Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Ms. Otis Regrets

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of a leisurely lunch with my Aunt in Santa Barbara. But it wasn't just any lunch, it was cooked for us, as part of a cooking demonstration, by a chef and his pastry chef/assistant in my Aunt's gorgeous kitchen. There were also 12 other guests enjoying the bounty of our good food fortune. If you've ever heard the song, Pick-a-little, Talk-a-little, you'll know what the atmosphere was like. If you haven't, these are the ladies who lunch. I felt like a flower just beginning to bloom among a brightly colored mixed bouquet. I was a pedicure and a few carats outclassed, but no one was counting. So I put aside any thoughts of my impending(?) 1/3 life crisis, and dug into the demo.

The menu being prepared for us is as follows (Careful not to drool on your keyboard):
Cream of Watercress and Spinach Soup with Garlic Croutons
Gnocchi with Garlic, Basil, and Tomatoes
Poached Scottish Salmon on Braised Fennel and Swiss Chard with Tarragon and Whole Grain Mustard Nage
Chocolate Lava Cake with Whipped Cream and Raspberry Coulis

Chef Mark and Pastry Chef Patrick arrived around 11am that morning to begin preparations for the feast. Potatoes were set to boil for the gnocchi, the poaching liquid for the salmon was prepared, and they created all the staging areas necessary to please the audience, while allowing space to plate the food properly before its unveiling at the tables.

As the ladies arrived, there was hand shaking and hugging and nice to meet yous and hellos! exhanged, and soon the show started. It was like being in the studio audience of a cooking show, except that annoying Rachel Ray wasn't on next and we were about 10 inches from the stage. The words that sold me on Chef Mark's abilities were when he said, "When I make soup, I think it should taste like the ingredients in the name. So this soup should taste like watercress and spinach." One point for Mark. Actually, let's give him two points, one for watercress and one for spinach. The soup was easy. Saute a little of this, add that, wilt the greens, boil, add cream, boil again, blend, garnish, and serve. Am I oversimplifying? Not really. And it was very good. It tasted green, like watercress and spinach even, and only a bit of cream. I normally don't like cream soups because they're too heavy, but this wasn't at all. See below.

(If you are fussy or picky, please avert your eyes, as I tucked into this delicious bowl of soup before the thought of capturing it on film even occured to me. So half eaten as it is, here is the soup in all its green glory.)

See? Green!

Next, we were on to the gnocchi. I LOVE gnocchi. That said, I am usually so disappointed by the gnocchi I order in restaurants, that I don't order it anymore. Gnocchi has become a synonym for glue ball or twice chewed gum at most establishments. It shares space in the culinary hall of failures with the matzoh ball, that hockey puck of a dumpling. But neither have to be relegated to the cob-webbed corners of cooking. Free the gnocchi! Long live the matzoh ball! Okay, I'm getting ahead of myself. Would Chef Mark's gnocchi live up to the hype???

He had quite a bit to say on the matter. First, he thinks that gnocchi should taste like something. (His third point scored.) For the purposes of this demonstration, let's say cheese. His gnocchi was approximately 1 part grated Parmesano Reggiano (Kraft, exit stage left), 1 part hot potato, 1 part flour. The hot potato melts the cheese, the flour makes it more like dough, and then egg binds it together. The end result is a soft, workable dough. From there we rolled, shaped, and boiled the gnocchi, and Mark began the sauce.

His second bold gnocchi statement, was that it has no business being drowned in marinara or cream sauce. For those keeping score, Mark just scored 100 bonus points for eschewing the nasty cream sauce bath. But I had no idea the treat that was in store for us. Chef Mark introduced me to the Jus de Poulet, which literally means chicken juice, but actually means twice reduced chicken stock with extra veggies and yummy goodness. Now that's good cookin. The sauce he made had tomotoes, garlic, rosemary, thyme, parsley, jus de poulet, butter, and a basil garnish. But before he combined gnocchi with sauce, he sauteed the gnocchi in a pan with oil until they were golden brown and delicious. This is his third bold gnocchi statement. I have had them this way once before, and I think Mark's were better. Not sure why. Maybe it was because I watched them being made. It's always more exciting that way. See the finished dish below.

Did I mention that this dish was soooooo delicious? Mouthwateringly good. I am Pavlov's Dog. Just say gnocchi...

Third on the menu was the poached salmon. Normally, I'm not a poached fish kind of girl. I think it's because poached fish has a nursing home feel to it. Or maybe I usually have it overcooked. Whatever my problem, I didn't have it yesterday.

Watching a person behead, fillet, debone, and skin an entire fish is fascinating. Perhaps not to some, but that ain't my problem. When done properly, it looks easy, even though I know it isn't. The skin came off in one piece, as it should, the silvery-black scales standing at attention, making it look like a very sexy stocking or sleeve for a bizarre costume. Mark said he had once impressed Julia Child with his fish cleaning skills. I was equally impressed. Who am I to disagree with the Queen of Food? Efficiency in a professional kitchen is paramount, and Mark was proving his worth. So the fish was cut into serving pieces and then placed in the poaching liquid. The sauce was prepared, and soon we were dining on the best poached fish I can remember eating, and certainly one of the top fish dishes I've had in ages. The fennel and swiss chard were a yummy base for the moist fish, and the sweet onion and mustard sauce was the perfect finish. Sweet, tangy, light, and flavorful, but no one flavor overwhelmed the dish. It was soooo good.

I was ready for more cooking, but alas, we had just the dessert left to cook. Chocolate lava cake has been making the rounds at restaurants everywhere. Each place you go boasts a trendy chocolate as the star ingredient—the big three being Sharffenberger, Valrhona, and Callebaut— and usually the cakes are good. It's not hard to make a good chocolate lava cake, but it's easy to make a bad one. My only complaint about the lava cake that Mark made was that it wasn't chocolatey enough. Though when complaining about chocolate cake, that's a pretty big bone to pick. For you skeptics, yes, it's very possible to make an unchocolatey chocolate cake. Mark's recipe yielded a delicious, moist cake, but it only had semisweet chocolate in it, and just five ounces at that. To make a chocolate cake truly chocolatey, you need to add unsweetened cocoa powder (Dutch processed if you have it), or unsweetened chocolate. Then it truly has a deep chocolate flavor. But I can ramble about chocolate for hours. I'll do that another time. Now I will show you the cake that I was served. Don't get me wrong, I ate every morsel. But if I were making the cake, I would have punched it up in the chocolate department.

After everyone had licked their plates clean, they bid us farewell, and my Aunt and I watched Mark and Patrick walk an hour in the shoes of their dishwashers. We chatted about food, FoodTV, what makes a good chef, how hard it is to cook for a living, what a pipe dream it is for me to consider changing careers to become a pastry chef unless I dive in feet first, and other various and sundry topics in and around the foodosphere. After our personal chefs for the day left, my Aunt and I talked about how sad it was that some of her friends couldn't make it, as they would have liked to meet me. Perhaps if Ms. Otis had refrained from her nefarious business, she could have joined us as well. I am quite certain she would have enjoyed her lunch immensely.


Post a Comment

<< Home