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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Fat Tuesday

Chiko and I met in New Orleans, so that town has always had a special place in my heart. Before Katrina, I went there frequently for conventions, but so far I have not had the chance to go back since the hurricane. Hopefully I'll get there soon because it was always one of my favorite places to eat and party. I'm off to Vegas to attend the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons convention today, so last night I wanted to do something special for Chiko in honor of Mardi Gras and the fact that she actually had a day off.

I've eaten jambalaya many times, but never actually made it myself, so I went on line, found a recipe on and headed to the store to buy the ingredients. On my way home, I was listening to Sandy Gluck, host of Everyday Food on Martha Stewart's Sirius Radio station, and she described Jambalaya as a sort of Cajun Paella, and after looking at the steps of the recipe I think is the perfect analogy. FYI the recipe calls for a good amount of cayenne pepper in the seasoning mix and the final product was pretty damn spicy. I happen to like it that way, but if you are not a fan of really spicy food, you may want to cut back on the cayenne a little. You can always add more when you taste the broth and adjust the seasonings. The full recipe is up on the above neworleanscuisine link, so I won't repeat the details but here are the pics.

The recipe recommends a cast iron dutch oven, but I have this beautiful hand hammered, solid copper covered roaster that I brought back from Montepulciano in Tuscany and I used it because, in addition to excellent heat control, it makes a nice presentation at the table.

You start with the cajun trinity: onions, celery and green bell pepper, plus andouille sausage and chopped tomatoes.

Saute the trinity along with the andouille till the veggies are soft and the sausage has rendered its fat a little.

Add the tomatoes, cook briefly then throw in the rice and saute it for several minutes. The recipe calls for long grain white rice but I substituted Japanese brown rice because I have a 20 lb bag of it in the closet and I needed to "use it up" as Sandy would say.

Next add the stock, seasonings and chicken meat and bake in the oven for 25 minutes. The recipe says to do it uncovered, but I was worried about the longer cooking time of the brown rice so I covered it.

Take it out, add the shrimp, green onions and chopped parsley and back in the oven. Again, because I used brown rice I had to modify the recipe slightly. The recipe says 10 more minutes, but mine took about another 25 minutes covered for the rice to get tender. I was worried that the shrimp would overcook, but I instead of peeling them I left the shells on and they were perfect.

For dessert I opted for an old school classic, crepes suzette. Very simple, tasty and elegant. I've been making a lot of crepes lately, so I didn't bother with a recipe. Just a 1-1-1 ratio of flour, milk and eggs. In this case it was:

1 cup flour (I used my smuggled double zero Italian flour)

1 cup milk (didn't have any of the cow variety so I used almond milk)

1 egg

Whipped that up till it was smooth, seasoned with the zest of a tangerine, two teaspoons of sugar, a pinch of salt and a dash of triple sec. I let this rest while we ate the main course, a very important step to getting tender crepes.

I cooked a bunch of crepes, then folded them in half then half again to form a little triangle. In my biggest saute pan I melted some butter, added the juice of a tangerine and a little sugar and reduced it to a syrup. I placed all the folded crepes in the syrup, drizzled the whole thing with triple sec and flambeed it. Sounds like a lot, but I swear it was so simple and took less than 10 minutes.

E voila!

I have to say that the Italian double zero flour is amazing. I brought back a couple of bags when I went to Verona last fall and it makes the most amazing pasta and crepes. It is soft as talcum powder and makes a very tender dough or batter. If you ever see it online or in the store BUY IT!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The V Word

As a dedicated omnivore, I get a little confused by the frequent ideological conflicts between vegetarians and carnivores. In fact, I am an equal opportunity gourmand and find vegetarian cooking a fun challenge. We have a number of vegetarian friends, and while it would be easy to say "let them eat salad", I feel the need to offer them a meal that can go "unto the breach" alongside any meat dish without the diner felling "disenfranchised". One of my earlier posts, Meet the Tagine, is an example of a main course that is a complete meal and yet is not just vegetarian, but actually qualifies as vegan (no animal based products of any kind).

