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Desserts Dinner Party Fusion Index Meats Poultry Soups Vegetarian Vietnamese

Mother Peach

[one_half][L]ost in my incessant praise for David Chang has been a quiet appreciation for the deft hand of Tien Ho, former chef de cuisine at Ssäm Bar. Erin and I recently traveled to New York together for the first time in years, ostensibly to celebrate our seventh wedding anniversary. That we might also sample as much food as humanly possible from the Momofuku empire was, of course, a serendipitous byproduct. Giddy as we were about sampling the litany of dishes that brought fame to The House That Chang Built, the highlight of our tour emerged from a place we least expected: an understated lunch at Má Pêche, where Ho is currently chef and co-owner.

A tidy summer roll mating grilled pork cake with a narrow breadstick sported measured contrasts in temperature and crunch, an interplay we’d come to expect from Ho’s Ssäm Bar lineage. The prix fixe also starred an exceptional cold-smoked chicken, striking our palates with richness and stealthy precision. Our meal was punctuated by miniature bricks of cereal milk panna cotta and Chang’s version of culinary crack. An elegant meal with simple flavors and a keen eye to balancing sweet, bitter and tart.

Is Má Pêche the best restaurant in Midtown? Probably, no. But the 60 minutes we spent there were, for us, unthinkable luxury. There we were, in this city we knew like a college roommate, our daughter in capable, loving, 3000-miles-away hands. A quiet meal in the middle of a workweek that wasn’t, with no appointments to keep and no place in particular to be. It was the briefest taste of a life we’d had, one that we’ve mourned losing, while acknowledging the bleary-eyed exhilaration that comes with having lost it.

So when tasked to create a “Luxury Dinner Party” menu, I devised a home cook’s tribute to Tien Ho, inviting dear friends (and Mission Bay It Couple) Caleb and Akua. This is what we ate.

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FRIED PICKLES

This course is perhaps more Noodle Bar than Má Pêche, and was inspired in large part by a wonderful post by Kelly at The Meaning of Pie. I’ve always adored fried pickles, and was struck by the use of panko to enhance the difference between the dry and wet varieties of crunch. My contribution to this dish was the replacement of kosher dill pickles with an assortment of Asian pickles—something I’ve been curious about, but have never seen done. I used thinly sliced takuan and two different types of kimchi: baechu (napa cabbage) and oi sobagi (stuffed kirby cukes). I also used pickled shiitake mushrooms, made with a recipe from Momofuku.

To more easily appreciate the effects of deep-frying, I also plated raw versions of these pickles. I served two dipping sauces: a “ghetto salad dressing” (mayo mixed with a splash of soy sauce) and a “ghetto rouille” (mayo mixed with a squirt of sriracha). My mayonnaise of choice was Japanese kewpie.

Notes I would definitely make this again. The deep-frying mellows out the heat and raw garlic of the kimchi, as well as the saltiness of the pickled shiitakes. A high-sided, cast iron saucepan is a convenient and economical tool for deep frying small portions of food while minimizing splash. Lead time here is minimal. The pickled shiitakes are optimal if made a week in advance, but perfectly delicious when eaten immediately.

Wine opened Franck Bonville “Brut Selection” Blanc de Blancs Champagne. For the early portion of this menu, I was looking for a beverage with crispness and acid to cut the oil from the deep-fried dish and the rich terrines that would follow. A sparkling wine made sense to me, and this Champagne was an economical and well-received choice.

Music cued Human Amusements at Hourly Rates, Guided by Voices.

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BÁNH MÌ CLUB

A bánh mì sandwich was the anchor point for my menu. For starving graduate students such as myself, the $2.50 bánh mì is a dietary staple and gustatory wonder. Classically, it consists of an airy baguette made with both rice and wheat flour, toasted, spread with mayonnaise and topped with pickled carrots, cilantro, sliced jalapeno, and (typically) a mix of terrines. As was the case with my bo ssäm post, I was compelled to make this dish after reading asian jewish deli’s assessment of it. Like Phong, I was completely taken with the pickled daikon radish. I had always thought of daikon as the boring, bland stepsister of the Korean mu radish. But cured with Momofuku’s vinegar pickle master brine, it brightens inordinately, revealing an astonishing amount of fragrance and verve.

