Sunday, August 30, 2009

Crème Brûleé

I'm usually not one to go with the pretentious french accents on words. I mean, really, especially "crème" because it makes me think of low-rent face creams or hair dye at home kits that try to class it up by writing "crème" instead of "cream." But crème brûleé has THREE different types of accent letter (whoa!), and besides, it is classy, not low-rent-dressed-up-as-classy. So we'll use the accents today.

Crème brûleé was the first really French dessert I ever ate while in Paris. I went as a treat for my 16th birthday (I know, super privileged, right? Not so much, actually went with my Dad who was there on business and decided it would be fun to take me and Grandma along... well we all had to share a tiny room and they snored, so I ended up sleeping in the bathtub every night. But Paris!) We had our first nice dinner at the restaurant atop the Musee d'Orsay, which was amazing. I had escargots for the first time at that meal, which I piggishly refused to share (more garlic butter for me). But when dessert time came, I had my first bite of vanilla-infused custard with crunchy sugar top, and it was love at first bite. It's still my favorite dessert, and I particularly love it infused with tea flavors, like earl grey, jasmine or matcha. But vanilla is still the best.

Mom also loves crème brûleé--it is her favorite dessert too--so I knew when I saw the recipe in the Les Halles Cookbook I'd have to make it for her. The opportunity arose this weekend when she decided to host family dinner when my sister came into town from Chicago. Well, sort of decided. The conversation went a bit like this.

Mom: "Sister M has asked for her favorite dinner tonight--Thanksgiving turkey and all the sides."

Me: "There is no way I am making a fucking turkey. But I'll make dessert."

Mom: "What's for dessert?"

Me: "Crème brûleé."

Mom: "Ooooh..."

Done and done. I had egg yolks to use up and a tube of vanilla beans, so I was ready to go. I hauled these, plus my ramekins out to the suburbs to cook dessert in mom's kitchen.

Tony's crème brûleé recipe is easily the richest I have ever made. Most call for a mix of cream and milk, with four to six egg yolks. Tony wants a full QUART of heavy cream and TEN egg yolks. It took all of my eggs plus all of mom's eggs to get the right amount.

First I halved the vanilla bean, and scraped the middles into the cream with a knife, putting the shell into the cream once it was scraped clean.

Add sugar, then put the pot onto the stove to boil.

Next, whisk the remaining sugar into the egg yolks. Once the cream boiled, Husband J helped to slowly pour splashes of cream into the yolks, while I whisked to make sure they didn't curdle. We poured the mixture into ramekins, which we put into pyrex dishes half-filled with water.

They went in the oven for 50 minutes, until the tops were set, but jiggled a little.

The custards cooled while we finished our turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, steamed vegetables and cranberry sauce. As the family relaxed on the deck, I dumped a tablespoon of granulated sugar (Tony calls for brown, but Mom's brown sugar was disgustingly rock-hard, so granulated it was) on top of the custards. They went under the broiler, set on high, until the sugar liquefied, caramelized and charred a little.

I served them still warm--we couldn't wait for dessert much longer. Everyone went crazy for these crème brûleés, though by the time we got through our dinners AND dessert, we were all feeling pretty gluttonous and nauseated. (The desserts were BIG, too.) Everyone scraped their bowls pretty clean, except mom who insisted on saving half of hers (and pouring everyone's scraps into her ramekin) for lunch tomorrow. For me, the vanilla bean really made the dish. I'd never actually made a dessert with a vanilla bean before, having previously only used vanilla extract. Even with the random Indonesian beans I found at Whole Foods (which were NOT cheap by any means), the vanilla flavor was super strong yet subtle and just plain delicious. I also liked using so much sugar on the tops, as they cracked like very proper crème brûleés in a satisfying way. I like crunching the top and mixing the bits into the cream so that I get sugar top in every bite. Delicious! Grandma even said I'd beat out the crème brûleés made by Cousin A, who is a pastry chef... though I'm pretty sure she was just being nice. All in all, a big dessert success.

Oh, additionally, we brought some of the rillettes over as an appetizer, and even picky Sister A ate and enjoyed the delicious porky goodness. We have one more big tupperware of pork to go. Takers???

Lessons learned: Vanilla bean is always best. With crème brûleé, the richer the better, but I kinda want to throw up now. I'm so going to gain 30 pounds while doing this project.

