Posts will be light to non-existent while I'm away at my mother's for the Christmas and New Year's holidays.  Back in early January, with new challenges in cooking and new adventures to come.


Dinner 12-17-2011

I think this may be the last dinner before the new year.  We had another old friend visiting and the wife decided to invite some people over.  So I was cooking for 6 guests plus myself. One was the former head of her department at the college, now retired, and his wife.  The other is a current professor in the same department, and his wife.  Both couples are experienced travelers and eaters in Europe.  I know they've been to some fine restaurants there, and here in the U.S.  It would be fun to cook for them.

I decided to go with a little tour of French cookery.  Mostly to get their impressions given I have no reference point for what most things ought to be like.  (Impressions were favorable...whew!)

First  up was a little charcuterie plate with cornichons and dijon mustard.  I served fennel salami, smoked prosciutto, and rabbit pâté.  The only part of this I made was the pâté.   Lacking a meat grinder, I put the meat and fat through a food processor several times.   This was a fun one to make.  After cutting up the carcass of the rabbit, I deboned it and let it marinade with thyme, salt, bay leaf.  Then this is ground up with some pork fat back and pieces of bread soaked in milk.  The last touch before cooking is the addition of some mustard with cognac.   This is wrapped in bacon and then baked.  Once cooled, it is compressed with weights and left to chill, sliced, and served.

With the charcuterie I served two breads that I've made before: a sourdough baguette and brioche.  I need to work on my shaping skills....I'm masterful at making exploding baguette, which is caused by the loaf splitting at invisible seams in the dough rather than the scores I make.   The brioche was probably the best I've made so far.  This is Keller's recipe in Bouchon.

For a first course, I decided to do a "fruits de mer" platter.  I like this because the food is cooked simply, with finesse, and presented in a way that signals abundance and festiveness.

A few of the items are poached in court bouillon.  This poaching liquid consists of water, veggies (leeks, onions, carrots), herbs and spices (bouquet garni), dry white wine, lemon, and vinegar.  The lobster, crab, and shrimp are all poached for a few minutes in the liquid before being chilled.  The PEI mussels are cooked simply in a thin layer of boiling water before also being chilled.

I had fun with the oysters and clams, having never shucked either before.  It turns out to be pretty easy, and there's something gratifying when you feel the shell first pop loose.   These were served raw with three sauces.

 Starting at the top image, a cocktail sauce (easy: ketchup, worcestershire, mustard, horseradish), a mignonette (red wine vinegar, shallot, black pepper), and dijon mustard mayo (egg yolk, oil, salt, pepper, lemon juice, mustard)

The next course was a meat.  I love duck so much that I made it yet again.  I switched up the spicing and used finely ground coffee, salt, and pepper.  I made the port wine-sherry beurre monte again to sauce the meat.  This time served with sauteed spinach.    The other side with this was a red rice cooked in chicken stock with chestnuts and garnished with thinly sliced burgundy truffles.   This clearly isn't presentation for haute cuisine, but my oh my did the red rice-truffle-chestnut combo work, especially with the duck and the sauce.

Dessert came in two stages.  Again, not winning any awards for presentation, but still...so delicious.  First was a plate with baked balls of pate a choux, a pastry dough that we've seen before in the form of gougeres and eclairs.  This time is a form of 'profiterole' where vanilla ice cream is sandwiched between the two halves of the hollow ball of dough.  Topping this, admittedly somewhat haphazardly, was a simple chocolate sauce.  

On the side of the dish were poached prunes.  These were so so flavorful, and sweet, so meltingly tender, that I am sure to do this again with other fruits.  The prunes are left to marinate in red wine (cabernet sauvignon), with cinnamon sticks, star anise, and honey.  I added thai long peppercorns and some nutmeg, which I think are complementary flavors.  After sitting in this mixture overnight, the prunes and liquid are brought to a simmer only briefly to soften them, and  then left to sit and chill at least for a day. 

