The Advantages of Gluttony

“Gluttony is a lust of the mind”.         -Thomas Hobbes 

Despite my size, I don’t eat “like a little bird”; however, I rarely seek out the tasting menu format for two reasons. First, because I like to be in control of the meal, and second, because the quantity is always more than is absolutely necessary. But, sometimes it is the only format available, and all you can do is reconcile yourself with the prospect of sheer gluttony (or, shall we say, piggishness :-)), marvel at the intricate interplay of flavors and textures, and hope to learn something in the process. It is always wonderful, and it is always too much food.

But, after all, I am currently in training for Provence, where one spends several solid hours eating daily, and I have to build up my chops. Following the old adage, “Practice makes perfect”, I spent Saturday and Sunday consuming immoderate amount of Thai food, served family-style at two fantastic restaurants here in DC called Little Serow and Thai X-ing.

Besides the immediate gratification of this extravagant indulgence, I was hoping to draw inspiration from those meals to cook Thai food at home (which I had never attempted before). Especially with Little Serow (the second brainchild of the incredibly talented Johnny Monis, I wanted to identify some of the flavors I was interested in replicating in my kitchen. Both family-style meals were big on flavor and low on presentation, which was exciting and liberating for me as a home chef.

Little Serow focuses on Isan cuisine native to the NE part of Thailand bordering on Laos; it is all about spicy, salty, sour, and herbacious flavors. You see a lot of spicy sour meat and herb salads (larb), and lots of vegetables, herbs, limes, and sticky rice served alongside the meal. The curries are a bit different, too: more bright, sour and salty from shrimp paste, fish sauce, kaffir lime leaves, and lemongrass.

All that sounded right up my alley! The only drawback was that pretty much all of the dishes at Little Serow were meat- or seafood-based. But, at Thai X-ing, as part of their all-vegetarian line-up(!), I had a fabulous curried pumpkin dish, which inspired me to do things to kabocha squash and tofu so that my husband does not starve to death during my Thai experiment.

I bought the basics (such as Thai chilis, herbs, Thai jasmine rice, peanuts, coconut milk, lemongrass, fish sauce) at a neighborhood store, and ordered a few items online from Grocery Thai.com (hot and sour paste Por Kwan, shrimp paste, and kaffir lime leaves).

Dish #1a: spicy Thai salad with shrimp

Briefly saute large shrimp in a galangal, crushed chili flakes, and lemongrass stir-fry sauce (use the WorldFoods brand, or feel free to make your own). Toss with cilantro, lots of lime juice, crushed peanuts, julienned cucumber or zucchini, basil (Thai basil if you have it), red onion, mirin, ginger, and diced Thai chilis.

 

 

 

Dish #1b: same dish, but with tofu cubes sautéed in the same sauce and roasted in the oven for improved texture, together with some red and yellow bell pepper strips.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dish #2: spicy sour chicken larb salad

Chop the chicken breast very fine (I prefer to cook with air-chilled boneless skinless chicken breast), and marinade in lime juice and mirin for 10 minutes. Saute till the meat turns white (fully done), and cool completely. Add mint, cilantro, green onions, basil, ginger, fish sauce, finely grated and sliced lemon peel, Thai peppers or chili flakes, minced garlic, diced fresh lemongrass, salt and pepper. Serve with romaine lettuce leaves as wrappers.

 

Dish #3: Curried kabocha squash

Heat 1 can of coconut milk (I used Native Forest Organic Light coconut milk, which is 60% lighter than regular stuff) with 2 spoonfuls of the hot and sour Por Kwan paste (made with lemongrass, galangal, chilis, dried shrimp, kaffir lime leaves, and palm sugar). I adore the flavor of lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, so I added a whole stalk of lemongrass, and a half-dozen or so kaffir leaves to the curry. Place pieces of squash into an oven-proof ceramic dish (you can leave the skin on for presentation, if you want) and submerge them completely in the curry.Cook in the oven for 15-20 min at 400F, and serve with the fragrant Thai jasmine rice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dish #4: Leftovers! The next day most of the squash was gone, but there still was a fair amount of curry left. I combined it with tofu slices and mung beans for Jeff, and chicken and mung beans for myself. Even better, more integrated flavors a day later!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All these dishes were washed down with a bottle of 2007 Pierre Sparr Pinot Blanc Reserve from Alsace purchased from a local shop for a mere $10.99. I specifically wanted to list the price point, lest I be accused of my ever-so-snooty wine tastes :-). Wine should be appropriately chosen for the occasion, and here we are talking down-to-earth, casual eating.

