Citrus-Cured Salmon, Parsley-Chive Coulis

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Seafood gently poached in fat is a great way to cook. Lobster poached in butter and tuna in olive oil are both such examples. The fat slowly cooks the meat and is kept at a relatively low temperature, about 44 C to 52 C (110 to 125 F) depending how you like it cooked, leaving the seafood juicy and reducing the risk of overcooking. On top of that the fish usually looks great and has a good flavor from the fat without coming out oily or greasy. What’s not to love!

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In this recipe, adapted from The French Laundry Cookbook I started with a nice piece of fresh salmon and removed the skin. I employed my 14 year old to grate the zest of lemon, orange, lime and grapefruit. The zests get mixed with salt, sugar and pepper and sprinkled all over the fish. This is basically the first step to making gravlax or smoked salmon. In this case though the fish only marinates for about an hour while we prepare the rest of the dinner.

Citrus Cure

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Making citrus confit is pretty simple. It’s not cooked in fat like what a duck confit would be. In this case it is referring to cooking the orange segments in a sugary syrup. In the good old days fruits would be cooked in a whole lot of sugar to confit them and preserve them. Here, the syrup is relatively on the light side made with sugar, water and white wine vinegar. While the syrup cooks to a simmer I supremed a couple of oranges. This means cutting a citrus fruit into segments with none of the white pith. This has some good instructions on how to do that and of course you can find a bunch of YouTube videos about the process. I poured the hot syrup over the orange segments and let them marinate and infuse.

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Chef Keller uses a pea shoot puree to go with this dish (and a scoop of caviar, but I guess…I was fresh out of that this week). This was a regular weekday dinner for the family and I did not go shopping for pea shoots. I did like the idea of a green sauce with the citrus salmon though. So, I blanched a bunch of parsley and chives in salted boiling water and cooled them quickly in ice water. I blended until smooth with a bit of water . I really should’ve passed the green coulis through a sieve at this point like the recipe recommends but I skipped that and my end result was less smooth than it should be. Right before serving I warmed the sauce in a small pot, whisked in a few knobs of butter and seasoned it.

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I rinsed the fish fillet before cooking it and cut off the thin edges and tail end. These pieces became a nice little treat in the form of salmon tartar. I cut them up and mixed them with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, chives and pepper. I snacked on the tartar on top of toasted sourdough with a spoon of creme fraiche.

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To cook the fish, I cut it into even portions and bagged it with a good dose of olive oil. I dropped it in water set to 51C for 20 minutes. That was it. To plate I arranged a few orange confit segments and topped with a piece of salmon then drizzle (or smeared) green parsley coulis around it. It’s a wonderful way to cook salmon and a good basic preparation to keep in mind. Below is the recipe for salmon.

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Citrus Marinated Salmon Poached in Olive Oil

Adapted from Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook

  • Zest of 1 orange, finely grated
  • Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
  • Zest of 1 lime, finely grated
  • Zest of 1/4 grapefruit, finely grated
  • 75 gr kosher salt, about 1/4 cup Morton’s Kosher salt
  • 20 gr Sugar, about 1 Tbsp
  • 1 Tbsp black pepper
  • A large Salmon fillet, about 1.5 – 2 lbs
  • 1/3 Cup olive oil, or enough to cover fillet if not using sous vide equipment

Mix the citrus zests, salt, sugar and pepper together. Sprinkle all over the salmon and cover with plastic wrap. Let the fish marinate in the fridge for at least one hour but no more than 3.

When ready to cook, heat a water container to anywhere from 45 to 52 C using an immersion circulator (I use the Anova precision cooker) depending how you like the fish. The higher end will give a fish that is obviously cooked but very juice and tender. On the lower spectrum the fish is semi-cooked and closer to raw. Both are great but different. Divide the fish into portions and seal in freezer Ziploc bags with the olive oil. I used two bags for this amount of fish with 2 or 3 portions in each. Drop the bags in the water and cook for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the fish, pat dry gently and serve.

Cooking in olive oil option: This will need a good bit more oil but if you do not want to use sous vide this is the traditional option. Warm olive oil in a pot to the desired temperature (again, no more than 52 C or so). You need enough oil to cover the fish. Gently slide the fish in the oil and cook for 15-20 minutes. Remove the fish, pat dry gently and serve.

