Salads in suspension

I used to want to like Marcus Samuelsson. His life story is compelling, his first cookbook, Aquavit, is gorgeous, and I like nouveau Nordic cuisine. Then, two things happened. First, I made his Tomato-Crab Risotto, a spectacular, epic trainwreck of a dish… sour, pointlessly rich, and constitutionally dissonant to the point of farce. It sounded so preposterous that I (naive youth) figured it had to be chefly-good: cream, tomato juice, sundried tomatoes, coconut milk, garlic, shallots, soy sauce, egg yolks, cream, butter, parmigiano, arborio rice… and $35 of crab. What could go wrong? Hahahahahahaha. It was bad, like a Hindenburg full of Ebola victims crashing into a pre-school on the Titanic. And Celine Dion singing about it.

Still, after putting Aquavit away for several months, I made a few more dishes, and they were fine. Then, Samuelsson appeared on Top Chef Masters. And He. Was. A. Dick. Laddish, hyper-competitive, and stupid-sounding. Or at least, that’s how he was edited.

Nonetheless, here I am, making a dish that I’ve wanted to make for a couple of years, simply because it’s pretty and sounds tasty. It’s taken me this long to get around to it because a) I hate Marcus Samuelsson, and b) It involves food suspended in gelatin, and MC Warm Spice (having lived in both the Midwestern U.S. and the former Eastern Bloc) has a morbid aversion to such dishes.

Tlacenka, a rustic Czech meat-bearing aspic

The Midwestern variant

The dish in question is “Arugula With Tomato-Goat Cheese Terrine”, it’s full of late-summer tomatoes, and it’s served cold – perfect lunch food for this week’s coming heat wave. Here’s how it’s supposed to look:

It reminds me of this nougat candy I ate as a child:

Only savoury, and not apt to pull out dental work.

Having roasted a head of garlic for the dressing, I proceeded to blanch 3 kinds of tomatoes – Yellow Tiger Stripe and Black Prince (both from our little garden) and some generic red field tomatoes from the local market.

Skins loosened after blanching and icing

Skinned and luminous!

Then came the labourious process of “filleting” the tomatoes: quartering them, removing seeds and pulp, and trimming them into neat slabs of outer-tomato-flesh. Since I didn’t have yellow tomatoes, I roasted a few yellow peppers and gave them the same treatment. Later, I passed the remains of the veggies through the food mill, turning them into a base for gazpacho (the second “Salad in Suspension” alluded to in the title above).

Next, I beat the chevre (13.5 oz)with 1/4 C of milk into which I had dissolved gelatin. The recipe called for powdered gelatin, and it turns out that the conversion from powder to leaf is a matter of much confusion and controversy on the internet, not least because gelatin leaves vary in size from place to place, and sizes have changed over time… but few people have accounted for this. In any event, I subbed 4 sheets for one 1/4 oz envelope… perhaps not coincidentally, these weighed 1/4oz on our very accurate little kitchen scale.

The assembled terrine, ready for the fridge

Assembling the terrine was a total pain. The recipe states that the loaf pan must be lined with plastic, and smearing the rather tight chevre mixture onto the plastic was an ordeal: I found it impossible to get a nice, thin layer. Matters only got worse when the tomatoes, peppers, basil and arugula were added – the chevre mix had to be gently daubed on and then squashed down under the next layer of veggies. The tomatoes also leached a hella lot of juice. In any case… the lot went into the fridge for a night’s rest. In the morning, the result looked like this:

The completed terrine

It tasted pretty much as you’d expect it to taste: goat cheese with basil, tomatoes, and a pleasant faint undertone of roasted garlic. I found the chevre to be a bit too prominent – it overwhelmed the tomato.

But the big problems with the dish were textural. The tomato juice problem made assembly difficult and harmed the integrity and appearance of the finished product. The chevre mix was too stiff to spread easily, and it ended up feeling like very slightly lightened chevre, rather than a subtly tart, panna cotta-esque substance, which is what I expected and wanted. Had the texture been right, I think the assembly, the flavour balance, and the appearance of the final product would have fallen more or less into place.

