Posts tagged “Single Meal

Piedmont Has Hills… and Ridiculously Good Wine and Food.

Homemade tajarin, which is the Piedmontese name for taglierini, with porcini, spinach, and a poached egg. The garnishes are salted capers, caperberries, toasted and chopped pine nuts, and chopped olives. Although the many dishes of tajarin I had were made with fresh pasta, dried "nests" of these noodles where available for sale all over the region. The pasta is an egg dough, but specifically egg yolks, which lends the pasta its color. I experienced it mostly hand-cut to various thin widths.

Homemade tajarin, which is the Piedmontese name for taglierini, served here with porcini, spinach, and a poached egg. The garnishes are salted capers, caperberries, toasted and chopped pine nuts, and chopped olives. Although the many dishes of tajarin I had in Piedmont were made with fresh pasta, dried “nests” of these noodles where available for sale all over the region. The pasta is an egg dough, but specifically egg yolks, which lends the pasta its color. It appeared mostly hand-cut to various thin widths nearing fettuccine. It almost came exclusively as a simple yet richly flavorful dish, served with only butter and Parmesan for a sauce, thinned with a little pasta water (I imagine), and either shavings of black truffles or asparagus or  with wilted spinach. This dish pictured served as the “primo piatto” for my first Piedmont inspired meal. I tried to evoke tajarin’s substance in this homage to the nests of dried pasta.

“Good poets borrow; great poets steal.” That nice morsel of a statement—attributed to T.S. Eliot and continually reanimated by creative writing workshops—has all the roundness of an aphorism that makes it just sound like wisdom. It’s a piece of advice I’ve enlisted on more than one occasion when trying to impress upon my students that it’s okay to have influences; it’s okay to be inspired. And I have to admit that the rhetoric of unapologetic thievery usually has enough rebellion in it to start shifting those self-identified individual geniuses over to the position that our art doesn’t come from some pure internal wellspring. When it comes to art, you get the ideas for your ideas somewhere.

Cooking, for me, is an art like any other. It is one for which I am an amateur, although enthusiastic, practitioner. I am always looking for inspiration, searching for what flavor combination, texture, or technique I can steal. The challenge for home cooks is how to incorporate inspiration into meals that feel natural and effortless for our limitations in skill, ingredients, and equipment. I don’t need to try to recreate the dish coyly but aptly called English Peas I had at Alinea, which was an absolute orgy of textures, temperatures, and techniques. (I found some pictures of what I ate here, and here, and here; it was a three-part dish.) I only have to take what I need, which in the case of English Peas was a lesson in using an ingredient in different ways on the same plate, highlighting various pleasures in mouthfeel.

The meal started with this cantaloupe, tomato, and tomatillo gazpacho. While the flavors are not truly Italian, we did have a chilled spicy tomato soup with pepitas on our last night in Monforte d'Alba that I was conjuring up, yet with a Texas flavor. I used three tomatoes and three tomatillos peeled and seeded. I seeded the tomatoes in a wire strainer over a bowl to catch all of the juices. I used a quarter of a cantaloupe; a quarter each of seeded red, orange, and yellow bell peppers; a quarter of a red onion; the juice of one lime; one jalapeno seeded; one cucumber peeled and seeded; and a tbsp of chopped basil and a tbsp of chopped mint. Those ingredients were blended smooth. I topped the gazpacho with  heirloom tomatoes, toasted pine nuts, salted toasted pumpkin seeds, and mint and basil.

The Piedmont nostalgia meal started with this cantaloupe, tomato, and tomatillo gazpacho. While the flavors are not truly Italian, we did have a chilled spicy tomato soup with pepitas on our last night in Monforte d’Alba that I was conjuring up, yet with a Texas flavor. I used three tomatoes and three tomatillos peeled and seeded. I seeded the tomatoes in a wire strainer over a bowl to catch all of the juices. I used a quarter of a cantaloupe; a quarter each of seeded red, orange, and yellow bell peppers; a quarter of a red onion; the juice of one lime; one jalapeno seeded; one cucumber peeled and seeded; 1/4 cup of olive oil; and a tbsp of chopped basil and a tbsp of chopped mint. Those ingredients were blended smooth and seasoned with kosher salt and white pepper. I topped the gazpacho with heirloom tomatoes, toasted pine nuts, salted toasted pumpkin seeds, and mint and basil.

