Thursday, October 28, 2010

Fancy Feast: Momofuku Noodle Bar

We all may know that I love David Chang because I think his cooking is brilliant, and he's a really down to earth, regular guy - yet somehow, I had never been to any Momofuku restaurants, just Ma Peche (which is also delicious - I ate there entirely too many times when they first opened). Luckily, I was able to trek my way down First Ave to finally get a taste! My friend Robert, fortunately for me, is the caviar supplier  - the father of American caviar to some - to over 300 chefs and some of the cities best restaurants - Marea, Picholine, David Burke, 21, The Modern, La Grenouille, Blue Hill, etc. etc. - and the Momofuku empire to name a few.  His caviar is to die for, but that's another story in itself. Because of this, he has the ability to just swirl right into some places and not have to worry about a wait.  Thank god! He's also one of my networking guru - nothing wrong with that.

We met first at The Pierre to talk with Executive Chef Stephane Becht - the two are working together to create a special caviar and oyster tasting for the hotel - where we were able to sample some American Paddlefish from the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, Mountain Lake Whitefish form Montana, and Hackleback Sturgeon - the most sought after American caviar from Kentucky, Arkansas, and Tennessee.  All of these are outrageously delicious - they don't have as much of a salt or fishy flavor as their Russian cousins.  We tried a few cocktails as well - GinGin, with Hendricks (a mutual love of mine and Robert's), Canton Ginger Liquer, Mint, cucumber juice, and fresh lime juice.  Frankly, anything with Hendricks and cucumber gets the job done for me.  We also tried the Balck Friar's Pint, made with Gordon's Gin, Fino Sherrry, housemade cardamom and Guinness reduction, an egg white, and agave nectar.  This was tasty, although I like my drinks a bit more refreshing tasting.  The mixologist made us another gin0based cocktail that had some grapefruit segments in it - his play on the Greyhound with a twist.

Here's a fun kicker - while we were tasting all this deliciousness, Stephane gave a quiet - is that...??  As I turned around, sneakily, I noticed who he was talking about - Emeril! Of course, we decided to spark conversation with he and his wife - who happens to have the most adorable Southern accent.  Really, one of the most humble and friendly chef's I've met in a while, despite all his fame. What!

Enough of this - let's move on to Momofuku.  The place was hustling and bustling (as per usual - Friday night), and we sat right down at the bar in front of the open kitchen - my seat of choice in most restaurants, next to the bar, because you can shoot the shizzle with whoevers working.  We started with some delicious sake - dewazakura nama genshu - and the obligatory steamed buns.  I LOVE steamed buns.  I don't know what it is about them - maybe the velvety, cloudness of the actual bun that's counteracted by the crispy, greasy (not not grossly so) pork on the inside, or the crisp vegetables? I don't know, but these were delicious.

I could probably eat a hundred of these, although I probably wouldn't feel so amazing! After the buns, we finally got a chance to speak to the chefs - obviously busy! Ty Hatfield and Sean Heller (chefs de cuisine) were both there, as was Lucy Collins (sous chef) - down to earth, and chill in typical momofuku fashion.  This is when my luck started to kick in - two things on the menu that I absolutely wanted (because I'm obsessed with their main components - just wait) were sent out to us.  The holy heavens have parted!   The first was a foie gras dish - and PETA, get over it. I will eat foie gras all day if I want to, and you and your picket lines will not stop me.  Just like any product, if you source it from someone reputable, there should be no problem.  PETA, why don't you go tromp around outside of some of the big chain grocery stores that sell their chicken for $2 dollars/pound? Sounds like a better fight to me.  That being said, Senor Chang is on the same page as me - PETA in fact was protesting outside his restaurants during one of their weeklong rants, and he in fact invited it AND made sure to add at least one foie dish to each of his restaurant's menus.  Touche, my friend.  Proceeds even went towards City Harvest and Food Bank of NYC. Double touche.  Anyway, this was delicious, and not TOO skimpy on the foie like most restaurants are.

The foie was roasted to perfection (see the bit of char?! Thank you Mailliard for this reaction) - still a bit pink in the middle - with warm poached pears, hon shimeji mushrooms, and smoked tea. Foie is generally paired with a (too) sweet fruit, but the pears were perfect - they had a hint of savoriness that didn't overpower the foie gras.   The mushrooms carried out the earthy flavor, and the smoked tea, well. I'm sure you know.  Next up, octopus salad. I seriously think that I'm starting to grow tentacles. Or suction cups. Or starting to bleed squid ink. I'm not sure, but I may need to go to octopus rehab. Only after I get a few more fixes!

The octopus was grilled and sliced thin, served over a variety of pickled vegetables - most likely pickled in rice wine vinegar, a little sugar, salt, and some secret ingredients - mixed in with some brined olives as well (a nod to the Mediterranean - nice move).  I forget exactly was the cubes were - they seemed to be little silky smooth polenta cakes. Either way they were delicious - the sweetness worked well with the pickled vegetables and char on the octopus.

For our mains, we had the ginger scallion noodles and of course, brussel sprouts. David Chang, as I've noted before, really does have his way with those little sprouts!! The ginger scallion noodles were fairly simple, topped with pickled shiitakes, cucumber and menma - a kind of fermented bamboo shoot condiment served typically with ramen and other noodle soups. 