Next week: Soupe au Pistou

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Rillettes: Tasting Day

Today is Wednesday! The shredded porky goodness of the rillettes have been snuggling up together for three days, which means it is time to taste them.

What should be a glorious, victorious day started out with some disappointing news. Dad, alas, will not make it into the US this weekend after all, so plans for family dinner may have gone to naught. Now two of us have two whole tupperwares of shredded pork meat covered in back fat to eat. By ourselves. This had better taste pretty freaking delicious in order to be worth the twin heart attacks we will so clearly be having.

So Husband J and I sat down to our meal, which consisted of sliced baguette, rillettes, and spinach salad with cherry tomatoes. (A lot of salad.)

Now, one thing I wasn't sure about is what to do with the back fat. Tony doesn't really say what to do with the stuff when you actually get around to eating it. I ended up just peeling it off and saving it to wrap the leftovers.

As I scooped the pork into the ramekin, I started to get a bit concerned. I mean, let's face it. The stuff looks like cat food. But then all pate looks kind of like cat food, so maybe we are kind of on the right track.

The rillettes:

Yup. Cat food.

As for the taste, well, actually I surprised myself yet again. These are GOOD! Despite the cat food looks, this is actually a very nice pork pate type dish. Husband J and I thought it might taste more like pulled pork with french spices instead of barbecue sauce, but it is more of a classic pate flavor. And hey, I made (kind of) pate that tastes like (actual) pate, first time ever. Yay me!

We ended up eating the full ramekin on about half the baguette, so now I feel like I have gained about 20 pounds of pure pork fat. Even still, it was a good summer dinner, since it's served cold, and goes great with the salad.

Of course now we still have a tupperware and a half to go. This stuff is very filling. Maybe we should have family dinner after all. Anyone who wants to help us eat these, please leave comments. Because I need more comments!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Rillettes du Porc, Basic Pie Dough

Today's Les Halles adventure is a truly frenchified dish, rillettes du porc. This is the first dish I got really excited about cooking from the Les Halles Cookbook because it looks intimidating at first glance, but actually requires very little labor on the part of the cook. It's also the dish that Tony rhapsodizes about in the introduction to the cookbook as being the thing that convinced him to take the job as executive chef at Les Halles restaurant in the first place.

He tells the story in the introductory section of the cookbook, how he went to an interview with Jose de Meirelles and was unimpressed with the shabby, dirty looking restaurant, nicotine stained ceilings blazing in the noon New York sun. The interview concluded with an invitation to dinner at the restaurant. Tony decided to pass on the job, but mentioned the free dinner offer to his (first) wife Nancy. She, hungry for steak frites, insisted he keep the dinner appointment. When the two pushed their way into the now-crowded, darkened restaurant, it was clear a magical transformation had taken place. He stared, astounded at the menu at dishes he hadn't seen since his childhood summers in France, and the first dish he orders is "a crock of lovely, extravagantly fatty rillettes." By the time he finished dinner, he decided to take the job, and the rest is food-memoir-and-travel-tv history. (It's a good story, and better the way he writes it, so I encourage you all to buy the cookbook or get it from the library even if just for this three-page story.)

So what are rillettes du porc? Basically, it's boiled, shredded pork, stored under slices of fat, and molded like a pate to be served spread over slices of baguette as an appetizer. I'm making them this weekend for a family dinner next weekend in honor of dad's visit. My dad lives as an expat in a Middle Eastern country, and whenever he comes back to the US for a visit or business, the first thing he looks for is a big serving of pork. Rillettes seem like the perfect, porky gluttenous dish to serve him, particularly since Ramadan began yesterday, and he (a non-Muslim) is forced to snatch quick bites in his office while the rest of his colleagues fast. Rillettes also have to be made at least three days in advance to allow the flavors to marry, which is why I'm making them this weekend for next weekend's dinner.

On to the dish!

I knew just where I was going to get my pork for this dish--the Cedarbrook Farm stand at the farmer's market, which provides the most delicious pastured pork. I am a huge fan of their hot Italian sausage (of which they were providing free samples while we waited in the line--BONUS!) and their bacon. I was waited on by the must cherubic little boy who sweetly asked me what I would like from their truck.

"I need some serious pork from you today!" I said, to differentiate myself from the masses who were snapping up the Italian sausages after tasting the free samples (posers... I liked the sausage BEFORE it was cool). "Do you have pork belly?"

