Sunday, June 27, 2010

Cucumber broth, Halibut, and Shakespeare

Approximately a month ago, I dined at Saffron to celebrate a birthday. Sameh's course of softshell crab in cucumber broth was so insanely good, I used that dish as inspiration for what I hoped would be the "main" dish at the Midspring Night’s Dream Food Night.

And by now, surely you are asking “E, what up with this 'Midspring Night’s Dream' moniker? What in tarnation is that supposed to mean?”. Very well, the time has probably come to enlighten you. While coming up with this Food Night's menu, I only knew I wanted to do a take on Sameh’s dish. The plan was for it to be light, subtle, very fresh and green and Spring-like in it’s flavors. All the other courses were up in the air, but I didn't want anything to outshine this halibut dish. Enter - The New York Times.* First, I found this, as you already know. THEN, I found this**... are you kidding me?! Asparagus + Pesto. Yes, please. And after making it, I now cannot imagine Spring without it.

* I’m telling you… the NY Times Dining section is a virtual cornucopia of inspiration and ideas.

** If you are not a link-clicker, and didn't go to the Times website to watch Bittman make asparagus pesto.......... just know you are going to be subjected to that link again in the next post. So, it's really up to you, click it now, or click it then. Either is fine. Just do everyone a favor and make asparagus pesto in the Spring with fresh, local asparagus. Not in the winter with asparagus flown in from Peru. Cooking seasonally is really important. Not only will your cooking taste better, you won't be supporting atrocities like this.

Once I flushed out the details of the dishes I had planned… raw salmon; ceviche with lots of fresh herbs; halibut with the greenest ecto-cooler-like broth; and pasta with the quintessential spring veggie – asparagus… I thought one thing; Spring. That menu screams "Springtime" to me.

During my brainstorming, I recalled the time in 1985 when my parents and grandparents took my sister and I to a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the old Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Despite my folks admirable attempt to provide culture to a 12 year old growing up in Appalachia, I remember struggling mightily to say awake during the play. Much like I was on the deck with that Leroy after another killer Food Night. Anyway, eventually I combined Spring with Shakespeare, and voila… A Midspring Night’s Dream! While sitting on the deck after Food Night with that bottle of Leroy, surrounded by trees and the sounds of frogs chirping in the distance, Spring was never so apt a description for a particular point in time.

cucumber broth, pickled tomato yogurt, lemon thyme, kumquat

Before our Shakespearean interlude, we were starting to discuss Sameh’s brilliant soft shell crab in cucumber broth dish. Of course the flavors were absolutely spot on, but I found the color of the broth simply amazing. I don’t think I’d ever seen, and certainly had not eaten, anything quite like it before. I knew I wanted to try my hand at something like that. But could I make a liquid taste great, and be so freaking GREEN!? Where do I begin?!

Naturally, I thought of Barrio’s salsa verde. About a year ago, I was in there and couldn’t get over how insanely green this stuff was. Eventually I asked Mark if he could perhaps get me a clue from the kitchen as to how this greenness happens. A couple minutes later, chef Tyge Nelson is standing at our table, happily detailing how they use cilantro, ice, salt and a blender to produce a liquid so vibrantly green, it greens up even the drabby colored roasted tomatillo/onion/garlic/chile mixture. Genius. Here's what I did...

Cucumber Broth

Note that, this isn't baking, there are no "musts" here. Quantities and ingredients are ripe for your brilliant improvisations.

120g diced cucumber, most of the skin still on
Juice of half a lime
Couple Tablespoons of fresh cilantro*, to taste
optional - sprinkle of other fresh herbs like chives, tarragon
3 finger pinch kosher salt
Roughly 2'' piece of serrano chile, or to taste
4-6 ice cubes
1/4 cup water, perhaps more if needed to get the mixture moving in the blender

* If you don't like cilantro, use parsley instead. And adjust the chile content to your preferred level of spicyness. A 2'' inch piece in this recipe produces a modest but noticeable amount of heat.

Puree all ingredients thoroughly in a blender. Strain with the finest mesh strainer possible. The End.

How easy is that?! James actually had a fantastic idea to use this resulting liquid in a cocktail. A Hendricks Gin cocktail, to be specific. If you think I'm not going to be enjoying said libation on the deck soon, you're crazy. I could even see freezing the liquid into ice cubes for a fun cocktail on ice. The possibilities are endless.