It’s always a risky choice to mess with perfection, but I felt that taking some minor liberties with Tien Ho’s masterful interpretation of this sandwich (from Momofuku) was necessary to incorporate it into a five course meal. My key modification was to to make this sandwich a miniature triple-decker, using pan-grilled toast made from a loaf of sour batard from Acme. I also added some parma prosciutto, crisped in an oiled skillet, to mimic the bacon element of a more traditional club sandwich.

A note on portion size Even a small sandwich (as pictured here) is tremendously filling, particularly in the context of a multicourse meal. I presented it this way to accommodate the notorious appetite of a 6’4″, 205 lb, basketball-playing scientist. For mortals, I recommend a single tower, using toast points roughly 2″ square.

Preparation As is the case with the pickled shiitakes, both the daikon and carrot pickles benefit from a week of curing. In a pinch, however, overnight is better than nothing. The sandwich contains both a chicken liver terrine and ham terrine, which need to be made at least a day in advance. I advise also taking into account the amount of time it takes to locate 4 lbs of fresh ham. In San Francisco, it’s not so difficult. Often only available during the holidays elsewhere. Terrines and pickle recipes can also be found in Momofuku.

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PEACH GAZPACHO

My favorite course of the evening served three purposes. First, as a nominal salutation to Má Pêche (“mother peach”) and Momofuku (“lucky peach”). Second, to bid a fond farewell to this year’s peach season, which was extraordinary. And functionally, I wanted to give my guests a breather from the assaulting richness of the surrounding courses. I managed to scavenge the last gasp of peaches last week from the Kashiwase Farms fruit stand, home to the most remarkable stone fruit ever to have crossed my jaded taste buds. I got about a dozen, cherry-picking the best 3 for my soup. This dish was cribbed directly from Daniel Humm’s Go-To-Dish segment on Chow’s fantastic new series. Humm’s soup is predictably stunning.

Notes Child’s play to execute, but really demands exceptional peaches. If your peaches are crunchy, mealy, or odorless, don’t try it.

Wine opened 2007 Vigneau-Chevreau “Cuvée Silex” Vouvray Sec. This dry chenin blanc was originally selected to pair with the next dish. The lady being dry, and the Vouvray being a rather promiscuous partner, we opened it. It worked surprisingly well with the creaminess of this soup.

Music cued Quarantine the Past, Pavement.

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GA RO TI

I would have loved to replicate that smoked chicken I had at Má Pêche, but adding a cold-smoking step to my prep list was just not in the cards this time. I did feel that, given careful management of portion size in this menu, chicken was the correct protein for this course. Not excessively heavy, and in no danger of disappearing among its counterparts. I was looking for something simple and bold, and looked no further than this traditional Vietnamese roast chicken. Like The Ravenous Couple, I opted for cornish hens, a longtime favorite of Erin’s. I served halves of the cornish hen, seared off in a cast-iron skillet and drizzled with a pan gravy described as Dipping Sauce in the referenced post.

I did choose to serve this with tomato rice, forgoing the fried egg and adding a liberal punch of ground sumac, a tip I picked up from fellow blogger Jean at Lemons and Anchovies. The sumac provides acid, aroma and texture to the rice, and takes the dish very slightly to the left of faithful. I hesitated to include the rice, thinking that adding a starch might be  bit much for an already loaded menu. However, this is definitely one of those cases where it’s better to cut portions than courses. The tomato rice was an unqualified hit, devoured by Caleb and reminiscent of jollof rice from Akua’s native Ghana.

