Thursday, May 31, 2007

Bread and chocolate

Yep, we're getting lessons in both this week.

First, we visited Joel Durand, one of the best chocolatiers in France. Apparently quite a privilege and very interesting.

We start with Joel demonstrating how to chop chocolate to make the filling for truffles, then we try it ourselves. Finally, after making the truffle centers, we get to use his enrobing machine to make them beautifully coated. Way cool!

The next excursion is to a boulangerie to learn about bread and cookies. I require remedial training in shaping navettes.

This guy can really move! And we got to carry away the loaves we made ourselves.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Le Mistral

I'd heard of the Mistral, of course, but didn't understand how fierce this wind roaring from the north can be in Provence. The sky is crystal clear but it is blowing about 40 miles an hour out there.

Bonjour from France!

Whew! Hard to believe we've been on the road for ten days. Paris was lovely and sunny but also quite humid. We stuck to cafes for meals in Paris, as there were of course many of them right around our hotel, which was just a block from the Arc de Triomphe. Since I think most of you who read my blog have not been to Paris I will describe some things that will be old hat to others. In Paris, the cafes are pretty much what you see in the movies -- tables on the sidewalk, lots of cigarettes, plenty of wine and beer. What you don't know is that the price of drinking and eating at the tables on the sidewalk is significantly higher than sitting inside at a table or at the bar. While I might pay 8 euros (more than $10) for a glass of wine out on the sidewalk, that same glass of wine is 4 euros at an inside table and 2.70 at the bar. So you pay for the privilege of seeing and being seen. Which is lovely, except when the weather gets frightful. Which it did on our last evening in Paris -- one of the biggest thunderstorms I've seen outside of Florida. We went from sunny to raining rivers in the street within 15 minutes. Luckily, Dave and I had opted already for the cheapest drinking option, at the bar. So we had seats when everyone from the sidewalk came running in :) I do have lots of photos, including of great duck confit and potatoes I ate, and the Venus de Milo, and Rodin sculptures, etc. But I am using a borrowed computer and haven't downloaded them yet and reduce the size to something that can be up online.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Off to France!

We're about to embark on an adventure. In two days we leave for France for three weeks. I've been to France on a business trip but never vacationed there, and Dave's never been. So we're quite excited about it. We are approaching this trip with the assumption that we will be back, so we don't have to see *everything* all at once. The itinerary is first week in Paris, unstructured, staying at a hotel at the Arc de Triomphe. Second week is a cooking experience with Chef Gabriel from Culinary Communion, at an estate outside of Avignon. Third week is in Nice, in an apartment in old town near the farmers market and the beach. I am hoping to get a few postings up, though if I e-mail them in then there won't be photos because Blogger doesn't support that. We'll see how that goes. But we are expecting to have a marvelous time, and quite the experience!!!

Interesting treatment of halibut

We had dinner at Elliott's last night. Usually we go there for oysters because they have some of the best in town, but we had a discount certificate so did the dinner thing. I ordered grilled halibut with a strawberry and avocado salad. It was very pretty, and quite tasty. I'm not a big fan of escarole, and I think they overdid that somewhat, but the fish was cooked nicely and the salad was a really nice contrast.

Pig anatomy 101

This is chapter two of the great pig chase, I guess. This one, with all it's skin, was christened "Babe." Though I think it's the wrong breed for that. This is just one half of it, a 246 pound pig.

The venue for this was interesting as it was over at the Seattle Art Institute, so it was a session for the culinary students there. Everyone except me was attired in chef jackets, and I felt very under dressed!

Chef Gabriel used one half of the pig to show off the anatomy and demonstrate taking it apart, then let some of the students work on the other half.

Chef removed the hams with the sirloins attached to do Serrano-style hams, sort of like prosciutto but Spanish. Also of course the pork bellies (seen above with the loin still attached) will make beautiful bacon. After all was said and done, there were about 25 pounds of bones for stock, and about six pounds of other "usable trim" including ears and tail (also for the stock).

Finally all of the pieces got vacuum-bagged, so they can be frozen and then get processed when Chef returns from France next month. Oh, yeah, I'm going to France too...see next blog entry for a little about this imminent adventure!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Duck pasta

I've been experimenting with duck confit as part of pasta dishes. A few weeks ago, I had some leftovers: Brussels sprouts leaves, duck confit, and fresh pasta sheets. I shredded the leaves, sauteed them in duck fat with shallots and fresh sage, and added shredded confit. Cut the pasta sheets into pappardelle (wide ribbons) and cooked it, then tossed it with the duck "sauce." It was really good. But a bit heavy for spring -- though that day was one of those cold rainy days that pass for spring here in Seattle much of the time.

Took another try at it this week, as I had just confited some duck and once again had fresh pasta sheets. This time the veg on hand was asparagus, and the herbs were the blossoms of chive and sage out on my deck. I sliced the asparagus very thin on the diagonal and gave it a quick saute with the duck, added a couple of spoonfuls of duck glace (can you tell I was cooking with duck a lot last week?) and then added the pasta, this time cut into 1/2 inch ribbons. After giving that a toss, I added the whole blossoms and a little bit of minced chives. Finally, topped it with some asparagus tips and a sauteed round of goat cheese (my thinking here was that the tanginess of the goat cheese would offset the richness of the confit).

It was very pretty and very good. As I mentioned, I went through another one of my ducky stages last week. The duck who gave its legs for this confit also contributed to this seared duck breast plate, where I deglazed the pan with maple syrup and hot pepper sauce, and served it with a puree of sweet potato and a green salad with blue cheese:

Lunch with Patricia Wells

Well, me and about 40 other people :)

Patricia Wells is on tour promoting her new book, "Vegetable Harvest" and I was able to snag a seat at a luncheon at the Boat St. Cafe. Triple bonus for me: always wanted to eat there, always love to meet someone with passion for food, and I collect autographed cookbooks. Ms. Wells is a lovely woman, and meeting her was very nice. I already had her "Paris Cookbook" and have referred to it often. I didn't know she just completed the Paris marathon -- very impressive!

