Cooking at home with octopus

As much as I love dining out and fully surrendering myself to professionals for an exquisite restaurant experience, I would choose to be on the giving side any day.  Cooking for friends and loved ones and bringing everybody together for a fun meal is how I love to enjoy life.  Food, wine and laughter are my joie de vivre, and I am fortunate to be able to have such experiences with my friend Haru Kishi, the Executive Chef of Chaya Brasserie in Beverly Hills.

Our mutual love for cooking and entertaining has culminated in many wonderful dinners shared with our ever expanding community of good friends.  We choose a theme ingredient for our dinners and get inspiration from the farmers market to construct a seasonal menu around it.  Black truffles, white truffles, lobster, lamb, duck and suckling pig are some of the themes that we have tackled, all ending in delicious memorable fêtes.  This time we chose octopus, and as usual Chef Kishi took charge of the theme ingredient while I filled in with other courses.  Although he hadn’t finalized his octopus dishes until the morning of the dinner, I started planning the other courses around a Spanish theme, our inspiration being pulpo a la gallega, a popular traditional Galician dish of tender octopus with paprika, olive oil and salt.

We found some beautiful purple potatoes and heirloom tomatoes at the farmers market that morning to complement the 3 octopuses that we got.  In addition, a visit to Wally’s Cheese Box, which is right around the corner from where I live, turned out an exquisite selection of cheeses to serve to our gathering of chefs, restaurateurs, mixologists and musicians who all brought delicious wines for the dinner.

The cheese board featured Fol Epi, Gres des Vosges, Mini Epoisse and a delectable Gorgonzola Dolce generously drizzled with truffle honey, one of my all-time favorite pairings that I frequently serve at parties. Accoutrements of Creminelli black truffle salami, farmers market nectarines, seedless grapes and fig & olive crackers went fast as the wine and conversation flowed ever so freely.

Kalamata olives rings were balanced on top of flattened cut ends of purple seedless grapes, then tressed with dollops of marinated feta cheese and parsley leaves, a painstakingly precise micro operation that took a lot of patience.  The end result was an army of beautiful little savory soldiers, standing at attention in perfect rows and saluting our guests of honor.

I also made little pintxos of Idiazabal cheese and pearl onions caramelized with Marsala wine, assembled on skewers and drizzled with a warm saba reduction.

Meanwhile the octopus, which had been braising all day to absolute tenderness, was quickly pan seared and cubed in preparation for Chef Kishi’s first octopus dish.  Half of the purple potatoes were cubed and seasoned with pimenton dulce, while the other half was puréed with cream, emulsified with olive oil and loaded into the spuma gun for a warm potato foam.

Skinned and apple balsamic vinegar-marinated cherry tomatoes were tossed with tender octopus and purple potato cubes, then topped with the luscious creamy purple potato foam and a sprinkling of pimenton dulce for an amazing dish of complex flavors and textures.  Chef Kishi’s modern take on pulpo a la gallega was an inspiration, and we all dug our spoons into the warm potato foam and noshed in unison.

Jamon Serrano chips were made the night before by dehydrating them very slowly over 3 hours in the oven at low temperature.  The crispy savory ham chips, with a wonderful concentrated saltiness, were the perfect garnish for the Canary melon gazpacho dish served with a dash of Piment d’Espelette powder.

Simple is best when it comes to good quality ingredients, and the juicy pineapple and green zebra heirloom tomatoes were arranged on a long platter with basil leaves and fresh creamy burratta.  Large pyramid shaped crystals of black volcanic lava salt, aged balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil were all that I used to bring these beautiful flavors alive in the vibrant salad dish.

Braised octopus legs were tightly rolled together in saran wrap and set in the fridge to glue them together.  This octopus sausage of sorts was thinly sliced to make axial wheels that resembled geometric flowers.  Chef Kishi constructed a gorgeous octopus carpaccio course using these octopus wheels, fresh dorade ceviche, yuzu juice, sudachi juice, puréed plums, apples, heirloom tomatoes, cilantro and olive oil.  Colorful bite sized arrangements of carpaccio were served on a Himalayan pink salt tablet that was chilled in the freezer, itself imparting a subtle saltiness to the food as it slowly melted.

Left over dorade trimmings and bones were made into an elegant and richly flavored fish broth with cardamom seeds, black peppercorns, cloves, star anise and bay leaves.  The clear warm broth was served in small shot glasses- a warm, inviting and comforting moment of solace before the final octopus dish by Chef Kishi.

While all 3 interpretations of octopus were amazing that evening, my favorite was Chef Kishi’s octopus bolognese, a hearty pasta dish made with finely chopped octopus to mimic the ground meat texture of traditional bolognese ragu.  Octopus trimmings, mostly from the head, were finely chopped and pan fried to give it a quick sear and a deep roasted flavor.