Notes The halved birds can be cooked in advance and held at room temperature until the final sear. In the interest of accuracy, I used a mixture of white and black pepper in the marinade, as the recipe specified. I’ve since concluded that I dislike white pepper, whose aroma tends to unpleasantly dominate anything I have seasoned with it. I am apparently not alone in this opinion. I recommend sticking with black pepper (preferably tellicherry). I used the same master brine from Course 2 to make the pickled beets that I’ve shown on the plate. In retrospect, the beets look exactly like takuan, and I may opt for a different color next time.

Music cued High Violet, The National.

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LEMONGRASS GRANITA

To finish, I wanted something both refreshing and fragrant, and had in mind a sorbet or granita made with lemongrass. I adapted this recipe from Epicurious.

3 stalks fresh lemongrass, outer leaves discarded and root ends trimmed
3 C water
1/2 C fresh mint leaves, washed well and spun dry
1/2 C sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
juice from 1 lime

Trim lemongrass stalks of tougher, dried portions and thinly slice. Simmer sliced lemongrass in water, covered, for 5 minutes. Add mint and simmer, uncovered, for about a minute. Remove  from heat and add sugar, salt and lime, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Purée mixture and strain through a chinois, discarding solids. Correct for salt and lime. Chill the filtrate, covered, until cold (this can be done quickly by immersing your mixing bowl in icewater) and freeze in an ice-cream maker.

Notes This dish can be served immediately as a sorbet. If held in the freezer, its texture will become more crystalline, allowing it to be served in the form of a granita. Garnish with a mint or basil leaf, if desired. The aromatic components of this dish are volatile, so it is best consumed within 1 – 2 days.

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As if on cue, Esme arrived from a classmate’s birthday party shortly after we finished dessert. Our luxurious dinner came to a close, and we stood, rapt, as our daughter regaled us with tales of princess outfits, bouncy houses, and cake.

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Categories
Dinner Party Gluten Free Index Soups Vegetarian

Chilled english pea soup, made with pea shell consommé

[one_half][S]mall details often tell you a lot. For instance, you can usually tell someone’s really into clothes by checking out their accessories. Shoes, socks, belt, watch. Someone who doesn’t care will figure, No one’s looking at my socks. On the other hand, are they kinda funky? Like in a cool way, not an odiferous way? Yeah. Didn’t happen by accident. You kind of have to go out of your way to buy funky socks. That’s someone who’s not capable of letting it slide. Same goes for food. When I’m at a restaurant, I know the kitchen is totally geeked out when they send out an absolute killer soup or salad. Doesn’t happen all that often, actually. Sure, if you’re going high end and paying at least eighty bucks for your meal—it better be good. But what about a more casual spot, like a neighborhood restaurant, or a bistro? How many lentil soups have you had where you honestly thought, This is the bomb… ? Whenever that happens (and for me, that was perhaps once), I’m really excited about the rest of the meal, because I know that kitchen’s too proud to send out another fucking chunky, flavorless lentil soup with carrots.

Given my opinion of soup-as-window-to-a-kitchen’s-soul, perhaps it was a bit ambitious for me to decide, on the day of my (already overly ambitious) dinner party, to add english pea soup to the menu. I had originally bought the peas for a salad, but was concerned that most of the peas would simply accumulate at the bottom of the bowl and then be eaten separately from the greens, or not eaten at all. Then I remembered this cool post on Eatfoo about making a consommé out of pea shells. I wanted to try that, so I decided to wing it with a soup recipe and see how things went. Had I ever made soup before? Of course not. OK, my first post was about soup. But I think Korean soups are a different animal. I mean, to my knowledge, no one makes creamy, pureed soups in Korea. If so, those people have not immigrated here and served said soup to me.