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Napa: Dinner at The French Laundry

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There really is no shortage of reports on the web about The French Laundry and it’s food. I’m sure many are very thorough and detailed, especially on sites like eGullet.org. My post here will be more on the short side word-wise. Last time I enjoyed a meal that I had been looking forward to for a very long time at a three-star restaurant that was elBulli and I had chosen not to take any pictures. I have since regretted not having a set of pictures to share here and keep as a souvenir. So this time around I asked our very professional and nice waitstaff if it’s ok to snap flash-free pictures and documented our memorable 4-hour meal as best as I could.

It’s been probably more than 10 years since I first heard about Keller’s French Laundry on Anthony Bourdain’s episode-dinner on his first show, “A Cook’s Tour”. If you do a search on my blog for “Keller” or “The French Laundry” or “Bouchon” you’ll have a pretty good idea that I am a huge admirer of the Chef and his work. We were set to go to a wedding in Napa in March 2013 and I knew that I will try to snag a reservation at this restaurant. It took over a hundred calls back to back…until OpenTable.com came through for me (heh, who knew…)  and I got a reservation for 4 on Sunday, March 16th. It was everything we expected to be. I had very high expectations and suffice it to say that I was not disappointed in the slightest. The service was impeccable. It was efficient, friendly and not at all stuffy. It was a lovely meal and a great time with Diana and two great friends of ours.

(Since I used no flash, as the natural light faded away the later pictures are a bit “hazy”. Sorry about that)

After being seated we chose our menu options and supplement courses. We also chose a bottle of an excellent Riesling to go with the meal. I love that the very courteous  sommelier did  not bat an eye when I requested a “white bottle under $100”. He simply picked two and explained in detail why one of them (the less expensive one) is the right choice. We were then served the Laundry’s classic canapes – Gougere and the Salmon Tartar Cornets. My wife and I opted for a couple of glasses of Champagne to start with as well. Then the meal started.

Oysters and Pearls

“Oysters and Pearls” – “Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar

This is a French Laundry classic. It’s creamy, briny and delicious.

Royal Osetra Caviar

Royal Ossetra Caviar – Cauliflower “Panna Cotta”, Meyer Lemon, Black Pepper, Pine Nuts and Toasted Brioche

My friend ordered this as a supplement instead of the Oysters and Pearls. Beautiful and very tasty. (Yes, we passed the dishes around so we all can have a taste)

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Salad of Heirloom Beets – Pickled Green Strawberries, Yogurt “au Poivre Vert”, Marcona Almonds and Wild Oxalis

Everyone, except me go this “salad”. Very good and fresh. Instead I got this beauty…

Risotto-Truffles

“Carnaroli Risotto Biologico” – Parmesan “Nuage” and Shaved Black Truffles 

This was a supplement dish and worth every penny for the loads of truffles the server shaved on top of this creamy heavenly concoction. After showing us a box full of fist size fragrant truffles, she proceeded to cover the risotto with shavings. After eating half the dish, she actually came back and covered the dish again with more shavings of truffle.  Her comment “Chef would like every guest who pays for truffles to REALLY taste the truffles”. Thanks!

Lubina

Sautéed fillets of Mediterranean Lubina – “Picalilli”, Mustard Seeds and Thyme infused Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Tasty and perfectly cooked fish. I would’ve preferred if the skin was crisped though.

Butter Lobster

Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster “Fricassee” – Kendall Farms Creme Fraiche “Pain Perdu”, Fava Beans, Green Garlic, Watercress and “Lobster Bearnaise”

Butter and lobster, rich sauce, fresh favas and crispy French toast. Perfect.

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Four Story Hill Farm “Poularde” – Poached Field Rhubarb, Braised Spigarello, Sicilian Pistachios and Black Truffle Jus

It’s not a simple a chicken as it looks. The breast meat is perfectly cooked and juicy. It is also stuffed under the skin with a layer of chicken mousse and black truffles.

Veal Oscar

Marcho Farms Nature Fed Veal “Oscar” – Alaskan King Crab, David Little Potatoes, Sacramento Delta Green Asparagus, Garden Radishes and Shallot Sauce

This was a surprise of a sort. I was not sure what to expect, but it ended up being one of the highlights of the meal. Not pictured here is a small porcelain pot that was filled with very rich and airy potato puree. This was the ultimate meat and potato dish.

