Les Salades D’Été

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

My French, she is returning!  But not really.   Usually, she returns only in the form of a thick Québecois accent for humourous commentary.   And yet here, we have les salades d’été.

First, a whim of le Marc in the form of a spicy ceviche with  roasted corn and red pepper salad. This was a first course of a 4-course menu, 3 of which escape my memory.   This is the inaugural attempt at home-made ceviche as the idea of it does flirt with danger:  fish cooked only in citric acid.   Mind you, if underdone, what is the worst that could happen?   The fish was extremely fresh; at worst, we would end up with citrus flavoured sushi, hardly a tragedy.   But the plate, she held perfectly “cooked” mahi mahi, with a pleasantly savoury hint of spiciness from a tiny red chile.


Et puis, nous avons le Salade de Fennels, Mango et Walnuts.  C’était si bel.


Finalement, the French Laundry Salad of Black Mission Figs with Roasted Sweet Peppers and Shaved Fennel.  An impromptu purchase of the fresh figs was what prompted this incarnation.  In the recipe, he writes “In the summer, I’ll find a fennel patch alongside the road, where the buds are still green and haven’t blossomed, and I’l cut all the tops off.”   Off the side of the road!  And it’s true, we see fennel growing everywhere here.  I snap off some wispy fronds as Sammy and I walk by and rub it into my fingers to have the scent with me for awhile.    That licorice bite with the sweet figs and tangy balsamic, a first course that is California.


Smoked, Slippery and Slimy

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

Let’s talk about oysters. All of a sudden and for no fathomable reason, I seem to see them everywhere. They were exulted in my recent library find, Remembrance of Things Paris: Sixty Years of Writing from Gourmet where I learned which ones were eaten by the upper crust and which species people were forced to contend with during WWII. Lately, I can’t resist cracking open a tin each week of slippery, oily, little smoked oysters, pried away from each other with a toothpick and eaten with Raincoast Crisp crackers (arguably the best crackers on the planet earth and inexcusably unavailable in the US) before supper. With a bottle of chilled prosecco, that could be supper.

I can never visit the Saturday market at the Ferry Building without making a stop for second breakfast at the oyster table in front of the fish market. There’s a kid there shucking them fresh for a dollar which we slurp up bare naked [the oysters] as we stand dodging the market crowds; they a protein blast of energy. When combined with a few heavy shots of Blue Bottle espresso, there’s no sleep ’till Brooklyn.

And now I’m craving the tiny, juicy ones they serve fresh during happy hour at Eos, the wine bar down the street. We order them by the half dozen and they arrive at our table creamy and wobbling in their liquor, perched atop a pot-full of crushed ice. These are irresistable with the sauce they provide on the side: a shallot-flecked vinaigrette that is the only thing I will deign to dress them with. These must be consumed with a martini, mainly because the martinis are also a part of happy hour but also because of the delicious contrast of slurping from a shell in one hand and from a martini glass in the other.

And now, flipping back through some food photos from FEBRUARY, I found this one of Pickled Oysters with English Cucumber “Capellini” and Dill, a gem from the French Laundry Cookbook. The capellini in this case, are thin strands of cucumber, which, I gather, would normally be pasta.


This was so long ago, I can’t quite recall the flavour. They look salty with caviar, perhaps a bit sweet from the pickling. I remember shucking them though, my first ever attempt at doing so. Ahhh, now I remember, that was what twisted the tip of the paring knife into a snarly tangle. I thought I remembered prying open something…. The first one was terrifying, convinced as I was that the knife would slip and slice violently through the kitchen towel wadded around my left hand and lop of a finger. The second was aggravating. The rest, as I recall, seemed to get easier. I read a Canadian saying once, a simile for a difficult task which seems, now, funnier and very concise: “…like trying to open an oyster with a bus ticket.”

My Eyes Have Been Opened

Monday, January 7th, 2008

My eyes have been opened to a new realm of culinary arts. For months I had admired the glossy, imposing coffee table book that is always displayed prominently in the cooking section of bookstores. This tome of French cooking which is heavy enough to be used as a tool in some of the recipes it describes – weighing down the cookie sheet that is squeezing the moisture from the slices of eggplant or smashing apart pepper corns with its solid spine – has become my teacher. It is The French Laundry Cookbook. It is alpha and omega. It is over fifty Canadian dollars.