At some point that day, I had what I thought was a pretty good soup. Then I thought, You can never add too much sour cream. Apparently you can. Just barely. I had to make a judgement call as to whether it was OK to send the course out. It didn’t taste awful—it was just out of balance. I hadn’t bought enough peas, so the flavor kind of disappeared in all that sour cream. I went back and forth about this, but ended up serving it. Here it is—this pale, pathetic-looking thing:

Reactions were decidedly mixed. Marc says he liked it. Bernadette ate the whole thing, but didn’t comment. I knew I would get an honest opinion from Naya, their nine-year-old son. Eh. It’s so-so. Thanks, kid. That’s actually the answer I needed, but understandably did not get from the grown-ups. But I knew there was a great soup in there. I tasted a glimpse of it during prep, and I felt certain I would have to go back and try it again.

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The week after my dinner party, I was on a mission to find more peas. I knew they wouldn’t have any at my local grocery, so I turned to  The Mission Bay Farmers’ Market, which has been a welcome addition to our culinary wasteland of a campus. It’s small and doesn’t have the most exotic ingredients, but does have reliably good produce. I make it a point to stop by every Wednesday to take a break from endless meetings and benchwork. What I found weren’t the prettiest shells I’d ever seen, but the peas themselves were fresh, and still a bit sweet. This time I bought 4 lbs, to make certain that I wouldn’t run out.

Last spring at around this time, Erin made the Zuni Cafe’s Pasta alla Carbonara, and was excited to have found fresh english peas for the occasion. A couple things stood out to me about that experience: (1) In this context, the fresh peas tasted pretty much the same as frozen peas. (2) For a one-and-a-half-year-old, Esme was pretty good at shelling peas, and seemed to really enjoy doing it. She’s always been a busy kid. I try to allow my daughter to “help” me cook whenever I can. She insists on pouring the dry oatmeal into her bowl before I microwave it, wants to have her hand on the measuring cup as I add water, etc. I thought she would get a kick out of helping shell peas again, despite likely not remembering the work she did last year. So I let her have at it.

At first, she was shelling like a champ. She’d sometimes miss the peas in the corner of the pod, but went about her work at an impressive clip. She particularly liked throwing the empty shells into the large mixing bowl, where I had been collecting them. So much so, that she eventually just started throwing intact pods in there. I had to gently distract her, so that I could go back, fish out the good ones (which was not trivial), and finish the job.

* * * * *

A worthwhile decision to make, though I didn’t see any mention of this in any of the recipes I read online, is whether to use your peas raw or cooked. To some extent, it depends on the freshness and age of the peas. If they are mostly on the small side and are tender, juicy, and sweet, I am very much in favor of using them raw. I like being able to highlight the more delicate flavors that elude us for 3/4 of the year. If the peas are more mature, large enough to fill most of the volume of the pod, or are at all starchy, you probably want to cook them. Either method will yield a fine soup, and a good portion of the flavor will come from your shell stock, which you can’t get from the frozen section. Cooking them accomplishes two things. First, it improves the yield of the recipe. Unless you have an extremely powerful blender, a purée of raw peas will leave behind a significant amount of pulp. This will accumulate in your strainer and less will make it into the soup. Secondly, cooking, even a little bit, tends to mellow out the flavors. Raw peas can be a bit grassy-tasting, but a quick blanch can take that edge off. A superficial benefit to cooking the peas is that (as long as you don’t overcook them) you can get more vibrant color. Something to keep in mind is that any amount of cooking begins to summon the richer, split-pea flavor that is for the most part absent from fresh snap peas, english peas, etc. The longer you cook, the bigger role that family of flavors will play, so it depends on what you want.

Let’s start with the consommé.

English pea shell consommé

about 4 lbs fresh english peas in the shell
water
kosher or sea salt

Make sure to pop a couple of the pods open at the market and taste the peas. They lose flavor rapidly after picking (and even more rapidly after being shelled). Ideally, you want peas that you would have been happy to eat raw. I’ve made this with young, immaculate shells as well as the slightly wizened shells pictured here. I couldn’t tell a big difference, so don’t be put off by discolored shells. Remove peas and reserve. (You may want to enlist a small child to help you with this.) Rinse shells thoroughly. Go through the spent casings and discard any obviously rotting or excessively dirty ones. If there are a lot of woody stems attached to the end of the pod, as there were here, I would go through with a pair of scissors and cut those off. For really young pods, this isn’t really necessary.