Angelic little boy conferred with his mom, who was working with the register.

"Not til September!" he reported.

What is this?? Pork belly not in season? I was not aware that there even was a season for pork belly, though I suppose it makes some sense. Well never mind, Whole Foods was bound to have something I could use. I ordered a pound of pork shoulder (though as I discovered it only comes in 3 pound packets) and a pound of back fat (hahaha, back fat back tack tack back fat back...). After obtaining some veggies, peaches, yogurt and butter from the market stands, I left Husband J with the bags while I ran to the Whole Foods to find some belly. Only when I got there, there was no pork belly to be had. I skimmed the butcher stand, remembering to check the refrigerated cuts section, but still no darn belly! Oh well, I decided, grabbing two pounds of bacon. What is bacon but pork belly that has been cured and sometimes smoked? I got the thickest, fattiest, least messed with bacon I could find, which would just have to do.

I was feeling a little despondent as I walked back to the house in the hot Sunday morning sun. But I had to remind myself that I'd done the best I could, that salted pork belly was probably not going to taste too different than non-cured belly, and that however you slice it, I was the winner in this situation, because I was the one walking home with TWO POUNDS OF BACON!!!

Only, I wasn't. I walked in the door, and found Husband J slicing up some peaches into little bowls of greek yogurt for our breakfast, and pouring coffee.

"Did you find the pork belly?" he asked.

"Nope," I said, "so I got bacon. See?"

I reached into the bag and got a handful of parsley. Bay leaf. Two slices of Norwegian Jarlsburg. Thyme. Dr. Bronner's peppermint soap. But no bacon. I'd left it at the register.

Gallant Husband J grabbed the receipt and trotted back to Whole Foods to fetch the bacon while I seethed, steamed and sweated, and used up all our ice in an ice bath to defrost the pork shoulder.

Pork Shoulder defrosting in its package. I looove you Cedarbrook Farm!

When the bacon arrived, I chopped it up into sliced chunks and threw it into the big stock pot.

mmm. Bacon.

The pork shoulder had about defrosted, so I cut the three pound cut into thirds, and chopped a third into chunks. The shoulder even had a layer of skin on it, which to my credit, I was NOT grossed out by. Mostly I thought to myself, "cool, skin" because although I am not awesome enough to actually slaughter a pig and cook it for my dinner, I feel that buying pastured pork with the bones and skin and all is a good way to get to that point.

Pork shoulder chopped. At the top is the branded or stamped bits of skin. To the right of those is my Whole Foods receipt, used to claim the bacon. To the right is my 8.5 inch Wusthof chef's knife. She is my very favorite knife. I call her "Vera."

The pork went into the pot along with some fresh herbs (parsley, bay leaf, thyme) and four cups of water.

I turned the heat on to low, and we are set to cook for six hours. Now there is something kind of morally reprehensible to me about boiling bacon. Bacon, like all the most delicious foods (onion rings, paneer pakoras, beignets, calamari, mars bars) should be FRIED. And I can't help but thinking of that bit in Better Off Dead where the mom boils the bacon and it turns green and disgusting. But the French have apparently been boiling bacon for centuries, and who am I to argue with the French and Julia Child?

Next, time to make some basic pie dough from the "miscellaneous meez" (ugh, so precious) section of the cookbook, for tonight's dinner of zucchini/tomato/leek quiche. There aren't any quiche recipes in the Les Halles Cookbook, but I do make a mean quiche, and am evangelical about handmade pie crusts. Premade does NOT taste the same, or feel the same, or ANYTHING the same as a simple, easy homemade crust. I have made plenty of crusts in my time, but now is a great time to try Tony's recipe.

Today it's time to try a crust technique that I've never done--pie crust in the food processor. I've heard it's the easiest, best way to make a pie crust, but what can I say... I'm old school and tend to use a fork. I put 2 cups of sifted flour into the processor, along with sugar, salt, a stick of butter and a beaten egg (really? Never used an egg in pie crust either). Blended all of this until it was a mass of crust.

Then I added a tablespoon and a half of water. when the crust came away from the sides of the Cuisinart, it was time to roll it into a ball, cover in plastic, and refrigerate.

Pulling away from the sides of the Cuisinart.