The octopus was combined with a base of chopped garlic, onions and olive oil, and reduced with cava that one of the guests brought.  Sun dried tomato paste and grated Roma tomatoes were added, then reduced on the stove to concentrate the flavors.  Tossed with squiggly radiatori pasta, the perfect medium for this hearty sauce to cling to, the bolognese was served family style in a deep dish Dutch oven.  With the texture of bolognese and the flavor of vongole, this final entrée by Chef Kishi was the stand out dish of the evening.

We concluded the meal with dulce de leche ice cream served on a carpet of chocolate crumble, with sweet farmers market raspberries and ginger vanilla bean crème brûlée, all made the evening before for easy assembly. The intense smokey caramel sweetness of the ice cream with the crunchy dark chocolate crumbles was a great combination to end this spectacular meal with.

Empty wine bottles and plates licked clean may signify a good meal, but my barometer for a good party is different: when strangers meet at the beginning of the evening with handshakes, and leave with hugs and exchanged contact information.  When old friends make deeper connections over wine and intimate conversation.  When everybody roars with laughter over funny jokes.  When we make toasts with every new bottle of wine that we open.  When we all take out our planners to see when we can do this all over again.

What will our next theme be?  I hope you will be joining us for dinner.

Random trivia: Did you know that some octopuses, when under attack, can perform arm autotomy? This is a form of self amputation of one of their 8 arms to serve as a distraction to predators.  They are able to regenerate this part of their body.

Cooking at home with duck breast

In the continuing series of ‘Cooking at home with…’, where my good friend Chef Haru Kishi and I engage in a monthly ritual of cooking together in my kitchen, we chose duck this time for our theme protein.  I love and look forward to these days where we choose a theme ingredient, go to the farmers market for inspirations, construct a multi course dinner menu, and cook all day in my kitchen.  Cooking is my form of meditation, and one of the only times that I can empty my mind of distracting thoughts and feel ultimate bliss in a state of nothingness.  Chef Kishi and I have cooked a lot together, sharing lamb saddle, white truffle, black truffle, suckling pig and lobster with our friends.  It’s a treat to be able to cook with somebody who I’ve developed a comfortable rhythm with, who knows his way around my kitchen, who pushes me to be a better cook and always teaches me valuable tricks of the trade.  I had a sudden yearning for duck that particular day, and we headed to the farmers market to see what seasonal ingredients we could prepare it with.

There was an abundance of beautiful and vibrant vegetables at their summer peak, like heirloom tomatoes, squash and colorful beans.  LA Funghi was overflowing with a variety of aromatic mushrooms, and we bought a bag of baby shiitake caps.  Small Gaviota strawberries packed with juicy sweetness and a hefty watermelon called out to us.  When we spotted petch siam eggplants, purple okra, Thai basil and lemongrass stalks, Haru got inspired to make a Thai curry for the duck.  We bought 2 plump Muscovy duck breasts at the butcher shop in the Farmers Market on Fairfax and 3rd, and headed to Thai Town to get ingredients for our curry.  Although we got a little side tracked by a khao kha moo pit stop at Ruen Pair, we managed to accomplish our mission by purchasing Kaffir lime leaves, coconut milk, red curry paste and coconut palm sugar at the Thai market.

Garlic, shallots, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass went into the pan for a quick sautée to bring out all of its wonderful aromas.  Thai red curry paste, coconut milk and coconut sugar was then added to make a spicy and rich coconut curry.

Green and purple okras and petch siam eggplants were cleaned and trimmed for the curry.

The Muscovy duck breasts that we purchased were enormous- I didn’t know that ducks could get so big.  They were pan seared in their own fat to a perfect medium rare with a beautiful crisp to its delectable skin.

All of the dazzling farmers market vegetables that we purchased that morning were gradually added to the Thai curry- purple and green okra, petch siam eggplants, mexican midget cherry tomatoes, pattypan squash, squash blossoms, bok choy, baby shiitake caps and Thai basil.  Lastly, the seared duck breasts were laid to rest on the vegetables.

Our dinner guests, a chef and a mixologist, arrived just on time to watch the glorious crowning of the curry.  The mixologist made us a round of cocktails using Grey Goose La Poire pear vodka with mangosteen juice, and we sat down at the dinner table to start the meal with a delicious watermelon and heirloom tomato gazpacho that Haru made.  The sweet and perfectly acidic creamy gazpacho, made with sherry vinegar and olive oil, was poured over burricotta cheese and a watermelon cube marinated in blueberry vinegar and orange blossom tea, and garnished with basil ribbons, gold flakes and a drizzle of olive oil.  Simply delicious, this cold and refreshing cup of fruity gazpacho was the perfect way to start a mid-summer dinner.

Italian Yellow wax beans and French green beans were blanched in boiling salt water and tossed with a ground hazelnut and argan oil dressing.  Sweet and juicy nectarines, intensely savory and perfectly fatty slices of jamón ibérico de bellota, burricotta cheese and smoked salt were draped over the beans for a simple salad with complex flavors.

A meal prepared by Haru and I is never complete without a little extra bling, whether it’s shaving ridiculous amounts of truffles on top or garnishing with sparkly gold flakes.  The Thai curry with seared duck breast was finished with seared foie gras morsels and served with Thai jasmine rice.  The dutch oven was brought directly to the table, and we all savored this amazing curry that was packed full of sweet vegetables and juicy duck.