To finish the dish... halibut was portioned into 2oz portions* and then pan seared. Like so...

* Here is the beauty of doing a dish like seared halibut AND ceviche of halibut at the same Food Night. When dissecting the fillet into 2oz portions, the bits of fish I trim off the portions for the seared halibut dish find their way into the ceviche. No waste. Maximum usage of a beautiful product. Cost effectiveness. All things Food Night loves.

The way I pan sear portions of fish like this is really, really easy. Get a non stick pan. Get it screamin' (and I do mean screamin') hot. Add some peanut or other high heat oil, enough to film the bottom of the pan. Season fish with salt, and add to the pan, presentation side down, and walk away for two minutes. Don't even CONSIDER touching the fish during these two minutes. After two minutes, add butter. Add a ton if you want, the more you add, the more color the final product will have. Reduce heat from med-high to medium. Baste fish with the butter/oil mixture in the pan for approx 1 minute. Bang. Done. You bought your fish at Coastal, so, overcooking it would be a food-crime, remember.

So now we've got seared fish. We've got cucumber broth. Next we take a little greek yogurt, we add a little pickled tomato dice to it, and start plating...

* At this point I have to say, again.... HOLY PHOTOGRAPHY!!! Are you kidding me?! Wow, James. Just... wow.

And now, finally, here is the finished product... complete with uber-fun microgreens supplied by Sameh...

I have to say, I think this may have been the most satisfying thing I have ever made. Setting out to do something, then actually doing it up to your own standards... very rewarding. Let's have one more shout out for Sameh, because without his inspiration this dish would have never been made. I've learned more things by just sitting at his bar, and talking with him about food than should be possible without paying tuition.

And for the enduring success of the dish, which enables us to recall the dish so well, like we just finished eating it... we have James to thank. Have another, closer look...

I can recall the different textures and temperatures of that dish, in addition to EXACTLY how it looked, smelled, and tasted just by looking at that picture. That picture is literally like a window into the kitchen at Food Night. Thanks again, James.

So there you go. Halibut, cucumbers, water... other stuff... BANG... deliciousness! And the great thing about a successful dish like this, or about a brilliant bottle of wine is... we at Food Night always want to top it. We'll continue to push the boundaries of what can be produced and consumed in a modest home kitchen by a bunch of regular people, if you agree to keep reading about it. Do we have a dealio?!

Up Next: Asparagus Pesto, and you clicking the link.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Colicchio, ceviche, and agreeing to disagree

How many of you watch Top Chef? Yeah, me too, I love it. It’s clearly the best cooking reality show*, which may be akin to saying that I would be the tallest person in a room full of Smurfs, but whatever. I was reminded of an episode from last season as I prepped for the MidSpring Night's Dream Food night. The aspiring chefs were thrust into the Nevada desert, overnight, then asked to cook lunch for a bunch of cowboys/ranchers the next day in the blazing heat. It was sun, sun, more sun, sand, a hole in the ground with fire in it, and your imagination. Good luck!

* Iron Chef America isn’t a “reality” show in my opinion. I mean, clearly, it’s REAL, but it’s just straight up competition. There are no elimination challenges, no cooking with one hand tied behind your back, no wildly over matched contestants that are kept around because they are cute, etc. It’s serious business, your food against the Iron Chef’s Food… and the judges. And yes, I still cannot believe the "judges" on ICA thought Morimoto beat Sameh. Give. Me. A. Break. Anyone who watched that show knows Sameh won. I knew there was trouble when they introduced one of the judges as the “Senior Executive Chef of Red Lobster”, and no I’m not making that up. I'm sure he's a swell fellow and a great cook, but, um....... no. Just, no.

Well, a couple of fellas (I refuse to say "cheftestants") decided it was too hot in the desert kitchen for them, so they made ceviche. Ceviche, as I’m sure you already know, is a dish that typically uses fresh fish or shellfish, and is “cooked” by acid (citrus juice, vinegar, etc) rather than by heat. Well, Top Chef head honcho Tom Colicchio was rather unimpressed with this approach, at one point saying “This is a cooking competition, and they didn’t cook anything!”. He went on to say that the dishes themselves… well, it wasn’t so much what he said, its that he spit out the one made by Frenchie McFrench-guy (nice scarf). And the guest judge actually said the same dish made him sick. When that happens, yeah, you are probably not going to be the next Top Chef.

