Sunday, August 28, 2011

Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Porcini Mushroom Tartlets

A while back, I was inspired to cook a French-themed dinner because I had never really cooked French food before. The dinner included some French onion soup, roast chicken number eight, and an eggplant compote. I wanted to cook something that could act as a decent side or appetizer to the meal. Because I already had a star-studded cast of chefs (Michael Mina, Julia Childs, and Joël Robuchon), I ended up gravitating towards Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Porcini Mushroom Tartlets. This recipe is probably one of the easiest things I've done for a quick, awesomely delicious appetizer/side.

First, bake some walnuts until browned to release their flavors and oils. Coarsely chop them after letting them cool a bit.

Next, poke some holes in some thawed and cut pastry dough. Yea, I thought about making my own. And then I realized I needed two things I didn't have at the time: (1) a bunch of free time, and (2) dough-making skills. Plans are in the works to change number two. Throw the dough into the oven.

For step three, butter up a skillet and sweat some onions until they yellow. This part takes the longest, but it's worth it. Cooking onions always smells awesome. Especially with butter. Oh, butter.

Next, coarsely process the onions and walnuts to produce a chunky mix of deliciousness. Season with plenty of salt and pepper to make the flavors pop.

Top the pastry dough with the onion and walnut spread and some quickly blanched mushrooms. Brush on a heavy dose of olive oil and send those babies into the oven. Special guest appearances by the onion soup and compote in this shot.

Top the finished product with some chives and serve! Easy breezy.

Yea, it looks prettier in the picture from the recipe, but you know what? It was still darn good. And I have no problem sharing this poorly misshapen tartlet because I enjoyed this dish so much. The tartlet came out crispy and buttery, the sweetness of the walnuts and onions really came through, and the chives helped to bring out the earthiness of the mushrooms.

Next time, I think I'd probably let the onions caramelize rather than just yellow to get out some more sweetness and balance out the sweetness with a spritz of lemon and a touch of cayenne. I'd also consider putting in fewer walnuts and substituting them with hazelnuts. Maybe you don't even need the nuts. And maybe you don't even need to blend the onions. Some thyme wouldn't hurt either. Also, imagine this sucker with some sautéed chanterelles, morels, or whatever mushrooms are in season. It'd probably be amazing, right? I'll report back some day.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Jacques Pépin's Quick Roasted Chicken (11/24)

Finally! Chicken number eleven! Jeez, it's already the end of August. I've got another chicken to share in the next few days, but still, I'm behind. But not to worry! I'm going to rally and eat tons of chicken in either September or October. Wish me luck...

So today we've got a recipe from Jacques Pépin. Jacques Pépin is pretty famous for producing great, home recipes. This chicken was no different. Better yet, it only took an hour to prep and bring this chicken to the table.

First things first. Grab those kitchen shears, cut out the backbone to butterfly the chicken, and wash and pat the chicken dry as usual.

For better, even cooking, slash the main joints between the body and the four limbs. Don't get too crazy with the slashing, though, because (1) you'll have to deal with separated limbs, which can complicate even cooking, and (2) whoever just saw you maim the chicken might think that you either have anger issues or or have an alter ego named Dexter Morgan.

Next, mix up the marinade. I was a little bit worried about how these flavors would come together. Minced garlic, dijon mustard, dry white wine, soy sauce, extra virgin olive oil, tabasco, herbes de Provence, and salt? Okay.

But as I started whisking the mix together, an addictive smell made its way to my nose. The chicken suddenly became much more promising.

Next, give the chicken some spa treatment. The sauce should find its way in every nook and cranny.

I didn't have a large enough skillet this time around, so I used a roasting pan on high to cook the chicken for a brief five minutes. The sizzling aromas should already be testing your patience.

After half an hour of roasting, you should have a slightly blackened chicken. But not to worry. The black parts are easily removable and are only the result of the 450-degree roasting technique.

I had mixed feelings about the end result. The dark meat was very moist and full of flavor and the skin was crispy and slightly spicy, but the rest of the chicken was a bit more dried out than I would have liked. I think I probably could have pulled the chicken out of the oven after 20 to 25 minutes, rather than 30.