Simple, tasty, chilled, fulfilling.  This was a perfect was to end a meal that was a bit on the heavy end.  It still had a savory taste with the mushrooms, sesame oil, and menma - but almost had a cleansing effect with the ginger and pickled cucumbers.

And finally, the brussel sprouts - roasted to perfection, served with little diced apples, thin slices of Benton's bacon and shaved bonito in a bit of what I think was a bonito/bacon dashi.  Again, there were a lot of savory flavors in this with the bacon, the bonito, and the dashi.  The apples added a nice textural component to the dish, a crispness both in flavor and mouthfeel.   All of the food, as expected was delicious.  Simple, true to the flavors, and prepared perfectly.  And, even though the restaurant is very sparse - outfitted in blonde woods throughout - it was a perfectly cozy meal, bellied up to the kitchen on wooden stools!  Unfortunately, either because we were full from all the food, or confused from all the sake, we failed to get dessert.  Christina Tosi makes some of the best treats in town, but I guess I have to save that for next time.  Next up for me and my Chang traversing - Ko!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

holy crosnes!

The greatest thing happened this past Friday.  Actually, a bunch of great things happened this past Friday!  By standard Friday operating procedures, I moseyed my way down to Flatiron to get my Eataly fix in.  Fortunately, the first person I saw when I walked in was Dave Pasternak! Every other time I'd go in I would miss him by a minute - we chatted for about 45 minutes about lord knows what - food, fishing, eating, restaurants, wine - I had a delicious glass of wine AND had a tasty little bite of sea urchin (why not?!).   That, and, I was able to stump his wine geeks, talking about Oseleta.  Don't mind if I do!

But besides all that goodness, the day got even better.  While traversing the produce aisle, I saw none other than my lovely crosnes! I think the last time I had these, I was in Paris, and I was 12.  They were the most delicious thing, albeit ugly little buggers, and you can never find them anywhere! They're crisp, but not too starchy, and have a slightly nutty flavor to them - when they're cooked, the starches convert to sugars give them a bit of sweetness.  You can even eat them raw - they taste a bit like jicama, but with better texture. I decided to do a little research, and learn a little bit more about my beloved tuber.  The story unfolds as follows: the crosnes are actually Chinese artichokes (or chorogi), and are also part of the mint family.  Someone one day decided to taste test the roots of the flowering plant only to come across these odd looking things - really though, they look like grubs.  Thankfully, the French caught wind of these delicacies and had them imported to the village of Crosnes, just outside of Paris back in the 19th century - it makes sense that I was no place other than Paris the last time I had them!

In all my excitement, I ran home as quick as possible - didn't even go to the farmer's market (!)  - and whipped up a couple batches.  For the first, I parboiled the crosnes until they were just fork tender.  It was at this moment that I had a revelation in my kitchen - and realized that I had DUCK FAT in my freezer! Lord have mercy - I knew what was in the crosnes' future at that point.  I rendered a bit of the duck fat and tossed the crosnes in, cooking them until they were just caramelized on the outside.  Finish with sea salt, pepper, and a little parmesan, and you can't ask for much more.  The taste of the crosnes transported me right back to Paris in my godmother's apartment!

They may not be the best looking tuber of the bunch, but there sure as heck isn't anything like it.  For the second batch, I tossed them in a little bit of olive oil, salt and pepper and slow roasted them in the oven at about 275-300.  After about 40 minutes, they were beautifully roasted - again, with the slow roast, the natural sweetness and nuttiness of the crosnes really came out. Really simple and delicious.

I have a few more crosnes left and I want to experiment a little more - I may even make pickles out of them!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A taste of Morocco

Moroccan food - I somehow fell in love with it sometime around ten years ago, and I'm not really sure why.  This was possibly sparked from Momo in London, hidden off in the little nook that is Heddon Street  - a beautiful restaurant with elaborate use of deep and contrasting colors, designed with the familiar Islamic arches and intricately designed lanterns and various other extravagant decorations, made comfortable by plush pillows and velvety fabrics.
...not to mention this great statue
This intrigue of Moroccan food and culture was probably then amplified by Kasbah in Berlin - designed in the same authentic manner as Momo - design that oozes allure and secrecy, and has that exotic charm.  At the beginning of the meal, a man comes around with a warm teapot of rosewater to wash your hands with - a traditional start to any Moroccan meal.  It was here where I tried my first bisteeya - a sweet, savory pastry that stimulates every tastebud, olfactory, and gustatory sense at once. In Paula Wolfert's words:

"Bisteeya is so intricate and so grand, so lavish and so rich, that its extravagance always reminds me of The Arabian Nights. the traditional bisteeya of Fez is an enormous pigeon pie never less that twenty inches in diameter. Beneath a perfectly crisped pastry top covered with cinnamon and sugar, are layers of shredded squab or chicken, two dozen eggs curdled in a lemony and spiced onion sauce, and sweetened almonds. The whole is enclosed - top, bottom, and sides - in miraculous, tissue-thin pastry leaves called warka.

Bisteeya is a totally Moroccan delight; it is not found anywhere else in the world. For me everything great in Moroccan culture is represented in this extravagant dish."

