adventures in craft beer and real food

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Good ideas gone bad

For IMBB27/SHF20, I meant to do something special. Like make my own tofu from scratch, which is something that I've been meaning to do -- on a purely "cool" level.

I say that, of course, because as a midwesterner and as a carnivore, I honestly haven't found a reason to eat tofu just yet. It doesn't contribute any flavor to a dish. As far as I can tell, its only redeeming quality is that it isn't meat.

Still, I thought I'd give tofu the old college try. And even though the result was a complete and total flop, I thought I'd share the experience with you. Maybe you'll get a laugh out of my comedy of errors.

My idea was to take the dish I was served at L'Etoile (and served my friend) and change every element of it, but the basic idea. Instead of a red wine reduction jus, I figured that a nettle soup/sauce would make a striking impression upon the palate. Then, a layer of sautéd diced potatoes would add some body and some earthy flavors. On top of that, I thought I'd put a layer of blanched peas. And covering everything, I substituted in some tofu. The basic idea was a progression of flavors that bridge what's familiar to me (nettles and potatoes) to what's unfamiliar to me (tofu). I figured that the flavors would progress naturally from the piquant untamed flavor of the nettles to the subtle earthy flavor of the potatoes to the fresh and toasted flavor of the peas (by means of contrast) and finally to a savory end with the tofu.

Here's how I prepared each component.

I harvested the nettles by hand in Hamburg, Wisconsin in a natural forest that's been in my family's name for ninety years now. I tried to make it "nettle soup Loiseau" in honor of Bernard Loiseau of Cote d'Or fame. Having only the roughest fragmentary description of its preparation from the book The Perfectionist, I split the leaves into two groups. The first two-thirds of the nettles, I blanched in water until they had wilted. I sautéd the remainder in butter until browned. The two portions were then combined and puréed to create a striking green color. The soup was thinned out slightly with a bit of my homemade chicken stock. My dining companion described it as "golf course." Not the effect I was going for!

Before sautéing the potatoes in butter, I made sure that the butter developed a nice brown color and a strong nutty odor. My idea was to give a nod to asian cuisines by mimicing peanut oil with a Wisconsin staple. Then I cut some more CSA potatoes into a medium dice and sautéd them in the butter. At least these turned out well, since they were pleasantly earthy, crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside.

The peas were blanched in water until the green color was most brilliant and then immediately shocked in ice water. Just before service, I sautéd them in more browned butter until a small amount of browning developed.

Finally, I prepared a white wine, basil, peppercorn reduction to add flavor to the tofu. This mixture was incredibly potent, but I couldn't seem to get the flavor to infuse the tofu even a little bit. After cutting it into slices, I gave it a good rub with dried basil, pepper, and salt. Finally, I sautéd the strips in browned butter.

In sum, the result was a disaster. The nettle soup was a very pure expression of the humble nettle, but it would have been better if it had been mounted with butter and/or mixed with some savory alium flavors. While it was a pure and unadulterated expression, it didn't taste all that great.

Then, I forgot to remove that fiber that runs along the length of the pea pods. The result is that, while the peas had a good pea flavor, they had a bad fibrous texture that made them entirely unsatisfactory.

And finally, the tofu had very, very little flavor despite my best efforts to obviate this issue. I learned that I should, perhaps, marinate the tofu in a strongly flavored solution before cooking it. And second, that I should cut it into thinner strips to have more browned surface per unit volume.

I still haven't discovered the "joy of soy" and I felt awful dirty standing in line at Whole Foods buying the ultimate in hippie chow, but I take solace in Jacques Torres' famous aphorism "When you have made as many mistakes as I have, then you will know everything that I know."

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Brillat-Savarin's Ninth Aphorism

The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a star.
-Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

If the discovery of a new dish is ultimately so important, than the discovery of a new food and beverage pairing is at least worthy of some merit. I'll let you be the judge.

The combination of which I speak? Hefe weizen with blue cheese mashed potatoes and pork chops. I challenge anyone to come up with a better beverage pairing than this one. But in order to understand the pairing, let me first explain the preparation.

The pork chops were prepared very simply, by searing it on both sides and throwing the pan into the oven until done. Since I bought the meat from Virginia Goeke of Rainbow Homestead, who has some of the best animal husbandry practices, I knew the pork would be delicious and ... well, taste like pork. It did. It had a porky and savory quality that was just wonderful.

The mashed potatoes were made from ones we received from our CSA (Tipi Produce), which were grown by other organic farmers in Wisconsin (I can't seem to find my newsletter from that week... sorry for not receiving credit!). The potatoes were boiled in water and then mashed with butter, milk, and a smoky blue cheese from Oregon. To give credit where credit is due, SC was entirely responsible for the superlative quality of this dish.

The cheese is aptly named "Smokey Blue" and it's from the Rogue Creamery. The cheese has the most voluptuous creamy texture and is accentuated a distinct smoky hazelnut taste. This cheese is simply phenomenal. I picked it up at Larry's Market in Milwaukee.

This cheese imparts an extra creamy flavor and texture to the potatoes, and the smoke gives it a smoky, nutty flavor as well.

Some snap peas from our CSA were lightly blanched and served along the side.

By itself, this is a good meal. Healthy, balanced, and delicious. With a hefe weizen from the Capital Brewery (Kloster Weizen), this meal was absurd. The beer offers two very useful flavors: yeast and malt. The roasted, malted flavors latch effortlessly onto the roasted pork. Neither the big flavor of the meat, nor the strawberry sauce, overwhelmed the surprisingly robust lager. The strawberry sauce only accentuated the match, providing a bit of sweetness that matched up with the subtle initial sweetness of the beer before providing a contrast with the bitter hops.