The pork continued to simmer on the stovetop, filling the house with pork-smelling goodness. I sat down for a break to watch a DVD of The French Chef with Julia Child that I got off Netflix (to husband J's dismay--he'd wanted either The State or Mad Men, both of which were ahead of The French Chef in our queue. But both had "long waits" so The French Chef it was). Julia was cooking tripes a la mode, holding up an entire cow stomach for our viewing pleasure. Between putting together the quiche (bacon, egg, cheese, veggies sauteed in bacon fat), the pork simmering on the stove (more than half fat itself) and the tripe on the tv, I was beginning to feel a little ill.

Once properly cooled, I rolled the pie crust out on my silicone mat. To my great dismay, the crust was a little too dry, and cracked immediately. I frantically patched it together, but by the time I had it rolled out and ready to get into the pie pan, it cracked again. I had to console myself with piecing it, bit by bit, into the pie pan, and pressing it together first with fingertips, then the heel of my hand for an even surface.


At least it was marginally in once piece at this point. I filled it with zucchini-onion mixture, then bits of bacon left over from the rillettes and cooked the way God intended (that is FRIED), then some halved cherry tomatoes from the market, and covered it with a mix of eggs, milk, cream, and cheese. Popped that into the oven for about an hour.

Some people would have arranged the tomatoes and zucchini artfully, perhaps in an elegant spiral. Those people can suck it.

By this time, Julia was showing us how to fillet whole fish, and roast and serve them by pulling their tails apart and stuffing them through their mouths, as if they were throwing up their own tails. I was feeling seriously sick at that point.

"I should have made salad," I groaned.

"Is the quiche ready?" asked Husband J.

Almost. The quiche was golden brown at the end of the hour, and out of the oven it came, ready for our dinner.

To my astonishment, frankencrust actually tasted really good. It wasn't rock hard, as I feared it would be, but buttery, light, and flaky, the way a good pie crust should be. It got a bit heavy at the edges, but that's it. I managed to get down a small piece of quiche, but that was about all the grease I could handle for one night. Husband J procured a dry riesling that was acidic enough to make me feel a little better. It was practically a salad.

After dinner, the pork was ready. I drained it in a colander, then, in batches, shredded the pork with two forks.

This really does not look appetizing.

Shredding the pork

"Feel free to shovel some still-warm pork into your face," recommends Tony when you get to this step. "You know you want to."

Well actually I was still feeling sick and did NOT want any pork. But I managed to feed some to Husband J, who gave it an enthusiastic double thumbs up.

Finally, the shredded pork gets stored in small plastic containers under a layer of back fat. It has to marry for three days, so we'll try one of the containers on Wednesday (with a SALAD) and report back on how it tastes!

Covered in back fat. Haha. "Back fat."

Lessons Learned: Pork belly has a season and it starts in September, which is not now. "Back fat" is hilarious to say. Don't leave your bacon at the Whole Foods, but if you do, it's easy to get back. Making too much bacon-centered foods in one day while watching Julia Child cook tripe will make you feel very sick, so try not to do that.

Next time: Tasting report on rillettes du porc.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

(Non)Grilled Lamb (Non)Steaks and Blueberries with Lime Sugar

Today's dinner takes place on a Saturday, as some friends (K & A) from the suburbs are coming into the city to partake of our bistro bounty. This is great, though it does mean that we must do our shopping at the Whole Foods rather than the farmer's market. So husband J and I headed down in the morning to purchase some lamb steak.

Now I have nothing against Whole Foods. It is definitely expensive, but I love how you can find practically anything there, especially our favorite beer, which we drank with BLTs for lunch. One issue I have with Whole Foods is that it tempts me into buying pre-made foods when I'd really rather cook. But I countered that desire by eschewing the premade sandwiches in favor of buying some nitrite free bacon, bread and lettuce and making BLTs with the leftover tomatoes we bought for tonight's dinner.

We even found the exact cuts of lamb we needed... with some mishap. We headed to the meat counter first, and, not finding lamb leg steaks, decided on a 2 lb butterflied lamb leg which we figured we'd cut up after grilling. Of course, 15 minutes later while looking for creme fraiche we found in the packaged meat section precisely the cuts of lamb we needed. We'd already had the other packaged for us though, and the leg was local rather than from New Zealand, as the steaks were, so we decided to go with the butterflied leg anyway. We also grabbed some more local heirloom tomatoes for a tomato salad (We can't not eat tomato salad with the tomatoes being so delicious right now) and some blueberries.

