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Friday, December 29, 2006

White Truffle Dinner 2006: Course 6

This is the seventh in a series of posts directed to the Fourth Annual White Truffle Dinner that Rhonda and I recently held at my home.   For more on the dinner, please see these posts:   Introduction | Course 1 | Course 2 | Course 3 | Course 4 | Course 5 | Course 6 | Course 7 | Course 8 | Conclusion

The sixth course for this year's White Truffle Dinner was Butter-Poached Maine Lobster with White Truffle Cauliflower Gratin. Prior to my first meal at The French Laundry in 2000, I had come to believe that lobster meat, by its very nature, is always somewhat tough.   Like many people, I had spent my life eating lobster that had been cooked through boiling, a relatively violent method of preparation that tends to cause the meat to seize up.   Nevertheless, the incredible flavor of this delicacy was always more than enough to compensate for any textural peculiarities.   You can imagine my excitement, then, when Thomas Keller and his kitchen demonstrated that evening in 2000 that lobster meat does not have to have a rubbery consistency, that it can instead be tender, buttery and utterly sublime.   Although the menu itself announced that the meat had been poached in butter, the precise details would remain unknown to me until a few years later, when I finally acquired a copy of the The French Laundry Cookbook.   The secret, I would learn, is to gently cook the lobster in beurre monte -- butter melted in such a way that its component ingredients (fat, milk solids, and water) remain in an emulsified state.   As I started the planning for our first White Truffle Dinner in 2003, one of the few things I knew for sure was that butter-poached lobster would have to hold a position of prominence on the menu.   I described in an earlier post how much I also loved The French Laundry's white truffle risotto, but I wasn't thrilled with the idea of having that be the last course before dessert -- especially if the consequence was that something more substantial, like the lobster, would have to precede it.   On that basis alone, I concluded that butter-poached lobster would serve as the sixth and final savory course on the menu, a distinction that it has held right up to this day.

For the first three truffle dinners, I paired the lobster with a simple but satisfying accompaniment that I came up with several years ago, Truffled Sweet Corn & Shallots.   The recipe for this couldn't be simpler:   saute chopped shallots until translucent, add corn and saute for a few minutes more, and then season with kosher salt and white truffle oil.   I've always been fond of serving shellfish with corn, so the idea of coupling my simple side dish with Thomas Keller's lobster came naturally.   Because the combination was generally well received in those early years of our dinner, I probably would have been reluctant to drop it from this year's menu had it not been for one small factor:   the corn and leek soup that I planned to serve as Course 1.   Just as my desire to avoid repeating flavors had forced me to walk away from the creamed leeks that had previously been the mainstay of Course 4, so, too, would it demand that I abandon my corn and shallot dish.
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The loss of the corn made me briefly consider the possibility of replacing the lobster as well.   When I came back to my senses, though, I began to wrestle in earnest with the question of what might step in to fill the void.   An idea for doing an adult version of macaroni and cheese fizzled out when a recipe that looked promising on paper didn't deliver as hoped, while certain other vegetable options just didn't seem to spark my interest.   Around the same time that I was mulling all of this over, I was also finalizing the menu for Thanksgiving dinner with my visiting parents.   I settled on a Cauliflower Gratin as one of our side vegetables, based upon a recipe that I had tried once before from, you guessed it, Thomas Keller (only this time from his Bouchon cookbook).   The core of the vegetable is cooked in herb-infused cream and then mixed with a pinch of curry powder, before being tossed with the florets and baked under a topping of panko and Comte cheese.   The finished dish has a relatively mild yet luxuriously delicious flavor -- perfect, I figured, for featuring white truffle cream or oil.   After confirming in my mind that lobster and cauliflower could complement each other well, the details of Course 6 were set.

Preparing the beurre monte for poaching the lobster is always one of the most challenging tasks of our annual White Truffle Dinner.   The technique itself is simple:   bring 1 tablespoon of water to boil in a large pot, turn the heat down to medium, and then add butter -- a few tablespoons at a time -- while whisking continuously.   The problem arises in that (a) a lot of butter (i.e., 4-6 cups) has to be melted in this manner in order to poach 10-12 lobster tails, and (b) it takes a quite a bit of time to get 12 sticks of butter completely melted down.   It is theoretically possible, of course, to prepare the beurre monte in advance and then hold it until needed.   But the emulsion will stay intact only if the temperature of the liquified butter is kept within a certain range, and that's something that even my Viking range had difficulty accomplishing the one year that I tried to make the beurre monte before our guests had even arrived.   That evening, after having monitored the butter and adjusted the flame almost continuously throughout the preparation and service of the first five courses, I finally came to the moment of preparing to transfer the beurre monte to the pan containing the tails.   I'm sure you can guess what happened next.   That's right, the emulsion collapsed!   I have since reverted to preparing the beurre monte real time, but I am still hopeful that I will someday find a better solution.

The cauliflower recipe requires 15 minutes of baking immediately before service in order to heat the mixture through and to brown the cheese.   Rhonda and I accordingly put the individual gratin dishes into the preheated oven a few minutes before we started poaching the lobsters in the butter, so that the two would be done at approximately the same time.   We positioned a finished tail on the top of each gratin, placed the entire gratin dish onto a larger plate, and set off for the dining table.   As I sat down to join my guests, I breathed a sigh of relief;   as you will see, the final two courses would be comprised of components that had been completed entirely in advance, so all of the challenging aspects of the evening were, at long last, over.

