Tuesday, April 04, 2006

4 Star Performance a Crowd Pleaser

I’ve been to 4 star restaurants. In Paris no less. I’ve sucked the tender meat off frogs legs, tasted exquisite molecules of Pâté perched on the most tender tiny leaf of some unknown plant, and teased tender, garlicky snails from their twisted lairs. With meats and fowls and fish and palette cleansers and dessert as well. Not to mention wine matched to each course. Of which there were up to 10.

Restaurants that just have a single seating per night (every table full – places booked out for months ahead). Start at 7 pm, out by midnight. With every sort of service personnel to help you along the journey. Leisurely pace, like a ballet, slow-motion, but timed so that just as one taste wanes the next is almost to the table.

And of course prices to match.

You gotta be there with someone whose company you really, really enjoy. Cause five hours is a lot of face time if the conversation starts to die.

But those days are on a temporary (?) hiatus. And anyways – it was a bit of a challenge sometimes to make it to the end. You really need a beautiful city like Paris after such a dinner so you can enjoy an hour walk through the still teeming squares and sidewalk cafes, maybe to some club where you can force some blood back into your legs to a pulsing techno beat, before heading back to your hotel just in time for the tail end of brunch.

Although Southern California offers plenty of expensive restaurants, and clubs that throb and thump till morning light, it’s the dog waking up just as you get home, and the family dragging themselves from bed, with the T.V. already blaring (I don’t remember any of that in Paris!), that sort of takes the edge off it.

And anyways – I’m trying to be the one who can pull off a few of those spectacular plates – on rare occasions and with a little luck. And just sitting in Paris (as much fun as it sounds) is not going to do it. Plus the dog needs to be fed again, even though that’s teengirl’s responsibility (the dog would have been dead 5 years ago if we tried to hold her to that), so traveling to Paris every night for dinner wouldn’t work anyways.

So when I occasionally come across a recipe from a highly rated chef – something that seems a little special – I go for it. Double roast chicken bones for extra flavor – i.e. 5 hours effort for 2 tablespoons of broth per plate? I’m there! New crazy techniques (olive oil ice cream?) or unique ingredients? Things I am almost positive no one here would ever consider eating? Bring it on!

Not every day, but on occasion. To the universal moan and groan of the crowd here. Most of these dishes require a certain adventurous nature to enjoy – even if made and presented by the star chef, let alone by me.

So when I stumbled across a recipe by Thomas Keller of French Laundry fame, AND realized I had almost everything on hand, AND realized that none of the ingredients in the recipe were odd / objectionable / endangered / etc., it seemed almost too good to be true.

So tonight, the highlight will be ‘Fava Bean Agnolotti with Curry Emulsion’. A light White Bean, Sage and Prociutto Bruschetta will be the starter. With a simple spinach salad with a red wine vinegar vinaigrette. And because I’m not getting any $100 a seat here, we’ll just bypass the several entrée courses and skip right on to the dessert of Riesling poached pears on a pine nut crisp cup, with a scoop of non-fat vanilla yogurt for a little protein.

I’ve included complete recipes, with references, and adaptations as noted.

The Brushcetta was fabulous. Pictures could not describe it. I mean prosciutto, garlic, sage, olive oil, what else can you ask for? A real hit!

The Agnolotti was subtle – it didn’t hit you in the face – but wonderful. Very nice combinations of flavors, nuanced and balanced. The Agnolotti pasta itself was very tender and soft, delicate almost, due to all the egg yolks used to make it. And perfectly detailed recipes. I was surprised, but everyone loved it, and it’s all gone. No leftovers.

The Pear in the crisp was a really nice finish as it was light, finely balanced in flavor and cleaned the palate with all the citrus. The pine nut crisp was a lot more work that it sounds (stirring the dough while it cooks), but tasty.

All in all, worth the effort!

White Bean, Sage & Prosciutto Bruschetta:

Rub a slice of garlic over still-warm grilled bread, then drizzle liberally with good quality olive oil and a sprinkling of coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Drain and rinse one 19-ounce can of cannellini beans. Either mash to a coarse puree with a fork or puree in a food processor or blender. Add one teaspoon lemon juice, 1 tablespoon olive oil, about 3 tablespoons chopped fresh sage, and coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Spoon a heaping teaspoon of bean mixture on each bruschetta and top with a bit of prosciutto.