Once home, I cut the excess fat and silvering from the lamb and put it in the marinade--garlic, olive oil, rosemary, thyme--and in the fridge. Technically it is supposed to marinate overnight but I figured six hours would not be so bad.

Then I started into the lime confit for the blueberries. This was extremely easy, basically peeling the zest from the lime, slicing it into thin, vertical slices, and boiling it in a mix of water and sugar until half the water has cooked off.

A few hours later, it was time to take a look at our cooking implement, the rooftop grill. Unfortunately and to our disappointment, the grill had decided that today was a good day to actually not ignite... leaving us with only one option (since we have no grill pan), to broil the leg of lamb. So we have non-grilled lamb non-steaks to look forward to... hopefully the fact that we are using Tony's marinade will make up for the unorthodox cooking methods and cuts.

So while I prepped the tomato and onion for the salad, I put the lamb in the roasting pan and under the broiler for about 10 minutes per side. I used a meat thermometer to gauge the temperature of the interior of the lamb, which almost led to disaster when I didn't realize that the cord to the thermometer was actually touching the flames emanating from our broiler unit. Whoops. After a little toxic smoke, but not too much damage, I readjusted the thermometer. The interior of the meat was still a bit cool after broiling, so I left the lamb in a 200 degree oven for about 10 more minutes until the middle of the lamb reached 60 degrees C (I couldn't figure out how to adjust the thermometer to Fahrenheit), the temperature that corresponds with "rare."

While the lamb cooked I finished the tomato salad, and made an onion sauce consisting of chopped onion, parsley, salt, pepper, and olive oil. Finally I finished the dessert by mixing the juice of the zested limes, a little sugar, and the blueberries. I topped the berries with a chiffonaide of mint leaves, and left them in the fridge.

Once the lamb came out of the oven and rested for 10 minutes, everything was ready, and dinner was served (too quickly to allow for pics of the finished lamb, unfortunately). The lamb with onion sauce and the salad were big hits with everyone. I sliced the leg thin, which allowed for small slices to hold generous amounts of onion sauce, and allowing all to have seconds and thirds of the meat. I felt a bit bad actually, since both the main course and salad relies heavily on onion flavor, which made for a rather acidic dinner, but everyone seemed to enjoy it anyway. The resident food critic liked the lamb quite a lot, saying "It was more familiar than some of the other things you've cooked," because it allowed for the flavor of the meat to shine through and reminded him of having lamb in Greektown near Detroit as a kid. He also liked the very prominent onion flavor to the dinner, which made me feel a bit better.

The dessert ended up being the big hit of the night--despite it being again very acidic due to the lime juice and berries. We served the soaked berries with creme fraiche, which was a perfect accompaniment. K and I ended up scooping creme fraiche into the juice left on our plates when we finished, and ate the cream soaked in the leftover berry/lime juice. All in all another successful dinner.

Lessons learned: Whole Foods has a packaged meat counter as well as a butcher deli, so look there before deciding on a different cut than the recipe calls for. Onions are great, but maybe not in every single course. Creme fraiche basically wins everything. Tomato salad is always successful when it is the time of year for delicious tomatoes. Lime zest might be awesome in a cocktail of some kind (maybe a gimlet?)

Next week: Not really sure actually. I'll be on a business trip for most of the week, so it may end up being "whatever I feel like." Dad's coming in from the middle east, though, so I may try to make rillettes for him.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Chicken Stock and Vichyssoise

Ok, well. Despite my previous bitching about making stock in the middle of August, there actually appear to be a ton of recipes in the Les Halles cookbook that actually require the making of stock before they can be attempted. And this blog is about following each recipe to the letter with no shortcuts so... stock it is.

But, not crazy-ass veal stock. That has to wait a few more weeks. No, this week is white chicken stock, using the bones from last week's roasted chicken.

There is no real recipe for chicken stock in the Les Halles Cookbook. Instead, Tony gives the basic guidelines for stock, which basically consist of "dump a bunch of chicken bones, some veg and some herbs in a pot and simmer for 6-8 hours." Easy, right?

So, I grabbed an onion, and a pound of carrots, and a big stalk of celery (which Alton Brown teaches me is called a mirepoix), as well as a bunch of sage, thyme and rosemary (notice how I listed them out of order so as not to annoy you with any earworm type songs?), and dumped them into my new stockpot with last week's chicken bones.

