Friday, May 30, 2008

Walnut Vinaigrette

This is the second vinaigrette I've made, the first being the Bouchon House Vinaigrette. This version requires nothing more than a bowl and a whisk, so needless to say it's pretty easy. There are also instructions for those of you with a hand blender (Mr. Keller's preferred method).

Oh, and a towel. I took a little tip from Alton Brown and wrapped a towel around the bottom of the bowl to keep in from sliding around. Either I'm doing it wrong or I'm a lot stronger than AB, because it didn't do a whole lot for me.

The ingredients are very similar to the house vinaigrette, with the only difference being the type of vinegar (champagne versus red wine) and oil (walnut versus canola).

Whisk together the mustard, vinegar and lemon juice in a small bowl. Starting slowly, add the oil while constantly whisking until the entire vinaigrette is nice and creamy. Season with salt and pepper. It's that easy.

I personally liked this a lot more than the house vinaigrette, mostly because it was a little less acidic. I served it as part of a mache salad with beets, goat cheese, and walnuts, and it fit in perfectly. I'll be interested to try it again on a more traditional salad.

To be honest, I couldn't even imagine tasting a difference between walnut and canola oil when mixed with all of those other ingredients. I do think the choice of vinegar matters, as does the overall ratio of ingredients (see below).

A couple of notes:
  1. This is really just another emulsion, which is one of the reasons you need to start by adding the oil slowly. For a better description, see Michael's Ruhlman post on mayo.
  2. The house vinaigrette has a 1:2:6 ratio of mustard:acid:oil. This vinaigrette has a 3:8:24 (1:2.7:8) ratio, and the acid is split between lemon juice and a less harsh champagne vinegar instead of red wine vinegar. This is probably what's leading to the less acidic taste here.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Steak Frites - Flatiron Steak with Herb Butter and French Fries

I ordered steak frites when I went to Bouchon last October, thinking that I should order the stereotypical bistro dish. Every single bite was worth it. That's saying something, considering the giant pile of fries that come with your steak. I've made this dish before, but not this particular recipe. Those endeavors were not exactly failures, but they were nothing spectacular either. I prepared this recipe in a completely interleaved manner that would be 100% impossible to understand if I wrote this post chronologically. So you're going to get the steak, and then the fries, and then everything all together. Say thank you. You're welcome.

The choice of steak seems to be up for debate, or at least personal preference. Keller says Bouchon uses flatiron. Hanger steak (aka onglet, Anthony Bourdain's choice) or top sirloin are suitable substitutes. The grocery store I was at had a single flatiron steak, so I bought a top sirloin steak as well.

The two steaks I bought were very thin. This worried me since the recipe calls for browning on the stovetop and then finishing them in the oven. My worries were not unfounded. I preheated the oven to 450 anyway. The ingredients here are pretty simple. A couple of steaks, a few tablespoons of butter, a ton of shallots, and some thyme.

I seasoned the steaks with salt and pepper and heated a skillet over high heat. When the pan was nice and hot I added in a film of canola oil. A few seconds later the steaks and a teaspoon of butter when in. I started to let the steak brown on the first side but it became apparent almost instantly that the steaks were just too thin to allow them to brown completely. I flipped the steaks pretty early.

I basted the top side of the steaks with the butter and oil while the bottom side 'browned'. I had to deviate from the recipe at this point. The recipe said to drain the excess fat while the steak was still browning and then add the shallots, thyme, and a tablespoon or so of butter. They should cook with the steak for a few minutes before the steak is removed and shallots are finished. I took the steaks out immediately and cooked the shallots on their own. I put everything onto a baking sheet when it was done.

See how nice and browned those steaks are? The steaks were cooked all the way through by this point, so there would be no finishing them in the oven. I turned the oven off and used it just to keep the steaks warm while I finished the fries. It would not be long.

I started the fries but cutting the russet potatoes into matchsticks that were probably close to 4 inches long and 1/4 inch cross sections. I soaked the potatoes in cold water for about fifteen minutes to removes some of the excess starch. Here's the first possible chance for things to go wrong, but more about that later.

I went out and bought a gallon of peanut oil to make these since everyone seems to think that peanut oil is the best for frying. I would not argue that one bit. I put probably 80% of the gallon in my brand spankin' new dutch oven and heated it to 320 degrees Fahrenheit. It made this cool ripple in the pot, so I took a picture of it.

