Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thanksgiving: The aftermath

...and that's not even the half of it.

Anyway. Now that all the dishes are washed, all the leftovers are put away, and all the guests have been sent home sated and happy, I want to take a moment to reflect a little on this whole prepping-cooking-eating extravaganza that has consumed my life for the past week.

I say that like it's a bad thing, but really, it's not. Cooking is such a fundamentally satisfying act. I often come home from a day of spinning my wheels, intellectually speaking, and feel pretty blue. Even if I've actually gotten a lot of things accomplished, it's often hard for me to feel like I've been making meaningful progress. I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels that way. But I can reach into the fridge or the pantry, pull out some ingredients, and whip up a quick dinner. Cooking offers just the right combination of difficult brain-work and mindless manual labor. I can turn off parts of my mind that I've been using all day in service of thinking about how I want something to taste and what I need to do to get it there. I can get lost in the rhythm of the the knife on the cutting board or the feel of water running over my hands.

There's something deeply joyous about the process of working with real physical stuff and coming out with a real physical product. (See this wonderful New York Times article for a more elegantly worded version of this point.) I know that if everything doesn't turn out exactly how I wanted it to, I'll still come out with something edible at the end. I'll still have done something worthwhile. It just takes a little bit of technique and a little bit of chemistry to make a little bit of magic.

Thanksgiving is my chance to take that process to the next level. And while I would never want to do this professionally (oh, my aching feet!), it's fun to pretend for a couple of days. It's fun to plan the menu and buy the ingredients and watch it all come to fruition. I must admit that there were a few times during the prep and during the meal when I wondered whether all the work was worth it --- people! don't you realize how freaking hard it was to dice all that butternut squash? show some respect! and how the hell could I have forgotten to make an adequate plan for serving dessert?! --- but then I realized that I was missing the point. Sometimes you have to do a thing just to do it. And while I don't want to get all flaky and mystical, it's a least a little bit true that the point of this particular journey is the journey itself. There's a meal at the end of it, and a yummy one at that, but that's more an excuse than a goal. For me, doing Thanksgiving the way we do it is about pushing my limits in the kitchen. I'm so glad to have the opportunity do this, and I can't wait for next year and for the next challenge. Maybe we'll try making our own butter, or our own puff pastry. Maybe we'll try kicking the garnishes up a notch with some infused herb oils or vegetable powders. Maybe we'll do the whole thing vegan for a change. Who knows? What matters is, no matter what, it's going to be one heck of a ride.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thanksgiving: The final prep

Thanksgiving Day. Michael got out of bed at 5:00 to take the bread dough out of the oven so that it could start to come to temperature and rise. He came back to bed, though, and we officially started the rest of the prep at the somewhat more leisurely hour of 8:00.

First, Michael baked the rolls for dinner...

...while I worked on making two butter-crust butternut squash tarts. What I love about this tart crust recipe is that you don't have to roll anything out. Because the dough is mostly butter, it's really forgiving, so I could just load chunks of it into the tart pan and pat it out until it filled the bottom and climbed up the sides.

While the crusts were baking, I assembled the filling: butternut squash cubes, sage, a few eggs, half-and-half, salt and pepper. I filled the tart crusts when they were about halfway done, then returned the whole thing to the oven to let the filling set while the crust finished baking.

We'd done pretty well with getting things ready to go in advance, so there were only two main cooking projects left for Thanksgiving morning. One was making the cornmeal blini, for which we employed a makeshift chinois (aka a wire-mesh strainer plus a wooden spoon) to smooth out the batter.

The other big task was making our amuses-bouches: puff pastry wedges filled with cranberry-quince chutney, goat cheese, and honey. We set up an assembly-line system for cutting the puff pastry into squares, filling it, folding it, and sealing the edges.

These baked for about 20 minutes per tray, and it was fun to watch them start to puff up and wiggle around on the baking sheet like little (edible!) Pac-Mans.

Finally, two other small tasks to finish out our meal. I was insistent on using crisped Brussels sprouts leaves to garnish the tart --- Lord knows why, since it's a ton of work for not much return, but that was kind of the name of the game anyway. And it was fun to deconstruct the little heads of cabbage, right off the stalk.

We'd added a palate-cleansing granita to our menu at the last minute, to come before the onion soup. I'd never made a granita before, but it's dead simple: Make a flavorful liquid. Freeze and scrape the ice crystals.

What I'm most proud of about this menu item is that it has exactly one ingredient: apple cider. That's it. Probably we could have added a squeeze of citrus in there, or a drop of sugar, but we got good cider and just wanted to use it as-is. Plus, I'm tickled by the idea of serving something that has only one ingredient.

