Saturday, May 26, 2012

Bright, Fragrant, Dreamy

It has been a while, little blog. I've missed you. So much has happened since my last post: I hosted some fantastic but sadly undocumented dinner parties for visiting scholars; I finally finished my book manuscript after a three year struggle; I landed a gig teaching French to opera singers in Périgueux, Dordogne region (yay, France!), this summer –– so expect to see some French food posts in July; I made a huge batch of loquat jam from the tree in our yard; Chris and I will be moving, menagerie in tow, from East to North Austin in three weeks' time; my mother gave me some fantastic cookbooks for Christmas, including dreamy Mourad Lahlou's New Moroccan and the classic Spanish cookbook, 1080 Recipes, by Simone and Inés Ortega, described by some as Spain's Joy of Cooking.

The bright-fragrant-dreamy triptych represents my newest food obsessions, although of course all of my abiding fixations (curries, chutnies, salsas, sweet/savory pairings) continue to inform my cooking.


Doesn't Mourad Lahlou look just cuddly? He's so cuddly he can't help but cuddle himself in this photo.

But anyhow... After reading Lahlou's sumptuously photographed cookbook, I was inspired to cook a giant ambitious Mediterranean meal with a heavy Moroccan slant, and was lucky to have an opportunity to do so when Justin Spring (author of the beautifully written and highly titillating Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade) gave a talk at UT Austin at the end of February. The talk and the dinner party were both huge fun and Justin is one of the most charming people I've met. Incidentally, I learned the next day (while heavily drugged after dental surgery) that he is also a cook book author. Justin wrote the pithy-but-zen Itty Bitty Kitchen Handbook, which I highly recommend to anyone who has ever complained about the size of their kitchen. This includes every single New Yorker I know. Although I didn't have the presence of mind to take photos of the food, I did write down the menu on a random 'to do' list that I saved, so I will share that with you now:

Mediterranean Meal (Guest of Honor: Justin Spring) • 2/18/12

•pita, lavash, & french breads / chicken liver mousse / labné, spanish olive oil, & za'atar / charred eggplant puree / fried almonds / greek olives
•zucchini & ricotta galette / arugula salad
•lamb shoulder slow-cooked in aged butter / saffron & preserved lemons / harissa / cumin salt / arugula mint salad
•lemon date mousse / walnut sablé cookies

The charred eggplant puree came directly from Lahlou's cookbook and it was perfectly dreamy. Silken, smokey, with a nice balance of lemon and olive oil that brightened it *just* enough. I used a chicken liver mousse recipe from Marlow & Sons in Brooklyn, which I found in this New York Times feature. It did not disappoint; I love the sweetness of the cognac and shallots with the faint presence of star anise and thyme. The zucchini and ricotta galette is borrowed from Smitten Kitchen. It's an unusually wet dough that always worries me and always turns out flaky and perfect. Another highlight of the meal was the lamb shoulder, which I slow cooked in the crock pot with nothing but aged butter, saffron, and preserved lemon until it fell off the bone. I served it with a fragrant and bright tasting harissa (recipe below) and earthy/toasty cumin salt, both from Lahlou's cookbook, accompanied with a mint arugula salad. The juxtaposition of flavors was really striking. Next time I make the lamb, however, I'll go bolder with the preserved lemons and lighten up on the saffron (and I promise to post a recipe once I get the balance right). I didn't actually get to making the walnut sablé cookies, which would have been an ideal counterpoint to the slightly over-the-top date-y-ness of the mousse. Instead, I put a dollop of crème fraîche on top, which worked well. The date mousse recipe is adapted from 1080 Recipes.