Finally, to give you a sense of how the menu has evolved over time, here's a summary of the Course 6 selections that we have served since the inaugural White Truffle Dinner in 2003:

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

White Truffle Dinner 2006: Course 5

This is the sixth in a series of posts directed to the Fourth Annual White Truffle Dinner that Rhonda and I recently held at my home.   For more on the dinner, please see these posts:   Introduction | Course 1 | Course 2 | Course 3 | Course 4 | Course 5 | Course 6 | Course 7 | Course 8 | Conclusion

The fifth course for this year's White Truffle Dinner was White Truffle Risotto with Fresh Truffle Shavings & Browned Butter.   This is a dish that I lifted, directly and shamelessly, from Thomas Keller of The French Laundry.   The first time that I tasted this at the restaurant was one of those rare moments in my dining history that could accurately be called revelatory.   I had enjoyed white truffles a few times before, but never in a dish that so perfectly demonstrated what a spectacular wonder they really are.   The surface of the plate was covered with a small mound of creamy risotto, which had been lent an air of luxury by copious amounts of butter, whipped cream, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and white truffle oil.   Our server then shaved fresh white truffles on top tableside, their intoxicating aroma seemingly deepened and transported away from the plates by the steam rising from the rice below.   A few spoons of browned butter completed the presentation, its nutty complexity melding brilliantly with the earthiness of the truffles while also amplifying the nuttiness of the cheese.   The vivid memory of that fantastic experience was in the forefront of my mind when I started planning the first White Truffle Dinner in 2003, and I simply knew that the dish would have to have a starring role on my menu.   To this day, the risotto remains my favorite way to enjoy a fresh white truffle, which probably explains why it's the only dish to have earned a spot on all four of our truffle menus.

The recipe for the risotto is set forth in The French Laundry Cookbook, although Keller curiously omitted the browned butter -- a component that elevates the dish to an entirely different plane.   The risotto is not, as a general matter, all that difficult to make;   it's a relatively standard preparation, followed by the somewhat unusual steps of quickly stirring in large amounts of butter and whipped cream immediately before service.   Yet, these latter steps can present a real challenge in the context of a multi-course dinner party for 10+ people, particularly when one is also (a) striving to get the right balance of white truffle oil and salt in the risotto, (b) preparing a large volume of browned butter, (c) cleaning and preparing the fresh truffles for shaving over each plate, and (d) trying to get the plates to the table while the risotto is still warm.   Indeed, Rhonda and I have found it virtually impossible for two people to execute all of the necessary steps with perfect synchronicity, and the result is often that the dish suffers in one way or another.   After three years' worth of struggling, we decided to try something different this time by skipping the step of stirring butter and whipped cream into the risotto.   Although the finished dish may not have been quite as opulent (or heavy), it was still delicious -- and the stress that it saved us was invaluable.   Indeed, we were easily able to complete all of the other steps -- i.e., finishing and seasoning the risotto, preparing the browned butter, and preparing/shaving the fresh truffles -- without incident, and the dish reached the table with all of its components at the right consistency and temperature.

Finally, to give you a sense of how the menu has evolved over time (or, in this case, has not evolved over time), here's a summary of the Course 5 selections that we have served since the inaugural White Truffle Dinner in 2003:

Thursday, December 21, 2006

White Truffle Dinner 2006: Course 4

This is the fifth in a series of posts directed to the Fourth Annual White Truffle Dinner that Rhonda and I recently held at my home.   For more on the dinner, please see these posts:   Introduction | Course 1 | Course 2 | Course 3 | Course 4 | Course 5 | Course 6 | Course 7 | Course 8 | Conclusion

The fourth course for this year's White Truffle Dinner was Prather Ranch Beef Filet with Truffled Parsnip Puree.   The evolution of Course 4 over time has undoubtedly been more linear than that of any other course.   Whereas my selections for Course 3, for example, have meandered about almost aimlessly from one year to the next, every dish that has occupied the fourth spot on the menu has directly built upon its counterpart from the year before.   The course was initially little more than a vehicle for featuring an item that I just knew had to have a place on the menu:   Truffled Creamed Leeks.   Sauteed in olive oil before being cooked down with chicken broth and cream, this dish became an instant favorite from my very first bite.   I was unable to find a creative way to feature the leeks all by themselves, so I took to searching for something to bask in the spotlight while the leeks ostensibly played a supporting role.   A scallop one year, a shrimp the next.   But the leeks always stole the show, just as I assumed they would.   This year's selection, however, took a pronounced step away from my old favorite, while carrying on with the beef theme that I introduced last year.   And as explained below, I have to admit that the menu -- and I -- were both made the better for it.

As described in an earlier post, the decision to abandon the leeks was prompted by my desire to use a corn and leek soup as the opener.   I generally avoid featuring the same item twice in the menu, so having both a leek soup and creamed leeks struck me as undesirable.   I liked the results we achieved last year by using beef in Course 4, so I was heavily leaning toward retaining that ingredient.   But with what could I pair it, if not the leeks?   Potatoes were out of the question, as they tend to make the dish -- and hence the meal -- too heavy.   Within moments of starting to ponder all of this, a word suddenly appeared in my mind, as though placed there by some external force:   parsnips.

I will never know how or why the idea of parsnips came to me.   Prior to that date, I had no taste memory of the vegetable, I had never purchased or cooked with one, and I had no active recollection of being served one in a restaurant.   Indeed, I'm embarrassed to say that I would have been lucky to be able to pick a parsnip out of a root vegetable lineup, having grown so accustomed to skirting quickly by the lonely end of the produce aisle where they all reside.   Yet, here I was, impelled to investigate this unfamiliar ingredient for absolutely no discernible reason.   I began consulting cookbooks and online resources, anxious to find recipes, serving suggestions, and even the basics such as the best method to cook a parsnip.   My desire for a texture that would complement the beef led me to settle on a puree, and I found several authoritative sources indicating that all I needed to do is boil the peeled parsnips in water and then run them through a food processor.   Boil them in water?   That's it?   Shouldn't I at least consider using some chicken broth, or vegetable broth, to add a little flavor?   As I walked through the grocery store getting the ingredients for my various cooking experiments, I picked up some extra broth just in case.
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After peeling and chopping a pound of parsnips, I realized that there was only one path toward rectifying my shameful lack of knowledge about the flavor of an unadulterated parsnip:   to cook this first batch in water, not broth.   As I slid the vegetable coins off my cutting board and into the boiling water, I grabbed one of the smaller pieces and popped it into my mouth.   It tasted -- not surprisingly, I thought -- like a carrot.   I gently boiled the parsnips for 25 minutes, checking periodically with a fork to see if they had become completely tender.   When they had, I removed them from the heat, strained them, and reserved the water -- just as I'd been instructed.   As the blades of my mini food processor whirred and the walls of the container fogged up from the steam, I was practically bursting with anticipation.   Would they taste essentially like pureed carrots?   Or would they be bland and lifeless, demanding the addition of broth the next time around?   I slowly lifted the lid, and as the steam cleared and the edge of my spoon hit the surface of the puree, I was incredulous at what I saw.