All in all, it was a success, and I have assurances from my husband that I will be allowed to make this again :-). I like quotations, and so I will leave you with yet another quote, this time from Nigella Lawson:

“Moderation in all things including moderation”.

Playing with New Toys: Black Sesame Seeds

The highlight of my week was definitely a client lunch on Thursday at a little Italian place on Capitol Hill called Acqua al 2. It was a perfectly unhurried outside meal (the thermometer registered an uncharacteristic 71F in the sun!), with competent food and good conversation. The whole experience was almost surreal, as it seemed very far removed from the frenetic DC. As I was enjoying my branzino (Mediterranean sea bass) with trumpet mushrooms and braised fennel, with a nice Falanghina by Mastroberardino, I was thinking to myself, “I am so foolish. Why do I not eat fish more often?”

And so, come Friday night, I had an intense craving for a nice fish, especially since I had just picked up a jar of black sesame seeds. I feel about new ingredients the same way I feel about freshly bought clothes: I have to take them out for a spin immediately! At the store I was quickly reminded of why fish was not usually on my short list: more often than not, I have a hard time finding one that I am excited about, even at the most reputable of fishmongers’. Tonight, I needed something I could encrust with black sesame seeds, but nothing spoke to me. After much hemming and hawing at the fish counter, I left with large scallops.

The perusal of food blogs gave me an opportunity to steal a New York restaurant chef’s idea of serving fish with soba noodles, on top of a little pool of yogurt-based sauce. Granted, I was no longer working with fish, plus I was in the mood for more earthiness and more zing, so here is what I did:

I cooked some 100% buckwheat soba (most of the soba sold in stores is a combination of wheat and buckwheat, which makes it milder, less nutty and earthy, – not what we are going for here), and finished it off with a tiny bit of good-quality soy sauce and toasted black sesame seeds.

Then I seared my scallops with a little butter, and a mixture of black sesame seeds and nanami togarashi (a traditional Japanese spice mix that includes chili pepper, orange peel, ginger, seaweed, and Japanese pepper. After 2 min on each side, I quickly deglazed the pan with soy sauce (with the scallops still there), in order to impart a little extra flavor. And finally, my simple but intense yogurt sauce combined fat-free Fage Greek yogurt, wasabi powder, a mineral-laden salt (preferably Hawaiian pink or Indian), and fresh lime juice.

After tasting the yogurt sauce, my husband got jealous of my scallop dish (not being pescetarian), and I was practically forced to experiment with silken tofu whose texture is not far from that of a scallop :-). This is how silken tofu also came to be encrusted with black sesame seeds, atop a light soy glaze: 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The logical closure to this kind of meal called for something that could reconcile our dietary differences 🙂 : a black sesame seed panna cotta. It is infinitely more smoky, nutty, and exotic than the panna cotta one is used to (it is not your usual soothing blob of cream and sugar). You will need:

1 pint heavy cream

1 tbs French good-quality sea salt

5 tbs sugar

1 packet unflavored gelatin

3 tbs cold water

2 tbs sesame oil

3 tbs black sesame seeds, more for sprinkling

The first step is to infuse panna (heavy cream) with the sesame seed essence from good-quality sesame seed oil (I used La Tourangelle brand) and toasted black sesame seeds. Warm up the oil with the seeds for 3 minutes, pour in the cream, and remove from heat. Let the mixture sit for at least a couple of hours. Strain the cream, warm it up on medium, and stir in the salt and the sugar. In the meantime, sprinkle the cold water with gelatin and let it stand for 1 min. When the cream is close to a simmer, stir in the gelatin, and remove from heat. Pour it in a metal bowl inside another metal bowl filled with ice, and keep stirring while it cools down. Pour in ramekins, top with lightly toasted black sesame seeds, and chill for 6 hours.

Et voilà!

