Thursday, April 26, 2007

That Salad - found it!

Would you believe, this article from 1997 is still out there! It has the outline recipe for The Salad. I recently rewrote the recipe and article.

Here it is:

Variations on One Great Salad
I love salads. But for the longest time preparing a good salad was a mystery to me. I was never sure that ingredients I chose would come together once they were tossed and dressed. Then there was the question of the dressing. Long ago I'd stopped buying bottled dressing. Ninety-nine percent of the salad dressings on the market are terrible tasting with added stabilizers or freshening agents. So, I'd pour over cookbooks, websites, whatever I could get my hands on to find creative dressing recipes. I'd follow each recipe to a "t"! Salads simply made me nervous and I wasn't going to mess around without a strict guideline!
Those salad scare days are long gone. My new found dressed-green confidence came in the form of one great recipe. Handed out casually during a cooking class, it didn't have a name other than: Watercress, Pear and Goat Cheese Salad. It was lightly dressed in a Spanish sherry vinaigrette. The contrasting textures, colors and flavors made everyone in class take notice. We all devoured it and I added it to my favorite list right then!
Since then I've seen many versions of this salad at all types of restaurants. From a classic Italian combination of gorgonzola and walnuts to a California French type using a thin slice of St. Auger blue cheese and a caramelized pear, all of them incorporate variations on a few simple ingredients.
Chosen for balance of color, taste and texture a handful of high-quality ingredients can come together in a grand way. Be sure to imagine the finished product... how it will taste, appear on the plate and feel in the mouth? Always critique your creation. Would a different cheese have made it come alive? Next time, switch a few ingredients and critique once again. The possibilities are endless.

An Outline Recipe for My Favorite Salad
Ingredient Outline
Washed and torn dark green leafys which contrast with the cheese used.
  • The nutty flavor of Watercress with goat cheese OR
  • Rich and simple Spinach with intense blue cheese OR
  • Spicy Arugula (Rocket) with Nutty Parmesan OR
  • Classic French combination of Roquefort with celery OR
  • Spicy Baby Green mix which may go with any of the cheeses.
Crisp fleshed fruit thinly sliced (for fancy presentation fan slice the fruit)
Pears or Apples work great - use creative types (Fuji Apples, Asian Pears)
Caramelized pear halves make a special addition, beautiful!

Quality Cheese:
  • Crumbled or grated top quality cheese Montrachet is a flavorful goat cheese OR
  • Parmesan - Italian Parmesan Reggiano - only! (No California or Wisconsin Parmesan need apply!) OR
  • A Blue Cheese - St. Auger, Stilton, Roquefort or Saga OR
  • Choose one which is made as locally as possible to you!

Toasted Nuts:
  • Walnuts and blue cheese go great together OR
  • Pecans pair well with goat cheese
    (for a special occasion, caramelize the pecans. Fabulous!) OR
  • Almonds for a simple and lighter flavor OR
  • Pine Nuts go well with Parmesan
Vinaigrette Dressing
The original salad recipe had a Sherry Wine Vinaigrette. Spanish Sherry Vinegar is a great addition to any one's pantry. It has a flavorful and sweet taste and is a cheaper alternative to quality Balsamic Vinegars.

The dressing should have vinegar, salt, pepper, perhaps a little garlic (not much!), perhaps some chopped fresh herb (something mild like thyme or parsley). Use a mild oil or a mixture. For the mild safflower or Canola work well. A splash of extra virgin olive, hazelnut or avocado will add richness and complexity.

Pour the vinegar into a bowl, add salt, fresh ground pepper, any herb and maybe rub the inside of the bowl with a sliced garlic clove. Mix well and start drizzling in oil as you whisk. Taste often and stop adding oil when the vinegar no longer has a bite to it.

Serving the Salad
Toss the greens with a little of the dressing. Make a bed of greens on each plate or a large platter.Place the fruit decoratively over the greens.Sprinkle on the cheese and then the nuts.Drizzle more dressing over the top. Grind a little pepper over the top.

Voila! Serve, enjoy, savor the compliments and don't forget to critique for next time!

