Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Beet Salad, with a Twist

Beet salads. When I dine at a decent restaurant, particularly in fall or winter, I usually go for the beet salad if there is one on the menu. Beet salads done right are absolutely phenomenal. But in truth, this fall/winter, I got a little beet salad'd out. They seemed to get stale, unimaginative, yesterday's news, blah. Perhaps I just saw a few too many of the usual suspects; some greens, some roasted beets, some blue cheese, and yadda yadda yadda, a $10 beet salad. We can do better than that, can't we? So for the Valentine's Food Night, I thought I'd try to turn the fun-meter up a few notches past "the usual". Let's see what happened.

Blue Cheese, Maldon, toasted almond, preserved lemon, blood orange vinaigrette

As you can probably surmise from the photo... there is a little dollup of "something" in the middle of the plate. We'll get to that in a bit. But first... beet chips! The texture of beets, beets, and more beets can get a little monotonous, no? I can remember one beet salad I had this winter at a restaurant that was so infiltrated with beets that... A). I wasn't hungry anymore after finishing it, and B). I was SO SICK of that roasted beet texture after finishing it, I didn't eat another beet salad.......


Anyway, beet chips. I used the ever present yellow handheld mandoline* to shave some thin slices of raw peeled red beet. Next I got a small dutch oven of peanut or other high heat oil hot - round about 340ish degrees. Toss in the beet chips, I think I did about 5 or 6 chips at a time. Trying to fry too many simultaneously will lower the temp of the oil too much, and you'll get oily, greasy, lame chips - which have to rank between stale triscuits and spoiled milk on the fun-meter. Yuck. Turn the chips a few times in the oil, and remove the chips from the oil when they stop bubbling.** Transfer to a drying rack of some kind, immediately salt them, let them dry and cool completely - then test. They should be crispity-crunchity. If not, mess with your oil temp, your frying time, your beet slice thickness, hell change your underwear maybe if you think it'll help.

* I'll stop harping on this little tool after this, but it really is my favorite kitchen gadget. I use it for potatoes, cucumbers, chiles, garlic, shallots. And yes I realize it is a uni-tasker, and no I don't care, Alton.

** It is pretty amazing how much smaller in diameter the chips are when they come out of the oil. I'm assuming from the water that is expunged from the beet by the hot oil? Alton - any input here? No? OK, anyway, keep that in mind - if they go in the size of a manhole cover, they'll come out the size of a quarter. And hey, don't limit yourself to round chips. Go CRAZY and cut them into strips before frying. Use the chips/strips to garnish tortilla or other soups. Put them on green salads. In your kids lunch. Go ahead - do it! The Beet Police won't find you - you're too smart for them. Whatever you do, if you make beet chips... make lots. You'll want lots and lots of beet chips. Lots more than pictured below. Trust me here, mkay? Swell.

So now, we have our beet chips. Those were done ahead of time. As were the toasted almonds.* As was the preserved lemon. As were the beets themselves - roasted in a 425 degree oven, then cubed up and reserved for plating. About all that was left to do was throw together a blood orange vinaigrette using the blood orange "carcases" that remained from the supremes that were used in this dish.

* Do not, I repeat NOT, walk away while toasting your nuts in the oven. Do not multi-task. Do not go to the bathroom, take a phone call, or water your plants. Maybe it's just me, but I absolutely cannot toast nuts properly in an oven and do anything else at the same time other than take in air. Nuts burn easily and quickly and without remorse. Consider yourself warned.

Oh yes, there is one more thing to the dish isn't there. That little-something that is sitting atop a beet chip at the center of the plate. That little something is......... wait for it......... BLUE CHEESE ICE CREAM!!!!