Cantal

“Cantal” – “Thomas’s English Muffin”, Green Apple Relish, Petite Onions, Frisee and Black Walnut Puree

This was the composed cheese course. Lovely with a mix of textures and temperatures to go along with the Cantal cheese.

Verjus Blanc

“Verjus Blanc” – Demi-Sec Grapes, Jasmine Tea Ice Cream and Marshall Farms Honey Crisp

A complex little palate cleanser before dessert

Swiss Roll

Passion Fruit “Swiss Roll” – Valrhona Chocolate Cremeux, Caramel Mousse and Banana Ice Cream  

The ladies got this for dessert while , funny enough, the guys got the…

Princess Cake

“Princess Cake” – Animal Farm Buttermilk, Navel Orange Marmalade, Toasted Marzipan and Cara Cara Orange Sorbet

I have to say that the desserts were the least impressive of the meal. Nothing bad or wrong, just not as “up there” as the savory courses that preceded them.

After all that food and almost four hours we got some warm donuts and coffee.. .

Coffee and Donuts

This extra course is the same one I posted about recently, Coffee and Donuts. It’s cool to taste it there and, except for the much better foam on the semifreddo, my dish was pretty damn close to the real thing. This was also delivered to the table with a bunch of Mignardises – a selection of chocolate truffles and chocolate covered macadamia nuts.

We left with a small box each of buttery shortbread cookies and the memory of a lovely evening of good food and excellent company at a unique and beautiful place.

 

French Laundry: Braised Pork Cheek with Yellow Corn Polenta Cakes, Glazed Vegetables and Sweet Garlic

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A week before our much awaited dinner at The French Laundry (I’ll post something about that at some point…hopefully soon) I wanted to make the family a meal from one of my favorite cookbooks. I thought of it as an appetizer of sorts. Of course my meal was not a 10 course 4-hour extravaganza but only a couple of courses, a main dish and a dessert. When both come out so perfectly delicious though, it really is a treat. In the book there are several recipes for “cheap” cuts of meat, not just pricey and exotic cuts. Chef Keller uses cuts like beef cheeks, tripe, pig head and transforms them into refined three-star plates of beautiful food. This is such a recipe. I’ll post about the dessert in a subsequent post.

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In the book, the recipe is made with veal breast. That’s, more or less, the equivalent of a pork belly on a calf. It’s tough, sinewy and flavorful. It’s also very tough to find at almost any store. I was not about to mail order it so I decided to improvise and see what I have in my deep freezer. I had two excellent pork cheeks in there and I figured these would make a very nice substitute for the veal breast. The recipe, from Keller’s pre sous vide days, braises the meat traditionally (sear, cook in stock with aromatics gently). I opted to first sear the meat really well and then bagged it  with carrots, celery, leeks, herbs, stock and white wine and cooked it sous vide at 82.2 C for about 8 hours. When the meat is cooked I removed it from the bag, discarded all the herbs and vegetables and strained the liquid to make a sauce from it later on. The meat went in the fridge to rest and set.

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To complete the meat portion, I cut the cheeks into 2 inch rounds using a biscuit/cookie cutter. The cheeks are not as nice and even as a veal breast would be. See this post for an idea how the cooked cheeks look in one of the pictures. So some pieces were more even than others. Right before serving, I rubbed the meat with Dijon mustard and then rolled the flat sides in panko bread crumbs. Then I pan fried them well in grape seed oil and got them ready for plating. The meat from pork cheeks is really something special. It has a very deep almost slightly gamy flavor and unique texture. Braising the meat then pan frying it till crispy and luscious on the inside. Cutting the meat into rounds creates a good bit of extra chunks and uneven pieces that I used for the next few days in fried rice and tacos for the best ever crispy carnitas.

The rounds of pork sit on crispy corn cakes, aka polenta cakes. These are fairly classic made with polenta cooked in water and enriched with mascarpone cheese and butter. I then mixed in some chopped chives and poured the porridge in a silicone square cake pan to set. The cakes are finished similarly to these hominy cakes by rolling in flour and pan frying in some butter until browned and crisped.