Another chance to cook an ambitious multi-course meal came in April when my good friend, and author of Queer French, Denis Provencher was in town to give a lecture, accompanied by his (charming, witty, and most handsome) husband Steve. They stayed a few extra days, which we spent eating from famous Austin food trailers and doing outdoorsy stuff (kayaking in town lake with a traumatized dog, hiking the Barton Creek Greenbelt with an elated dog, sunning in the secret river beach at the Roy Guerrero Colorado River Park with an exhausted dog). The night of Denis's wonderful talk I hosted a group of my favorite colleagues for some "haute cuisine méxicaine." It came together nicely. Here's that menu:

Haute Cuisine Méxicaine Meal (Guest of Honor: Denis Provencher) • 4/19/12

•tostada / purslane flan / smoked chile emulsion / salt seared scallops / bacon julienne 
•black bean enfrijoladas / seared watermelon / queso blanco / cilantro paste / crema
•taquitos / cochinita pibil / pickled red onion and radish / wilted chard
•piloncillo star anise ice cream / lime sugar cookie

The purslane flan (flan de verdolagas) was served on top of a tostada smeared with a smoked chile emulsion alongside a single salt-seared sea scallop with a bacon julienne garnish. It was texturally exciting to eat and worked well flavor-wise, especially the bitter-smokey-salty trio of the purslane, chile, and sea scallop. My favorite course was the enfrijoladas. I enjoyed the textural play of the creaminess of the pureed black beans, crema mexicana, and cilantro paste, against the juicy crunch of the seared watermelon. The flavors came together nicely as well. 

(The cochinita pibil turned out fine but not nearly as tasty as the one I had two years back in the Wednesday market of the Calle del Oro, right by the Fuente de las Cíbeles, in Mexico City. It was made by a formidable yucateca woman and served by her chatty, nerdy daughter who loves speaking English. And it was truly truly blow-me-away awesome. I will report back to you as soon as I figure out how to duplicate it.)

Dessert consisted of a piloncillo star anise ice cream (recipe below) made with duck eggs from the yard and served with a lime zest sugar cookie. It was the guests' favorite part of the meal. And let me tell you: fresh homemade ice cream is so much better than even the premium brands you can get at the store. My dinner guests mooned over the perfect creaminess and intense almost licorice-like flavor of star anise and piloncillo combined.

Adapted from Mourad Lahlou's New Moroccan
6-7 pasilla chiles
6-7 puya chiles
6-7 New Mexico chiles
1 chipotle chile
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp sea salt
a pinch of black pepper
1/2 tsp cayenne
1 T ground toasted cumin
1 T ground toasted coriander
2 garlic cloves (pureed or grated on a Microplane)
1/4 cup champagne vinegar 
2 T lemon juice

Place chiles in a large bowl and add enough boiling water to cover. Use a small plate or something to push the chiles down into the water so that they remain totally submerged. Cover well and let soak for 1 hour. Drain the chiles and save a cup of the soaking liquid. De-stem and de-seed the chiles (wearing gloves if you want to be careful) and puree them in a blender using a little bit of the leftover soaking liquid to loosen up the mixture as needed. Add the olive oil and blend until smooth. Add the rest of the solid ingredients and blend until smooth. Finally, add the lemon juice and champagne vinegar and blend for another 30 seconds. As Lahlou explains, the texture should be roughly that of a loose whipped mayonnaise. Taste and add additional salt and/or lemon juice if you think it needs it.

 Piloncillo Star Anise Ice Cream
1 2/3 cups heavy cream
10-15 piece star anise
1 cup whole milk
1 six-ounce cone of piloncillo
A pinch of fleur de sel
1/8 cup white sugar
4 large egg yolks

Bring cream and star anise just to a simmer. Cover and let steep for a half-hour or longer. While cream is infusing, in a separate saucepan, bring the milk, the piloncillo, and a pinch of sea salt (or fleur de sel, if you have it) to a simmer over medium heat, stirring until the piloncillo is fully dissolved. (Careful: do not let it come to a boil!) Whisk together yolks and 1/8 cup sugar in a large bowl, and add milk-piloncillo mixture in a slow stream, whisking constantly. Return mixture to a saucepan and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until it reaches the consistency of a thin custard or registers 175°F on an instant-read thermometer. (Again, do not let it boil!). Strain the star anise infused cream through a sieve into the custard mixture. Refrigerate the mixture in a sealed container for at least three hours (but ideally overnight) then freeze in ice cream maker. Transfer to an airtight container and put in freezer to harden, about 1 hour.

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