The American (Anton Corbijn – 2010) A-

The story here is fairly predictable but at the same time has a certain originality to it. George Clooney plays Jack, an American assassin sent to a remote but beautiful Italian village in Abruzzo to hide out after an attempt on his life and await for instructions. It is never clear to me why he is in hiding, but it doesn’t matter. He kills people for a living, so I’m sure a lot of people want him dead for one reason or another.

The film really is not concerned with that on any case. What it did do very well is give Jack time to possibly reflect on his choices. He is ruthless, maybe soulless as we saw in his last mission that went horribly bad during the beginning of the movie. Here in Abruzzo he finds a confidant in the fatherly Catholic priest he befriends. I really enjoyed their conversations that border on arguments as the priest attempts to dig deeper into Jack’s soul and Jack hits right back at him. We spend a lot of time with Jack while he builds a specific rifle for another assassin. He is filled with doubt and fear and constantly on edge. Gradually we also see his humanity and trust in people start to come to the surface as he falls in love seemingly against his will. The film is not a thriller by any stretch. It is plenty brooding, tragic and at times very tender. The director gives some wonderful shots from interesting camera angles of the wonderful location while we get to know Jack and begin to care for him. It’s a solid movie, one that I seem to keep thinking about.

Fettuccine, Lobster and Marjoram

Fettuccine-Lobster

I wish I have more time to post these in a more expeditious manner. For now, I have to get them up as time permits. Anyways, for Valentines Day this year I planned a four course meal for Diana. Actually I had a fifth course “option” that I was hoping to get to. Four courses though, as good as these were with wine and lovely company is nothing short of a perfect evening.

This was the first course. I stopped by Whole foods with the intention of getting a good dry aged steak (that would be the next post) and scallops for the first course. As luck would have it, due to the rough cold weather hitting much of the US recently, scallops were in short supply. What they did have was frozen and carried a very hefty price tag. However, Whole Foods was apparently running a special for Valentine’s Day. If you buy a dry aged steak you get a lobster tail for free! A quick change of plans and instead of scallops with butternut squash and chestnuts we ended up with this delicious dish.

I first set about making the pasta. This is a classic fresh Italian noodle with nothing but flour and egg. I rolled it thin and cut it into ribbons using the pasta machine. While the noodles were drying a bit I set about working on the lobster.

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I had three tails total (one free with the steak and I bought two more…still cheaper than the damn scallops). I removed the tails from the shell and bagged them in aFoodsaver bag with plenty of butter and some fresh marjoram. I cooked them sous vide for around 15 minutes at 59.5 C per Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure. At that point the tails were perfectly cooked and juicy. To finish them off I seared them briefly in a mixture of butter, garlic, lemon zest and juice and another dose for chopped fresh marjoram.

The sauce for the pasta was built around the same flavors of the lobster. So, I melted butter with lemon zest, lemon juice and marjoram leaves. At the last moment I boiled the noodles and tossed them in the butter mixture. To give the pasta a neat presentation I rolled the noodles on the tines of a long skinny bamboo set of tongs and slid them onto rectangular plates. On top went the sliced lobster and a few leaves of marjoram. I am glad I portion-controlled the both of us. Fresh springy pasta, tender juice lobster seasoned perfectly with herbs, lemon and butter would’ve alone made for a royal dinner.

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Course number two following the pasta was a very nice salad that for some reason I failed to take a picture of! It had a mix of baby greens including red kale and arugula. I used my mandoline to make paper-thin slices of persimmon. The whole thing was dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette and topped with shavings of Pecorino Romano.

Braised Short Ribs in Cepe-Prune Sauce and Cornmeal Cakes

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The Cooking of Southwest France by Paula Wolfert is really one of my favorite books in my collection. It’s a book I’ve used so much over the years and have never been disappointed (like this Cassoulet). Another reason I love it is that I helped test some of the recipe in there for the revised edition and it is the book that made Paula a friend of mine who loves to discuss food over email and certainly enjoys a conversation about a new clay pot I acquired or the recipes of my grandmother. Now, this recipe was the first recipe I tested for Paula and it is a marvelous dish for this time of year where even in Houston, it is cold and a bit dreary.