Don’t Fret – Try a Galette

I love most things French, but I have always been much more of an italophile than a francophile. One of the reasons for that is that I find the Italian light-hearted, happy-go-lucky attitude to be very attractive. Same thing goes for cooking: many classic French recipes are not very forgiving, and require strict adherence to the measurement and process. So, whenever I attempt French dishes, I still avoid blindly following a recipe, and try to understand it and make it my own (so that I could deviate from it to suit my fancy). I think of it as applying the Italian attitude to French cooking. For me, cooking is fun, and I don’t want to take it too seriously.

Consistent with my theory of savory food supremacy, I have a serious weakness for savory buckwheat crepes, known in France as galette. They hail from the Northwest of France; more specifically, from Brittany. All-in-all, the batter is not difficult and Bretons themselves don’t use a recipe. Typically, the night before they simply mix buckwheat flour, sea salt, and water to make a paste. The next day, they thin it out until it reaches the consistency of melted ice-cream. As you can see, the true galette is pretty minimalist, and frankly, I feel intimidated by such a simple recipe (because as we know, simpler is more difficult). I perused a bunch of very different recipes (as the version from Normandy is quite a bit richer, and includes eggs, cream, and milk), and trusted my intuition to arrive at the following:

1 cup of buckwheat flour (Arrowhead Mills organic), 1 cup of water, 1 egg, 1 tbs olive oil, and 1 tbs French sea salt. To prepare the batter, you combine the flour and the salt in a large bowl, make a little well in the middle, and put in the oil and the whole egg. Stir the mixture with a wooden spoon to incorporate the wet stuff, and slowly start adding the water. Keep stirring, till the batter is smooth and homogenous, without lumps.  Let it stand for at least an hour. In the meantime, get your fillings ready:

To make galettes, I used a basic non-stick pan. Pour a small ladle-worth into a hot pan primed with a tiny bit of butter, and swirl the batter to distribute it evenly. Cook till light golden brown, flip the galette, and spread the filling on top. Once the other side is cooked, and the filling is nice and melted, slide the crepe onto a plate. Fold it in half, and serve it immediately. It yields about 6 crepes (of course, don’t forget that the first one’s a dud, so plan accordingly). I find it to be an appropriate amount for two piglets two people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To get a good feel for making galettes,I subjected my poor husband to two meals of buckwheat crepes this weekend (albeit with different fillings). I made our galettes with:

– shredded Gruyere, softly fried egg, and chives;

– roasted orange & yellow tomatoes with parsley and goat cheese;

-Turkish-style eggplant & potato salad with onions and parsley;

-smoked wild sockeye salmon, crème fraiche, and chives (if you do not eat fish, a galette with crème fraiche and chives alone is very yummy);

-sauteed shitake mushrooms with thyme and shallots;

– and the most dangerous of them all: lightly smeared with burnt caramel sauce from Recchiuti. (I apologize in advance for introducing everyone to this product :-)).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Galettes are traditionally paired with artisanal French ciders, and so I picked up a couple from Whole Foods for our latest experiment (Etienne Dupont Cidre Triple 2010, and Etienne Dupont Cidre  Bouché Brut de Normandie Bio 2010 (biodynamic, unpasteurized, and unfiltered cider). The latter, a crisp, earthy and funky cider, turned out to be an absolutely amazing accompaniment to all the savory galettes; I simply cannot imagine anything better. The fuller-bodied Triple, with a big nose of both tart green and caramelized apples, was better on its own, and was also a winner with the caramel sauce galette.

As a result, we spent the rest of the afternoon singing French children’s songs such as J’aime la Galette (I Love the Galette), Sur le Pont d’Avignon (On the Avignon Bridge), and the original version of the chicken dance called the Ducks Dance in France and most of Europe (La Danse des Canards). If you are unfamiliar with those, you can easily find them on YouTube sung by puppets, kittens, and penguins.

 

 

See, French cuisine does not have to be serious…

Muse from the Northwest

I am easily pleased. I eagerly go to my “happy place” aided by something simple like crispy duck fat potatoes with a nice olive-tarragon aioli. Add to that a glass filled with an obscure Italian varietal (a 2007 GrosJean Freres Vigne Rovetta Torrette Superiore from Valle d’Aoste, perhaps?), and the job is definitely, positively done.

 

My blog is a journal of things that please me and that I get excited about. Sometimes I like to stop and think about the culinary “Muse” that generated the interest and produced the visceral response that made me cook and write. Especially after such a great trip as our last weekend in Portland, Oregon!

