Saturday, September 26, 2009

Pan seared lamb chops with roasted cauliflower puree and port reduced shitake mushrooms

I fell in love with lamb many years ago. If someone asks you to describe its flavor, you just can’t. It tastes like nothing else in the meat world. Succulent, earthy and medieval all come to mind, but you just have to dive in and find out for yourself. I can’t recall my first chance meeting with this heavenly gastronome but I do recall making it for the first time. It was the Christmas of 1993. That was the first year that I had assumed all of the duties for the family holiday meal. As I perused cookbooks looking for the perfect menu (back then I was a cookbook purist), I stumbled across a leg of lamb recipe. It sounded just perfect. While I don’t remember the exact preparation, it cooked slowly for hours with orzo bubbling away in the bottom of the pan studded with tomatoes and spices. It was a hit. That was the beginning.

As the years have passed, I have made lamb many different ways and enjoyed its unique flavor in many cultures around the world. Mutton (lamb over 2 years old), served in the UK has few spices, is slowly braised and has a headier more robust flavor while Mediterranean preparations are loaded with brilliant peppers and aromatics that sing on the palate. Spring lamb is an outdated term that used to refer to lamb born in the spring and harvested the following spring. Today, spring lamb means any lamb that is the right age and weight and can be found year round. Generally sweeter and milder, most of the animal is tender enough to be cooked directly over heat. In Anthony Bourdain’s book, A Cook’s Tour, he describes a trip to an Egyptian market in search for the freshest whole lamb. Not being slaughter day, he pays extra to have a fresh lamb prepared before his eyes. He then packs the animal on a camel and caravans to a Bedouin camp outside the city where the animal is slowly cooked over open fire. Eating and drinking late into the night, he enjoys the most coveted part of the animal in the region –the testicles. His description is vivid and compelling. Most of us will not trek to the Middle East to eat lamb balls, but his passion is noteworthy. I highly recommend this book for any foodie.

For reasons I don’t completely understand, lamb tends to stay out of most American kitchens. It seems to be reserved for special occasions and high end restaurants. I know there are folks other than me that eat it because my grocery store sells it –but I never hear any of my friends talking about the lamb they cooked last night. Personally, I buy lamb every 6 or 8 weeks in some form or fashion. Since I’m the only one in my house that will eat it, I just buy enough for myself and make it when no one else is around. I chose a recipe to share that is quite simple to prepare and stars one of the most popular cuts –the lamb chop. These small cuts hail from the sirloin of the animal and contain a cross section of the tenderloin. They are by far the tenderest bits of lamb. Before they are cut, they are the “rack” and tied into a circle they make the coveted crown roast. While I have explored different spices and marinades, I find the lamb chop requires little else than some salt and pepper. With it I cooked down some shitake mushrooms in a port wine sauce and served it over a roasted cauliflower puree with garlic and parmesan. I rarely know how my vision of a recipe will turn out but this was spectacular. The lamb was perfectly rich and sumpuous complimented by the sweet mushrooms and creamy puree. You can whip this recipe up any night of the week in about 35 minutes and the ingredients cost less than $30. You dinner guest(s) will be impressed.

Pan seared lamb chops with roasted cauliflower puree and port reduced shitake mushrooms

Head of cauliflower broken down to individual florets
5 cloves of garlic
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided
3 oz (about 1/3 cup) dried shitake mushrooms
4 tbsp butter, divided
1 shallot, sliced
1 cup port wine (any wine will do –port makes the mushrooms quite sweet)
3-4 tbsp grated parmesan
1-2 tbsp fresh tarragon, roughly chopped
¼ cup chicken stock
2-3 tbsp heavy cream
8 lamb chops

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lay cauliflower and garlic out on sheet pan and drizzle 2 tbsp olive oil over the top. Season with salt and pepper and use your hands to mix around on the pan to evenly coat each piece. Ensure that the cauliflower and garlic are in a single layer. Place into the oven for 30 minutes or until fork tender.

While the cauliflower is roasting, add the dried mushrooms to a salted pot of lightly boiling water. Allow to boil for just a few minutes then remove from heat and let sit for about 10-15 minutes or until mushrooms have completely reconstituted. Drain and roughly chop. In a sauté pan over medium heat, add 2 tbsp olive oil and sauté the shallots until just fragrant –about 1 minute. Add the mushrooms and sauté another 2-3 minutes. Add the port wine and reduce by half, about 10 minutes.

