Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The French Laundry!

I was talked into running a half marathon back in San Francisco this past April.  Well, technically talked into signing up for the lottery to do it, since the half marathon was so big that you can't just sign up.  We got in.  Ever since I heard, i've been planning on taking a couple of days and going to Napa/ The French Laundry after the race.  Of course, I knew that it was near impossible to get a reservation, but I am persistent.  I vowed I would find a way to get it.

I didn't.  Darling husband and I both tried (each of us with two phones) for two days in August, as reservations opened up.  [ADDENDUM: I forgot to mention my loyal secretary.  She tried one day too!]  The third possible day, I had a conference call and wasn't able to call.  I was dejected.  Adding to the dejection was the fact that I had planned on being nearly done with cooking my way through the book by October (rather than the halfway I am right now).

And then... we got a reservation!  Party of 4, the last seating (not ideal), two days after the half (even less ideal, but it would work out nicely - spa day, wine tasting, sleeping in, fun times!).  I got a babysitter for the three days.  We had a plan!  A plan for the French Laundry.

But, like so many other things, the couple of weeks before, it fell apart.  Someone couldn't go, bringing it down to three.  Another person might not be able to go because of trial schedules.  And then... five days before, my HUSBAND found out he couldn't go because [well, there are a lot of things that could be said, but it sums up nicely with 'his boss is an evil witch.']  Back to dejected.

As with so many things, this got worked out.  Friend with trial issues was able to make it.  Her mom was going to come.  The table was full enough.  Then the morning of, her mom couldn't go.  Back to two.  Except... my husband found a way to make it!  He got a friend to take angry toddler, he got a flight, a car, and dashed up to Napa.  He didn't exactly surprise me, since he told me 7-8 hours beforehand, but I was still on cloud nine (particularly after all the on-off stuff).  I worked in the morning, went to Mumm and had a flight of champagne (while listening to a group of four long-time friends sitting around talking -- making me realize that I NEED to do a trip like this with my friends!), drove around, had a snack at Bouchon, walked the French Laundry garden.  It was a perfect day.

Why the long story?  Because this set up the night to be truly amazing.  And with that, our dinner!  I was the tacky person who took pictures of each course (with my phone, since I wasn't all ready to bust out the big DSLR). 

First up, the cheese gougere - as our table-mate said, 'There is a party in my mouth!'  I can't wait to make these.

Second amuse, the cornet.  I was thrilled to see that my cones were perfect!  The salmon was a much much finer dice.  On one hand, it looked prettier.  But on the other, I like the texture of salmon tartare a little better when its not quite as finally diced (the salmon prep here and my finished ones here, halfway down).

Third, the real first course!  Oysters and pearls.  Much MUCH better than the oysters and pearls that I made.  I don't know what about it was better (maybe the lack of gags around the table), but it was.

Fourth, a "salad."  It was a salad in that it was mostly vegetables.  But it sure didn't look like one. (somewhere on that plate is a potato... and I bet you would never guess which one).* 

Fifth, a sashimi - loved the chili oil.

Heading into the "real" meal... I was getting full!  Despite having nearly starved myself all day.  I think that lunch is really the way to go for a nine-plus course meal.

Sixth, a lobster ravioli.  I went into Toddler mode - mmmmm..... was all I could say.  It was fantastic.

And as a bonus, one of my table-mates (who got the veggie menu) had agnolotti.  My agnolotti looked just like it!  (ok, maybe you can't tell from the picture, but it did)  Validation!

Seventh up, a rabbit rilette.  It was the first time I had ever had rabbit, but I dove in without hesitation (to be honest, it was because it was wrapped in bacon, and there is NOTHING bad wrapped in bacon).

Eight... is when I started to have the 'good lord, i'm still eating' shakes.  I got past it.  Snake River Farm Coelette be Boeuf Grillee.  I also was a little squicked out from the gel-looking thing on the left (it totally reminded me of aspic, which is no bueno).  Then I flipped it over, let the heat from the meat and plate warm it up... and it became Ah-mazing.

Ninth, the cheese course.  This was the only thing that I didn't like.  I LOVE cheese.  I don't love olives and cheese - the olives in the dish just made the cheese taste rancid and competed with the artichoke in a bad way.  I left most of it.

Tenth, a verjus sorbet.  Obviously it was sorbet, so it was far superior to mine (oh wait, I think that is still to come).  There was a candied cashew that was spectacular, even for a nut-hater like me.

