Friday, March 23, 2012

Alien Ingredient #24: Kinh Giới

This is a fun herb that I have never heard of before. At first, I mistook it for Lemon Balm, an herb that we grow here at the restaurant for its wonderful lemon flavor. With its square hairy stems, this mint (Elsholtzia ciliata) differs only in very slight ways from lemon balm. Tasting it, the flavor is slightly different too. It reminds me more of lemon zest than lemon balm does. Lemon balm has a slightly more lemongrass/citronella flavor. Of all the lemon-flavored herbs, this Vietnamese Lemon Balm is the closest imitator of lemon zest. It really is quite good and I look forward to converting this to a sorbet or granita for our tasting menus this week.

Vote: An herbal dead ringer for lemon zest. Excellent!

Postscript April 14, 2012. Kinh Giới has found a place on our appetizer menu in our Shrimp, Lemon, and Vietnamese Lemon Balm Risotto. It is proving to be quite a useful herb.

Alien Ingredient #23: Rau Răm

After years of reading in my Vietnamese cookbooks about this magical herb called rau răm (Persicaria odorata), I finally stumbled across some at the market. Excitedly, I brought some of this herb that is also called Vietnamese Coriander back to the restaurant. You can tell from the Latin odorata and the common name coriander that this should be a fragrant herb à la cilantro or Thai basil. And according to my texts, rau răm is used as a fresh herb, often as a garnish, just as are cilantro and basil.

I have rarely been more underwhelmed by an herb in my entire life. I crushed a leaf and it smelled of nothing but crushed green leaf. I tasted it and it was totally blah, just like chickweed. Nothing but a vegetal chlorophyll flavor.

I'll try again if I ever see it again, but this was a total waste of time and money.

Vote: What is the point?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Guajes and Smoked Octopus

We keep on playing games with food here and some things work and are worth repeating and others get relegated to the it-was-interesting-but-not-that-interesting file. Here are photos from our latest Chef's Table, our regular 6pm 6-course tasting that we hold every Thursday evening.

California Roll Salad. We decided to deconstruct a California roll and present it as a salad. Honestly, though I am sure that the flavors are all fine, I'm underwhelmed by the result in the sense that it is probably not as good as a straight up California roll. I think there is too much going on here, something that I am not often guilty of: avocado, sesame seeds, wasabi, guaje seeds, yellow tomato, puffed wild rice, crab marinated in yuzu vinaigrette, tobiko, and slivers of nori. All fine ingredients but fails to adhere to less-is-more and I'm not wild about the presentation either. Minor fail.

Skate Cheeks. Everyone who eats seafood should try skate cheeks at least once. They are such wonderful morsels of pillowy goodness. You see them here in a sautée of artichokes hearts and pancetta, finished with white wine, herbs, and butter. Life is very good after you eat this dish.

Rosemary-Smoked Octopus. For me, this was the highlight of the dinner. I have never had smoked octopus before and not sure what prompted me to smoke it this time, but I am hooked. This is a really good dish. We poached the octopus in court bouillon until it was tender and chilled it overnight, then I cold smoked it lightly over cherry wood and fresh rosemary. At service, I tossed the octopus in unfiltered extra virgin olive oil and fleur de sel and warmed it on the grill. You see it sitting on an orzo, feta, and oregano custard. The dish is garnished with more olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice, and the tiniest of sprigs of oregano that are just now popping up outside the restaurant. This dish is a winner, hands down: well conceived, well executed, nicely presented, and outstandingly delicious.

Grilled Brined Pork Tenderloin. We had some leftover trimmings from a pork tenderloin entrée, so we decided to brine and grill them to show off our dried cherry olivada and amarena cherry mosto cotto. The brine is salt, brown sugar, allspice, and pepper. The "olivada" is a tapenade-like condiment consisting of dried cherries, olives, anchovies, capers, garlic, thyme, oregano, lemon juice, and extra virgin olive oil. We colored a parsnip purée with spinach for contrast on the plate. Very tasty.

Local Lamb Rack Roulade. I removed every other bone from a large lamb rack and then butterflied and stuffed the rib-eye with a mixture of brunoise of sunchoke (Jerusalem artichoke), rosemary, Dijon mustard, panko, and goat cheese. Then I rolled the rib-eye back up, tied, seared, and roasted it. Here you see it with a wild watercress pesto and a glazed lozenge of celery root.