I couldn't describe it better myself - and this is the perfect example of Moroccan cuisine over history and the influence of various cultures: the mixture inside is reminiscent of the Berber bestila, which is chicken simmered in butter and saffron; stuffing this mixture into a pastry came about when Arab invaders introduced trid, which is a thicker pastry than warka; finally, warka came into the picture and was substituted for the trid - it is made in the exact same way as Chinese spring roll skins, which was passed on to Moroccans from Persian invaders, who also brought along with them ice cream and sherbets.  From there, the Moroccans added their own touch with the lemony eggs of Tetuan, and the sweetened almonds from the Souss, resulting in the final delicious product.  It's been noted that the delicate pastries traveled from North Africa to France (tourtiere and millefeille), Central Europe (strudel), and even Italy (millefoglie and sfogliatelle).  Not a bad cultural map for one little dish!

My second revelation came with a taste of Harira, a thick, peppery and lemony soup with tomatoes, cilantro, parsley, chickpeas and spices, served with dates and more lemon on the side.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, this soup that is traditionally eaten by Moroccans at sundown each day during Ramadan for "breakfast" with dates, mahalkra (honey cake) and coffee.  But, this soup is so tasty, people can't help but eat it throughout the year.  It was some of the most addicting soup I'd ever had.  The meal was finished with some carrot salad with orange blossom water, tajines, cous cous, and delicious Moroccan mint tea.  Everything about the meal was so delicious, that I knew I had to learn about and start cooking my own Moroccan food -that is where Paula Wolfert came in.  I bought her book Couscous and Other Good Foor From Morocco - published in 1973 after her many trips to the country.  It still remains one of, if not THE best representation of authentic Moroccan cooking.  I could read this book front to back every day.

The recipes in this book are outstanding - all full of flavor from the spices used, slightly time consuming (but worth the wait), and completely authentic.  It's from this book that I learned how to make traditional Moroccan couscous - none of this five-minute, pre-cooked malarkey that people just view as another grain, but the hour and a half process that involves steaming the couscous over some simmering concoction, removing it and rolling the grains in your oiled hands to separate any clumps, and repeating, creating one of the most texturally exciting, moist, and flavorful grains.  Couscous is the national dish of Morocco - it is always served at special occasions. At weddings, the bride separates the couscous between her husband's family and her own, symbolizing the sharing of happiness.  It is also served at the end of ridiculously lavish, grand feasts to ensure that no one goes home hungry - similar to the serving of white rice after a Chinese feast. 

Then come the dishes cooked in tagines! Anything stewed or simmered is made in a tagine - that triangular, ceramic vesicle I'm sure you've seen before.  The design of the tagine is what makes it special - the steam rises up, creates condensation on the sloping sides of the tagine, and drip back down from it's peak, keeping everything moist and juicy inside. Most recently, I made a tagine of lamb with lemon and olives (Tagine el Lahm Emshmel)- outstanding! The flavor of the lamb comes through, but the combination of saffron, spices, fresh herbs, olives, and lemons come together in perfect harmony, creating a thick, slightly spicy lemony sauce. But I can never resist the first tagine I ever made: lamb tagine with raisins, almonds, and honey (Mrouzia) - this dish is a celebration of Aid el Kebir - the Feast of the Slaughter of the Lamb.  The recipe is typically eaten as a side in large feats because it is so rich in sweetness and spices - when I make this, I lessen the amount of honey that goes in, keeping it just sweet enough, but not so much that you can only eat tiny amounts.

So, if you're really feeling ambitious, make a tagine, prep yourself for some serious couscous making, and whip up a batch of delicious Moroccan bread (spiced by a little aniseed - really simple) and you are in for a real treat! All of the following recipes are from Paula Wolfert:

Small-Family Couscous
1 lb couscous
1/4 salad oil
2 T smen (or just regular butter)
1 small whole chicken, plus giblets
1 3/4 t fresh black pepper
1/2 t ground ginger
3 pinches pulverized saffron
1 Spanish onion, thinly sliced
Small bouquet of parsley tied together with thread
1/4 lb large black raisins
1 lb sweet red onions
1/4 sweet butter (I use less)
1 t ground cinnamon
2 t granulated sugar
2 T honey
1/4 lb blanched almonds

Prepare yourself for this recipe, because you'll be working! If you don't have a couscousiere, it is possible to jerry-rig something.  If you have a steamer that has a bottom large enough to hold a chicken and some broth, go ahead and use that.

If you have a couscousiere, seal the top and bottom with wet cheesecloth - this ensures that all of the steam from the broth goes right up through the couscous as opposed through the sides.  Before you begin, complete the first washing and drying of couscous.  To do this, wash the couscous in a large pan by pouring water of the grain in a ratio of 3 parts water to one part grain.  Stir quickly with your hands and pour off the excess water through a sieve.  Return the grains to a sheet pain and smooth them out - let them sit for 10 to 20 minutes to swell from the water.  After about 10 minutes, start to work the grains by lifting up handfuls, rubbing them gently, and letting them fall back onto the pan.  Rake the couscous once more to circulate the grains and let swell while you start up your other ingredients.

For the broth, place the oil, smen, chicken, 2 t salt, 1 1/2 t black pepper, 1/4 t ginger, 1 pinch of saffron, and the sliced Spanish onion in the bottom of the couscousiere.  Cook gently over low here for 15 minutes, swirling the pot around so nothing burns on the bottom of the pan. Pour in 2 cups of water, add the parsley bundle, cover, and allow to simmer for 1 hour.  (This is where the couscous fun comes in!) Place your grains in the top of the couscousiere - I generally put a layer of cheesecloth under the grains, to not only keep them from falling, but also to make the process of removing and replacing the grains from the couscousiere a heck of a lot easier.  Place your grains in the top of the couscousiere, and let steam for 20 minutes. Do not put a cover on the couscous while it is steaming!