The parsnips had a silken consistency, like that of the creamiest, most buttery, and whipped mashed potatoes that I had ever seen.   As my mind tried to grasp how this was possible from a mixture containing nothing but parsnips and water, I lifted the spoon to my mouth.   The taste was incredible.   The cooking process had softened the jagged edges of the flavor a bit, giving it a smoother, rounder taste that no longer resembled anything like a carrot.   It was as though the transformation that had taken place on the physical side -- from hard, crunchy root to soft, fork-tender vegetable -- had occured in the flavor dimension as well.   The consistency of the puree was a bit stiff at this point, so I added some of the reserved water -- one tablespoon at a time -- until it had reached the proper state.   I seasoned with kosher salt and white truffle oil, and I found myself absolutely thrilled with the result.   So much so, in fact, that I immediately called Rhonda on the phone and lamented that I had just wasted 38 years on the planet without partaking in the wonders of the parsnip.   Who would have guessed that it would take the creamed leeks stepping out of the way to finally show me the light?

Reading The Omnivore's Dilemma during a vacation last summer forever changed the way I look at, and purchase, beef.   The horrific acts in which the industrial food system engages to produce the perversity known as "corn-fed beef" are disgusting, and you could not pay me enough to serve such meat to my guests.   Fortunately, there are purveyors out there that are trying to do the right thing.   Prather Ranch -- located in Northern California -- is one such outfit, taking great care to raise its grass-fed cattle using organic feed, mountain spring water, and ecologically sound practices.   In fact, read the full account of the lengths to which Prather goes to ensure a quality product and see if you're not impressed.   Prather has also satisfied the strict standards to be Certified Humane, a distinction not currently held by Northern California's other popular meat producers, Niman Ranch and Marin Sun Farms.   And because I had purchased filets from Prather for a dinner party that I held last year, I knew firsthand about the quality of their service and their products.   All in all, I could think of no better beef purveyor to support -- and to feature on my menu -- than Prather Ranch.   And what a great decision it turned out to be, as the filets that we cooked for our truffle dinner were so meltingly tender as to be virtually indistinguishable from the American "Kobe" beef that I served last year.

Strictly speaking, the beef dish -- with its heavier and bolder flavors -- should be served as the final savory course, immediately before the palate cleanser and dessert.   But I decided to buck convention and keep it in Course 4 for a couple of reasons.   First, it's my view that the menu should build to a crescendo in Course 6, and I was not quite prepared to have my beef dish serve as the "star attraction" -- particularly in a dinner focused on white truffles.   And second, the dish had organically evolved in the fourth spot on the menu, so I was somewhat predisposed to simply leaving it there.   Perhaps I will change my mind in future years, but only time will tell.   The night of our White Truffle Dinner, I placed three seasoned filets in a pan and seared the first side.   After roughly four minutes, I flipped the steaks over and put the pan into a 450 degree oven to finish.   Rhonda and I put a small amount of parsnip puree in the center of each plate, followed by a single slice of the beef and a garnish of parsley.   A few moments later, the dish was on its way to the table.

Finally, to give you a sense of how the menu has evolved over time, here's a summary of the Course 4 selections that we have served since the inaugural White Truffle Dinner in 2003:

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

White Truffle Dinner 2006: Course 3

This is the fourth in a series of posts directed to the Fourth Annual White Truffle Dinner that Rhonda and I recently held at my home.   For more on the dinner, please see these posts:   Introduction | Course 1 | Course 2 | Course 3 | Course 4 | Course 5 | Course 6 | Course 7 | Course 8 | Conclusion

The third course for this year's White Truffle Dinner was Dungeness Crab Cake with White Truffle Creme Fraiche & Cucumber Foam. The original idea behind Course 3 was to have a small seafood selection to transition out of the soup and salad courses and to continue to build toward the apex of the menu in Courses 5 & 6.   Although that basic purpose has remained intact through all four renditions of the truffle menu, the precise composition of the third course has changed over time.   Indeed, my guests might be tempted to conclude that Course 3 is the most "experimental" portion of the menu, as it's the one spot where I feel the least degree of commitment to a preconceived ingredient or concept.   Still, a review of what we have served to date reveals some recurring themes.   Crab is one of them;   white truffle creme fraiche is another.   And although I'm sure that I will move on to explore other ingredients at some point, this apparently was not the year.   Instead, I decided to see whether another flavor that pairs well with crab -- cucumber -- could be integrated successfully with creme fraiche and white truffle.

One of the things that I value most about planning and presenting these annual dinners is the opportunity to learn something new, whether it relates to an unexplored cooking technique, an unfamiliar ingredient, or a new flavor combination.   Thus, when it came to my curiosity about the cucumber, the last thing in the world I wanted to do was use the vegetable in its natural state.   After all, where's the challenge in simply slicing or dicing a cucumber and throwing it together with crab and creme fraiche?   No, I wanted to try something that I had never done before.   My first thought was to use a gelee.   Ron Siegel, Executive Chef at The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, uses a variety of gelees to great effect in concert with different types of sashimi;   Roland Passot at La Folie serves a delicious apple gelee with crab, and a Meyer lemon gelee with lobster.   Why not create a crab salad using the white truffle creme fraiche, and then place the mixture into a cylindrical mold above a thin disk of cucumber gelee?