Fear not though! It worked really, really well in this dish if I do say so myself. And actually there were other selfs at Food Night that said the same. Namely distinguished guest Matt, who said he had blue cheese ice cream one other time (at a restaurant that shall remain nameless, but rhymes with La Belle Tree), and he indicated that Food Night's presentation of blue cheese ice cream was superior. Somewhere, I picture the impossibly nice Tim McKee grinning (as pictured) and saying "I'm sorry, what? I couldn't hear you, my James Beard Award was clogging my ears, can you repeat whose blue cheese ice cream was better?". So yeah, anyway, I was pleased all the guests seemed to think the blue cheese ice cream was deece.

A big key in a successful blue cheese ice cream experience is exercising a little restraint. Nobody, not even me, wants to dive into an entire bowl of blue cheese ice cream the way you would Rocky Road or Mint Chocolate Chip. Please. A tablespoon sized scoop of blue cheese ice cream sitting on a nice crisp beet chip fit the bill nicely.

Also, when you make blue cheese ice cream (which I know you are going to run out and do) spend a little coin on a good quality, creamy blue cheese. You only need a few ounces, so get a good one. Of course the ice cream recipe I used comes from the brilliant David Lebovitz, who I'm going to dub the "Official Unofficial Ice Cream Czar of Food Night". I know David will be thrilled. Look - see below? That's David being "thrilled"... I hope. Either way, ALL ice creams made at Food Night are either verbatim Lebovitz recipes, or are my creations inspired by Lebovitz recipes.

And let us not forget one of the perks of making your very own blue cheese ice cream; leftovers! That means, you can get yourself some high end balsamic vinegar, some little ramekins, and top a dollup of blue cheese ice cream with yummy balsamic. Place this fabulous combination of flavors in front of your wonderful guests WITHOUT telling them what it actually is... and watch the hilarity ensue as their eyes say "Mmmmm, vanilla with chocolate sauce", and their mouths say "NOT SO MUCH"!!!

So, you now have all the components needed to make the above dish. Plate the dish as you see fit. The composition options are limitless. And if you have a stray pickled tomato or two, as apparently I did, I'm sure the beets would be happy to have them along for the ride.

Up next - a more conventional dish that was so freaking amazingly fantastically good... scientists have decided to add a new element to the periodic table in honor of this dish. It will be called "Deliciousonium", and will have an atomic weight of infinity.

So, check back, you obviously don't want to miss that.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Scallop/Bacon Nuptuals

* If you are looking for a brief account of course #1 at the Valentines Day Food Night... look elsewhere. I have edited, re-edited, paired down, and deleted all I can. This is what's left. Maybe I'll post the "Directors Cut" of this post in the future, for those of you that just can't get enough of my ramblings.

Studies show, if you are reading this there is roughly an 81% chance you know who the bearded fellow pictured here is. That, of course, is Kevin Gillespie, contestant on the recently completed Season 6 of the wildly successful Bravo TV series "Top Chef". Kevin is your typical MIT scholarship-turner-downer-to-instead-attend-culinary-school. So, he clearly is genius material, and I do mean that literally. Furthering his case for Culinary Jedi status was the "Escargot Quickfire Challenge".

In a Quickfire Challenge, contestants have a brief period of time (in this case it was 45 minutes) to create a foodgasm-inducing dish for a celebrity chef (in this case it was uber-chef Daniel Boulud) The contestants were instructed to "Make a winning dish, using snails as the main protein". So what does Kevin do? He makes BACON JAM. I repeat; Bacon. Jam. He makes Jam... with Bacon in it. And of course he still has time to russle up some snails and other stuff in under 45 minutes. I can barely boil water on my stove in 45 minutes, let alone make bacon jam and snails. So the next time you are trying to dig that Smuckers* garbage that is only 43% fruit and 57% partially hydrogenated xanthan gum fructose red dye #40 out of that sticky-ickey glass jar, know that if you have bacon... and stock (obviously)... you could be spooning some baconey goodness onto your english muffin instead of that ridiculous smuckers.

* See what word you are left with when you take the "m" out of "Smuckers"? Yeah. I'm just sayin'.