Lunch was really good. We started with a chilled cucumber-yogurt soup with mint and dill, and the entree was poached salmon with a fennel, radish, and parsley salad. The salmon was perfectly cooked. Dessert was panna cotta with a compote of rhubarb, raspberry, and grenadine. The compote was nice and tangy, and offset the creaminess of the panna cotta very well.

Being alone for this trip, I got seated at a communal table and met some really nice people, which made the whole thing even better. It's so comforting to be in a place where being a food geek is an okay thing!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Vagabond dinner

Another month, another Vagabond dinner. Vagabond is (sort of) a movable restaurant, though it seems to have settled in Portalis, a local wine bar with a teensy kitchen. Visiting chefs create "sexy one-pot meals" as part of what's usually a three-course dinner.

Last night's chef was JJ Johnson. Oddly enough I'd never heard of him, but he's been around Seattle for quite some time. Looks like his next gigs are cooking at Il Bistro and Matt's in the Market.

The menu was what got me to decide we had to be there -- a roasted asparagus salad, seafood stew, and chocolate-dried cherry bread pudding. And boy am I glad we went! As usual it was an eclectic mix of folks sharing the repast, some we knew from cooking classes and others who were having their first Vagabond experience. I heard a lot of smacking lips and happy eaters, that's for sure.

The meal started with a rosemary foccacia that was very good, and went over the top with homemade butter seasoned with fleur de sel. And then the salad: roasted asparagus and thin chips of jerusalem artichokes, tossed with pancetta and a sherry vinaigrette and topped with soft-cooked egg. Wow. The vinaigrette used a special sherry vinegar (Solera 77) that had an incredible nuttiness that was perfect with the other elements in the salad. I've got to get some of that vinegar!

The main course was served in an interesting way -- escarole with kalamata olives (very subtle) and bits of peppadews were passed with an assortment of seafood (halibut cheeks, monkfish, mussels) which we put into bowls. The chef then came around and ladled broth over and put a dollop of aioli on top. The broth was a ling cod base, very rich in itself, with white beans. The white beans added a body and creaminess that reminded me of the gelatin you get in a good meat stock. I cleaned my plate -- as did everyone else I could see around me.

I love dried cherries and chocolate, so the bread pudding couldn't go wrong in my book.
Overall great food, great drink, great company. Just what Vagabond is supposed to be about.

Monday, May 07, 2007

We love fritattas

One of our favorite things around here for a late weekend breakfast is a fritatta. During the week I try to cook extra of some things that might be good for the weekend. This week it was some Italian sausage and sauteed mushrooms. Sauteed some sweet onion and tossed in the other stuff, along with a half-dozen eggs, and put it in the oven at 350. Cleaned some asparagus, pulled out the frittata and covered to let it finish cooking while roasting the asparagus at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. Makes a really nice meal!

My first All-Clad

Some people remember their first kiss as a seminal moment in their lives. I do remember my first kiss, but prefer to remember the moment today when I first held my very own All-Clad cookware. Yes, it may be silly, but it was cool. Got 2- and 3-qt sauciers and a 12" fry pan, all the MC line with the really gorgeous brushed exteriors. Now I'm all verklempt. Also got a Windsor pan, Cuisinart, for Dave to cook sugar in. He's very happy and is smiling right now because he has the right tool for making candy now.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Persian cooking class

I've been looking forward to this class for quite a while. Since I enjoy Moroccan and Indian food so much, I thought it would be nice to branch out a little in that general part of the world. Persian cuisine is very old, maybe the second oldest after Chinese. It is very regional, and if you look at the ingredients, like the use of ghee instead of olive oil, you see how dairy-dependent it is. It also uses a lot of saffron and lime.

We made lots of good things -- lamb kebabs, eggplant koresh (an eggplant and chicken stew), rice with favas and dill, rice pudding, peppers stuffed with rice and beef, walnut and feta spread, pistachio soup. We grilled the lamb over charcoal, and it was wonderful -- marinated in lime, saffron, and onions.

The eggplant koresh (photo at right) was an interesting preparation. First you saute a lot of onions, then add chicken and garlic and get it all nice and golden. Then while you simmer that with pureed tomatoes and spices, you fry quartered eggplant that you've first brushed with egg while so it doesn't absorb as much butter (because remember, you're using ghee, not olive oil). Then it all goes into the oven for a while. I really liked it, but I'd probably use chicken thighs instead of breasts if I make it, since I think that would be a little richer in flavor. The limes for garnish and flavor are a really nice touch.

In this picture of the rice "polow" (pilau or pilaf) you can see bits of the nice golden crust that forms at the bottom of the pot. In Persian cooking, this is the best part :)

Overall the class was pretty intense in terms of the menu -- many of the recipes had quite a bit of prep work, then they needed 45 minutes in an oven or on the stove. The lamb needed prep, then marinating time, then grilling. Once we sat down to dinner, I felt like I'd been running for a couple of hours. But as usual, it was a "good" tired. Some of the dishes didn't have quite the seasoning complexity of Indian or Moroccan food, but others (like the stuffing for the peppers) had all of that and more. So maybe in some ways there is more variety in seasoning intensity than what I've encountered in those other cuisines. But of course I've only had a limited exposure to all of these rich and ancient traditional cuisines, so I'm arriving at conclusions from a less-than-fully-informed basis. Oh, darn, that sounds like I need to do more research :)