After dessert, we had some digestifs.  Available were cognac, scotch.  We also had some coffee.  Along with these, I made a strawberry-rhubarb tart and a cocoa flavored cookie topped with chopped walnuts.


Salmon, Ponzu Udon, Pears, Oranges, Hot Peppers

 I think one of the benefits of cooking every day is that you can begin to see possibilities when you have an unconnected assortment of ingredients and need to come up with a plan for them.  In other words, time to see what's hiding out in the fridge.

 In this dish I combined some fruit, peppers (habenero and jalepeno) in the style of the salsa that went with the red snapper a few dinners back.   The salmon was fresh and I decided to cook it in the style of a salmon-leek beurre blanc dish I made for my birthday.  The noodles were marinated in ponzu and kimchi juice after a ginger-scallion noodle dish served at momofuku.

I can't say I was surprised the flavors went well together.   I think this should inspire further thinking using these same core ingredients, although not all of them.   I particularly liked the salmon-pear pairing (both were soft and melded together nicely). The flavor of the peppers served as a nice accent to them.  The citrus was also a good combination with the salmon, and of course worked nicely with the ponzu flavored udon noodles.   The nicest bites put all of the ingredients on the fork to make a combination of citrus, and crispy/fatty salmon skin with a hint of soy sauce and the pear rounding out the flavor.


Braised Pork Belly, Coffee, Orange, Chocolate, Black Pepper

I have an old friend visiting for a few days, so posting has been light.   Tonight we collaborated on a dish and produced a nice outcome.

Here we have pork belly, which was brined overnight in whisky, maple syrup, and dijon mustard.  Then braised for 6 hours in orange juice.  The meat itself is finished with a saute.  I added half a cup of additional orange juice and a couple tablespoons of red wine vinegar to the braising liquid and reduced to just a sauce consistency.  The acid and syrupy-citrus sweetness really helped cut some of the richness. The dish is garnished with a coffee-chocolate fondant tuile made from isomalt and glucose, which is also dusted with fresh ground black pepper.

Every aspect of this dish supports the rich succulence of the pork belly, which has been infused with the flavor of oranges.  I really need to comment on the use of coffee and chocolate though.  Not only do these flavors pair well together, but the black pepper on the tuile is complementary as well.   The really great part is how the coffee melds with the meaty aspects of this dish without clashing with the sweet/acid/floral flavors brought by the use of oranges.  I think that while coffee is often associated with the sweet/cold side of things, it has a tremendous potential in savory/hot dishes as well.  Some ideas are to use coffee as a braising liquid, or to cook something like short ribs en sous vide with coffee grounds, letting the natural juices of the meat infuse the coffee into the flesh.  Another idea would be to use a pressure cooker so to preserve the coffee's flavor with a shortened cook time.  I think the chocolate needs to play a background role in all this, if it is used at all, but it is a really nice touch that served to highlight the coffee.  Also, like in some hot chocolate preparations, the pepper works nicely to add a spicy kick to the whole thing.

I'm sure I'll be playing with this dish in the future, trying to bring forth the flavors more clearly, and balancing out the flavors as well.   As it stands, I think this dish is a nice start.


Lemon Meringue

When we lived in Houston, there was a 24 hour pie shop nearby.  Any time of day or night you could get delicious pies.  One of the best there was lemon meringue.  So, when I was choosing what pie to make, this was  natural choice.

There's nothing particularly complicated about making a pie like this.  I did this to get some practice.  The meringue is fairly labor intensive if, like me, you don't have an electric mixer.  Come to think of it, I don't have electric devices in the kitchen besides a blender.  Anyway, the pie dough is made first.  A simple mixture of flour, butter, and water (dash of salt for flavor).   The ratio seems simple enough, but I'm not completely sure whether it scales well.  3:2:1 is the ratio, by weight for flour:butter:water, at least in US measures.  Since I like using metric in the kitchen, the ratio is still roughly the same, but with small adjustments  2.88:1.88:1.   This is something I'm noticing more and more, but the ratios seem to be more often nice and neat (i.e. rational) with "US" measures (pounds and ounces)  than when using metric.  I'm not sure why this is.