I’m sure I can expect some resistance to my declaration of its importance, especially from those who learned to cook from books by Julia Child or James Beard or Auguste Escoffier, though I would argue that perhaps everyone who loves to cook has a book which they hold in higher esteem than the rest. Why is it this book for me? How is it that Thomas Keller, who isn’t even on the Food Network, came to represent the finest of culinary artists to me? Apart from magazine articles, I didn’t even have any exposure to him or his cooking, having never been to Yountville to visit The Source, or even having seen or heard an interview with the guy. Somewhere along the way, I just decided that he was the one whom I wished to emulate, if only occasionally and with the greatest preparation anxiety.

So we bought the book. As a matter of fact, we bought the very last signed copy available at Stacey’s Bookstore on Market street. I had always planned to buy it, perhaps on a special occasion, but the fact that it was signed was what clinched it, and I, who always suffer from buyer’s remorse, felt not a twinge; I happily, hungrily brought it home and devoured it.

It took a least a month before the book actually made it into the kitchen. I once read an article by a woman who collected cookbooks and who found that she would usually hesitate to bring a new, gorgeous, art-gallery-worthy cookbook into the kitchen, the same way she would buy a new silk blouse but let it hang in the closet for a few months before actually getting up the nerve to wear it. I can empathize. I break or spill nearly everything I touch- I wouldn’t say I’m clumsy, exactly, I just seem to touch the glass or plate to a hard surface at precisely the weakest point which causes it to shatter and/or spill. It’s sort of a super power. But anyway, the same could be true for the book; I could just imagine opening it for my first attempt at cooking a recipe within and spilling a healthy tablespoon-full of balsamic all over the wide, white pages, possibly even ruining a few pictures as well. Ergo, I hesitated. Until finally, one day, I decided to try one of the least threatening recipes: Blini with Roasted Sweet Peppers and Eggplant Caviar.

It’s worth mentioning, I think, that this is one of the few recipes that required few pieces equipment that were not already in our possession. It did involve some work the day before eating, but that is small potatoes, no pun intended. Before beginning, I was tempted to read about a blogger’s experience cooking this particular recipe on CarolCooksKeller.com, a woman who, like Julie of the Julie/Julia project, has purchased The French Laundry cookbook and has made it her mission to cook every recipe in it, while documenting the process online. But I stopped short of searching for the recipe’s post on her blog because it would be like using training wheels and I already have a fairly decent idea of how to ride a bike. I may not have ridden one on a wire stretched over a gorge, but training wheels would not help the situation, the same way Carol’s tips are unlikely to help me know when the blini were done- I just gotta do it.

The book made me nervous. I had put it well beyond harm’s reach, on the furthest corner of the furthest counter-top from where I was working. Nonetheless, it made me nervous, the same impatient, anxious kind of nervous I feel when trying out a new instrument or playing a new sport- if I’m not good within 10 minutes, I’m giving up. Luckily, all that I had to do in the first 10 minutes of this exercise was slice up the eggplant, lay the slices out on a cookie sheet and let them rest so all the moisture is leeched from their pale, spiritless slabs. Encouraging. And so I proceeded, using clever tool replacements when I didn’t have precisely the appropriate instrument, and substituting but a few ingredients (like prepared, organic vegetable stock instead of of homemade) and two busy evenings later, produced my first, humble FL masterpiece.


The second attempt at cooking-to-eat-like-royalty is entitled Salad of Haricots Verts, Tomato Tartare and Chive Oil and went equally as smoothly, much to my surprise. Probably there will be no screw-ups until I’m working with an extremely expensive ingredient, like foie gras. But for now, I am happy to stick to the vegetable kingdom and turn out these first course delights.


Anatomy of A Bunny

Sunday, December 30th, 2007

In terms of dog teasing, I doubt that there is a joke that could ever wear thin. When Sam was a puppy, and I lived on the outskirts of a suburb on the outskirts of the city, the wild hares were regular visitors to the backyard. He could see them clearly from the kitchen window and would drive himself bonkers barking his head off and whining at the bunnies. They, of course, would barely look up from their foraging and would all but laugh “na na na na na” as they skipped around the yard. Sam’s long-suffered vendetta against these rabbits was never fulfilled, but that didn’t stop me from teasing him ruthlessly, asking him excitedly if there were bunnies outside. “Outside?! Bunnies?! Go see!” And still, this joke has not lost its punch, even now; we live where no rabbit would ever be outside the window, but where one has been unlucky enough to join us for dinner. That was rabbit the upon which he was most recently fixated and about whom I teased him relentlessly. “Bunnies?! Sam, is there a bunny in the kitchen!?” whereupon he would fly to the window.

