Thursday, December 6, 2007

I Don't Know What I Want

Maybe I know what other people want.

Yes, it's holiday time and I'm shit out of ideas for what people should get me. Aside from some out of print/obscure/not available in the U.S. books, a dog (not happening), and a new bed (also not happening), I don't really need anything. Worse than that, I don't really find myself wanting anything.

Is that sick?

So I thought I'd try to find the answers to what other people might want this holiday season and, in doing so, scare up a couple if ideas for myself.

1. The Gift that Obviates Marriage

Don't want to get married but want the presents? Buy them for yourself. Once you have these items, you'll find the reasons for nuptials greatly diminished.

The KitchenAid 5-Quart Mixer is easily my favorite kitchen appliance. Want to make a quick cake? Dump ingredients in mixer and come back when homogenized. It's heavy as anything and needs a permanent space unless you enjoy lugging it from a cabinet, but mine has a place of honor on the counter between the espresso maker and the cuisinart.

I personally favor the color I own (long story short: I bought myself a blue one several years ago on sale and lamented every day afterwards that I had saved twenty bucks but failed to get the color I had my heart set on. Two years later the Man of the House buys me the color I want for our anniversary. Yes, it is true, for a few days, I owned two of these before donating one to ye olde best friend), but the following are additional hues that make me smile: Grape, Crystal Blue, Pink, Chocolate.

2. The Gift that Turns Your Kitchen into a Maranello Showroom

TheFrancisFrancis! X5 espresso maker is a work of art (also available in many awesome colors and, yes, mine matches the stand mixer). So this is not a cheap gift. I have never, not for one tiny tiny moment, regretted buying mine. It has totally transformed the kitchen both visually and qualitatively. I can make a damn fine espresso anytime I want. The steam action pump is an immensely necessary feature as it really expresses the coffee in a way that gives it good crema and a terrific taste. Yes, the pods can be expensive (it also takes grounds FYI), but less expensive than a Starbucks and infinitely more convenient.

3. The Gift for Budding Patissiers

The Professional Pastry Chef is an invaluable reference. Yes, it is hampered by the size of the recipes (how often will you really be making chocolate mousse for 50?) but the mise en place section alone is worth the price of admission. I mean, did you know it takes about 20 minutes to make your own graham crackers and that they're awesome? The soup-to-nuts desserts I've made from the book haven't always been my favorites, but the procedures have really shaped how I go about baking and designing my own recipes. It is a heavy tome that doesn't get replaced on the shelf very often in my house because I like to have it around when I'm working.

4. The Last Salt and Pepper Mills You'll Ever Need

The Peugeot 9-1/2-Inch Pepper Mill, Black Matte and accompanying salt mill were (don't laugh) a Valentine's Day gift this year and they are amazing. I might well never buy another mill. The coarseness settings really really work and are unique enough to allow for pretty much any application of salt or pepper one could conceive. Furthermore, they are neutral and elegant and wouldn't look out of place on a casual or fancy table. Now, if only I had a table.

5. The You're Really A Grownup When Gift

You have the Riedel Vinum Burgundy Glasses in your beverage arsenal. While Man of the House and I recently bought a sweet bar from Crate and Barrel, I am not yet confident enough in our abilities to buy real wine glasses. You see, we are not exactly what I'd call delicate. I buy glasses in bulk so that when, inevitably, we break two within the first week and one every two months thereafter, it isn't such a big deal. If you are more mature had sure-handed than we, however, these are really beautiful glasses.

6. The American Psycho Blue Ribbon Winner

The W├╝sthof 8-Inch Extra Wide Chef's Knife is a solid weapon. The heft of it is comforting especially if you, like I, might live in a less than desirable neighborhood. Moving onto to reality, though, I had wanted this knife for ages because it was the first knife I had ever held where I felt as though no task would elude me. I know knives are very particular and every person will love a different knife. However, if you like something substantial and heavy, this may well be the knife for you.

So that's just an overview. I could go on, but I don't want to appear to be reaching. These are five indispensables and one wish for the future from my personal collection. Happy Shopping!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Viva Las Vegas - Could You Point Me Towards the Vomitorium

A business trip brought me to Las Vegas for the first time the other week. I was skeptical of course, how would grown-up Disneyland seem to a jaded New Yorker with a distaste for crowds? I decided to follow in Le Bourdain's footsteps and make sure I ate a number of nice meals in an attempt to make sure I would have something good to say about the town when I returned.

I needn't have worried. I saw the lobby of my hotel and the inside of the office building where I was working and little else. However, each evening I had a reservation and a table for one awaited me if I could only navigate beyond the glittering lights and tinkling machines.

I dined with clients on the first evening at Craftsteak. This was my first meeting with the clients and I feared their response to something overly precious or complicated and figured that everyone, save vegetarians, can get in the mood for steak so steak it was. Regrettably, I didn't take pictures as I thought that might undermine my professionalism.