The dough is chilled so the butter can firm up again, it is scaled to about 284 grams per crust and rolled out into a rough circle.

If you've made any sort of custard or pastry cream before, the filling is pretty much the same sort of thing.  Instead of a cornstarch thickened milk/cream mixture, you have cornstarch thickened lemon juice, zest, and water, egg yolks, and sugar.

The topping is a basic sweetened meringue.  A little more sugar than I'm used to using (e.g. for macarons), but still the same sort of thing.  For this, it is 2:1 sugar:egg whites.  

I had a little trouble getting mine to stiff peaks.  It seemed to want to stay in a ribbon stage after getting opaque and silky, almost like a cooked italian meringue. I think I still got decent results, though.

Deboning a Chicken

My first attempt at deboning a chicken.  I've never done this before, so like most other things, I turned to Jacques Pepin for advice.  He says one should be able to do this in about a minute.  Yeah, maybe after you've deboned hundreds of chickens.  Still, this isn't a difficult animal to break down.  Maybe someday I'll get a whole side of a pig or cow.

I used this to make a roast chicken.   I tourned some carrots, quartered some red potatoes, sliced some onions and seasoned them all with salt/pepper, thyme, parsley, and bay leaves. Tossed with some vegetable oil.  I then salted/peppered both sides of the chicken and laid it, skin side up, over the vegetables.   Seasoned with thyme, and a little extra salt (I love crispy chicken skin)

I then used a kitchen torch to pre-crisp the skin a bit just enough so that the skin contracted.   Then I put the whole thing into a 475 F oven until the vegetables were about half done.  I then took the chicken off the veggies and let them finish at 450 while the meat rested.

To finish, I put the chicken on a baking sheet under a broiler for a few minutes, until the skin was crispy all over and nicely browned.

In between these steps, I browned the giblets, neck, and wing tips in butter and let the chicken fat render.  I then strained the chicken fat into a sauce pan and made a roux with all-purpose flour.   Meanwhile, I deglazed the pan and simmered the chicken giblets and wingtips with 2-3 cups of water and a sprig of thyme.  Then I thickened the "quick stock" with the roux, and continued to simmer.  After straining, I had a flavorful gravy to go with the roast chicken.

To plate, I made a pool of gravy and spooned veggies over that, then laid a half chicken on each plate.   You'll have to believe me when I say this, but I'm not prone to hyperbole.  That said, this was the best roast chicken I've ever had.

Step 1: Sharpen your knives.

Step 2: Cut out the wish bone by scraping and cutting the meat around it.  Once you got it cut, pull it out with your forefinger and thumb.

Step 3: Flip the bird to expose the back.  Slice a seam down the bird, careful not to cut into the meat.

Step 4: Find the articulation point for the shoulder.  Twist and push up to expose it.

Step 5: Cut through the joint.  Do the steps 4 and 5 for the other side.

Step 6: Grab the shoulder, lift, twist toward breast and pull down to strip the meat off the bird.  This takes some force.

Step 7: Stop about 2/3 the way down.  The bit of meat called "the oyster" should be exposed.  Cut around it so it remains attached to the skin.  

Step 8: Continue to pull the flesh off the carcass.

Step 9: Now find the articulation of the hip. Life, twist and the ball joint will pull out of the socket.

Step 10: Cut through the joint and pull the body off the carcass completely.

Step 11: Find the tenderloins on the carcass.  They're located where the breasts  used to be.

Step 12: Using your thumbs, push the tenderloin off the carcass.  You may have to cut some silverskin.

Step 13: Lay the bird flat.

Step 14: Make slices around the thigh where the hip was.

Step 15: With the side of your blade, scrape down the bone, don't slice.

Step 16: Once you reach the "knee", slice around the top of the leg drumstick and continue to scrape down the bone.

Step 17: Break the leg and pull out the bone.

Step 18: Repeat steps 14-17 for the wings