During this 20 minutes, soak the raisins in water to cover to allow them to plump up.  Slice the red onions and place in a heavy bottomed saucepan with a little salt and a little bit of butter. Cook, covered for 10 minutes, add the remaining ginger and pepper, and stir in the cinnamon, sugar, and another pinch of saffron.  Continue to cook 15 minutes more, covered, then transfer 3/4 cup of the chicken broth into the onions.  Uncover and let this slowly cook and thicken.

For the second drying of the couscous, remove all the couscous from the top of the pan and dump it on a sheetpan, spreading it out with a wooden spoon.  Sprinkly 1/2 cup to 1 cup of cold water and 1 t of salt over the grains. Separate and break any lumps by lifting and stirring the grains gently.  Finally, oil your hands and get BUSY! This helps really separate the grains.  Smooth it out and allow it to dry for at least 10 minutes. If it feels too dry, then add more water by handful sprinkles, and rake well before each addition.  

Back to the other pans! Preheat the oven to 450F. Drain the raisins and add them to the onion sauce. When the chicken is tender, remove it from the pan and set in a roasting pan. At this point, the chicken is ULTRA tender - I'm talking, meat falling off the bone tender - so be careful when you're removing it to keep it as intact as possible for presentation.  Brush the chicken with a little honey (optional) and place in the oven to glaze.  While this is happening, Reduce the onion sauce to a syrupy glaze. While this is cooking, either toast or fry up your almonds in oil and add to the onion glaze.

Complete the final steaming of the couscous.  Break up any lumps in the couscous by working it again with your hands, and place the grains back into the top of the couscousiere, allowing it to steam for another 15-20 minutes.  By the end of this steaming time, blend together the remaining butter with the saffron and dot the steaming couscous with it - this gives it a beautiful pale yellow color.  Dump out the couscous into a LARGE serving dish and toss well so the saffron butter has distributed all over.  Spread out and form a well in the center - taste the broth for seasoning, and moisten the grain with it. Place the glazed chicken in the center, and cover with the almond-onion-raisin glaze.  Serve at once!

When you taste this couscous it will change your life.  The flavors are so complex from the various spices used and slightly sweet from the glazed onions, which also makes it extra savory; the chicken is extra moist and plumped up from the delicious broth it was cooked in, and the couscous itself is just to die for.  The grains are packed with flavor, not to mention beautiful looking, and when you eat it, you can almost taste every little individual grain.  I am salivating right now.  And yes, it takes some time management, but the end result is more than worth it.

Mrouzia - Lamb with Raisins, Almonds, Honey
3 lb lamb stew
Salt to taste
1 1/2 t ras el hanout
1/4 t ground ginger
1/2 t fresh black pepper
Pinch of pulverized saffron
1 3/4 cups blanched, whole almonds
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
3 small cinnamon sticks
1/2 cup butter or oil (I use alot less)
1 lb raisins
3/4 cup dark honey (I use less as well)
1 t ground cinnamon 

Place the lamb in the casserole (or bottom of tagine if you have one). Mix the salt, ras el hanout, ginger, pepper, and saffron with 1 c water and rub into each piece of meat.  Add the almonds, garlic, cinnamon sticks, butter or oil, and 2 cups water. Bring this mixture to a boil, lower the heat, cover, and simmer for 1 1/2 hours.  Add more water if necessary so as not to burn the meat.  

Add the raisins, honey, and ground cinnamon and continue to cook 30 more minutes. Finally, uncover the casserole, and over high heat, reduce the sauce, turning the meat and fruit often so it doesn't burn, until there is only a thick glaze coating the fruit.

This dish is crazy - I would never think of such sweet additions to lamb, but the flavor combination, again, is crazy delicious! The meat, being simmered in the mixture for so long, because tender and just falls apart with the touch of a fork.  The almonds are soft - almost al dente really - and give the dish a nice toothsome quality.  It's not overly sweet or heavy either, if you reduce the amount of honey added - this again is the perfect play of savory/sweet that the Moroccans seemed to have perfected.  Note, if you're going to do both the tagine and couscous for the same meal, start this first since it takes about 30 minutes longer and you don't have to keep too close of an eye on it!

And finally:
Tagine el Lahm Emshmel - Lamb with Lemon and Olives
3 lbs lamb stew
Pinch of pulverized saffron1/4 t turmeric
1 t ground ginger
1 t sharp paprika
1/2 t fresh black pepper
1/4 t ground cumin
Salt to taste
1/4 salad oil
1/2 cup grated onion
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh herbs (mix parsley and cilantro)
2 cups finely minced onion
1 cup green-ripe olives (I used Castelvetrano - DELICIOUS!)
2 preserved lemons, quartered and rinsed
Juice of 1 lemon
1 t tomato paste

Soak the crushed saffron in a little hot water in the bottom of the casserole or tagine.  Add the spices, salt, oil and grated onion, then toss the pieces of lamb in the mixture.  Saute very gently to release the spices aromas and lightly sear the meat. Add 1 cup water and bring to a boil.  Cover and cook over low heat for 1 hour, adding water if necessary.