The mashed potatoes matched perfectly. The earthy flavors clasped onto the honest malted flavors of the beer. Meanwhile, the cream and smoke found a perfect match in the yeast flavor. The combination made me laugh out loud. Really. You have to try this one.

The beer was sufficiently spritzy that it cleansed the palate and allowed me taste each element of the dish without overwhelming any of them.

I don't know how much the discovery of this combination does for the happiness of mankind, but it sure made me happy with a great meal.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

What's for dinner?

After a whirlwind of culinary activity last week, I have to admit it. I'm pooped. I know I SHOULD plan menus that highlight dishes that both take advantage of the season and challenges me technically. But that doesn't mean that when I got home from work today I had anything up my sleeve. I didn't.

So I did what anyone would do and opened up my fridge. But unlike many people, I did more than reach for a frozen pizza. In 45 minutes, I had one of the tastiest and healthiest meals I've made in some time on the table.

I made a noodle dish with sautéd zucchini julienne and baby carrot rondelle. I invented a sauce involving some white wine that I had sitting in the back of the fridge and some snap peas.

To prepare, reduce some white wine and cidar vinegar with a bay leaf and some whole peppercorns. Meanwhile, cut green and yellow zucchini into julienne. Cut the carrots into thin discs. Boil all but a small handful of peas until tender to the bite. Then sauté in butter until with a leek and ramp until everything has picked up some browning. At some point in this process. Set aside. Blanch the reserved peas just until brilliant green and immediately shock. Combine with the other carrots and puree. Strain into a clean pot, adjust seasoning, add a dash of EVOO, and finally mount with two tablespoons of butter.

The rest of the dish is easy. Just boil the noodles, sauté the zucchini and carrots and combine. At some point in preparing this sauté, add a dash of cidar vinegar and allow to reduce. When the vegetables are cooked but before they've developed significant browning, combine with the cooked noodles.

Sauce and plate. I garnished with some minced parsley.


(The zucchini, snap peas, leek, and ramps were from Tipi produce. The carrots were from JenEhr Family Farm.)

Why I've been off the air for so long...

Sorry for not posting more lately. I've heard the grumbling from the front and back of the room alike, but I have a good excuse ... I swear!

I've had to work extra lately, and in my spare time I've been busy in my kitchen. Namely, I:
1. Made another two gallons of chicken stock (fond blanc de volaille). It's way better than my last batch. There are probably two reasons there... First, I used three chickens instead of two. Second, I bought my chickens at Whole Foods. Can't beat that free range flavor. I also was much more careful to preserve its clarity. It's still not great because I pushed down on my meat and vegetables to attain a higher yield, but I covered for a little bit by filtering it all through coffee filters.
2. Celebrated my brother's wedding. Congratulations again!
3. Did some entertaining. For my friend ES, I presented three courses based upon the color red. First, I served up a panaché de pois et petits carottes dans consommé (peas and baby -- red -- carrots in consommé). It was pretty good. My first time making consommé, and I was stunned by how easy it is. Just throw some egg whites in a stock with some extra mirepoix and you just wait and baste the raft. I threw in oignon brûlée to get a deeper color. I based this course on what I ate at L'Ecole in NYC last summer. That dish was almost just an excuse to serve knife cut practice, though...

Next I served flank steak Argenteuil et pommes sautées, sauce Béarnaise (flank steak with asparagus and sautéd potato with Bernaise sauce). I made this dish by sautéing a large dice of two potatoes in clarified butter until nicely browned on all sides. Plated them. Then I covered the potatoes with a number of evenly cut asparagus spears and some Bernaise sauce. Finally, I browned some Priske flank steak, and then cooked it to 135°F (high end of medium rare) in the oven. I sliced it into several strips, each about a centimeter thick, and arranged them on top of the asparagus as to form a star (more like an asterisk). This dish was inspired by a trip to L'Etoile where they served this meal with a cabernet reduction jus and new potatoes.

And finally, I made soufflé glacé aux fraises (strawberry souffle semifreddo) for dessert. I took the recipe from (where else?) the Lutéce cookbook. Basically, you make whipped cream and a mousse (but cook the sugar to 200-something degrees first!) and then fold them together with a strained strawberry puree. The recipe also has you prepare some basic almond pastries and place them inside of the souffle dish to give it some extra texture, flavor, and mechanical support. I did the recipe one better by taking some butter, cooking it until it was well browned and nutty smelling, and poured it over a whole bunch of whole almonds. After a sprinkling of salt, I roasted the nuts for approximately ten minutes in my oven. Then I removed the skins on the almonds and chopped them very finely. Fold this into a mousse, spoon into circles, and bake. Some mousse-cream-strawberry is put into a souffle dish first, followed by a pastry, followed by more mixture, followed by another pastry, and then you make it stand out the top of the dish to make it look like a souffle. All very cute. After everything is assembled, the whole thing is frozen.

ES brought a pretty tasty côtes du Rhône to drink, but I already threw out the bottle and I didn't drink it under my standardized conditions anyway ... so no review of the wine.

4. Went strawberry picking at out CSA's farm in Evansville, WI. It was very pretty, and the farmers were very friendly people. It was nice meeting them and knowing where our food comes from. And I imagine that they like knowing where their produce is going, instead of just receiving checks in the mail. The day was overcast, and some thunder storms were predicted later in the day, so the turnout was quite low. It was also nice meeting the farm's security -- I saw two cats running around, both of which seemed to like all the activity and attention.

We made ten pints of strawberry jam and four pints of strawberry freezer jam. Just tonight, we had some of the latter over some ice cream. Delicious!

Apparently, some of my relatives are already placing orders for jam for raspberry season!

And with that summary, I hope to return to my normal update schedule of one to two posts per week.