Though the white meat came out dry this time around, I wouldn't hesitate to give this recipe another go, mainly because the bites of dark meat I had were notably delicious. The heat from the mustard and tabasco plays well with the potent and flavorful herbs. The soy sauce and wine barely make their way through, but I think with a little bit less cooking time, their rich flavors would probably shine more.

All in all, a great, quick way to get some delicious and interesting food on the table. The search for a chicken that can trump Marcella Hazan's rendition, however, continues.

In related news, I just finalized my roast chicken list for the rest of 2011. Now that I've more or less gotten my bearings with general chicken roasting techniques, I'm going to use the second half or so of this project to try out some more unique flavors and techniques. There will still be a few heavily European-inspired recipes, but lots of exciting and interesting roast chicken recipes to come!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Michael Mina's Truffle-Infused French Onion Soup

I love French onion soup. Something about the rich and fatty flavor of buttered up caramelized onions topped with an unnecessarily large amount of melted cheese gets me every time. Even though I cooked up Michael Mina's rendition a few months ago because Seattle was being its usual cold, gray, and rainy self, I could just as easily have cooked this last weekend, when Seattle was being its cold...gray...and rainy self...In any case, the weather this summer got me thinking about this soup again.

I've always thought of French onion soup as something very high-brow and difficult to make. Thankfully, this recipe was probably one of the more accessible soups I've made. No double straining, no immersion blender, and no roasting annoyingly stiff squashes (butternut, I'm talking to you, buddy).

So, first things first. Get some butter melting.

Throw in a bunch of onions and a bay leaf (I made five servings instead of ten).

And then it becomes a game of patience. So. Much. Patience. Anyone who's caramelized a batch of onions knows how good they smell after just a few minutes. Imagine that multiplied by a hundred. Seriously. Nearly two hours of this torture.

Add in some flour (I used spelt flour and a bit of xantham gum) and some wine and reduce.

Add in a bundle of thyme.

Along with the beef stock.

And then it becomes another game of patience. So. Much. Patience. Only about a half an hour this time though.

Reduce and season with salt and pepper.

In the mean time, slather olive oil onto some slices of bread and throw them into a 350-degree oven.

About fifteen minutes later, nice and toasty.

Finally, add the truffled pecorino. I wanted to just add a ton of this stuff because the bowl in the recipe's picture is properly covered from lip to lip with melted cheese. But, after a shaving the cheese for a while, (1) I got lazy, and (2) the intense aroma of truffle got me thinking the truffle flavor would be way too overwhelming. For some reason I felt like having a more subtle truffle flavor, and I highly recommend you do the same. You don't get the same, gooey, cheesy effect, but I think the dish had more depth and the flavors worked together better.

Overall, the dish was rich, not too fatty, and pleasantly aromatic. The thyme went really well with the savory beef stock, which ended up balancing out the sweet, caramelized, wine-laden onions. The cheese was perfect and the toast added a nice, muffled crunch. The soup was comforting, hearty, and entirely satisfying.

I thought I'd have some leftovers since I only had two people over to help me eat this stuff, but before I knew it, I found myself scraping away at the bottom of the pan to get the last precious remnants of caramelized onion goodness.

The world would be a better place if everyone made this soup once in a while.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Castagna [ two ]

I usually take a while to write about something I just ate, but with the proximity of the last Castagna post and the natural need to follow up on something so good, I had to throw in the one-two punch. I also usually don't write about the same place twice, just because there are too many places out there to eat at and write about. Finally, I usually don't write about two restaurants in a row, but this summer, things have been a little bit quiet in the kitchen. But not to worry. More chickens and more home-cooked goodness to come.

For now, let's leave it to the professionals. More specifically, let's leave it to Chef Matt Lightner and his awesome team of crazy good food-making professionals. Matt Lightner's last night at Castagna felt no different from the first night I experienced Castagna, and my reaction to his food wasn't any different either. One week later, the flavors still haunt me.

So, same deal. Two four-course meals, surprisingly affordable, just as worth it, but this time, I was with my good buddy, Kenny. Without skipping a beat, our meal started with another slew of snacks.

Look familiar? The same Dehydrated Buttermilk Puff with Herbed Aioli and Trout Roe. Just as unassuming as last time.

