A Keller Kitchen Koan

To make something more itself is already to change it without changing it.

Whoa… deep, man.

The idea of making food express more of its self-ness is behind a number of very tasty dishes in Thomas Keller’s oeuvre. A great technique that he uses frequently with vegetables is to cook and serve them in, with, or surrounded by “themselves.”

Three examples:

A cauliflower gratin in which the sauce is augmented with the minced stem of the cauliflower itself.

An asparagus salad served atop a coulis pureed from the tough bottom parts of the asparagus itself.

A side-dish of carrots that are stewed with spices…

in a medium of dry sherry and carrot juice…

which is reduced…

Patience, grasshopper...

and reunited with the carrots on the plate.

Reunited. Like Peaches and Herb. Or something.

The Night with the Christmas Trees and Pie*

Christmas lunch/dinner was a low key affair, with the nomnivores joined by Ma and Pa Bluebarry. We served a brined capon and bread pudding (of which, more later). The only really complicated bit was a Lemon Meringue Pie, a favourite of Ma Bluebarry.

We’ve made lemon tarts before, but haven’t tackled the meringue bit. Nonetheless, Bluebarry decided to take the hard way, and turned to Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home for the definitive take on this classic (actually, it’s his lemon meringue bar recipe, repurposed as pie).

The crust, a basic sweet shortcrust, turned out exceptionally well, despite my over-handling it and dropping about 1/4 of the dough onto the floor (no, I didn’t invoke the 5 second rule).

The filling was not what I’m used to putting in a tarte au citron – instead, Keller has us make a zabaglione, which involves the prolonged whisking of sugar, lemon juice, eggs, and egg yolks in a double boiler. Once it’s all been whipped into a foamy sauce (!), butter is whisked in to produce something like this:

This is poured into our pre-baked shell, covered with parchment to prevent a skin from forming, and thrown into the freezer overnight.

The meringue-making, which took place on Christmas morning, was an interesting experience: Keller prescribes an Italian meringue, which, according to Wikipedia, “is made with boiling sugar syrup, instead of caster sugar. This leads to a much more stable soft meringue which can be used in various pastries without collapsing. In an Italian meringue, a hot sugar syrup is whipped into softly whipped egg whites till stiff. This type of meringue is safe to use without cooking.”

Meringue being piped through the corner of a ZipLoc bag.

The decorating was followed by everyone’s favourite step: the blowtorching!

Feel the 'pane, meringue.

The final product looked pretty credible, for a first timer:

The verdict? Overall, too sweet. The meringue, through a combination of pilot error and the nature of the beast, was too sweet. The crust was also too sweet, although it was tender and improbably thin. The filling? Not too sweet, but extremely runny – we haven’t had this problem with traditional lemon curd.

On the whole, we’re more likely to revert to traditional lemon curd-based tarts in the future, with a brulee’d top. Still, it was nice to be able to cater to Ma Bluebarry on Christmas, and she seemed to enjoy it.

* From Eric Cartman’s haunting rendition of O Holy Night.

Back from the Grav’… (or: sorry I’ve been ‘lax about posting)

Gravlax: Buried Salmon. A universal crowd pleaser, ridonkulously easy, and way cheaper and better to make than it is to buy. If you are having people over for New Year’s, and you can get hold of some good quality fresh salmon, you need to make this. Here’s how.

Two or three days ahead of serving time, get yourself a chunk (fillet, not steak) of organic, Atlantic salmon. Organic: because the other stuff is full of crap. Atlantic: because you need the high fat content. How big a chunk? Less than 2 pounds would be awkward to slice. Anything from that, on up to a whole side of salmon. But! Don’t make the mistake I made a few months ago, which was to buy a thin, little salmon side: this is a good way to end up with super-salty salmon jerky. You want a full inch or inch-and-a-half thick fillet.

Fresh salmon awaiting burial

Run your fingers down the length of it, against the grain. You’ll likely feel one or perhaps two rows of bones that need to be removed, with the impeccably clean tweezers or needle-nosed pliers that you doubtless have on hand for such occasions.

Line a high-sided glass or nonreactive metal container with some plastic wrap. Lay the salmon on it, skin-side down. Cover it with a mixture of equal parts sugar and fine-grained sea salt. Not table salt, ’cause that has more iodine than you need. You can use kosher salt, as long as you mind the conversion factor: 2 parts table salt = 3 parts Morton kosher = 4 parts Diamond Crystal kosher.

Salmon, cure thyself!

Our 2 lb. piece of salmon needed 3/4 cup of sugar and 3/4 cup of fine salt. Into that, we mixed about 2 tbsp of crushed peppercorns, and several crushed juniper berries. We also doused the salmon in 1/4 cup of Beefeater gin before applying the cure. (Or was the gin the cure?) Anyway – the gin and juniper are optional. The dill (one large bunch, roughly chopped) is not optional.)

Salmon ensconced in dill

Wrap the whole lot up tightly in plastic wrap, turn it skin-side up, and weigh it down with an appropriately sized pan, cedar plank, or whatever, with some canned goods on top for added heft:

There. Now, you're Thai gravlax.

Refrigerate for anywhere between 30 and 72 hours. If you remember to do so, you can flip the salmon once or twice. It doesn’t make much difference.

Afterwards, unwrap your salmon, remove the carpet of dill and the crust of spicy-liquid crystal deliciousness, give it a quick rinse and pat-down (for homeland security), and Ingmar’s your uncle:

Bork, bork, bork!

Slice it as thinly as possible, on the diagonal (a loooong, sharp slicer-knife does a good job at this.) We like it on best FinnCrisp rye crackers, with any of the following garnish combinations:

A drop of lemon juice and a few capers
Thinly sliced shallots (or red onions) and sour cream
Finely chopped fresh dill and horseradish creme fraiche