What T.S. Eliot actually said was this: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.” For the amateur, this is all relative. When I make a meal, my only hope is to be inspired enough to challenge myself, to make my cooking exciting to me and those I cook for, and hopefully tastier. I don’t need to take on the whole history of the art. That, unfortunately, is the kind of hubris I reserve for poetry.

This long preamble is all to say Holly and I went to Italy. We went to bike and eat and drink our way through Piedmont. The whole time, I was taking note of what I could steal for my own cooking. That contraband became this meal shown here in the spirit of Piedmont I made when we returned, a meal that was as much a celebration as it was a lament for the fact we were no longer sitting in village restaurants, drinking local Barberas and Barolos, while eating local cheeses and house-made pastas and salumi.

“Local” really was the theme of our gustatory pilgrimage. Many of the incredible wines we drank came from vines we could see out the windows of where we were imbibing them or had only recently passed on our bikes. The food was no different. When we turned down a steep road in the Langhe hills, following our guides to the beautiful and rustic restaurant, La Casa Nel Bosco, ristorante in famiglia of the gracious Gianni and Mina (Gianni serves the wine and food that Mina skillfully prepares) surrounded by gardens and tucked into a forest containing chestnuts, it was no shock to find asparagus and spinach from the garden incorporated into dishes and chestnuts poached in honey smartly garnishing a plate of beef carpaccio that opened the meal. Piedmont, after all, is the epicenter and origin of the Slow Food movement with its locavore ethos. Our guide Arien mischievously joked that to call it a “movement” there is kind of inaccurate, since local is just how things are done. I should add that Arien and our other guide Jimi were incredible, and the cycling trip the DuVine company created for Piedmont is spectacular. I can’t say enough wonderful things about DuVine. We were in excellent hands.

Our meals in Piedmont were always long affairs with many courses and many wines. The porcini tajarin was our second course, accompanied by a nice Arneis, a white wine not in much abundance here in Texas, which is sad. It's a great wine and can drink like a light Chablis. I made the tajarin with four egg yolks to a 3/4 cup of "double zero" flour. The pasta is tossed in butter, a little pasta cooking water, grated Parmesan, cracked black pepper, and chopped porcini mushrooms. I wanted the poached egg to act as an additional layer to the sauce, which would be seasoned by the garnishes.

Our meals in Piedmont were always long affairs with many courses and many wines. The porcini tajarin was our second course, accompanied by a nice Arneis, a white wine not in much abundance here in Texas, which is sad. It’s a great wine and can drink like a light Chablis. I made the tajarin with four egg yolks to a 3/4 cup of “double zero” flour. The pasta is tossed in butter, a little pasta cooking water, grated Parmesan, cracked black pepper, and chopped porcini mushrooms. I wanted the poached egg to act as an additional layer to the sauce, which would be seasoned by the garnishes.

Piedmont is know for braised meats, and we enjoyed many such dishes. One in particular was a braised pork shank I ate in Monforte d'Alba. Most of the second piatti would just be the meat and vegetable. Asparagus was abundant, and we ate family-style many times. This course reflects that.

Piedmont is known for braised meats, and we enjoyed many such dishes. One in particular was a braised pork shank I ate in Monforte d’Alba that had a delicious crust of a glaze. It came with a simple side of perfectly fried cubes of pillowy potatoes.  Most of the second piatti we had would just be the meat and a vegetable. Asparagus was abundant on our trip, and we ate family-style many times. This course reflects that. I couldn’t find pork shank on the day I made this dish, so it is pork shoulder, but a small 3 lb bone-in shoulder. I braised the shoulder at 285 °F for 4.5 hours, and then finished it with the glaze at 450 °F for 10 minutes. The glaze is just a reduced cup of pomegranate juice mixed into a paste with kosher salt, brown sugar, and black pepper.

Piedmont is also known for hazelnuts, and with its hazelnuts, Nutella. A common dessert in the region is a hazelnut cake, and we had the extreme pleasure of eating in a family-run renovated farmhouse restaurant in Acqui, and the sweet and talented chef, Clara, gave us a demonstration on making homemade Nutella and even enlisted me in preparing a hazelnut cake. That night, we ate overlooking the vineyards where Clara's son Guido grows Dolcetto, Barbera, and Muscato, and makes excellent wine, which he served us. I tried to recapture a little flavor of the area by making a chocolate bark with hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds, and sea salt.

