Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Play with your food - deconstruction of the Olivier salad

I have missed the nouvelle cuisine and am not excited by molecular gastronomy, but I love to play with food all the same. This dish is a joke that only those who grew up in Russia would appreciate fully. Here I take the most common and mundane party dish, and re-work it in the style of nouvelle cuisine.

Olivier salad is a Russian potato salad that during the hungry Soviet past absolutely had to be served at any party. If it wasn't, the guests would ask where salad Olivier is, as if the dinner was impossible without it. The salad consists of a huge bowl filled with finely diced boiled potatoes, pickles, hard boiled eggs, canned peas, and either chicken meat left over from making a soup, or bologna or any cold meat. The salad is dressed flooded with en enormous amount of mayonnaise from a jar. It is the FOOD - heavy, filling, cheap.

So, here is my take on the classic:

Salad of potato with pickle and fresh small peas, balsamic truffle mayonnaise dressing
For 4 servings
1 chicken breast, marinated with herbes de provence and olive oil, then grilled and sliced
1 egg, boiled 9 minutes, cooled in ice water, peeled and sliced into rounds
1 gold potato, cooked, cooled, peeled and cut into round slices
2 small kosher pickles, julienned
1/2 cup fresh or frozen small green peas, cooked about 5 minutes and drained
small bunch of garlic chives

For the mayonnaise
1 egg yolk
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp red wine vinegar
1/2 cup grapeseed oil
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp black truffle oil
sugar, salt, pepper to taste

With a hand mixer in a bowl or in a food processor, break down the egg yolk, mix with the vinegars, then, mixing all the time, add the grapeseed oil a drop at a time. Mix in the EVOO and the truffle oil, adjust the seasoning. Put the mayonnaise into a squeeze bottle.
Squeeze a circle of the mayonnaise onto a plate, arrange the ingredients into a pyramid on top, decorate with ribbons of mayonnaise, scattered peas and chives.

The next time I'll be fooling around with this recipe, I'll replace the boiled potato with a little round potato flan made with an egg and sour cream, for better texture.

Seared Duck Foie Gras

The European vacation I was planning this year didn't happen, and I'm not too sad about it. One thing that I really miss (besides seeng my family) is fine French food.

Fortunately, I am not the only food-curious one out there, and a foodie friend who was looking for fat duck liver for a long time, ever since they banned the imported goose foie gras in California, and he was worried that duck liver may follow, finally found it, and very close to home, too - in Sonoma, at http://www.artisanfoiegras.com/ . They only do mail-order, but the packaging is so good that it isn't a problem. The liver comes vacuum-packed, an a foam insulated box, with a couple of ice packs added.

The liver that my friend brought me was the size of a small duck, so we cooked a half of it for two good size entrees, and saved the other half for later. The liver stays fresh refrigerated for a few days.

Of course I couldn't resist and tasted a small slice row, and it is heaven. It's even better pan-seared, with green salad, caramelized onions and Fuji apples and sel gris. Cooked according to the instruction on the Artisan's website, complete with the stovetop fan. Oil is not needed - the liver releases so much fat that after 30 seconds it's floating in fat. Care should be taken not to overcook it, or it will just melt completely. It behaves not unlike ice cream, and when cooked, has similar texture. So I cooked the 1 inch slices exactly 30 seconds per side in a very hot pan. The fat that's left over in the pan smells as sweet as the dish itself, and can be saved either for sauces of for frying.

The other half we cooked the same way and served with sauteed figs and champagne grapes, a great combination too.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

It's This Time of the Year

This is the time of the year that gourmets live for. On the market, the supply of figs is steady, several types of grapes appeared, heirloom tomatoes are everywhere, and 'regular' tomatoes are real cheap, both sweet and hot peppers are abundant.

Pictured here are champagne grapes (they don't make champagne from these, they are called so because of their delicately sweet taste) and very ripe Mission figs - add a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, and you got the taste of California.

And here are Shady Lady tomatoes ($1/lb!) getting ready to be slow-roasted. I lined a roasting pan with aluminum foil, sprayed it with olive oil and evenly spaced tomato halves in the pan. Then I am going to season them with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, drizzle some more olive oil on top, and roast at 250F for 2-3 hours. Results later.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

My Version of Salade Niçoise

When it gets so hot that one doesn't feel like grilling, a good dinner salad is a good solution. Light, colorful, with bright tastes of fresh garden vegetables, and big anough to serve as an entree. It does require some cooking - you still have to boil the eggs and the potatoes, and sometimes I like to fire-roast and peel the bell peppers - but you don't have to watch the cooking, just time it, so go sit in the garden while the hot stuff is boiling on the stove.