--Culinary Vixen

Bottled Dressing Rant

Some would say that I have a particularly strong hatred of all bottled salad dressings. It is true that very few get a passing grade from me. Most bottled dressings taste of the thickeners, preservatives and flavorings they use as ingredients. Once in a while I'll find one with a tolerable balance of acid and flavor but I'd still be afraid to read the ingredient list!

I loathe spending money on ranch dressing for my children. I have tried various brands looking for one with no MSG or high fructose corn syrup, but when I'd find a healthy version, my children would stick their noses up at it. I believe Marie's refrigerated jars are the best compromise I have found so far. But I digress...

The real reason I HATE bottled salad dressing is that there is no excuse why you shouldn't make your own. A vinaigrette is simple to make and can be made with as few as 2 ingredients (not counting salt and pepper!). Any decent cook should have a handful of salad dressing recipes in their repertoire.

The basics of a salad dressing is a balance of oil and acid with seasonings added to create more flavor. All dressings are made by combining the acid and seasonings and blending well then slowly adding the oil while whisking the mixture to combine. Oil should be added to a ratio of 1 part acid to 3-5 parts oil. Notice there is a wide range for the amount of oil. This will be determined by taste and takes into account the seasonings which will change the flavor and the oil needed to create a balanced dressing.

So, where is a recipe you ask? I give you, Vixen's Sherry Vinaigrette. It's a recipe adapted from my professional cooking part IV class. Sherry Vinegar is a wonderful dark amber color with a rich winey flavor. It's magical in this dressing and is the perfect for The Salad. I'll save that recipe for another day.

Vixen's Sherry Vinaigrette
Makes about 1 quart (can be halved)

1 each clove of garlic, peeled
1 each shallot, peeled, roughly chopped
2 Tblsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp dried herb of your choice
(mixed Italian or thyme or oregano or Herbes de Provence or basil or tarragon)
¼ Cup Sherry wine vinegar
¼ tsp salt
5 grinds black pepper
1-1 1/2 Cups Olive oil

Put the garlic, shallot, mustard, herbs, vinegar, salt and pepper into a blender. Process for 30 seconds until the garlic and shallot are finely minced and the mustard has dissolved into the vinegar.
Put the olive oil into a cup with a lip, so it pours easily (like a glass measuring cup). While the blender is running on it’s lowest setting, very slowly pour in the olive oil. It should blend into the mixture quite easily. If it starts to pool on top of the mixture, slow down your pouring and wait until the existing oil is emulsified before continuing.
Once you’ve poured in 1 Cup of the oil, taste the dressing. Add additional oil to make the dressing thicker and less tart, to your taste.
Adjust salt and pepper to taste as well.
Note: This dressing is best on the day it is made but will last up to 4 days in the refrigerator. Let it come to room temperature and shake or whisk well before using.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Places Debbie has Worked (in reverse order)

Della Fattoria, Petaluma, CA
Domaine Chandon Restaurant, Napa, CA
Carneros Inn, Napa, CA
Hurley's, Yountville, CA
Bouchon, Yountville, CA
French Laundry, Yountville, CA
Four Season's Hotel, Los Angeles, CA
Campanile, Los Angeles, CA
Patina, Los Angeles, CA