Piedmont is also known for hazelnuts, and with its hazelnuts, Nutella. A common dessert in the region is a hazelnut cake, and we had the extreme pleasure of eating in a family-run renovated farmhouse restaurant in Acqui, and the sweet and talented chef, Clara, gave us a demonstration on making homemade Nutella and even enlisted me in preparing a hazelnut cake. That night, we ate overlooking the vineyards where Clara’s son Guido grows Dolcetto, Barbera, and Muscato, and makes excellent wine, which he served us. I tried to recapture a little flavor of the area by making a chocolate bark with hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds, and sea salt. I got the idea for this bark from the wonderful food and poetry blog, Eat This Poem.

I served the chocolate bark over white chocolate mousse with a cherry compote for an end to the meal. We left Piedmont just at the start of cherry season.

I served the chocolate bark over white chocolate mousse with a cherry compote for an end to the meal. We left Piedmont just at the start of cherry season. I wish we had had more time. To make the mousse, I found a very helpful video on YouTube.

The view from Clara and Guido's restaurant.

The view from Clara and Guido’s restaurant.

Helping Clara with the hazelnut cake. She supplied the hat.

Helping Clara with the hazelnut cake. She supplied the hat and the Muscato. Nice way to cook.

<p style="text-align: center;"><em>And yes, homemade Nutella in Piedmont with local hazelnuts is ridiculously tasty.

And yes, homemade Nutella in Piedmont with local hazelnuts is ridiculously tasty.


Wine-Poached Sea Scallops with a Coconut-Cucumber-Basil Broth and the Art of Failure

Wine-poached sea scallops with a coconut milk-cucumber-basil broth and shaved golden beets, baby fennel, breakfast radishes, charred scallions.

Wine-poached sea scallops with a coconut milk-cucumber-basil broth and shaved golden beets, baby fennel, breakfast radishes, and charred scallions. For the broth, I brought 1 1/2 cups of unsweetened coconut milk to a boil with 2 tbsp of sugar. Once boiling, I turned off the heat and steeped the leaves from one bunch of basil for 30 minutes. I removed the leaves and blended the broth with a peeled cucumber and shallot in the food processor. It was put through a mesh strainer and seasoned with kosher salt and white pepper. The broth is served chilled. I cleaned four sea scallops and sliced each one horizontally into four discs. They were poached in Gewürtztraminer with pink peppercorns. One radish, a golden beet, and two baby fennel bulbs were shaved. Four scallions were charred on a grill pan and sliced. This makes four appetizer portions.

In cooking, I often take inspiration from failure. This was the case for a recent dinner I made in celebration and thanks for my brother being in town to show his documentary film and to meet with my students. The menu that I composed arose from my love of reacting to what looks fresh at the market and also my obsession with transforming previous debacles into successes. The culprit this time was a terrible dish of pan-seared sea scallops with a lifeless rutabaga purée that I cooked for Holly and myself a few weeks ago. Why rutabagas? It was a whim. Unfortunately, the purée was seriously lacking in flavor and its texture was off. The scallops were prepared fine, but I realized that I only ever seem to pan-sear them and line them up on a plate with some sauce. The way I used them was a failure of imagination. Deciding to cook a meal for my brother gave me the opportunity to get revenge on those culinary flops.

I have a friend who gives a kind of motivational lecture about writing poetry in which he insists that you have to permit yourself to fail spectacularly in order to create poems that have vitality and urgency. Of course this is for the drafting process, where you perform the work of risk and error that will eventually lead to the finished poem. It’s a hard analogy to make with cooking if we take a single meal as the comparison. When I screw up a meal, I may be able to adjust and salvage as I go along, but if not, the meal’s a bust. The “drafts” I create in cooking are those previous meals with all their successes and disasters that eventually inform new dishes, new menus. It’s important for me to have these trials and errors, and not only because repetition helps in training for technique. They are also essential to developing your palate and culinary repertoire.