I made a simple lemongrass, mint and black peppercorn granité as a palate cleanser to follow the curry, and we munched on juicy Gaviota strawberries throughout the rest of the evening.  Another fulfilling and perfect day of shopping, cooking, eating and drinking with dear friends- la joie de vivre!

Random trivia:  Did you know that ducks are able to swim in freezing water and stand on ice without any problems because their feet have no nerves or blood vessels to feel the cold temperature?

Cooking at home with lobster

Dining out with friends and sharing a nice meal is one of my favorite pastimes, but inviting friends into my home and cooking for them is what I love most.  Cooking with my good friend Chef Haru Kishi has become somewhat of a ritual, where I take great joy in sharing our mutual love of cooking and good food.  It’s rare to find somebody who has a similar palate and an equal amount of passion for the culinary arts, and I feel extremely lucky to be able to share these kitchen experiences with him.  We’ve created some memorable and fantastic meals together using theme ingredients-  lamb saddle, suckling pig, white truffle and black truffle.  This time we chose lobster, and we prepared a tasty dinner for a special gathering of friends at my house.

Our Maine lobsters arrived alive and kicking in mint condition.  Apparently FedEx has state-of-the-art lobster aquariums, designed to keep lobsters in a spa-like stress-free environment for optimum flavor and efficient delivery.  Although it’s common to dunk live lobsters directly into hot water for boiling, it is said that the shock of hitting the boiling water toughens the muscles, resulting in a less palatable plate of crustacean.  Some also feel that this method is cruel, although research indicates that the lobster has no central nervous system or cerebral cortex to register pain.  To kill a lobster humanely, you can put it in the freezer for an hour, or you can do what we did- plunge a sharp knife at the crosshatch behind the eyes through the spinal cord for a quick kill.  Of course, the most humane way to kill a lobster is to not kill one, but humans are going above and beyond in trying to devise humane methods of lobster execution, such as a machine that electrocutes crustaceans called CrustaStun.  Are we going too far?

After cutting down through the top center of its head, we separated the tail from the head in a steady twisting motion.  Removing the hard exoskeleton on the head revealed its contents: gills which were removed with kitchen scissors, and pale green tomalley (liver) and dark green coral (eggs) that were carefully extracted for our sauces.  The claws were also removed from the body and the tail was cleaned of its central intestine or ‘vein’.

The lobster tails and the claws were boiled separately in lemon salt water, as they have different boiling times.  The flesh was carefully removed whole from each part of the lobster in preparation for the entrées.

All of the shells and legs were thrown into a dutch oven along with star anise, shallots, lemon zest, carrots, bay leaf, garlic, tomato paste, chopped tomatoes, basil stems, black peppercorn, thyme and white wine to make a lobster bisque.  This wonderfully aromatic and enticing stew was slowly reduced on the stove top and eventually strained to make the perfect sauce for the lobster dish.

We were pleasantly surprised to encounter an abundance of fresh mushrooms at the Farmers market that morning.  Large spongy morels, plump firm porcini and earthy seductive chanterelles were irresistible, even though we already had a summer black truffle for our lobster feast.  The three soft mushrooms were pan sautéed with shallots and garlic, deglazed with white wine and finished with heavy cream.

Bright beautiful radishes that came in colorful bunches were transformed into a simple but hearty farmers market vegetable pot along with cherry tomatoes and fresh herbs.

For appetizers we served foie gras 4 ways.  I had too many ideas for what I wanted to do with my Rougié whole duck foie gras torchon that I had previously bought from Epicure Imports, so I decided to play around with it a little.  Some were coated with Thomas Haas‘ Aztec cocoa powder containing ancho chile powder and decorated with gold flakes.  Another variation was simply finished with Halen Môn Welsh sea salt with Tahitian vanilla.  Yet another got a luxurious coat of freshly grated summer black truffle while the fourth and final preparation was topped with Bing cherries that were pitted and pickled with apple cider vinegar, black peppercorn, cloves, star anise, sugar and water.

Each preparation introduced a new and exciting way to enjoy foie gras, but the table favorite seemed to be the cherry pairing.  The second round of the foie gras torchon was prepared with a combination of all 4, topped with a splash of vanilla sea salt, a heap of black truffles, a topping of marinated cherries and a touch of gold flakes.

For the second course, I wanted to recreate one of my favorite dishes from a recent dinner that I had at Pierre Gagnaire’s Twist in Las Vegas- red beet and champagne parfait with beet würtz spuma.  I loved the vibrant blood red color of the beet spuma and the refreshing flavors of the champagne sorbet, but I wanted to give it my own ‘twist’ for a simpler at-home version.  After roasting red beets in the oven, I cut them into bite sized cubes and marinated them with Navel orange juice, pulp and zest in the fridge.  To serve, I filled martini glasses with the beet cubes, poured champagne over it and topped it with bright red beet root foam made with gelatin.  The layers of different textures and sweet flavors was a success, thanks to Gagnaire’s inspiration.