Generously season the lamb chops with salt and pepper. In a separate pan over medium high heat, add 2 tbsp olive oil and place the chops in. Do not move the meat. Cook for about 3 minutes on each side for medium rare (depending on the thickness of the lamb chops). Remove from heat and allow 5 minutes to rest.

Remove cauliflower and garlic from the oven and transfer to a food processor. Add cream (start with 2 tbsp but add more to get a creamy consistency), chicken stock, 2 tbsp butter, parmesan and salt and pepper to taste.

To finish the port sauce, whisk in 2 tbsp butter till just melted as well as the tarragon.

To plate, place a scoop of the puree in the center of the plate, lay 2 lamb chops across the top and spoon a few mushrooms over that.

Serves 4.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A weekend in Canada -cooking

I think all clichés are born out of wisdom. In this case, “Be careful what you wish for” comes to mind. “Don’t bite off more than you can chew” is another. “Too stupid to know any better” is also applicable. I’m referring to being approached by some friends and asked if I’d take care of the cooking for a large party; a very large party. And what rolled off my tongue? “Of course. Sure. No problem. It’ll be fun.” And it was. Here’s the story.

Karen and Harold are my winter neighbors. They have a cute little place down here in Palm Harbor where they retreat to escape the evil winter weather of their home in Wynona, Ontario. Both former small business owners, they really are enjoying their retirement. Karen approached me back in January and, knowing my passion for all things food, suggested I cater Harold’s 70th birthday party in August which was to be held at their home in Canada. I accepted the challenge without hesitation and didn’t think about it again for months. Then around the end of May, Karen called and wanted to know if I was serious because the plans were well under way. There was a theme, color scheme, live music, dancing and of course, lot’s of food. “I’m in.” Now things were getting serious for me and my nerves were getting a bit jittery but I’d made the commitment. It was time to buckle down and figure out what to do.

I began with menu planning. Karen and I spoke pretty constantly about the details and we settled on finger foods. With a Caribbean theme, I was filled with ideas that needed to be narrowed down. Karen’s strong aversion to cilantro made it difficult initially because I don’t know many (if any) island style dished without cilantro but that was a fun part of the challenge. While I was quite concerned about execution, the creative aspect of dish creation has always been my forte. We came up with 7 items and there would be over 1200 individual servings. Yikes! What had I committed to? I was definitely getting nervous.

I landed in Buffalo, NY on a Friday afternoon. Harold’s daughter, Tammi, picked me up and we headed across the border and up the Qweensway. After a quick stop at the grocery for the last minute perisahbles, we pulled up to their home. Karen had already done most of the shopping from the list I’d sent her. What a marvelous home they have. Both spacious and charming, the place is the perfect party house. There’s a huge wrap around deck with an exceptionally large and well groomed back yard. But the one thing that stands out is the view. From their back porch, you walk about 30 yards and you are standing on a seawall that overlooks Lake Ontario. Directly across the Lake and about 30 miles as the crow flies you see the skyline of Toronto with the CN Tower being prominent. It was breathtaking, to say the least. My room was to be on the second floor with picture windows running the length of the room looking out over the lake. I had little time for sleep but this was a peaceful room.

After getting my bearings on where everything was located, I immediately went to work. I had taken the time to map out a day by day food prep plan. This would turn out to be invaluable. For Friday night, my biggest challenge was to get 12 chickens roasted for a homemade chicken salad with avocado. Using Karen’s and her neighbor’s ovens, I got that done in a few hours but now there was meat pullin’ to be done. This is where I began to realize what a daunting few days ahead. 12 steaming chicken’s sat before me and I realized that if it normally takes me 10 minutes to do one chicken, I was going to be at this a couple of hours. That’s when the first of what would be many volunteers stepped up and the wheels really began spinning. Karen’s neighbor, Donna, and other neighbor, 12-year-old Cailin, stepped in and between the 3 of us we were done in short order. This is where the bells when off that I’d need a lot more help than I thought.