Just to riff on this theme a little more: It's always been funny to me how people are so impressed by dishes that have tons of exotic ingredients and fancy techniques and show-off plating and the like. Liquid nitrogen! Scrollwork! Açai berries! More is better! But really, some of the absolute best things that I've ever eaten have had very few ingredients and require pretty much no complicated techniques at all. Think about the onion soup, or a perfectly cooked egg --- or bread, for that matter. It has exactly four ingredients: flour, water, yeast, and salt. Couldn't be simpler. And while I do love me some liquid-nitrogen-frozen-açai berries, I like to try to push the limits in the other direction, to see how much I can do with just a little.

So that was it for the prep. We managed to finish everything around 3:00, which miraculously gave us enough time to have a shower and even to put our feet up before getting everything ready to serve. Go team!

Unfortunately, I didn't have the presence of mind in the middle of service to take pictures of all of the food before it went out, but that's probably just as well. The point was to have fun and enjoy ourselves, which, believe me, we did. So what if it's not preserved for posterity; at least everyone had a good meal.

Friday, November 27, 2009



Thirteen people. Seven courses. Five hours. Lots and lots of thankfulness.

I'm way too tired to blog the whole shebang right now, not to mention that the keyboard is not getting along with my dishpan hands. So here's the menu for your reading pleasure, and I'll post some pictures tomorrow.

Thanksgiving 2009

Thanksgiving Purse

Shellbark Farms goat cheese with cranberry & quince chutney

Blini Duo

roasted cornmeal, white bean purée, duxelles, microgreens


roasted baby beets, dill raita, diced cucumber

Butternut Squash Tart

butternut squash, crispy Brussels sprouts leaves, shiraz-porcini sauce

Apple cider granita

Soup à l’Oignon Gratinée


Maple-bourbon pecan pie

Betty’s squash blossom cake with honey & toasted pumpkin seed icing

Mrs. Keen’s Cheddar

Molten Noi Sirius chocolate

Pain à l’ancien rolls

Kerrygold butter with chives

Giovanni Almondo Roero Arneis Bricco della Ciliegie 2008

Ettore Germano Dolcetto d’Alba Lorenzino 2007

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

T-minus one day

Thanksgiving tomorrow. Been cooking since 10 am. Lost count of the number of times I've washed the Cuisinart. Too tired to type in full sentences. Thank goodness for the early-evening yoga break to clear my head.

Okay. Photos! In no particular order, here's (some of) what we did today.

Mincing the mushrooms:
The ingredients: Fresh cremini mushrooms, rehydrated dried porcini mushrooms, shallots, parsley. Not pictured: lemon juice.

Starring: cranberries!
In a supporting role: quince! I wish I could have somehow captured the smell of this quince ---the perfume was sheer magic.
Mix it all up...
...and reduce.
Then add sugar. Lots of sugar. Dear God, those cranberries were sour!

Pie dough is not my best friend in the world, but I think I managed okay.
The crust (ignore the patches, please!):
Making the filling over a double boiler:
Hot filling goes into a partially cooked crust, sits in a very low oven for an hour or so, and turns out looking lovely, if I do say so myself. The bitch of it is that I can't try a piece to make sure it's okay before the big day. I'm pretty sure that this is why Michael tends to leave the baking to me. He likes to fuss with things while they're cooking, taste and adjust, whereas I'm (usually) happy to follow a recipe and let things fall into place at the end. It's frustrating in this case, though, because I really want to know what it tastes like. "Patience is a virtue," my ass --- I want pie!

White beans simmered with olive oil, garlic, and bay leaves, until tender:
Then we pureed them in the food processor with lemon juice and some salt. Michael is practicing piping them onto a plate.
Oh, piping bag, where have you been all my life? And why should I get to have this much fun and yet still make things that look pretty? I'm hooked.

That is all.

We also managed a number of miscellaneous cleaning tasks and a few other small cooking projects, but those were the big ones. Tomorrow: controlled chaos starts at 5 am. Guests begin to arrive around 3:00. Ready?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

T-minus two days: Onion soup update

Caramelization achieved!

Our twenty pounds of onions, which initially did not even fit into two huge soup pots, have now cooked down into a beautiful mass of mahogany that filled about a third of one pot. We put four or five cups of it into one pot (saving the rest for later), added a little additional butter, water, salt, and the spice sachet. The soup is now bubbling away on the stove, and it will probably take another hour or so for the flavors to fully develop.