Portland is a culinary paradise and a place with real food snobbery in the best sense of the word (most of the time, sadly lacking in DC). I am generally not interested in re-creating restaurant dishes but I quite happily steal small ideas and ingredients when I eat out. Also, I am a planner, and I start getting excited about places when I first read their menus online. Often I just look at the combination of ingredients, and can almost taste the dish. Yes, I am excited by words…a true mark of a blogger 🙂

Here are just a few of the memorable moments from our weekend in Portland:

–          Snacking on pickled things (a salad of pickled chanterelles with fennel, herbs, and citrus at Navarre; house-made pickles at Avignon (including golden beets and green tomatoes); a pickled tongue sandwich and pickled carrots at the Jewish deli Kenny & Zukes;

–          Drinking a 2005 Vina Cubillo Rioja by Lopez de Heredia by the glass (!) at Le Pigeon;

–          Slurping plump and briny Washington state and Oregonian oysters at Avignon;

–          Getting stuffed on grassy olive oil and Ken’s Artisanal bread at Navarre (before 4 more dishes arrived)

–          Savoring barbecue eel toast at Le Pigeon

–          Sneaking a cardamom sesame truffle from Alma Chocolate into Heart (which may not offer the best cup of coffee in a town packed with fantastic coffee shops, but is big on atmosphere).

Heart: a quintessentially Portland institution

On my trips I am wide-open to wine exploration, but my heart truly belongs to Burgundy and weird Italian varietals.  The biggest revelation of the trip came from Puglia, Italy (where we just went last September!). I have no intention of knocking Puglian wines, but they can be monochromatic and what I call “friendly” (a yummy, jammy cuddly bear of a wine). I am interested in elegance, acidity, and out-of-this world aromatics. The delicious and relatively inexpensive Alberto Longo Cacc’e Mmitte di Lucera from Puglia, Italy had it all.

 

 

Every now and then, the best, most inspirational experiences come about by nothing more than happenstance. Last Saturday night, loopy from lack of sleep and tango hangover, we set off for a restaurant that does not take reservations and that is recommended by all foodie sources, without a backup plan (!!??). After being told that the wait for Pok Pok was going to be around an hour and a half, we backtracked several blocks to check out the place we saw from the cab on the way to the restaurant. It was called Avignon, which happens to be where we are going in a month – quite providential! After we got the aforementioned Torrette, duck fat potatoes, and the eerie good paprika-spiced hazelnuts from Freddy Guys farm (despite being from Oregon, my husband Jeff usually does not eat hazelnuts at all), our Saturday night dining luck turned a full 180 degrees…

By the way, their food, while certainly not ugly, was not picture-perfect or especially picture-worthy. That was probably true of most of the places we visited. Pinterest junkies would be disappointed, but I guess true inspiration really does come from within…

And sometimes, inspiration comes purely by association. When we got back to DC, I kept thinking about rainy Oregon, wet earth, forests and mushrooms. I also fondly remembered the wonderfully textured grain dishes we had at Noble Rot: the lemony barley bed for my wild sturgeon, and Jeff’s delectable lentil, quinoa, and oat cake stuffed with mozzarella and served with tomato sauce, melted leeks, and mushrooms.

My love of quinoa goes back to the time I discovered Karen McNeil’s “Wine, Food and Friends” series some 10 years ago; it is where my favorite quinoa recipe came from. Yesterday I had no morels on hand, so I reconstituted dried porcinis (yet another staple in my pantry), and cooked quinoa in the fragrant porcini broth (in a 1 to 2 ratio). When it was done, I added fresh shitakes sauteed in butter, with shallots, garlic, and thyme, and spiked the dish with a bit of soy sauce, in order to kick up the umaminess another notch. In accordance with the principle of “what grows together, goes together”, this dish called for an Oregonian Pinot, such as an excellent 2009 vintage bottle from PatriciaGreen Cellars.

There is only one drawback to having such a prolific Muse: you may end up like this piglet, lying on the bathroom floor in the corner unable to move…

A most appropriate mascot at Le Pigeon

Fifth Sense

I am officially cookied- and cupcaked-out! Don’t get me wrong: I have a big appreciation for sweets, especially those made with sea salt caramel and custard. It just looks as if most chefs and their loved ones went on a molten cake, muffin and mousse diet for the month of February. Even during months further removed from Valentine’s, reputable foodie sites and food blogs alike are constantly abuzz with various dessert ideas, totally disproportionate to all other content. I am not even going to talk about Pinterest. Doesn’t anyone eat normal savory dishes anymore 🙂 ?