After one hour, add the herbs and 2 cups minced onion.  Recover and simmer until the meat is very tender and the sauce is thick.  While the lamb is cooking, rinse and pit the olives.  My olives kept getting smushed so I opted not to pit them for presentation.  Remove and discard the pulp of the preserved lemon, rinse, roughly chop, and set aside.  Ten minutes before serving, add the lemon juice, olives, and lemon peel to the tagine and mix.  Transfer the meat to a deep serving dish to keep warm.  Add in the tomato paste and stir.  Turn the heat up to high, and reduce the sauce to about 1 1/2 cups and taste for seasoning.  Mix and finally pour the sauce over the lamb and enjoy!

Also killer! The aroma coming from this dish was outstanding - between the fragrant spices, the preserved lemon, and the olives.  Preserved lemons and olives are the base of many classic Moroccan dishes, and this one doesn't fail to impress! It's slightly acidic from the lemon and tomato paste, brightened up by the green olives.  There is a little kick from the paprika, but the combination of all the spices really give it some great depth.

You really can't go wrong with any of these dishes - the flavors are just incredible, and the meat always turns out perfectly cooked and tender.  I highly recommend trying at least one of these!  There are still a ton of recipes in the book that I want to try, but the dishes I've made are so good it's sometimes hard to stray away!  Next stop, fish or vegetable tagines - maybe brain salad? Well, maybe not.  If you're really up for it, be sure to make some of this Moroccan bread as well - it's perfect to sop up any remaining sauce from the tagines or cous cous!

Kisra - Moroccan Bread
1 package active dry yeast
1 t granulated sugar
3 1/2 cups unbleached flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 t salt
1/2 cup lukewarm milk
1 t sesame seeds
1 T aniseed

Soften the yeast in 1/4 cup sugared lukewarm water. Let stand for two minutes, stir, and set in a warm space until the yeast is bubbly and doubles in volume. Meanwhile, sift together the flours in a large mixing bowl. Stir the bubbling yeast into the flour, then add the milk and enough lukewarm water to form a stiff dough. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead hard with closed fists, adding water if necessary.  If you are kneading with your fists, do so for about 10-15 minutes to achieve a smooth, elastic consistency.  You could use a mixed with a dough hook, and that would take a bit less time.  During the final part of the kneading, add the seeds.  Form into two balls and let stand for 5 minutes.

Lightly grease a mixing bowl. Transfer the first ball of dough to the bowl and form acone shape by rotating the dough against the sides of the bowl. Turn out onto a baking sheet sprinkled with cornmeal, flatten the cone to form a disc about 5 in in diameter with a slightly raised center. Repeat with the remaining dough.  Cover lossley with a damn towel and let rise about 2 hours in a warm place. The dough is ready when it doesn't spring back when you poke it with your finger.  

Preheat the oven to 400F. With a fork, prick the bread around the sides four or five times, then place in the center rack of the oven.  Bake for 12 minutes, then lower the heat to 300 and bake for about 30-40 minutes more.  The bread is done when it sounds hollow when you tap the bottom.  Remove, let cool, and cut into wedges just before serving.

All I can say is YUM.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Cider Mill - A Reason To Return to the Mitten

There's nothing better than Fall in Michigan - a brisk breeze and the scent of the Fall air, gorgeous colors of the turning leaves, college football, and most importantly - The Franklin Cider Mill. For me, the cider mill was the most exciting place to go growing up when school started - especially considering most of us were depressed that summer was over.  The cider mill opens on Labor Day, and stays open until the first Sunday in December - frankly, too short of a period of time, although they really have no choice since the apples would be out of season and not as delicious!   Fortunately for me, I was back in Michigan for a quick wedding and the idea of the cider mill only dawned upon me on the flight home from the city. Amazing.

At the mill, not only can you get delicious cider and DONUTS - yes, this is the only time I will eat a donut, because it is just that good - but, beyond this, you can get probably any apple product ever made, along with various honeys, meats, and cheeses.  The best local apples are from the cider mill - my long lost favorite, the Snow White, was only available at the Cider Mill up until a few years ago until someone decided to mow over the only remaining apple orchard of it - and it's been gone every since. Note: if anyone ever finds a random Snow White tree somewhere, give me directions to it!

It's such an amazing structure (built in 1837), and not only does it take many of us back to our childhood, but even back in time.  It is located in the "town that time forgot" after all.  The mill is a towering wooden structure, with one of the biggest water wheels in the country, perched aside the Rouge River.  The wheel itself, turned by the current of the river, is what powers the mill - you can even watch the cider being pressed and bottled before your own eyes.  All of the apples are hand-picked, and early in the season at that to give the cider that crisp, refreshing taste. 

enormous, creaking water wheel
Some people may say that there is no difference between apple juice and apple cider - I say they are completely wrong.  The most important reason is as follows - apple cider is ground into a pulp, pressed, and bottled immediately, with no pasteurization (sorry Louis).  Sure, they have to put warning labels on the bottles because of it, but this really creates a flavor unlike anything else.  And the fact that Franklin Cider Mill still does it the old fashioned way as opposed to using stainless steel vats gives it an even better flavor. 
Apple pulp ready to be pressed

Et voila! Our delicious amber elixir is complete! All you need is a donut, some little cups, a nice seat by the river, and probably an epi-pen in case you get stung by one of the thousands of bees that call the mill home during the Fall months, and you are all set!

