), but I think the rest of it looks about right.

Here's the thing about poached fruit, I like it, but I don't love it. But we already had these large peaches, and I wanted to make something seasonal, especially since the days are growing shorter and the mornings are chillier and it's only a matter of time before the summer fruit disappears and daylight savings time ends. And, I was very curious about the sorbet.

First I looked for verjus at Monterey Market. The guy (I think his name is Marty? I can't remember now) who stocks the vinegars said they didn't carry it, but that lately he's been getting more requests and is going to look into getting some. Next I stopped in at Magnani, hoping that they might carry it, but alas they did not, and then at the Coffee and Cheese shop, where my favorite woman there told me they didn't have it either.

Walking back, I called Nancy, who suggested the Pasta Shop down on Fourth Street. I called down there, and they had it! In fact, they had two kinds, one was a Sangiovese verjus and the other (the one I bought) was the regular kind.

From the back of the bottle and the introduction to the recipe, I've discovered the verjus was a Roman invention that was popular in French kitchens in the 14th and 15th centuries. Made from unripened white grapes, verjus is an acidulant like vinegar or lemon juice, but milder than either, and doesn't mask the flavors of the dish that it's added to.

The taste is singular. It's tart and particularly fruity but not sweet at all, a grape flavor stripped of sugar. It was really a bit of an object lesson, because after tasting it, I found it suddenly easier to see where the complexity in wine comes from. It has an appealing scent; if there were a verjus perfume, I would consider wearing it.

The sorbet was simply verjus and corn syrup chilled then processed in the ice cream maker. The result was a slightly tart, perfumy, delicate ice. And in appearance it slightly resembled a cloud. Speaking of which, I found a recipe for a French macaroon type cookie nicknamed "little clouds." Expect to hear more about that one soon.
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People cooking!

Alert reader Matt pointed out recently that there are almost no photos of people cooking here, and on Saturday night, as Joel was slicing grilled pork tenderloin and I was micromanaging and scooping rice, Matt grabbed the camera and documented an act of cooking.

Joel takes grilled pork very seriously, as you can see.
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Friday, September 14, 2007

I just got the French Laundry cookbook

A while back, I sold some books to Pendragon and ended up with a large credit at the Solano store. I have a habit of selling books for credit and hanging onto the credit for years, thus the tattered pile of credit slips sitting on my desk right now, many of which are at least six years old. In a few cases, I'm not even sure the bookstore still exists.

So I decided to use my credits, and even read some fiction reviews before heading down to structure my spree. But then I happened to glance over at the cookbooks section. The remainders table, where I found some pretty but not particularly useful options, lured me in, but the used cookbooks shelves behind it were the true find.

I notice a bright white, very tall spine on the top shelf out of the corner of my eye. I look up to discover the long-coveted French Laundry Cookbook glowing, beckoning, from the top shelf. I once borrowed the book from Nancy, but became so overwhelmed by the world within that I ended up not cooking anything at all and just gave it back.

Having now experienced a selection of the recipes though, everything seemed a little more approachable. Or maybe I'm motivated by the memory of the tastes to take the extra fussy steps, get the equipment insisted upon, and throw myself into the series of small, precise steps it takes to make even the simplest of the dishes.

It was marked down from $50 to $30, and was in good condition. My guess is the person who owned it last couldn't live up to its demands, cracked under the pressure, and had to sell the book.

Now I just need willing diners and to make sure not too attempt too many complicated things in one meal. Especially if the meal is not the only activity of the evening.

My first attempt will be on Saturday before the first Berkeley Rep play of the season. Now I just have to choose. I won't do a main meat course or anything, I'm not that brave/motivated/crazy. Yet. I'm thinking an appetizer or salad or maybe a dessert. There was a salad that involved tomato sorbet, and if there's any time of year to turn a perfectly good tomato into a bizarre taste experience, it is now before the cold sets in.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

This is a delicious-looking cloud

I saw this cloud as we were driving west through the mountains on the 80 right near Emigrant Gap. As we came around the corner I gasped and said, "That cloud looks delicious." Joel made fun of me and then handed me the camera.

But seriously, this cloud fills me with a desire for a dessert I can't quite name. This is a different instinct than the one that comes over me when I'm at the aquarium and can only think of sushi, because I'm not yet sure what would taste as good in the same way as this cloud looks.

Coconut macaroons aren't right because they're too angular and sweet. Foam isn't it because clouds aren't gimmicky. Meringue won't do because it's too dry when baked, and even a lightly baked meringue isn't quite right--though it's closer--because it's not a stand-alone, fully contained dessert experience. Though I once made a brunch dessert (I like the challenge of a brunch dessert because it can't be too heavy and it has to be able to sneak by as part of the meal, in case people don't believe in dessert with every meal) out of little baked spiral meringue disks topped with a dollop of whipped cream and a few pomegranate seeds, and that at least is working towards the right shape, and offers a bit in the way of the cloud.

But really, it's something that has to be billowy, pyramidal, and moist. Plus, it has to have all the implicit taste of this cloud: slightly creamy, mildly sweet, and not rich but definitely distinct.
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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Elderberry-blackberry champagne cocktail

For Kathryn's engagement party, she wanted to offer a cocktail in addition to beer, wine, and champagne, but not one that was going to lead to drunken toasts, uncles falling into the pool, and other elements that add up to a woefully unforgettable debacle. So, aiming for a pleasantly tipsy but coherent crowd, she thought a champagne cocktail might be the way to go.

Nancy (making the first cocktail of the party in the photo above), who served a really great champagne cocktail with vanilla-bean-infused vodka and something else I can't remember last Christmas Eve volunteered to come up with one and went to Cafe Rouge, her source for good champagne cocktails. There, they told her about this lovely, refreshing, and very pretty cocktail: Put two or three blackberries in the bottom of the glass. Add an inch or so of elderberry liqueur (she found it at a liquor store in San Francisco), then fill the glass with a dry champagne. It was a perfect drink for a celebratory summer day. I hope we have some more of those soon so I can have it again.
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