I can say, though, that I had an entirely serviceable meal. The meat was very well done, the sides full of butter and cream, and the wine a terrific accompaniment. Except well, the wine...was...RIDICULOUSLY EXPENSIVE. I'm not one to balk at the 250% premium I pay on a regular basis when I drink wine at a restaurant, but Las Vegas's markups were bordering on the ridiculous: $25 bottles were being poured by the glass at $18. Howvere moderately inflated I might have found the prices of the food relative to Manhattan, the wine prices were just a joke.

Something brought into sharp relief the next night at Bouchon.

Granted, I got to walk past the fake canals of Venice through the heavily ornate interior of the Venetian hotel on my way to the restaurant and was able to spend a truly terrific 15 minutes prior to arriving by the Venetian's pool, reading a book, smoking a cigarette or two, and delighting in the balmy evening temperatures that hovered around 70 degrees.

I had a string pulled to get me an earlier reservation: 9:00pm vs. 10:30pm, but I wondered if I needed bother. The restaurant was nowhere near full when I arrived (which makes me a little dissatisfied with my table without a view (but I do acknowledge that a single diner gets the short end of the table selection stick). My food, though, was nothing short of perfect.

I'll admit my stomach was rebelling over the amount of 15% alcohol California zin I had objected it to the night before and did not at all agree with my choice of appetizer and main course, but we settled the dispute between ourselves when I opted for two half glasses of wine from the "Sommelier's Selection-" a way to charge me $17 for a half glass of wine while making me feel good about it. I rationalized this by not ordering the $50 plate of foie gras.

I started with the duck confit over braised mustard greens garnished with blood orange. The highest compliment I can pay to Bouchon is that decorum only prevented me from sucking the tiny bits of meat off the bone. It was a perfect duck confit, marred only by my stomach saying to me at one point, "are you kidding me, lady?" The skin was crispy, the meat was dripping in fat and pulled delightfully away from the aforementioned bone. I ate the tiniest ladylike bites I could muster simply to prolong the eating experience, and to prevent myself from ordering seconds.

Without a second thought to my gastrointestinal distress, I followed it up with the braised beef cheeks with French lentils.

Not the most diverse-hued of a dish, but boy did it make up for it by displaying a range of unctuousness I thought was reserved for things like straight melted goose fat.

My stomach and I skipped dessert, rationalizing this deprivation by the selection of probably wonderful but traditional bistro desserts on offer - the signature chocolate bouchons having been lovingly consumed on many other occasions at the bakery outpost in the Time Warner Center.

But if these forays were the appetizers in our Roman orgy of food, the main course was something we couldn't have expected and, sorry to say, can't be super forthcoming about.

Wednesday night in Vegas I dined at a restaurant whose name I am not at liberty to reveal because I don't want my review to seem biased and a close relative works for the restaurant group. Let it be said, though, that if you ever have a chance to be considered a VIP guest at any restaurant, you should take it and take it quickly before they realize you're a nobody who happens to be related to somebody and whisk you away to a table in the kitchen where they feed you potato peels.

I was warmly welcomed and ushered to the best seat in the house - outdoors where I was blissfully permitted to smoke. My waiter appeared with a wine list and mentioned to me that there was no menu because the chef wanted to cook for me (if that isn't music to my ears). He politely inquired if I had any food preferences to which I responded no (as I firmly believe one should unless one is deathly allergic to something. There are foods I never thought I would like or consent to eat that I have delighted in because I left myself in a chef's hands).

And the cavalcade commenced.

I started with a sadly unphotographed amuse of potato pancake with horseradish and cranberry relish.

A trio of appetizers followed.

Porcini quiche with parmesan tuile, merguez sausage and falafel, and parsley cream stuffed chicken wing. I'm a sucker for merguez so I'm going to annoint that two bite wonder the winner. As soon as I finished the plates I realized with alarm that I ought not to have eaten the whole thing - there was bound to be more to come.

Next up was deconstructed Nicoise salad

I used to be frightened of raw fish - deeply deeply frightened. And I'll admit, though it does lower me in the estimation of many, that I'm still not sold enough to make an entire meal out of it, but I've come to really enjoy raw fish as part of a larger meal. For my Passover seder I traded gefilte for tuna tartare. This salad in two parts was one part tuna tartare with duck egg (and I think I've mentioned before what a big fan I am of egg yolk as dressing) and one part Nicoise salad vegetables. I was struck by how the deconstruction wasn't gimmick-ey but necessary for the enjoyment of the dish: had the tuna been part of the salad with an egg topping it, the whole thing wouldn't have been nearly as good. It was far more satisfying to take, chew, and digest a bite from one side and follow it with a bite from the other.

Next up was torchon de foie gras. I'd love to show you how beautiful this presentation was: stark white plate, cylindrical marvel of foie gras, tiny diced and compoted apples, beautiful dollop of mustard chantilly. But I can't. Because as soon as I saw the foie, I pounced. I didn't even realize I was doing it. In fact, it wasn't until the plate looked like this:

did I realize that I hadn't taken a picture. So I give you what it looks like when I meet torchon. It isn't pretty.