Eliminating meat from a dish is actually not that hard, but getting rid of dairy and eggs as well can make things a little difficult. Tofu seems to be the go to meat substitute for many veggie-folk, and it certainly works well in that regard. I'm catering a wedding in June for a group that includes a number of vegetarians, so I wanted to come up with a tofu dish that was tasty, elegant and would fit into the theme of a Mediterranean summer party.

I've tried grilling tofu in the past, but found it difficult to keep it from sticking to the grill. It can be done, but would require too much attention when I have to also get out beef tenderloin and herb roasted chicken for a hundred people simultaneously. I wanted to come up with a method that would let me grill the tofu with little or no chance of it sticking. I also wanted to infuse it with a lot of flavor. Many recipes call for pressing the tofu between paper towels to get out the excess water, which I tried, but even with the extra firm variety, I found the tofu to be wet and crumbly. It also takes a lot of time and you have to keep changing the paper towels to wick away the moisture. I needed to come up with a way to really dry the tofu out so that I could oil it and get it to caramelize quickly and not stick to the grill. I settled on baking the tofu first to dry it out and get a little crust on the outside which helped it hold together.

As for the flavoring, I experimented with brining, marinades and dry rubs and ultimately came up with a hybrid method. Traditionally we think of marinating things before cooking them, but there are also dishes that involve immersing foods in a flavorful liquid after cooking them so that the seasoning is absorbed easily into the open cell walls of the hot meat or veggies (think of Thai beef salad, Spanish Escabeche and Argentinian BBQ in which hot meat just off the grill is immersed in a mixture of herbs, olive oil and lime juice.) For my dish, I started with a well seasoned mushroom broth and soaked the previously baked tofu in it overnight. Finally, I drained it well, dusted with a dry rub and then then grilled it.

OK, enough with the history lesson. Let's get down to the recipe.


Extra firm tofu
Broth (I used mushroom but any kind would work)
Dried Herbs/Spices (I went with smoked Paprika and Herbes de Provence)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Start by slicing the tofu horizontally into three relatively even "steaks".

Technical note: Use a long thin bladed knife and a gentle sawing motion or the tofu will tear and fall apart.

Place them on an oiled wire rack over a baking sheet and bake in a 400 degree oven for one hour, flipping the slices after the first 30 minutes. I know 400 sounds very hot, but these things hold a lot of moisture and you need to drive that out to firm it up and allow the seasoning to be absorbed.

While it's cooking prepare the seasoning liquid (it's technically not a marinade because I didn't add any acid and it's not a brine because it doesn't have that much salt). Pour the cold broth into an appropriately sized food storage container and season to taste. It should be well spiced, but be careful not to make it too salty. If you're using commercially prepared broth it has tons of salt and remember that we will be adding a spice rub and also a sauce at the end. It will get plenty of salt, you just want a liquid that will carry your herbs and spices to the center of the tofu.

After the tofu has baked for an hour, drop the hot pieces directly into your cold seasoning liquid, cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.

Next contemplate a sauce or glaze. You could brush them with bbq sauce which helps with the grill marks and gives a nice spicy sweet crunch, but in my case I went with Persillade, a mixture of parsley, garlic and olive oil which is often served with grilled meat in the south of France. Put some fresh parley leaves, a clove of garlic and a little sea salt into a mortar and bash it up with the pestle.

Add some olive oil and keep beating the heck out of it till you formed a smooth green paste, adding more olive oil as needed till you get a "brushable" consistency.

When you are ready to cook the tofu, preheat the grill on high, remove the "steaks" from the seasoning liquid and pat dry with a paper towel.

Sprinkle each side with the dry rub of your choosing (I simply used more smoked paprika, finely ground Herbes de Provence and a little salt). Generously oil both sides with olive oil and take them to the grill.