It really doesn't get much better than this.  The donuts are of the cinnamon-spice variety - not too sweet, entirely too greasy (I'm over it - once a year is okay!), piping hot, and crisp on the outside.  The perfect complement to the crisp cold cider that truly embodies the flavor of fall.

pretend olden days photo - the sadness of the cider mill in winter!

Monday, October 11, 2010

what a week!

I've been slightly delayed on my posting as of late due to the high volume of awesome activities taking place this past week - wine tastings, new restaurants, CHEFS!!  That being said, I think I'll relay some of my fun-filled week! First and foremost, I met two of the most amazing chefs in the world - literally. Rene Redzepi from Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark, which was named Best Restaurant In The World just this year, and Heston Blumenthal from The Fat Duck in Bray, England, which was named Best Restaurant In The World in 2005.  Both of these chefs are absolutely inspiring in what they do - they truly love food and cooking, and have great respect for the ingredients.  Both chefs use for progressive techniques in their cooking that truly make them unique. 

Let's start with Rene! First of all, his father is Yugoslavian, so clearly, I have some sort of connection there.  He never really aspired to be a chef, and just decided to go to cooking school one day with a friend of is (thank god he did!) and ended up seeing what some of the world's greatest chefs were doing, and simply fell in love with it.  From there he was able to work in some of the greatest restaurants in the world - The French Laundry and el Bulli among others.  After a few years apprenticing and staging, he was approached by a man named Claus Meyer to open up a new restaurant in a warehouse in Copenhagen - and the rest is history.  Rene has a true respect for the land, ingredients, nature, and everything about it.  He'll forage in the dead of winter in Scandinavia to see what is available - and he only uses ingredients he can find in season, in the area.  He's made dishes out of ingredients such as cloudberries, reindeer, bulrush, lumpfish, unripe strawberries and other such things that most are unfamiliar with.  When he finds a new ingredient, he tastes it raw, all through various stages of cooking to find the exact point of perfection.  He plates ingredients that grow near each other, and even pairs meats and fish with different things that are in their own diets.  The great thing is that he not only creates outrageously delicious and beautiful dishes, but he also has a little humor in his dishes as well.  I would absolutely die to go to his restaurant.  Just take in the following (courtesy Noma Cookbook):

Langoustine and Sea Flavours - langoustine, oyster emulsion, and dried dulse

Blueberries surrounded by their natural environment - blueberry sorbet, spruce ic cream, sprice granita, and thyme oil

Vegetable field - made with perfectly cooked vegetables, but most entertaining, with malt soil (more on that later!). A person who tried this said the soil was the best part, and that people would just leave it sitting there because they didn't know what to do with it!

Snowman! This is made of Sea buckthorn mousse, carrot sorbet, yogurt glace, meringue, and yogurt snow. Seriously? The greatest thing I've seen in a while.

Yes, please. I was able to meet him at Williams-Sonoma in Columbus Circle, where surprisingly, there were not too many people.  Fortunately for me and my sad state of affairs of NOT living in Copenhagen, he gave out a taste of a few items on his menu as well! Simple, but amazing - a Sorrel Granita, and a Beetroot Flødeboller:

The sorrel granita was absolutely amazing - just slightly sweet, but still with that sharp sorrel taste. I could eat a bucket of it! And the flødeboller, which is a traditional Danish treat - usually marshmallow over a biscuit, dipped in chocolate - but in this case, it was made with beetroot meringue, beetroot gel, and malt biscuits. Fluffy and delicate. Delicious. Beets, bears, battlestar galactica.

Of course I took it upon myself to bother this kind man about his malt soil.  Where do you even devise of something like that? Trial and error? A mistake? Lo and behold, the good old mistake.  Apparently a chef was making a dough without enough moisture in it and left it overnight, creating a crumbly but still soft mixture that tasted heavenly.  When he and his chef tried this leftover mishmash, they knew they had to do something with it! So began the tests of creating the perfect "soil".  Eventually, they settled on a two-day process that really hit home - if you've ever gardened or frankly, played in the dirt, you can imagine how it feels - texture, color and everything.  It's a bit dry, but still chilly and a little moist.  Yes, our lunchladies were able to create those little cups of worms in oreo "dirt" but that comes nothing close to this! I really want to try to make it. On a side note, I decided to visit my friends at Per Se, since it was just upstairs - probably the best idea I ever had.  

On to round two! Heston Blumenthal! I was fortunate enough to have dined at the Fat Duck back in 2006 when I was living in London. It was one of those last minute cancellation situations (thankfully) that allowed me to get in.  The restaurant itself is everything Heston wants in a restaurant - he told a story of a three-star restaurant in Provence he went to with his family when he was younger, and how he remembers the way the gravel crunched under his feet, the starchiness of the staffs apron, and how the cheese cart was like a chariot - all these little details that went into making the experience.  Going to The Fat Duck is similar, at least for me.  We took a train from Paddington Station through the English countryside - once we got to Bray, we had to find our way to the restaurant through cobblestone streets that were crooked and unlevel.  The space itself was small, but homey -  there were low giant beams inside the country home-like restaurant.  I remember the wine list being slammed (not literally) down on the table - it seemed like it was 1,000 pages long, and the biggest book I've ever seen!  The setting really makes a difference in the dining experience.  His cuisine goes along with his fantastical setting - tastes, flavors, textures and ideas that trick your mind while you're eating.  One of his most famous dishes is "Sound of the Sea" - a small dish made up of edible "sand", oysters, urchin, different fish, seaweeds, and most surprisngly - an iPod inside a conch shell. While eating the dish, you listen to the sound of the ocean and seagulls - an experience that has even made some people cry.  He has even mate nitro-scrambled eggs and bacon ice cream. Craziness.  Although most of the descriptions (minus the previous) seem pretty standard ingredients wise, it's how he uses them and how he restructures each ingredient into something completely different that makes it special. These are some dishes from my time at the Duck, among many others!