Short Ribs Marinade

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Sometimes I try to modernize recipes and maybe find more efficient methods to cooking certain dishes. Not this time. I love this dish and I love the process from start to finish. So, I chose to apply Paula’s meticulous instructions to the letter.

This is a classic  no frills French dish that delivers a ton of flavor. The beef short ribs (using boneless ones here) are marinated in plenty of red wine and aromatics including a good dose of dried Porcini (Cepes in French) mushrooms. After 12 hours or so, the meat is browned in duck fat. the marinated veggies; carrots, leeks,onions and celery; also get browned after meat. The meat and vegetables go in a nice clay pot and then get gently braised in stock and plenty of red wine for a few hours.

Short Ribs

When the meat is cooked it is reserved separately from the cooking liquid and the vegetables are discarded. To finish, the meat is combined with the reduced de-greased cooking liquid and sautéed mushrooms, pearl onions, glazed carrots and halved pitted prunes. The mixture is allowed to simmer for 10 -15 minutes while I prepared the cornmeal cakes.

Short Ribs 2

The cornmeal cakes are what Wolfert recommends to serve with this. My kids love those ever since I made similar ones to accompany the pork cheek recipe from The French Laundry. So it was a no brainer that I would make them. Just cooked and set polenta, cut into rounds and coated in flour before being pan-fried in duck fat.

This really is a sublime dish that is rich but not cloying. It is perfectly balanced with meaty flavors and jolts of sweetness from the prunes and acid from the large quantity of wine in the braising liquid.  The polenta cakes are the ideal accompaniment. they are mild, a bit crispy and fluffy enough to sop up the cooking juices. This recipe is but one of many superb recipes in this classic of a book.

Short Rib-Corn Cakes

Before Midnight (Richard Linklater – 2013) A

Where is Jesse and Celine now, about 9 years since we last left them in Paris? On a vacation in Greece, they have twin girls together and as far as I could tell they are still in love. It’s not a perfect relationship and is much different than it was in the previous two movies. They shared a life together now and they have their problems, fights and arguments.
I really love this series of films and the glimpses it shows us of the life these couple are leading every few years. These are not movies that everyone would like. If you do not like the main two characters you will probably find this intolerable. This third installment really is the least “romantic” I would say and it focuses on how difficult maintaining a solid longtime relationship can be. I hope we can see more of them 9 or 10 years from now.

Alinea: PERSIMMON, Aroma Strip, Carrot, Red Curry

Persimmon-Aroma Strip

Persimmons are one of my favorite fruit. I bet one does not hear that too often, but these orange fruits really are one of my favorites. To be specific I am talking about the acorn shaped Hachiya persimmon not the squat round Fuyu one. The Hachiya persimmon is very astringent and really inedible unless very soft and ripe. The flesh turns to a sort of honey flavored fruity jelly when that happens. That’s when they are perfect and sublime. I remember eating dozens of them in Lebanon during their season, usually autumn through winter.

Hachiya on the left and a Fuyu on the right

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That was my excuse to make this recipe, even though Hachiya persimmons are a bit tough to find. Another reason to make this was the various techniques in there that I’ve not tried before from the complex (making carrot curry raisins using reverse spherification) to the simple (“steaming” a cake in a bag in a heat controlled water bath).

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What we have here is a crumbly mix (pistachio brittle, dehydrated carrot foam, tapioca maltodextrin, pistachio shortbread) that covers a very interesting caramelized milk ice cream and a cake/pudding of persimmon. Around those main components we have glazed carrot, ginger sphere, carrot curry “raisin”, date puree, braised pistachios and two types of “films” (a spiced strip and a fennel-mint film).

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I first got to making the ice cream. Most ice creams in the Alinea book are not traditional in that they use less sugar than normal, little or no eggs and are designed to be used with a PacoJet machine that finely “shaves” the frozen ice cream cylinder into perfectly smooth servings. Lacking a PacoJet, I usually adapt the ice cream recipes into something more appropriate for my ice cream maker and freezer like the buckwheat ice cream that I prepared a couple of times. This time though I decided to try the recipe as proscribed to see what I come up with. I figured I had a couple of weeks before I need to serve this and if the ice cream comes out too crappy, I’ll scrap it and make another batch.