I did not start experimenting with this until one week before the dinner, and among the immediate challenges I faced were how much liquid I needed in order to obtain a gelee of the proper thickness and how much gelatin I had to use to achieve the proper consistency.   I consulted my copy of The Professional Chef on the latter question and estimated the amount of gelatin required for a set that is just firm enough to hold its shape.   I ran three cucumbers through my juicer (noting for future reference that the result was roughly 2 cups of juice), and then proceeded to confront the next quandary -- i.e., how to dissolve the gelatin into the juice.   Everybody knows that you typically need to warm up a liquid in order to melt the gelatin, but would cucumber juice be able to stand the heat?   Even if I put it over a low flame, would it separate?   And how, if at all, would the flavor be impacted?   I put a small amount of the juice in a sauce pan to give it a try, and what I found certainly caught me by surprise.   The heat did not seem to change the appearance of the liquid, but it did dramatically alter its flavor.   What once tasted like the purest essence of cucumber had now mysteriously picked up unpleasant overtones of asparagus -- for reasons that I'm sure only Harold McGee would be able to explain.   I concluded that I would have to dissolve the gelatin into a small amount of heated water, and then blend that water (once cooled a bit) with the juice.   The cucumber flavor would admittedly be a bit more diluted this way, but I simply saw no other choice.
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Two hours after putting the cucumber-water mixture into the refrigerator to set, I pulled out the tray.   Although the gelatin seemed to have the consistency I wanted in terms of how it would interplay with the crab when tasted, it was not quite firm enough to stand up to any manipulation.   Feeling rather dejected, I sat in my kitchen and thought about whether I had any hope of figuring out the optimal ratio of gelatin to liquid in the days that remained before the dinner.   It was time to start considering alternatives.

Foams have now become de rigueur in upscale restaurant dishes, almost to the point of cliche.   Yet, I've had very little experience with them at home, and I suspected that most of my guests had rarely seen them outside of restaurants either.   Why not give it a try, I thought.   I read several explanations about how dissolving gelatin into a liquid before sealing it in an iSi Gourmet Whip gives the foam more body when dispensed, so I set off to determine the correct amount of gelatin to use.   Because cleaning my juicer is a pain, I decided to run the first several experiments -- relating only to consistency -- on pineapple juice out of a carton.   The first foam I tried on Sunday was too soft, but the second one on Monday evening was just right.   I then returned to working with actual cucumber juice, as I still had to figure out the proper level of seasoning.   I learned from Harold McGee's book that the presence of salt in a liquid weakens the effect of gelatin, so I had to experiment with ratcheting up the gelatin concentration after I knew how much salt I wanted to add to the juice.   This went on for a few days, as I set aside time before or after work to prepare another experimental run or to check the results from the last one.   By the time I had finally achieved an acceptable result on Wednesday, I had gone through half a gallon of pineapple juice, two boxes of Knox gelatin envelopes, 18 nitrous oxide chargers for my Gourmet Whip, and the juice from 15 cucumbers.

I figured that a cucumber foam would make little sense with a crab salad, so I switched gears and resorted to a modified version of a crab cake that I had served at the first White Truffle Dinner three years ago.   Instead of Maryland Blue Crab we used Dungeness, and in place of half of the regular breadcrumbs we used panko.   On the night of the dinner, Rhonda pan fried the crab cakes to golden brown perfection while I put the creme fraiche into a piping bag.   We placed a crab cake in the center of each plate, drizzled some white truffle creme fraiche on top, and then finished with a small dollop of cucumber foam and a cucumber slice for garnish.

Finally, to give you a sense of how the menu has evolved over time, here's a summary of the Course 3 selections that we have served since the inaugural White Truffle Dinner in 2003:

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

White Truffle Dinner 2006: Course 2

This is the third in a series of posts directed to the Fourth Annual White Truffle Dinner that Rhonda and I recently held at my home.   For more on the dinner, please see these posts:   Introduction | Course 1 | Course 2 | Course 3 | Course 4 | Course 5 | Course 6 | Course 7 | Course 8 | Conclusion

The second course for this year's White Truffle Dinner was Burrata Cheese with Arugula in a White Truffle Champagne Vinaigrette. The notion of including a salad on the menu has always held appeal for me, in part because it provides an easy vehicle -- i.e., the dressing -- through which to highlight the flavor of white truffle.   In this context, I've never been particularly fond of mixed greens, preferring instead the steady backdrop of a single type of green against which the flavor of the dressing can be fully perceived.   I'm also a proponent of pairing the salad with another component of some sort, be it bread, cheese, or even something more substantial.   In my view, this type of diversion can help keep the diner interested, while also heightening the impact of both the salad and the accompaniment.   This year, I decided to pair the salad with one of my favorite food "discoveries" of the past year -- burrata cheese.

My tastes in cheese generally tend to run to the more dramatic, whether it's a pungent brie, a tangy feta, or a nutty parmigiano reggiano.   It's not that I dislike milder cheeses such as fresh mozzarella;   I just never fully understood how some people could grow so rhapsodic when talking about them.   All of that changed earlier this year, though, during a dinner that I enjoyed at Ame.   My friend A had ordered the Burrata Cheese with Organic Greens as a starter, and she kindly offered me a bite.   The cheese was unlike any I had ever tasted -- rich, sumptuous, and utterly creamy, with a distinctive flavor that left me wanting to return my appetizer to the kitchen forthwith.   It wasn't until several months later that I found out the source for Ame's burrata:   a Southern California company called Gioia, which distributes its product to the restaurant -- and to the general public -- through Cowgirl Creamery.   Rhonda and I now periodically treat ourselves to a container of burrata, but it's so phenomenal that we've taken to giving portions away to our friends out of fear that we might otherwise eat our way through the entire 1 pound tub!

I've always liked the taste of arugula, but for some unknown reason, I'd never really thought about including it on one of my menus.   The idea of doing so finally came to me in the most unusual manner, when I saw a book review on a fellow food blogger's site.   The book is called "The United States of Arugula", and the title alone was enough to make me ponder why I had overlooked this prevalent green for so long.   But while tales like this illustrate that inspiration can come from the most unexpected of places, it's equally true that patently obvious ideas are sometimes the very things that are the most difficult to see.   For example, despite my burgeoning affinity for burrata, the thought of including it on this year's truffle menu had completely and inexplicably eluded me.   Instead, I was all set to present my guests with a Truffled White Bean Crostini -- a creation that I had tested the weekend before the dinner using cellini beans from Rancho Gordo.   But as I walked through the Ferry Building a mere four days before the dinner, the idea of using burrata suddenly hit me like a bolt of lightning.   Why not simply include a small amount of the delicacy on each plate, add a little bit of freshly ground black pepper on top, and then finish with a drizzle of white truffle oil?   Toast points, along with the arugula, could complete the course.   The idea immediately struck a chord with me;   after all, what could be better than incorporating into the menu -- and sharing with our closest friends -- one of my greatest food passions of the past year?   The Truffled White Bean Crostini were shelved, and the second course was set.