But what do you think? Is making ceviche “cooking”? Either way, ceviche and other raw dishes align very nicely with Food Night Food Law #1 – buy high quality ingredients, and treat them simply. So can Food Night put together a ceviche that A). guests don’t spit out, and B). doesn’t make anyone sick, and C). actually looks good and tastes good? The answer……… after we detail the first course and hand you the menu for Food Night.

Salmon Tartare
almond orange tuile, meyer lemon crème fraiche

Ceviche of Halibut
parsley, cilantro, lime, cucumber, avocado

cucumber broth, pickled tomato yogurt, lemon thyme, kumquat

asparagus pesto, braised pork belly, parmigiano-reggiano

David's Chocolate Chip Cookies
flour, butter, chocolate, butter, pecans, butter

Two of Food Night’s faves were the inspiration for the first dish; Thomas Keller and David Lebovitz. Keller’s French Laundry cookbook is a source of inspiration, wonderment, and longing. I decided to start the night off with a spin on his cornets (pictured), which are little tuiles in the shape of a tiny ice cream cone, topped with crème fraiche and salmon tartare. And for some reason, reasons known only to the inner recesses of my brain that I don’t fully have access to, I decided NOT to use Keller’s recipe for the tuiles. I think it had something to do with the fact that I’d recently bought Lebovitz’s new book, which contained a recipe for these almond orange tuiles… and I wanted to give ‘em a go. And so, they went.

Get the book* if you want to recipe, but essentially you combine some butter, almonds, black and white sesame, flour, orange zest, and orange juice. Then you spoon in some sugar. And after you spoon in some, you spoon in a little more, and then a little more, until you have TEN tablespoons of sugar in the batter. This is where panic, or at least "concern" set in. When I got to the sixth or seventh tablespoon, I considered stopping. I mean, GEEZ, this was a savory course after all! But they actually turned out really well… after I burnt the first batch to a crisp. The second, third and fourth batches that came out of the oven… sheer brilliance...

* This book also contains the single GREATEST recipe for chocolate chip cookies ever. I’m telling you, they are better than any other such cookie I've tasted. Yes, even yours. It doesn’t mean yours are “bad”, these are just better. Check out David's little video on them here, really well done.

The tuiles certainly had some sweetness, but not anything ridiculous or out of place in the dish. The uber fresh salmon from Coastal Seafoods, and the cool slightly tart crème fraiche that I kicked up with a little meyer lemon juice combined with the crunchy and sweet cookie to make for a pretty dang cool bite or three of food. The only problem was eating them gracefully.

I got the idea for the second course from the New York Times Dining section. If you don’t already, you really need to make it a regular stop on your internet visits. This particular dish caught my eye because of the name attached to the recipe….. RICK BAYLESS.

Rick's book Salsas that Cook was given to me by Cynthia, who happened to be in attendance at this Food Night. That book marked the first time I'd ever made anything from a cookbook that made me say... "WHOA... that is GOOD!" And it really is essentially an introductory level book - you don't need an immersion circulator or $4000 range to make these dishes. I highly, highly encourage you to pick up that book if you are at all interested in cooking. The techniques and flavors in that book are simply incredible.

Anyway, back to the dish. This ceviche was something he was making at a White House State Dinner. So I figured, if it’s good enough for that, it’s probably good enough for Food Night. Plus I have a ton of fond memories of living in a little one bedroom apartment in Bloomington and churning out Bayless recipes from Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen from a little alley kitchen with a coil electric stove while listening to the Joshua Tree. Aren’t really specific memories cool?!

The full recipe is here, but essentially… parsley, cilantro, roasted garlic,* serrano chile, salt, olive oil… meet Mr. Food Processor. After a spin, combine with lime juice, gorgeous fresh halibut from Coastal Seafoods, fish, cucumber and avocado… like so…

* Roasting cloves of garlic still in their papery skins in a cast iron pan is such an underrated little piece of culinary flair. First time I ever heard of it was..... in Salsas That Cook! Anyway, roasting the cloves like this mellows the harshness of the raw garlic, sweetens it even, gives it a nice little charred flavor, and really softens the clove so you can... incorporate it into a vinaigrette, a marinade, or slather it on pork shoulder before roasting. Or you can buzz it up into an herb paste as we did here.

Something about the dish screamed to me "TORTILLA CHIP"! So I made that happen since there were some nice little corn tortillas in the fridge. Cut into wedges, then fried and immediately Maldon'd... and no, I didn't bake them in fat free oil or some other crazy thing to try to minimize fat content. Each person got one chip... I think you can put down the defibrillator.