After draining the potatoes pretty well on paper towels, I added a bunch into the oil. The instructions said to cook them for 5 to 6 minutes or until they were a very pale gold. This is where my problems started. My potatoes were a pale gold in about 2.5 minutes.

I took them out and drained them on paper towels again while I finished the other batches. When the entire set of fries were through the first cooking, I heated the oil up to 375 degrees. The fries are supposed to get cooked for another 2 or 3 minutes at this higher temperature (it crisps the outside now that the insides are already cooked), but my fries only made it about 15 seconds. Weird. My only guess is that I didn't soak the potatoes for long enough and that they were too dry. If it's not that, I have no idea.

Whatever the cause, I sprinkled the fries with some salt and assembled everything. Assembly here means put a steak and some fries on a plate and then add a tasty slice of herb butter to the steak. It's almost time to eat.

Between the overly colored fries and underly colored steak, this was not as nice as I expected it to be. In case you wondering what all the green stuff is, it's chard. It has nothing to do with Bouchon, but it may have been the best part of this dinner. By no means were the steak and fries bad, they were perfectly acceptable. It was not, however, restaurant quality. One thing that was very noticeable was that the flatiron steak was much better than the top sirloin. It was beefier without being any tougher and it stood up better to the fries and butter.

Our consensus was that maybe this is a dish, at least the fries part anyway, that is best left to restaurants. For $3 you can have a plate full of golden brown deliciousness, and there won't be a gallon of oil on your stove a week and a half later. I'd give it a shot again, but probably only one more. It's a reasonably big mess to deal with too often. Still tastes pretty good though.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Macaroni Gratin

Who doesn't like macaroni and cheese? Really, is there anyone? I didn't think so. This is a pretty amazing, and fairly simple dish to put together. Keller talks it about it being "a standard side dish in bistros, but in my bistro it's the whole dinner. It's very rich, but every bite is worth it.

Just to set the bounds a little bit, I should mention that this recipe offers the chance to make the macaroni gratin your own by adding in things like mushrooms or ham. I decided to go the boring route and just make it plain, and I'm kind of glad that I did. I tend to like my food simple; the fewer the ingredients the better. You can add ham or mushrooms to yours, it just won't be as good as mine was.

The shopping list for this is pretty simple, and nothing you wouldn't expect from a macaroni and cheese recipe. Well, a Thomas Keller macaroni and cheese recipe anyway. We've got elbow macaroni, nutmeg, thyme, Comte cheese, and panko breadcrumbs.

You're also going to need some mornay sauce. You're not going to find that at the store, so go read about it here.

Step number 1: Make the macaroni. This requires absolutely no explanation other than to note that after you cook it, rinse it in cold water and drain it on paper towels. Let it hang out there while you're busy doing other things.

I had made the mornay sauce the previous night so I had to reheat it. I took the books advice and added a little extra cream as it warmed because it was more than a bit thick. That warmed up well, and I added the macaroni then seasoned it with some salt, pepper, and grated nutmeg. This is also where the ham, mushrooms, lucky charms, or whatever else you had laying around to ruin the macaroni and cheese would go in. But you're not going to do that, right?

It all went into the nice casserole dish that you saw in the picture above. While the pasta was cooking I had mixed together the thyme, cheese, and breadcrumbs for the topping. I sprinkled that across the top of the casserole dish, and into the oven it went. I think I kept it in for about 20 minutes and then broiled it for a few more to attempt to brown the top. I only partially succeeded with the browning because my casserole dish is labeled, quite prominently, NO BROILER. So I left it in there until I has far surpassed my comfort zone, and this is what popped out. Not too shabby:

It was thick and gooey, yet crisp on the top. The one improvement that I would have made would be to increase the amount of breadcrumbs and cheese in the topping. It was a little thyme heavy for me. More importantly though, I really like that crisp topping. It also served as lunch the next day, where it served it's role admirably. The sauce may have lost a little of its original creaminess, but it was still well worth eating. Overall this was an incredibly good and pretty easy dish to make, even if i did spread it over two nights.

