Amuse Bouche

February 25, 2007

The little bites that delight the palette before a meal are the amuse bouche. They are the greeting of the Chef du cuisine and an insight into his or her approach to cooking. They are intended to excite the taste buds, stimulate the appetite and awaken one’s desires. In other words, David, this is food foreplay and foreplay foreplay.

After she’s slipped off her coat to reveal her ravishing party dress, that’s when you pull this one out of your tocque. She won’t see it coming, which will make it all the more delightful.

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Parfait of Roasted Eggplant, Tapenade and Creme Fraiche

Don’t be afraid to throw your weight around and or words like Parfait. It makes you sound manly. Try unbuttoning your shirt down to your solar plex before you say it.

The Eggplants
2 medium sized purple eggplants
3 scallions, finely sliced
1 clove garlic
1/4 tsp turmeric
2 Tbs chopped cilantro
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 Tbs fruity olive oil
1/2 tsp deseeded, minced habanero
2 pinches of salt to taste

Preheat the oven to 425. Poke the eggplants with a fork so they don’t explode and make a mess of your stainless steel Viking. Line a baking sheet with parchment.

Place the eggplants on the parchment and roast for 20 minutes. Turn the eggplants over and roast for 20 – 30 minutes more until they collapse.

Slice the eggplant lengthwise on one side and place in a collander to drain out the bitter juices. Allow to cool for at least 20 minutes.

Scoop out the meat and place in a food processor with the garlic and oil. Puree until smooth. In a bowl, combine the pureed eggplant and the remainder of the ingredients. Cover and store in the refrigerator for at least 30 mins.

The Tapenade
1/2 pint oil cured olives, destoned
1 Tbs capers
1 anchovy filet
1 Tbs olive oil
1 clove garlic

Pound the olives with the broad side of your chefs knife to loosen the stone. Remove the stones and discard. Pound the ingredients in a molcajete or use the food processor to make a course paste. I think you’ll get more points and look more manly if you use the molcajete. You make this several days in advance.

The Creme Fraiche
You can make your own creme fraiche or you can find it in your grocer’s dairy case. I like the Vermont Butter & Cheese Company’s version. It has a rich, nutty flavor and is the closest to what I’ve enjoyed in Brittany. If I were you, David, I’d find the nearest family-owned dairy farm and beg them to set aside a cup or two of fresh cream for a couple of days. Home run.

Create the Parfait
In a stemmed sherry or liqueur glass, layer the creme fraiche, the tapenade and the eggplant. Add another layer of tapenade, again with the creme fraiche and finish with a slice of preserved lemon. Serve with an oh so cute little spoon and a glass of prosecco. Consider tango lessons.

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It may take you a substantial amount of time to recover from this adventure, David. I’m still reeling from my experience. Jennifer and I celebrated our 13th Valentine’s Day last week. It was like a dream, sipping crisp bubbly and slurping creamy, briny pillows of heaven. I rolled each bite against the roof of my mouth with my tongue and then things went a bit cloudy. I woke up almost a week later with a severe case of dehydration, a pounding head and abraded wrists. Everytime I ask Jennifer what happened to the week I can’t seem to locate, she tells me to look in my sock drawer. I’m going to get Rod Serling on the case.

I like to use American Sevruga or Paddlefish roe for this dish. If you’re flush or you’re willing to live with your evil ways, I know a guy who knows a guy named Uri who may be able to find you a tin of Beluga. Otherwise, save it for Mitterand and his Ortolan eating pals.


2 dozen oysters
1 ounce caviar
Creme fraiche
Crushed ice

Store the oysters on ice.

Scrub and rinse each and every delightful bivalve. Drink frozen vodka while you open them. Slide your knife under the oyster to sever the muscle. Place immediately on a bed of crushed ice.

Top with a small dollop of creme fraiche, then a dollop of caviar. Be sure to use a non-metal spoon for the caviar.

Pop the ice cold Champagne and strap in. Don’t forget flowers.

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When most hear the word Polenta, they think of large women clad in black kerchiefs stirring a copper pot over a wood fire. I want you, David, to think of their supple, dark-haired daughters in white cotton dresses. It’s still winter, so you may have to turn up the heat or wrap her in a cashmere sweater while you make this dish. It will remind your Bella Belle of home and you’ll rack up big points. If I were you, I would consider changing my name to Carmen. David just doesn’t sound as sexy in an Italian accent.

The Stock

2 carrots
1 onion
1 stalk of celery
3 cloves of garlic
1/2 bunch of parsley
1 tsp coarse sea salt or more to taste
10 green peppercorns
1 bay leaf
6 cups of water

Saute the onions in 2 Tbs olive oil until soft. Add the water, turn up the heat to high and add the remainder of the ingredients except the mushroom trimmings. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 40 minutes. Strain the stock, transfer to a smaller pot, add another bay leaf, the mushroom trimmings and simmer for 20 minutes more.

The Mushrooms

I used criminis when I made this last, but I generally like to use oysters or hedgehogs. You can also try buttons, trumpets or cinnamon caps.