Served in a martini glass, with a fine dice of red chile, some rocket from the garden (i.e. arugula... but isn't "rocket" SO much better), a couple radish slices and that tortilla chip, this dish was so light, refreshing and flavorful. Texturally very compelling too, with the fish, crunchy cucumber and creamy avocado, not to mention the crisp tortilla chip. Another Bayless Beauty that A). nobody spit out, B). nobody got sick from, and C). definitely tasted fabulous. Does this mean I should try out for Top Chef? Ah, negative. But, regardless of what uber-chef Tom said, I think making ceviche is cooking.

I got the impression that Food Night attendees would tend to agree with me. And if they thought otherwise, they were nice enough not to tell me.

* Maybe my favorite photo of the night above....... just phenomenal. Thanks James!

Up Next: Halibut a la Sameh.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Emergency Food Night

We don't have many rules at Food Night.* But one of them is... if he who has become known as "Tyler Durden" hops on a plane bound for Minneapolis with three bottles of wine in tow, one of them being this.......

... if that happens, then we have to sound the alarm, break the glass, flip the safety off, and push the "Emergency Food Night" button. And that is exactly what transpired this past Father's Day Eve.

* We discovered one more rule, actually; "No making microwave popcorn while Food Night is in progress. Or any other time, for that matter." Sorry, Max. Just too olfactorially debilitating, the micro-pop. However, apparently it's OK for the Food Night host to boil vinegar for a hollandaise. Interesting paradox.

Obviously you are thinking "Whoa, whoa, whoa... what about the rest of the MidSpring Night's Dream Food Night, with all that KILLER photography you mentioned?!?!". Fear not, faithful Food Night fanatic. We will finish documenting that memorable evening first, of course.

But we thought you should know that you have the details of not one but TWO Food Nights coming to your internet machines. Lucky you! How did the Tyler Durden Emergency Food Night go, you ask? Why don't I let Mr. Durden himself tell you......

And since we always like to give you a little preview amuse to wet your appetite for what's coming... how about something like this...

Would that be something you'd be interested in hearing more about? Yeah, I thought it might be.

Now back to your regularly scheduled Food Night, where the next post is at the printing press as we speak....

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Stag's Leap and the "Say Fay" Kid

What comes to mind when you think of the word "Fay"? For me, it's Fay Vincent, former commissioner of baseball. Why? I have no idea. For you, perhaps it is Irish Dancing Shoes. Or weirder better yet, perhaps you enjoy raising fairies.* Or perhaps you remember that stellar ballplayer for the Giants back in the 1950's and 60's called the "Say Fay Kid".**

* I realize that there is a whole wide world out there of unique and different and worthwhile interests that don't necessarily intersect with mine. But if you are raising fairies online, you have moved in from the suburbs and right into downtown Weirdville.

** I know, it's Say Hey Kid. Thanks.

In any event, my word association with "Fay" has taken a DRAMATIC shift, thanks to the recently completed Food Night, as you soon shall see.

We had a nice crowd of 6 at Food Night this time, which is my personal favorite number for a dinner party. Not that I don't enjoy EIGHT (don't worry, no links to 80's TV shows this time), or five, or ten, or four. But six* really is where a proper dinner party's bread is buttered (pun intended). In addition to Food Night regulars Tom and Alex, the fabulous duo of James and Cynthia were in attendance this go round. In addition to being wonderful guests and food/wine appreciators, James is quite adept at snapping a photo or two, so I asked him if he would like to bring his new Leica to aid us in documenting the evening. Thankfully for all involved, he obliged.

* Sorry. I just couldn't resist. The Six Million Dollar Man. A bionic man... with an eye with a 20:1 zoom lens, two artificial... excuse me... bionic legs enabling him to run at 60mph. A bionic arm "with the equivalent strength of a bulldozer". And obviously the arm contains a Geiger Counter. I mean, that's so obvious I almost didn't even bother to mention it, of course the arm has a Geiger Counter, of COURSE! You may think I'm making this up, but, I'm not. This is a show that happened. It actually happened, and was very popular. Hell I remember watching reruns and enjoying the heck out of it as a kid. Maybe James Cameron should do a remake of it as a 3+ hour movie where Leonardo DiCaprio stars in Lee Major's role, is sent back from the future to kill Sarah Connor, crashes on his way back, and doctors rebuild him into the Bionic man (complete with Geiger Counter Arm), who then goes on to save the world from nuclear annihilation at the hands of Crazy-Ruthless-Dictator-X. Since he has a Geiger Counter in his arm and all. I think this idea may have legs.... real ones.