The caramelization took about nine hours total. It's possible to make this go faster, by using higher heat or adding sugar. But if you do it faster, you lose some of the magic that happens when hot white onions are transformed into a deep brown mass of gooey sweetness. That's the sort of kitchen alchemy worth waiting for.

While the onions were going this evening, we managed to finish up a few more tasks. Michael peeled all the roasted beets, making the kitchen look like a murder scene:

Meanwhile, I detached the straight necks from three butternut squash, diced them, and roasted them:

Fun foodie moment: At DiBruno Brothers today, I was looking in the freezer case for puff pastry, which they didn't have, but I did spot some awesome ice cream from Vosges. They call these flavors "hautes glaces," and who am I to argue? I got the wattle seed flavor, in memory of Australia, because basically no one outside of Australia has ever heard of wattle seeds and it was so awesome to be able to have them again --- especially as dessert.

T-minus two days: Onion soup

Stop me if you've heard this one: Twenty pounds of onions walk into a Cuisinart...

For a few years now, Michael and I have served onion soup for Thanksgiving, and it's become something of a tradition. Because we only do this once a year, we like to make this an all-out, super-involved, multi-day cooking affair, using the most traditional ingredients and techniques. In this case, that means caramelizing twenty pounds of onions over the course of about eight hours. Why? Because we can. Also, because it tastes better. Sure, you could speed up the process a bit or cheat it with some sugar, and that's probably totally adequate for an everyday cooking project. But this ain't no everyday cooking project. This is Thanksgiving.

The recipe, if you can even call it that, is incredibly simple. Caramelize onions over very low heat for a very long time. Add water. The end.

Actually, there's a little more to it than that --- although that would yield a perfectly lovely soup, since 90% of the flavor comes from the onions anyway. But we usually toss in a few more ingredients to deepen the flavor. After the onions are done caramelizing, we add water until we reach the right consistency. Then we simmer the soup with a sachet of bay leaves, thyme sprigs and peppercorns, and add a splash of cognac.

One of the great things about onion soup (and there are many) is that it tastes better with age. As it sits for a day or two, the flavors deepen and meld together. Our plan is to finish caramelizing and make the soup today, let it sit tomorrow, and then portion it out on Thursday into individual ramikins and broil the tops with baguette croutons and Gruyère cheese. Does life get better than that?

Well, no, but I'm getting ahead of myself. First, there's the key step of caramelizing all of the onions. For those of you who don't do this sort of thing on a regular basis, here's what twenty pounds of onions looks like:

Before the caramelizing, of course, there's the key step of skinning and chopping all the onions. I think we did this on a mandoline one year, but we've since graduated to the food processor. Michael took care of trimming and quartering the onions, using proper finger-tucked cutting technique, of course:

I was in charge of feeding the onion quarters into the Cuisinart. We had two big pots with a chunk of butter melting in the bottom of each, ready to receive the bounty:

After many, many pulses of the food processor and not a few onion-inspired tears, everything was chopped up and piled into the two pots. Actually, not everything fit in both pots, so there was an overflow bowl on the side that we used to top up the pots once the onions started to shrink.

This basically goes against all my intuitions as a chef --- you should never crowd a cooking vessel with more food than it can handle, since then the stuff on the bottom burns while the stuff on the top stays raw. But in this case, since we intended to cook everything at a very low temperature for a very long time, it's not a big deal. It just needs to be stirred about every twenty minutes or so to keep everything cooking as evenly as possible.

What that means is that we have to stick pretty close to the kitchen all day, keeping an eye on the onions so that they don't start to catch on the bottom. But other than that, they don't need much attention, so we can do other cooking projects in the meantime --- like roasting two pans of beets...

...and making the baguettes that will eventually become croutons that will eventually go on top of the soup when it's broiled.

We don't want to cook all the time, though, especially since it's only Tuesday and we've still got two full days ahead of us. The best way to pass the time during onion soup making is by watching TV shows on DVD. The twenty-minutes-between-stirs schedule fits in almost perfectly with the commercial breaks. So we watch a bit, wait for a break, get up to check on the onions, watch a bit more, and repeat for several hours. The first year we did this, we blazed through the entire first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation; this year we're on the fourth season of The Wire.

Here are some pictures of our progress. If I had fancier photographic equipment, I'd set it up as a time-lapse. For now, though, it's just stills.

Onion cooking commences, circa 1:00.

After two hours:

After four hours (at this point, Michael said, "I think the lachrymators have denatured by now." How can you not love this guy?):

After six hours:

Mid-evening report: We've still got two pots going, but the onions have cooked down to about a quarter of what they were when we started. They're still quite wet, though, so the plan is to keep them going in two separate pots until they start to dry out a bit more. Then we'll combine them and keep a closer watch until they coast to full caramelization. If all goes well, we'll have soup by midnight. Stay tuned for updates.