It took about half an hour to get the thing up to a near boil, at which time I turned the heat down to medium so all that liquid could simmer. I split the difference and simmered for seven hours while my husband watched Tool Academy and I played Persona 4. (I love a lazy weekend, don't you?)

Well, the house started to smell amazing (I credit the herbs in particular) and the stock reduced to about half the liquid that started out. The stock wasn't exactly colorless, but a nice golden brown, which I decided would have to do. I strained the stock through the last of our coffee filters (not realizing before I did so that we didn't have any left for tomorrow's coffee... ugh...), cooled it in an ice bath, and socked the better part in the freezer. The rest went into the fridge for tomorrow's Les Halles recipe, vichyssoise, cold potato/leek soup.

One of the catalysts to starting this blog was my (finally) reading Tony's Kitchen Confidential (well, listening to him read it on audiobook, which I'd argue is even better), in which he describes a Proustian moment of tasting vichyssoise on the Queen Mary, marveling at the wonder of eating cold soup, and quantifying this taste, as well as the taste of raw oyster, as one of the two major moments of learning to love food as something more than fuel. While the name vichyssoise brings to mind (for me anyway) Claude Raines dumping a bottle of Vichy water into the trash at the end of Casablanca, symbolizing a break from Vichy France and Nazism, cold leek and potato soup is definitely a taste I can get behind. So now that we have the required chicken stock, let's get on with the soup!

I invited friends M and B (a married couple) to lunch on Sunday, so the plan was to serve vichyssoise along with two other vegetarian faves of mine, miso glazed tomatoes and corn/scallion salad. The latter recipes were some I got from the Washington Post, and are probably the best summer produce recipes I've come across, and the most satisfying in terms of deliciousness/produce show-off/blending superb ingredients into something sublime.

So, Sunday morning I roll out of bed, pull on some jeans and run to the farmer's market to get my pick of fresh tomatoes, leeks, potatoes and corn. First stop is the stall with those big ugly purple mottled tomatoes that look like mutants and taste like heaven. I pick out four big juicy ones, when suddenly I am stopped by a man with a "press" card around his neck.

"Excuse me," he says, as I fumble to turn off my audio book (The Girl Who Played With Fire by Steig Larsson).

"Uhh, yeah?"

"I'm from The Washington Post, we're doing a story about tomatoes, and I just took a picture of you picking out tomatoes. Can I have your name?"

"Oookay..." so I give him my name and head off to pay for the tomatoes, some cilantro, and a few chives. So, I guess, look out for me in The Washington Post, probably Wednesday, in a story about tomatoes. I'm the one with the big cream colored Ray Bans with my hair in pigtails, and oh yeah, NO MAKEUP. Goddammit.

*UPDATE: The Wapo in all its wisdom decided not to use me as the poster girl for the tomato story. Which actually is kind of good, because the story was all about how awful it is for snotty ass yuppies like me to be buying crazy expensive tomatoes during a recession. Not that I'm not a snotty ass yuppie. I just don't want to be enshrined as one in the local paper.*

Anyway, after picking up my produce, and with only a slight detour to the gelato stand, I head home and start cooking. Oh, and brought my husband more coffee filters from the grocery store, which is a good thing, as I walked in on him trying to brew coffee with a NAPKIN. I mean seriously. Husbands.

First sweat the leeks in 4 tb of butter (mmmmm), then add the cubed up potatoes, then the chicken stock. Bring to a boil, and let simmer for 35 minutes.

"The next part," says Tony, "is tricky." We must now slowly, and in small batches, transfer the mix to the blender to puree the soup bit by bit, never filling up too high, unless we want a face full of boiling starchy, sticky hot potato-leek puree. This, according to Tony "hurts like a motherfucker," and is one of the more frequent professional kitchen accidents.

Well OK Tony, I GUESS that is tricky, unless you have a HAND HELD BLENDER like I DO which will puree the soup WHILE IN THE POT IN ONE GO. Haha, sucker!

Looks pretty artistic with the cream being swirled in!

Once pureed, the soup gets a hefty dose of cream, simmers for another 5 minutes, then goes into an ice bath to cool. Once cold, serve with a chive garnish.