For the final lobster course we quickly sautéed foie gras morsels with a splash of black vinegar, and mixed it with the farmers market vegetables, creamed mushrooms, lobster bisque,  lobster coral and lobster tomalley to make a luxurious and flavorful base upon which to crown the juicy lobster meat. This was one decadent and truly delicious plate, bursting with fresh vegetables and fungi at the peak of their season and complemented by the rich umami of the lobster innards and foie gras.

Lobster can’t get any better than this, but even in this already perfect dish, something was still missing.  A final garnish of shaved black summer truffles did just the trick.

With wonderful champagne and French wine from our sommelier dinner guest, a beautifully set table with Calla lilies and candles, delicious food, lively music and a good bunch of friends, this intimate dinner at home was a successful and fun event.  Dinner chez moi…the best place on earth.

Random trivia:  Did you know that you can hypnotize a lobster by rubbing its carapace (the area between the eyes) vigorously with either your hand or an object?  We used a butter knife to hypnotize our lobster, and made it do a perfectly balanced handstand on its head and claws with its tail straight up in the air.

For the love of dumplings

A warm bowl of hearty soup can soothe any ache or ailment, but a plate of delicious dumplings will surely cure it.  Almost every culture has its version of this widely popular comfort food, whether as a steamed ball of dough filled with fish or a fried chunk of flour in a spicy stew.  I’ve never met a child or a senior who could resist the charm of dumplings, and I for one list it as one of my all time favorite foods.  They can be made with flour, potatoes, bread or matzoh and shaped into balls, ears, torpedos, cockscomb or triangles.  Drizzle them with soy sauce, douse them in gravy, serve them with ice cream or plop them in a soup.  Stuff it, squash it, chew it or stretch it but always take your time to savor it.  Boiled, pan fried, steamed, baked, deep fried or simmered- whatever way you choose to honor these tasty little treasures, they will reward you with great satisfaction and double happiness.

My palate has enjoyed many dumplings, from classic Italian gnocchi with brown butter sage to Hungarian galuskas made with egg and flour, Polish pierogis nestled under a hefty serving of sour cream and Tibetan goat meat momos with chili sauce.  When that sudden and frequent yearning for dumplings hits me, I seek comfort in Korean mandu guk (dumpling soup), Japanese gyoza or Chinese jiaozi.  Asian dumplings are frequently filled with minced pork or shrimp and a combination of Chinese cabbage, chives, spring onions, and garlic all neatly wrapped up in a thin skin.  Variations on the protein filling may include beef, chicken, crab meat, scallops, fish, shark fin and even conch, while vegetables can feature anything in season- I’ve sampled delectable dumplings with tomato, celery, cabbage, eggplant, yellow chives, mushrooms and white gourd.  Pan fried gyozas are the ultimate complement to a bowl of ramen, and xiao long bao soup dumplings, shiu mai and shrimp har gow sure hit the spot at dim sum.  Whatever type of dumpling I eat, it makes me breathe a long sigh of relief and takes me to a place of comfort and peace.

No doubt we all have fond childhood memories of dumplings, whether of a monthly tradition of Sunday morning dim sum, delectable accompaniments to dinner at home or assembly line production with relatives for special festivities and family reunions.  Mine take me back to a family ritual where my mother would make pork dumplings in the kitchen every week as my brother and I jump around in the kitchen with joy and anticipation, unable to contain our excitement for the juicy little packages that would titillate our mouths.  She would wrap them with love, one by one, with those nimble and tireless fingers that have prepared countless delicious meals for us every day of our lives.  The click-click-click of the gas burner being turned on, the momentary silence as we stand around waiting for the pan to heat up, the dramatic sizzle of dumplings searing in the hot oil.  A brief crescendo of spitting oil and water sounds followed by a muffled simmer when the lid goes on would announce the commencement of the final step of flash steaming the dumplings, and my brother and I would obediently take our seats at the table with chopsticks in hand.  My happiest childhood memories revolve around my mother’s fried dumplings, and I’m fortunate to be able to relive that experience every year when I visit my family in Japan.

My mother's fried gyoza

Nothing will ever hit the spot for me quite like mama’s gyoza, but I’m blessed to live in a cosmopolitan city where I can get other types of Asian dumplings for a reasonable price- meaty mandu in all corners of Koreatown, Japanese gyoza in ramen and izakaya restaurants in Gardena (especially the bite-sized hitokuchi gyoza at Shin-sen-gumi Hakata Ramen), and Chinese dumplings in every section of San Gabriel Valley. I’m a fan of the texturally pleasant sea cucumber dumplings at Dumpling 10053 in El Monte, the thick chewy skin of the boiled pork dumplings at the unassuming hole-in-the-wall Dumpling Master, and the flavorful celery wontons at Dean Sin World.  And what about xiao long bao, those perfect little bundles of juicy pork with savory soup that squirt its warm juices onto your tongue in each heavenly bite?  Many discerning gourmands in LA will gladly jump into a never-ending argument about where you can get the best XLB: the delicate ones at Mei Long Village, the less juicier ones at Southern Mini Town, the chewy ones at J&J or the world famous and expensive ones at Din Tai Fung.  We may not all agree on our favorite Shanghai soup dumplings, but we can surely agree that we’re lucky to have enough options to be able to have this debate.

