TV shows like Iron Chef America, Top Chef and Chopped all riff on a theme of spontaneous cooking to varying degrees. Iron Chef America specifies a specific ingredient that must be showcased, Top Chef offers surprise scenarios that must be adhered to and Chopped supplies baskets of disparate ingredients that must all be utilized in a single dish. All of the shows incorporate time limits in their challenges as well. These elements often lead to some fun television, but what is really compelling is the opportunity to take part when true professionals create a delicious meal spontaneously based on what is available.
Alex Talbot and Aki Kamozawa of Ideas in Food have, over the years become very good friends of my wife and I. With a presentation and signing of their new book, Ideas in Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work at Red Fox Books, Alex & Aki along with their daughter and pup paid us an all-too-brief visit, a highlight of which was an informal dinner they cooked for us and a few friends on Friday night.
Their book is packed with the kind of insights and technical tricks that have made their website legendary. While I have successfully incorporated a number of them into my personal cooking vocabulary, it is always instructive to see them utilized by true masters.
The dinner was not encumbered by artificial constraints such as a time clock, forced combinations or silly scenarios, but we did have one central ingredient that I had purchased specifically to use for this purpose - a whole goose. Raised by Mary Pratt and her husband at nearby Elihu Farm, these are the same geese that Carlo Mirarchi buys and serves at Roberta's, the amazing restaurant in Brooklyn. I have purchased and cooked these wonderful birds before, but I was excited to see what Alex and Aki could do with one. Unlike Iron Chef America, goose would not need to be in everything, but it would be the main protein the dinner would be built around.
My wife and I maintain a decent pantry, all of which was available for use, but earlier Friday, we were able to supplement with some items available at local markets. In the morning, we went to visit one of the area's most exciting vegetable farms, Kilpatrick Family Farm in Middle Granville, N.Y. Started about a decade ago by teenage brothers, the farm has truly blossomed over the years with both top quality and an incredible variety of amazing produce - even in February. Michael Kilpatrick, who runs the farm, makes one optimistic for the future of farming in the United States. Dynamic, intelligent, supremely knowledgeable and driven, he is already a widely considered and highly regarded expert in organic and sustainable farming practices. Our visit to his farm helped us understand why. After a fascinating tour, we left having purchased a variety of items including bok choy, yellow potatoes, eggs and micro-greens.
A little later that afternoon, Alex & Aki had an appointment for a science in cooking demo at Lake George area high school. Unfortunately, Aki was unable to go, so I went in her stead to be Alex's assistant. On our way back, we took a detour to Oscar's Smoke House in Warrensburg, N.Y. to pick up some bacon for the next day's breakfast. Inspiration can come anywhere, but it is never a stretch at Oscar's, especially the recently rebuilt store that re-opened following a disastrous fire several years ago. Their product line had always been good with smoked pork products, but now it is even better with quite a few additional products that could whet any non-vegan's appetite. In addition to several varieties of bacon, we walked out of there with smoked trout, blood sausage and a few other odds and ends.
We were back at my house and ready to roll in the kitchen by 4:30. With guests coming at 7PM, it was time to get the ball rolling. With available products in hand, the creative juices started flowing. With Alex and Aki collaborating on a menu, the plan started taking shape. Alex started dicing and cooking onions and fennel and began cooking bacon bits from Oscar's. Aki took apart the smoked trout and I started butchering the goose to Alex's specifications. In the meantime, my wife had made a carrot cake for dessert. Rancho Gordo cannelini beans hit the pressure cooker for their initial five minute low pressure cycle and the blood sausage was cut up. Goose fat was rendered, potatoes and garlic cloves were pealed and parsley was chopped. As I took apart the goose, I noticed it's tenderloins, which I dissected free. This small delicacy was quickly seared for a cook's treat, shared amongst the four of us and our son, Michael. Goose thighs and legs were cooked in a pan then the meat picked and added to the beans along with the bacon and La Valle DOP San Marzano's to be cooked for 25 minutes under high pressure in the pressure cooker. Goose bones were cooked in preparation for a stock and the bone on breasts were placed in goose fat with fennel fronds, onion and juniper berries to cook in the CVap at 125ºF. Even the trout skins were utilized as they simmered in butter to extract every last bit of flavor. Yellow potatoes and garlic were riced and mixed by my son along with the trout butter and The table was set and as the clock began to inch towards 7, Aki started to concoct a cocktail that we determined would use Barbancourt Hatian Rum as the base alcohol. Through a scientific process of trial and error, she continued until finding the combination of ingredients that tasted just right.