I'm happy to report that everyone loved the soup, which was definitely the least healthy thing on the menu what with all that butter and heavy cream. Both B and husband J declared it to be the best thing on the menu for today's lunch, while M and I preferred the corn salad (less rich, more cilantro), but scraped our soup bowls clean anyway. There's about two more bowls left over, lucky for us, as it's a soup that gets better over time. As J, resident food critic said, it's a hearty enough soup that it fills you up, but it's refreshing enough that it doesn't feel too heavy while eating in hot weather like this. Another success for the Les Halles Cookbook!

We also had two nice bottles of white wine, and some brownies courtesy of M and B, as well as some berries and whipped cream (the latter left over from the soup, so easily whipped for dessert) and some fun conversation with friends who we haven't seen in way too long. Seriously, already this project is making me all kinds of happy to have a good excuse to force people to come over and eat some damn food. It's a ton of fun!

And yeah, I promised B that we'd invite them over sometime when the menu was not so vegetarian, particularly since he shares my passion for boudin noir (blood sausage--we have almost convinced M to try some of its delicious, fatty bounty).

Lessons learned: I need some cheesecloth to strain stock, since it tends to rip coffee filters. Vichyssoise takes more than half an hour to chill to proper temperature. That hand held blender is one of the best purchases ever, useful for both the soup and blending the vinaigrette.

Next week: Grilled lamb steaks; blueberries with lime sugar.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Tomato Salad and Poulet Roti

In an interview with The Washington Post, Anthony Bourdain had two suggestions for people cooking from this book. "Either start with the easiest dishes to pump up your confidence...or, for the more ambitious readers, start out with [veal] stock and go on to demiglace."

Um, ok. Except that until just this morning I had no idea where to get a ready supply of veal stock bones, and besides, making veal stock in August where you have to stand above a simmering pot of stock for like eight to ten hours (no COMMENT, Carol Blymore, who is apparently about to do a post on Alinea-style veal stock in, let me reiterate August), and even Tony's eight hour veal stock is the kind of half-assed veal stock that will apparently get me fired from the French Laundry (apparently they need sixteen hours?). Ok. So, no veal stock today.

Instead, since it is August, it's time for tomatoes, which means fresh tomato salad, which looks to be the easiest recipe in the book--the only hard part is waiting til you can find the perfect tomatoes (the answer is right now). And since the day dawned a little chilly and rainy, a dish that I have a feeling will be cheerful and delicious, poulet roti.

So what is poulet roti? I'm glad you asked, because Tony has the answer for you. "That's roast chicken, numbnuts!" is the first sentence under the header. Oh good, Tony, glad you cleared that up for us. He goes on to explain that roasting chickens is extremely simple and straightforward, by letting us know that "if you can't properly roast a damn chicken then you are one helpless, hopeless, sorry-ass bivalve in an apron." Just the thing to pump up my confidence!

Until this year, I'd never before roasted a meat. My first experience was a rack of lamb I made for my husband and my in-laws when they visited for Easter. I haven't roasted another meat since that day--not that the lamb didn't turn out well, it was delicious--but it's just not something I often do. But I've been wanting to try my hand at roasting a chicken for ages so that I may indulge in all of the things I was never permitted as a child and now love--dark meat, and crispy fatty skin that's been drenched in white wine and butter (you children of boomer parents, like me, were subjected to skinless boneless dry as a bone breast meat, I know you were!). So even though the slightly chilly, wet morning has turned into a hot-ass sunny afternoon, I'm going to roast the damn bird, Les Halles style.

One of the benefits of being a snotty-ass yuppie is living in walking distance of a huge farmer's market. Upon waking this morning, I hauled my ass through the pouring rain to the market, where I dodged umbrellas and bought a chicken. I went for a 3.5 lb grass-fed, free-range organic bird from Smith Meadows Farm which was hellishly expensive, but worth it, because I don't want the PETA people on my ass til I get to foie gras. (Just kidding! I totally care about animal welfare! But only because happy chickens are more delicious.) I also found some beautiful heirloom tomatoes and organic onions, which will go into the salad.

The first step of making a roast chicken is making the herb butter, which seems like a good idea in general. I mean, herb. Butter. How could anything with herb butter fail to be delicious???

Mise en place (Tony calls it meez which is a little precious. So it will be mise from here on out on this blog):
The herbs are parsley, lemon thyme, rosemary and basil. I chopped them up and dumped them into some softened butter with honey, white pepper and salt, and the result:

Somewhere out there my little sister is gagging.

I rolled this into a log, wrapped it in plastic, and threw it into the fridge to harden up.

