While the Steelers and Seahawks spent the past couple weeks training for the Superbowl, I was in my kitchen preparing for two big events of my own. My dinners last weekend may not have had a halftime show, and I didn’t get to douse my guests with Gatorade, but I accomplished what I set out to do, and thought the food was delicious.
Here's a summary of the dishes I served. It may seem like a lot of work, but it's hardly fair for me to call it that when I had so much fun and learned so much along the way.
Butter-Poached Lobster Salad and Lobster Bisque (not shown)
Succulent lobster, bitter greens, and creamy and sweet lobster bisque. The star of this dish is Thomas Keller’s famous butter-poached lobster. After steeping each lobster in water and extracting its semi-raw meat, the meat is gently cooked in a butter emulsion, which loads the lobster with flavour and creates a melt in your mouth texture.
Crab and Avocado Ravioli
This is my attempt at L’Astrance’s signature dish. Essentially, it’s a very simple preparation consisting of fresh dungeness crab meat sandwiched by two thin slices of organic Haas avocado. The top slice of avocado is seasoned with lime and orange zest, Fleur de Sel, and almond oil (which helps lubricate the palate just as the avocado begins to melt). Simple as it may be, this dish succeeds on a very fine balance of ingredients.
Poached Foie Gras au Torchon with Pickled Cherries and Brioche Croutons
I’ve never had foie gras that wasn’t seared, so after reading rave reviews about this French Laundry signature, I decided to give it a try. While the preparation isn’t difficult, it does take four days to prepare.
The first day simply involves soaking whole lobes of foie gras in milk overnight to draw out any residual blood. The lobes are then deveined – a tedious task, and slightly intimidating since by the time I was done, my lobes looked like mush. Fortunately they’re as easy to piece back together as play-doh. The lobes are then seasoned with salt, pepper, and sugar, and left to marinate overnight. The third day calls for tightly rolling the foie gras into a cylindrical torchon (about 3-inches in diameter and 6-inches long) using cheesecloth. The torchon is then poached for 90 seconds in hot chicken stock, rolled and reformed using a tea towel, and hung overnight in the fridge to solidify. On the fourth and final day just before plating, the torchon is unrolled, the ends are squared off, the remaining torchon is cut into six ¾-inch pieces, and the grey and crusty exterior of each piece is removed (and saved for future snacking). The result is a rich, creamy, and flavourful paté that goes beautifully with sweet pickled cherries (which I made), and brioche (which I bought from Toronto’s new but already famous Thuet Bakery).
Pan-fried Striped Bass with Lemongrass Cream and Fried Leeks
The first of two main courses, this dish originates from the tasting menu at Las Vegas’ Joël Robuchon at the Mansion. Unlike the bold and rich dishes that precede and follow it, the flavours of this dish are delicate and mild, yet create a very nice balance. I particularly liked the garnish of fried leeks which are even more addictive than homemade potato chips. For those wary of pan frying fish due to sticking and grease related issues, just remember to completely dry your fish before you place it in the pan and secondly, make sure your oil is at 375F to prevent it from soaking into the fish and becoming greasy.
Braised Beef Short Ribs with Root Vegetables and Sautéed Bone Marrow
My favourite and final savory dish of the night also took the most time to prepare. It all began with making the veal and chicken stocks two weeks prior to the dinners. A couple days before the big weekend, I soaked the short ribs overnight in a red wine marinade. It’s important to cook off all the alcohol from the wine before marinating the ribs, since marinating with raw alcohol effectively burns the meat and prevents it from fully absorbing the marinades’ flavours.
The next step involved braising. First, the ribs are seasoned and dusted with flour, and pan seared until golden. Then it’s into a pot of veal stock, chicken stock, and marinade, and into the oven for five hours. Afterwards, I squared the ribs into rectangular blocks and chilled them overnight to solidify.
About an hour before serving, I gave the ribs a quick sear, and placed them back into the braising liquid to warm. I also re-warmed an assortment of blanched root vegetables (carrots, parsnips, turnips, and baby onions) in the braising liquid, and reduced the remaining braising liquid into a bold and richly flavoured sauce.
Finally, just as I’m about to serve, I quickly dusted and pan fried a few small pieces of bone marrow until golden brown. And that’s it… the dish is ready to serve.
With so much time and effort being invested into one dish, it’s important, to use the best ingredients possible. When I first tested this dish two weeks before the dinner, I had no problem finding well marbled short ribs, and the finished dish was very succulent. However, the next week when I was buying ingredients for the actual dinners, those well marbled short ribs were nowhere to be found. I must have visited at least eight different butchers before settling on ribs with mediocre marbling.
Unfortunately, only about half of the seven pounds of ribs I bought came out tender. So while I could use the good half for my first dinner on Saturday, there was no way that I was going to serve tough beef on Sunday. In my moment of desperation, I visited (what I believe to be) Toronto’s most expensive butcher and bought short ribs at $10/lb (more than twice as much as they normally sell for). Melt-in-your-mouth amazing doesn’t even begin to describe how good they were…
It turns out that there are actually two types of short ribs: those that come from a cow’s chuck (very lean), and those that come from a cow’s ribs next to the rib eye (lots of marbling). My advice is, if you’re going to invest 25 hours of work to make this dish, make sure you find yourself some nice, fatty short ribs!
Pineapple and Coconut Sorbets with Coconut Gelée
Since the menu included four savoury courses that I’d never served before, I decided to play it safe dessert-wise, and stick with dishes I’d prepared many times before. I did however want to do more than simply serve two scoops of sorbet in a bowl. So after one sleepless night of sketching, I decided to add a thin pineapple chip and some coconut gelée to the sorbet. To make the pineapple chips, I bought a freshly cored pineapple, froze it for a few hours, and sliced it into thin sheets using a mandoline. I then I baked the pineapple for a couple hours on low heat until crisp and lightly caramelized. To make the coconut gelée, I simply added some gelatin to the same mixture I used to make the sorbet.
Apple Frangipane Tart with Ginger Ice Cream
This is one of my favourite desserts. I make it very often, yet never seem to tire of it. It’s a combination of sweet pastry crust (pate sucré), moist almond sponge, and baked Fuji apples. The cool and creamy ginger ice cream that finishes with a hot kick beautifully complements the warm apple tart.
White Chocolate and Rice Milk Flan with White Chocolate-Pistachio Emulsion
I finished the night with another favourite by Vancouver pastry chefs Dominique and Cindy Duby (who coincidentally are profiled on Food Network Canada and in Maclean’s this week). Even if you don’t like white chocolate, you might very well fall for this intricate dessert. The flan itself is light and delicate, and the rice milk nicely balances the sweetness of the chocolate. The rice paper chips are soaked in ginger syrup, garnished with pistachios, and baked to a crisp provide wonderful contrast. And the rice noodle, slippery and also soaked in ginger syrup, adds another dimension to the dessert. The white chocolate-pistachio emulsion is rich and sweet and perfectly complements the flan.
In addition to the above dishes, I also served Gruyère Gougères (cheese puffs) before dinner, and sent everyone home with a small box of Chocolate Sparkle Cookies.
Last but not least, I must also thank my friend Renée who contributed two dishes for Saturday’s dinner (in place of the fish and apple tart, which I served on Sunday). She made Charred Scallops with Ceviche Dressing, and a Golden Pearl Brownie Cake with Crème Anglaise, both of which were very good.
So there you have it. In the coming weeks, I’m hoping to try a few new dishes which I’ll eventually serve at my next big dinner.
(modified 2/16/06 to add dish descriptions)