I rambled on and on (and on) last week before I ever even gave you the barest hint at what I actually cooked for dinner. And now that I think about it, I’m not sure if those digressions made for the best first impression. I’m actually quite fond of a good ramble, especially when it comes to food.
But I’m also awfully fond of structure. So in order to give some guise of literary structure to my ramblings, I think it’s best that I present to you the weekly menu, straight away. Here it is.
And oh wow, it just turned out fabulous! A fabulous dinner for an even fabulous-er guest. (I’m also really fond of poetic license, if you haven’t already noticed.) This Friday we had my lovely, long-lost cousin Katelyn over for dinner.
Katelyn is my second cousin. My Grandpa Schoen and her grandma were brother and sister, and my mom and her dad are cousins. Now, our family is huge, and despite growing up in the same town, I’m not certain Katelyn and I have ever actually met before. If we have, it would have been years ago, and she would have been like, six, and me sixteen, so I don’t think that even counts. But a few months ago, we crossed each other’s paths, and realized how much we had in common. We both live in Chicago. We’re both chefs. Both into catering. And, we even share a hero. Really, she is the long lost cousin of my dreams. She’s incredibly adorable and just so bright (them Schoen genes are powerful!), I can’t believe she’s only twenty. After years of living far away from family, I just couldn’t be happier to have her in town.
Well, needless to say, Katelyn’s visit called for a special menu. So this week, I pulled out all the stops. Racked my brains for the tastiest recipes I could think up. Used some seriously high quality ingredients. And even made homemade ice cream.
Let’s actually skip the hors d’oeuvres for now and start with the main course, and the leeks in particular. Because, it was these leeks that inspired the entire meal. These melty, succulent, utterly heavenly braised leeks. I hadn’t been able to get them off my mind for the past few weeks.
It all started in Catalonia. For one of my work assignments, I had to prepare leeks from our garden, every which way – raw, boiled, pan-fried, deep-fried, roasted, etc… But as with all these garden produce taste tests, the preparations had to be really simple. I could use nothing more than a bit of cooking oil. No salt. No pepper. No nothing. The point was to sample the product in as pure a form as possible, to discover the most subtle of its qualities and attributes. Kinda scientific, you know. No room for actual tastiness. But here I had this huge bushel of gorgeous organic leeks, harvested that day from our garden. And I had this notion of braised leeks just sticking in the back of my mind. And so I broke the rules, and on top of all the boring preparations, made a dish of these too. At first, I got little snickers from a few people, and a few “whad’ya make those for?”. But then they tasted it. And tasted it some more. And cleaned the plate in a minute flat. These guys, El Bulli chefs mind you, were just loving my braised leeks. They even asked me to include the recipe in my report!
Well, I basked in their mmmmmms for a while, and then suddenly realized that while years ago, these braised leeks had been a go-to dish for me, I’d completely forgotten about them somewhere along the line, and had never made them for Ben. And they are just so good! They’re rich and sweet and buttery. And just so smooth and utterly decadent, like plush, wide ribbons of green velvet. With long and slow cooking, they just seem to dissolve into caramelly goodness. Throughout the rest of the trip, the thought of finally making these for Ben became my obsession. I couldn’t wait, and took the first opportunity to whip some up when I got home. And then I knew I had to make this long lost recipe again to properly celebrate my long lost cousin.
These divine leeks were the star from the very start. But I have to say, the supporting cast, every last one of ‘em, was not outshone. This weekend’s meal had an Oscar-worthy cast. And they all had such chemistry. It was quite a remarkable ensemble.
Now, it’s worth noting that these leeks would be sensational with any manner of things. With roasted chicken or seared duck breast, or grilled salmon. (In a house or with a mouse, in a box, with a fox, here, there or anywhere.) But for whatever reason, scallops seemed to just ring true to the spirit of the evening. So I got a pan blazing hot, poured in a few glugs of olive oil, and seared us off three big scallops apiece. Like a row of golden coins, I arranged these glorious shellfish atop a puddle of rich, pink blood orange beurre blanc, right next to the equally wealthy pile of luxurious leeks.
