Remembering back to elementary school, I had a tough time working on big projects with a partner. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and would usually end up usurping the creative process and most of the work, sometimes to the chagrin, but generally to the delight of my classmates. Translating this to cooking, it’s still a little difficult for me to allow anyone in my kitchen to cook with me, but that might also be because I’m not sure my kitchen could handle that many people. But working on this dinner, which I will describe shortly, with my friend Dan, was a truly incredible experience.
Dan approached me a few weeks back with the idea of making a a lavish, exciting and creative dinner, and showcasing some really spectacular Kosher wines. Dan, among many other things, is the co-founder of After 40 Wines, a new auction house for rare and amazing Kosher wines. The idea was to see if two amateur home cooks could cook a dinner that was deserving of these wines, and to share that experience with a few other people. We hoped to show, in an eye-opening way, that Kosher food and wine can be really great, and very accessible. Here’s the first draft of the menu:
I say that it’s a first draft, because some of the dishes went through a little editing, some are lacking a little in explanation, and one is missing in its entirety. But it was also the only draft of the menu, so there you go.
I’ll let you know right now, that I’ll be doing this post a little differently than my previous ones, and won’t be posting pictures of every single step. This is partially because there would be waaaaaaaaaaaay to many pictures to upload, but mostly because in the last few hours before service, our work was so hectic that I was doing four things at once most of the time and the thought to grab the camera kept slipping my mind. But I’ll try to share with you what I have.
We opened with some grilled peaches and watermelon that were drizzled with a little reduced balsamic vinegar.
We really didn’t want to use anything terribly exotic. In fact, we went out on Sunday to our local farmer’s market, and bought most of the produce used for the evening. These peaches, by themselves, were exactly as G-d intended that a peach should taste like. They were soooooooo ridiculously delicious, making it a feat to ensure that they didn’t get eaten in the two days before the dinner.
You may be wondering why we served Jell-O along with the fruit. I never liked Jell-O. Never liked the texture or the syrupy flavor or the fact that it was a staple of cafeteria-lunch-dessert. I would have much rather had the very sad chocolate chip cookies. You know the ones I’m talking about. The ones that taste like cardboard with chips that are only faintly reminiscent of chocolate. Yup. Still like those better than Jell-O.
So why did we serve Jell-O, you’re still wondering after that very long rant? Because it was a sous vide margarita infused tequila Jell-O, silly! Instead of making margaritas by blending tequila with ice and all the other ingredients, we cooked them all together very gently, sous vide, creating a very potent margarita, in both flavor and alcohol content. Then we soaked some gelatin sheets, and cooked those in a saucepan with the margaritas, let it cool, and sprinkled some coarse sea salt and lime zest on top.
Oh and here’s a great link I just came across while waiting for that picture to upload. It explains the process of infusing alcohols in much greater detail.
Next came the fish. Now the menu says that the salmon was done two ways. The menu lied to you. Due to technical difficulties, the only salmon that was served was the sous vide variety, with three dipping sauces.
All three mayo’s were homemade, which bt-dubs is A. Delicious and B. Extremely tricky to get right. I’ve tried many-a-time, successfully created an emulsion of egg and oil, only for it to break my heart and break into a mess of egg floating in oil, at some later point in time.
So from top to bottom, we have a citrus mayo, with grapefruit, orange and lime, a dill-lemon mayo, and a garlic-shallot mayo. All delicious.
A word about cooking fish sous vide. You must brine the fish first in a mix of 20% salt 80% water. Otherwise the proteins in the fish denature or coagulate or something, leaving a lot of gross white goo all over what was supposed to be a beautiful, tender and flaky piece of fish.
OK. Chicken soup next. I can already hear you murmuring. “I have chicken soup every Friday night and I know how to make it and why in the world would you serve that at a fancy dinner, et cetera, et cetera.” Let me just state for the record that some description was missing from this dish. Instead of “Chicken Soup”, it should have read, “The Best Bowl of Chicken Soup You Have Ever Eaten or Will Ever Eat in Your Entire Life-No Offense to Your Grandma.”
What was so good about it? Well let me answer that question with another question. Why do you cook chicken soup with vegetables? Is it to eat the veggies with the chicken? Is it to flavor the soup? I think most of you will have answered “Yes” to both questions. If so, most of you are missing out.
Let me stop myself for a second. This is chicken soup we’re talking about here. Nothing crazy, like the courses about to follow. What makes this soup so good, is pure attention to detail, and a tiny bit of extra work. That’s all. No blowtorches or funny chemicals or truffles or foie gras or anything sous vide.
Here’s what you do. Make chicken stock yourself. Boil gently about 5-6 pounds of chicken carcass, or neck bones in a full pot of water. Keep skimming off any impurities or fat. All those bones will seep out a whole bunch of gelatin, making the soup richer. Keep skimming, add some leeks, carrots, onions and bay leaf and keep cooking and skimming. Now here’s the part you don’t see coming. Strain the whole thing slowly through a chinois, AND THROW AWAY THE VEGGIES! Well, you don’t really have to throw them away, just GET THEM OUT OF YOUR SOUP! Why? Because at this point, they’re tasteless. They’ve given away all their flavor to the soup. So why eat a bland carrot? After you’ve strained the soup and let it cool, cut some carrots, onions, leeks and celery, and cook them gently with some margarine and salt.
Now Thomas Keller, whom this recipe comes from, instructs you to cook for 5-6 minutes on medium heat, then reduce to low and cover with a parchment lid. I skipped that step and just put my lid on the pot, slightly off, to allow steam to escape.
I should have listened, because that pot was not fun to clean. We all make mistakes, right?
I started over, and covered with a parchment lid, cooking for about 30 minutes until the veggies were very soft. Then I added the stock, and let the whole thing simmer for another 45 minutes. Strained those veggies again. Then we cooked some sliced carrots in water, honey, bay leaf and thyme, and some celery in salted water, until they were just tender enough to eat. The soup was thickened with a roux right before service and the veggies were tossed with some leftover roast chicken.
It’s clean, tasty, and because of the roux, had such a velvety smoothness to it. It was unanimous that this was the best bowl of chicken soup anybody had ever eaten.
Missing from the menu was the following dish, for which I unfortunately have no pictures of its creation.
Left-to-right, a halved Roma tomato with shallots, scallions, Thai and lemon-basil, a pepper and heirloom tomato salad tossed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, a roasted tomato half and lemon-scented Israeli couscous. That film running along the top is a gelled sheet of tomato coulis, a sauce made with these beauties from the farmer’s market
onions, garlic, tomato paste, red wine, chicken stock, basil and thyme, cooked all together, blended and passed through a chinois. The coulis was then cooked with some gelatin, spread over an acetate sheet and placed in the fridge to cool, so it could be handled later.
As tasty as all these dishes were, the meal just got better and better as the night progressed. I’m not gonna tell you about it just yet, I’m going to make you wait for part two. I know, I’m mean, but my fingers are tired from all this typing!
Don’t worry, I’ll leave you with this to look at
Is your mouth watering yet? No? Well it definitely will be when I tell you all about these in part two!