Monday, April 23, 2007

New York Part III

Our first full day in New York was gorgeous. It was crisp and sunny outside, the perfect Autumn day. We had decided on the plane that we had to go see the Borat movie during our trip. Before we even went downstairs to breakfast I had looked up show times at a few theaters and picked one a good walk away from our hotel.
We made a serious effort to eat breakfast at our hotel. We were seated and then ignored. We were starving and didn't think the service would improve anytime soon, so we left. We walked down one block and found the perfect breakfast spot. It's called the Cupping Room. They make all their baked goods on site and we were not disappointed by anything we ordered. It's warm and cozy with a real local feel to it.
Once fortified with coffee and food we proceeded on foot towards the East Village. We arrived at the City Cinemas Village East theater just in time for an early afternoon showing which did not disappoint but made us writhe in our seats with laughter.
After the movie we were free for the afternoon and wandered through Chinatown and Little Italy with a few stops for shopping down Elisabeth Street. We found a wonderful vintage handbag store and Bruce was kind enough to indulge me while I looked around and picked out a beautiful brocade clutch about 2' long from the mid 1960's.
We rushed back to the room with our purchases and changed for dinner. We had to meet a friend for dinner at Wd-50.
The friend we met for dinner has a home in Manhattan Beach and we met her about a year ago. She and her husband get along with Bruce and I famously. They travel - A LOT - and she happened to be scheduled to be in New York during our visit, so we decided to make a date to go out together.
Wd-50 is a very trendy restaurant with a chef, Wylie Dufresne, who is quite famous for being one of a handful of pioneers in tech-cooking. These new chefs us techniques and chemical processes to create stylized food the likes of which most of the world has never seen (other than Spain and if you have to ask why Spain, well then you shouldn't bother going to Wd-50!). These new food warriors can take any liquid and create stable liquid balls - like caviar. Or thicken any sauce, hot or cold, to the exactly desired consistency. Sousvide is also hugely popular. It's a hot water bath that you place plastic wrapped food into and it cooks very slowly and without any browning to change the flavors of the ingredients within... tender pink precious meats are the result.
We had a heck of a time finding the place and it's in a somewhat dodgy neighborhood. But if you know Bruce and I, you know we have no problem handling ourselves in just about any neighborhood, so we just kept walking back and forth until we found the place. It looks almost like a diner inside with basic booths and a few pieces of large art on the walls. Our friend was waiting for us.
We had a marvelous meal of de-consctructed foods that were described as dishes you know and love but were transformed on the plate. It was all tasty, well prepared and the service was good too. In fact the waiter was so nice that we got to talking about food and drinks. He was impressed by enthusiasm for a creative cocktail and gave us the phone number for a very cool bar called Milk and Honey located on the lower East side of New York City that you have to make reservations for to get in. And you can't just look up the phone number either, you have to be given the number by someone 'in the know'. So now, we are appearing pretty hip in this big city! (Side note: we never did get to try Milk and Honey as our schedule just didn't have time to fit it in.)
By the end of dinner our friend had talked us into meeting her and her friend (a race horse owner) at the owners box for some horse racing out at Aqueduct the following afternoon. We didn't have any plans for the day and we thought it would be an interesting if not unique experience. Wow, were we right.
We left our friend that night after dinner and returned to our room. Bruce had an arrangement of orchids delivered as well as a bottle of nice Champagne. Such a nice guy!
Stay tuned for part IV - The Sopranos!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Hellloooo Carnitas!

I'm a big Mexican food fan. I love all the flavors of the new world; corn, tomatoes, chilies, cilantro/coriander, cumin, oregano, all of it. I especially love carnitas, Mexican roasted pork. I had never made it until this week and it will now be on my list of Sunday supper specials because it was just about the easiest Mexican taco dinner to be found.
The desire to try to make carnitas started at the Whole Foods market. They had pork butt in their meat department. I know, pork butt, sounds off-putting to say the least. But if you know your cuts of meat you know that this is the rich succulent cut that when cooked long and slowly will turn incredibly tender and tasty. Besides, it was only $5.00/lb, so I bought a small piece and decided to look into carnitas.
So, the trick is to think of carnitas as Mexican Pork Pot Roast. You know how to make a roast, right? Brown meat, add some vegetables and a bunch of liquid, perhaps some spices and then cook in the oven for a few hours. Magically when you open up the pot you'll find meltingly tender meat full of flavor. But wait you say, carnitas has a crispy chewy texture when I have it on a taco! Yes, you are right, the trick to the crispy texture is to pull the meat out of the liquid, shred into desired chunks on a shallow roasting pan and then bake in the top of a hot oven for about 10 minutes until desired crispiness is achieved. Warm a few corn tortillas, slice an avocado and a few green onions, and you have the easiest taco dinner ever. And any leftovers will be even better in a day or two - and you can remove a lot of the fat if you chill it while in the liquid and before crisping it. So make a double batch and only crisp up what you are going to eat. MMMMMmmmm good.