To get the pretty cross hatches, start with the tofu slices rotated 45 degrees to the grill grate and cook for about three minutes or until you have nice caramelized grill marks.

Then, rotate the slices 90 degrees without flipping them and cook for another three to four minutes.

Flip to the other side and repeat till you have a nice crispy grilled tofu "steak".

Remove to a plate, brush with a generous amount of the Persillade and serve.

In this case I served it alongside some braised broccoli rabe and tabbouleh filled cucumber cups.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

We'll Always Have Paris - Part Deux

When I travel overseas I like to fool myself into thinking that I am somehow more in tune to the local scene than the average "tourist". I make it a point to study local customs and learn a little of the language. I can manage to say "one beer" and "one more beer" in at least seven languages. Experience has taught me that if a restaurant has the menu translated into English, German and Japanese, the dining experience is usually "less than optimal". If the menu includes photographs of the dish next to each trilingual description, I head for the hills. Getting out of the hotel and going native is my choice whenever possible.

Chiko heard somewhere that people in Paris carry baguettes with them everywhere they go. This urban legend was actually confirmed, as we encountered numerous people walking down the street with baguettes firmly implanted in their armpits.

As part of my quest to fit in we purchased a baguette and took turns holding it throughout the rest of the trip. Saturday morning broke dark and gloomy, so we breakfasted on coffee, part of the previous mentioned baguette, a bit of cheese and some duck sausage that we picked up the day before.

The market we saw near the train station was nowhere to be found, but we headed a few blocks over to Rue Mouffetard and explored the shops. Mouffetard is a market street with fixed shops that are open everyday (as opposed to the day markets which set up and tear down every 24 hours and rotate from neighborhood to neighborhood on a weekly schedule).

There were cheese shops, fishmongers, fruit and veg stands along with a variety of specialty purveyors of chocolates, coffee, teas, etc. Having lapsed recently from our fruit and vegetable challenge, we picked up some lovely apricots and cherries and snacked while we walked.

Once the market bug was out of our system and the sun peaked out from it's cloudy hiding place, we hopped on the metro and headed off to one of the most famous bakeries in the world. Poilane is a tiny shop specializing in pan au levain, a sort of French sourdough that is quite famous in the artisan baking community. In addition to the bread, we sampled some lovely butter cookies, but that's a story for another day.

All this wandering made us a bit peckish, so we popped into a neighborhood bistro for a bite of lunch.

Chiko chose the chevre chaud, a salad topped with broiled goat cheese crostini.

I thought I was going old school when I ordered a croque monsieur, but what I got was a thoroughly modern open faced sandwich of ham and cheese on a lovely piece of that Poilane sourdough bread. Jet lag was setting in so we walked back to the hotel and had a great afternoon nap.

In the evening we headed back over towards Rue Mouffetard to explore the restaurant scene. We noticed several restaurants specializing in the cuisine of the Savoy region in the southeast of France, bordering Switzerland and Northern Italy. The restaurants were all decorated like ski chalets, with roaring fireplaces, exposed beams and even cuckoo clocks. The menus included a variety of fondues and other regional specialties. We settled on a restaurant and grabbed a table.

Chiko ordered Fondue Bourguignonne, which is a dish of beef cooked at the table in a fondue pot filled with hot oil.
It is served with a variety of dipping sauces and is actually similar to the Japanese dish Shabu Shabu.

I went for Raclette, which is a sort of deconstructed fondue. The server brought a small electric broiler to the table, along with a plate of cured meats, cheese and boiled potatoes.

I broiled the cheese on a special raclette pan until it was nice and bubbly, then poured it over the meat and potatoes.

After such a rich dinner, we opted for coffee and a digestif in lieu of dessert then took a nice long walk.
As the evening wound down we came upon a large crowd in front of a late night creperie. The chef was cooking and filling a variety crepes, both sweet and savory for the post bar crowd.
Figuring "what the hell, we're on holiday", we shared a chestnut creme filled crepe and called it a night.