Baked Alaska. How often do you see Baked Alaska at a restaurant? When made correctly, it's a light and whimsical ending to a meal. On a base of sliced pineapple, we mounded our jackfruit and Meyer lemon granita and then piped on a layer of coconut Italian meringue made from the whites of all the local duck eggs that go into our pastries.

Alien Ingredient #22: Guaje

I was amused to see what looks like locust pods in a bundle on the shelf of the produce section at the store. And even more amused to see them on an episode of Chopped the very same evening that I bought them for this series. These guajes are the seed pods of a Mimosa-/Acacia-looking tree (Leucaena leucocephala) native to southern Mexico. No wonder they look like locust seed pods—the trees are cousins. These have a bronze tint; I have also seen bundles of green pods as well. I am led to believe that they taste identical regardless of pod color.

First things first. There is no way that this seed pod is edible: it is way too tough. That some of the contestants on Chopped would have not figured this out just goes to show what lack of talent that show features. So how to open them? First, they're green (in the sense of immature) so they don't split open as readily as dried bean or locust pods. I've shelled a bunch of beans in my life and these are tougher than some and easier than others. Rip one of the long strings off one of the edges and then starting at the tip, try to split the two sides of the pod apart. Once you get it started, the pods open fairly readily and the beans pop right out.
So what you have left when you shell out the guajes is some green pumpkin seed looking affairs without a hard seed coat. Into the mouth it goes and—drumroll please—it tastes green and vegetal with overtones of avocado and a pleasant undercurrent of garlic. Not too different from the green chickpeas we tried a few weeks ago. The first thing that comes screaming into my brain is guacamole. As soon as the bags of avocados on the counter ripen later this week, these guajes are definitely going into guacamole. Some tortillas are going into the fryer. And I am feasting.

Digging around on the web, I see that guaje seeds are frequently used in guacamole (great minds think alike), in green salsas, and in cooked sauces. I have no doubt that they would be wonderful in my next batch of pepián (a green mole).

Vote: Who would think something this awesome comes from a dry, stringy seed pod? I love these things and am having a hard time imagining guacamole without them ever again.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Alien Ingredient #21: Lotus Root

Don't ask me why I've never worked with fresh lotus root before; I've certainly had the opportunity many times over the past 30 years. My guess is that I have tasted it before in a hot pot and had written it off as another bland vegetable. Take a good look at these lotus roots to the left: they are not what you want to buy. See the discoloration? No bueno. I didn't have any choice in these really; they were all the store had when I needed them for a hotpot requested by a customer. Well, truth be told, I did have a choice; I could have bought pre-prepped ones in the deli section of the store, but I see no need to pay someone else for 30 seconds of work on my part.

It takes no effort at all to peel the roots and then slice them. They do start to discolor a bit after a few minutes, so it is a good idea to cook them right away or store them under water, just as you would a potato. And because they come from fresh water, it is a good idea to blanch them to make sure that you kill any bacteria or parasites that they may be harboring.

Lotus roots fall into my category of bland vegetables that I use for texture in a dish, right alongside water chestnuts, daikon, and jicama. They also braise very well and perhaps surprisingly, they make interesting chips/crisps in the manner of potatoes.

Vote: low in calories, low in flavor, high in cool looks—there's nothing much to love or hate about this mostly boring root.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Alien Ingredient #20: Okinawa Sweet Potato

At long last I got a chance to work with Okinawa (aka Purple) sweet potatoes, without having to buy a 40# case. Okinawa sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are a sweet potato cultivar that has purple flesh and a light brown skin. Here you see one in the skin and one that I have peeled. I noticed right away that these purple sweet potatoes oxidize very quickly, where our orange sweet potatoes take a long time to oxidize.

The first thing I did was try a piece raw. Holy Sweet Potato Batman! They are hyper-sweet: as stevia is to cane sugar, purple sweets are to orange sweets. They are so sweet in fact that in the custard that I made from them, pictured below, I added no sweetener of any kind.

When these sweet potatoes cook, they don't lose their gorgeous deep purple coloring like so many purple vegetables do. In fact, the color deepens as it cooks. The mash I made from purple sweets looked amazing on a plate. I will also note that when I added duck eggs to my custard, the custard went from amazing purple to muddy purple, not the most appetizing of colors. I brought the color back in my custard with some food color. [Shh! Don't tell anyone!]

The other thing to know about Okinawa sweet potatoes is that they are just sweet potatoes and are drop-in replacements for orange sweet potatoes, albeit a bit sweeter.

