I'm at Jazz Fest in New Orleans listening to awesome music and eating even more awesome food. A little hot, a little muddy, but everyone's having a great time. So come on down!
Follow my Via Pim moblog for some realtime shots at http://chezpim.com/via (I'm using iPhone for the photos do pardon the quality.)
This is a story that began with a meal. The location was the improbable Côte d'Azur, the blue sky coast of Southern France. Think Malibu, only with more money and even thinner, tanner bodies. Needless to say it's not the land of great restaurants, despite the temperate climate, abundant produce - from just over the border in Northern Italy on one side and Provence on the other - not to mention the pristine seafood local fishermen bring in daily from the Mediterranean.
We heard of an ambitious young chef, fresh from the sublime l'Arpège in Paris, who had fallen in love with the region and opened a restaurant, Mirazur, in Menton, the last little town just before the Italian border. When we made our way there, we found a chef whose story was as unlikely as his locale.
Argentinean-born of Italian and Spanish descent, Mauro Colagreco found his love of gastronomy under the talented and lamented Bernard Loiseau, Le Côte d'Or in Saulieu, and perfected his craft under the exigent Alain Passard in Paris. He was awarded his Michelin star the first year Mirazur opened, and when he was named Chef of the Year in the French guide Gault Millau, he became the first non-French chef to have been given the title. To this day he remains the only one.
The first taste of his food, I understood why. Here's a chef who understands and celebrates quality ingredients, not with the indignant refusal to "do much to the food", but with exquisite skills and wild imagination - the Argentinean side of him I'm sure - that both surprise and delight. I still dream of the impossibly sweet red prawn, enrobed by ribbons of fresh young asparagus, borage and wild garlic blossoms and a drizzle of buttery Ligurian olive oil. Biting into it, I realized that one of the asparagus ribbons was sweeter and had a more delicate perfume than the rest. It was in fact a thin, long sliver baby green zucchini, just pretending. That little gesture changed the dynamics of the whole composition, and it'll make you beg for more. Asked where the superlative prawns came from, Mauro told us that he drove to Ventimiglia, a small market town just over the Italian border to his favorite fish monger to get them - Gamberi Rossi as they're called there - a couple times a week. Some of the vegetables came from the budding potager that he just started down the street.
I'm here in Melbourne, enjoying the amazing weather and the fantastic Melbourne Food & Wine Festival. I've been enjoying myself far too much to write a proper post, so you'll have to make do, for now, with the snap shots of people and things I've been enjoying here in Melbourne. More when I get home, promise.
The famous Melbourne Bratwurst sandwich at Queen Victoria Market.
A sign at a market stall in Prahran market wishing us a great soirée at the Earthly Abundance dinner.
Just like my friend The Amateur Gourmet Adam, who posted about his recipe-tweaking habit recently, I'm not one to leave a perfect good recipe alone. Even when it comes to something so simple, and so seemingly perfect, I rarely could stop myself from tweaking it a little. At times the results my tinkering are disastrous - Dorie Greenspan's perfectly innocent French Yogurt Cake recipe I played with yesterday was one, but that story's for another time. At other times, however, I ended up with something like this Banana Bread, which I think - rather ungrammatically I might add - is a more perfect version of an already perfect recipe.
I first saw the recipe at Deb's delicious blog Smitten Kitchen. On it she said she got the recipe from our mutual friend Elise at Simply Recipes. Elise, in turn, got it from her friend Heidi's ski friend's mother Mrs. Hockmeyer. The recipe was alarmingly simple. First you mash up your banana, then stir in butter, egg, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Oh, yes, and flour. By hand. No fancy kitchen implements required. That simple.
So I baked one. I liked it, quite a lot. Though there was something that was just not quite there, there. You know what I mean. It was very good, but also very sweet, even after I reduced the sugar amount by 1/4 cup. It was also rather flat and one-note, lacking acidity to support the cloying sweetness. For this I'm not sure if it's the flaw of the recipe or it's the fault of the modern-day bananas engineered to be pretty much all sugar in a tubular form. (You noticed this too, yes, I cannot possibly be the only one.)
So, I set out to tinker with the recipe a little.
Stagiaires are young, often unpaid cooks-in-training. Those working at Mugaritz lost their valuable knives in the devastating fire recently. Replacing their costly tools of the trade will be difficult for these young cooks, yet not having them is not an option. Their plight is surely insignificant in the face of the disasters in Haiti and Chile. But what price a dream?