1/2 pound mushrooms, brushed and trimmed
1 teaspoon chopped sage leaves
1 can of whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes
Note: I like the bionature brand because they taste closest to the tomatoes that Jennifer’s family jarred every August. She’ll notice the difference.
2 cloves of garlic minced
2 medium shallots, minced
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1 Tbs olive oil
1 cup Nebbiolo
Salt to taste

Cut the mushrooms into 1/2 in. pieces. This dish should have a rustic feel, so not too small. Drain and dice the tomatoes, reserving the liquid for sangrita on Saturday. Sautee the shallots, garlic and red pepper flakes in olive oil over low heat for 2 minutes. Don’t brown the garlic or it will reek of the slop they serve in Little Italy. Turn up the heat to medium, add the mushrooms and sautee for 3 minutes more. Add the tomatoes, a pinch of salt cook for 5 minutes. Add the wine and simmer on medium until the liquid has reduced to less than half, about 30 minutes. Adjust the seasoning, cover and remove from the heat.

The Polenta

Traditionally, polenta is made in a round bottom copper pot named Paiolo and stirred with a long wooden spoon named Tarello. I’m not suggesting you name your pots and utensils, but it’s good to let her know you know what’s up in Nonna’s kitchen. You can use any heavy bottomed pot, saucepan or dutch oven. It’s also stirred constantly in the Old World. In the New World we need to focus some of our attentions on the dark-haired girl in soft, white cotton.

3 cups stock
1 cup of course ground cornmeal
1 Tbs butter
Pinch of salt to taste
1/2 cup grated Locatelli or Parmiggiano

Bring the stock to a boil in your Paiolo. Turn the heat off and slowly whisk in the cornmeal. Turn the heat on the lowest and cover. Every 5 minutes, remove the lid, stir constantly for one full minute and cover. Continue this for about 40 – 45 minutes until the polenta is thick and creamy. If your Italian Princess is too beautiful for you to run to the stove every few minutes, you can try Anna’s oven method.

Assemble the Dish

Make a circular mound with the polenta into a shallow bowl. Make an indent in the center and spoon in the mushrooms and the wine sauce. garnish with proud, towering sage leaves and serve with a glass of nebbiolo.

My mother’s friend Helen lived on the most beautiful piece of farmland tucked in the rolling green hills of New England. She and her husband Bill raised chickens, horses, cats, dogs and cows. We broke fast with the the morning’s eggs, lunched on greens and herbs fresh from the garden and supped on snapping turtle soup. My palette came alive on that farm.

The winter Helen and Bill took in a foster child was the coldest I’d experienced. I didn’t want to drive up for the weekend, but my mother insisted so I had no choice. When we arrived, Helen asked me to help Pam with the milking. I walked into the barn from the frigid air as sunlight from the hay loft beamed on Pam’s golden curls. She turned toward me, pulling on the cow’s udders and my jaw dropped to the barn floor. When she skimmed the cream from the top of the pail and offered me a ladle full, I swooned. The cream was sweet with aromas of nuts, herbs, straw and linen.

Pam was at least 5 years my elder. I followed her around the entire weekend like a puppy dog. We stole away to the barn whenever they weren’t looking. Each time we enjoyed a bit of cream and a few soft caresses in the hay.

The next time we went back to the farm, the ground had thawed and Pam had run away. Somehow the cream didn’t taste as sweet until the tarragon poked it’s pointy green leaves from the topsoil. The combination of the sweet cream with the anise scented flavor of the tarragon made me forget all about Pam. “Pam who?” I asked while we sat at the dinner table enjoying the risotto with wild mushrooms and tarragon cream. My mind floated back to the patch of woods where we had collected the golden morels earlier that day.

Years later, we heard Pam was working the truckstop just South of Rt. 80 and I-95. I thought about going to see her, but decided to stay home and make risotto.

Risotto with Morels and Tarragon Cream

The Stock

Morel mushroom trimmings
2 leeks, washed, halved and cut into 3 in. pieces
3 carrots cut into 3 in. pieces
1 bulb of garlic separated, but not peeled
12 cups of water, plus more as needed
2 medium potatoes cut into 1/4s
3 onions cut into 1/8ths
1/2 bunch of parsley, stems and all
1 tsp coarse sea salt
10 green peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup dry, white wine

Saute the onions in 2 Tbs olive oil until translucent. Add the wine and simmer until reduced by half. Add the water, turn up the heat to high and add the remainder of the ingredients except the morel trimmings. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 40 minutes. Strain the stock, transfer to a smaller pot, add another bay leaf, the morel trimmings and simmer for 20 minutes more.

The Morels

1/2 pound fresh morels
2 Tbs butter
1/4 cup cognac

Brush the mushrooms clean, trim and cut in half. Melt the butter in a saute pan. Add the morels and saute over a low flame for 3 minutes. Turn up the heat to medium and add the cognac. Cook for 2 minutes, reduce the flame and cook a few minutes more.

The Risotto

4 shallots minced
1 cup of vialone nano rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 cups of stock
2 Tbs olive oil
3 Tbs chopped fresh tarragon
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano
1/2 cup farm fresh heavy cream
salt to taste

Heat the cream gently and add the tarragon. Cook over a low flame for 5 minutes, careful not to let the cream simmer. Remove from the flame and cover.

Saute the shallots in olive oil until translucent. Add the rice, stir to coat and saute for 2 minutes. Add the wine and cook uncovered, stirring often until liquid is reduced by half.

Add 1/2 cup of stock and continue the process for about 20–30 minutes until the risotto is almost al dente. Add the morels, the tarragon cream and cook for a few minutes more adding stock as necessary. The risotto should be firm, but soft.

Stir in the cheese. Serve immediately with a Sicilian Frappato or your favorite white Bordeaux.

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