Finally, to give you a sense of how the menu has evolved over time, here's a summary of the Course 2 selections that we have served since the inaugural White Truffle Dinner in 2003:

Saturday, December 16, 2006

White Truffle Dinner 2006: Course 1

This is the second in a series of posts directed to the Fourth Annual White Truffle Dinner that Rhonda and I recently held at my home.   For more on the dinner, please see these posts:   Introduction | Course 1 | Course 2 | Course 3 | Course 4 | Course 5 | Course 6 | Course 7 | Course 8 | Conclusion

The first course for this year's White Truffle Dinner was Truffled Corn & Leek Veloute.   I can think of no better way to launch into a multi-course tasting menu than with a luxurious cream soup, which probably explains why all four of our truffle dinners have started in precisely that way.   This year's selection consists of corn, leeks and shallots sauteed in butter and then cooked with vermouth and chicken stock.   The mixture is pureed and strained, and then enriched with heavy cream and a small amount of truffle butter (or truffle oil) stirred in immediately before service.   The finished soup delivers the distinct flavors of white truffle, corn and leek, against a velvety smooth backdrop provided by the cream.

If the veloute sounds familiar to you, it should;   we served it -- sans truffle flavor -- as part of the "Four Star Tour" dinner that we presented last year.   The soup was well received by my guests there, and it has also been one of my personal favorites for as long as I can remember.   Still, I hesitated before committing to it for this year's white truffle menu.   Why?   Well, all three of our prior truffle dinners have incorporated two of my most reliable vegetable accompaniments:   Truffled Sweet Corn and Shallots and Truffled Creamed Leeks.   The former has always been paired with lobster, while the latter has variously appeared with Kobe beef, truffle-dusted sea scallop, or truffle-dusted prawn.   Because I try to minimize the repetition of flavors across the menu, the inclusion of a corn and leek soup would effectively require me to scrap both of these time-tested favorites.   Did I really want to come up with two new vegetable components for use in the later courses?   I ultimately answered that question in the affirmative, and neither the Truffled Sweet Corn and Shallots nor the Truffled Creamed Leeks made it onto this year's menu.

Finally, to give you an idea of how my white truffle menu has evolved over time, here's a summary of the Course 1 selections that we have served since the inaugural White Truffle Dinner in 2003:

Friday, December 15, 2006

White Truffle Dinner 2006: Introduction

This is the first in a series of posts directed to the Fourth Annual White Truffle Dinner that Rhonda and I recently held at my home.   For more on the dinner, please see these posts:   Introduction | Course 1 | Course 2 | Course 3 | Course 4 | Course 5 | Course 6 | Course 7 | Course 8 | Conclusion

Last Saturday, Rhonda and I welcomed eight of our closest friends to my house for our fourth annual White Truffle Dinner.   It was a stormy night, requiring our guests to negotiate traffic snarls, power outages, and bursts of torrential rain just to make it to my front door.   But one by one they arrived, until the last of them rang the doorbell at just a few minutes before 7:00 p.m.   In this first installment of a multi-post series, I'll describe some of the activities that had filled the weeks, days and hours leading up to that moment.   Then, in subsequent posts, I'll take you through each of the eight courses that we presented as part of this dinner.

I typically start to think about the White Truffle Dinner sometime around mid- to late September, when summer vacations have ended and fall has definitively arrived.   For the first several weeks, the dinner is little more than a distraction in the back of my mind -- a subtle and infrequent reminder of a new item on my to do list.   By late October, however, the task has become a bit more concrete, and I'm thinking about dishes from the prior year's menu that I would like to replace and new ideas that I'm interested in exploring.   November brings experimentation with new ingredients, combinations, and recipes, as well as finalization of the menu over the Thanksgiving break.   The last few weeks before the party are then consumed with sourcing ingredients, taking care of other logistics, and getting mentally prepared.   And all throughout, I rely upon Rhonda as both a taste tester and a sounding board.

This year's preparation followed the same basic progression as always, but my timing was seriously off;   a rough period at work put me 2-3 weeks behind schedule from the outset, and I never did manage to catch up.   Thus, my experimental phase did not even begin until the weekend before Thanksgiving, when I tried preparing three components of the dessert that I had in mind.   While two of these seemed to turn out relatively well, the third -- a sauce -- clearly needed a few more iterations before I could be comfortable that it would work.   Unfortunately, I would end up having to wait another two weeks before I could resume my tinkering with that sauce.
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There's more...
My Thanksgiving break was a flurry of activity, with very little of it directed toward planning the White Truffle Dinner.   My parents were in town for the holiday, so between hosting them, planning and cooking our Thanksgiving dinner, and tending to a few nagging issues that bubbled up at work, I had absolutely no free time.   I did continue to churn a few ideas around in my head, though, and I also managed to map out the series of tests that I would need to run during the one weekend that remained before the party itself.   The spread for Course 2, the vegetable components for Courses 3, 4 & 6, the entirety of Course 7, and the sauce for Course 8 -- not a single one of these had been proven viable, and all were accordingly up in the air.   There was, however, one inspirational spark that came out of our Thanksgiving dinner:   the vegetable side dish that we had prepared struck me as a great fit for Course 6, thus eliminating one point of uncertainty!

The weekend before the White Truffle Dinner was completely insane.   I woke up at the crack of dawn that Saturday, got dressed, and headed out to the Ferry Building Farmers' Market to get a variety of ingredients.   After stopping at Whole Foods to pick up a few additional items, I came home and unpacked.   And then I cooked.   I peeled, chopped, boiled, pureed, soaked, measured, seasoned, infused, strained, juiced, gelled, processed, whisked, tempered and, of course, tasted.   There, in the solitude of my kitchen that day, I experienced triumphs, tragedies, trials and tribulations.   And after working into the wee hours of the morning and sleeping for a few hours, I woke up to do it all again.   I took extensive notes throughout that weekend -- writing down weights, volumes, measurements, and yields, and penciling out calculations and conversions in the margins.