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The vegetables in the book (carrots, turnips, celery root, beets) according to the recipe are supposed to be cut into different shapes. The beets into tiny pea-size marbles (parisienne), the carrots into small ovals (turned), the trunips into small fluted shapes and the celery root into small batons. So, I have no parisienne cutter and no vegetable fluter. I also opted not to use the the celery root since I did not have a kitchen brigade doing my bidding. Instead I cut the beets into small coin shapes and the turnips into small cubes. Then I turned the carrots. It really takes some time and skill to turn hard vegetables into acceptable small football shapes. It really makes one appreciate all the work that goes into creating and executing one of those dishes at a place like the French Laundry. It took me about an hour to make maybe 20 carrot ovals and they were by no means perfect.

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Chef Keller in the recipe blanches the vegetables separately to cook them. Instead I bagged the carrots and turnips together and separate from the beets (to avoid discoloration since beets really stain)  and then cooked the two packages sous vide at 85C until perfectly tender. To finish the vegetables and plate them they get sauteed in some butter and sugar to glaze them (again the beets are glazed separately) and then they are warmed in a small pot of beurre monte, Keller’s ubiquitous butter-water emulsion. The last vegetable in the mix is the sweet garlic. These are garlic cloves blanched in several changes of boiling water and then slowly poached until very soft and then sauteed in butter to brown them and further flavor them. The garlic and the rest of the vegetables get tossed together at the last minute, right before serving. If I could change one thing about this recipe, it would be that last step of tossing in the beets. Even with all the care and even though the beet coins were mixed in at the last second, they still managed to slightly stain the turnips and garlic a shade of pink. Really I should’ve plated the beets without tossing with everything else.  

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To make the sauce for the dish, the braising liquid is reduced and flavored with chopped shallots and fresh parsley. At the last minute is is enriched with more of the beurre monte. For plating I put a spoonful of the sauce on the plate first and topped it with a corn cake. On top goes a round piece of crispy pork cheek and that gets topped with the glazed vegetables and the sweet garlic cloves. Is it good? Damn right it is. It is a delicious dish that combines comfort with Michelin – star cuisine. The flavors are deep and rich and the textures are amazing. Everyone loved it including the kiddos. It was a bit funny when my 9 year old asked for seconds and requested that the meat be cut into a circle again for plating and my 6 year old now routinely asks if we are cooking more food from “French Laundry”! That’s a lot of pressure. Next is dessert, another French Laundry classic…

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French Laundry: Chocolate Cakes and Gelato with Toasted Hazelnuts and Syrup

I love it when a book never disappoints, whether I am doing a complete verbatim recipe or in this case using it for a template and making parts of a recipe. The book I am talking about is of course the French Laundry Cookbook. This lovely plate of confections is based on the recipe for Chocolate Cakes with Red Beet Ice Cream and Toasted Walnut Sauce from Keller’s book. Like most of my desserts this actually started off with ice cream or gelato. One of my absolute favorite things both to make and eat, ice cream comes first most of the time and then the rest of the dessert follows…or not. Afterall, a bowl of homemade ice cream and a good movie is just perfect sometimes. This was for a nice dinner party though for a few good friends so I wanted to make something elegant.

I prepared two gelato recipes, a salted caramel one and a caramelized cocoa nib one. The first is straight out of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream. The second one uses Jeni’s ice cream base where I steeped a bunch of Theo’s cocoa nibs. Cocoa nibs are basically small pieces of the shell of the cocoa pod. They taste of slightly bitter and intense cocoa with a bit of an edge. During churning I mixed in some more of the same nibs but these ones were caramelized giving them a great bitter-sweet taste and very crunchy texture. Making caramelized cocoa nibs is no different than making caramelized almonds or peanuts. You start of with the nibs and sugar in a pot and you keep stirring and heating until the sugar melts and caramelized around the nibs.

The cake in this recipe is a flourless chocolate cake where most of the structure and the leavening comes from whipped egg whites. All the flavor is from the dark chocolate and cocoa in the mix. I baked the individual cakes until set but still a bit soft. These are delicious cakes that can be used in many recipes where a nice elegant cake is required that is both light and satisfying.