I've been saying most of the recent dishes have been easy. That either means my skills are advancing, or the end of this little venture is going to be very difficult. Hopefully it's the former.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Herb Butter

Also known as Maitre D'Hotel Butter, herb butter is just butter, herb(s), salt, and an acid mixed together. You could say it's also known as snob butter. Whatever you call it, it's pretty good, and a very quick improvement to pretty much anything you normally put butter on.

I chose to use parsley and lemon juice as the herb and acid, respectively.

Now how simple does that picture look? Here's what you do in 3 easy steps:
  1. Use a spatula to smooth out the butter in bowl*
  2. Add in the rest of the ingredients*
  3. Form into a log and refrigerate*
*The butter should be at room temperature. The herbs should be chopped. The log should be formed using the method below.

Take a piece of plastic wrap and spoon the herb butter onto the center of the sheet.

I formed the butter into something that looked like a log. The you kind of force the butter into a more dense log by sealing the butter in the plastic wrap and twisting the ends until it's forced to tighten up. Know how you take a loaf of bread and spin it around to make sure it's sealed nice and tight? It's kind of like that, but from both ends. At the end it should look something like this (I hope):

That pretty log goes into the fridge to harden up again and then it's ready to serve. We sliced off a piece to top some steak, and I even managed to get some on the pasta the next night. Both times it was great. It's one of those things that is probably worth keeping around just in case you happen to make something that could benefit from it. And what couldn't benefit from some butter, or better yet, some 'better than plain butter' butter.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Mornay Sauce

I've learned a lot of things in the last few months making some of these recipes. One thing I haven't quite figured out yet was how to remember to take pictures. For that, I apologize. This wouldn't have had the most exciting pictures, but pictures are pictures.

I made this sauce as the base for macaroni gratin. It almost never made it that far, because it was really, really good. The ingredient list is kind of long, but it's mostly household items:
  • Butter
  • Onion
  • Flour
  • Milk
  • Heavy cream
  • Bay leaf
  • Peppercorns
  • Cloves (not a household item in my household, so I left it out)
  • Nutmeg
  • Salt and pepper
  • Comte cheese
The sauce took less than an hour to put together, and a good portion of that was inactive time, so it's even easier than it seems. I started by melting the butter over medium-low heat, then added the onions and some salt until they started to soften a little. In went the flour to form a onion-roux, and I let that cook for a few minutes, watching carefully all the while so that the flour didn't brown at all. I added the milk and cream, whisking until it all came together. That came to a simmer and I put in the bay leaf and peppercorns. I lowered the heat just a bit so that it the sauce was barely simmering and cooked it for about half and hour. It immediately smelled great, and after the 30 minutes the entire house was filled with the smell of cream, onions, and spices. That might not sound great, but it is.

I took the thickened sauce off the heat and mixed in the salt, nutmeg, and pepper. I didn't have any white pepper, which the recipe called for, so anyone that wants to enjoy my macaroni and cheese is just going to have to deal with little black flecks mixed in. Deal with it.

I strained the sauce to remove any impurities (these includes bay leaves or peppercorns that may have found their way in) and mixed in the cheese until it was all nice and melted. That's the end of the sauce making. It was at this point that I strongly considered just skipping the macaroni gratin and sitting down with the pot of sauce and a soup spoon. I decided that probably wouldn't be too great for my heart, put the sauce in an airtight container with plastic warp pushed down on the surface to prevent any film from forming, and into the refrigerator it went. Macaroni and cheese was on the menu for the next night.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Sauteed Spinach with Garlic Confit

Most kids don't like spinach. It, for some reason, is the stereotypical sound of fear for everyone under the age of 12 at the dinner table. I was included in this group, except for my membership lasted until about the age of 25. I've recently changed my tune a little bit, and I now enjoy spinach on occasion. This would be one of those occasions.

I made this to go with the trout from last week, and it was perfect in multiple ways. It's a single pan dish, which accompanied the three pan trout dish on my four burner stove. It needs almost no attention, and you can pretty much do it at the last minutes. That, and the prep is really easy (If you happen to have garlic confit laying around. You probably don't, but I did and it was starting to go bad). Anyway, the only other ingredients are butter, shallots, and spinach. Easy, right? I know!

