« September 2005 | Main | November 2005 »

9 posts from October 2005

05 October 2005

Psaltis, again

The whole Psaltis affair continues to rumble on.  I don't normally like to just link to articles on other sites, but thought this article interesting in the New York Times.  It raises issues about why chefs offer blurbs for their peers' books. 

The article also continues to pile the pressure on eG management by increasing scrutiny of the site.  Constant references on the likes of Opinionated About and Mouthfuls, that eG delete threads that don't sit comfortably with the moderators' general outlook, means that everyone is looking for blatant examples of the moderators being heavy handed, unfortunately such cock-ups/conspiracies are neither few nor far-between.

02 October 2005

Thomas Keller thyme


It is hardly a revelation to hear what a fantastic chef Thomas Keller is.  I've never eaten at any of his restaurants, nor is there the prospect that I'll do so anytime soon.  The closest I could get is to purchase his high quality food porn and try to make it for myself.

The first incarnation of Keller in print was the cookbook from The French Laundry.  A beautiful but enormous book that lets us mere mortals aspire to TFL cooking.  The second book was the Bouchon cookbook. 

Bouchon is Keller's brasserie, also based in Yountville, California.  At the beginning of the book Keller joke that he "opened Bouchon...so that I'd have a place to eat after cooking all night at the French Laundry." If I get the choice, I always prefer this sort of hearty, simple but strong flavoured dishes of Bouchon over more prissy, overly dainty cooking.  I decided therefore that for dinner with my boss I'd cook the most hearty of his dishes, Boeuf Bourguignon.


I'll start at the end first, it was fantastic, truly delicious.  It was once I served it and tasted it that I realised why he is so highly regarded and why he's obsessed about every little detail.  I'm not a bad cook (he says bashfully) but I've never enjoyed anything I've made as much as I enjoyed this.  Partly that was because I alone know the amount of work that went into it, but it was also because it was simply delicious. 

Everything worked well, each flavour was clear and sharp and there seemed almost perfect balance, the meat was juicy and light, the onions adding a slight tartness, the red wine reduction adding depth

When you turn to page 212 in the Bouchon cookbook the recipe is deceptively simple.  Keller gives a brief introduction on why he loves the recipe.  The process didn't look too taxing and the ingredients list was straightforward - nothing you couldn't get your hands on with relative ease.  However, being well aware of  his views on the importance of ensuring the best ingredients I went to a bit more effort, and expense and ordered top-dog ingredients from Solstice (more of them soon).   


Two things are good exemplars of Keller's obsession with attention to detail and ultimate refinement of the dish.  The first is keeping the meat separate from the vegetables at all stages of the cooking process, until the final serving. Second, straining and restraining and restraining and so on of every liquid. 

I decided to try and stick as closely to Keller's instructions as possible, so bought my chinois and tamis and cheese cloth and got straining.  I've seen him say that no liquid moves in his restaurants without it going through a strainer.  And I can now see why.  I still can't fully get my head around the fact that you run a sauce through a given strainer, then five minutes later, pass it through the same strainer and there are suddenly more solids in there.  Suffice to say though that I have now become an obsessive strainer and skimmer.  Despite the constant straining/skimming I am embarrassed to say there was still some fat present, but without the straining the liquid would not have been anywhere near as delicate as it was. 

As for keeping the meat separate from the vegetables, with the judicious use of cheese cloth, again it works brilliantly.  In the final plating, the meat was just that, meat.  There were no bits of veg clinging to it, it sat loud and proud.  Similarly, the vegetables were not gloopy, they hadn't lost their vibrancy or leached their flavour. They looked good enough to eat.

Keller's recipe might be look complicated and detailed but really it's easy.  He's gone back to basics, revisited every step of every recipe and stripped away anything that interferes with flavour and adds in crucial elements that heighten the flavour of the final dish and there in lies his genius.  As I've said, he really doesn't need me to say this, but it was fascinating finding it out for myself.

Another thing I learnt was the importance of thyme (and time - the dish took approx 30 hours to put together including making the stock).  At every step Keller includes among staples such as salt and pepper and garlic, sprigs of thyme.  If I'm honest I can't remember ever consciously using thyme - that's now all changed.  The thyme seems to add an almost floral element to a dish.  It's subtle, but perceptibly lifts the  dish.  It shouldn't surprise me that yet again something so simple works so perfectly, but it does.  As with the straining and skimming, thyme will become another staple.

One final point when following a Keller recipe.  You need to read carefully and have your wits about you at all times.  Especially, after having drunk a few glasses of champagne and removing a sauté pan from the oven.  That metal handle on the pan gets mighty hot - use an oven glove.