Monday, April 2, 2007

A Do-Ahead Menu Which Leaves The Chef Plenty Of Canoodling Time

Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello - Done in Advance Dinner Party

Italian Relish Tray
Roasted Beet Salad with Blue Cheese
Marinated Salmon with Fennel Salad
Winter Fruit Compote with Selection of Cheese

To get the recipes:
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Michael starts by roasting the beets*, and giving us a good tip. Cover the cutting board with waxed paper, so it's not completely beet-redded up. He cuts the ends off the red and golden beets and coats them with bit of olive oil, salt and pepper. Here's something interesting. He says he tends to over season them (on purpose), because he’s going to peel them and lose a lot of the seasoning. I’m trying to think of another case where that would also apply. Most other foods that you roast with the skin, you eat the skin. Hmmm.

MC begins to boil down the tangerine juice for the dressing. If you can’t find tangerine juice, use orange, or I’ve used orange-tangerine juice, which is wonderful.

He moves on to the salmon, which he explains can be cooked in 2 ways. He’s “cooking” with acid. Hey, didn’t we just talk about this with Giada's grilled tuna recipe? SHE didn't want it to cook in the acid and that’s why you never marinate fish (in an acid-based marinade) longer than 5 minutes per side. HERE, Michael, isn’t going to be applying any kind of heat. The lemon juice itself will do the job of changing the protein in the fish from uncooked to “cooked”. “Cold Cooking”, he calls it. He mixes ¼ cup lemon juice with ¼ cup olive oil.

Remember “The Greatest Recipe Ever Told”? Ina starts with equal amounts of fresh lemon juice and olive oil, and from there the magic happens.

Michael gets the salmon out. Now, this is INTERESTING. He coats his knife with olive oil to help him slice the fish nice and thinly. What a superb idea. He’s using fatty Atlantic Salmon, which will have plenty of flavor. Places lemon juice/olive oil mixture in bottom of dish. (That’s not in the recipe.) Places salmon over top. Now he chops fennel, including the frond end and celery with its leaves and puts that atop the salmon with more marinade. He covers it with plastic wrap (foil would go funky with all that acid), and refrigerates it about 3 hours. (Could you do this overnight? No, because there’s a chance the salmon would practically dissolve in that much lemon juice. Try to keep it to not much longer than 3 hours.)

A knife goes in easily to indicate that the beets are done. He shows off his reducing tangerine juice. Wow, it’s really syrupy and thick. He’s straining it to get rid of the pulp. (I’m not sure why that’s necessary, but it does point out an important kitchen equipment need. You should have a small strainer, just for a job like this, that can be strained into a small cereal sized bowl. You should also have a bigger hand-held one - for orzo or small things - as well as a proper footed colander for large pasta and fruits and vegetables.)

Michael OILS the bowl before straining in the tangerine reduction, so that it doesn’t stick to the side of the bowl. (He should call this show 101 uses for olive oil.) The strained juice gets put back in the pan for more reducing. He squeezes in some fresh lemon juice. “Just to freshen it up.” Hold on. You’ve just gotten a strainer and small bowl dirty from straining, and now you’re adding pulpy lemon juice to your smooth liquid. Why not add the lemon juice BEFORE you strain your liquid?

He reduces it to a really thick (with large bubbles) syrup. The idea is for it to be thicker than the olive oil.

By the way, use this idea anytime you’re sautéing chicken and you just want a bit of sauce. Remove the chicken and deglaze the pan with orange, orange-tangerine or tangerine juice. Add a drop of stock plus a dash of lemon juice. And you will have a few spoonfuls of a lovely little fresh tasting jus to spoon over your cooked chicken.

Now, Michael is straining it AGAIN. So, forget what I said above. But why is he making this so complicated? I consult the recipe where there is a bona fide mistake. It says to add the lemon juice BEFORE the first time you strain it (are you still with me?) AND immediately after. But there is only one listing for lemon juice. Make your life easy:

  • Reduce the tangerine juice.
  • Add the lemon juice, strain and continue to reduce until you get that syrupy consistency.
  • Strain (with the same strainer) one more time into the bowl.

He stirs in the olive oil, but he doesn’t want a perfect emulsion. He wants it to be “broken”, so that when large droplets are spooned onto the plate, the tangerine juice sits in the middle of each blob of dressing with the oil surrounding it.

He peels the beets by rubbing them vigorously in a bunch of paper towels. That way he keeps his manicure perfect (and ours). He slices the different colors of beets, arranges them on a plate and drizzles the dressing. Very nice, but just the start to what he’s going to do this dish…

He makes the fruit compote. White wine and Marsala get cooked together with sugar (honey is ok too), and 2 tsps. vanilla. I NEVER add vanilla before something is to be cooked on the stove. It burns off all the flavor and can be bitter. I consult the recipe. Yup, it’s right there. What to do, what to do? I would go with what I know, either add a vanilla bean - sliced down the center while you're cooking the syrup, or add the vanilla after. That’s definitely the way to proceed. I would stake my Viking on it.

He adds the dried fruit to the pot. Brings to a simmer and then adds freshly chopped pears and apples with lemon. He is really showcasing the ability of fresh lemon juice to brighten the flavor of a dish. Liquid is a little thin. Strains out fruit. (See how soon you needed that big strainer I told you to get.) Reduces syrup and pours it over fruit.

He puts the antipasto platter together quickly – rolled salami, pepperoncini, cherry tomatoes and olives. I wasn’t too thrilled about this, a bit too old-fashioned for my taste, but it DOES look good. He makes a little dressing that goes on top, which I sort of think might end up down the fronts of his guests, but…ok.

The folks come and are noshing on antipasto, while he finishes up the beet salad. There is a big finish to this dish. He tosses spinach with the tangerine dressing and puts it on top of the already dressed beets. Then he grates blue cheese over that. Here’s a really good tip – freeze the blue cheese before grating, so you don’t lose half of it in the grater and it can go on a bit finer. Then he sprinkles the salad with almonds. Really, really great combination of flavors, colors and textures. What more could you want?

The salmon is out and while I really didn’t think I’d like the look of fennel fronds and celery leaves, the dressing has softened them up a bit and they are a good choice to accompany the salmon. Room temperature cheese goes with the fruit compote to round out the meal.

I must say, I started out viewing this menu with diminished expectations. There was no one drop dead gorgeous dish (although the beet salad really pulled it out at the end). But as always, Michael performed admirably, showing off his chef’s skills to their best advantage, while giving plenty of tips and tricks along the way.

Did I love this menu? No, but it grew on me.
Did I learn anything? Absolutely.
Is the Chef cute? Always.

* I love to put beets through the juicer. The color is extraordinary. I juice together 1 raw beet - peeled , 1 granny smith apple, 1 thick slice of peeled ginger and 2 or 3 carrots. That’s good stuff.

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