Here you see a brûléed purple sweet potato custard, garnished with a sesame brittle and fresh jackfruit.

Vote: I like these very much but the sweetness restricts their savory applications more so than the standard orange sweet potatoes.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Alien Ingredient #19: Shungiku/Tung Ho

Shungiku (Japanese) or Tung Ho (Chinese) is an edible chrysanthemum leaf, Chrysanthemum coronarium. While I've read about it in my Asian cookbooks, I have never seen it in person before and honestly, wasn't too excited about trying it. My experiences with other members of the Chrysanthemum family have led me to conclude that I really don't like the smelly, Artemisia-like leaves at all.

To my pleasant surprise, the so-called Garland Chrysanthemum leaves taste just fine, sort of a cross between celery leaf and parsley leaf. Cooked, the flavor is milder, more at spinach. So I can gladly report that they taste just fine in salads, in stir fries, as well as in their traditional role in soups (nabemono).

In the western culinary lexicon, if you think of shungiku as a drop-in replacement for spinach, albeit with more flavor, you will understand its potential.

Vote: yep, just fine; another useful green to have in one's arsenal.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Early March Tastings

Here are photos from a series of tastings we've done this week, playing games with what we have on hand.

Salmon Tartare. There's [sc]eviche, tartare, crudo, poke and all manner of other names for raw fish dishes. I'm calling this tartare and not seviche because the citrus juice goes on seconds before the dish hits the table so that there is no discoloration/firming of the flesh. Any time that we have a fatty fish belly, you can rest assured we're making a similar dish, whether or not it appears on the menu. It makes a great chef snack. This one contains red and yellow peppers, capers, green and red onions, Meyer lemon juice, and extra virgin olive oil. And as an accidental metaphor for the list of ingredients, note kitchen sink in background.

Mussels with Coconut-Yuzu Sauce. Finally, some good lighting in a kitchen picture! Sure I'd love to have a reflector behind this, but the quality of light on my cutting board versus on the main plating line is much nicer. Note to self. This is mussels steamed in coconut milk with yuzu juice and the sauce finished with a touch of fish sauce, lime leaves, and sugar. Grated lime zest and green onions over.

Grilled Shrimp. This all started early in the week when a customer inspired us to create a Provençale style pasta sauce. On the plate are two tiny wedges of a duck egg frittata made with roasted red peppers and goat cheese. These are the sops for a sauce of grilled peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, caperberries, black olives, fennel fronds, and orange zest. Propped up on all this is a grilled shrimp, marinated in black olive, garlic, and orange zest paste.

Duck Salad. This dish was really an exercise in how to use a new bottle of butternut seed oil. We're experimenting with it and naturally, it crossed our minds to make a dressing from it and Meyer lemon juice. The dressing is delicious. From there it's just a matter of building a salad around the dressing: local mesclun tied with Meyer lemon rind, duck confit, duck cracklings, duck fat croutons, orange segments, and toasted pumpkin seeds.

Rabbit Loin. Rabbit and fennel were made to go with each other: it's a magical combo. We've pounded out rabbit loin, dusted it with fennel pollen, and stuffed it with goat cheese mixed with fennel fronds and confit of fennel. Then it's rolled and wrapped in prosciutto, seared and finished in the oven. Purée of fennel and celery root down with a few cubes of fennel confit. We made the fennel confit in duck fat rather than olive oil.

Mushrooms and Bacon. We received a lot of brown beech, white beech, and pioppini mushrooms this week; you see them here featured with slab bacon on top of polenta. Nothing earth shattering or fancy about this, just plain old comfort food.

Teriyaki Royal Trumpet Mushrooms. In with the rest of our mushrooms this week were a few large royal trumpets, a mushroom that I like best when grilled and glazed with teriyaki sauce.

"Arancino." Here's a little play on food. When you hear arancino, you expect the deep-fried Sicilian risotto ball, perhaps stuffed with cheese or maybe even a ragù. But I doubt you expect our Northern Chinese Style pulled lamb stuffed into a fried rice ball. A little local bok choy to complete the dish.

Pork Belly. We were playing with the idea of Chinese steam buns stuffed with pork belly. But I'm not big on the texture of steamed dough, so I grilled it. There is something magical about tucking into a slab of pork belly with freshly cooked bread!

Here you see two different presentations. I'm not super happy with either presentation. The flavor was excellent, but the presentation is still lacking.