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The ice cream is based on caramelized milk. A combination of milk, some half and half, dried milk, very little sugar and honey go in a Foodsaver bag and are cooked for several hours. The idea is to caramelize the natural sugars in the milk turning the mixture a tan color. I was very curious how this would come up and indeed the mixture turned a light tan color but a bit lighter than I would’ve expected. After cooling, the ice cream gets churned and frozen till service time. Now, as expected from such a low sugar and relatively low fat ice cream, the texture right out of the freezer was not great. It was frozen solid and a little bit grainy. After a few minutes on the counter though the texture improved a lot. The flavor was very interesting. It is not an ice cream I would ever serve by itself. It is not sweet, very milky and has a flavor that reminded me of evaporated milk.

Persimmon Puree Persimmon Cake

Making The persimmon cake is pretty simple. Just puree the persimmon flesh with flour, pistachio flour, sugar, eggs, butter, spices and citrus zest. The mixture then goes in a Foodsaver bag and is cooked for a few hours in hot water. The cake is then cooled and re-warmed before serving. The taste is delicious, sweet and rich with spice and butter.The texture is a lovely mix of pudding and cake. I will certainly be borrowing this technique possibly with other flavors to make tender cakes or puddings.

Carrots

There are several pistachio preparations in this dish. The braised pistachios are the simplest. Just cook some pistachios with water, sugar and pistachio oil. Reserve them in some of the cooled cooking liquid.

Braised Pistachios

Pistachio Shortbread1

The pistachio shortbread is part of the “crumble” mixture and uses pulverized pistachios, butter, vanilla and eggs. It is then cooled in the fridge to make it manageable (it has lots of butter) and then rolled into a block and baked. The shortbread is delicious on its own and leftovers made for great coffee accompaniments for a week or two. It had a lovely pistachio flavor and a tender texture.

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Pistachio Brittle

Another pistachio crumble component is the brittle. Again this makes for an addictive and tasty stand-alone recipe. To make it, I brought sugar to the caramel brown stage and tossed in toasted pistachios and baking soda. The soda reacts with the acidic environment causing the caramel to bubble vigorously creating lots of bubbles. The mixture – like pistachio lava- gets dumped on a Silpat to set and harden.

Carrot Mousse Crumble Mixture

Those orange specs in the crumble mixture are pieces of carrot foam – dehydrated carrot foam. Carrot juice is mixed with sugar and Methocel F50 and cooled. The mixture is then whipped to form a fluffy mixture very similar to a light mousse but has the pure flavor of carrots. Very tasty stuff. The mousse is spread on an acetate sheet and dehydrated for much longer than the recipe specifies until I got a cracker-crispy sheet of carrot mousse.

Crumble

To bring the crumble mixture together I mixed pistachio oil with N-Zorbit Tapioca Maltodextrin (I’ve mentioned this product that makes powders out of oils a few times before like here and here). Then I added coarsely crumbled portions of the pistachio shortbread, pistachio brittle and the crispy carrot mousse. I reserved that in an airtight container until ready to serve.

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Speaking of reserving these various components for service I’ve always thought the book should do a better job informing us of the shelf-life or fridge stability of these various components. This is especially critical for someone like me who is making recipes like these over a period of weeks! I did find out that most of these items do last at least a few days if properly stored. The crumble mixture in an airtight container was still perfectly fine a week or more after I originally served the dessert.

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A hydrocolloid that I have never worked with before and yet another reason I wanted to check out this recipe is Pure-Cote B790. The space-age name aside this is basically a modified corn starch that is used in small quantities to help in making really cool paper thin film. Think of those Listerine strips that melt on the tongue. Yeap, using Pure-Cote one could make these films flavored with anything. In this recipe it is used to make a spice aroma strip as well as a green tinted “glass” flavored with an herb called anise hyssop.

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The process for both glass and spice strip is similar. Steep the flavor in a sugar water syrup and mix in the hydrocolloid. Allow that to dry out on acetate sheets overnight and peel off. In the case of the green glass a dehydration step follows making those films into amazingly brittle and fragile “glass”. The spice aroma strip is flavored with cloves, mace, nutmeg and allspice. The green glass is supposed to be flavored with anise hyssop but that is nowhere to be found. It is supposed to taste like a mixture of mint and anise, so what I did was use half mint and half fennel fronds. I think that worked great, had a lovely green tint and a nice burst of flavor. There has to be a typo in both of these components’ instructions in the book though. After mixing the Pure-Cote into the liquid base we are simply instructed to pour it in a thin layer on sheets. This does not work because the Pure-Cote is not hydrated or gelled! and what you end up with is a mixture that separates into starch and liquid like the mixture towards the front of this picture.