My personal favorite to get all of the above in one sitting is Dean Sin World, a tiny storefront on Garfield Avenue run by Chinese ladies who will treat you with the same love and care that they give their own children.  There are only 4 small tables here and no attitude.  The pork XLB are great here, as are the shrimp wontons that come in a warm broth with seaweed and scallions, the amazing texture of their egg noodles with cubed pork and bamboo shoots, the pork leek dumplings and my personal favorite, the celery wontons.  By no means are the XLB or the dumplings here a perfect 10- the thin skin of their XLB breaks during the steaming process, resulting in some liquidless dumplings- but I frequently come here alone for a quick bite and an experience of nostalgia.  The ladies don’t speak English and I don’t speak Mandarin, but we communicate through intention and hand gestures and I nonetheless feel at ease.  They ask me how I’m doing with a gentle pat on the back and they smile with their kind eyes when they see that I’m full and content.  Since dumplings remind me of my mother, this place allows me to get a little closer to that warm feeling.   Taking home their frozen dumplings and enjoying these plump jewels in my kitchen allows me to relive that feeling of comfort and love at any time of the day.

Making dumplings at home is a fun event filled with joy and excitement from beginning to end.  Many will use store-bought dumpling skins to cut preparation time, but the reward in making handmade skin from scratch is too great to pass up the labor intensive process.   Its actually quite simple, using a blend of hakurikiko (bread flour) and kyourikiko (low protein weak flour) with distilled water, and letting it rest after kneading it into a doughy ball.

I always use Kurobuta ground pork for my gyoza with a blend of chopped nira chives, grated ginger juice, grated garlic, chopped white negi scallions, soy sauce and Shao Hsing rice wine as my kakushi aji (hidden flavor/secret ingredient).  Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty by vigorously yet lovingly mixing the filling to create a smooth blend.

Roll the pliable pieces of dough into round discs and wrap them up with a spoonful of pork filling.  There are many ways of wrapping the dumplings, but I grew up learning the cockscomb technique, neatly folding one side of the skin into angled layers that splay out across a semi circle.

I love dipping fried gyoza into soy sauce, rice vinegar and la-yu chile oil, but for boiled dumpings and xiao long bao I prefer tart black vinegar with thinly sliced ginger.  Homemade dumpling skins tend to have a thicker chewier texture which is best enjoyed boiled or steamed.  A bounty of flavorful pork fat and meat juices come pouring out with each bite into these dense homemade bundles of delight.  I always set the table with plates, dipping bowls and chopsticks, but I never make it past the kitchen counter next to the warm stove where I eat the dumplings on a small stool where it feels more intimate and comfortable.

My homemade dumplings really hit the spot, but nothing will ever surpass my mother’s dumplings for me.  Even if I were to make it exactly the same way, there’s something unique about a mother’s touch that gives it that extra dose of tastiness.  Hopefully in the future, my children will look to my dumplings with the same reverence and adoration, and their children to theirs.  Filled with joy, wrapped with care, prepared with love and savored with happiness- is there anything better than dumplings?

Shin-sen-gumi: 2015 W. Redondo Beach Blvd C, Gardena, CA 90247    (310) 329-1335

Dean Sin World: 306 N Garfield Ave #2, Monterey Park, CA 91754         (626) 571-0636

Din Tai Fung: 1108 South Baldwin Avenue, Arcadia, CA 91007                (626) 574-7068

Dumpling 10053: 10053 Valley Blvd #2, El Monte, CA 91731                    (626) 350-0188

Mei Long Village: 301 W. Valley Blvd #112, San Gabriel, CA 91776          (626) 284-4769

Southern Mini Town: 833 W. Las Tunas Dr, San Gabriel, CA 91776        (626) 289-6578

J&J/Jin Jian: 301 W Valley Blvd, San Gabriel, CA 91776                         (626) 308-9238

Dumpling Master: 2124 S Hacienda Blvd, Hacienda Heights, CA 91745 (626) 369-3788

Random trivia:  Did you know that yellow chives are the same plant as garlic chives, but shielded from direct sunlight which prevents them from producing chlorophyll and turning green?

Cooking at home with black truffles

Plutarch believed that they were born out of thunder hitting the earth.  Cicero considered them to be the children of the earth, and Porphyrus called them the gods of the earth.  Pliny the Elder called them ‘callosities of earth and a miracle of nature’ and Brillat-Savarin called them the ‘diamond of the kitchen’.  Rossini called it ‘the Mozart of mushrooms’.  We know them as expensive fungi.  The black truffle…

What do you do when the most perfect specimen of black truffle finds its way into your kitchen?