By the time Monday morning arrived, I was exhausted.   But I had somehow succeeded in finalizing almost all of the previously open menu items, with each having been tested and tweaked to my satisfaction.   Yet, there was one important exception, an item that would end up being the subject of several mid-week experiments to be run after long days at work:   the vegetable component for Course 3.   But more on that in a later post.   The other major task facing me at this point was to place my order for certain key ingredients.   For three years running, I have ordered our lobster tails from Maine Lobster Direct.   I have always been pleased with the service provided by this company, and the quality of the lobster has consistently been first rate.   I called them up, asked them to replicate my order from last year, and was off the phone just a few minutes later.

Next up was the star ingredient -- fresh white truffles.   For the first two years of our party, I had turned to a Philadelphia-based company called Urbani Truffles -- billed as the leading importer of fresh truffles in the United States.   Last year, however, Urbani's U.S. operation inexplicably vanished;   they stopped answering their phones, and they seemingly abandoned their website.   I accordingly had no choice but to find another purveyor, and I selected D'Artagnan.   The truffle that D'Artagnan sent me last year, in addition to being enormous, was of great quality, so I had no qualms about ordering from them again.   When I called them last Monday, the sales agent indicated that their last shipment of fresh truffles had come in three days earlier -- meaning
that any truffle I ordered would be at least 8 days old by the time we served it.   After hearing me express some concerns about this, the agent assured me that it shouldn't be a problem and that he would personally check the quality of the truffles the next morning.   On Tuesday, however, he called me back to say that the truffles had started to deteriorate, and that he would not recommend that I order these for my dinner.   I thanked him for his honesty and integrity, and noted that he had just guaranteed that D'Artagnan will have my business next year.

It was now Tuesday afternoon, and I had no idea who would be providing the truffles that we intended to serve just four days later.   Draeger's in San Mateo often carries them at this time of year, so I decided to stop by on my way home from work in order to investigate.   Although they did have a few white truffles available, the quality looked marginal and I had no way of determining when they had been pulled out of the ground.   I resolved to keep looking.   I recalled seeing a few truffles at Far West Fungi in the Ferry Building a few weeks earlier, so I gave them a call.   I was told that they would be getting a fresh shipment in on Wednesday morning, perfect timing for our purposes.   But they were charging over $210 per ounce -- nearly $70 per ounce more than the rate I had been finding elsewhere.   I am generally a fan of Far West Fungi and believe in supporting local purveyors, but forking over an unnecessary $350 to them was a bit more than I could stomach.   After doing some online research on Wednesday, I placed an order early Thursday morning with Earthy Delights.   The service provided by this Michigan company was very good, but the truffles themselves ended up being of mixed quality;   some were excellent, but others were just average.   I was also disappointed to see that they had stored the truffles in rice -- a practice that, while mystifyingly popular, tends to dry the truffles out.

I always take the Friday before the party off in order to cook, so Thursday was my last day in the office.   After finishing my work that day, I stayed a bit longer to finalize a few of the documents that we would need for the party.   First up were the menus that would be placed on the table before our guests arrived, then came the placecards.   Finally, I turned my attention to the most important document of all:   the one containing the recipes.   Back when I was planning the first White Truffle Dinner in 2003, it occurred to me that the only way to execute a complicated, multi-course menu without missing something along the way was to have every step -- and the relative timing thereof -- plotted out well in advance.   The result was a 17-page "guide" of sorts, a step-by-step plan of attack for getting all seven of the courses to the table in the form and sequence that I intended.   This proved so invaluable during that first dinner, that I've been using it ever since.

The document itself is divided into eight sections, each with a large heading containing a course number.   Immediately below that is a list of the ingredients for the corresponding dish, properly scaled to reflect the number of servings that we are preparing.   The cooking directions come next, and they are subdivided into three distinct parts:   those steps that should be completed in advance (i.e., the day before, or the morning of, the dinner), those that should be done the afternoon before guests arrive, and those that must be completed in real time during the dinner itself.   Each section then ends with a description of how the course should be plated.   I usually print several copies of the document and distribute them across various counters in the kitchen, so that Rhonda and I have ready access to the information no matter where our running around may take us.

I had been hoping to go the grocery store on Thursday evening, but the hours simply slipped away from me.   Accordingly, I woke up early Friday morning, prepared a list, and headed out to get the panoply of ingredients that we would be needing.   I returned home around 11:00 a.m. and immediately started to cook.   Rhonda, meanwhile, was out running a number of errands, most notably shopping for items to include as part of the table decor -- which I had entrusted, as I always do, to her capable hands.   I worked methodically through two components for Course 8, the entirety of Course 1, and a portion of Course 3.   Rhonda joined me in the kitchen in the early evening, and she tackled portions of Courses 2 and 6.   We continued to cook until nearly 3:00 a.m., when we collapsed due to sheer exhaustion.   We were up by 8:30 the next morning, off to the Ferry Building for some fresh ingredients that we had deliberately waited to buy.   I was back in the kitchen by 11:00 a.m., addressing parts of Courses 3, 4, 6, and 8.   Rhonda worked on getting the table set up, after which she took on certain aspects of Courses 3 and 5.   Our efforts continued uninterrupted until around 5:15 p.m., when I finally paused to take a quick shower and get ready.   Shortly after 6:00 p.m., our first guest rang the doorbell.

I have scattered throughout this post pictures of the table decor that Rhonda put together for the evening.   While Rhonda has always had a flair for aesthetically pleasing style and design, she really outdid herself this year -- creating a spectacular arrangement characterized by clean lines, elegance and refinement.   I'm still not entirely sure how she did it;   then again, that's probably why I leave these matters to her eminently good taste!   Our guests were as impressed as I was, and the table was the topic of conversation as I finished the final preparations for Course 1.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Menu for Hope III

It's easy for those of us who have the luxury to write, read, debate or opine about the finer points of great cuisine to lose sight of one utterly tragic fact:   over 800 million people on the planet do not have enough food to eat.   Well, we in the food blogging community want to do something to address this critically important issue, and we're looking to you, our readers, for help.