Our guests arrived to a cocktail toast with a cocktail that I dubbed the Wacky Aki, a stirred blend of 2 parts Barbancourt Hatian Rum to 1 part Grand Marnier and 1 part Canton Ginger Liquor along with a little fresh pineapple juice and sitting at the bottom of the glass some salted passion fruit seeds. Though the drink sounds sugary, it wasn't, really having only a hint of sweetness. Overall, the balance was superb and the flavors bright and rich with the rum remaining the star. While sipping our drinks, we nibbled on some wonderful aged Modenese "White Cow" Parmiggiano that I brought back from my recent trip.
As the cocktails were drained and the first course was readied, I poured the first wine, a 1994 Dupont-Fahn Meurseault. The smoked trout brandade could have been the entire meal and I would have been satisfied. Comforting, but still provocative and brow raising, this dish was just totally delicious. Slightly smoky, but rich and full of flavor without being the least bit "fishy", this dish was a testament both to the chefs and the underlying product, which was completely allowed to shine. The potatoes were of a perfect consistency enriched with Cabot 83% butter and the silky trout. When Alex first suggested this, I internally shrugged. It wasn't something that sounded terribly appealing to me, but I know Alex and Aki well enough to know to just let them cook. I was right to keep my initial thought to myself. This was simply wonderful.
The next course required some early prep, but also more a la minute service. One of the best parts of this dinner was that Aki and Alex were able to dine along with us in addition to doing the cooking. At this part of the meal, though, Alex enlisted the help of one of our guests, Chef Kevin London of Farmhouse at Top of the World in Lake George, to assist with plating. Kilpatrick Family Farm bok choy was braised with jus made from the goose stock, horseradish and blood sausage and topped with an onsen egg cooked for 13 minutes at 75ºC in an immersion circulator. Paired with a 1978 Gevrey-Chambertin 1º Cru Les Cazetiers from Camille Giroud, the dish was bloody delicious! The silky egg coated the soft greens made slightly spicy by the broken up blood sausage. The wine, though a bit past its prime, still rose to the occasion to very ably wash down this delightful dish.
More richness ensued in the form of a goose cassoulet. The leg and thigh meat had been cooked with the Rancho Gordo beans and bacon in the pressure cooker leaving a flavor of incredible depth and complexity. The beans were particularly extraordinary, plump, creamy and packed with flavor. Layered atop the cassoulet were slices of medium rare goose breast that had been cooked to 125ºF in the CVap then finished with a stove top sear. The breast had been sitting in seasoned goose fat while cooking in the CVap. The flavors and richness were perfect for a cold, windy February evening. The dish didn't suffer from being paired with a 1995 Mouton Rothschild either. The Mouton was followed by a decadent 1997 Le Porte du Ciel from the Languedoc putting an exclamation point on the savory part of the meal.
At this point, the combination of the food, the company, the activity and the wines made me forget my camera, so alas, no photos of my wife's superb carrot cake with lemon-white chocolate-mascarpone icing nor the Del Maguey Santo Domingo Albarradas Mezcal nor the Bernachon Nature chocolate that served as the mignardises, but then, as wonderful as they were, they weren't the point. A meal with good friends and interesting people is always fun, even if the food isn't spectacular, but when the food is as wonderful as this was with the opportunity to be a part of the whole creative process, there isn't much better.
Watch for more detailed posts on the prep of each dish - coming soon.