Monday, November 23, 2009

T-minus three days: Zen and the art of making mushroom soup

Slow day today. We made our schedule last night, and today's tasks include finishing the grocery shopping (easier said than done), making one batch of dough (in the evening, to let it ferment overnight), and straightening up a bit in advance of the mess-making to come (like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic).

While there's a pause in the prep, I want to share some words of wisdom from one of my favorite chefs, Deborah Madison. She used to be the chef at Greens, a San Francisco veggie restaurant that Michael and I sometimes ate at during our West Coast days. Her cookbook, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, is our go-to guide for everything: what temperature the oven should be for roasting squash, what flavors go well in a summer salad, how to know if a melon is ripe, how to make fresh pasta...the works.

In the introduction to the book, she tells a story about an incident at her restaurant, which I find useful to keep in mind when I'm making a fancy meal for company. In her own words:
When it comes to cooking for others, I have learned --- am still learning, in truth --- that it's best to keep your doubts and disappointments to yourself. When you cook, you're surrounding yourself with tastes and smells, so your food doesn't always deliver the vivid impression to you that it does to others. Apologizing only makes other uneasy, whereas with nothing said, they might be completely content. I once had restaurant customers raving about my "smoked" mushroom soup. Smoked mushrooms? I checked the pot and found, to my dismay, that the soup had scorched. I wanted to say, "You liked that?" But they were happy, so, with difficulty, I swallowed my embarrassment.
Her conclusion: "Don't apologize."

I love the mushroom soup story because it reminds me not to worry so much. Sure, I have a grand plan of how I want it all to work, and I'll be disappointed if things don't turn out the way I wanted them to. But even if something goes wrong, or turns out a little differently from how I pictured it, I'll be the only one to know. At best, I can patch up the mistake and pretend that it was meant to be that way all along. At worst, I'll have to plan something new. But that doesn't really matter. The food will be made with love, for family and friends, and it will be consumed with love, by family and friends. Sometimes that fact gets lost in the heat of the kitchen, when I'm trying to find that perfect ingredient or struggling to get the plating to look pretty. I just have to take a deep breath and remind myself that no matter what, dinner will be delicious and I will have nothing to apologize for.

Even if I scorch the mushroom soup.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

T-minus four days: Experiments with quail eggs

I've wanted to work with quail eggs for a while. They're perfectly bite-sized and so elegant in their delicately spotted shells. Thanksgiving is always a great excuse to try some new things, and so this year I decided to include hard-boiled quail eggs on one of our menu items. (Don't ask which, I can't spoil the surprise.) But I've never dealt with quail eggs before, so I wanted to do a little experimenting with them before the big day, just to make sure that things would go as planned. As it turns out, this was a very, very good idea.

My victims --- er, experimental subjects:

I thought there were a dozen in the package but there were only ten. Will wonders never cease.

The main issue (so I thought) was trying to figure out how long it would take to hard-boil a quail egg. My usual procedure for hard-boiling eggs (thanks to Deborah Madison) is to start the eggs in cold water, bring it to a boil, let it boil for one minute, then kill the heat and steep the eggs in the hot water for six minutes with the lid on. Then I quickly plunge the eggs into ice water to stop the cooking. Then I can peel them or store them until I'm read to eat them. This method yields eggs with completely solid whites and yolks with just a little moist dab in the center. Obviously it would take a lot less time to cook a quail egg, but how much less? The experimentalist in me was ready to find out.

I started eight quail eggs in cold water, as usual, and prepped four bowls of ice water in which to shock the eggs at various stages:

I planned to pull out my eggs at each of four time points: just after the water came to a boil, after one minute of boiling, after a minute of boiling plus a minute of steeping, and after a minute of boiling plus two minutes of steeping. But I didn't want to rely on a single egg at each observation point. Statistical variations, you know. So I pulled two eggs at each of the four time points. (The remaining two eggs were lost to side projects, one an experiment in teeny sunny-side up cooking, the other an experiment in what would happen if I cracked one just before the water boiled. Answer: runny egg.) I let each batch of two eggs sit in cold water until I could peel them, and then opened them up to have a look:

The just-boiled eggs were still too soft in the center, but the rest of them were fully cooked. Of the remaining eggs, I thought that the ones that had been cooked for just a minute at a boil (the second batch) were the best, but I wanted to get a second opinion.

"Hey Michael, will you give this a try?"
"What is it?"
"Quail egg."
"No, they freak me out."

