Sunday, February 28, 2010

Iron Chef Philly

We've got these friends; let's call them Meghann and Aaron.  Let me tell you about them: they are two of the busiest people I know.  Meghann is a founding member of the Flashpoint Theatre Company, and is currently preparing to run the show she wrote, Chlamidya Dell'Arte: A Sex-Ed BurlesqueAaron, an award-winning theater guy,  is a professor at University of the Arts and is currently working on a play called Blue Monster, which he and his friend Fabrizio translated from the mid-18th century Italian manuscript.  They are always running and always working.  They do, however, know how to slow down enough to enjoy delicious food and good wine, and some of my favorite times have involved the four of us sitting around with a bottle of wine, some tasty foods and going on about god-knows-what (usually food, theatre and sports).  This past weekend was no exception.

Since we had hosted Iron Chef Freehold last year, Meghann and Aaron wanted us to come down to Philly to see their place (fulfilling one of Steph's 101) and to host our feast.  We both learned our lessons from last year:  slower pace with the wine, prior planning, lighter food, less courses and smaller portions, in order to avoid a mid-meal crash like we had last year.  Needless to say, not only did we finish all of our food, but we also drank all our wine and stayed awake (mostly) during the entire meal.  Props to us!  Our culinary adventure begins...

Appetizer:  Scallops Two Ways with Lemon & Caviar

This recipe is courtesy of the Michael Mina cookbook, from which I've made a few recipes successfully.  I made a variation of this recipe once before and it came out amazing, so I figured that this would be a great starter for our meal.  The cold portion is a scallop ceviche, which is a fish preparation which involves marinating the fish in an acid (in this case lemon juice).  The fish is still raw - the reaction between it and the acid causes the fish to appear opaque and 'cooked'.  The ceviche is topped with caviar and a small drizzle of olive oil.  The hot preparation is seared scallops over a potato cake with caviar and beurre blanc sauce.  The shallot tried to avoid its fate of simmering in cream and butter by trying to escape behind the refrigerator, but Aaron and I were able to recover it with relatively little bloodshed.  Preparation for this one was easy, easy enough to make on a weeknight if I wanted.  I'll also admit that I've never actually bought my own caviar before, and my hands were a little shaky when I was trying to plate it as I had such a tiny amount to work with.

How did it come out?  Holy cow, it was amazing, with similar flavor profiles with two different temperatures and textures.  The ceviche marinated the perfect amount of time, and the flavor was out of this world.  The hot scallops could have been seared for like 10 seconds more, but I'm not complaining - they had a nice crust on them.  I'd like to point out how happy I was that my sauce didn't break - emulsified sauces can sense fear, and I was trying my best to be confident with it.  Did I mention the mountain of caviar on each scallop?  I got the highest compliments from my friends and wife:  it tasted like it came out of a restaurant kitchen.  I'd like to take some credit, but I guess it really goes to the Mina group - they sure know how to write a cookbook.

Soup:  White Bean Soup with Bacon and Herbs
Picture to be added when I get one.
Like I mentioned earlier, Meghann and Aaron live in Philadelphia, which means that they revere Jose Garces like many Philadelphia foodies are want to do.  They've eaten at every one of his restaurants, and are tremendous fans.  They told us a tale of one night, they went to one of his places, and ordered the suckling pig (omg) and they wheeled out the entire pig into the dining room (OMG) and carved it tableside ().  Why haven't I eaten there yet?  Anyway, according to them, there was this white bean spread that was served as a side, and when Meghann was trying to find the recipe for it online, they found the recipe for this soup.  This recipe was another one that was simple in method, which Meghann did easily and quickly prepped and put up to simmer.

How did it come out?  Ridiculous.  Anything that involves rendering bacon fat, then cooking vegetables in said bacon fat is something that I want a piece of.  Light, smoky with awesome crispiness from the bacon and great texture from the beans and the vegetables.  It was everything I love in a soup, and will definitely be making that recipe sometime soon.

Salad:  Bibb Lettuce, Haricot Vert, Honey-Citrus Vinaigrette
Picture to be added when I get one.
Aaron told us he was trying to emulate a salad they had eaten at another of Garces's restaurants.  Tender lettuce, crunchy 'haricot vert' and a tangy and sweet dressing.  I believe he said this was the 3rd time he was trying to get the recipe down, playing with different types of vinegar (white vinegar this time).

How did it come out?  Personally, I'm not the biggest fan of green beans (though I tried them!), but Steph said they were cooked perfectly.  There was a sweetness and nice acidity to the dressing, without being overly tart.  Also, the perfect amount to dress the salad - not much more I can't stand at restaurants when they drown the salad in dressing.