Having settled the first part of the meal, I was now in for it. I mean, obviously I ate the entire bit of foie gras - it would have been absolute sin not to. But I was now uncomfortably full and we hadn't even reached main courses.

This is an example of something I wouldn't have ordered on my own, but which was amazing. This is Hawaiian marlin in a meyer lemon gastrique and it was, hands down, the best dish of the night (ok, well, excepting the foie, but it is my opinion that nothing compares...) The shoestring potatoes provided a nice crunch, but the star was the fish itself which was both like cooked tuna but nothing like it. It paired with the lemon in a way that didn't express necessity, the way lemon and some fish feels; instead, the lemon cut the fattiness of the fish and smoothed it out brilliantly. I was taken aback by this dish.

But by this time, the evening had taken a turn for the worse. It was at this moment that I entertained serious thoughts about hitting the bathroom to remove some of the offending material from my stomach so that it could absorb further gustatory delights. I'm not proud of this, nor did I do it, but I feared the future. I was sure that I was in for at least one more savory course and then the desserts, both dreaded and anticipated.

This poor trio of pork, lovingly prepared and barely touched was a testament to my fullness. I had a nibble here of loin, and a morsel of homemade sausage, and, well, ok, all of the pork belly. I know it was delicious, I just can't say I enjoyed it so much.

At this point I begged my waiter for a reprieve before dessert. I wanted to smoke a little, mind over matter my bloated carcass a little, and overall enjoy the warm evening. The couple sitting across from me asked me the "why are you so special?" question and I tried to tell them it was both blessing and curse.

When dessert arrived it was as though god and the chef had heard and answered my prayers:

look, ma, bite-size! A selection of the wonderful desserts in a portion I could feel fine about. A nibble of each would do me fine. Chocolate mousse with dacquoise - wonderful! Apple mousse over shortbread - mmm, appley. Trio of tropical sorbets - palate-cleanserrific. And pistachio mousse tart with raspberries - a perennial favorite. I didn't feel guilty by not wolfing everything down, I even saved the last available bit of space for an espresso and a bite of the two dessert amuses.

It was an amazing meal, and I enjoyed it utterly alone. Though, in hindsight, having a partner to eat with me might have meant more would have gotten eaten.

So that was my trip to Las Vegas. On the last night, I cried mercy and went to bed without supper, but three nights in a row of gluttony might be as many as I can stand.

I was pleasantly surprised that the three restaurants I ate at did not feel contrived or second-rate. I would merely state that, for me, the over the top-ness of Las Vegas and by extension its restaurants, doesn't necessarily create the atmosphere for dining I most enjoy. Still, if you would rather spend money on food than Cirque du Soleil, you could do worse.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The simplest of decisions

After quite a few months of completely unchecked eating, I was told by my brother that I resembled famed movie villain Jabba the Hut perhaps more strongly than was my intention. Thus began deprivation cycle followed by little, probably poorly chosen treats. For the week after Thanksgiving I would eschew things like bread or fat or any of the things that make life good for the reward of tucking into a slice of mom's pumpkin pie at the end of the day.

The main problem has been that I have had little time to prepare food. The past couple of months have been busy and I'm just exhausted at the end of the day and far more prone to order a quesadilla from the corner and wash it down with half a box of Entemmann's chocolate chip cookies than make sure I had anything resembling real food.

So last week I stopped by the Whole Foods, picked up some boneless chicken, and vowed I would cook it before it went bad. At 7:30 last night I put up my brown rice on the stove flavored with a little bouillon. I took out my chicken breasts, got some olive oil and a small pat of butter going in the pan, and sauteed them with a little pepper. The problem was that the breasts were very thick and I could tell that they would not be cooking through in time to save the consistency of the exteriors. Not wishing for my only full meal of the day to be disgusting, and not wishing to poach the chicken in heavy cream (though that is the only liquid guaranteed to be in my fridge), I did what any sensible person would do:

I decided we'd be having wine for dinner.

I opened a bottle from the fridge, a really nice white burgundy that had been served at a friend's wedding, and dumped a cup into the pot, put the lid on, and let it cook in the wine until the pink parts were no longer festering pools of salmonella.

And you know what? I'm never forgetting to add wine again. It was just the little kick that the chicken needed to go from mandatory protein consumption to actual meal.

For years I was of the opinion that the wine I cooked with should be cheap and not something I would ever drink until the obvious struck me: if I didn't want to drink it, why would I want my food to? For in reality, the two of us weren't going to drink a full bottle of win on a school night, and the cup I used in the chicken transformed the meal. Plus, when we drank the same wine while eating, everything tasted better. I have been overly liberal with my wine expenditures as of late and the house is more full of wine than it ever has been before. I have to remind myself that at $20 a bottle, I'm not looking to preserve these wines for my grandchildren and that I should be drinking them - and cooking with them.