Yellow: Tomatoes, Saffron, Corn, Virtual Egg

A while back I was making a chicken stew that included saffron, a Tagine really. The saffron needed to soak and flavor a portion of chicken stock that I had put in a white bowl. The color was so pretty with the deep rich yellow of the saffron threads slowly diffusing and swirling into the clear liquid. I decided then to make a plate of yellow food. Usually I go for the opposite and try to get a contrast of colors on a dish. This time yellow it will be and if it works out I might try my hand at different colors. I’m thinking blue might never make the cut though. As opposed to the many wonderful yellow foods, you just don’t see a ton of blue edibles. Anyways, yellow worked out perfectly.

I started by making a list of whatever yellow foods I could think of and started thinking of combinations that could work. Pretty soon I was sure that yellow tomatoes would be the centerpiece. Since saffron was what got me thinking about this whole theme, that was certainly going to be included. Corn was also a no brainer and to garnish it all I was using the virtual egg I made recently.

The tomato tart, like the virtual egg, is another recipe from Happy in the Kitchen, by Michel Richard. I did not follow the instructions exactly. My main deviation was to cook the tomato custard and the crust separately. I did that mainly to keep the crust crunchy and fresh, since the tomato filling might make the tart crust soggy if it was baked some time in advance. I made the filling from pureed yellow tomatoes and eggs with a few seasonings. The taste is pretty much pure tomato. I cooked the custard in a small loaf pan lined with plastic wrap to make it easier to remove later on. The crust is a straight forward 3-2-1 pie dough with the addition of yellow corn meal for part of the flour. I rolled it and baked it between two baking sheets. At service time, both the crust and the fragile tomato filling were layered, cut to shape and plated.

The corn was quickly cooked with butter and thyme. The combination of corn, butter and thyme works amazingly well, even in corn bread. Lemon also was part of the dish. I made a quick preserved lemon sauce of sorts. The sauce was quick, not the preserved lemon. These guys had been curing in the freezer for a few months. Curing in the freezer might sound odd, but with the amount of salt (and a bit of sugar) used, the lemons never freeze and they remain a brilliant yellow color. The recipe for the preserved lemons is from the Alinea cookbook. To make the thick sauce, I just pureed some of the lemon quarters with a touch of water and put it in a squeeze bottle.

I incorporated the saffron into a classic beurre blanc. Maybe in this case it’s a beurre jaune? The process is classic and involved simmering some shallots in wine and/or vinegar. In this case the white wine had a good pinch of saffron steeped in it. When the wine, white wine and shallots mixture was reduced to a glaze, I whisked in several generous knobs of butter. The sauce was seasoned and strained and was ready for plating. I garnished the plate with charred yellow tomatoes (I used a blowtorch…), inner leaves of celery, the virtual egg, saffron threads and a sprinkle of black lava salt for some crunch and a color accent. The garnish that looks like caviar is actually mustard. Pickled mustard seeds to be exact, from a recipe by David Chang. I’ve never had those before, but they are very nice. They have a soft but firm texture and the cooking/pickling dissipated their harsh bite leaving just a hint of bitterness and a mild mustard taste. Not to toot my own horn too much, but Yellow was pretty darn amazing. The dish looked beautiful and the flavors worked perfectly. There was just enough acidity, creaminess and crunch to make the dish a success.

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Virtual Egg

Of course it’s a gimmick, but it is so cool. It’s also great to see the look on your guests face when they bite into one of these expecting a good old egg and then doing a double take. Their brain is telling them that this is an egg but the signals they are getting from their taste buds are totally wrong. It really is fun. Making one food that so looks like another has been done for centuries. Supposedly the British monarchs were very fond of “meat fruit” where meat, usually forcemeat or liver parfait, is formed and made to look like fruit (cherries, mandarins…). These “meat fruits” are a main feature in Heston Blumenthal’s new restaurant, Dinner. Click here to see a nice blog post about one of the recipes. As for the Virtual Egg in this post, well I made several of them to use in a dish that I will post about shortly.

First and foremost, I knew that the flavors and colors would work great with my dish and this particular recipe has been on my to-do list for a long time. Since I got Michel Richard’s “Happy in The Kitchen” years ago, the Virtual Egg that he uses to garnish a tuna dish caught my eye. Partly due to laziness, and partly because I did not want to buy egg-shaped molds I never got around to it, until Easter came around this year. That’s when I noticed that the eggs my kids got where perfect for the job. They are cut vertically as opposed to the cheap ones that are sliced through the equator. So, I confiscated them (I still let them eat most of the candy), washed them well and added them to my collection of molds.

