Sunday, July 12, 2009

Ah, foie gras!

Ah, foie gras. What a wonderful thing. The Egyptians, I come to find out, were the first to fatten birds from overfeeding as early as 2500 BC. Eventually the practice spread from Alexandria to the rest of the Mediterranean, where the Romans coined the term iecur ficatum, fig-stuffed liver. The word ficatum was closely associated with animal liver and became the root word for "liver" in Italian (fegato), Romanian (ficat), Portuguese (figado), Spanish (hígado), and French (foie). Foie gras, meaning "fat liver" in French, is the term that we use to describe this ethereal delight. The French, of course, are the reigning champions of "fat liver" production (more than 18,000 tons in 2005) and consumption (19,000 tons in '05). We have some catching up to do.

I have had the pleasure of eating foie gras on a handful of occasions before, but never the honor of being able to prepare it. So when our fabulous friend Dick told us that his daughter bought him a whole foie gras for Father's Day, and wanted to know if I was interested in cooking and enjoying it with him, I said, "thank you, but no." HA! Just kidding. Absolutely. Now, how the hell do you cook one of these things? I did some research and found out lots of do's and don'ts. In particular, 'Understanding foie gras' by Wayne Nish on the Hudson Valley Foie Gras and Duck Products webpage. Honestly, I started to get a little nervous after reading of the delicate handling and preparation required. It went off without a hitch in the end, and made for an unspeakably special and decedent appetizer.

I used a recipe from the famed Gary Danko, and changed a couple of things for the sake of ease and economics, but not much. I linked the page with the recipe to his name if you are interested in preparing it just so. The plate consists of seared foie gras, caramelized red onion compote, caramelized peaches, and a reduction sauce.

I prepared all of the accompaniments ahead of time, and the foie gras cooks (literally) in a matter of minutes, so it was actually a very easy meal in terms of difficulty. It did, however, require some time. One of the many reasons I feel lucky to be a teacher is that I have plenty of time at the present moment. The onion compote pictured above has butter, chicken stock, balsamic vinegar, honey, salt and thyme. As the onions caramelized, I made the reduction sauce. Minced shallots, chicken stock (Danko called for rich veal stock), sweet white wine (Danko calls for Essensia, but I used Vinferno from Bonny Doon Vinyards, bomba), cognac, honey, and sherry vinegar all combine and get reduced by half, then strained.

Finally, the peaches. Two beautiful firm yet ripe peaches were peeled and quartered. Since I was preparing for three, I decided to purée two of the quarters with the deglazing liquid. The peaches get caramelized on both sides in oil (I used coconut oil) and then transferred to a plate, or in my case, a glass container for later transport. The 'fourth wheel' peach quarters got diced and went in to the hot pan, along with a splash of cognac, Vinferno, and a sprinkle of brown sugar because they were not as sweet as I would have liked. I then puréed that and poured it over the now resting peaches to cool.

Once we arrived at Chez Dick, we had our first sighting of the foie. Twas a thing of beauty. A tear welled up inside me as I held it for the first time. "Je t'aime mon petit foie, je t'aime." I had read about the whole deveining process, so that was the first order of business. Once the lobes were separated, I pulled out the main vein (teehee) and sliced her up as per Gary Danko's instructions:
With a sharp 8" French knife, dipped in hot water, cut the Foie into ¾" thick slices. Reheat knife before cutting the next slice. Exert only the force necessary to cut through the Foie gras. Place slices on tray, cover tightly and refrigerate until ready to cook and serve.

Once sliced, cook time is a snap. Foie gras feels and cooks (and tastes like, in a way) BUTTER. When I dropped them in to the pan, they sizzled intensely and rendered quickly. I went with Wayne Nish's suggestion to cook the foie over very high heat rather than Gary Danko's cooking instructions. A minute or so on the first side, then another minute or so on the second side. Poured off the fat, dropped the peaches in (I had the compote warming in a small pan, and the sauce warming as well) and plated them up!! Oh my goodness, what a delightful, delicate, decedent treat!! Here's a look at the finished product.

And that is just the appetizer! Dick grilled a perfectly cooked tri-tip, along with some amazing red potatoes. The lovely Lissa prepared a delightful green salad to round things off. The potatoes had the creamiest texture! He boiled them, drained them, and then put them back in the pot with some olive oil and let them simmer with the lid on for about 20 minutes. They were almost custardy. WTFicatum? Awesome dinner. Thank you Torun, if you read this, for such a special gift to your Dad, and thank you Dad Dick for sharing your special gift with us. I feel blessed to lead the life I do. Eating foie gras with intelligent, caring friends, looking out over the redwoods, thinking deeply and being alive. La vie est belle.

