Saturday, February 20, 2010

Where Big is Beautiful...

"Phillipe Excoffier, the executive chef at the US Embassy in Paris, comes to Kitchen Stadium to challenge Iron Chef Flay. Will Chef Excoffier's Parisian culinary flare impress the judges and beat out Flay's southwestern spice? Tune in to see whose cuisine reigns supreme."
That’s the on-line teaser for the current week’s Iron Chef America on the Food Network. I stumbled across the program while channel surfing prior to crawling in bed for some last minute studying - and it looked like a completely acceptable diversion. My brother enjoys Iron Chef and I watch it occasionally as a point of conversation with him.

The subject of the evening’s competition is the sea bream or dorade, a mild fish with lovely texture and endless possibilities. The early part of the show is wild and chaotic. After much mayhem and running about the kitchen the chefs settle down and ultimately present their flurry of finished plates to the judges.

Ironically, this episode encapsulates the cultural disparities between the American appetite vs. the European approach to food. The French presentation offers carefully composed, small artful portions. The US plates are colorful splotches of unstructured boldness. The flavor profiles are mild to bland for the European plates and robust to highly-spiced for the American versions.

Chef Excoffier presents his own variation of classical items such as a seafood forcemeat in a pastry cup, and a fillet covered with scale-like potatoes - with considerable focus on overall composition of textures, colors and flavors.

Bobby Flay counters this approach offering fillets adorned with 2 to 3 sauces per plate - all soaringly brilliant. There’s carpaccio covered with a piping hot spicy sauce that would surely mask any possible dorade texture or flavor; and ceviche - which one of the judges suggests is overpowered by citrus. Another is a dorade fillet poached in butter and perched atop a lovely cioppino. The soup is presented in mega-enormous white salad bowls, easily 10” in diameter, and the judges appear dwarfed and cartoon-like behind them - as they peer into these vast super-structures.

Finally, the judges have spoken.  The decision is a crowding pleasing conclusion:  It’s a knock out.  Once again, Bobby Flay takes home the gold.  I am disheartened as I flip off the TV and head to the comfort of my bed. 

The program message is another a bleak reminder of what America has come to represent:   Where big is beautiful and more is better.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Zen of Risotto

With all the local talk of Fungal Feasts and Truffle Festivals going on at the moment I felt compelled to create my own celebration in the form of a lovely wild mushroom risotto.

There was a time when I had absolutely no interest in risotto.

I had this strange idea that rice was dull and uninteresting – that it was just a bunch of unnecessary carbs. And then, I had to get past the angst of stirring rice for 20 minutes at a time - it seemed like a lot of work for very little reward. Besides, there was usually a lot of other activity going on – like the entrée - and the darned risotto tended to be just another unnecessary culinary distraction.

When I finally had my first bowl of exquisite risotto I was an instant convert. I remember it well. It was a mushroom risotto so full of aromas, flavors, and textures that I couldn’t believe all of that could be happening in one mouthful. It was complex, creamy, and earthy; yet the grains were separate and ‘toothsome’. It was ethereal, sensual, and utterly satisfying. I was completely bewitched and transported to the other side. I was a believer. I’d had a psychic shift over rice.

Now, risotto has been elevated to the main event and surely is not a second rate accompaniment to an entrée. It is the star, and it receives the full attention that an entrée of its stature rightly deserves. When I prepare risotto the stirring of the rice and the slow addition of liquid all fall into a gentle rhythm of relaxed enjoyment and confident anticipation. Yes, it’s a Zen thing. I become one with my rice.

There are a few key factors involved in making an excellent risotto. Seek out Arborio rice -  its flavor, unique texture, and resulting creaminess will make all the difference in the world. Use a flavorful stock, because this is the basis of your risotto. The hot liquid is added in small quantities; allow the liquid to cook down and absorb into the rice before adding more. You will know when it’s time to add another ladleful, because the rice will make a hissing sound. Continue this process until all the liquid is added and the rice is creamy. In all, it should take about 20 minutes.

Risotto is very forgiving and designed for adaptation. Consider other vegetables, even chicken in lieu of mushrooms; vary the herbs and flavorings; change the stock to enhance the other additions. If not already, become a believer. Bon appetit!

Wild Mushroom Risotto
Adapted from World Vegetarian Classics, Celia Brooks Brown

1/2 cup dried porcini mushrooms
1 cup boiling water
4 ½ cups well flavored stock, chicken, beef or vegetable
3 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 ½ cups risotto rice, Arborio or carnaroli
9 ounces wild mushrooms, cleaned, coarse chop
3 cloves garlic, well chopped
1 teaspoon thyme
1/2 cup dry vermouth or white wine
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, fresh grated
for garni: fresh ground black pepper, additional Parmesan

Place the dried porcini in small bowl and cover with boiling water; allow to soak for about 20 mins. Strain and reserve liquid. Chop porcini coarsely.
Melt the butter in large heavy pan over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté til translucent, then add rice. Sauté briskly til rice makes a crackling noise and looks slightly translucent. Add the porcini and fresh mushrooms and garlic and sauté briefly until fragrant and they begin to soften. Add vermouth and porcini water all at once and stir. When absorbed and making a hissing sound, add one ladleful of hot stock. Keep stirring.

When stock is absorbed, add another ladle of stock. Continue process until rice looks creamy, 18-20 minutes. Taste for doneness, it should be al dente. Stir in parmesan cheese. Cover and set stand 3-5 minutes. Serve in warm bowls or plates with additional cheese and plenty of pepper. Serves 4 - 6 ~~
Note: Instead of parmesan cheese on top, try a dollop Greek yogurt or mascarpone cheese instead.


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