This Perfect Storm of guests, cameras, technology and of course... food and wine... culminated in an incredibly enjoyable and stunningly photographed Food Night!! Yes, I snapped a few clunkers myself, but James' shots are absolutely incredible in my humble opinion. But let's start by revealing the wine list at Food Night, where we pour EVERYTHING by the glass, and every bottle in the cellar is fair game*.

* Remind me to rant about "Wine Bars" and wine lists later. I mean, are you really a Wine Bar if you pour wine that retails for $5/bottle by the glass? But later, remind me later.

United States
L'Aventure Estate Cuvée

Stag's Leap Cellars, Fay Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon

Perrier-Jouët, Fleur de Champagne, Brut Rosé

Chateau de Beaucastel, Chateauneuf du Pape

Clos Des Papes, Chateauneuf du Pape

Chateau Clerc Milon, Bordeaux, Pauillac

Domaine Leroy, Côtes de Beaune-Villages

Montes, Rosé of Syrah

Let's hand out the awards, shall we? The Gold Medal winning wine of the night, by a LONG shot, destroying all comers like a bully on a playground, went to...

The 1999 Stag's Leap Fay Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon! This gem was brought to Food Night by James and Cynthia, and easily secured the spot atop the podium. Not to shabby considering a couple of top flight Chateauneufs were in play, not to mention a measly little 98 point wine from Paso Robles. We tasted this one blind, and thought it was older (late 90's, early 2000's) high end Supertuscan. Tom guessed the 1999 Guado al Tosso. I thought it could be something like Solia.

The wine itself was very "cab" like, but most of us felt it had an Old World treatment about it. There was layer after layer of flavor and texture, and the juice absolutely coated the glass with its fleshy, inky goodness when swirled. This was top notch stuff. A real treat to add to the tasting database. And more enjoyable than raising fairies.

Next, the Silver Medal went to...

2002 Chateau Clerc Milon Bordeaux, Pauillac! That's it there in the middle. Another wine we tasted blind, Tom thought it was California or Washington Syrah. And I actually came pretty close with a guess of 2005 Pauillac. I must have smelled it 10 times before I finally locked into the trademark 'pencil lead' characteristic wines from this region are known for. Really cool aromatics, including smoke and leather poured out of the glass. Very Bordeaux-like on the palate, refined, and not overly tannic. A fabulous wine courtesy of Alex.

And finally, the Bronze went to...

The 1998 Clos Des Papes Chateauneuf du Pape! This is a bottle I pulled out of the cellar for Food Night. Normally the deal is, I supply the food, and other peeps bring the wine. But given the guest list... I had to call a little audible. Quick bit of background on this bottle... years ago, probably 2001 or 2002, James and I were playing golf out in Stillwater somewhere. Afterwards, we strolled into town to eat at La Belle Vie, which at the time was still in Stillwater. We sat in the back, where Cynthia joined us, and we ordered a bottle of this 1998 CDP. At the time, I had pretty limited exposure to wines of that caliber, and this wine completely floored me. So shortly thereafter I went out and bought a bottle for my cellar*, and ever since I've been searching for the right occasion to open it. This Food Night was clearly the perfect occasion.

*My "cellar" at the time consisted of a cardboard box in a closet.

There is a great saying that you don't have to search for an occasion to break out a special bottle of wine. The wine IS the occasion. And while I'm not saying that this bottle was some otherworldly, life-changing wine, it represented an introduction into the world of fine wine for me. The occasion and the wine intersected at the perfect crossroads on Food Night. Tasted blind, most thought it was older Chianti. And honestly, when I opened the bottle before people arrived, and tasted it... I KNEW someone would think it was older Chianti, it had that exact color and aroma of fine Chianti. But Tom... um, well.... Tom gave it some thought.... then all of a sudden said....

"I'm gonna guess 1998 Chateauneuf." BANG. Bullseye! Pretty good, Tom. Pretty, pretty, pretty good. (That's actually Tom and a couple DEECE bottles at a tasting at the store, not at Food Night. Whatever.)