The view from Chez Dick, between bites of heaven.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Aromatic Steamed Fish Curry (Mawk Pa)

The recipe for this fish curry comes from the fantastic travel/cookbook Hot Sour Salty Sweet; A Culinary Journey through Southeast Asia, by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. It's one of my favorite cookbooks, because it is real. It talks of travels...of places and the peoples that cook the food that is described in the recipes. In fact, in a footnote to the recipe I used here (which is prepared in Laos and Thailand) Alford mentions a Cambodian variation:
The Khmer version of this dish is known as ah mahk. It includes coconut milk and is often topped with a dollop of coconut cream and some finely shredded lime leaves rather than with scallion leaves.
I love it. Since I received this book as a gift from my lovely girlfriend, I have also purchased another of Alford and Duguid's books, Beyond the Great Wall; Recipes and Travels in the Other China. Another keeper, but I will have to save that one for a later post.

I have cooked this fish dish a handful of times before, as it has become one of Lissa's favorites. I decided to try something new to accompany it this time so as to spice things up. I had just bought some exciting canned goods from our last trip to San Jose, and wanted to have the contents of one them end up in a salad. I picked up some sweet corn, tomatoes and purple cabbage, and was thinking of something fruity (either in a sauce or in the salad) from can land. I went with the jackfruit! What I didn't realize was that 'young green jackfruit' means unripe, and thus, not sweet. Doh! No problemo, just a slight modification...I will now quickly sautée the fruit in coconut oil with ginger, add some lime juice, mirin and brown sugar, then finish it with a splash of my exciting new coconut vinegar. Tadah! Sweet(ish) jackfruit sauce. Let the sauce/dressing cool, and then add it to the shredded cabbage and wedged tomato. If you add it hot (like I did tonight) it will blanch the cabbage and maters, which I like in terms of texture but not aesthetics, as the cabbage will bleed and turn the jackfruit purple. There is something about each ingredient retaining it's color here that seems important...

While I was making the salad, I had some rice cooking. Jasmine rice a la Lissa. She had made some sun-brewed green tea, and suggested that we use it to cook the rice. Hellooooooooo? Yah. Great idea, amor. The slightly sweet, yet astringent sencha tea will impart a pretty flavor in to our Jasmine rice. Nice counterpoint to our other dishes.

Now, on to le poisson. I don't always include specific and measured instructions on my food posts, mostly because that's not how I typically cook. So if that bugs you, you'll be pleased with me here.

1.5 pounds fish fillets (catfish, snapper, or whatever firm-fleshed white fish you prefer)
1 Thai dried red chile, soaked in .5 cup warm water until softened
2 stalks lemongrass, trimmed and minced very fine
.5 cup chopped shallots
2 tablespoons chopped corriander roots (yes, roots iya!)
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
.5 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
1 cup chopped scallion greens
.25 cup packed Asian basil or sweet basil leaves, coarsely torn

Cut the fish into bite-sized pieces, discarding any bones or other tough bits, and set aside in a bowl.
Keep the chile-soaking water and mince the soaked chile, discarding the tough stem. Place in a large mortar or in a cuisinart, add the lemongrass, shallots, and ROOTS!, and pound or blend to as smooth as a paste as possible. Add the chile-soaking water and lime juice and stir or blend together.
Pour the flavor paste over the fish and stir in fish sauce salt. Taste, and add if needed, salt to taste. Stir in most of the scallion, reserving some for garnish, and stir in the basil leaves.
You can steam the fish a couple of different ways. Alford suggests dividing the mixture between a couple shallow heatproof bowls, and placing them in a bamboo steamer. Mawk refers to the traditional method of steaming fish or chicken with aromatics in banana leaf packets, so if you have a banana tree in your yard or have access to banana leaves (they are available in some Latin and Asian markets). The way I usually do it is by simply pouring the fish and flavor paste into a braising pan (any pan with a tight-fitting lid will do) and 'steaming' it thusly, on low heat. Although I like it just fine out of the pan, I think next time I'll try the leaves.

A note on the garnish. How food looks on a plate so greatly enhances the way it tastes. For me, the visual aspect of food is one of notable importance. The joy of beautifully plating food is how simple it often is. Here is a link to a The Book of Garnishes, available on Google books. For this plate, I just fanned out some lemon cucumbers from our garden, used a basil tip to adorn the lil' rice tower, and these limes. To make them, cut half-way through the lime in a zig-zag pattern until you return to the first cut, and separate. They are pretty simple once you get the hang of it.