But enough preamble... let's dive into Food Night's first course...

bacon jam, stock reduction, citrus, maldon, cilantro, chile sauce

Can you turn on your oven and push "start" on your blender? Then you can make bacon jam. Look, it's just hanging out in the oven, practically cooking itself.... all you need to do is apply heat and stir.

Since I had it in my head that I wanted to recreate Kevin's bacon jam, and scallops with bacon are a frequently matched pair*, I thought I'd try to raise the bar a little on the usual "bacon wrapped scallop".

* You'll often see scallops wrapped in bacon skewered up and pre-packaged at your grocery store. Only problem is... it is near impossible to cook both the bacon and the scallop properly simultaneously. And frequently the grocery store will sell you inferior wet packed scallops** this way. Do yourself a favor; if you want to join some bacon and scallop in culinary matrimony, make this bacon jam and go to Coastal for your scallops (and for ALL your seafood needs for that matter). Food Night Truth #1; make your own stock. Food Night Truth #2; buy your seafood from a trusted source, that gets fresh product daily.

** Scallops that are without any additives are called "dry packed" while scallops that are treated with sodium tripolyphosphate (STP) are called "wet packed". STP causes the scallops to look "nice" and white, and to absorb moisture prior to the freezing process. More moisture means they weigh more, and thereby cost you more (only you are paying for water, not scallop). And the excess moisture in these wet scallops makes them literally IMPOSSIBLE to sear properly. Moisture + High heat = Steam = No Caremlization = Rubbery Seafood = Bad times. So please. Get your seafood from a
reputible source. And no - Coastal Seafoods does not contribute monetarily to Food Night. Quite the opposite, actually.

ANYWAY. Let's get on with the method...

Bacon Jam a la Kevin Gillespie

  • 1 cup bacon (roughly 8oz), cut into 1'' pieces (get the good bacon from your butcher, please, not the prepackaged stuff packed with preservatives)
  • 1/4 cup yellow onions, julienned
  • 3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 3 cups chicken stock*
  • 1 tablespoon honey

* If you don't have any stock because you are waiting for me to post on how to make it, use water instead. Do NOT use anything that came out of a can or a box. But you knew that already.

Render bacon in heavy saute pan (cast iron works great) in 500 degree oven until crisp. Pull from oven, remove bacon, and saute onion in remaining bacon fat until onions are golden. Return bacon to pan, and add brown sugar, stirring to coat.

Add 1 cup stock. Stir, scraping up all browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Return to oven. Reduce until thick, and nearly dry.

Repeat with another cup of stock.

Add remaining cup stock, season with salt/pepper, and pour contents into blender. Process to fairly smooth.

Pour contents back into pan, stir in honey. Put pan back into oven, stir frequently until deep brick red color is attained. Remove from oven, swirl in butter.

Now that you have your Bacon Jam, you are ready to join said Jam, and a dry packed scallop, in blissful culinary matrimony. That process starts by searing the bejezuz out of the scallop, as follows...

Use a pan* like the one pictured above and add a film of high heat oil (peanut, grapeseed) while pan is still cold. Get the pan rip-roarin' hot, and only when pan is screamin' hot, add the scallop(s). Sear for maybe a minute, some browning will happen, the pan will hiss, and smoke, and you will want to poke/prod the scallop but DO NOT under any circumstances poke and/or prod your scallop. Leave it alone, you don't want to mess up the matrimony do you?! Didn't think so. After a minute or so, add a knob of butter to the pan (and garlic clove(s) with skin on, and thyme sprigs if you want, but you MUST add butter). Tip the pan, and spoon the melted butter oil over the scallop for another 30ish seconds, things should be noticeably brown around the scallop by now, but you haven't poked or prodded the scallop, have you. Remove scallop(s) from pan and invert onto paper towel (so browned side is up) when browned to your liking. Bang. Done. The End. How easy was that?!**

* You'll notice this pan is NOT a non-stick pan. Non-stick pans have many uses. Searing a scallop is not one of them. Nor is searing anything, for that matter.