Marinated mushroom and tomato salad with baby romaine lettuce, beet greens, and a white Balsamic vinaigrette. The mushrooms are hen of the woods that have been blanched in salted, boiling water and marinated with sherry vinegar, olive oil, kosher salt, cracked black pepper, coriander seeds, fennel fronds, and thyme.

Marinated mushroom and tomato salad with baby romaine lettuce, beet greens, and a white Balsamic vinaigrette. The mushrooms are hen of the woods that have been blanched in salted, boiling water and marinated with sherry vinegar, olive oil, kosher salt, cracked black pepper, coriander seeds, fennel fronds, and thyme. The meal started with this salad.

 

Maybe the analogy here is closer to what I heard another poet say recently about his creative process. He said that he likes to think of writing poems as something similar to the “Danger Room” of the X-Men comics. You’ve got to treat a draft as a place where you can safely practice your powers without the fear that you’ll irrevocably ruin the world around you. I wouldn’t recommend approaching every meal in this way, but it is important for me to have those in-between meals, those experiments and spectacular failures that end in exciting transformations.

My desire for a new way of preparing scallops led to poaching, although I have to admit that a crudo crossed my mind first. The rutabaga purée became a rutabaga-celery root-bleu cheese purée. Definitely an improvement.

A thick French-cut pork chop with a blood orange-apple-cranberry chutney; sunflower sprout coleslaw; and a rutabaga-celery root-bleu cheese purée.

A thick French-cut pork chop with a blood orange-apple-cranberry chutney; sunflower sprout coleslaw; and a rutabaga-celery root-bleu cheese purée. This dish was served as the main course.

 

The meal ended with this berry crostata.

The meal ended with this berry crostata.

 


A Supposedly Fun Thing: Sous Vide Edition

Marinated flank steak cooked "ghetto sous vide" à la David Chang's recipe. Served with a purée of kimchi, quick-pickled cucumbers, and ginger scallion noodles with snow peas, enoki and beech mushrooms, and julienne of radishes and daikon. The kimchi is from Nippan Daido.

Marinated flank steak cooked “ghetto sous vide” à la David Chang’s recipe. Served with a purée of kimchi, quick-pickled cucumbers, and ginger scallion noodles with snow peas, enoki and beech mushrooms, and julienne of radishes and daikon. The kimchi is from Nippan Daido.

This blog is not very linear, and it doesn’t have a cohesive pattern, which I guess I could just claim as contemporary from a literary standpoint and be fine with it. So, here is a meal I made a few weeks ago, and I have (almost) nothing to say about poetry in this post.

It turns out Holly and I have a FoodSaver vacuum sealer. Well, I knew we had it, but I’d just forgotten about it. It’s been hanging out with the rest of the gadgets in the museum of good intentions that occupies the backs of our cupboards. What got me thinking about it was all of the bacon dashi I’ve been making and all the bacon dashi going to waste because I’m not using it every day in order to not waste it. I occasionally buy vacuum sealed ice cubes of demi-glace from a local market (the ever-incredible Revival Market), and I was thinking I wish I could do that. Then, I remembered I could. IMG_2517

Messing around with the FoodSaver led me back to David Chang’s Momofuku cookbook and a recipe I’d seen in there for what he called a “ghetto sous vide” method of cooking marinated hanger steak. I didn’t want to ruin an expensive cut of meat for my experiment or go track down hanger steak, so I settled on a flank steak, a cut that can benefit from a little marinating. I did stick to Chang’s marinade recipe, though. The Momofuku cookbook recommends using a high-quality plastic bag and straw to remove the excess air. I used the vacuum sealer, precariously removing the air while not letting the liquid get out. It was a messy, frustrating, and time-consuming process, even if eventually successful. I’m thinking a straw and a Ziploc bag would have been the way to go. Here’s how it went down:

Flank steak in marinade ready to be experimented on.

Flank steak in marinade ready to be experimented on.

I'm a poet, and poets are know to abuse science, and from what I understand, sous vide cooking is all about science, like thermodynamics. Or so Google tells me. The method suggested in the cookbook is to use a deep enough pot, keep the water temperature constant (125 °F) through constant monitoring and adjusting with running hot tap water, and using an instant read thermometer. The danger with this method is cool spots. I'd be more scared with chicken, but a rare-ish good quality steak doesn't freak me out. Besides, you finish this steak on the grill or stove.