If you're a frequent visitor to one of the many food forums on the web, you might recognize the name John Sconzo, docsconz as he is known thereabouts. John has set up a fund via the Slow Food chapter in Saratoga to help these young cooks replace their knives. Their goal is to raise $2,500, and they are ever-so-close. So, if you could spare even a few dollars - give up your $4 latte tomorrow morning perhaps - please consider helping these young cooks continue in their pursuits.
I've been wanting the play along for a while, the only problem for me has been timing. The 24 meals are all supposed to happen during the same 24-hr period, and on the most convivial night of the week for most people, a Saturday night. Well, suffice to say we are not "most people" around here. David spends his Saturday nights creating convivial meals for his guests at Manresa. I spend my Saturday nights watching Syfy. (No, really.) Around here, the night we let loose and have a little fun is on a Tuesday - Monday and Tuesday being the two days a week Manresa is closed, and after spending Monday night catching up on sleep, Tuesday night is the one in which we get to play. How, you asked? Usually with a gathering of also-non-Saturday-night-people that is to say restaurant-industry friends, eating simple food and drinking not-so-simple wines. Once informed of this, the power-that-be at Foodbuzz graciously agreed to stretch out the 24-hr period a little, just enough to cover our usual Tuesday night chez nous. How sweet of them, yeah?
I guess I should just come out and admit it. My name is Pim, and I just made a vegan an almost-vegan dessert - peanuts/sesame/rice puffs/palm sugar caramel bars, to be precise. And I dipped them in chocolate - Valrhona Araguani 72%, because there's nothing good that's not made better by a dip in Valrhona Chocolate. The results? They are totally crack. I tell you, they are.
Like many great discoveries in this world - Columbus discovering "India" par example - I came upon these morsels of unworldly deliciousness entirely by accident. Last weekend being Chinese New Year and Valentines day all rolled into one, I was looking some kind of traditional, celebratory sweets to make for the parties I was attending. For the New Year celebration in Thailand, we make a sort of caramel we learned from the Portuguese, probably in the 16th century. We call it ga-la-mae, a telling bastardization of the word caramel. Galamae was, however, not my favorite dessert, but it got me thinking about another celebratory sweets that is also a caramel base, but this one, called Grayasat in Thai, has added nuts, puffed rices, and sesame seeds. Crisp, chewy, nutty, darkly sweet, and ever-so-slightly salty, all at the same time, now this would be the perfect dessert to celebrate with this weekend.
Well, I probably should admit that I'd never once made Grayasat. I've never even seen it done. It's one of those things that we would always buy, and usually from merchants that make and sell them in giant quantities. Recipes I've managed to find on the interwebs have the same problem, they're mostly in massive quantities entirely infeasible in a modern kitchen. Plus, being a traditional Thai recipe, an imprecise record at the best of times - Thai cooks are notorious for not writing things down - then haphazardly translated into English, the results, shall I say, are as precise as the recipe booklet that came with your EasyBakeOventm when you were a kid.
No matter, I found enough information to go by, and it's basically nuts, puffed rice, and sesame, bind together by caramel made with palm sugar in place of white sugar, and coconut cream as the matériel gras instead of butter. That sounds easy enough to do. It also happens to be Vegan and rather "healthy" - with no refined sugar and not even dairy. The recipes I found also called for glucose syrup, which, oddly enough, is more readily available in Thailand than it is here. The glucose syrup, which we call Bae-sae, is there to prevent sugar crystals from forming just like in any other caramel. Frankly, I didn't like the sound of it. I usually avoid corn syrup or glucose syrup in my recipes anyway, preferring to substitute with honey or other more palatable ingredients such as Lyle's Golden Syrup. In this case honey would do.
In Thailand, the traditional Grayasat กระยาสารท is made for a Saat สารทไทย festival, which is best described as a harvest festival, celebrating the end of the rainy season and heralding the beginning of harvest. The ingredient list is telling, two kinds of new rice (one green, not fully ripened rice grains that are flattened and removed from the husked, and the other freshly harvested whole grains of rice, roasted until popped out of the husks like popcorn), nuts, and honey, all signaling a successful and abundant harvest.