Well, first you place it up high on a cipollini onion pedestal and admire its holiness from all angles.  Then you sniff sniff sniff and take in all of its earthy and heavenly aroma like a junkie.  Then you morph into a shameless paparazzi and take lots of photos to commemorate this momentous event.

Then, like any reasonable and civilized human being, you wipe your drool and begin cooking.  Not too long ago my good friend Haru Kishi, head chef at the Gordon Ramsay at the London in West Hollywood, came over with a humongous white truffle.  We recklessly shaved generous portions of pungent white truffle over perfectly cooked risotto and a salad with spinach, asparagus, bacon and poached egg.  This time he came over with a black truffle to complete our yin and yang truffle journey.

I love dining out but I would choose cooking and eating at home any day, especially if it involves food items like truffles at the hands of a knowledgeable chef.  It’s mesmerizing to watch a chef at work, cutting, dicing, fileting and flambéeing with precision and grace.  I suppose it’s the same when people watch me perform surgery at work, but New Zealand lamb chops and fingerling potatoes are sexier than Staphylococcus infected pilonidal cysts and exsanguinating full-thickness head lacerations.

We decided to keep the menu simple and prepared a classic dish of scrambled eggs with shaved black truffles.  This was when Chef Kishi’s years of experience and creativity kicked in at full force.  Eggs were gently and patiently scrambled over low-medium heat until they just barely started to set.

As if the fresh black truffles weren’t enough extravagance, we busted out my precious tub of Urbani white truffle butter that I bought at Epicure Imports, a fantastic gourmet warehouse run by friendly proprietors and good friends Bill and Daniel.  We also passed the whites of soft boiled eggs through a sieve to throw into the egg mixture, to add more soft texture to the dish.

The result?  The softest, fluffiest, richest and smoothest batch of scrambled eggs that I’ve ever had the pleasure of consuming.  I never knew that eggs could have such a pillowy texture.  My tail was starting to wag as we continued to prepare the other components of our dinner.

Chopped applewood smoked bacon was quietly sizzling and popping away on one corner of the stove top, while shaved and diagonally chopped asparagus simmered in hot water on the other.

Meanwhile, cipollini onions were roasting away in the oven into caramelized and sweet treasures.

A beautifully marbled piece of rib-eye steak went into the frying pan, instantly releasing a flood of melted liquid fat that started to brown the edges of the meat.  Like my previous white truffle cook-out when the bacon went into the pan, my 2 cats pranced into the kitchen at this time to see what was going on.  Luckily the sizzling sounds of meat on metal drowned out the desperate meowing that ensued.

Prepping and cooking seemed like an eternity to me, as the intense aromas from the oven and the stovetop were practically torturing me into an impatient state of extreme hunger and lust.  I was jumping around Haru like a child with ADD, checking in every other second to see if the food was ready.  All the while he stood patiently at the stove, completely ignoring me in his state of deep concentration as he tended to the precious cut of steak like the master that he is.

Finally it was time for plating.  Asparagus and bacon went first.

Followed by a generous heap of scrambled egg perfection, more asparagus and more bacon.

Meanwhile, juicy cuts of medium-rare rib-eye steak were plated along with tender and candy sweet cipollini onions, topped of course with a generous slab of white truffle butter.

Then came the crowning moment when precious black snow gently descended upon our plates.

With every rapid slice of black truffle against the sharp blade of the truffle slicer, a waft of earthy aroma was released into the air, spreading with it a thousand bubbles of happiness and joy.  You just can’t get this degree of extravagance and luxury at a restaurant, unless you’re willing to pay hundreds of dollars.

The final result?  A decadent and delicious meal.  I loved the texture of the smooth slivers of truffle against my tongue, and how it broke down easily under my bite to release even more aroma that rose up into my nasal passages.  I loved looking at the fine reticulated and lacy patterns on the truffle that looked like a complex labyrinth.  I loved the way that the crunchiness of the asparagus contrasted the silkiness of the eggs, and how the bacon added a perfect touch of saltiness to complete the dish.  The steak was bursting with warm juice that ran like a river into the valley of melted truffle butter on the plate.  Just for the hell of it we even shaved truffles over our salad.  Why not?  This type of experience only comes around once in a lifetime, so we might as well take it all the way to the max and enjoy the moment to its fullest.

With beautiful music in the background and a beautiful bottle of red wine in tow, this was a meal that will never be forgotten.  It was an epic experience that will be hard to beat.  Even if I have good scrambled eggs with black truffles at a nice restaurant in the future, I doubt that it will ever surpass this dish that we made.  Did I post enough photos of this experience to make you envious?  I guess I went a little overboard with the photos, but it’s like a parent taking photos of his or her newborn baby.  You can’t snap enough photos of the precious love in your life.  Except in my case, I ate my yummy baby.