I am sure it's not much compared to real deal Thai grandma home-cooking, but I do what I can :)

With that, I am reminded of a customer I served while working at Cafe Mare, an Italian restaurant in Santa Cruz, CA....after I served her food, I came back to ask how she was enjoying the meal. She replied "It's not like it was in Italy." :) I laughed to myself, "As if it could ever be..."

หมายชัด ต้องใช้จินตนาการ
ขยายออกไปจากที่ปรากฏตาม ตัวอักษร

Saturday, July 4, 2009

La Perfecta Combinación

So, a while back we bought a bottle of sherry. Lissa wanted some sweet something to have on hand. I suggested a bottle of cream sherry. She wasn't sure at first. For many people, sherry has a similar reputation to that of Rosé. In a word, not very good. Just like Rosé, though, seeking out and enjoying fine Sherry is oh so worth it. Now Lissa is hooked. We finished the first bottle (over time!) and eventually had to replenish the supply. We hadn't yet dipped in to this second bottle of creamy goodness, until...

It's Friday night...we just squeaked in to grab a late dinner at Drunk Monkeys (the best new restaurant in Santa Cruz, without a doubt), where Lissa bought a painting from a local artist who was hanging his work there. Inspired, we pulled out the brushes once we returned home and began to create. After a spell of creative expression, one needs to replenish one's artistic mojo. So, naturally, we pulled out a box of fudge bars. And then it hit me, "la perfecta combinación," like Johnny Pacheco and Pete (Conde) Rodriguez...fudge bars and cream sherry!

I had a flash to the scene in Sideways where Miles drinks his prized 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc out of a foam cup in a fast food joint. Only, I am not ashamed, I will enjoy my fudge bars in plain view, and proclaim their happy marriage to Dios Baco, S.L. Cream Sherry for all to hear! The truth is, if you feel like drinking Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with ceviche, and it will make you happy, then you should and no one can tell you otherwise. If, however, you really wanted to harmonize the meal and the drink, you would probably either want to gently compliment or contrast the flavors held between the two. The goal in any case is to bring the flavors out in both the wine and the food. Neither should overpower the other (for more good tips visit's post on pairing). Well, as I said these two are great together.

Sure, I could have made some bread pudding with raisins, or arroz con leche, and they would have been fantastic with this amazing dessert wine, but nobody has to do dishes when you open box of Julie's Organic Fudge Bars, and there is still magic in the air.

Years ago I got turned on to the delightful dry wines from Jerez, in southern Spain. I fell in love with the fino from Dios Baco, S.L.. Some time later I tried a cream shery from the same producer at our local wine bar, Soif. I loved it.

See Basic Juice's three part post on the awesomeness of Sherry for much more information than you will get from me here.

The short on this sherry, is that it rocks. It is sweet, rich, and nutty. 92 points from Wine Spectator, you can read a review from Snooth here.

I will leave you with one final informational snippet. The origin of Spanish-style tapas is said to lay in the sherry glass. Back in the day, the sherry drinkers in Andalucia used to hang out and...drink sherry. Well, the menacing fruit flies would commit hedonistic suicide by diving into the glass and never coming up (reminds me of the old Taj Mahal song, Diving Duck Blues). Unfortunately for the fruit flies, some waitress had the brilliant idea of covering the glasses with a slice of bread, meat, or cheese, serving as a make-shift lid (or tapa). This custom stuck, and when you order drinks in Andalucia nowadays, you get a complimentary tapa whether or not it can effectively keep the flies out of your drink.

¡Pues venga, salud!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Asian Crab Salad, Soba Noodles, and Eggplant with Shitakes

We had a crab hankering. The season is all but over, so we opted for frozen lump meat. I know, I know, not the best compared to fresh crab, but we had a hankering we had to humor. Honestly, it wasn't all that bad. Soba noodles were also on the list of things to be eaten, so I decided to face the east whilst preparing this feast, with a nod in particular to the Japanese tradition. Ginger, soy, miso, rice vinegar, sake...all of these distinguished guests would be invited to dinner tonight.

For the soba noodles, I prepared them simply. Once boiled and drained (5 minutes), I sautéed some sliced shallots in toasted sesame oil, and added a splash of soy sauce before adding the noodles to coat. (Some roughly chopped cilantro garnishes nicely.) やすやす (I think that says very easy in Japanese). Soba noodles are delicious, nutritious and simple to prepare. Also, for those of you whose bodies do not get along well with gluten, 100% buckwheat flour soba noodles are available, known as Towari soba or Juwari soba. Though you might think buckwheat is related to wheat, 'tis not. What we're dealing with a pseudocereal here, folks. Buckwheat (this link takes you to World's Healthiest Foods site, with lots of nutritional information on buckwheat) is actually a fruit seed related to rhubarb and sorrel. Hmpf!?