The next morning I was up well before the sun and hard at work. The clock was ticking. I had about 30 hours to go. As morning wore on (and my 2 day back ache began), several of Karen’s friends began showing up and offering to pitch in. Thank god. Without Kaley, Lynda, Liz, Tammie, Erin, David, John, Lawrence, Pam, Elise, Cole,Kevin, Cailin, Donna, Deepika, Marie, Brenda, Kenn, and Alice I would never have been able to chop, dice, slice, cook, skewer, roast, bake or sauté any of the items by myself. The plan was simple but time consuming. I began at about 5 AM by thinly slicing and pickling the red onions for the roast beef and brie sandwiches (not really Caribbean, but a request from Harold). Then there were the pounds of scallops for the scallop cups (a vibrant scallop salad served in lettuce cups). I sautéed for what seemed like hours. And so it went, on an on, all day long. I made several fresh sauces (remoulade for Shrimp Po’ Boys, Horseradish for roast beef), relishes (pineapple jalapeño for skirt steak) and marinades (Meyer’s rum and OJ for skirt steak). All the while my troop of volunteers, continued to do all of the prep work. From my kitchen view over the lake, I watched the sun rise and set while we continued to work. With Saturday’s chores finally behind us –and my back screaming, we sat and drank. I’m not sure what time I went to bed but I remember thinking it was too late.

Now it’s Sunday. Party day. With my Saturday to-do list completed, I turned to the Sunday morning portion. Raspberry tarts with homemade vanilla whipped cream were the first order of business. While making this, the rest of my enlistees showed up and none too soon. It was assembly time. I realized that I had several crews working on specific tasks and my role was changing from cook to conductor. I demonstrated to each crew how I wanted each item put together; how to assemble the hundreds of different sandwiches, skewer the 200 caprese salad skewers, fill the 120 scallop cups, top the tarts, flour the hundreds of shrimp for the Po’ Boys and so on.

Next I set up my outside station. The plan was to grill the island skirt steak and make the fried shrimp at the point of service so that we had 2 fresh hot items on the line. As party time approached, the food began coming to the buffet tables outside. When the clock struck 1 PM, everything was in place and the guests began to arrive. Folks dug in. Steel drum and island music played. The sun was high in the sky with just enough occasional overcast to make the day perfectly comfortable.

I grilled the marinated steaks and handed them off to be sliced and plated with the salsa. I also fried the shrimp that had been soaked in soda water then coated with a seasoned flour and cornstarch mix. This provided a light and crispy crust on the shrimp that tasted as perfect as any Po’ Boy I’d had on my many visits to New Orleans.

After just a couple of hours, my service was complete and I was ready to just enjoy. My nerves had melted hours ago simply because I was too busy. Now I was just running on adrenalin and some wine was in order. I mingled stopping by each table to ask if all was OK and I didn’t hear a negative comment. In fact, humbling compliment was the order of the afternoon.

If I missed the mark on any of these dishes, no one shared it with me. I did make a couple of mistakes that didn’t translate to the taste of the food. Notably, we had a lot of food; too much. While I did stick to the small plate theme, each item was probably too big so folks filled up. We ended up sending lots of food home with guests. Whole trays of sandwiches were destined for office break rooms on Monday.
What a terrific experience this was for me. I had fun even though I didn’t leave a 100 yard radius for my 3 days in Canada. A wise person once said, “If you make a living doing what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Now, I don’t make a living doing this but, as hard and long as we worked for 3 days, it never felt like a chore. I can’t wait for Karen and Harold to get back to Florida so we can reminisce about that great weekend.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

I visited a Top Chef contestant's restaurant

Note: Sorry for the absence. I’ve been running around a lot lately and I just haven’t had time to finish a post. Interesting that I’ve had several posts started but just haven’t completed anything. I’d like to get back to my weekly ranting this month. Also please excuse the photo quality. I used my iPhone. Olivia had her 1st day of Kindergarten while I was on this trip and I had to leave my camera at home. Now on with the writing:

After circling the globe a few times, there are a few constants about traveling that I have come to understand. Such as: never get behind mother with a stroller at the airport security line (you’ll be there forever) or, even if you don’t deserve it, always ask for a complimentary upgrade or never assume a familiar menu item on a foreign menu will even remotely resemble something you’ve had at home. There are so many silly little things like this that many books and guides have been written to help the occasional traveler navigate the gauntlet of uncertainty. One rule I found to also be true is that hotel food is horrible; usually real horrible. Of course there are exceptions at major resorts in the Caribbean, Las Vegas, the pacific islands and a few other rare gems –but in general, your average business traveler’s hotel food sucks. I’d swear that the salmon I had in a Marriott in downtown San Francisco came out of the same unseasoned vat of goo as one I tried in a Boston Hilton.