** Answer; very easy! Please, if you haven't already, try it. It's not rocket science. Buy a good scallop. Sear the living daylights out of it. And revel in your accomplishment.

Note you did not turn the scallop over in the pan either. And if you have a bunch of scallops to sear (like we did at Food Night), work in batches, don't overcrowd the pan, and change the oil/fat between batches. The keys here are the proper pan, and making sure it is hot as the sun. And yes; I exaggerate. Again. But only slightly. That pan has got to be mega-hot.

The finished dish actually involved TWO kinds of scallops. When buying the sea scallops, I snagged some Nantucket Bay scallops* since Coastal had them on hand, and proceeded to sear them as above (except in a fraction of the time since they are a fraction of the size of sea scallops). You can see the finished product below... the bacon jam on the left, the supremes of grapefruit and blood orange on the right...

* These little guys (and gals. At least, I assume there are guy and gal scallops right? If there is an ichthyologist reading this... maybe he can enlighten us... Dad.......) are the candy of the seafood world. They are so sweet I think you could sear them just by THINKING of putting them in a hot pan. They are a seasonal product, available only November t0 March or there abouts... so get them while you can. There are four on the plate below...

The dish probably didn't need the reduced stock (which was kind of hidden under the citrus). But what was key to melding the flavors was Maldon salt. It functions as garnish, texture and flavor enhancer. Great stuff the Maldon.

And there you have it. Scallops & Bacon. Food Night style.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Valentine's Food Night - The Wines

Have you ever tried to follow an act that was wildly successful? Rarely is Act II as good as Act I. Unless you are Larry David, and you follow "Seinfeld" with "Curb Your Enthusiasm". Or unless you are Tim McKee and you follow La Belle Vie with Solera and Barrio. But clearly, I don't do comedy, and I don't qwiiiiiiite have the culinary acumen of a James Beard Award winner like Tim McKee. So I did what anyone would do - I panicked. And right after panicking, I set out to create a menu that would be a worthy Act II to the wildly successful Act I that featured...

  • The first Food Night ever documented on the Internets.
  • A Food Night that featured a freaking truffle (and not the chocolate kind, either).
  • A Food Night whose wines included the best Priorat I've ever had, and Lafite's second wine.

One thing is never in question at Food Night... the wines will be Rock Star caliber. The food takes a bit of luck and thought and effort and luck and more luck and then a miracle happens and then I trip over a rabbits foot onto a four leaf clover patch, and then if all the happens the food turns out deece. OK, I exaggerate slightly, but the wines... the wines are never in question. Let's have a look at the Star Studded lineup this time that featured not one, not two but THREE Chateauneufs...

United States
Calera, Selleck Pinot Noir

Ridge, Monte Bello

Northstar, Columbia Valley Merlot

Swanson, Alexis Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

Clos Des Papes, Chateauneuf du Pape

Vieux Télégraphe, Chateauneuf du Pape la Crau

Cuvée du Vatican, Chateauneuf du Pape, Réserve Sixtine

Chateau Cambon La Pelouse, Haut-Médoc, Bordeaux

Les Brugueres, Priorat Vi Blanc

Rotllan Torra, Tirant, Priorat

Manzone, Barolo le Gramolere

By now, you are no doubt aching to find out which of these wines were the fave's of the Food Night crew. So let's not keep you waiting any longer... the prestigious GOLD MEDAL from the Valentine's Food Night goes to....................................

The 2001 Ridge Monte Bello! Absolutely no surprise there, it was certainly a notch (or two) above all other wines that night. The best domestic wine I have ever had was the 2004 Phelps Insignia, and the Monte Bello seriously made me reconsider that position, as it was absolutely spectacular. A sort of ripe banana aroma was incredible, as were the layers of texture and concentration. Certainly one of the better wines we've had at any Food Night. There was actually a great article in the New York Times this week about Ridge, and the Monte Bello in particular. You can imagine hard time I had convincing them to run it in conjunction with this post. Amazing that this little blog has gotten so much pull in such a short period of time, no?! In any case, I highly encourage you to check out the article.