Jackfruit and Meyer Lemon Granita. This is a dish that had customers raving. The combination of the hyper-tropical flavors of the jackfruit with the lemon-orange tartness of the Meyer lemon yielded the best sorbet/granita I have ever tasted. Topped with a touch of amarena cherry mosto cotto and set on a piece of sinful coconut French toast.

Truffles. So every now and again, we make truffles. They're a fun way to end the evening. These are rolled in toasted coconut and in crushed candied walnuts. Plated with raspberry coulis and fried salted rice paper for a little texture.

Japanese Dinner

Here are the photos from a recent Japanese-themed dinner. The customer came to us with a menu in hand, so there wasn't a whole lot of wiggle room.

Salmon Sashimi with Pickled Daikon. Just a quick 24-hour pickle on the local daikon; thickened house-made ponzu on the plate. We let our ponzu brew for 48 hours before taking out the kombu and the hana-katsuo. We decided to use limes for the ponzu rather than bottled yuzu: fresh fruit tastes better, though limes taste different than yuzu.

Mushroom Mini Pizzas. The customer, having just returned from two weeks in Japan, says that mini pizzas are all the rage right now. We wouldn't know, but we do know how to make pizzas. You see hon-shimeji mushrooms (actually a mix of brown and white beech and pioppini) sautéed with a touch of garlic and ginger and finished with a splash of tamari. The sauce is soft tofu blended with ponzu. We thought it was a delicious touch bringing both creaminess and acid to the pizzette.

Yakitori. You see both chicken thighs and hearts skewered here, brushed with our house-made taré. We put the chicken in a soy- and ginger-based marinade for 48 hours. The taré sauce, based on chicken bones, took 48 hours to make and it has such a rich meaty sweetness. I couldn't find any cockscombs on such short notice; that would have been really cool as part of this dish. As it was, most of the guests didn't touch the hearts, which we happily snacked in the kitchen. The hearts are definitely the best part of this dish.

"Chirinabe". How do I tell a customer who is in love with a menu that we are not equipped to do a traditional nabe? I don't and I wing it, hence the quotation marks around chirinabe (fish hot pot). We just don't have the equipment to put communal hot pots on the tables (and the American customers would have freaked out at a communal pot anyway), so we blanched the vegetables and poached the black sea bass before plating them with a cup of boiling stock and small dish of ponzu for dipping. The garnishes, clockwise from the snow peas, are snow peas, daikon, enokitake, shungiku, sea bass, napa, tofu, and lotus root.

Purple Yam Custard. I wanted to finish with rice and then some fresh fruit. Customer wanted a dessert. So here is a pan-Asian dessert: a brûléed custard of Okinawa sweet potato, sesame seed brittle, and some fresh jackfruit in simple syrup. At least I managed to keep the dish non-sweet and sneak some fruit in too. The white flecks are sesame oil powder.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Alien Ingredient #18: Guava

I seem to be on a roll with the tropical fruit in the last few posts, though it's certainly not by design. It just happened that way. Last trip to the market, I spied some ripe baby yellow guavas, the first guavas I've ever seen. These are smaller than a lime, included in the photo for comparison, light yellow, a yellow the color of non-russeted Asian pears. The fruits are yielding in the sense that a peach or pear yields when it is ready to eat.

Now guava is not an unknown fruit to me. We regularly use pasta de guayaba (guava paste) and membrillo (quince paste) on our cheese plates. And I have somewhat fuzzy memories of last Easter Monday at a pool in St. Martin where our bartender Alain made us round after round of fabulous cocktails that he called Rendezvous, based on guava nectar.

I didn't know it was guava nectar at the time; I had to ask Alain because I could not place the haunting part passionfruit, part banana, part pear aroma coming from the cocktail. And this is the exact same aroma coming from these tiny little guavas, very tropical, very haunting, and very promising!

These particular guavas, in addition to being small and yellow, have white flesh. Many guavas have red or pink flesh. I cut one open to expose the round, very hard, blond seeds. The seeds in this particular guava are inedible and are encased in a pulp that reminds me of very, very ripe slippery, almost slimy, banana. This custardy pulp tastes mainly of banana and pear, with firm acidity and a slight starchiness that is unexpected. The shell of fruit surrounding the pulp is firmer with a texture and flavor of pear with banana overtones. Nowhere in the flesh could I find that haunting and elusive passionfruit that I smelled and that was so alluring.

Vote: This siren of a fruit lured me in with its aroma and then left me wanting. I won't try this particular kind of guava again, but I will try others as they cross my path.