Christmas Day Menu

“Bacon and Eggs”

Rabbit Fricasée

Haricots Verts

Tarte Tatin

We picked up the very last rabbit at the butcher (who the hell is cooking rabbit?) and the first thing the recipe for rabbit fricasée instructs one to do is divide the rabbit into eight pieces. So, now, just think about that for a minute: what exactly are the eight pieces into which a four-legged rodent should be divided? Umm… 2 front legs, 2 back legs, 2 “breasts”, a back and… a tail? I don’t know, I’ve never divided a rodent before! Seems logical for a member of the poultry family but a member of the rat family..?


So Marc did it.


I’m not even sure now how he managed it, to be honest. I think there were tenderloins. I know there were “wing”/front legs. It’s kind of a blur. The rest of the preparation was much more straightforward: sautéeing the bunny bits in a hot pan with mirepoix, roasting it in the oven and finishing the sauce with cream and egg yolks, which I suppose is what makes it a fricasée..? We even deep fried some sage leaves as garnish for what turned out to be illuminating example of how good wild hare can be. Marc couldn’t get enough of it, picking up the bones and [politely] gnawing the tender meat. If I didn’t think too hard about how cute was the animal that I was eating, it was delicious. Sam was nearly inconsolable, having spent all day racing to the window only to be denied the pleasure of crunching on the bones of his arch nemesis. He did, however, snarf down the few shreds of meat we left on our plates.


Prior to the main course, I put together another French Laundry objet d’art, condescendingly referred to as “Bacon and Eggs”, which is really “Soft Poached Quail Eggs with Applewood Smoked Bacon”. True to form, San Francisco readily provided us with both quail eggs and applewood-smoked bacon; we didn’t even have to veer from our regular grocery shopping course. Though we did go back to the Berkeley Bowl, because we were across the Bay anyway and wanted to treat ourselves for Christmas with a visit to mecca.

Allow me to provide an excerpt from The Book so as to demonstrate the details with which one must contend if one is to cook as they do in heaven:

“The best method for poaching eggs is in a deep pot of water. As the weight of the yolk pulls the egg through the water, the white encircles the yolk and sets. The deeper the water, the farther the egg travels before it stops, and the more the poached egg will resemble its original shape. Hold each [tiny, fragile, quail] egg on its side on a towel and use a serrated knife to cut halfway through the larger end of the egg.”

It’s as though formulae of physics are being applied to the poaching of a quail’s egg. I love it! I gleefully used the knife to serrated-ly open the quail eggs, I used the pot of deep water, I gently “lifted one egg at a time from the ice water and used a pair of scissors to trim their ‘tails’ of egg-white”. The result was that I spent three hours preparing the elements of a dish that was consumed in three mouth-fulls. Three hours, three bites, totally worth it.


As the eggs were being poached and the rabbit fricassed, Marc assembled the tarte tatin. This is another of those intimidating classics about which I am apprehensive. tarte-tatin.JPGSo many things could go wrong with a dish that cooks for so long on the stove top and then has to be baked and flipped out onto a serving dish. Usually, we’re happy to use an easy, cheater’s short-cut tarte tatin that is just sliced apples layered on top of puff-pastry and drizzled with honey (exceptional, by the way). But in the true spirit of the holidays, we went through way more trouble than was necessary in order to deliver perfection. Indeed, though he was too chicken to roll out the pastry dough and place it gingerly on top of the caramelized apples for fear of ruining the pastry, Marc’s efforts were rewarded with a sugary, apple tart with all the lovely, dark flavours that caramelization proffers. And it turns out that tarte tatin, in addition to being a crowning glory of a dessert, is also a magnificent breakfast.

Xmas Eve

Sunday, December 30th, 2007

Let’s see— so, November 26th was the last time I posted to this blog. That seems sterotypical of blogdom: start off strong, interest gradually wans, topics fade and the next thing you know, it’s 2008. Well, if December went by in a blur, it’s because we had so much food to prepare and eat that I was too busy to write about it. Or, I was too lazy. Either or. Therefore, I’m re-starting the posting with a bang, the climax of our December, indeed, the climax of our epicurean year: Christmas Eve dinner.