In a large stock pot, barely cover the cleaned and trimmed shells with water and bring to a boil, optionally adding about 1/2 tsp of salt. Immediately lower heat and simmer for 20 mins. Remove from heat and strain solids. At this point, the stock will be dilute and very lightly colored. Reduce at medium-low heat until the stock becomes golden and intensely flavored. For me, this happened at about 1/4 to 1/3 of the original volume. (You can mark the original level with a rubber band on the handle of a wooden spoon to track how much you’ve reduced the stock.) Periodically taste the stock and add salt, if desired. Be careful not to add too much at the beginning, since the stock will continue to become more concentrated. You can cook it down quite a bit more, if you want. In the Eatfoo post where I saw this recipe, David reduced the stock by 20-fold. Yowza!

Starting from 4 lbs of peas, this made 6 – 8 cups.

Incidentally, this consommé would be a fantastic vegetarian option to use as a stock for my kong namul guk recipe. For the soup itself, I consulted quite a few recipes, but ended up essentially adapting the Chilled Pea and Tarragon Soup from Bon Appétit.

English pea soup

about 1 lb of shelled english peas (I didn’t weigh them, but I think 4 lbs of pods yielded about 4 C of peas)
2 T butter
2 shallots, finely chopped
salt
4 C english pea shell consommé
1 tsp chopped fresh tarragon
2 T heavy cream
2 T sour cream
freshly cracked black pepper

In a medium saucepan, heat butter until bubbles subside and sauté shallots at medium heat until tender, but not brown (about 3 mins). Add consommé and bring to a boil. Add peas and salt and boil until peas are bright and just tender (no more than 3 – 4 mins). Remove from heat and add to blender along with tarragon, both creams, and several turns of black pepper. Purée until smooth (do this in small batches if you have a small blender—safety first!) Correct seasoning and strain through a fine sieve or chinois. I prefer not to force the contents through the mesh, because then you end up forcing fibers through that you were trying to strain out on the first place. If it’s going too slowly, you can tap the sieve and/or use a spoon to stir and redistribute the unstrained fraction. I can’t resist eating the pulp, but you can also just throw it away. Allow soup to cool and serve chilled or at room temperature. If desired, garnish with fresh tarragon and some sour cream. If you use heavy cream, as I did for the top photo, it creates a “slick” on top of the soup, which you may or may not find disturbing.

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The Esme rating

Try as I might, I could not convince Esme to taste the soup. She may have had flashbacks to her first experiences with solid baby food. Puréed peas were the first thing that she absolutely hated. My mom got such a kick out of watching Esme grimace with disgust (and perhaps a sense of betrayal?) that she kept feeding it to her to elicit that reaction. Esme does like frozen peas, however. Not just peas that were once frozen. She likes them straight out of the freezer.

Esme, do you like these peas better, or frozen peas?

Frozen peas. But these are pretty good, too. They’re too crunchy.

Did she like the fresh peas enough to eat more than a few? Hard to say, really (see left).

* * * * *

The Ben rating

So Erin and I recently went to this cool restaurant in the Mission called Schmidt’s (as in Christiane Schmidt, of Walzwerk). They sell these light-as-air pea pancakes that beautifully juxtapose deep-fried crunchies with peas so fresh I find myself wondering whether fryolator is their natural habitat. Anyway, after all this, I saw a pea soup with lemon and mint on their menu. I had to order it and check out the competition.

All’s I’m saying is that the head-to-head score is Ben/Esme: 1, Christiane: 0. Not even close, actually. Though I’m sure she’ll come back to haunt us in the braised red cabbage category …

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