The nice thing about the puff this time was that the aioli and roe was neatly tucked away in the buttermilk puff. The sweet puff was light and clung to my teeth. The roe burst with briny flavor and the aioli was creamy, light, and flavorful. Just like last time. Still so great.

Next up on the pre-meal snack list, a Sesame Cookie with a Black Sesame Coating and Rose Hip Jam. When the crackers arrived, they looked like an intensely sweet and cool dark chocolate with a fruit jam. I was immediately surprised when I picked up the cracker. Gooey, slick, and almost as crude as oil. I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little worried.

When I put the cookie in my mouth, I was quickly reminded of why I had such a great time at Castagna last time. The cookie was salty and rich. The rose hip jam was aromatic and subtle. The black tar found its way to the corners of my mouth to create a welcome, lasting flavor profile. Initially, the cracker tasted like a traditional, Korean, black sesame cracker. There I was, munching away thinking I knew all about black sesame crackers. As the rose hip jam coated my tongue, a pleasant tartness found its way into the dense, black sesame flavor. As the collective flavor reached the end of its lifespan, I tasted a unique, staccato note of black sesame that I had never tasted before. The quick, surprising burst of unfamiliar flavor left me confused, awake, and craving more. This was exactly the same feeling I got when I had the purple carrot leather last time. What a trip.

Snack number three was a Rye Cracker with Chicken Liver Mousse and Poppy Seeds. The star of this bite was the mousse. Smooth, creamy, dense, slightly cool, and flavorful. The mousse was only accented by its seedy neighbors. The cracker cracked, the poppy popped, and the mousse...moussey? Anyways, it was delicious.

The Bread Plate rang with familiarity from my first visit. Even so, things were slightly altered this time around. The bread was a housemade rye roll this time. But just like the last set of buns, these had a great crispy and cheesy character to them. They weren't quite as oily this time, but still good.

Next to it was a familiar side of Smoked Pork Fat with Sunflower Seeds and Herbs. I liked the fat better this time. It was smokier and there was a very present taste of fennel. The texture of the fat was a lot smoother and creamier this time, which was a great way to balance out the less oily bread. The fat also really helped the rye flavors come out from the bread.

Next to the bread plate sat a familiar stone with butter on top. The butter this time was a House-Churned Butter with a Brown Butter Solid, instead of brown sugar. Though I loved the simple combination of brown sugar and butter from last time, the brown butter solid wins, hands down. The overall effect was a creamy, sweet butter with strong hints of what tasted like salted caramel. I loved the way this butter really showcased the range and depth of such a simple and familiar ingredient.

Things were looking good, and once snack time was over, things only got better.

The first dish of the first course was Favas (with spot prawns, flowers, and geranium). When the plate came out, I could immediately smell the deep, aromatic, toasted shrimp broth. The fava beans were perfectly toothsome and the fresh, spot prawns were cool and refreshing. The flowers added a beautiful color to the plate and added a light, floral flavor that went surprisingly well with the broth.

Our other first was a Crab (with mascarpone, seeds, juice of celery, and lemon balm). In stark contrast with the previous shrimp broth, the dill and celery broth was light and herbal, but just as aromatic. The lemon balm and mascarpone circlets were absolutely addictive.

The crab, as expected, was insanely fresh and sat on a base of that same brown butter solid from before. The effect was intoxicating. The rich combination of the brown butter and crab struck a perfect balance with the cool broth and acidic lemon balm medallions.

Our first second course was a Ground Anemone (with pine nut gravy, morels, rabbit sausage, and spinach). The pine nut gravy was rich and surprisingly umami, the rabbit sausage was just the right amount of gamey, the morels (Lord knows how much I love morels) added a great earthiness, the anemone added a barely noticeable lightness, and the spinach grounded the whole dish in something more familiar.

Despite all the technique-driven components, this dish was extremely comforting and heartwarming.

The second second was easily the best of the night: Summer Squash (with beef marrow, tongue, and onion blossom). The summer squash came out like a creamy risotto, the bone marrow was rich and plump, the crispy and stringy beef tongue was outrageously delicious and added some great texture, and the light, squash jus tied everything together with a perfect knot. One, huge bucket of that crispy beef tongue to go, please. The right bite with every single component was heaven and each bite hugged me with depth and warmth. Just thinking about this dish is making my stomach grumble and my mouth salivate. So, so good.

