Saturday, May 30, 2015

New Cookbooks -- Two Takes on Genius

I have just read two very interesting cookbooks: Bar Tartine: Techniques and Recipes, by Nicolaus Balla and Courtney Burns, and Kristen Miglore's Food52 Genius Recipes: 100 Recipes That Will Change the Way You Cook. Both are good reads, but they could not be more different. The former is a fascinating study of techniques and how they can be put to use to create interesting innovative food, but most of the techniques are beyond the space, resources and time of even sophisticated home cooks. I doubt that I will make more than a handful of dishes from it. Food52 Genius Recipes, in contrast, is a compendium of great recipes: out of the 130 or so recipes (some extras are set out in the margins) I want to make about 100 -- really! -- and probably will actually get around to 50. This is a book to cook from.

One great plus for both books is that measurements are given in US volumes but also in metric weights. Food52 Genius Recipes goes a step further and gives oven temperatures in both Fahrenheit and Celsius, so I can use the copy I bring to Paris without the pesky need for conversions.

Bar Tartine

Founded by rockstar baker Chad Robertson, of Tartine Bakery fame, and his wife Liz in San Francisco's Mission District, Bar Tartine has a cult following and turns out unique food reflecting influences from all around the world, but mostly Asian and Hungarian, reflecting the backgrounds and eclecticism of chefs Balla and Burns.

The first half of this beautifully photographed book is a fascinating explanation of many techniques that Balla and Burns employ at Bar Tartine: fermenting, preserving, dehydrating, pickling and preserving. For the restaurant this results in a reserve of pure and wonderful homemade products that are used in the recipes, many of which are set forth in the second half of the book.

But this is not an easy book to cook from, because the recipes call for the ingredients covered in the techniques portion of the book. For example, "Rooster Boil" prepares a big old chicken with, among other things, onion brine, homemade sweet paprika, charred arbol chiles, burnt bread powder, homemade chicken broth (at last something I have), home-dried tomatoes and dried zucchini. Similarly, the brilliant sounding "Sunchoke Custard with Sunflower Greens" incorporates kombu dashi (again, something not hard to make), sunchoke oil, mushroom reduction, homemade hot paprika, poached sunflower seeds, and sprouted amaranth seeds. You can use store-bought substitutes for some of these, of course, but then you won't have a dish that is what the real Bar Tartine is about. It is clear why the book is subtiled "Techniques and Recipes" rather than the reverse.

So I will be putting Bar Tartine on the shelf and wistfully thinking about how nice it would be to have an enormous pantry to store the ingredients from the first half of the book and to have a small restaurant to put them to use in the recipes from the second half.

Food52 Genius Recipes

This book is a whole 'nother story. Also lavishly and instructively photographed, it contains more than 100 recipes nearly all of which are appealing and accessible to a home cook. Many are classics by eminent earlier (Julia Child, James Beard, Marcella Hazan) and current chefs, and many are destined to become classics. Before I bought the book I had made Marcella Hazan's "Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onions," Union Square Cafe's "Bar Nuts," Dorie Greenspan's "Marie-Hélène's Apple Cake," Jim Lahey's life-changing "No-Knead Bread," Marian Burros's iconic "Purple Plum Torte" and a variation of Claudia Roden's "Orange and Almond Cake," all to great effect. Since buying the book, I have made "Classic Guacaomole" from Roberto Santibañez (wonderful!) and Daniel Patterson's ingenious and easy (and good) "Poached Scrambled Eggs." Tomorrow I plan to make Rose Levy Beranbaum's "Blueberry Pie" with some Bobby Jay modifications, and next week I am going to try José Pizarro's "Salt-Crusted Potatoes with Cilantro Mojo." That will bring me to ten recipes from this book. Get the idea?

And who wouldn't want to try Roger Vergé's intriguing "Fried Eggs with Wine Vinegar," a new take on "English Porridge from April Bloomfield, Edna Lewis's "Shrimp Grits" or Roy Finamore's "Broccoli Cooked Forever"? This is a random sample.

As you can see, I LOVE this book, and plan to buy 10 copies to give as gifts when I'm invited to dinner (or not).

In sum, two ways to appreciate genius. One -- Bar Tartine: Techniques and Recipes -- worth reading for fun and inspiration, the other -- Food52 Genius Recipes -- worth reading, too, but also for mapping out your next year of cooking.

Bobby Jay

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Chef's Table -- A Feast for the Eyes and the Brain

I have just watched the six episodes of Netflix's Chef's Table, a new series of six documentaries on some of the best, and most interesting, chefs in the world. Produced by David Gelb, who produced and directed Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the films explore the cuisine produced by the selected chefs but, more interestingly, they focus on the roots of and motivation for the extraordinary creativity of the chefs. Along the way, the viewer is treated to a myriad of images of magnificent, mind-blowing food.