I personally believe that savory food is potentially so much more satisfying than the sweet stuff! Several years ago, umami was conclusively added as one of the five senses, or basic tastes, along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Umami was deemed to be the dimension of deliciousness, or savoriness (and this concept virtually equates the two!). These days, I understand we are officially up to six senses, with the recent addition of kokumi (translated as heartiness, or mouthfulness; a sensation of higher intensity of flavor often brought about by curing, braising, or roasting).

I may have mentioned before that I am fundamentally lazy, and that as a chef, I constantly cheat in order to maximize my cooking and eating pleasure. My goal is to find the least possible amount of work to have the best possible experience. Thus, I have learned to rely on umami-rich ingredients and methods producing the highest amount of umami in the shortest time possible (such as roasting).

Without further ado, I would like to present two quintessentially savory ideas:

1. Soba noodles in dashi broth, with fresh silken tofu, scallions, shiso leaf, and mountain yam (see above), served with good quality soy sauce (I love my Yamasa Yuki Marudaizu Ginsen soy sauce!), and nori on the side. 

This dish features several umami-rich foods, – kelp and bonito flakes in the dashi broth, soy sauce, and nori. Soba noodles (which are made of buckwheat) are not only fantastic conduits of umami, but they add an umami dimension of their own due to their earthiness. I often supplement the dashi powder with miso paste or dry mix to moderate the fishy taste of bonito (the additional bonus is that miso is another one of those super-umami ingredients).

I also love this dish because of its textural interplay, so make sure you do not overcook the soba noodles. I typically shoot for a minute less than suggested on the package. The grated mountain yam and the fresh silken tofu provide a really nice contrast. Both of them are available in specialty Asian stores, such as the fantastic Japanese shop Hana here in DC. The mountain yam is really neat to work with; all you do is peel away the outside firm skin, and grate it (I like to use my Microplane on it). Its jelly-like, foamy texture is unlike anything else I have encountered. Shiso leaf adds another interesting note to the dish both in terms of aromatics, texture, and flavor. I am a big fan, and have previously written about shiso leaf here.

 2. Parmigiano Reggiano soufflé.

Aged parmesan is super high in umami, courtesy of its glutamate levels developed during maturation (and visible as the white crystals in the cheese): 

For the soufflé recipe, I simply adapted the one I have used a number of times to make a blue cheese soufflé. I used a 24-month Parmigiano, but you can certainly use whatever aged cheese is available. An aged sheep’s milk cheese will make it saltier and more intense.

Most importantly, don’t stress about the soufflé too much; it does not have to be perfect. Go nuts: make it on a week night! (I did!) That’s right, soufflés are not just for snooty Russian service dinners anymore. It is true that my soufflés may not win any prizes for their beauty, but they are, as Italians would say, brutti ma buoni (ugli but good).

As for the cooking time, it will totally depend on your ramekin or soufflé dish type. My soufflés in ceramic ramekins cooked in 15 minutes flat; the metal ramekins took 23 minutes. Just look for the visual clues listed in the recipe. Serve immediately atop a simple green salad, perhaps with a few slices of proscuitto or serrano ham on the side to push the “umaminess” just a bit further. Now, you just need a crisp white, and nice company to make the evening complete…

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Now I have to say goodbye till next week when I will be reporting back on our eating, drinking and dancing trip to Portland, Oregon. This weekend we turn into complete piglets by day, and Argentine tango-dancing zombies by night…

The Dawn of the Age of the Mandoline

I am not a serious cook the same way we are not serious hikers. The issue is the same, – total lack of professional-grade gear and equipment. The biggest reason for that is that I am not a gadget person. On top of that, I have low risk tolerance (most uncharacteristic for a finance professional!). Among many other things, it manifests itself in my apprehension about new kitchen appliances.

As a result, my kitchen is VERY low-tech; you will not find any pressure cookers, KitchenAids, sous vide ovens, and not even a coffee maker. We use a French press and a hand-cranked German coffee bean grinder, which I think is way cooler than the fingerprint-recognizing espresso machine or robot tea infuser (ok, maybe not). Once ubiquitous computing becomes, well, ubiquitous, my kitchenware will be left behind in the Stone Age. My computer will not want to talk to my toaster oven from circa 1990’s.