I melted the butter in a sauce pan. Because I'm shameless, here's the same picture that I used in the trout post so that you can see the extra exciting melting butter. That's it in on the back burner:

There's probably a stick of butter on those two burners. It was not necessarily a healthy night. Once the butter was melted, the shallots went in for a minute, and then the garlic confit, some salt, and pepper. As much spinach as you can fit in your pan goes into the butter mixture, and you slowly add more and more as it wilts until it's all in there. I turned the spinach occasionally to ensure an even buttery coating throughout, and everything was done in just minutes. Now there's no way to take a glamorous looking picture of wilted spinach coated with butter, but here's my attempt:

This was probably the best spinach I've ever had. It was buttery, garlickly, and I guess spinachy. The spell checker had to work extra hard on that last sentence. I would make this again pretty much any time I want to. I assume it the basic butter, garlic, greens combo would work without regard to your choice of green, but do that at your own risk. Or be safe and use spinach, because that's delicious.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Trout with Haricots Verts and Almonds

I like trout. I ate a lot of it growing up in Upstate New York and spending a lot of time fishing on Lake Ontario. That was a solid 15 years ago though, and this was probably the first time that I have had it since then. It's certainly the first time I cooked it.

My squirmy-ness quotient for foods that look like animals and not like food was tested for the first time here. When I first flipped through Bouchon, there were a few things that I was (and still am) a little afraid to make, mostly because they are unfamiliar to me. Not necessarily in a taste kind of way, but in the preparation of the dishes and in experiencing the work that needs to occur to transform animal into food. These included the foie gras, frog legs, and whole fish. Whole fish was pretty far behind the other two, but looking your dinner in the eyes is an odd thing to do, so it still makes the list.

Enough with the introduction. This is another very simple dinner that can probably be made in under an hour. It's hard for me to tell since I have to arrange everything nicely to provide you with the (not so) pretty pictures. Even given all that extra work, I don't think this took more than an hour, so that should be pretty beatable.

So, who wants to take a guess what kind of ingredients we're talking about here? What would someone put in Trout with Haricot Verts and Almonds? How about trout, haricot verts, and almonds? Close, but I substituted plain old green beans for haricot verts. Now someone who actually knows these things should weigh in below, but from what I can find there are fairly small differences between green beans and haricot verts. Mainly a language translation. That, and haricot verts may or may not be longer and thinner with a slightly more complex flavor than green beans. I wouldn't know because I could only find green beans at Whole Foods. The picture is rounded out with a lot of butter, lemon, and parsley.

The first step of the recipe is pan-dressing the trout. This is especially easy when you buy your fish already pan-dressed. The only work left for me was a quick snip of the dorsal fin and to chop off the tail. All done. All the bad stuff was previously removed. I ended up with something like this. Well not something like this, this:

Time to prep the green beans. Blanch 'em for about five minutes, drain, stick 'em in some ice, drain again. Next.

Completion of this dish cost me three burners. It's a good thing the other dish, Sauteed Spinach with Garlic Confit, was a single burner dish. I guess I need to invest in a nonstick saute pan large enough to accommodate two fish at a time if I'm going to be making this a lot. Here's a shot of everything (for both dishes) in place:

My stuff, as they say, is in place. Let's cook. Wait, not quite yet. Now is when I realized that I needed toasted, and not raw, sliced almonds. Into the oven they went for about 15 minutes and then it was time to cook. I took the now salt and peppered trout and added them to some preheated and pre-oiled nonstick skillets, skin side down for four minutes. You only cook these babies on one side. This was a new idea for me, and it requires adding something pretty hot on the top of the fish to complete the cooking process, but it worked out just fine.

While that was going on, the beans, some butter and some water went into a pan. I heated it for quite a few minutes until the water had evaporated and the green beans were nice and butter-coated. Want a picture? Ok...

Look how green they are! They got the salt and pepper treatment as well and then placed on the side to wait patiently for everything else.

Just about done at this point. You have the option of cutting off the heads of the fish at this point, but that wouldn't be any fun, would it? They went on to a plate. I even remembered to warm the plate for once, I guess I am learning around here. The fish were topped with the green beans. The only thing left was some brown butter sauce. You may remember something similar from the gnochhi post, and it's pretty easy. Melt and then brown a bunch of butter, add and brown the almonds, add in some lemon juice and parsley. Serve.