November 1999
Thomas Keller

Fava Bean Filling

2 to 3 pounds fava beans
3/4 cup fresh bread crumbs
1/4 cup plus 1 1/2 teaspoons mascarpone
Kosher salt
1/2 recipe Pasta Dough
Curry Emulsion
2 teaspoons curry powder
2 tablespoons chopped scallions
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable stock, chicken stock or water
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup crème fraîche
8 tablespoons (4 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Eighteen 1-inch-long pieces ramps or scallions, blanched, chilled in ice water, drained, and dried
Eighteen 1-inch pieces garlic sprouts or garlic chives, blanched, chilled in ice water, drained, and dried

For the Fava Bean Filling:

Shell the fava beans and peel the skins from the beans (peeling the beans before cooking them prevents gases from being trapped between the bean and the skin that could cause discoloring). Remove the small germ at the side of each bean. You need 1 1/2 cups beans for the filling; reserve any extra beans for another use. Blanch the beans for about 5 minutes, or until tender, and immediately transfer to ice water to chill. When they are cold, drain the beans and spread on paper towels to drain thoroughly.
Place the beans in a food processor with the bread crumbs. Blend until they come together and form a ball. Add the mascarpone and process again until the mixture is smooth. Season to taste with salt. You will have 1 to 1 1/4 cups of filling (enough to fill 48 agnolotti). Refrigerate the mixture until it is cool, or for up to 2 days.
Roll out the dough and fill the agnolotti according to the To Fill Agnolotti instructions. You should have approximately 48 agnolotti.
To complete:
For the curry emulsion, toast the curry powder in a small saucepan over medium heat until it is fragrant. Stir in the scallions and heat for another minute. Add the 3/4 cup stock, the cream and crème fraîche, bring to a simmer and cook until the liquid is reduced to 1/2 cup. Swirl in the butter. When the butter is melted, transfer the sauce to a blender. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons stock and blend for 30 seconds to emulsify the mixture. Season with salt and pepper and strain into a wide pan.
Meanwhile, cook the agnolotti in a large pot of lightly salted boiling water until cooked through, 4 to 5 minutes.
Drain the agnolotti, add the agnolotti and ramps to the curry emulsion, and toss over low heat to coat with sauce. Divide the agnolotti and ramps among six serving dishes and garnish the top of each with 3 garlic sprouts. Serve immediately.
Makes 6 servings.

November 1999
Thomas Keller

Pasta Dough
1 3/4 cups (8 ounces) all-purpose flour
6 large egg yolks
1 large egg
1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil
1 tablespoon milk

Mound the flour on a board or other surface and create a well in the center, pushing the flour to all sides to make a ring with sides about 1 inch wide. Make sure that the well is wide enough to hold all the eggs without spilling.
Pour the egg yolks, egg, oil, and milk into the well. Use your fingers to break the eggs up. Still using your fingers, begin turning the eggs in a circular motion, keeping them within the well and not allowing them to spill over the sides. This circular motion allows the eggs to gradually pull in flour from the sides of the well; it is important that the flour not be incorporated too rapidly, or your dough will be lumpy. Keep moving the eggs while slowly incorporating the flour. Using a pastry scraper, occasionally push the flour toward the eggs; the flour should be moved only enough to maintain the gradual incorporation of the flour, and the eggs should continue to be contained within the well. The mixture will thicken and eventually get too tight to keep turning with your fingers.
When the dough begins thickening and starts lifting itself from the board, begin incorporating the remaining flour with the pastry scraper by lifting the flour up and over the dough that's beginning to form and cutting it into the dough. When the remaining flour from the sides of the well has been cut into the dough, the dough will still look shaggy. Bring the dough together with the palms of your hands and form it into a ball. It will look flaky but will hold together.
Knead the dough by pressing it, bit by bit, in a forward motion with the heels of your hands rather than folding it over on itself as you would with a bread dough. Re-form the dough into a ball and repeat the process several times. The dough should feel moist but not sticky. Let the dough rest for a few minutes while you clean the work surface.
Dust the clean work surface with a little flour. Knead the dough by pushing against it in a forward motion with the heels of your hands. Form the dough into a ball again and knead it again. Keep kneading in this forward motion until the dough becomes silky-smooth. The dough is ready when you can pull your finger through it and the dough wants to snap back into place. The kneading process can take anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes. Even if you think you are finished kneading, knead it for an extra ten minutes; you cannot overknead this dough. It is important to work the dough long enough to pass the pull test; otherwise, when it rests, it will collapse.
Double-wrap the dough in plastic wrap to ensure that it does not dry out. Let the dough rest for at least 30 minutes and up to 1 hour before rolling it through a pasta machine. The dough can be made a day ahead, wrapped and refrigerated; bring to room temperature before proceeding.
To form sheets for agnolotti:
Use 1/2 recipe pasta dough, divided into two or three pieces. Run the dough through a pasta machine as for ravioli, but make the sheets wider. The size will vary according to the pasta machine used, but the sheets should be at least five inches wide. It is important that your pasta sheet be thin enough so that you can see your fingers through it, but not so thin that it's translucent. Keep the pasta sheets covered, as they dry out quickly, and proceed with filling the agnolotti.
To fill agnolotti:
If you are planning on using the agnolotti immediately, have a large pot of lightly salted boiling water ready. Work with one sheet of pasta at a time, keeping the remaining sheets covered. Work quickly, as fresh pasta will dry out.
Lay the pasta sheet on a lightly floured surface with a long side facing you. Trim the edges so they are straight. Place the agnolotti filling in a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch plain tip. Pipe a "tube" of filling across the bottom of the pasta sheet, leaving a 3/4-inch border of pasta along the left, right and bottom edges.
Pull the bottom edge of the pasta up and over the filling. Seal the agnolotti by carefully molding the pasta over the filling and pressing lightly with your index finger to seal the edge of the dough to the pasta sheet; don't drag your finger along the dough to seal, or you risk ripping the dough. When it is sealed, there should be about 1/2 inch of excess dough visible along the tube of filling (where you sealed it). Be certain that you are sealing tightly while pressing out any pockets of air. Seal the left and right ends of the dough.
To shape agnolotti:
Starting at one end, place the thumb and forefinger of each hand together as if you were going to pinch something and, leaving about 1 inch of space between your hands and holding your fingers vertically, pinch the filling in 1-inch increments, making about 3/4 inch of "pinched" are between each pocket of filling. It is important to leave this much "pinched" area between the agnolotti, or when the agnolotti are separated, they may come unsealed.
Run a crimped pastry wheel along the top edge of the folded-over dough, separating the strip of filled pockets from the remainder of the pasta sheet. Don't cut too close to the filling, or you risk breaking the seal. Separate the individual agnolotti by cutting the center of each pinched area, rolling the pastry wheel away from you. Working quickly, place the agnolotti on a baking sheet dusted with a thin layer of cornmeal, which will help prevent sticking. Don't let the agnolotti touch each other, or they may stick together.
Repeat the same procedure on the remainder of your pasta sheets. Either cook the agnolotti immediately in the boiling water, or place the baking sheet in the freezer. Once the agnolotti are frozen, place them in airtight freezer bags and keep them frozen for up to several weeks. Cook the agnolotti while still frozen.