To continue, inexplicably I own no risotto pans, or crepe pans, etc. and insist on cooking all soups and stews in a scratched-up $20 pan, bought at a grocery store years ago when I found myself assembling kitchen essentials on a non-existing budget. I salivate over beautiful copper pots and can afford updating my equipment, but for some reason, I don’t. I don’t know if I am afraid that “the magic will be gone”, and that wielding new pots and pans, I will find myself unable to boil water, like when I was 19.

Here is a list of my favorite kitchen tools used daily:

  • A small sauce pan and a medium-sized pan, both from our college days (hint: we are not recent graduates)
  • Toaster oven and tray which I often use instead of the Pyrex dish
  • Pyrex dish for 90% of things sweet and savory that end up in the oven (cost: $5)
  • Microplane grater
  • Knives (almost exclusively Global) are the only expensive and updated items in my kitchen.

Last week I took a huge leap a baby step forward, and purchased a mandoline slicer. However, terrified by graphic reviews that suggested I needed to invest in a rubber “no slice” body suit prior to using it, I cleverly got out of using the mandoline for the purpose intended, i.e., for slicing the truffles. A week later, I finally screwed up the courage to put my newly acquired mandoline to use.

And so, my veteran team of 5, together with the ingénue (the newly-acquired mandoline) present the Friday dinner lineup:

Saffron turnip, parsnip, and potato gratin 

A nice twist on a comfort food dish. I layered thin slices of root vegetables in the Pyrex dish with a bit of saffron-infused heavy cream sauce, a splash of white wine, and shredded sheep’s milk cheese on top, and put it in the oven at 375F for around 20 min.

We washed down the gratin with a 2006 Jean Rijckaert Arbois. The saffron sang in unison with the minerality, citrus, and especially the spice and exotic floral tones that have developed as secondary characteristics in the 6-year old Burgundy (Jura white, to be precise).

Warm shitake mushroom salad with frisee, roasted parsnips, and celeriac slaw

The French have long known of celeriac’s pleasures and routinely serve celeriac slaw as a classic bistro side dish, but it is still waiting to be discovered in this country. The smoked sturgeon, horseradish, and celeriac slaw appetizer I had Wednesday night at the brand-new Mintwood Place restaurant in Adams Morgan left me a bit disappointed but inspired. Celeriac slaw, or céleri rémoulade, is shredded celery root tossed in a mayonnaise-based sauce, usually flavored with a little bit of mustard and acid, like lemon juice or vinegar.  I felt the dish was a bit too mayo-heavy, and limp, and I wanted to see if I could improve on it at home.

Naturally, the mandolin slicer is the perfect tool for making a slaw! The problem is, I don’t like mayo, and Jeff (my husband) does not like mustard. My solution was to use sherry vinegar, butter, lemon juice, and ponzu sauce. I cooked shitakes in butter and a nice aged sherry vinegar, with parsley, herbes de provence, and salt & pepper, and roasted parsnips in the oven for 12 min at 400F (pre-seasoned with olive oil, salt & pepper).

And for dessert – a shot of Buddhacello. Friday marked exactly 4 weeks since the beginning of the experiment.

To continue with the root vegetable theme, I will be making rutabaga with crème fraiche,  cardamom and ginger later this weekend. Stay tuned!

Little Black Diamonds

 For a foodie always on a mission to maximize her (and her companion’s) eating pleasure, Valentine’s Day presents a special challenge. The question is: how do you hit a new high and top last year’s memory?

Inspired by Peter Mayle and his book “A Year in Provence”, I got my hands on a couple of fresh black winter truffles. We decided to do our celebratory dinner early, as around Valentine’s, we will be dancing Argentine tango around the clock and noshing in Portland, Oregon.

The truth is, I had never cooked with fresh truffles before. Truffle salt, yes. Truffle oil, yes. But not with fresh truffles. I felt it was time to indulge in “the luxury of grands seigneurs and kept women”, as Brillat-Saverin described it back in the day. He is also the guy who nicknamed truffles “black diamonds”, as the prices are “très sérieux”: a 1oz truffle can set you back anywhere from $50 to $150, depending on its origin. Luckily, this is all you need to pull off a truffle menu for two (and a small pairing knife, which I found more handy than other slicers and mandolines). 