For our first main, we had a Lamb Collar (with wheat berries, wheat grass, and buttermilk). When I saw the word "buttermilk" on the menu, I had to order this. My memory of the buttermilk froth from last time was beyond memorable. The buttermilk this time was smoked, and I love myself a smokey dish or drink. This dish was no different. The lamb was cooked perfectly, and the glaze on the meat managed to counteract what would normally be very gamey.

The side of wheat berries were toothsome and the wheatgrass added a beautiful, pastoral element to the dish. A properly constructed mouthful of this course stirred some serious nostalgia for a farm I wish I grew up on. Surprisingly emotional, absurdly delicious.

Come to think of it, the previous two dishes, and the next dish, all had that effect on me. With each bite, these dishes truly made me appreciate the entire process behind getting the food to these plates. The lamb and the squash dishes literally made my eyes well up a little.

Our last savory course of the night was a Pork Roast (with scallions, yeast, and pine nuts). The pork was cooked to a beautiful medium rare, the scallions were perfectly grilled, and the duo of yeast and pine nut sauces brought some sweet, nutty, and tart flavors to the pork. The yeast really brought out that pastoral element that I was talking about earlier.

The crispy ends of the scallions were entirely addictive. How can I arrange for a bucket of these scallion ends mixed with the crispy beef tongue? Because I would love that. Right now. Best snack ever.

And with that, the savory portion of the night ended.

More so than last time, the night's desserts were some of the best I've ever had. First was a Wild Ginger (with long pepper, ginger shortbread, and herbs). This pile of goodies was awesome. I could eat each component of this dish on its own for days on end. The wild ginger meringue cubes were light, airy, and crispy, the thin ginger shortbread wafers were crispy and flavorful, the dill did its job in adding a nice herbal touch to the dish, and the long pepper marshmallows were fluffy and had just the slightest kick. The ridiculous combination of textures and flavors in this dessert was breathtaking. One humungous tub of this dessert to go, please.

The last dessert was also one of my favorites of the night: Sherbet (with lemon pulp, wild flower meringue, and crocus sativus). Okay, okay, saying "crocus sativus" instead of "saffron" is a little bit ridiculous, but you know what? This dessert was ridiculous. So Matt Lightner gets to call this dessert what the heck he wants to call it. The wild flower meringue was super light and airy. Each bit of the meringue melted immediately and coated my tongue with floral subtlety. The lemon pulp curd was creamy, smooth, and deliciously sour. The nitrogen bits of sherbet were cool and reminiscent of a more delicate form of Dippin' Dots. Meanwhile, the quenelle of saffron ice cream was doing a great job at centering the whole dish. This dessert was all about taking a bite and letting every flavor blend seamlessly into one another. This one also made my eyes well up with absolute bliss. So freaking awesome.

The night came to a close again with two Hazelnut Pralines Rolled in Chocolate. Just as delicious as last time and just sweet enough to kiss the diners good night.

All in all, I left Castagna feeling the same exact way as last time: intoxicatingly happy and outrageously pissed.

With most multiple-course meetings, there's always something mediocre in the mix. With four four-course meals under my belt at Castagna, I have yet to encounter that plate of mediocrity. Both times I've been Castagna, I've left with an absurd high, leaving with a spring in my step and a lull in my everyday reasoning.

The first time I left Castagna, I was pissed because I knew I wouldn't be able to eat at Castagna every single night of my life. One, they're not open on Sundays, Mondays, or Tuesdays. Two, I live in Seattle. Three, I'm a law student. There are only so many loans I can take out. Four, I'm not insane.

This time, I was pissed because I knew that I'd have to go all the way to New York freaking City to eat Matt Lightner's food again. I had fewer reasons, but I was more pissed the second time. Shoot, I still am.

With Matt Lightner gone, many diners will probably not even turn their heads for Castagna. But in some ways, I'm actually very excited to see how the new head chef, Justin Woodward, will fare in his new position. He was Matt Lightner's backbone through all of his accolades and press, so I have no doubt that I'll be back to Castagna within the next year and I'm sure a "Castagna [ three ]" post will find its way into this blog.


1752 SE Hawthorne Blvd

Portland, OR 97214

(503) 231-7373

GET: Multiple sets of the four-course dinner.

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