Random trivia:  After 5 years of research, a French-Italian team of scientists finally succeeded in mapping out the entire genome and DNA fingerprint of the black Périgord truffle.  Now, was that really necessary?  See the Nature article from March 2010 below if you’re at all interested:

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v464/n7291/full/nature08867.html

Birthday Dinner Party- Part 3, Leftovers

The morning after my amazing birthday dinner party, I woke up with a slight hangover and trudged over to the kitchen.  Although my friends helped me wash the dishes, there was still a lot of cleaning up that needed to be done.  I looked around at the aftermath of the party and smiled – empty bottles of wine and champagne, birthday cards and gifts on the floor by the fireplace, the guitar casually resting on my couch, half empty champagne flutes in random places around the living room, the aluminum cylinder planter that was severely bent out of shape from using it as a drum during an impromptu jam session, and lots of dirty footprints on the kitchen tiles from the heavy foot traffic.  It was a raging party!

I was hungry, but my stomach had too much rich food and alcohol the night before, so I was craving comfort food.  Something Asian, something that would hit the spot.  I looked inside the fridge to see what I could eat.  There were 4 pork legs left over from the pig feast, and I remembered back to the numerous times that I visited Ruen Pair in Thai Town in the middle of the night for Khao Kha Moo.  It’s my favorite dish there, and it always hits the spot.  I got inspired and motivated to make it that day. 

Khao Kha Moo, stewed pork leg over rice, is a popular street food in Thailand.  It’s usually made with a fresh hunk of pork shank, but I figured that these roasted piglet legs would do just fine.  I crushed garlic cloves and Szechuan peppercorns in my granite mortar into a paste. 

I placed the pork legs into my beloved Le Creuset dutch oven and added water, black soy sauce, thin soy sauce, brown sugar,  Shaoxing rice wine and the garlic paste. 

In addition, I threw in some cinnamon sticks, star anise, black peppercorns and Chinese Five spice powder.  After bringing it to a boil, I lowered the heat to a gentle simmer and let it braise on the stovetop for a few hours.  The lovely smell of Thai pork stew filled my kitchen and permeated into the hallways.

After a few hours I opened the cover of my dutch oven to find this delightful surprise- rich, dark reduced sauce and tender meat that was starting to fall off the bones.  I stared at this pot in amazement and started drooling out of the corners of my mouth.  The skin and meat fell apart effortlessly, and I didn’t even have to use a knife to cut them for the dish. 

I bought a packet of pickled mustard greens from a market in Thai Town, and quickly boiled them in chicken stock.  I assembled the pork with these mustard greens over steamed jasmine rice, sprinkled fresh cilantro and stew jus over the dish, and served it with a green chili vinegar sauce.  I think it only took me 5 minutes to devour the whole thing.  It was delicious, and it really hit the spot.  Ever since Ruen Pair went under new management, the Khao Kha Moo hasn’t been as good there.  Thus, I can now confidently say that my Khao Kha Moo kicks Ruen Pair’s ass. 

I also had a ton of Mission figs left over from the feast.  I bought a whole carton, thinking that I would use it all in the seared foie gras dish, but I only used a half.  Figs are delicate fruits that go bad very quickly once they’re ripe, so I decided to make a fig compote that would keep in the fridge for weeks. 

I threw in these fresh Mission figs into my pot with a little bit of water, some left over red wine from the party, and a whole lot of port wine. 

I added some cinnamon sticks, cloves, star anise, a squeeze of organic honey, and let it simmer in the pot for a while until the figs started to become soft and mushy. 

That evening, and for many evenings after that,  I enjoyed this luscious and dark port wine-fig compote over vanilla bean ice cream.  The dark and rich syrup was amazing with the vanilla flavors.  I’ve tried the compote with yogurt, pastries, seared duck breast and mascarpone cheese, but my favorite combination is vanilla ice cream. 

Left overs get a bad rap, but depending on what you do with them, they’re not so bad.  In fact, they can be amazing if you take the time to love them and nurture them.  All it takes is understanding how to cook them in a way that best represents their potential.  What’s sitting in your fridge right now, waiting to be transformed into something wonderful? 

Random trivia:  Did you know that khao kha moo was one of Samak Sundaravej’s favorite foods?  He was a famous celebrity chef and food critic in Thailand who became Thai’s Prime Minister in early 2008.  He even had his own cooking show called Tasting, Ranting that was a huge hit in Thailand.  Sadly, his term only lasted 9 months, after he was ousted due to controversial political and legal activities. Even more sadly, he just passed away a few months ago.  RIP.

We’ve already elected Hollywood actors as California governor and President of the United States.  It may not be too far in the future that one of our famous celebrity chefs becomes our nation’s next leader.  Bobby Flay?  Paula Deen? Todd English?

Birthday Dinner Party- Part 2, Feast

On the day of a big event, there is always something that goes wrong.  No matter how well things are planned in advance, and even if you make room for error and mishaps, something always happens which throws everyone for a loop.  I’m very meticulous and detail oriented almost to a fault, and I thought that I had planned my birthday dinner party perfectly.  However, without fail, something happened.  I got a call from my chef friend Haru the night before.

“Um…..how big is your oven?”

“……….Why?”