Roast Foie Gras "Benzaldehyde" with Almond Fluid Gel, Cherry and Chamomile
Salmon Poached in Licorice Gel, Black Truffle, Asparagus, Vanilla Mayonnaise and Manni Olive Oil
Ballotine of Anjou Pigeon with Black Pudding, Pickling Brine, and Spiced Roasting Juices
Pine Sherbet Fountain (like Pixie Sticks!) a pre-hit for...
Mango and Douglas Fir Puree with Bavarois of Lychee and Mango, Blackcurrant Sorbet, Blackcurrant and Green Peppercorn Jelly
tablesetting - that's the cereal box to the left!
 I wish I had a picture of the freeze-dried parsnip cereal with parsnip milk, which came in its own box (which I still have) and was absolutely fun to eat. Anyways, it was great to hear Heston speak about food and the science behind what he does - he was recently named one of the UK's top scientists...seriously!

Obviously excited.  And obviously a fantastic week. I couldn't ask for more than to be able to meet and speak to both of these chefs - a great experience!

Friday, October 8, 2010

baby octopus - where art thou?

I think I've eaten more octopus in the past few weeks than I have in my entire life combined - and I am totally okay with that.  With my mother in town, we probably had octopus in some shape or form during 90% of the meals we had.  Of course, this was unintentional - any time I plan on having octopus, it is nowhere to be found (sneaky devil!).

All I wanted this morning were some cute little octopus babes to fiddle around with. Literally, without fail, every time I am in search of baby octopus, no one has ANY, and whenever I do NOT want octopus, they have the most beautiful ones on display.  Yes friends, meet the elusive octopus. Just as it is sneaky in the depths of the ocean, so it is in the market.  Today, I was on a mission. I traversed to my personal playground (read: market) fully determined to get baby octopus somewhere. The conversation proceeded as follows:

- Dear fishmonger, do you happen to have baby octopus today? 
- No. Well, maybe. The basement? Hey, we got baby octopus in the basement? Yeah! Alright, I'm finna get you some bebe octopus. Aw, no we sold out this morning. We got none, sorry ma'am!

PEOPLE. Get your act together! First of all, there probably was never baby octopus today, considering I arrived right when said store opened, unless I have an evil twin who is trying to ruin my culinary world somewhere in Manhattan (plausible). Fortunately for me, they had regular, giant octo, of which I've never cooked before.  My main concerns were all the stories you hear about cooking octopus: how you have to smack it against a rock for an hour, hammer the heck out of it for 45 minutes, cook it for seven days - you get the gist - and I did not have this sort of time. Then my fishmonger claimed that you could steam the octopus in only 15 minutes - sounded fishy to me.  I was planning on braising it anyway, so I had to improvise - octopus has a small window of time between being raw and toughening back up where it is cooked perfectly - I figured it would still take at least 45 minutes to cook thoroughly considering the size of the guy (2 lbs.)  So, octopus in tow, I was ready to start cooking! 

I knew I wanted to braise the octopus, and possibly broil finish it, but I needed something to contrast the flavor, texture and look of it – so after raiding my refrigerator, I decided on a watercress and fennel soup.  I thought even of making it a veloute, but that involves entirely too much butter and cream, so that idea was quickly scrapped. Throw in a little graffiti eggplant, and you’re good to go!

Braised Octopus with Sauteed Eggplant and Watercress-Fennel Frond Broth

For the octo:
1 octopus, cleaned
¼ cup olive oil
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1 bay leaf
One lemon, zest peeled off and fruit reserved
1 T peppercorns
1 bottle dry red wine – you’ll only need about ½ cup for cooking. Drink the rest.
Ancho Chile Powder

For the soup:
1 bunch watercress – about 2 cups
Equal amount fennel fronds
1/3 C chicken stock
1/3 C reserved boiling liquid
1 T mint, chopped
2 T greek yogurt
Salt and Pepper

For the eggplant:
1 eggplant
A few tablespoons salt
3 T olive oil
Fresh ground pepper

hello there.

The most tedious part of cooking octopus is cleaning it.  Maybe this is part of the reason I like baby octopus better – there aren’t giant tentacles flying around every which direction, and they’re not as creepy to clean.  This recipe could also be done with baby octopus mind you! To clean the octopus – you can have your fishmonger do it – you have to clean out its innards, cut off its eyes, and remove its beak. It's really not as gross as it sounds.  Simply flip the body (what looks like the head) inside out and discard everything inside, including the ink sac.  With a sharp knife or scissors, cut around the eyes and discard. Finally poke around the center of the octopus' underside where the tentacles meet - you should feel something similar to a popcorn kernel. This is the beak - push it out and discard.  Be sure to rinse the octopus off, paying close attention to the tentacles - make sure to get any sand out of the suction cups.