I also sautéed some Japanese eggplant and shitake mushrooms with minced ginger. First I cut the eggplant lengthwise, then in 1-inch segments at an angle. Then they get tossed in a pan with some sliced shitake mushrooms and some safflower oil. A mixture of 1 tablespoon hoisin sauce and 1 tablespoon soy sauce gets added once the eggplant has browned nicely and the mushrooms are soft. Turn heat to low as the sauce reduces. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.

I tossed the crab in a light miso dressing. Sliced green onions, light miso, rice vinegar, mayonnaise, salt and sugar. I would probably use a little less vinegar next time, as it turned out a bit 'liquidy.' Then I oiled up some rocks glasses, layered some diced avocado, and filled with the crab. Turn out the towers on to a bed of sliced cucumber, and dinner is served.

I have two good friends who have been teaching English in Japan this past year, but the opportunity to visit them has not presented itself. One day, though, I look forward to making a journey to Nippon, 'sun-origin land.'

('thank you for your continued patronage')

Something Novel...

The other night Lissa said to me, "Let's go to the store and get something neither one of us has never had," to which my response was, "Hells yeah!" Then she was all, "For reallys?", and I was like, "yuuuup".....O.K., sorry about that, the 'hells yeah' barely brung me back to my middle school days in San Jo.

So, where was I? Yes, something novel to eat... I tend to eat this way by default, so it was somewhat difficult to locate items that I had never consumed (since we were at our local gringo health food store and not Hankook Supermarket in Sunnyvale) and broadened our aim to include items I may have eaten but never cooked with.

We found some Taro root in the produce section, and it jumped right in to our shopping basket. I glanced around the seafood department but it was all too familiar. A stroll through the meat department, though, yielded...ground Buffalo! Never cooked Buffalo before. Never cooked Taro before. Mission (half) accomplished. Now, to cook it.

I flashed to a fabulous cookbook I have called A Return to Cooking, by Eric Ripert and Michael Ruhlman. I recalled a recipe for Shepherd's Pie using some sort of root and I thought it may have been Taro. Alas, upon my return home with novel grocery in tow, I opened this gorgeous book to reveal the recipe Blood Sausage and Yuca Shepherd's Pie. No matter, I was planning on improvising in any case and it was Shepherd's Pie that we were to eat!

The first step was to whip the Taro, and I decided to add a couple of Potatoes as well. Peel, dice, boil, drain, mash, add creamy stuff. Pretty straight forward, just like making mashed potatoes. Taro, we read, is easily digestible and very nutritious, containing high amounts of fiber, protein, calcium and phosphorous! As I peeled it, I noticed how very sticky (starchy) the flesh was, the same held true once I mashed it up with the potato. This would have undoubtedly been a superior medium for the mountain-sculpting scene in Close Encounters of a Third Kind. For the creamy goodness I was not shy, adding a big dollop of mascarpone along with a hunk of Triple-Cream Brillat-Savarin with Truffles, wooo-woooooooo (shout-out to Bubb Rubb and Lil Sis). I must add, too, that the Triple-Cream Truffle Cheese was FREE! I asked the man working at the specialties department in our local Whole Foods for something...(you guessed it) novel, and he says, "get this...goat cheese with truffles. You'll love it." He inquired about our menu for the night, and as I explained the dealy-o, he took out a 'try it on us' sticker and slapped it on another hunk o' cheese, the triple-cream (customer service, man). Big love, Larry!

On to the Bison! As I would have sautéed and simmered beef, so did I prepare the Buffalo. Diced onion, minced garlic, a little minced ginger, tomato paste, some chipotle chili, red wine, salt and pepper (see note below). Simmer. Simple.

Note: Since we were selecting novelty grocery items, my lover decided to try some Hawaiian Black Lava Sea Salt (left). To keep in step, I pulled out my Australian Black Peppercorns (below), which have a kind of mild, fruity spice to them.

If only I had a couple of ring molds! The assembly was a bit tricky, because I used bowls for my molds and then turned the pies out. However, our sticky little whip did not want to drop, even though I oiled the bowl up real good like. Eventually they dropped, and it wasn't too messy I suppose. Here's the pretty picture:

A simple green salad with some carrot, and you have yourself an adventurous little meal. Next time we'll have to shop at Hankook or some other Ethnic Market where I don't even know what it is I'm buying!! Thanks to my wonderful girlfriend Lissa for the inspiration and the willingness to eat novelly.