Meat:  Slow-Cooked Lamb Shank with Israeli Couscous and Tomato-Herb Sauce

Both Steph and I are big fans of lamb, and I've been cooking it more and more of late, as it's a dense, filling and lean protein.  Our lamb consumption has been primarily of either rack of lamb or ground lamb loin, so I was definitely intrigued when Aaron said he was preparing lamb shoulder.  It should be mentioned that when Meghann went to buy the lamb, they wheeled out an entire lamb and asked her which part she wanted - she went with shanks because it was a smaller portion than the entire shoulder, which they were more than happy to lop off for her.  These were seared then put in the slow cooker with carrots, celery, tomatoes and herbs, and left to simmer away in their moist heat.  Aaron then toasted the hell out of the couscous and added already-simmering stock to it (a new technique to me, I usually bring the couscous and broth up to a simmer together.)  Plating was a cinch.

How did it come out?  Let me put it like this - I need to start sourcing lamb shanks ASAP (fortunately, I think Wegmans carries them).  It never ceases to amaze me how low-and-slow cooking can break down a tough cut of meat into something that is so tender that it can be eaten with a spoon.  The meat was flavorful and the texture was perfect, and the vegetables in the sauce were tender and soft without being mushy.  It was a good amount of meat, and the couscous (in place of the pasta that the recipe called for) was a perfect compliment and allowed for all the sauce to be eaten up.  This was definitely a win, and I'm going to definitely give this and some other lamb shank recipes a whirl.

Dessert:  Mango Lhassi, Coconut Pain Perdu with Papaya-Lime Compote & Cream Cheese Ice Cream

Dessert was put in my court, and I definitely did not want to disappoint.  I'd bought the Dessert Fourplay book a while back, and had made a dish from it, but it had been seriously gathering dust on my shelf.  I figured this would be the perfect time to brush it off and make something from the "Tropical Fruits Fourplay" for the winter season.  The lhassi was a combination of mango puree, yogurt, skim milk, cinnamon and rosewater, then poured over diced kiwi, mango and papaya.  The pain perdu is made from challah (I eschewed making my own brioche) dunked in a custard made with coconut milk, heavy cream, eggs and sugar, with a bit of vanilla and coconut rum thrown in.  The papaya-lime compote is nothing more than papayas, simple syrup, lime juice and lime zest.  The ice cream was made from a base of whole milk, sugar, corn syrup, nonfat milk powder, some lemon juice and a pound of cream cheese, chilled then frozen in the ice cream machine.

How did it come out?  This was another course that I was extremely proud of.  The plating and presentation was not as refined as the scallops was (I couldn't get carrot juice to form a froth to top the lhassi) but I was exceedingly pleased with the flavors and textures.  The lhassi was cool and creamy, and I loved the different diced fruits.  The pain perdu came out much better than I expected, and was cooked perfectly, despite the dark color in the picture.

I'm going to dedicate an entire paragraph to the cream cheese ice cream.  It was all I could do to not eat this stuff straight from the bowl before I froze it, not to mention after it was done chilling and then frozen in the ice cream machine.  This stuff was absolutely amazing, a bit sour, and not overly sweet - when I was done licking the bowl that the base was chilled in, it looked like one of my mom's Great Danes had gotten a hold of it and cleaned it out.  Stephanie definitely did her part in helping lick the spatulas and bowls.  This stuff was so good that Aaron couldn't get enough, went back to the kitchen and got the rest of it for all of us to nom on.  When we woke up this morning, apparently the first thing we all talked about was how good this ice cream was.  I can't wait until summertime to eat it with some fresh raspberries.  I'm not even upset anymore that I bought 5 lb of nonfat milk powder for .08 lb of the stuff (although I am taking suggestions if anyone knows other stuff I can make with the nonfat milk powder, other than milk of course).

Saturday night we devoured 5 courses and 4 bottles of wine, then partook in some of Harry Potter Scene-It (won by the incomparably knowlegeable Meghann), some Olympics and Costas-bashing before we finally passed out in a blissfully tipsy and satiated haze.  This morning, we enjoyed a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, french toast and leftover potato cakes before Aaron and Meghann had to run off to be busy theatre people once more.  Fortunately, I was only 8 blocks from Pats, so I finished my Philadelphia weekend with some Wiz wid'.  I probably used up my entire weekly allotment of WW points, but it was so worth it.

I'm just glad Stephanie and I got to spend such an amazing time with such amazing friends when they were both able to be on 'pause' at the same time.