Today marks the launch of the third annual Menu for Hope, a fundraising campaign in which we collectively convert our passion for food into a driving force to help those who are less fortunate.   Here's how it works.   Participating bloggers from around the world have donated food-related prizes, each of which will be separately raffled off in early January.   Between now and December 22, every $10 that you contribute to the cause will entitle you to one virtual raffle ticket, to be added to the drawing for whichever prize you specify.   So, what happens if you see a prize that you simply cannot bear to lose?   Then try stuffing the ballot box by contributing $50 and applying all five of your virtual tickets to the raffle for that one item.   What if you can't pick just one prize from the many great options?   Then contribute $70 and apply one virtual ticket to each of seven different prizes.   There's no limit to how much, or how many times, you can contribute, and 100% of the proceeds that we raise will go directly to the United Nations World Food Programme.

Before I provide the details on how to contribute, let me tell you a bit about the prize that I'll be donating.   Given that this site tends to focus quite heavily on Bay Area restaurants, it seemed only fitting that my prize should be related to a restaurant as well.   But which one?   As my mind cycled through the scores of great establishments that we have here in the Bay Area, one in particular jumped out -- a place so outstanding, that it has consistently remained at the top of my list of favorites for the past few years:   The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton.   Executive Chef Ron Siegel offers some of the most exciting, innovative, and satisfying cuisine in the entire region, served in a plush and elegant dining room by what I believe to be the best waitstaff in the city.   Now, you can certainly go to The Dining Room and have a great meal by ordering three courses a la carte, and I would never actively discourage anybody from doing so.   But there's no better way to experience the full breadth of Siegel's talents than to order one of his many tasting menus.   Whether you opt for the six-, eight- or nine-course menu, you are sure to be treated to a veritable parade of one brilliant dish after another.   Don't believe me?   Take a look at my review from last year.   In fact, here's an even better idea:   why don't you and a guest go to the restaurant and see for yourselves, on me?   That's right, my prize is a $350 gift certificate for The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton.   Interested?   Then write down and remember this Prize Code:


And most importantly, contribute early and often!   Now, here are the instructions on what you need to do:

  1. Go to the donation page.

  2. Make a donation in the amount of your choosing.   Each $10 you donate will give you one raffle ticket to be applied toward the prize of your choice.   Please specify which prize or prizes you would like in the "Personal Messages" section of the donation form, making sure to use the associated prize code(s) in your note.   If you donate more than $10, please be sure to indicate how many tickets you want allocated to each of your selected prizes.   For example, for a donation of $50, you might include a note such as "2 tickets for UW01 and 3 for UW02."   And once again, the San Francisco Gourmet Prize Code is UW36.

  3. If your company matches your charity donation, please remember to check the box and fill in the information so that we can claim the corporate match.

  4. Please also be sure to check the box to allow us to see your email address, so that we can contact you in case you win.   Your email address will not be shared with anyone.

  5. Results of the raffle will be announced on January 15, 2007 on Chez Pim.

If you want to see a summary of all of the prizes that are available from bloggers around the world, please visit this page.   If you want to see what West Coast bloggers in particular have offered up, please go to this site.   And if you'd like to monitor the donations as they roll in -- and keep an eye on how many others are applying their raffle tickets against the prize that you want -- please go here.   Thanks, and good luck!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

White Truffle Dinner

Sometime in the Summer of 2003, in a fit of what can only be described as insanity, I convinced myself to embark upon an almost absurd culinary undertaking:   the preparation and presentation of a multi-course tasting menu featuring the flavor of white truffles in every savory dish.   Looking back on it now, I can honestly say that I have no idea what possessed me to even entertain the idea.   Sure, I had previously hosted my fair share of ordinary dinner parties for small groups of friends, preparing an appetizer-entree-dessert combination by carefully following favored recipes.   And yes, I had generally partaken in multi-course tasting menus out in top-tier restaurants.   But presenting a tasting menu at home?   Never.   Designing a menu full of courses, let alone one featuring the flavor of white truffle in every dish?   Nope.   And cooking for 12 people at once, instead of a more reasonable number like 6?   Certainly not.

Nevertheless, I pressed on.   And after months of planning, weeks of sourcing ingredients, days of experimenting, and more than 30 hours of cooking, I somehow pulled it off.   It wasn't necessarily pretty;   the meal went much later into the evening than I had hoped, there were uneven delays between the seven courses, and the real-time completion of certain dishes raised complications that I had not foreseen.   Still, there were no major catastrophes, everything made it to the table more or less as I had intended, and I came out of the process having learned an extraordinary amount.   Best of all, I also managed to get my hands on some fresh white truffles from Alba, enough to shave over one of the dishes on my menu.   All in all, I have never been so completely wiped out from sheer exhaustion.   Yet, paradoxically, the experience also left me thoroughly exhilarated.

I suppose it's no surprise, then, that the White Truffle Dinner has since become an annual tradition.   In 2004, I moved to an eight-course format, adding a pre-dessert palate cleanser where none existed the year before.   I also decided to rotate out four of the original seven dishes in favor of new ones, just to keep things interesting and to force myself to experiment with some new concepts.   I continued that practice of turning over half of the prior menu in 2005, and I'll do the same again for this year's dinner -- which is scheduled to take place this coming Saturday.   With each passing year, some of the stress associated with the pre-party planning seems to dissipate, and Rhonda and I have probably become a bit more efficient in certain aspects of the execution.   Still, the intensity of experimenting for new menu ideas and cooking nonstop for the two days leading up to the dinner remains just as exhausting -- and exhilarating -- as ever!
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There's more...
The guest list for my White Truffle Dinner over the years has been in a constant state of flux.   Space constraints at my dining table preclude Rhonda and me from inviting all of our good friends over at once, and doing the dinner twice during the limited white truffle season is simply impractical.   We have accordingly ended up holding two different parties in past years, one featuring white truffles and another focused on a different theme.   The second dinner party last year, for example, centered around dishes inspired by the Bay Area's four-star chefs.   This time around, however, we regrettably have the bandwidth to host only one dinner party, so Rhonda and I had to make some difficult choices on the guest list.