In the US, finding those two specific rice is challenging, Thai harvest being thousands of miles (and months) away. I actually have one kind with me, the flat green rice called Khao Mao, I brought some back with me from the last trip home. Finding the popped rice Khao Tok was a little more tricky. I couldn't skip it all together since it's important to have two textures of rice: one slightly soft and puffy, and the other crispy. Experimenting with four different kinds of brown rice turned out spectacular failures - instead of puffed rice I got burning hot grains of rice so tiny they're practically unseen by naked eyes but for the vapor trails they left as they went projectile in my kitchen. Final solution? That'd be a bag of organic puffed rice from the store, no sugar or anything, just plain, hippie puffed rice. (If you couldn't find the Khao Mao, I'd substitute with a crispy rice cereal, preferably not -or very lightly- sweetened.)
Let me start this post by saying I'm a madeleine snob. A bona fide, unrepentant madeleine snob. Don't talk to me about those nasty little packets of "madeleine" by the cash register at your Starbucks. They're awful, with texture seemingly composed, somehow, of paraffin. Those buckets of shell-shaped stuff masquerading as madeleines at Costco are not much better. They taste as though they're made of Twinkies - oddly spongy, overtly sweet and redolent of fake vanilla. I don't know what those pretenders are exactly, but I assure you they are *not* madeleines.
The perfect madeleine is elusive. It's hard to find even in Paris. The problem is not that it's hard to make. As you will see after this post (and a little time in your own kitchen playing with the recipe) it is not the case. Madeleines, even the perfect ones, are really quite simple to do. The problem, rather, is that its perfection is fleeting. It's one of those things that are perfect minutes out of the oven, and then the quality erodes as the minutes tick by. The nearest specimen to a perfect madeleine I've had was a plain madeleine, the classic, baked to order and served warm and crisp at the edges with coffee to finish a hearty meal at Alain Ducasse's Aux Lyonais in Paris. It's been years, but it could've easily been yesterday.
The perfect madeleine, the Platonic Ideal of the form, is somewhere between a tender, moist cake, and a crisp, sweet cookie. The crumb should be tender, but not so it disintegrates when dunk into a cup of perfectly innocent tea. We all (claim to) read Proust - some of us even know it's proost like boost and not proust like sprout - so we all know he dunk his. The dunkable structure is hence important, even at the expense of it being ever-so-slightly dry. The perfect madeleines also must have the signature bump, I prefer just a gentle, small bump, not an excessive hump that looks more like a malignant growth than anything else. My objection to the malignant hump is not for aesthetic but flavor. In order to get that kind of hump you'll need to use a *lot* of baking powder, which means you're going to taste it in your madeleines too.
Also important in a perfect madeleine is the scalloped edges and evenly brown color of the crust. This is why I don't like using silicone molds to make them. No matter how easy they claim to be, they bake up madeleines that are not evenly brown on the bottom, but more in ugly patches or streaks unbefitting a perfect madeleine. I use an old tin madeleine mold, the regular shiny sort, not a dark non-stick kind (which turns the madeleines too dark.) When it is buttered and floured properly, my tin bakes up madeleines with gorgeously, evenly brown crust that pop out of the molds easily with a gentle tap on the counter. (The tin mold I use is from Dehillerin in Paris, but Amazon has this one which is also good.)
This particular recipe is the one I developed for my friend Daniel Patterson's article on the fragrant bergamot citrus for San Francisco magazine. Even if you don't know what a bergamot is, you know of it. It's what gives Earl Grey tea its ambrosia. In this recipe, I don't just use the zest, but also the juice to add even more depth to the madeleine's perfume. If you don't have bergamot, you can use just about any fragrant citrus you can find - seville, meyer, even lime might be fun (though I've never tried it.)
So here it is, the results of our sixth annual Menu for Hope - with the help of two hundred bloggers, two hundred and four delectable items on our raffle list, and in the span of just over two weeks, we raised $78,898.00 in support of the UN World Food Program. Yes, nearly $78K, in a recession year no less! Not bad at all. And none of these would be possible without your support - food lovers, businesses, bloggers, and our readers and supporters from all over the world. A huge big shout-out also goes to our wonderful, hard-working hosts without whose help Menu for Hope 6 wouldn't have existed - Alder of Vinography, David of The Sweet Life in Paris, Ed of Tomato, Helen of Tartelette, Shauna of Gluten Free Girl, and Tara of Seven Spoons.
Now that I'm done with thanking the academy, let's get to the fun part. Check out the list of our raffle winners below to see if you've won anything. If your name is on the list here, you'll be receiving an email about how to claim your prize in the next day or two!