The rest of the wines were as strong a supporting cast as we've had at Food Night. The L'Aventure Estate Cuvee was rich, pure and another tooth staining powerhouse. The Beaucastel was very representative of that producer's consistency. But would you look at the bubbles that Alex brought....

Are you kidding me??!?? Look at the color of that stuff! And look at the BOTTLE... absolutely gorgeous. This vintage Champagne is certainly one of the most interesting wines I've ever had. Apparently it was stored in a hot Arizona garage for a spell, which made how good it still was all the more remarkable. And while it may have been starting to ease into the twilight of its life, it was a massively cool tasting experience. Almondy. Appropriately dry, but not cloyingly so. And soooooooo food friendly. I thought it was absolutely brilliant with the first course of....... well, you'll just have to tune in next time to see what we had first. Thought I was gonna give it up, didn't you.

And one more wine I have to make mention of is... the Leroy*. Ahhhhhh the Leroy. With the end of another Food Night comes... the morning after. As in, dishes. As in, why didn't I clean up a little more the night before? In an effort to delay that not-so-great-feeling as long as possible, as the proceedings were winding down I asked if anyone would like to open one more bottle. And I had just the bottle to open...

*One thing you'll soon come to understand if you attend Food Night (which, by they way, I hope each of you do at some point...), is that we like to have a little fun with pronunciation. Leroy is pronounced "Leh-WAH". But, obviously, we like to call it "LEE-roy". I mean, that much should be clear. Another thing you'll realize is that, we love us some Leroy wines. I would say Calera and Domaine Leroy are Food Night's favorite producers. Put it this way, I have gotten voicemail at 4am telling me how utterly profound a Leroy that was CURRENTLY being consumed was. Yeah, it's like that.

We like to talk at Food Night about when a wine gets to a certain quality, a certain abstract level of "goodness", or "deeceness" if you prefer, it almost becomes...... some other thing. As in it's almost not wine anymore, but of course it IS still just fermented grape juice, but yet it is so NOT just fermented grape juice. Does this make sense? It's like a Ferrari is a car, and so is a Chevy Chevette, but it's not like you'd go around talking about them in the same sentence. Some of the best, most spirited and enjoyable conversations at Food Night revolve around this concept that once a wine gets to a certain level of quality... is it wrong to clutter the experience with (gasp!) food? It's a subjective issue to be sure, but I've had two wines from Domaine Leroy that fall into this "some other thing" category, and never once while I was drinking those bottles did I think "Wow, I wish I had something to munch on with this unbelievable beverage."

I know that picture is a little dark. Ok maybe a LOT dark. But it actually captures the cloudy nature of the color of the wine. It's almost "emulsified" with the particulate matter in the wine. I can remember the smell and the texture of the wine perfectly just by looking at that picture.

To be sure, this particular wine from Domaine Leroy we had at the conclusion of Food Night was not one of those "some other thing" wines. It is basically the lowest level wine that Leroy produces, made with bought Pinot Noir juice, not juice from grapes that were grown by Leroy. But what's so cool about this 1996 Domaine Leroy Cotes du Beaune Villages is that... you can tell it's a Leroy. Of course it has the FILTHY dirty foil, the saturated cork, the bottle that began leaking prior to uncorking. But most importantly, in the nose and on the pallate, this little baby Leroy says "Hey, I'm something special... stop what you are doing, and ponder me for a moment."

And so we did. On the deck, after a hard rain, and with a distinct chill in the air, we donned our fleeces while we sat and enjoyed simple conversation over that bottle of Leroy.

Next up; The Food posts from the "A MidSpring Night's Dream" Food Night, complete with uber-deece photos. See you back here shortly.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Great Expectations

No, I don't mean the Chaz Dickens "masterpiece" that I read (cough, cough) in 10th grade. I mean that your expectations invariably color how you perceive a given experience. If you expect nothing, and you get something… HEY… neato! But if you expect something, or worse yet, if you expect GREATNESS… and you get nothing, well… that’s no good is it. For example, I expected Clash of the Titans to be epic, mindblowing, and devastatingly cool. The Kraken was all that, and it had creepy lawyer guy from The Usual Suspects which is always nice, but the rest of the movie… eh. It was fine, but since I expected so much more, my overall impression of the movie suffered. And since you asked, I was particularly annoyed about Liam Neeson's Zeus - I just couldn't take him seriously with that constant white glow about him. I know he's supposed to be a God and all, but, really... pull down a window shade or something.