After last year's White Truffle Dinner, I intended to post a brief description of the meal here along with some pictures.   Unfortunately, a number of unexpected developments at work in January conspired to prevent me from actually doing so.   As a prelude to this year's dinner, I thought that I would finally complete the post that I intended to put up so long ago.   So, here is a quick summary of what I served last year:

Truffled Cauliflower Soup

I've noted here before how much I enjoy cream soups, so it was almost a foregone conclusion that there would be one on my menu.   I particularly appreciate soups in the context of multi-course menus, as they can be finished well in advance of the meal and reheated right before service.   Cauliflower is a vegetable that I have always felt is underappreciated, so providing a platform to showcase its delicate flavor struck me as a great idea.   I finished this soup with a small amount of white truffle butter, and just enough kosher salt to make all of the flavors jump out of the bowl.

Chilled Crab with Truffled Crème Fraiche and Avocado

The inspiration for this dish originated in one of the courses from my "Four-Star" dinner, namely Chilled Crab with Mango, Red Onion & Creme Fraiche.   I figured that mango would not harmonize well with the flavor of white truffle, but I had to experiment a bit before I realized that even the red onions threatened to be too overpowering.   Finding myself left with only crab and creme fraiche, I started to think about other ingredients that might work well in this dish.   Avocado came quickly to mind, and a few experiments later I found myself pleased with the result.

Manchego & Truffle Panna Cotta with Mâche in a Truffle Champagne Vinaigrette

This course had its origins in two very different dishes from two very different restaurants:   Parmesan Budini at Tra Vigne, and Cauliflower Panna Cotta at The French Laundry.   I was so impressed with the former when I had it several years ago, that I resolved to figure out how to make it for my first White Truffle Dinner in 2003.   The French Laundry's Cauliflower Panna Cotta, meanwhile, had long been one of my personal favorites, and I included it on the vegetarian version of my white truffle menu in 2004.   For last year's dinner, I brought the two concepts together and replaced the Parmesan with a cheese with which I had recently become enamored -- Manchego.

American "Kobe" Beef Filet with Truffled Creamed Leeks

Another food-related interest that I was continuing to explore last year related to American "Kobe" beef.   This product had been showing up with increasing frequency on the menus of upper-tier restaurants, and I had cooked with it myself a few times before.   I had stayed away from including red meat on earlier white truffle menus for fear of the truffle flavor getting overwhelmed, but Ron Siegel at The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton had presented a spectacular veal with white truffle that gave me the confidence to give it a try.   The creamed leeks had been on both of my prior menus and had been well received, so it seemed like a natural choice for accompanying the beef.

White Truffle Risotto with Browned Butter and Fresh Truffle Shavings

Only two dishes found their way onto all three of my menus from 2003 through 2005, and this Thomas Keller risotto was one of them.   The recipe for the rice itself is fairly standard, although it's enhanced considerably by luxurious finishing touches such as unconscionable amounts of butter, Parmesan cheese, whipped cream, and white truffle oil.   But add in fresh white truffle shavings and some deliciously nutty browned butter, and the dish is transported into another realm.   This risotto epitomizes the genius of Thomas Keller, and it remains one of my absolute favorite dishes to eat.

Butter-Poached Maine Lobster with Truffled Sweet Corn & Shallots

This is another course that remained unchanged over the first three incarnations of the White Truffle Dinner.   Although I've always loved lobster, it wasn't until I had my first lobster dish at The French Laundry that I realized its full potential.   Keller gently poaches the meat in beurre monte, butter melted carefully such that its component ingredients remain in an emulsified state.   The result is tender, flavorful, and buttery, without any of the rubbery attributes that develop when lobster is cooked violently.   After a few test runs back in 2003, I concluded that butter-poached lobster simply had to have a place on my menu.   The sweet corn and shallots combination, on the other hand, was an exceedingly simple side dish that I had devised long ago.   And because the pairing of lobster and corn has always held great appeal for me, this course practically came together on its own.

Lemon Lavender Cappuccino

I happened upon the idea for this palate cleanser during my preparations for the "Four-Star" dinner, for which I ultimately put together an Orange Lavender Cappuccino inspired by a brilliant concoction I'd been served at Campton Place.   The basic idea was quite simple:   a flavorful liquid is partially frozen until it reaches a slushy consistency, and it's then placed in a cappuccino cup and capped with a flavored foam.   As I was experimenting with the combination of orange and lavender, I remembered a recipe that I had once tried for a delicious lavender lemonade.   When the time came to select a palate cleanser for the White Truffle Dinner, the choice was obvious.

Gingerbread Cake with Poached Anjou Pear and Crème Anglaise

Dessert is the one course that I have always changed from one year's menu to the next, typically to reflect something that has caught my interest.   Few things say the holidays quite like gingerbread does, so I was curious last year to see whether I could find some flavors to pair with a small gingerbread cake.   I have long been a big fan of pears, and I had been playing around with poaching them in a variety of different liquids.   I ultimately settled on Anjou pears poached in Bonny Doon Vin de Glacière and vanilla bean, which yielded an absolutely delicious result.   And the final component here, a rich crème anglaise sauce that showcased a plump fragrant vanilla bean, complemented the cake nicely.

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I first started thinking about this year's White Truffle Dinner a few months ago, and I began -- as I always do -- by looking at the prior year's menu.   After identifying certain courses that should be rotated out and others that perhaps ought to make a repeat appearance, I set off on a process of research and experimentation that ended just this morning.   The menu is now finally set, and it has a few minor twists, a few more significant ones, and a few old favorites.   It also reflects some of the food that I've enjoyed, the interests that I've developed, and the inspirations that I've drawn over the course of the past year.   I won't reveal the details of the menu just yet, but I'll provide a full rundown at a later date.   For now, I'll close with a few more pictures from last year's dinner.