Eleventh, (seriously, there is more!) the first dessert - Pommes Anna.  Is there anything better than funnel cake?  It's a close call, but Yes.  It is called salted caramel ice cream.

Twelfth, nearing the end... Coffee and Donuts!  Husband and I disagreed about this (a little), but I actually liked mine a teensy bit more.  Mine were slightly lighter in texture.  Plus, they only served the holes, and the whole donut is the better part.

This wasn't really an 'thirteenth' course, but there were also mignardises.  I dove in for the chocolate-PB one (favorite combination).  By that point I was so food-drunk (I had one glass of wine, but I felt woozy from eating so much!) that I couldn't bring myself to eat another.  In hindsight, I wish I had asked for them to-go.

At the end of the meal, we got a "souvenir" menu, and some shortbread cookies.  The kitchen had pretty much shut down, and I was absolutely exhausted, so no kitchen tour for me.  Another time (you know, in a decade when I can go again).  The price?  I tried to forget.  Then last week, I found the receipt in my wallet...and tried to bury it.  Strangely, I can't bring myself to throw it away.  It can hopefully be the occasional find, something that reminds me of the most amazing day.

* Somewhere around the salad course, I think, we were also served some pain au lait made at Bouchon.  It was the most amazing bread i've ever had.  I've been searching for a pain au lait recipe since then, but nothing had come anywhere near the amazingness of that bread.  I cannot wait for the Bouchon Bakery cookbook (and hopefully a recipe for the pain au lait!!!)

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Double Rib Lamb Chops with Cassoulet of Summer Beans

It's funny how the simplest dishes can cause the most stress.  Take this, my first 'real' meat dish (the first one out of the meat courses).  I read the directions, a couple of times, and thought: this seems too easy.  Then I went to the local awesome meat market (Siesel's Meats), and the guy looked at me like I was an idiot when I asked for double cut rib lamb chops (in my defense, I was asking for exactly what the book said to get!!).  Apparently, you can have lamb chops, or you can have rack (or rib) of lamb, but you can't have both, at least according to this butcher.  He also was in disbelief that I wanted two racks (i'll be straight: it was $140 for them) - he asked me like 5 times if I was 'positive' that I could spend that much.  I think it was related to the fact that I couldn't give him a straight explanation of what I needed (THANKS a lot Thomas Keller).  It could have also been that I was wearing yoga pants, a t-shirt, no makeup, a ponytail, and chasing a toddler around, and may have looked like a teenage mother as opposed to an attorney.

So, anyways, back to the rack: it was pretty easy.  In fact, I think the hardest part was the injuries incurred while making the "quick" lamb sauce (hint: its not).  The lamb bones were fresh, and still wet. So they splattered - a lot.  Once in my face/all over my arm, leaving several actual burns.

The mis:

And... no other pictures, since I was too busy ducking the constant splatter from roasting/deglazing the bones.  (And plus, looking at pictures of stock isn't really all that exciting).

Next I made the rosemary oil... but again, no pictures (doesn't all green oil look the same?)

Next up: the beans.  I soaked some marrow and cranberry beans overnight, cooked them in some stock, leek, onion, carrot.  They... were still rock hard.  So I cooked them longer.  And longer.  Ultimately, I think I cooked them for close to two and a half hours.  A bit longer than the instructions said.

The morning of, I blanched the beans - yellow, green, fava.

I couldn't find any fresh soybeans, so I ended up buying edamame - just had to pop them open and toss them into the mix (along with some bruniose).

Finally, I prepped the lamb - tied them up, wrapped some foil around the bones

After we had the cheese course, I cooked the chops.  I browned them for about 4 minutes on one side, another three, then turned them to brown them all over.  Then I tossed some garlic, butter, and thyme in the pan, then roasted it for a few minutes in the oven.  Each minute desperately praying that I wasn't screwing up $140 of meat.

I didn't.  The lamb was beautiful.

The overall dish was amazing.  I love beans, and the mix of beans was awesome.  The lamb sauce was rich and lamb-y, but not too gamey.  And the lamb was perfectly cooked!  (suck it, judgy butcher!)  This was easy enough to actually make again.  Overall: keeper.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Foie (Done Well) With Apples and Black Truffles

As opposed to 'well done.'  My biggest fear when I was reading the directions was burning it and wasting a $100 piece of meat.  (Is liver meat, even if it comes from poultry?  I just don't know).  A gigantic piece of meat that felt like the fake wax fruit my grandma has in her "fruit bowl."  Not a fan of how foie gras feels.