Recently, in fancy restaurants in the States it became fashionable to make a vegetable salad with fresh blackened tuna on top and call it niçoise. This is a way it's never made in Nice and around. The tuna has to be canned, it has exactly the right texture that carries the dressing well and provides contrast to the vegetables. And it's bistro food, after all! Canned tuna in olive oil is generally better quality than tuna in water, and you also get the oil for the dressing.

The yellow bell peppers and heirloom tomatoes that I planted in containers grew very flavorful, but rather small. This is why the recipe calls for a whole pepper and 3 tomatoes per serving.
I had my homemade anchovies cured in salt, so I had to do additional work of soaking and filleting them, but I like their taste and texture much better than of the canned anchovies in oil.

For the lack of Niçoise olives I used Gaeta. Please, please, if you are reading this, don't buy pitted olives! They are mushy, tastless, and they are taking over the market! It is becoming increasingly difficult to find olives with pits. Well, I still have my Greek and Persian grocery stores.

The nasturtium flowers are from my garden and are used just for the show. Actually, their taste compliments the salad well too.

The other ingredients that are sometimes added are green beans, cucumber, onions and garlic.

Salade Niçoise
for each serving:
2 small potatoes, boiled, peeled and quartered
1 egg, boiled for 9 minutes, peeled and quartered
4 anchovy fillets
4-5 leaves of lettuce, torn or cut into squares with a very sharp knife
1 small or 1/2 large red or yellow bell pepper, cut into long thin slices
3 small or 1 large ripe tomato, sliced
1 can tuna in olive oil (or in water), drained, oil reserved
8-10 small black olives, with pits

for the dressing:
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp red wine vinegar
2 Tbsp EVOO + oil from the tuna
salt, pepper, (optional) sugar to taste

On a large plate, arrange the lattuce, scatter the tomato and pepper slices. Mound tuna in the center. Arrange egg quarters on the sides, place an anchovy fillet on each. Scatter olives on top.
In a small bowl mix the mustard with the vinegar. Slowly wisk in the oil. Adjust the seasoning.
Pour the dressing over the salad.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Honest Simple Persian Food on the Peninsula

Most people, when they think of Castro Street dining in downtown Mountain View, picture the blocks between the railroad and El Camino, where you can see a Thai family listening to nuevo flamenco playing in an Indian restaurant or locals dancing salsa to juzz music and chasing tapas down with a mojito in Cascal. It's all about show, entertaining, and 'fusion' cuisine, not about taste. As long as the interior decor is interesting, plates are fancy, the waiters are attentive and napkins folded nicely, noone cares if the tomatoes are underripe (even in the middle of the summer, right next to the farmers market full of perfect ripe tomatoes, cheap) or the soup comes somewhat cold.

Dont't take me wrong. I love fusion cuisine, in fact, what I cook at home is mostly fusion. And I believe that dining should be entertaining. But the flavor comes first. And what makes a flavor are the quality of ingredients and balance in putting them together (that comes naturally in classic cuisine, but has to be carefully thought of in fusion), and I saw these two essentials sacrificed more than once here.

For no-frills authentic flavor, cross El Camino. You will see a thick column of smoke coming from a corner of an old building. It's called Rose International Market, and it's a persian grocery store.

The smoke is produced by a hole on the wall, facing the parking lot. The hole contains a large smoking grill and three guys (Mexicans, of course) busy filling orders for kabobs and grilled vegetables. You go inside to order and to get a bottle of water or a yogurt drink from the fridge, and a number. Your order will be ready in about 10 minutes, and you pick it up from the hole and sit at one of the plastic tables on the sidewalk to eat (or get a takeout). Don't forget to order vegetables or other side dishes and the yogurt dip - they are not included automatically. A bunch of fresh herbs (mint, cilantro, parsley) comes with the order. For-here orders come on a plastic tray lined and covered with lavash bread to keep warm. The part of lavash that is under the meat absorbs the juices and becomes a treat. Tear a piece of bread and wrap meat, herbs and vegetables in it. Plastic forks and knives are available but not required.

Pictured here are grilled vegetables, two orders of kubideh, chicken kabob, and lamb liver. Everything fragrant with mediterranian spices and done to perfection (the liver was a bit overcooked to my taste though). A good-size lunch for two, relatively hungry.
Price: $

Cross El Camino back to the "official" part of Castro for an excellent espresso at Spica.