Besides, fresh truffles are only appropriate, as pigs are considered the most effective detectors of truffles (much better than dogs). You see, according to Peter Mayle, the pig is born with a fondness for the taste. The pig instinctively seeks out truffles; the only problem is that it is not content with just finding the truffle; it wants to eat it. My favorite quote from “A Year in Provence” is, “Anyone who has tried to reason with a pig on the brink of gastronomic ecstasy will tell you he is not easily distracted”. Sounds familiar? 🙂

And so, “rigid with porcine determination”, I cancelled all evening plans, and started working on a theme. I finally decided on “casual minimalist with a twist”.

Here is our Valentine’s truffle menu:

Truffle salad with frisee, haricots verts, tarragon, endives, fennel (with truffle sea salt, Meyer lemon juice, and white truffle oil)

 

 

 

Truffle sandwiches (well, actually, more like canapés) on sourdough with European style butter and truffle sea salt

 

 

 

Fresh WholeFoods-brand asparagus & fontina ravioli with truffles, truffle butter, and truffle sea salt

 

 

 

 

Seared scallops with truffles and truffle butter on a bed of celeriac root & potato puree (made with truffle butter, cream, and truffle sea salt) (pictured at the top)

 

And for dessert – you guessed it – fabulous sea salt caramel Christopher Elbow truffles purchased from Cocova (formerly known as Biagio Fine Chocolates).

Skins

I have been lurking on the Chowhound France boards in anticipation of our upcoming eating and drinking trip in early April. In general, things seldom get very heated (partly because CH boards are heavily moderated); however, a recent Parisian restaurant thread got a little intense. The bone of contention, of all things, was vegetarian menu offerings: their sheer availability, excitement-worthiness, and overall chef attitudes towards vegetarians.

People eat vegetarian for a number of reasons, and have very different expectations of a worthy meal. If we were to put all socio-political agendas aside for a moment, and just focused on balance, flavor intensity, texture, etc., we would see that relatively few chefs cater to discerning vegetarians. For them, it is not enough for the meal to be meat-free, organic, local, sustainable, etc. They are looking for overall execution quality, inventiveness, and the kind of deliciousness that would excite vegetarians and omnivores alike.

I have found that in general, ethnic restaurants do a much better job turning out great vegetarian dishes. The most recent example was our experience with modern and traditional Japanese cuisine in the East Village involving yuba.

Yuba is tofu skin which forms during the process of making tofu and is obtained by skimming the top of the curding vat as the soymilk cools down. Yuba is ubiquitous in Japan and China, and is served as sashimi, enjoyed fresh in a rice bowl, used like nori or spring roll skin (for example, as a wrapper for Cantonese dim sum); it can also be deep-fried, dried for later use, etc.  Its texture and appearance run the whole spectrum from “old shriveled linen” to custard, such as in homestyle fresh yuba, which is supposed to give one’s complexion a satiny quality, according to Japanese grandmothers:

The eponymous restaurant in East Village does a fantastic job showcasing this fascinating ingredient; it was amazing to observe the chef produce such a wide range of experiences for a discerning foodie, starting with yuba sashimi and uni (sea urchin) with yuba, where it appears to be silky, creamy and almost milky, not unlike fresh silken tofu.

 

 

 

 

 

Other delectable variations were grilled miso yuba and yuba roll, and our favorite turned out to be layered yuba pouch with slow-braised yuba with mixed mushrooms. Here, it was rich and luxurious, with an amazing juxtaposition of sweetness and earthiness.

Besides the eponymous Yuba, we have discovered a whole “Yubaland” in the East Village (Cocoron, Sobaya, etc.). This is the kind of eating experience that is sure to excite any foodie, vegetarian or not. It sends even a lazy amateur chef like myself to the Japanese grocery store Hana here in DC, and then running to the kitchen. This time, the owners of Hana were out of yuba 😦 , but still provided me with plenty inspiration to put together a fun impromptu meal.

  • Assorted Japanese pickles (pickled plums, sesame pickled cucumbers, and eggplant)
  • Udon noodles with braised enoki mushrooms, nori, scallions, and miso grilled tofu in a dashi broth
  • Green Tea flavored Mochi Ice-Cream bonbons
I cannot wait for my tofu skins order to come in next week!