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After doing some research and looking through my Modernist Cuisine books I confirmed my suspicion that indeed the Pure-Cote mixture needs to be heated up in order to gelatinize the starch. That worked much better (see the mixture towards the back in the above picture). Another reasoning for the book’s instructions might be that at Alinea they use a VitaMix blender and they whip the mixture for a long time at a very high speed which indeed heats it up and hydrates the starch. I do not have one of those yet so I will be gently warming my Pure-Cote mixtures to hydrate them.

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To emphasize the warm autumnal flavors and add punches of sweet and sour we have two sauces based on dried fruit. The first is a date puree made from softened dates and ruby Port. It is very sweet as expected and used very sparingly as a dollop to top with the braised pistachios. The other sauce is made from golden raisins and verjus, the mildly tart juice of the sour unripened grapes that works great as a gentle substitute to vinegar in dressings and sauces. Verjus has a fancy French name and is mostly associated with western cuisine but actually -in addition to pomegranate molasses (Dibs Ruman)- it is a traditional sour ingredient in Lebanese cuisine. Many families would make Houssrom, as it is known there, during the summer months when the vines are full of unripened grapes that needed to be culled.

Sauces

Spherification is something I’ve played with before here and a technique that produces an aesthetically pleasing product as well as a flavor burst. This recipe has two such preparations. The first is the straight-forward ginger sphere. This is a ginger infused sugar syrup that is blended with Calcium Lactate and frozen in small cubes. It is then dropped into an Alginate water bath to form perfect liquid orbs of sugary ginger encased with a thin  film of itself. I reserved these guys in more of the ginger-sugar liquid in the fridge and they lasted perfectly for several days.

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The second sphere is where the Alinea team take this preparation past the “cool trick” stage and transform it into something unique. Since the spheres are orbs of liquid (think grape) why not make raisins out of them? That’s what they do. So, I got carrot juice and blended in some sugar, a small amount of red Thai curry and Xanthan into it. Then I mixed the Calcium Lactate and froze the mixture in hemisphere ice cubes. After dropping those just like the ginger ones into an Alginate bath they went into a small pan covered with a layer of white sugar. More sugar went on top and the spheres were allowed to cure for an hour. During that time the sugar draws a lot of the moisture out of them and firms them up a bit. Lastly, the cured orbs were dehydrated in a very low oven until shriveled and wrinkly, just like raisins. They were delicious with a spice flavor and sweetness that worked great in this fall dish. Their interior was moist and jam-like.

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Components-Raisins

A few more items garnish the plate. One is cubes of Fuyu persimmon that are supposed to be marinated in a type of fortified wine called Pineau des Charentes. I had none and did not really want to seek it out. I decided to pick a liqueur that I think would work in the dish. The crumble mixture is supposed to include a small proportion of honey granIules – another item I did not have. So, I decided to include the honey flavor in the marinated fruit. I vaccum marinated the cubed Fuyu in a Foodsaver canister with homemade honey liqueur instead of the Pineau des Charentes. That turned out well and the fruit gave a burst of sweet honey flavor to the plated dish. Another item was glazed baby carrots. These were thin small sweet carrots, peeled and cooked sous vide with a pinch of sugar. The carrots are warmed right before serving.

ComponentsThe dessert was a perfect fall-winter plate of sweetness with perfect textures and amazing flavors. I loved how the ice cream, very subtle and muted on it’s own, worked perfectly as a cool milky canvas for the strong flavors and textures in the composed dish. It really amazes me how the Alinea team pulls off multitudes of dishes like this during service night after night. Hopefully one day I’ll get to snag a table there and try it out for myself.

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The Lego Movie (Phil Lord, Christopher Miller – 2014) B+

For me to enjoy an animated flick these days it really has to be original, different and offer something new. Just being cute, act “smart”, and has some funny lines is not enough. That is why the Lego Movie succeeds. I was so pleasantly surprised when I took the kiddos to see what I assumed would be a throwaway film to sell more toys. What I got was a fun and smart movie with cool animation and engaging twists and turns.