The fantastic chefs who are the subjects of the series are:
  • Massimo Bottura, Osteria Francescana, Modena
  • Dan Barber, Blue Hill, New York City
  • Francis Mallman, Buenos Aires
  • Niki Nakayam, N/Naka, Los Angeles
  • Ben Shewry, Attica, Melbourne
  • Magnus Nilsson, Faviken, Jarpen (Sweden)
Obviously, they are all brilliant and accomplished, but it is their connections to the earth, the farm and, most important, to other people, that provide the fuel for their spectacular creativity. All struggled early in their careers but persevered and ultimately succeeded through the power of their creativity and passionate sense of mission. Their stories are compelling, well-filmed and, as noted above, accompanied by spectacular pictures of their food, a few of which are set out below.

Magnus Nilsson's signature scallops grilled over juniper
Ad for Chef's Table
Niki Nakayama
Massimo Bottura
Dan Barber
Massimo Bottura
Nikki Nakayama
Perhaps because it is first, I liked the episode on Massimo Bottura the most, but reactions will no doubt vary based on viewers' food preferences and life and travel experiences. But no matter which episodes resonate most for you:  Chef's Table is a must for foodies (and you are one if you are reading this). If you have somehow resisted subscribing to Netflix (and thereby missed  the wonderful House of Cards, among other things), this should get you over the top.

Bobby Jay

Monday, May 11, 2015

Paris - Non-French Omelet for Dinner

The other day I was not very hungry for dinner so I decided to use up a couple of the beautiful eggs (bright orange yolks!) I had bought, together with some leftover brie and herbs.

I recalled seeing a video in which some chef (a friend of Jamie Oliver's, I think) made an unconventional omelet by beating the eggs until they were almost the texture of pancake batter, rather than going for the thin, elegant but tricky to prepare French-style omelet best shown in Julia Childs' classic TV episode.  I looked for the new video on line but couldn't find it, so I just . . .

. . . beat the hell out of the eggs,

Eggs beaten to thickness of pancake batter
cooked them in a little butter until they began to separate from the pan (and have little steam holes like a pancake (look closely at the photo),

Omelet nearly ready to stuff and fold
sprinkled little bits of brie atop, with chopped chives and dill (sorry, forgot to take a picture of this step), then folded and served with more chives and dill and toasted slices of French baguette.

Voila! Non-French omelet in Paris
Tasted pretty great!

Bobby Jay

Paris - Le Petit Célestin

Le Petit Célestin
 Last week I went to Le Petit Célestin, a tiny bistro on the Quai des Célestins, opposite the Île Saint-Louis, for a second visit, with my friends E and F. We had an excellent meal consisting of classic French cuisine, which is the focus at this unpretentious restaurant.

E started with oeufs en cocotte, F with langoustines mayonnaise épicé (crayfish with homemade spicy mayonnaise and I with remoulade de chair de tourteaux aux pommes vertes (crabmeat mayonnaise with diced apples.) The eggs were excellent, as were the langoustines, which were served with a small green salad. My crabmeat was good but not great: too mayonnaise-y for my taste.

For mains, we all took the day's special, aile de raie (skate wing). A huge portion of perfectly cooked skate, with classic butter and caper sauce, served over a bed of roughly mashed potatoes. The best rendition of skate that I have ever experienced. For dessert, we continued with the classics, an île flottante and a lemon meringue tart, both  fine examples of these ancient dishes, which are not so easy to find these day. Our third dessert was a chocolate cake that was good but sounded better than it turned out to be. 

Our new neighborhood, in the part of the Marais just north of the Seine (aka the "bas Marais"), has a number of small bistros, and we are slowly getting to know them. Just three minutes from our apartment, Le Petit Célestin is a keeper.

This place is small but popular. If you plan to go, make a reservation. Le Petit Célestin, 12 Quai des Célestins (Métro Sully-Morland).

Bobby Jay

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Paris in May - The Start of Produce Season

I am making a brief trip to Paris to attend the meeting of coproprietors of our building. We are new in the building, and the neighbors encouraged me to attend, so I did. Quite different from our New York coop's meetings, this one involved a lot of discussion rather than just votes on matters mostly decided by the board.

But today is Thursday and that means that the huge Bastille market is open. Although the Thursday market is a shadow of its Sunday self, it was still great to see beautiful produce from the beginning of the French growing season. Some nice peonies at the florist . . .

Peonies at the Bastille market
. . . and gorgeous fresh garlic everywhere (I am still not sure how to use it, but it's mellower than the dried that we always see).
Fresh garlic at the Bastille market
I bought some asparagus and strawberries from a great Picardy producer, and produced a vegetarian lunch for myself, including a slice of rhubarb tart from an excellent boulangerie/pâtisserie. Steamed the asparagus and then sauteed them butter (this is France, after all!), and topped the strawberries with yogurt (more virtuous here) and saffron syrup.

Early asparagus from the Bastille market - before
Early asparagus from the Bastille market - steamed and sauteed in butter

Strawberries from the Bastille market - before
Strawberries - with yogurt and saffron syrup
Rhubarb tart from Maison Hilaire
Appetite suitably whetted for our longer stay in June-July.

Bobby Jay