Makes about 14 ounces dough

Pears poached in Gewürztraminer on Pine Nut Crisps with Vanilla Yogurt
Adapted from ‘

Pine Nut Crisps:
4 Tablespoons of butter
1/3 cup of corn syrup
1/3 cup of sugar
1/2 cup of ground pine nuts
1/4 cup of flour
Place all the ingredients in a thick bottomed sauce pot and heat over a medium heat. Continue heating, stirring constantly until all the ingredients come together into a smooth cohesive mass. Refrigerate until chilled.
Place several heaping tablespoons of the mixture on a non stick baking surface, make sure they are at least three inches from the edge and six inches from each other. Bake at 350 degrees for about twenty minutes until they are an even deep golden brown. Remove and let cool briefly until you are able to lift the spread out cookie up with a spatula. Drape it upside down over a cup or other mold and allow it to cool until hard. Repeat with the remaining batter.
If you are making these in advance store them in an air tight container.

The Poached Pears:
1 bottle of Gewuerztraiminer wine
1 cup of honey
1 lime
1 lemon
1 orange
4 firm ripe pears such as bosc or bartlett
Place the wine and honey in a narrow high sided pot just large enough to accommodate the standing pears in a single layer. Zest the citrus and reserve. Squeeze out the citrus juice and add to the mixture. Bring the mixture to a simmer forming a syrup.

Peel the pears. Using an apple corer or a small thin bladed knife cut the core out of the pear. Leave the stem intact on the pear. Trim the base of the pear so it stands upright easily. Place the pears in the simmering syrup.
Poach the pears until they are tender, depending on the pear this will take from ten to 20 minutes. Judge the tenderness of the pear by probing it with a thin bladed knife, it should meet little resistance. Don’t poach for too long as the pears will quickly disintegrate to mush.
Lift out the whole pears and refrigerate until needed.
Strain the syrup and reserve.

The Pear Citrus Broth
The remaining poaching syrup
The reserved citrus zest
2 ounces of pear brandy or other brandy

Add the citrus zest to the syrup. Bring the syrup to a simmer and reduce it by half. Add the brandy. Chill and reserve for service.

To Plate
Ladle several ounces of the broth into a chilled service bowl. Center a crisp in the bowl and fill with several scoops of the yogurt. Add a poached pear, sliced and fanned out, and top with the peel slivers. Serve. Enjoy!

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