Long has it been tradition in my family to have a heavily “sauced” happy hour, followed by an elaborate dinner on Christmas eve before attending atheist mass (a.k.a. a James Bond movie). This is when the good dishes make their annual appearance, when no cut of meat is too expensive, when four-course meals are warranted. I relish this dinner and look forward to it with more anticipation than any other Christmas treat. Presents? meh. Eggnog lattes, sure, I’ll have a few. Three days worth of menu planning, grocery shopping and food preparation? Be still my beating heart.

This year, since Marc and I decided to have a California Christmas on our own, we opted to continue those traditions, minus the mass, which we substituted with Christmas music by a crackling wood fire. The menu planning actually started about a month and a half earlier when we finally made the big-ticket purchase of The French Laundry cookbook, signed by Thomas Keller. Oh, The Book. How I am enamoured of The Book. It calls to me in the mornings, when the sun in shining through the window onto the love seat by the fireplace, where I can sit with my cappucinno perched on the armrest and reverently read it, relishing every page. I take such pleasure in perusing the fastidious recipes, all the labour-intensive details that go into making one dish, trying to imagine how a person can be so singularly focused on food as to come up with such fantastic ideas for preparation. With much anxiety and trepidation did I construct my first French Laundry dish (which I shall describe in a subsequent post), but the first try gave me the confidence to attempt and FL recipe for this hallowed feast. I could only imagine having the stamina for one such dish, though— for the rest, we turned to simpler fare. Thus, our menu:

Dungeness Crab Salad with Cucumber Jelly, Grainy Mustard Vinaigrette, and Micro Arugula

Duck Confit with Fried Arkansas Black Apples

Lentils with herbs and garlic

Brava Ginger Cakes

Guess which one is Thomas Keller’s. I mean, who makes cucumber jelly? Who even thinks up such a thing? We had to make cucumber juice and cut wee cucumber diamonds to delicately float in the gêlée. We drove across the Bay in order to go to our favourite butcher for the duck legs and found the whole, cooked Dungeness in the fish market next door. It took several hours to de-meat the crab and put together the whole layered affair. It was ridiculously laborious and wonderfully decadent which, I suppose, is really à propos of Christmas.


The confit is something I’ve never tried. Years ago, when Mom & Dad were first living in France, Mom received a gift from someone that, no doubt, seemed normal to a Norman but confused the hell out of a Canadian: a large jar of duck fat. Mom offered to give it to me when we visited as she had no real use for it and I turned it down as couldn’t think of what I would ever do with several pounds of duck fat. Now, I get it. Confit is duck cooked in its own fat for, like, ever. For such a simple dish, this is one of the classics by which I have been somewhat intimidated in the past. It’s so French and, therefore, carries an air of complication about it. I had never even attempted to find a recipe for duck confit as I figured it was something beyond reach of the home cook- don’t you need special tools or applicances or something? Some secret underground technique for masterfully crafting this ancient dish? A Julia Child? And then I saw the recipe in a Bon Appétit magazine, where they proclaimed it the “Technique of the Year” and promised “rich results” for a “surprisingly simple” preparation. That was enough for me— first, because I simply coudn’t finish 2007 without having partaken in the technique of the year, and second, if ever there was an occasion to make such a meal, it was here and now: San Francsico at Christmas.

We weren’t too worried about finding duck fat hereabouts and indeed had no trouble in getting some from our butcher, purchased by the pound from an enormous bucket of fat at the base of the refrigerated case. duck-confit.JPGAfter marinating the duck pieces in salt and garlic overnight, Marc melted down the fat (I suppose I should refer to it as “rendered”), threw the duck legs in and chucked the whole thing in the oven: that is basically all that it needed, which makes me wonder how it is that I could have been so intimidated and misinformed about it in the past. Many deliciously aromatic hours later, we had the most unctuous, flavourful, outrageously extravagent duck that I’ve ever had. With the lentils and the sweet-tart apples, it absolutely melted in the mouth. Clearly, duck fat is the way to go. And as an added bonus, we got to keep the leftover duck sealed in its own congealed fat in the back of the fridge, ready for a quick meal any time this month. Amazing!


ginger-cake.JPGThe ginger cakes, modeled off of our old favourites at Brava bistro in Calgary, have never disappointed. Slowly steamed on the stove top, they emerge from their ramekins as moist puddings to hover in our homemade caramel sauce. This is my desert island dessert, certainly befitting of a Christmas Eve repast. They are so good, in fact, that they may make an appearance on New Year’s Eve. Ginger totally goes with champagne.

And over glasses of port, all snug by the fire, we languished in our gluttony as we contemplated our Christmas Day feast.