Next time, I would certainly double or triple the milk in the chevre mixture. I also think the tomato fillets would benefit from a slow roasting in the oven, taking them down to about half of their initial moisture content. This would intensify their flavour, as well as alleviate the leaching problem. If you readers have any other suggestions for dealing with excess tomato leaching, I’m all ears.

All in all, this recipe didn’t do anything to endear me to Marcus Samuelsson. Rather than relying strictly on amounts, the instructions should have provided the home cook with qualitative cues – e.g., “if the chevre mixture is too stiff to spread in a thin layer, add more milk, one tablespoon at a time, until you end up with a texture like thick pancake batter.” There were also clearly a number of technical refinements that resulted in the dish pictured in the book, and these should have been passed on to the reader. For example, there is no way that the terrine in the picture came out of a plastic-lined mold: it lacks the telltale wrinkles. Other cookbooks tell the home cook about methods of loosening a terrine that is assembled directly into a mold. Aquavit, like many other “coffee table” cookbooks, fails to give home cooks the techniques that they need to produce the results that they expect. Sloppy work, Marcus.

Mix(er)ed Results

MC Warm Spice is off visiting the family, so I decided to have friends C&J over for burgers. I thought this would be an appropriate time to try grinding my own burger meat, as per Thomas Keller’s recipe in Ad Hoc at Home. Incredibly, Crappy Tire had (has) the KitchenAid box set of attachments at 50% off, which made it just about affordable. Thus armed, I set off to St. Lawrence Market, only to stumble into Buskerfest – a several-blocks-long clusterf*** of strollers, fast food, and other obstacles to efficient shopping.

Back at the ranch, I set to work on the first course, a melon mousse with serrano ham that has intrigued me since we picked up The Book of Tapas a couple of months back. You can find the recipe (and several others) here, but the specified 1.5L of water is actually not in the book… ahem. In short: puree cantaloupe, mix it with leaf gelatin, fold it into whipped cream, and spoon it back into melon shells.

Gelatin leaves soaking. Why are these not more widely available in Toronto? They're soooo much easier to work with than powder, and they never yield a grainy gelatin.

Julia, our stand mixer, hard at work whipping cream for the melon mousse.

The melon mousse, ready for the fridge.

The mousse was a failure: it separated into a moussey top layer and a liquid bottom layer (which, in itself, was a tasty enough melon soup). But it was a highly instructive failure in that three things were wrong. First, the instructions called for three small melons. This level of imprecision is fine when you’re chopping up melon for a fruit salad. But trying to set a gel using a specific amount of gelatin and a vague amount of liquid/puree is a recipe for failure. Second, although I was aware of that risk, I got frazzled and it didn’t occur to me to look up the proper ratio of liquid to gelatin. That was a huge dumbass move on my part. Finally, though, the diners all agreed that the concept was destined to produce a “meh” result. The spoon- and mouth-coating lipids from the cream actually detracted from the serrano ham “experience”. We would have been better off with a clean melon sorbet or granita, or (duh) just the classic slices of melon. So much for innovation.

Onward and upward to the burger accoutrements. This week’s Splendid Table broadcast included a recipe for a tomato jam that I thought would be a nice substitution for ketchup, and very much in line with the quasi-DIY theme of the burger. Now, I love me some Lynn Rosetto Kasper, but every now and then she takes shortcuts that make no sense. Worse, she backs them up with half-correct justifications. E.g., “I can’t bring my self to peel and seed a good tomato — much of the flavor is in the gel surrounding the seeds.” Well, that’s absolutely right. But it doesn’t follow from this that you need to leave the seeds and peels in the final product. Following the recipe would leave you with all of this in the completed tomato jam:

Much better to leave the seeds and skins in the pot, and use a food mill to extract the oozy goodness at the end. That produced a super-succulent, silky, sweet ketchup replacement that could have been a bit better had I added more lemon juice and hot chilis. But still… nom.