When the chicken had defrosted in the sick, it was time to start! First things first, remove the giblets!


Where are the giblets?

What are giblets, anyway? Wikipedia says they are the liver, heart gizzard, anus (AHHH!), etc. of a chicken, and are often included with a chicken in a bag inside the cavity. But the innards of this chicken are devoid of bagged offal. Crud. This is going to mess up my gravy. But I soldier on.


Note my cross-contamination prevention mat! Salmonella beware!

After rubbing with salt and pepper, inside and out, time to tuck the legs into the skin. But wait--the chicken has already been "trussed" in exactly the style Tony recommends by the farmers! That makes up for the lack of giblets, for sure!

Into the cavity go the onion, lemon and herbs. Under the breast skin, two tablespoons of herb butter, and a plain butter rub all over the chicken. Then it goes in the roasting pan, on top of the onions, and into the oven.

While the chicken is in the oven, it's time to start the tomato salad. You need two strainers for this, in order to rub both tomatoes and red onion in salt, and let them drip over the sink for a half an hour. Once that's done, rub a garlic clove into your salad bowl, whisk together the dressing, and toss the tomatoes and onions and a few basil leaves into it.

The result:

In the meantime, the chicken has cooked to a fantastic looking golden brown.

Mmm. Chicken lickin' good.

The chicken rests for 15 minutes while the (giblet-less) gravy is made. Basically, deglaze the roasting pan with white wine, and stir in a ton of butter, boil and thicken, then add parsley.

And then we serve it all up!

The verdict?

For me, this was the best roasted chicken I've ever eaten. Which I guess isn't hard, because it's the only homemade roasted chicken I've ever eaten (all others have been the supermarket rotisserie kind). But the amazing thing is, although I expressed a preference for dark meat above, I really preferred (and went back for seconds, and thirds of) the breast meat on this chicken. It was incredibly tender and juicy. What made it for me was the lemon that got stuffed into the chicken cavity before cooking. The chicken really took on a lemony delicious flavor, as if I'd squeezed a lemon on top of it before eating, only better. The salad was equally incredible. The red onion was absolutely perfect, and I don't think I'll ever make another salad with red onion without first "marinating" the onion in salt first. The onion slices were so tender and meaty. The two dishes were also perfect together, since the acid-brinyness of the salad went wonderfully with the roasted fat-butteryness of the chicken. Served on one plate, the sauces for both dishes melded together went into one delicious sauce for chicken and tomato alike.

The Resident Food Critic (aka, the husband) first declared that the salad looked like it would be better than the chicken. He later changed his tune, and agreed that the chicken was the best ever, especially the drumstick and wing, which he (opposite of me) never liked much. But he agreed that the breast was perfectly tender and juicy, and also like me, abandoned his knife and fork pretty quickly into the meal to tear the chicken carcass apart with his hands.

Lessons learned: Ask for giblets before you buy the chicken. Always go for the best tomatoes. Always brine your onions in salt before using them in a salad. Don't discard the roasted onions from the bottom of the pan--your husband likes to eat them.

Next week on What Les Halles: chicken stock!

Starting it all up.

So, this is my blog about cooking through the Les Halles Cookbook by Jose de Meirelles, Phillippe Lajaunie, and of course the indomitable Anthony Bourdain.

Why cook through the Les Halles cookbook? Not to capitalize on the recent film Julie & Julia, that's for damn sure. I will never get a book deal off this, or a movie deal where the screenplay is done up by some b-list chick flick screenwriter and I am played by a wide-eyed plucky young actress with smaller boobs and no gut, with a celeb cameo by Steve Buchemi as Tony, because the actual Tony Bourdain would rather vomit up ground warthog colon and eat it again than be in a girlie food film.

No, it's more about treating cooking as less of a spectator sport, and starting a project that will get me in the kitchen and away from the takeout menus, have friends over for dinner sometimes, and learn how to cook some of these classic dishes, like coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon without fear of my kitchen blowing up. (The goal is not to have Michael Bay directing the film version of this blog, right?) I'm also not big on cooking meats, and this book is chock full of em. Also things I'm not so sure about like whole fish, calves feet and (ulp) tripe, though I'm positive cooking these things will result in my violating like ten condo association rules due to the foul odor alone.

So, let's do this thing and have some delicious fun in the kitchen. Or explode some things. Either way.