So imagine my debate about the 'picking out the veins' thing.  See, The French Laundry Cookbook has this whole set of instructions about soaking it, cutting it down the center, following veins with a small knife, not being afraid of really digging them out because foie is like play-doh and it all comes together at the end.

But these instructions are with a different foie recipe.  It's not at all clear whether you are supposed to go through all of these hoops when you cook it in other ways.  I looked at it.  Thought about it.  And decided that it's probably best if I did it that way.  If anyone knows any better, please tell me.

Elaborate pre-step #1: Soak it in milk.  For like an hour.  And more than once.  But the time you are done, the foie resembled slightly soggy wax fruit.

Elaborate step #2: deveining.  This is way way too messy to even contemplate photographing.

Elaborate step #3: put it back together.  I really REALLY butchered the foie trying to get veins out (this is definitely not my forte).  So after salting and peppering the foie, I wrapped it as tight as I could in some saran wrap.  Then I wrapped it the other way.  And the other way again.  A roll of saran wrap later... i'm left hoping that it really does stick back together like promised.

So, you know the apples and truffles thing?  Couldn't get any truffle.  Unlike the last time I needed them and just was too cheap to go and buy them, this time I had the promise of a truffle.  I had someone promise to set one aside for me.  I had that someone leave work, apparently with the truffle not set aside for me.  Then I had someone else sell my truffle.  After discovering that I wouldn't have a Bristol Farms truffle after all (thanks a bunch!), and knowing that I didn't have a way to get one in time, I just decided to substitute an onion.  Because clearly onions = truffles, right?  (You don't need to answer that)

I basically just diced/sliced this all up and made a type of relish with it.  People loved it.  It was rather ugly, so I didn't take any pictures.

Time to cook the foie.  I don't think I can portray how nervous I was.  I mean, i've never eaten or even SEEN a whole lobe of foie, so I had no idea what it was supposed to look like (except for the picture in the book).  And, again, $100 chunk of meat.  I cut a little piece off, and melted down in the pan (pretty much all fat)....

Oh, yeah, wait: I made some little dry brioche croutons first.

Now, back to the foie.  I unwrapped it.  It stayed together.  I scored it.  It still stayed together.   It was fantastic to score, since the scores stayed so nicely.  Maybe this stuff really IS like play doh!

Then I got the pan really really smoking hot, and slid it in.  I bided my time.  i was patient.  And when I flipped it over.... SUCCESS!!!!

Seriously, check out that gorgeous, gorgeous piece of foie.  I cooked it more on the second side, slid it onto a platter, and brought it out.  Forgot to take a final picture, but I really really think this will do.

So, how was it?  Good.  Not quite as squicky as the chicken liver toast my law school roomate made me try at ABC Kitchen (which tasted good, I just couldn't move past the texture).  The texture here was luxurious, smooth, rich.  It was good.  Rich, oh so rich, that I could only finish maybe 2 toast points.  And I was constantly a little squicked out by what I was eating.  But, luckily, my husband and two other (male) guests just inhaled the rest.  Thank goodness none of the $100 piece of meat went to waste!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Corsu Vecchiu with Carrots and Raisins

So... cheese.  I think you can't go wrong with cheese.  Particularly with the cheese courses in The French Laundry Cookbook.  Not only are they delicious, they are easy (well, easy is a relative term, but waaaay easier than anything else in the book).  And with my favorite local cheese shop - Venissimo Cheese - easy to find the weird cheese.

This was no exception.  Behold!  Five easy pictures to get you to a beautiful composed cheese course.

First, I made the spice mix.  After combining all of the spices in a bowl, I threw them in the vitamix.  While it admittedly did not work as well as a spice grinder, my vitamix still rules.

Next I shredded some carrots.  Thank you, Mr. Food Processor, for taking care of an otherwise time-consuming and arduous job in 10 seconds.

I also simmered down some carrot juice (bought in a gigantic jug from Costco, just because I happened to be there and saw it), added a little of the spice mix juice and shredded carrots, and tried some.  It was like dessert!  (now if I could only convince angry toddler this was true...)

Next up: raisins.  Gently simmered in water with some lemon juice.

Then pureed... in the handy-dandy vitamix!

Because this was all so easy, I did the above steps in the morning. 

Right before peopel were supposed to come over, I sliced the cheese.