If you don’t have a food mill, get thee to a restaurant supply store. It’s an essential time-saver for mashed potatoes, gazpacho, and any number of other smooth foods.

The burgers themselves were fun to make. Keller’s recipe is actually super-simple: for burgers for 6 people, take 1.5 lbs. of sirloin, 12 oz. brisket, and 12 oz. of chuck (blade roast at my butcher) and mix in a teaspoon of salt and a half-teaspoon of pepper. The new meat grinder performed really well (although it did need to be partly disassembled once, to remove a glob of connective tissue). It also made comical squishy pressurized-air-meets-raw-meat sounds, much to the delight of the chef and guests, who revert to potty- and bedroom-humour when under the influence of Anchor Steam Beer.

Keller’s instructions omit the need to grind the meat twice through the large grinder plate, assuming that the reader will read his/her grinder’s instructions. A good tip from Keller, which I used, is to feed a wad of plastic wrap into the grinder at the end of the process, to ease out the remaining bits of meat. The other not-so-secret to good burgers is to compress the meat as little as possible – just enough to get it to hold its rough-edged, lumpy shape. That means that you need to be careful moving the patties around on the grill, but the tender texture is worth the extra care.

The burgers were served on Ace Bakery buns, with our homemade dill pickles, organic yellow mustard, aged cheddar, and really excellent bacon (which, like the burger meat, came from White House Meats at the St. Lawrence Market.) As usual, I overcooked them – I have yet to trust myself enough to successfully produce medium-rare burgers on the Weber grill – but the texture of the grind, and the flavour, were superior to any prepared ground beef I’ve bought.

Dessert was also from Ad Hoc at Home: a cheesecake with blackberry sauce. I’ll say right up front that this was the hit of the night. (To my consternation, as someone who is generally averse to sweets, dessert is often my most successful course at dinner parties.)

Keller uses a mix of cream cheese and mascarpone, and this, combined with the technique of cooking the ‘cake in a bain marie, produces the smoothest possible filling. The element of the meal that gave me the most pride, though, was the blackberry sauce. Because of laziness, frugality, and lack of time, I didn’t have a key component on hand: tawny port, Banyuls wine, or late harvest Zinfandel. I decided to substitute some balsamic vinegar glaze that was in the pantry, and a bit of Grand Marnier. The results were perfect: subtle sweetness, heady aromatics from the berries and liqueur, a profound depth of smoky-complex flavour, and ideal silkiness. This was a very grown-up cheesecake topping indeed. C perhaps said it best:

Not content with licking her own plate, a guest moves on to others'.

Don’t worry, MC Warm Spice: the blackberry sauce and tomato jam will still be here when you get back.

Cooking with Dexter

Cooking with Dexter

Bluebarry went to the St. Lawrence market today, and came home with a 15″ paellera. This was, of course, overkill for two nomnivores, however keen their appetites. So, the tiny paella – paradoxically featuring huge homegrown tomatoes and monster shrimp – was cooked in a tiny vessel. No recipe to speak of – just good calasparra rice, a 3 to 1 ratio of liquid (water, wine and pureed tomatoes) to rice, started on the stovetop and finished in a 350’F oven for about 30 minutes. Here it is, fresh out of the oven and coyly pulling itself back from the sides of the pan:

(We’re playing with the Hipstamatic iPhone app, and enjoying the menacing, Dexter-esque effects it gives to otherwise cheerful foodscapes.)

The texture was great, although it did lack the prized crunchy underside. We were also too light-handed with the saffron and piment d’espelette.

Working backwards, the paella was preceded by two long-time favourite tapas from a  NY Times New Year’s Eve issue (2004!)

Here, lovely anchovies rest atop sliced piquillo peppers, unaware of the approaching (shriek!) toothpick.

On the right, thickly slice Spanish chorizo, braised with white wine, sherry and fresh rosemary, finished with a sherry glaze. Together: salty, sweet, fatty, mouth-filling goodness.