So recently when I arranged a little gathering at the preposterously fabulous Saffron Restaurant and Lounge, naturally I expected great things. The food there as you may know is simply fabulous, and we’ve gone there often enough that we have a little vibe with Chef Sameh and the staff. So I decided to ask him if he’d be interested in putting together a little tasting menu of his choosing for the occasion. My recollection is that I asked him if he would like to do “a few courses, maybe including the watermelon curry he did on Iron Chef America*, or a soft shell crab if the little critters are deece enough right now”. So I’m thinking maybe three or four courses and dessert. Sounds reasonable enough, no?

* You did know Sameh was on Iron Chef America, right? And was the youngest ever challenger on the show, right? Yep. True, and true again.

What transpired when we got to the restaurant so far exceeded our already lofty expectations, that I wish I could hire a DW (Designated Writer) to do the experience justice. Sameh made an eight course tasting menu just for our little four person birthday party that night. EIGHT*.

* Link too predictable? I don’t care. If there is one thing I can’t get enough of, it’s Dick Van Patten. A true master of his craft. What that craft is, I'm not totally sure, but he has certainly mastered it. Go ahead and take a look at his body of work. IMDB could easily condense that list and just say "Dick was on one or more episodes of every show ever made between 1970 and 1990. Thank you.". Go ahead, look at the list... "I Dream of Jeannie", "Baywatch", "Family Guy", "Wonder Woman", "Happy Days". That's gold Jerry, GOLD.

Now, finally, let’s have a look at the utter riduclousness that Sameh unleashed upon his unsuspecting guests that night, a night that came complete with a personalized menu that I forgot to have him sign. (Closed Circuit to Sameh… have your sharpie ready next time you see me.). And not all dishes are pictured, some were devoured before the picture-taking-apparatus could be queued up. And yes, the pics aren't perfect but hopefully they get the point across.

This was our first course, and it is really hard for me to imagine a better way to start a meal than this. That's pea soup on the left, with juuuuuust the right amount of mint in it. And black truffle. (Remember, Food Night loves it some black truffle). And lobster with succulent sweet fresh peas on the spoon. I mean, are you kidding me? THAT right there got the taste buds going let me tell you. The soup was liquid velvety silky goodness. The earthyness of the truffle, with the barley there tinge of the mint, the texture of perfectly cooked lobster. I honestly was worried that subsequent dishes would have a hard time topping that first one. And of course, I was wrong........

Brown butter and veal carpaccio. Yes, please.

Favorite dish of the night. The soft shell crab was perfectly crisped, fresh and succulent. The cucumber broth... perfection. I'd need to go back to school to learn how to describe it further.

Right there we have some spice crusted mahi mahi with a little pickled ramp, and an incredible puree of fava beans (I believe). Just phenomenal, that puree was to die for.

Finally, we had beef with Parisian gnocchi (pate a choux dough, that I think Sameh boils like regular gnocchi, then pan sears. That's what I'm going with anyway). Rich, full bodied and an incredibly satisfying conclusion of the savory courses. All desserts were inhaled prior to photographing, but I have to mention the black olive ice cream. Yes. That happened. And was fabulous.

The point of this post is to say… Thank You… to Sameh and everyone that works at Saffron for a truly singular dining experience. We really appreciate the effort you put forth on a busy Saturday to make our evening truly memorable.

And by now, you may be wondering.... "Um, what the hell does this have to do with Food Night? I came here to read about Food Night, dammit". Well, since you've made it this far and asked so nicely, I'll tell you.

In honor of that meal and of the incredible soft shell crab dish Sameh made with the cucumber broth that I personally think should be in the Smithsonian, I tried to come up with my own take on that dish for the recently completed and (dare I say) wildly successful Food Night! And in general, going to great restaurants and talking about cooking and ingredients inspires me and influences my cooking. Thanks be to EVERYONE I've ever talked food with, from Sameh to my Mom, and everyone in between. Food Night wouldn't be the same without all your collective contributions to my foodiverse. Foodiverse... that's a word, right?

How did my take on an Iron Chef quality dish turn out? And are you really cooking if what you serve is not.... "cooked"? Check back for all the deets,* which will be coming along shortly. No really, they will be. I promise.

* Link provided for hipster-lingo-challenged persons only, not you. You obviously know what “the deets” means. But for others who might not be sure what it means...... it's OK to click the link.