Vickie's Basic Carnitas

1.5 lb Pork Butt Roast
salt and pepper
2 Tbs Canola Oil
1 large onion diced
3 garlic cloves peeled and sliced
1 can Rotel Tomatoes and Chiles with Lime juice
1 chopped chipotle chile en adobo (from a can I keep in the refrigerator)
1 tsp dried Mexican oregano
1 quart no salt chicken stock
1 beef bouillon cube

Salt and pepper the pork. Heat a large roasting pan on the stove over medium heat. Add the pork and brown on one side. Turn the pork over and add the onions and garlic around the edges. When the pork is browned on the other side, add the rest of the ingredients. Bring to a boil. Turn the heat down and cook over very low heat for 2 hours. Check for tenderness and continue cooking until the meat falls apart when pulled at with a fork. Alternately you may put the pan in a 350F oven for the 2 hours.
Turn the heat up to 400F. Remove the meat from the liquid and place on a shallow roasting pan. Shred the meat into chunks or shreds as you desire, removing any sinew or extra fat. Using a slotted spoon, remove the chunks from the cooking liquid and spread them over the shredded pork. Bake on the top rack of the hot oven until crispy (5-10 minutes).
Serve with salsa, avocado slices, green onions, lime wedges and cold beer!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Thank You Sous!

This week was an uninspired food week. I didn't have the energy to get too creative. I also wanted to thin out the pantry and freezer, eating from what we have in the house. I had ideas on what to cook, but no energy to cook them.
Bruce really stepped up. He's been training as my sous chef for about 6 months now. He'll chop, dice, grate and saute anything I ask. I love it. He is learning and I'm getting a break. I get to conceptualize and he performs. Sometimes mistakes are made. There was the overly hot pan for the Chicken Picatta - burned the butter. Luckily it was the first step and he even had the idea himself that he should start over.
The Picatta turned out wonderful by the way, moist and flavorful, lots of capers and little tiny bits of lemon supremes (Bruce's favorite thing to prep).
He really outdid himself last night with the lamb loin chops. We were going to do them on the grill, but ran out of fuel. We quickly heated up the broiler and our biggest heaviest copper pot. He quickly browned the racks in the pan in a bit of olive oil. Then we put the whole thing in the oven for another 8 minutes. Perfection. He used his tools and checked the internal temp with a thermometer and pulled them out at jsut the right time, they were fabulous - light pink and juicy throughout with a flavorful outer coating of mustard and pepper. Wow!
The night wasn't without incident however. I found the large copper pot somewhat washed and abandoned in the dish drainer this morning. There was a splash of broiled on oil on the inside of the pan and the beautiful outer copper coating was pale and splotchy from all the heat. He gave me these lovely heavy monster copper pots for Xmas this past year and I absolutely love them. Nothing that I have ever used comes close to the performance these pans give. I picked up that pan and scoured it with my Bartenders Best Friend until it gleamed. It was dried and hanging before I had my first cup of coffee this morning. I kid you not.
I told him how to polish it for next time, but was happy to do it myself. I don't want to upset the kitchen staff, what would I do without him?
Thank you helpers everywhere, your hard work is appreciated!

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Gassata or Naturale?

I'm returning to the La Sosta Enoteca/Bottled Water Tab Padding issue. I saw a friend yesterday. This friend and her husband are Italian. I told them about La Sosta Enoteca in Hermosa Beach and about my previous article. I mentioned the bottled water issue and how they really seem to push it, so don't be afraid to just say "No!".
My friend surprised me. She said that in Italy they only serve bottled water at restaurants so the custom is to ask which you prefer, sparkling or flat?
Whoa, it's a cultural thing. I will no longer say a disparaging word about the staff at La Sosta with regards to their bottled water obsession.
Perhaps the issue may now rest?

Friday, April 6, 2007

Scallops on hold, dang it.

Like everything in life, my plans to work in the kitchen this week have changed. "Mike", the manager notified me that unfortunately he forgot about a big wine dinner he was supposed to go to... ya, de, ya, de ya... so no scallops last night.