To make the egg yolks, I used yellow tomatoes. The tomatoes are peeled, seeded and cooked down with some cream. They are then pureed and seasoned with salt and a small amount of mustard. Gelatin is added to them and they are allowed to set in hemispheric ice molds in the freezer. These can then be unmolded and stored until ready to be used. The white is made from fresh mozzarella cheese, milk and gelatin. This mixture gets poured into the egg shaped mold and a “yolk” is placed in the center. Since my makeshift egg molds are not designed to lay evenly on their side, I put them in a pan filled with dried beans to keep them straight. The whole thing gets to set in the freezer until fully solid. I then unmolded the eggs and stored them in FoodSaver bags. One downside to using these “molds” is that if you look carefully you can see the circle indent that’s on the inside of the molds imprinted on the eggs. Once quartered and served properly it does not matter though. Since I had more than I needed for my dish, we ate a few plain and some served on top of a simple salad. The taste is delicious and familiar, but in a very unexpected form.

Chicken Faux Gras

Truth be told I am not a huge fan of chicken liver. It’s more of a texture thing than taste. I do not like that grainy mouthfeel most chicken liver (like chopped liver) preparations have. When I cook it, it’s usually part of a bigger picture, like dirty rice. When chicken liver is the star of the dish I go above and beyond to make it as smooth as possible. One example is Tuscan chicken liver crostini from Mario Batali’s “Babbo” cookbook. He only instructs us to puree it in the food processor and I think he values the slightly chunky texture. When I make that, I puree the hell out of it and even pass it through a sieve to get a silky smooth texture.

This recipe takes chicken liver mousse to an even higher level. It’s from Michel Richard’s immensely useful book, “Happy in the Kitchen“. Richard gives it the name of “Faux Gras”, an allusion to the expensive, luxurious and wonderful fattened duck or goose liver. I had to give it a try to see how close to its namesake it really is. My intention was to try some on its own and to attempt to quickly sear a cube of it to see if that would work. Well, I never got to the second part of my experiment, we just ate the whole thing up over a period of a few days!

To get to that smooth and rich texture that real foie gras has, Richard purees in a blender chicken livers with a mixture of sautéed onions, cream, and loads of butter. This creates a stable emulsion that is then passed through a sieve to remove any impurities and “graininess” from the “liver shake” (ewww…liver shake). The mixture is baked in a low oven in a bain marie (tub of water) like a custard until set. The liver is then chilled and covered with a parsley gelee. The gelee is made from pureed cucumber, gelatin, lemon juice and lots of parsley. In addition to looking very neat and tasting great it also helps seal the liver and slow down oxidation and discoloration.

The result? As I mentioned earlier, we never got around to test if I can quickly sear a cube of the stuff in a further imitation of foie gras (I guess I need to make it again to test that out). So it was good, very good. Even Diana who does not like chicken liver ate a plate and enjoyed it very much. Does it taste like foie gras? not really. I still think it tastes like chicken liver, but the fatty smooth texture and the subtle seasoning make this one heck of a special chicken liver mousse. To serve it, I just accompanied it with various sweet, tart and spicy condiments like balsamic vinegar, fig confit, cranberry chutney, Zuni pickled prunes, Pommery mustard and homemade bread.

“Kit Kat”, Chocolate Gelato, Peanut and Coconut

This dessert tasted great. The flavors worked perfectly. It had some very nice textures. If only that coconut foam cooperated, it would’ve looked as good as I had planned as well. At some point I wanted to also include a banana component in this dish but I did not have the proper ingredients, so no banana. I’ll have to do it over again sometime.

The Kit Kat portion is straight from Michel Richard’s book “Happy in the Kitchen“. It’s made from  a base of chocolate, peanut butter and corn flakes and a top half of chocolate mousse. After it thoroughly chills it is sliced into neat rectangles and dusted with cocoa. They look like Kit Kat bars but taste way way better. They taste fantastic on their own.

The gelato is chocolate with a bit of coffee flavor added in. I used Starbucks’ VIA instant coffee to get a nice coffee flavor without adding any liquid to the mix.  The peanut brittle is very easy to make. I caramelized about a cup of sugar and added in a tablespoon of butter and a cup of roasted peanuts. I spread the mixture on a Silpat until completely cooled and broke it up to pieces.