When Tom extracted the unmistakably Ridge labeled bottle from the paper bag that had been concealing it during our blind tasting... many loud "OHHHHHs!!!!" were heard, many fists bumped, and chants of "We are not worthy!" filled the air. So many of us had been wanting to try this bottle for some time. A dream had been realized. Because that is what we do at Food Night. We make dreams... come true.*

* If your dreams happen to involve drinking great wine, that is. If you dream bigger than that, we probably cannot help you. Thanks for understanding.

Moving on, the SILVER MEDAL goes to.........

The 2006 Clos Des Papes Chateauneuf du Pape! The first (and last, prior to Food Night) Clos Des Papes I had was a the 1998 vintage at the old La Belle Vie in Stillwater. My wine knowledge at the time couldn't have filled a flea's bathtub, but I knew enough to say... wow... that's good. Fast forward several years, and Clos Des Papes is making even BETTER wine now, so says Wine Spectator, Robert Parker, and others who "know". And while it was absolutely fantastic, I think Tyler captured it accurately when he mentioned we probably did not max out this bottle's potential. It was decanted OVERNIGHT in TWO separate decanters for maximum aeration. Rich, decadent, and ripe, I'm really glad there are three left in my cellar. We'll break it out again for a Food Night in 2015.

And finally... rounding out the medal stand with the BRONZE is...

The 2001 Calera Selleck! If you know anything about the Food Night crew, you know we are pretty obsessed with Calera wines. The 2001 Selleck is what started that obsession. Perfume? Check. Bright acidity? Check. Gobs of Asian spice and other "non-fruit" aromas? All present and accounted for. Amazing stuff the Calera.

Personally, I really loved the Tirant Priorat too. I actually gave it the Silver on my ballot. Fantastically structured, with awesome aromas of asphalt and rich tobacco and smoke. Plus, check out the hand written bottle numbers! How cool is that?! Very classy.

And speaking of labels, how regal are these Chatty labels...

In the middle is the 2000 Vieux Télégraphe. That stuff (as Tim commented on) was indeed fantastic. I think it had the most terroir (ter-whah) of any wine of the night. You could smell and taste the soil the grapes were grown in, and the musty funky air of the cave that the wine was aged in.* The Clos Des Papes even goes so far as to print the word "TERROIR" right on the label! (Check out the picture below if you don't believe me). Above on the right was the 2000 Vatican Sixtine, and unfortunately it had a definite hint of TCA (or, it was slightly "corked"). It wasn't as prevalent on the palate, but once that smell is in my head, I have a hard time getting past it. A shame too, as the 2001 Sixtine was one of the best Chateauneufs I've ever had, so I was really looking forward to trying the 2000.

* I have no idea if it was stored in a cave, but it sure wouldn't surprise me.

Rounding out the wine summary, was a 2004 Manzone Barolo, which is a wine I've had twice before. First time was the 2001 vintage, and at the time, it was the best Barolo I'd ever had. I distinctly remember it's leathery bouquet and wonderfully acidic structure. The second time was the 2004, and I decanted it for hours and hours, but was unable to extract it from it's youth. That seems to be a pattern for young Barolos. Sometimes you can give a young powerful wine some air and time in the decanter, and it will reveal itself to you. Not so, the Barolo. It is the most stubborn wine I've come across in that regard; it seems there is simply no substitute for bottle age with Barolo. That isn't to say the 2004 Manzone wasn't enjoyable - it certainly was, and it will surely be a gem in another 5+ years. But like the Clos Des Papes, another wine we opened before it's time.

And now, sadly, I must wrap up this riveting post on the wines of the Valentine's Food Night. I could go on, but, A) it's almost St. Patrick's Day, and B). I need to save my energy for detailing the food of Food Night. And as you might imagine... there was a lot of pretty deece (and this time, unique) food to detail.