The French Laundry recipe makes a couple of components based on walnuts. Instead of walnuts I went with hazelnuts. First I toasted the nuts, then I candied them. To candy the roasted nuts, I simmered them in a mixture of sugar and white wine. The nuts are then sprinkled with salt and allowed to dry while the cooking liquid is reduced until we have a hazelnut syrup ready for serving.

To serve I plated a cake on a small puddle of the syrup and topped it with two candied hazelnuts. A scoop of gelato goes between the two hazelnuts (some plates got salted caramel there, others the cocoa nib). On the side goes another scoop of gelato on top of caramelized nibs. The whole thing then gets drizzled with a bit more of the hazelnut syrup. This was a big hit and rightly so. It’s complex, beautiful and delicious.

Oh, here is what preceded the dessert too; beef tenderloin in red wine sauce, kale and rich potato puree

Panna Cotta, Pineapple, Pistachio

It all started with the honey-yogurt panna cotta. I wanted something light and creamy and had a lot of yogurt on hand so the idea to make this luscious and refreshing pudding was a natural. Panna cotta is an Italian pudding usually made with cream (after all, its name translates to “cooked cream”) and is set with gelatin as opposed to eggs or a starch. The recipe I used does not eliminate the cream but instead uses yogurt for a big part of the dairy in the base. The tang and lighter mouth-feel from the yogurt makes for a delightful dessert. The recipe I used is based on this Honey-Yogurt Panna Cotta from Martha Stewart.

Pineapple, for some reason, was the first ingredient that came to mind to accompany the panna cotta. At first I wanted to dice and quickly sautee the fruit with butter and sugar. Then I figured I’d make it more substantive by quickly pan grilling and butter basting thick rings of pineapple. That’s when I remembered Thomas Keller’s pineapple ‘chop’ dessert from “The French Laundry” cookbook. It sounds weird but it makes perfect sense and looks fantastic. The idea is to cut the pineapple in a way it would resemble a small rack of meat with bones attached (pictures really help with this). Really, it’s very natural to cut the pineapple like that by splitting it in half, removing the core and half of the pineapple flesh. The pineapple rack is cooked much like a meat rack, it’s seared in butter and vanilla, roasted in the oven for a while till golden brown. Before serving, the pineapple is reheated in a light caramel and basted continuously before trimming and dividing up into thick “chops”.  

The last two components both involved pistachios. I made pistachio cookies that are inspired by French sable cookies. These are rich, crumbly and have excellent pistachio flavor. The other component is a pistachio-mint coulis. The pistachios are cooked until tender and the mint is blanched then the two are blended till smooth with simple syrup. This is one tasty dessert that works on every level. It looks beautiful, smells fantastic and the flavors just pop.

French Laundry: “Banana Split” – Poached Banana Ice Cream, White Chocolate-Banana Crepes and Chocolate Sauce

A classic flavor presented in a very untraditional and delicious way, classic Thomas Keller. Here we have sweet crepes, filled with a mixture of white chocolate and poached pureed bananas. I poached the bananas in a mixture of cream and milk until soft. The poaching liquid is then used to make a custard base for a vanilla bean ice cream that has a good banana flavor.

For the crepes, I filled them and formed them into cylinders with plastic wrap and then froze them till service time. They are then sliced and allowed to warm up a bit. I could be wrong but the goal here is to get a texture not unlike that of a ripe banana. By mixing the melted white chocolate with the banana puree and allow it to freeze and thaw, we get exactly that. A texture and taste that is familiar but at the same time not quiet so.

Garnishes, again, are very traditional. We have -or supposed to have- Maraschino cherries, sweetened whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Real Maraschino cherries are very different than that bright red crappy things you get in your frozen daiquiri. They are cherries soaked/candied in a Maraschino liquor such as the fantastic Luxardo. If we are going to be real traditional, the cherries are also supposed to be Marasca cherries. You can buy these delicious Maraschino cherries in gourmet shops or online, but they are not easy to find in your typical grocery store. Bottom line is: I had none, had no time to shop for them, so I made something to sub for them. What I did is bring sugar, brandy and port to a boil and turned off the heat. Then used that mixture to plump-up a bunch of dried Bing cherries. The result is not the same as the real deal, but still delicious and 100 times better than the fake orbs that garnish Shirley Temples everywhere.