Now, start heating up a heavy-bottomed saucepan large enough to hold your freshened up octo.  Heat the olive oil over medium heat, and add the lemon zest, peppercorns, garlic cloves, and bay leaves.  Allow this to cook, stirring occasionally until the cloves become soft.
I must say, the aroma coming from just these components was fantastic - the peppercorns started to pop, the garlic started to brown a bit, and the oils from the lemon zest were melding in with the olive oil.  I honestly may just cook up an entire bottle of plain olive oil with these ingredients and bottle it back up.  Back to the main event! 

Once the garlic has softened, gently toss in your octopus.  Turn it about a few times, ensuring the it all gets coated with olive oil.  Cover, reduce heat to low/medium-low (depending on your stovetop) and let cook for at least a half an hour.  I flipped my octopus over about 15 minutes through this time period. During this time, you can prepare the eggplant (recommended - see below), soup, dance around, clean, or do whatever you want.  But wait, didn't you say this octopus is braised?! But of course! The fun thing about octopus is that they retain a lot of water - once they hit the heat, they start releasing all that water into the pan (hence no added salt). After a half an hour, there should be a substantial amount of braising liquid in the pan.  After 30 or so minutes, splash in a bit of red wine, cover and cook some more.  Start checking the octopus fairly often with a fork after 15 minutes until it is fork-tender.  Once this point is reached, remove from heat, keep covered and let cool while you assemble everything else.
releasing its water

While this is cooking, slice the eggplant into half moons or wedges, whichever you prefer.  Toss the eggplant in a strainer with a couple tablespoons of salt and let them sit for at least 30 minutes to draw out excess moisture. Easy peasy!

For the soup, I wanted something flavorful, and very vibrant in color to contrast the octopus - hence crisp flavored, bright greens.  To preserve and even brighten the green-ness, the fronds and watercress were both blanched, preserving their color and also taking the chlorophyll taste out a bit. For this, bring a pot of water to boil. While it's coming up to temperature, prepare an ice bath.   The watercress really only needs less than a minute - it doesn't really need to be cooked through.  Once it has brightened up a bit, remove and place in the ice bath.  Next, place the fennel fronds into the boiling water - these should be done once the water comes back up to a boil.  Remove as well and place in the ice bath.  When they are sufficiently cooled, lay out on a paper towel.  

Note to all!! Reserve some of the boiling liquid to use in your soup! This is called potlikker - a very critical part of Southern cuisine - the water is extremely flavorful, not to mention it retains some of the vitamins left behind from the greens.  This is more intense when cooking really tough greens such as kale or collards, but it's tasty nonetheless.  Be sure to add a bit of it when blending the soup.  I used my (NEW!) immersion blender to pull this all together.  Roughly chop the blanched greens to help our your blender - the fronds and watercress are slightly stringy, so they tend to cause problems with fast rotating objects.  Blend the greens, the potlikker and the stock together with a little salt and blend until as smooth as you can get it.  Pass this through a sieve to get rid of the greenery chunks. Blend this liquid again with the mint and the yogurt.  Give this one final pass through the sieve or even through cheesecloth to get a pure liquid.
i love immersion blenders.
Finally, for the eggplant, remove it from the strainer and place on paper towel.  Heat up a saute pan over medium-high heat, and swirl in the olive oil.  When the oil gets hot, place the eggplant into the pan and cook until golden brown on one side.  At this point, if you want to broil the octopus (I recommend it - it gives it a nice crispy texture), do so now.  
halved tentacles
Turn the broiler on high.  Cut the tentacles from the body, and then cut them in half.  Place the tentacles suction cups up on a sheet pan and sprinkle with a little bit of ancho chili powder.  Broil until a little crispy. Back to the eggplant! Once they are golden on one side, flip over and brown the other side.  Once these are done, and the octo is crispy, you are ready to plate!

Ladle a small amount of the soup into a shallow bowl, and place tentacles on top.  I pre-cut the tentacles but it wasn't really necessary.

Place slices of eggplant on the side, underneath, or scatter about - whichever you prefer. Finally, squeeze fresh lemon juice over the tentacles.  Time to eat!!

If you have some microgreens standing around, throw a few of those on top and enjoy!
This really satisfied my octo craving - and it was pretty simple at that. The flavors came together beautifully, and the soup was delicious! The octopus was perfectly tender and had great flavor from the initial ingredients, as well as the slight kick from the ancho chili.  This was balanced out by the light, freshness of the soup (that of which I will drink all day tomorrow - it was AWESOME).  The eggplant added a nice textural, earthy component as well. In the future I might create a puree with this or something.  That and, I plan on pulling a Rene Redzepi and creating a dish called "Octo and its surrounding environs" using all oceanic products - that would take some thought and brainstorming, and none of this on the whim malarkey! Possibly making a Beatles reference and calling the dish Octopus' Garden.

Needless to say, I love octopus, and it doesn't get much better than this.  If I had a grill, I would do that too, but braising gives the meat such a great flavor throughout that it's almost hard to part ways with.   That being said, if you ever see octopus - baby or not - at the market, pick it up immediately, and make this, lest you'll never get the chance again!