Imagine my surprise (actually giddiness is a better word) at walking into a hotel lobby last week and seeing a poster congratulating their executive chef for being a contestant on this season’s Top Chef on Bravo. Top Chef has become iconic for any true foodie. The façade of the Hollywood Beach Marriott in Hollywood, Florida is unassuming for a full service hotel. Built in art deco style, it was absent the charm of the South Beach art deco less than 20 miles to the south. If it hadn’t had the typical red lettered “Marriot” signage, I’d have thought it a wanna-be beach hotel. The exterior of peeling whitewash and lime green pastel accents are contrasted by a beautiful interior of dark woods, exquisite marbles and a charm reminiscent of an early 1900’s elegance that Teddy Roosevelt would enjoy. Management is not shy about their new celebrity chef either. A poster on an easel immediately greets you with a larger than life picture of Chef Ron Duprat. I didn’t even complete the check in process before asking to meet the chef. He’d already left for the day, I was told. I was crushed.
“What about tomorrow?” I asked.
“He’s usually here for breakfast. You can either see him in the main dining room or in the concierge lounge”, the exceptionally attractive young lady at the desk replied.
OK, fine. I’m here 2 nights, so certainly I’ll catch him tomorrow.

That night, I met my colleague for dinner at the pool bar. I couldn’t wait to eat hotel food this night. If Bravo selected this guy to be one of 17 contestants on a popular television show, he does something special in the kitchen. His menu seems a fusion from his French-Creole roots in Haiti combined with traditional south Florida fare. Simple preparations with clean flavors go a long way with me.

I decided to go with the “price fix” menu. Not a new concept, by any stretch, but it seems I’ve seen more restaurants offer this lately. Here, for $35, you get 4 courses with several choices for each course. If you eat out even just once in a while, you might recognize that this is a killer deal. My first course was a crab cake over a black bean and corn salsa with a remoulade drizzle and a few micro greens. As pretentious as this sounds, it wasn’t the slightest bit haughty.

It tasted exactly like a crab cake should: like crab. Void of heavy fillers, the sweet crab came through perfectly. I could have eaten 10 of these, seriously (they were small). Next was a curried green tomato gazpacho.

Slightly tart, a little sweet but perfectly curried, this was another hit. Next came the main course and my absolute favorite.

Atop some perfectly tender and bright green bok choy sat a magnificently seared miso crusted sea bass. This was a cross between fish and butter, heaven and perfection, Jennifer Anniston and Angelina Jolie (I still can’t believe Brad had both). As if the miso needed more help to make this dish stellar, there was a ginger butter sauce that made me weep as if I were walking my little girl down the aisle.

Lastly, the desert course was a rum cake with candied ginger, mango and blueberries. I was taken off guard when I was presented with something that looked airy, like a mouse. I’ve had rum cakes and I expected something more cake-y.

One bite into this fluff and my vision narrowed only to see the beach, a single shade-producing palm tree, a blue and white striped beach chair next to a table with a coconut with a straw hanging out. The waves crashed rhythmically onto the shore. The sun was high. It was hot. OK, I might be a bit dramatic but this was good. Really good. Thrilled with dinner, I retreated to my room and called it a night.

The next morning, I looked for Chef before breakfast but he wasn’t in. Damn. I might miss this guy. After a long day at work, I returned just sure he wouldn’t be in and I was checking out the next morning early. Bellying up to the beach bar, I once again asked the bartender if Chef Duprat was in.
“Let me check.” She said as she walked off.
5 minutes later, Mr. Duprat emerged. He looks every bit the part of a Caribbean chef. I found his appearance commanding and his tone soft. He introduces himself with a smile that fills his entire face.
We spoke for about 10 minutes and he told me about his past. I asked him how he liked being on Top Chef and he made a bit of a scowl. I’m guessing he doesn’t go far on the show. Chef Duprat freely admits that he doesn’t know how to cook fast. He goes on to talk about his French training and his penchant for slow braising and long cooking times. I had to ask if Padma (show’s host) was as beautiful in person as she was on TV and he responded, “She’s even more beautiful in person.” (I was secretly hoping he was going to tell me she was a hag.)
“What’s Tom Colicchio (the other host) like? Mean? Nice?” I asked.
Being very gracious, Chef went on and on about how kind he was.

Ron Duprat is a pleasant fellow. He’s a joy to talk to and his passion for his art comes through in conversation. At first, I wanted to meet Ron Duprat because he was a Chef on Top Chef but after our conversation, I was glad I met him just because he’s a really nice guy; the kind of guy you want as a neighbor or drinking buddy. I’m headed back to Miami next week. Any guesses where I plan to have dinner?