I was so excited I couldnt' sleep the night before and then one little email changed my schedule, attitude and demeanor. I was tossing and turning all night. How can you plate three scallops and make them look nice? How can I assure that the sauce is thick and smooth and rich? Should I strain it? Should I see if they have iteresteing little plates for serving?

I'm not giving up, I'm learning, it's taken me 40 years, to kick back and wait for the opportunity to come to me. I'll let you know when I finally get my chance.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

New York Part II - Per Se

The flight to New York was uneventful. We snacked lightly looking forward to our huge dinner at Per Se. It was raining when we landed and the taxi ride seemed magical as we watched the skyline get closer and closer.

We were dropped at the SoHo Grand and checked in. The new cruelty has a tight hold on this place. The lobby was so dimly lit that I couldn't see across the room. It had an industrial feel to it and was smartly decorated with creative flair. But no one even offered to show us to our room or help with our baggage. We were on our own and it certainly wouldn't have taken any one's help to find your way around the minuscule room... but it did have a view over the corner into TirBeCa with all it's quaint water towers.

We spread out, unpacked and put on some music, got dressed and were ready to go to dinner. The taxi ride was blustery and the city lights were blurred by more rain. We were dropped in front of a large elegant corner mall overlooking a corner of Central Park. Per Se has a decidedly sophisticated city-sleek air about it. It's in stark contrast to the charming warmth of the French Laundry, Keller's other flagship restaurant. But the entrance into Per Se gives a nod to the garden courtyard on the property of French Laundry in Yountville, CA with a few wooden benches, an archway entrance and flower beds which I'm sure are used as a waiting area on busy nights. That night however, there were no crowds. We seemed to be among the last to arrive for the night, our reservation being for 10:30pm.

I'm not going to go over each dish here, I just won't . I can't remember it all and there were LOTS of courses. I believe we opted to add in the fois gras to our menu. We had wines paired with each course. Everything was wonderful. I spotted a crosne on at least one dish (article to follow). The only dish I had a problem with was the lobster. I always have problems with the lobster. I couldn't eat the lobster at French Laundry and I couldn't eat the lobster at Per Se. They were just too tough. Poached in butter, but as far as I'm concerned, too tough to eat. Yuck. But the rest, phenomenal. The service? Fantabulous. Absolutely attentive but only as chatty as you'd want them to be. They could tell we were excited and happy to be there and they were too!

We rolled out of there around 1:30am. Taxi'd back to the room to pass out. Day 1, done.

Names will have to be changed

We belong to a club. I'm not going to specify the club but I will say that it's a casual place that we get to about once a week and we have a good time there.

There's only one problem with the club. It's the food. It's boring. Some of it is decent and perhaps on a good night there may be a few quite excellent steaks and chops coming out of the kitchen.

But the menu has always bothered me. It's schizophrenic; going from diner special type entrees to steak house favorites but in such a haphazard way that it just seems sloppy.

Well last week I had (or perhaps forced?) the opportunity to go over the menu while sitting down with the manager of the front and back of the house - Mike. He was a real sport. I attacked the thing head on. "It's flabby", "trim it down", "make it seasonal", "do monthly or at least quarterly specials", "rotate dishes to create anticipation", "what about drink specials - perhaps give the bartendresses a chance to highlight their skills?". Mike listened like the veteran restaurant worker he is. He's experienced, he knows good food when he sees it, and he believes he's serving his clientele well. And who am I to argue? He's right, I have the book learnin' but no practical experience.

Well, no more. This week, Mike is letting me into the kitchen and we're working on a special appetizer to run together. I'll work with his kitchen staff and we'll see how it goes. I'm planning on letting the guys do what they know how to do. I'll simply work out the recipe and plating with them before service starts for the night.

Bacon wrapped Scallops with Bourbon Sauce

Soy Sauce
Maple Syrup
Dijon Mustard
Ground Black Pepper
Bacon Slices
Fresh Scallops

I'll work with the guys and we'll find a blend of the bourbon, soy, syrup and mustard for a marinade. I'll mix up another batch and cook it down until syrupy. The reduced one will be used as a sauce on the plate.