And plated it.  Pretty, even without the carrot powder (I had some, then it turned out to be funny-smelling, so I decided against using it) and the chervil (which is only found in like one freaking place in San Diego, and I didn't want to go to Specialty Produce just to get a garnish).

Tasty, although not astonishing.  The sweetness of the carrots and raisins was a nice compliment to the "ripeness" (stinkiness) of the cheese.  And it was easy!  I don't think I can emphasize enough how easy.  Lets just say... it took a total of 30 minutes of time.  That's Rachel Ray-timed cooking, except without the insufferable abbreviations and shortcuts.  Think about it... Thomas Keller or RR.  I know which one i'd chose!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Chocolate Fondant with Coffee Cream and Chocolate Dentelles

I think this was the most complicated dessert I have ever made in my life.  Certainly the most steps ever.  And despite reading the instructions twenty times, and despite something still going disastrously wrong at a vital point, this came together nicely.  The best part: I got to use a BLOWTORCH!  To cook!  (maybe the fire extinguisher as a valentine's day gift wasn't so unwarranted)

Step 1: cookies.  Mix the below

Cut out discs, freeze them.  A nice start.

Step 2: Chocolate Fondant

See all of the ingredients?  Pretty much each one had to be cooked separately.  Bleh.

I started by melting some chocolate.

Whipping the hell out of some sugar and an egg white.

Until it turned into a beautiful meringue.  Then I whipped some cream.  Times like this really made me wish that I had a second mixer bowl.

Next, I whipped some butter.  BY HAND.  That is some hardcore stuff.

So I took the chocolate (cooled)...

And added the coffee.... then the whipped butter... and it seized.  Ugh.  This was the thing they warn about, the temp of the coffee and chocolate and not letting it seize up.  I was totally kicking myself, but was determined to make it work (as an aside, I think my chocolate was maybe too warm and it melted the butter and just was bad).

But Brandon came to the rescue - he basically whipped the mixture as HARD as he could for like 5 minutes, and it smoothed out.  Probably not to where it should have been, but it had to work (since I didn't have time to go out and buy more chocolate... a problem I will never again suffer since I have two grocery stores within 3 blocks, and a Whole Foods AND a Bristol Farms within 5 miles).

After working the chocolate out, I folded in the meringue and whipped cream...

Then spooned it into my (too tall) molds.

Step 3: ganache

Mmmm..... very few things beat chocolate and cream!

Melted and mixed into a delicious creamy mix.

But... remember the too-tall molds?  Spooning and smoothing out ganache over the too-tall molds was a  serious pain.

Step five thousand and ten:

Chocolate dentelles

I had no idea what these were when I read about them, but after making them, I realized that these were the same kind of cookies that my mom LOVED when I was a kid from this local bakery.  They were half dipped in chocolate, and half lacey-butty-chocolately, and I thought they were weird (although pretty).  Luckily with growing up, I have realized that - hello! - chocolate is never weird.  Chocolate on rabbit (seen on Top Chef tonight) - yesplease!  Because its CHOCOLATE.

So I basically tossed almonds and cocoa in the food processor.

Cooked the corn syrup and sugar and butter until it came to 220.

Then I stirred in the nut/cocoa mixture.  Pretty, isn't it?

I poured this on some parchment paper, covered it, rolled it, and stuck in the in freezer.

To cook them, I just stuck the entire sheet in the freezer.

Not as easy: cutting rounds.  Mostly because the cutter I had was completely inadequate for the job.  But I got enough pretty rounds to make it.


Coffee cream.  Exciting to most, revolting sounding to me.

Milk, cream, vanilla: heaven.

Eggs and sugar: best supporting actor/actress nominees

I heated the cream, tempered in the eggs, cooked until it was a custard.  Good stuff.

Then I strained it, cooled it, and added a touch of coffee cream (I think 'to taste' means 'as little as possible' when it comes to coffee)

Before the plated picture - the BEST PART: BLOWTORCH!!!!!!  Unfortunately, some people (uh-hum, husband) were a little concerned about me using a blowtorch and a camera at the same time, so no pictures.  But I got to take a blowtorch - a REAL ONE - and run it around the outside of the rings to loosen the fondant.  I was convinced that I was either going to burn myself, or totally jack up the chocolate fondants.  Or set something on fire... again.  Luckily, none of those happened. Go me!

Plated: coffee cream, chocolate fondant, a dentelle.  Isn't this pretty?  (ignoring the strange little chocolate flecks in the fondant from where the mixture seized up)

Sometimes I impress even myself.