Significant pause. Um, dude, it's just an egg.

"Sweetie, I just want you to try it. I want to make sure it's cooked enough."
"Well, did you try it?"
"Yes. I think it's okay. Here, have a bite."
"No, they freak me out."
"Look, it won't kill you. Just tell me what you think."
"No, they freak me out."

I should pause at this stage of our conversation to note that this objection is from the guy who has been known to eat termites and kangaroo.

In an attempt to retain the scientific nature of the experiment, I ask: "Okay, what freaks you out?"
"I don't know, it just does. Look, I think those eggs have been sitting in the fridge for a while..."
"I tried one already, it's fine. Just tell me what you think."
"No, they freak ---"
"Just eat it, will you?!?"

This went on for five solid minutes.

Finally, I prevailed on him to try one of the eggs from the most promising batch, and I can assure you, gentle reader, that it did him no harm, although he did profess to not liking the taste very much. I personally didn't notice much of a difference between the taste of the quail egg and the taste of a regular hard-boiled egg, although I will admit that the quail egg had a somewhat more pronounced savory/eggy aftertaste.

So the answer to the original experimental question is as follows: To get well-cooked but not overdone quail eggs, start them in cold water, boil for one minute, then pull them out and shock them in ice water. QED.

The trouble is that even if they cook nicely, they're damn near impossible to peel neatly. Of the eight that I hard-boiled, only one of them came out of the shell even somewhat unscathed, and that one was in the last batch and was overcooked. So I ended up with lots of shell bits on my hand and lot of lumpy little eggs that looked like they had craters --- definitely not attractive, and definitely not attractive enough to serve to company. Not to mention the fact that the prettiest part about quail eggs is their shells, which of course need to be removed before eating. Otherwise they just look like little white blobs. The final nail in the coffin for this particular culinary project was the fact that most of the eggs cracked during the boil and had gotten waterlogged, leaving misshapen, pockmarked white lumpy blobs. I doubt that that's the sort of thing that whets anyone's appetite.

So, it's ix-nay on the ail-eggs-quay. In fact, it's ix-nay on any eggs in that particular dish, since we came up with a better serving solution. After the quail eggs experimentation, Michael and I tried coddling, then poaching a regular hen's egg (which didn't freak him out):

The poached egg turned out delicious, with a perfectly runny yolk and tender white. Nice though it was, we ultimately decide that it would be too much food to serve in one course, not to mention too damn much work to poach, drain, dry, store, re-heat, drain, dry and serve thirteen individual eggs. Well, maybe next year --- or maybe I'll learn some grand trick for dealing with hard-boiled quail eggs. Tips appreciated. 'Til then, it's on to the rest of the prep.

T-minus four days: Food shopping

Today turned out to be a gorgeous, sunny fall day, perfect for a long stroll down to the Italian Market. We picked up some dried porcini mushrooms and bay leaves at the spice store and a few odds and ends at Fante's kitchen supply, including a squeeze bottle and pastry tips for making our plating look pretty. We ended the morning errands at Headhouse Farmers Market for six pounds of beets, a gallon of fresh apple cider, a purple cauliflower, and some scallions (for tonight's dinner, not for Thanksgiving).

Now that we're home with the bounty, we've got some other tasks to do. For one thing, the six bunches of beets came with six bunches of beet greens, which we're not planning to use for the meal and which Michael is currently attempting to tame into something that will taste good over pasta. Wish him luck, won't you? We also want to try to familiarize ourselves with the workings of our new pastry bag before the big day, and I want to make sure that quail eggs behave as I expect them to. Bought a dozen of 'em for testing purposes at the Chinese grocery store, of all places.

Speaking of which, there's still more shopping to do. In fact, it wouldn't be unusual for us to go to six or eight different stores to pick up the supplies that we need. So far, we've made five separate shopping stops: Clark Park farmers market, Headhouse Square farmers market, the spice store in the Italian market, Fantes, and Moore Brothers for the wine. We'll probably still end up at Reading Terminal Market, Whole Foods, maybe Trader Joe's, and definitely DiBruno Brothers. We probably could manage it in fewer trips, but why? I'm not going to bother getting onions at Whole Foods when I can get them from the farmers market instead, but clearly that's the not the right place to pick up lemons or several bags of all-purpose flour. On the flip side, there are people selling goat cheese at the farmers market, but I'd rather get it from DiBruno Brothers, because I know how it tastes and behaves. Hey, we only do this once a year, so we're gonna do it right.

Bonus photos!
Brussels sprouts from our Keystone Farms CSA share, still on the stalk:

The wine lineup: