Culinary Sagacity

~Thought for Food~

The Cathayans believed that the soul or mind is located not in the head but in the stomach.

Doubtless this explains why they fret so much about the preparation and serving of food.

It may also explain why their memories are so much better than ours.

Information is stored not in the finite head, but in the expandable stomach.

--Cyrus Spitama in Gore Vidal's Creation

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Michel Cluizel Hosts the First Chocolate Dinner in America

When you adore chocolate and find yourself invited to the first ever choco-centric dinner in America, you don't walk, you run. A couple of weeks ago lucky little me found herself in this position, and it was with great expectations that my man and I entered Le Cirque restaurant—somewhat short of breath—to attend a chocolate dinner hosted by Chocolat Michel Cluizel.

Although Michel Cluizel had already hosted such a dinner in Paris, there had never been anything like it in the U.S. To add to the unique experience, Hardy Cognac partnered with Michel Cluizel to present a menu whose courses were paired with cognac instead of wine—making it a bit more challenging for a lightweight like me to remember every little detail of the dinner by the time it ended.

What I remember the most, what I will probably remember for the rest of my life, was one course in particular, the Buffalo Fillet Carpaccio with Cherries, Chicory and Shaved Chocolate, and the glass of Perfection, Hardy's 140 year old cognac, the world's oldest known unblended cognac, composed of 100% French Colombard. Overall, the menu, designed by Le Cirque's Executive Chefs—both savory and pastry—had its hits and misses.

The first course was the oh so memorable Buffalo Carpaccio, paired with the award-winning Hardy XO, a 25 year old blend of Grande and Petite Champagne. Not only was the buffalo meat impeccably tender, but the chocolate aspect of the course was perfectly harmonious with the Carpaccio, and made use of my favorite single origin—Venezuelan—in this case Cluizel's Conception 66%, "Premier Cru de Plantation." This course was so extraordinary that when I discovered I was sitting next to a vegetarian who hadn't touched his, I couldn't resist asking his permission to pinch some off his plate rather than see it tossed in the trash. With great food, one doesn't always care about good form.

Following the Buffalo was a Foie Gras Torchon with Cocoa Nibs and Bacon Caramel, paired with Hardy Noces D'Or, another award-winning blend of 40 different Grand Champagne cognacs and aged a minimum of 50 years. Although not as seamlessly carried out, the use of Cluizel's Los Ancones 67% "Premier Cru de Plantation" from Santo Domingo—combined with bacon caramel (yum!)—made this course another hit. However, having already stabbed my fork onto my vegetarian neighbor's plate, I refrained from doing so a second time. But I did have a moment of regret as I saw the plate being taken away untouched. I can only hope the kitchen staff treated themselves.

Next up was a Roasted Squab Breast with Confit, Kumquats, Chocolate Feuillete and Chocolate-Peppercorn Vinaigrette. While the Squab was a spot-on medium rare, my idea of the perfect doneness, the Confit missed the mark, and the use of chocolate in this course did seem disconnected, not nearly as harmonious as its use with the Buffalo or even the Foie. Still, one could nevertheless appreciate the delicious Dark 72% chocolate, as well as the pairing of Hardy Noces D'Albarte, aged 75 years.

It might seem that Le Cirque's savory chef had the more difficult task of the evening, but when your assignment was that of the pastry chef—to create a dessert using Michel Cluizel chocolate and Hardy Cognac—at least for me, expectations were higher for the dessert than the main courses. Unfortunately, the dessert, a Mangaro Chocolate Composition of Mousse, Sorbet, Croquant and Cognac, was a let down. While the sorbet was rich and deep in chocolate flavor, the Composition tasted way more like hazelnuts than chocolate, a double disappointment for a serious chocolate lover who isn't keen on hazelnuts. Frankly, I expected to be blown away by chocolate, chocolate, and more chocolate, and I simply wasn't.

At the end of the meal came the Sweet Petit Fours and the glass of Perfection, on which I will muse for a moment. Never in my life have I had a drink so old and so rare, and at $600 a glass ($8,000 a bottle), it could be a while before I ever do again. Not much of a hard alcohol drinker, more of a wine woman, I was amazed at how soft and smooth the Perfection was, no burn, no sting. I couldn't help thinking about how the cognac I was sipping had been around since Andrew Johnson was in the White House. For me, that glass of Perfection was profound, conjuring historical events that had taken place since its creation 140 years ago, and seemingly containing ghosts in every glass.

Hardy Perfection, "Essential Elements" series, bottled in Daum Crystal, Pictured Above: Air, Fire, Water, and Earth

In all, despite the copious amount of cognac, it was a dining experience I'll never forget, and a privilege to attend. As I believe chocolate—especially single origin chocolate—can go very well in savory cooking, I do hope that this becomes a new trend here in America. It's about time our most creative chefs in the country start thinking of something other than Mole Poblano and Mole Verde when they think of the savory side of chocolate.

For more information about Chocolat Michel Cluizel, visit their website at

For more information about Hardy Cognac, visit their website at

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

America's Northern Arapaho Tribe to Sell Beef to Whole Foods Market

A long-time supporter of all things organic and sustainable, as well as a supporter of the rights and economic empowerment of indigenous peoples, I was more than pleased to read an AP report today announcing that the Northern Arapaho tribe of Wyoming has certified its 70 year old cattle ranch as Organic and sealed a deal to sell its beef to Whole Foods Market.

I've always said that a happy animal in life is a tasty animal in death, and though not expressed exactly the same way, tribal council member Norman Willow told the AP, "Anything living we treat them like a brother, that will pass on to the people who eat it."

Though the initial sales will be to Whole Foods stores in the Rocky Mountains region, it's my hope that Whole Foods will move towards wider distribution and look to America's tribes for other organic goods they can sell in stores around the country. As another tribal council member, Ron Oldman, stated to the AP, "Part of our heritage is to be nurturers of the land."

Truth is, if modern American society had learned even one lesson about caring for the land—and its animals—from the people who inhabited this continent for 60,000+ years without causing environmental degradation, we wouldn't be in the mess we find ourselves today, nor would we have to distinguish between "organic" and crap foods full of dangerous pesticides and hormones. Organic, free-range, rBST-free are not new trends, they are old, very old ways of doing things, and we need to get back to them.

Even in times of economic challenge, I refuse to buy crap food, and you should too. Eat less meat to meet your budget, but eat good meat. It's better for the environment, your health, and of course, your taste buds.

Read the AP story!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

All About Artichokes

I love artichokes, I think I could live on them if they were in season year round. They're super yummy and really rather easy to handle, and given that they can be served hot or cold, it's great to make extra artichokes at dinnertime so you can enjoy some for lunch the next day too.

All you need for fabulous artichokes are fresh artichokes, a lemon or two, sharp kitchen scissors, a large serrated knife, a small paring knife, salt, and a large stock pot.

Choosing Fresh Artichokes

First, you want to pick the freshest artichokes you can find. When an artichoke is fresh, it squeaks when you squeeze it with both hands, and it feels heavy for its size. If you squeeze an artichoke and don't hear squeaking, move on to the next one.

Prepping Artichokes

I prep my artichokes before they're cleaned because prepping can leave bits trapped in between the leaves that you don't want trapped in between your teeth.

Start by cutting your lemon(s) in half, saving one half for use on the cleaned artichokes while using the other half for the unclean artichokes in preparation.

Pick up the artichoke and remove the very small leaves at the bottom, by hand, simply by pulling them backwards until they snap off. If they don't just snap off because they're too rubbery, then you didn't pick a very fresh artichoke.

Next, grab your scissors and start cutting off the top 1/3 of each leaf, starting above the ones you just pulled off. Normally, artichoke leaves have a bit of a split in the top of them, cut the leaf so that this split is removed. Do this for all but the very top leaves of the artichokes.

Using your serrated knife (known also as a bread knife), turn the artichoke on its side and saw off the top leaves you haven't yet cut.

At this point, generously rub lemon on the leaves and top of the artichoke, as you go... don't wait and do them all at the end, by then the first artichoke will have already gone brown. Lemon is for flavor, but at this point it's used to avoid discoloration.

Now you should be able to see the light yellow and purple leaves at the very center of your artichoke, called the choke or heart. You can remove the choke or you can leave it. Artichokes cook more quickly if you remove the choke, but the choke is removed more easily when cooked. A great trick for removing the choke of an uncooked artichoke is to use a spoon that got caught in the garbage disposal and now has jagged edges. It's the upside to accidentally "ruining" a spoon.

The last step before cleaning is to cut away the outside of the stem. The center of the stem is full of the yummy artichoke bottom, so I don't discard it. Even if I want to serve the artichokes without their stems (they sit up nicely that way), I just cut them off after cooking and eat the center myself. To trim down the stem, first cut off the dry bottom, then turn the artichoke upside-down and, starting from the bottom of the stem with a paring knife, cut down until you reach the bottom of the artichoke, then snap if off backwards like you did with the first small leaves. Then slather the lemon all over the stem.

Cleaning Artichokes

To clean an artichoke, start by rinsing it under cold running water, pulling it apart slightly to get the water down between the leaves. Then fill a large bowl with water and, with the artichoke upside-down, plunge it into the water repeatedly, spinning the artichoke as it hits the water. Finish by rinsing again under cold running water.

After washing each artichoke, generously rub and squeeze the unused lemon half all over it before cleaning the next one. If you removed the choke, make sure to get lemon juice in the middle and around the inner leaves. Place the artichokes in waiting in a bowl to collect the lemon juice.

Cooking Artichokes

I boil my artichokes, it's quicker than steaming. The trick with boiling is to get them to stay submerged in the water, artichokes are notoriously buoyant. If you have a large pot with a short steaming insert, fill the pot with enough water such that the steam insert will force the artichokes to stay under water. If you don't have this type of pot, then just get creative. In the photo I demonstrate this creativity, instead of using my All-Clad with the inserts, I used a smaller Calfalon and just floated a sieve on top of the water to keep the artichokes submerged.

Add the artichokes and their lemon juice to well-salted boiling water. If your lemons are organic and you washed them, you can boil the lemons with the artichokes for added flavor (just don't use the half you smeared on the unclean artichokes).

A medium artichoke will take about 20 minutes in boiling water. To test for doneness, try pulling out a leaf (using tongs so you don't burn your fingers). If the leaf comes out easily and the meat at the bottom of the leaf is tender enough to scrape off with your teeth, then the artichoke is done. Drain them upside-down so you don't accidentally burn yourself with trapped hot water when eating them.

Serve artichokes with melted butter when warm, and a vinaigrette or home-made mayonnaise when cold. And in case you care, artichokes have zero fat and are a great source of potassium and fiber. But I eat them just because they're delicious!

Artichoke on Foodista

Friday, May 8, 2009

RECIPE: Bolognese alla Regina, a.k.a. The Queen's Bolognese

Real Bolognese comes from the capital of Emilia-Romagna, the city of Bologna, but in Reggio Emilia, also located in Emilia-Romagna, we make a pretty wicked Bolognese ourselves. I'm not claiming my recipe is THE recipe of Reggio-Emilia, but it's the recipe I've been making for years—a bit lighter than the traditional, but way more flavorful and rich than most of what you find in the States. It's Bolognese alla Regina, which is me, and funnily enough, Regina means 'queen' in Italian. So that makes my Bolognese, "The Queen's Bolognese." And if I do say so myself, it's fit for even a real queen.

Olive Oil (for the pan)
8-16 oz (1-2 cups) Chicken Stock (home-made is best, by far)
2 oz Pancetta, very finely diced
2 large yellow onions, very finely diced
1 small carrot, peeled and grated (box grater or food processor)
1 lb lean ground beef
1 lb ground pork (you can use all beef or all pork, just use 2 lb)
Double-concentrated Tomato Paste (preferably imported Italian)
1-2 Rinds of real Parmiggiano-Reggiano cheese
4-8 oz (1/2-1 cup) Whole Milk, room temperature
Coarse Kosher Salt and Fresh Ground Black Pepper
Unsalted Butter, cold

In a heavy stock pot, bring the 16 oz of chicken stock just to a boil. Pour half of the stock into a small pot (your reserve), and leave both on the burners, set to low. While you're waiting for the stock to boil, do your mise en place (French for: dice all the ingredients so they're ready to go).

In a large, heavy sauté pan, on med-high heat, add just enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan. Add the Pancetta and cook until the fat has been rendered and the Pancetta is browned. Remove the Pancetta from the pan with a slotted spoon and add it to the chicken stock in the large stock pot. You want the fat from the Pancetta to stay in the pan for the next steps.

Add the chopped onions to the pan and sauté over high, med-high heat. Sprinkle a bit of salt on the onions as this will help them to release water. Sauté, stirring, for about 5 minutes or until the onions are soft, translucent and golden brown. It's important to brown the onions, but to keep the bottom of your pan from blackening. You want to build a flavorful fond in the pan, so avoid burning anything.

When the onions are done, remove them from the pan and put them in the stock pot with the cooked Pancetta.

Maintaining med-high to high heat, add fresh olive oil to the pan if needed, then add the grated carrot to the pan. Lightly salt the carrots (again to release the water as well as for flavor), and sauté, stirring, until the carrots are soft and golden brown. Remove carrots and add them to the onions and Pancetta.

Add more olive oil, as needed, then sauté the ground pork in the same pan over medium heat, lightly salting the pork. Don't crowd your pan with meat though, sauté it in small batches if your pan isn't a big one. If you crowd any pan with any kind of meat, it won't brown properly because too much water will be released at once. Cook the pork until it is browned, and make sure you don't end up with large chunks of meat, you want the meat to break down into small, uniform bits.

When the pork is browned, add it to the stock pot. Add oil to the sauté pan as needed, and repeat this process for the ground beef, again being careful not to burn the bottom of the pan.

When the beef is done and into your stock pot, add 2 tablespoons (roughly) of tomato paste straight into your hot sauté pan and cook it on medium heat for about a minute. Then add enough chicken stock from your reserve to the sauté pan to cover the bottom, turn the heat up to high, and using a heat-proof spatula (I prefer a wood spatula), scrape all of the fond off the bottom of the pan until it's incorporated with the tomato paste and stock. Pour this liquid into your stock pot.

Add about 4oz of whole milk to the stock pot and stir to incorporate. Then add the rinds of Reggiano-Parmiggiano cheese. If necessary, add more chicken stock to the Bolognese so it's more soupy than saucy.

At this point, your Bolognese will simmer away on low heat for as many hours as you like, but for a minimum of two hours to really reduce the liquids and concentrate the flavors. During simmering, the carrots, onions and Pancetta should slowly melt away and become one with the sauce. As needed, continue to add warm chicken stock and room-temperature whole milk. There's no need to constantly stir the pot, so most of this simmering time is not active. Just stir it occasionally and keep your eye on the heat level (the sauce should maintain a low simmer, not a boil, so it reduces very slowly).

When I make my Bolognese, I usually start it after work and simmer it all night (of course, using some of it for my dinner that night too). I often leave the pot on the stove overnight, covered but not heated, and continue simmering it even longer the following morning. There's no need to refrigerate it for this one night, it won't go bad! Thing is, with a Bolognese, the longer it simmers the richer the flavor, but I don't always have time to accomplish this in one night, hence why I leave it out overnight and continue simmering and adding stock / milk for a couple extra hours the next day.

When the Bolognese has simmered for the desired amount of time, taste it to check for salt. I don't add salt during simmering because as the liquid evaporates and the flavors concentrate, the salt used to sauté the vegetables and meats gets concentrated and you can easily end up with too salty a Bolognese. For this reason I add my salt, to taste, at the end of the simmering process so I get the perfect amount. Same goes for the fresh ground black pepper.

At this point, you may be wondering where the butter comes into the picture. Well, the butter comes in at the point when you're going to use the sauce with your pasta. My Bolognese has about 14 grams (1 tbsp) of butter per person, stirred straight into the sauce just before serving.

Bolognese keeps well in the refrigerator (in an air-tight container) for up to a week, and it can freeze for up to 2 months (in a heavy-duty, freezer-safe container). Defrost it in your fridge overnight. Reheat it just to a boil before allowing it to simmer.

Besides just using Bolognese as a sauce (perfect for Pappardelle), you can also use The Queen's Bolognese for Lasagna, or on toasted Ciabatta with Mozzarella melted on top in a broiler, one of my quickie lunch favorites. One thing is for sure, whatever you use Bolognese for, it's always nice to have some in the freezer or fridge for a more than satisfying meal in minutes.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Congratulations to This Year's James Beard Awards Winners!

While not all of my personal picks pulled off a win, a few certainly did. I name them here first, then follow up with a few of the winners in the top categories. To read the full list of winners of the 2009 James Beard Awards, visit the James Beard Foundation website.

Outstanding Chef: Dan Barber, Blue Hill, NYC. Who could not support this selection? Dan Barber is a revolutionary, a pioneer, and an inspiration to all of us—but especially to his pastry chef, Alex Grunert.

Outstanding Service: Daniel, NYC. Even if you're not a VIP or a regular, at Daniel you'll find yourself always being treated like one. To my mind, Daniel's staff provides the best overall service I've ever experienced in America.

Outstanding Restaurant: Jean-Georges, NYC. Yes, Jean Georges is a fabulous restaurant, no denying that. But it wasn't one of my picks because I just don't think it's currently the best restaurant in America.

Outstanding Wine Service: Le Bernardin, NYC. While I haven't had the pleasure of dining at Le Bernardin yet, I will pretty soon because a good friend just started work there. In his words, "the wine list is as thick as a bible, but a lot more fun to follow."

Best Chef, Pacific Region: Douglas Keane, Cyrus, CA. Truthfully, I hadn't even heard of Cyrus until my friend Roy joined the restaurant as its Executive Pastry Chef. Having heard such wonderful praise from Roy, it's definitely at the top of my "To Eat" list next time I'm out visiting family and friends in Cali.

America's Classics: Yank Sing, San Fran, CA. It was ten years ago at least when I first ate at Yank Sing's downtown location. Since then, I have heralded it as the best Chinese I've ever had in America. I still have dreams about their roast duck steamed buns with plum sauce.

Cookbook of the Year: Fat, An Appreciation of Misunderstood Ingredient, With Recipes, by Jennifer McLagen. I LOVE this book! When it first caught my eye in a bookstore I ended up standing for twenty minutes exploring its pages and agreeing with the author's take on fat—an ingredient I've never misunderstood or not appreciated.

Cooking from A Professional Point of View: Alinea, by Grant Achatz. I got this book as a gift for my man this past Christmas, since then, it's been a coffee-table mainstay. Even if you're not a professional, any foodie would love the stunning pictures and inspirational flavors found in Alinea.