I’m a poet, and poets are known to abuse science, and from what I understand, sous vide cooking is all about science, like thermodynamics. Or so Google tells me. The method suggested in the cookbook is to use a deep enough pot, keep the water temperature constant (125 °F) through constant monitoring and adjusting with running hot tap water, and using an instant read thermometer. The danger with this method is cool spots. I’d be more scared with chicken, but a rare-ish good quality steak doesn’t freak me out. Besides, you finish this steak on the grill or stove.

After the 45 minutes in the water and cooling in an ice bath, I removed the steak from the marinade and finished it in a grill pan to give it the nice grill marks and char taste.

After the 45 minutes in the water and cooling in an ice bath, I removed the steak from the marinade and finished it in a grill pan to give it the nice grill marks and char taste.

I seasoned the finished steak with a mixture of crushed sea salt, toasted black sesame seeds, and some shichimi togarashi (a Japanese 7-spice blend) I picked up at Nippan Daido.

I seasoned the finished steak with a mixture of crushed sea salt, toasted black sesame seeds, and some shichimi togarashi (a Japanese 7-spice blend) I picked up at Nippan Daido. The result was good, but this was a lot of work. Someday, I’d like to try an actual sous vide cooker.


New Year’s Eve Dinner 2012

IMG_1685IMG_1684
IMG_1688IMG_1686IMG_1687

For the past few years, cooking an elaborate and decadent New Year’s meal has become a tradition in our house. The rituals of the preparation and the consumption seem appropriate for the reflective mood of the holiday. Cooking, like writing, has its personal pleasures and significances for me. A meal, like a poem, can have private associations and satisfactions that don’t get communicated in the completed creation, but those things are part of what make the work fun and meaningful. When I was making this menu, I wanted it to incorporate and acknowledge as many people and experiences that have been important to me from the year that was now folding over into the next. This year’s menu started with a bottle of Vintage Dom Pérignon, which Holly and I received as a wedding present. I wanted the first courses to center on that, before we transitioned to the meat of it and a bottle of Premier Cru Aloxe-Corton. Following clockwise from the bottle, we have foie gras with a Calvados and agave nectar syrup with brioche toast points. (But I can’t take credit for the foie gras or the brioche.)

2012 was the year of the avocado. Or the year Holly learned she liked avocado, and I started bringing it into meals. The year before was the year of the mushroom and the year we travelled to Nova Scotia and stayed at Trout Point Lodge, partly with the intention to learn to like cooked fish, which is still a work in progress. Raw wins out for now. This dinner was going to pay homage to our evolving eating traditions. So for the second course, we had yellowfin tuna and avocado three-ways: tuna and avocado sashimi with radishes; crudo of tuna rolled around avocado cream with sesame seeds, radishes, and brûléed red grapefruit (a nod to an excellent brûléed red grapefruit we ate at The Inn at Dos Brisas) to accompany a citrus-dressed frisée and heirloom tomato salad; and finally, a tuna, avocado, and heirloom tomato tartare.

For the third course, I initiated a birthday present: the sausage grinder attachment Holly bought me for the KitchenAid. The sausage meatballs are duck meat (breast and leg) ground with smoked bacon. (I saved the removed duck skins and rendered the fat from them to cook the meatballs.) I incorporated the zest of a satsuma orange and a microplaned Oregon white truffle that was rather underachieving. Since I had the foie gras, and decadence is the theme of New Year’s, I stuffed the meatballs with bits of that too. The broth is mushroom based (chanterelles, criminis, and more of those Oregon white truffles), with vegetable stock, soy sauce, mirin, and the juice of the satsuma. Onions, popcorn, and green cabbage (strained out before serving) provided some depth. Rice noodles were also incorporated, along with a shock of frisée. I owe thanks to my brother Matt for the thoughtful gift of those soup spoons.

The fourth course was a New York strip with a port, espresso, chocolate demi-glace; micro arugula; caramelized pearl onions; and a celery root purée. The steak and the port and chocolate covered espresso beans I used for the sauce were all gifts from friends and family. Using those ingredients was an excuse to have them present to me during the meal.

I bought dessert (crème brûlée with a chocolate sauce), so it doesn’t appear photographed here. Desserts, I’m thinking, are on the list of things to learn this year.