I couldn't get the head to stay upright, which led to looking at the inside of the head and nothing else. That wasn't great or intended. Oh well. The fish itself was very good. The almonds provided a nice crunch and the green beans some texture. The fish was light, not too fishy but not too plain. The butter sauce was rich, but the lemon provided just the right kick. All in all, a definite keeper than can be finished with not problem in about the time of two servings of Chicken and Egg Sammies Deluxe.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Vanilla Ice Cream

The early part of this little project has been slowly turning into dessert city. Already, I've conquered chocolate ice cream and pear sorbet, vanilla macaroons (not really), and vanilla macaroons (serious conquering). That's mostly because they're easy to pull off on a weeknight, which is exactly what happened with this vanilla ice cream. After this I'll probably have to go on a dessert hiatus for a little while. A little warning ahead of time, this post is a little short on pictures. Ice cream making isn't exactly exciting art, so you'll be ok, right?

Now this shouldn't come as a surprise, but vanilla ice cream is basically just chocolate ice cream, sans the chocolate. What we've got here is cream and milk (more on this in a bit), sugar, vanilla bean, and egg yolks. If you're French this is called creme anglaise. If you're me it's vanilla sauce.

Ok, it's been a bit, so here's a somewhat foreshadowing sidebar about the cream and milk. The Bouchon, recipes call for heavy cream and whole milk. This is almost definitely the reason why the chocolate ice cream felt like heaven-in-the-mouth. The problem here is that heaven-in-the-mouth is pretty terrible for you. Here's what I could find out about the relative fat contents of different varieties of milk:
  • Fat Free (skim) Milk - Take a guess
  • 2% Milk - Take another guess
  • Whole Milk - 3.5% fat
  • Light Cream - >30% fat
  • Heavy Cream - > 36% fat
So if the recipe calls for equal parts of heavy cream and whole milk (it does), you'd end up with a mixture that was around 20% fat. That's heaven in-the-mouth. If you replace the heavy cream with light cream, you're down to about 17% fat. And if you then replace the whole milk with skim milk, you'll end up with iced water instead of iced cream. Not really, but you'll be down to around 15% fat. There are other combinations available that will get you in between 15 and 20%. The choice of cream (heavy or light) is more of a driver than the milk choice, so that should be taken into consideration. As I mentioned, I used heavy cream and whole milk for the chocolate ice cream. In an attempt to be more healthy, I jumped to the light cream and skim milk solution. I would not recommend this. The (spoiler!) ice cream turned out to be crystally, kind of like old ice cream gets. I guess next time I'll try the middle road and use light cream and whole milk or heavy cream and skim milk. If that doesn't work out then I'll just exercise more. Ok, back to the recipe.

I combined the cream, milk, and vanilla bean, and half of the sugar in a saucepan. Upon reaching a simmer, the lid went on and I let it sit for 30 minutes.

After the thirty minutes, I reheated the custard just until it was warm. Meanwhile, I setup an ice bath and whisked the egg yolks with the rest of the sugar. Once they were mixed up pretty well, I added just a bit of the warm custard to the egg mixture to temper it, then combined it all in the saucepan and cooked it over low heat for a few minutes to thicken it up. All of the custard went into the ice bath to cool it down quickly.

If you're like me, you usually manage to do exactly the opposite of what the tempering is supposed to do; that is make some scrambled eggs when you combine everything. It turned out I did pretty well this time around, but I strained the custard a couple of times anyway. Because really, who wants scrambled eggs in their ice cream? I'd learned from the previous two frozen dessert recipes that now is a good time to choose a container that will allow for easy pouring later, so out came the pitcher.

The finished custard spent the night in the refrigerator and then made the trip to the ice cream maker. 15 minutes later it was time for some soft serve vanilla. Two hours after that it was time for some fully frozen ice cream. One note here, you'll want to make sure that the dish you put the soft serve into is already very cold. I froze the first bowl I used for a couple of hours, and that ice cream turned out great. A second bowl, which I hadn't planned on needing, melted the ice cream before it hardened. That really messed things up. We enjoyed the finished ice cream both in sundae form (with some junk fudge sauce infused with rose and tea, I highly don't recommend it) and as part of root beer floats.

It was very good flavor-wise, but the texture wasn't great. I blame that on the missing fat I talked about above. I think that's part of the reason that the float was so good, you kind of lose out on the texture experience and focus mainly on the vanilla flavor. Regardless of any texture issues the entire 1.5 quarts or so disappeared in about three days, so it must of been at least ok.