The coconut was supposed to be a stiff foam that will keep it’s shape on the plate. It’s made from coconut milk, sugar, milk and gelatin. Then it is refrigerated in an iSi canister and charged with NO2. Unfortunately it looks like I used too little gelatin. The foam dispensed nicely from the whipping cream canister but lost its nice shape within a few seconds and turned to a foamy puddle. It still tasted good and had a very good taste and foamy mouthfeel. Since the foam failed to keep its shape I tried to change the plating a bit on one of the servings, with some success. It shows promise but the portion looks too big and bulky.

Porcini Pheasant, Creamed Corn, Carrot-Orange Sauce

I have cooked pheasant a couple of times before and was always underwhelmed. I hear wild pheasant is a different animal and is delicious, but this farm-raised, store-bought bird is always ho-hum. The legs are tough and stringy with numerous little tendons/bones and the breast meat seems to dry out very fast even though it does have a deeper flavor than a run-of-the-mill chicken. This time I treated the breasts and legs very differently. For the legs I removed the thigh bone and painstakingly removed every string, tendon and skinny bone from the drumstick (but left the main femur there) while keeping the whole quarter in one piece. A pain in the ass that was. Then I seasoned the leg quarters with salt, cayenne, pepper, thyme and bay. I placed them in a bowl of buttermilk and let them cure overnight. the next day we had them fried after a quick dredge in flour. These were pretty good with an eggplant puree. Unfortunately, my camera settings were all screwed up and I have no decent pictures. On to the breasts.

I seasoned those with salt, pepper and thyme and let them sit overnight as well. Thanks to the very nice folks at Ajinomoto (really friendly, helpful and excellent customer service) I have a good bit of Activa RM (Transglutaminase), aka meat glue. This is an enzyme that binds specific types of proteins together, effectively gluing them. Ever wonder how a certain type of turkey at the deli counter looks like it is in one large uniformly shaped piece? Transglutaminase. I dusted the surface of the meat with a bit of Activa, no more than 8 grams or so, and then rolled it into a tight log using plastic wrap. The pheasant log went back to the fridge for the Activa to set, about 6 hours. To cook it, I sealed it in a FoodSaver bag and cooked it en sous vide for about 2 hours at  146 F.

The pheasant was cooked just in time to be plated. To finish it I borrowed an idea from Marc Vetri in his book “Il Viaggio di Vetri” and coated the cooked pheasant with a mixture of olive oil and dried porcini powder. He uses this method to cook halibut and serves it with a blueberry sauce. Then I gently pan cooked the meat for a few minutes over medium heat. The smell was amazing and the porcini really gave the seasoned pheasant a wonderful flavor kick. The enzyme bound the two breast halves perfectly and the slices were neat and efficient. More importantly the meat was cooked perfectly and was not dry. I did not want to throw away the pheasant  skin, so I had it seasoned just like the breasts and for the same amount of time. Then I baked the skin at 400 F sandwiched between parchment lined baking sheets until it got golden and crispy.

The pheasant was good, but the component that I cannot wait to make again here is the creamed corn. The recipe for that is straight from “The French Laundry” cookbook and it is utterly delicious. Too often is creamed corn made the butt end of jokes. It can be soupy, mushy, loaded with salt and cream. Here is how to elevate this humble dish to pure sweet corn heaven. All that is needed is fresh corn, a little butter and salt. No cream included at all, yet the end result is smooth, creamy and full of corn flavor. The secret is using corn juice. More than half of the fresh corn kernels was pureed in a blender and then strained to yield corn juice. The remaining kernels were blanched in boiling water and cooled. To finish the dish, the corn juice gets heated and because of its starch content it thickens to the consistency of whipping cream. The last step is to add the corn kernels, butter and seasoning. That’s it for the best and most addictive creamed corn.

The sauce is based on a recipe from Michel Richard’s book “Happy in the Kitchen” where he uses it in a squab dish. It consists of fresh carrot juice, orange juice, ginger and cut up peach. I used a very flavorful nectarine that I had on hand instead of the peach. I also decided the sauce was a bit too sharp for the rest of the dish and rounded it out with a couple of tablespoons of butter that I whisked in right before plating.

I wanted to garnish the finished dish with clusters of Enoki mushrooms but as luck would have it I could not find any Enoki that day and went with asparagus. I blanched the spears in salted water and quickly cooled them in ice water. I only wanted the top two inches here, so I trimmed that off the stalks (used the stalks for an excellent risotto the next day). Right before service, I finished cooking the asparagus tips in a warm butter emulsion (beurre monte). The other garnish was the crispy and delicious pheasant crackling.