Now, let me tell you a little bit about the beurre blanc sauce. And let me get a little geeky, and go off on a scientific-ish tangent. Because really, on a molecular level, I’ve always thought beurre blanc was so cool. Essentially, it’s inside-out butter. Now, butter itself (like mayonnaise, or a vinaigrette, or milk, or any number of food things) is an emulsion – a mixture of two incompatible liquids (e.g. oil and water) that are mixed up so furiously that tiny droplets of one liquid get evenly dispersed all throughout the other. In the case of butter, a million little droplets of water are scattered throughout and surrounded by a continuous phase of butter fat. But when you make a beurre blanc, as you slowly add little cubes of butter into a small amount of water-based liquid (in this case blood orange juice), whisking all the while, you turn this emulsion around, and suddenly, it’s backwards. It’s now composed of a million tiny droplets of butterfat, surrounded by water (or in this case, blood orange juice).
The really cool thing about it is, this molecular turning of the tables serves to completely change the texture and mouth-feel of the butter. You’d imagine something that’s nearly all butter to taste greasy and excessively rich and way too over the top, but this magic trick of a method turns it into something all together different. Smooth and bright and charming, it’s still rich, yes, but not cloyingly so. And while it’s easy to see how the sweetly acidic orange juice can tame the rich butterfat, there remains a mysterious alchemy I can’t quite explain. The whole of this sauce is so much more than the sum of its parts.
And that brings us to the beets. I had the leek, scallop and beurre blanc components (all of them a bit on the buttery side) set from the very beginning. And so now I needed something to round out all that luxury, something bright and fresh and a little sweet. Something to add a touch of zing. The beets took care of all this. And they went even further. Their touch of earthiness perfectly complemented the savory, homey leeks. It was a well composed a dish as any I’ve ever created, with each element delicious on its own, but even so much better next to its neighbor. Hey, what can I say, I’m altogether proud of it.
Now that I’ve done my weekly bragging, let’s go backwards to the hors d’oeuvre, the wild mushroom tart, which was also delicious. But I can hardly take the credit. It’s a recipe of an incredible Los Angeles chef, Suzanne Goin. I bought her cookbook, Sunday Suppers at Lucques, about a year back, and I adore it. It’s one of my current favorites, one of those cookbooks where you want to try every last recipe. And this puff-pastry wild mushroom tart was one of those must-tries. Simple and rustic, with deeply caramelized wild mushrooms, nutty gruyere cheese and a sprinkling of fresh green herbs, it sounded like just the thing for a winter appetizer. And it certainly was. We devoured it.
And for dessert, chocolate bread pudding with banana ice cream. For three years now, ever since having a truly sensational chocolate bread pudding during a brunch at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, I’ve been searching for the perfect recipe to recreate that divine dessert. But nothing I tried was ever quite right. Nothing until now. I found this recipe online, on epicurious. It was the only one whose picture looked chocolaty enough, but it was actually for chocolate-chile bread pudding. So I made a few adjustments, and left out the chile parts, but more or less followed the general theme of their recipe. And violà, it was exactly what I wanted.
And to top it off, homemade banana ice cream. During a cold Chicago winter, homemade ice cream is a tough sell. But banana ice cream, which I couldn’t find at the grocery store, was calling my name, and really loud. It just totally seemed like the perfect winter ice cream. You know, it’s so easy to fall into the citrus trap during this time of year, but bananas are a great seasonal fruit too. And I really wanted to use this kinda boring staple that we all have sitting around on our kitchen counters and transform it into a decadent dessert. So I pulled the ice cream maker out of the storage closet, and thawed some overly ripe bananas I had stashed in the freezer. I took the basic ice cream ratio I learned in school and added mashed bananas. You know what, it turned out superb. On top of chocolate bread pudding, it tasted just like a banana split. And just like a really good ending to a really good meal.