The roast suckling pig that we ordered had just arrived, and it wasn’t the petite piglet that I had envisioned.  I wanted to roast a small piglet whole, maybe even stick an apple in its mouth, and present this majestic plate to my dinner guests.  Instead, a humongous 3 foot long pig arrived at his doorsteps, and I shook my head in disbelief as I tried to figure out whether to laugh or feel stressed.  Thanks to my generous and experienced friend who broke down the large animal and prepped the individual pieces, the whole process went smoothly and we were back on schedule.

I was really excited for this birthday dinner party.  For some, the ultimate birthday fantasy may be dining at a 3 Michelin star restaurant, or a romantic getaway to the Bahamas, or a hot air balloon ride over Napa Valley, or a spa day with girlfriends.  For me, it’s inviting close friends over to my home and cooking for them.  It entails a tremendous amount of work, from shopping to cooking, cleaning my house to setting the table, from being hostess to sommelier, server to busboy, and let’s not forget what a chore it is to clean up the day after.  But I love every minute of it, and I’m truly happiest working in and around the kitchen.  Plus, dining at somebody’s home beats dining at a restaurant any day.  You know that the chef is cooking for you and only you, the seats are more comfortable and there’s more room to relax and hang out, you can play your choice of music at whatever volume you want, it’s private dining at the chef’s table, and hypothetically this ‘restaurant’ is open for as long as you’re there.  If you’ve had too much to drink, you can even spend the night there!

Menu for the 10 course meal

Farmers’ Market strawberries with sugar and freshly ground black peppercorns

As my friends arrived with wonderful bottles of champagne and wine in hand, I greeted them a glass of chilled champagne and steered them over to the do-it-yourself station of succulent strawberries, sugar and freshly ground black peppercorns. You dip the flatly cut end of the strawberry into sugar first, and then the black pepper.  Pop it in your mouth, savor the wonderful combination of flavors for a while, then follow it with a swig of champagne.  The spicy kick of the black pepper surprisingly doesn’t overwhelm the strawberries at all, but instead enhances the sweetness of the fruit.

Kumamoto and Fanny Bay Oysters…

A big thank you to my friend Haru who patiently shucked all of the oysters for the party and helped with the cooking.  I learned how to shuck these bivalves in culinary school, but I knew that the seasoned veteran could do a better and faster job.  The crisp and clean flavored Fanny Bay oysters from British Columbia were perfect on their own, so they were offered with a choice of lemon wedges or shallot  vinaigrette.

The Kumamoto oysters from Humbolt Bay in California were also delicious.  We decided to experiment with these oysters that had a more milky and mellow flavor. Some were served with ponzu and chopped scallions.  Others were consumed with the shallot vinaigrette.  We also tried drizzling some argan oil over both the ponzu and the vinaigrette combinations.  All were equally delicious, but my favorite combo was the shallot vinaigrette with argan oil.

Fairytale and Petch Siam Eggplants with Purple Ruffles Basil…

The miniature eggplants that I found at the farmers’ market were kept in their original cute form and prepared in a simple pan roast with caramelized onions and a balsamic vinegar glaze. The purple ruffles basil gave the dish a spruced up appearance and a nice tart finish.

Yellow Wax Beans, Green Zebra Heirloom Tomatoes, Burrata, Jamon Serrano, Argan Oil dressing…

I got inspired by a fabulous dish that I had at The Tasting Kitchen in Venice, and I made a hazelnut, walnut and argan oil dressing to go with the beautiful salad.  The deep nutty flavors of the argan oil, along with the grounded hazelnuts and walnuts, complemented the beans and tomatoes.  Toasted cumin seeds were sprinkled on top to add an aromatic layer to this dish that was delicious with the fresh burrata and jamon serrano.


Seared Foie Gras, Mission Figs, Port Wine Reduction…

The whole lobe of Rougié foie gras was pan fried whole to give it an exquisite sear.  The oil that came out of the foie gras as it seared in the pan gave a nice sizzle as the pungent aromas attracted a crowd into the kitchen. Figs were prepared two ways to accompany these chunks of fatty heaven.  Half of the figs were quickly marinated in olive oil, salt and black pepper.  After the foie gras was removed from the pan, the other figs were placed cut side down on the pan to give it a nice caramelized glaze.

15 year Tawny Port was used to make a sweet and luscious port wine reduction sauce.  The plates were garnished with a bit of purslane, and it didn’t take long for everybody to pounce on these plates.  From the oohs and aahs emerging from the dinner table, and the feedback that I got from my friends, this was clearly the best dish of the evening.  I’ve had opportunities to share foie gras dishes with some of my guests at other restaurants in Tokyo and Los Angeles after this birthday dinner, but each time they told me that nothing would ever compare to this foie gras dish that they had at my party.

Yuzu and Rosemary Granité…

After the decadent foie gras dish, and before the roasted pork entrée, I served a yuzu and rosemary granité palate cleanser.  The distinct citrus taste of yuzu with subtle rosemary finish in these ice cold granité shavings was refreshing and invigorating.

Roasted Suckling Pig with Pee Wee Potatoes, Nante Carrots, Baby Spring Onions and Purslane…

As mentioned previously, this gigantic ‘piglet’ had to be broken down into separate parts and prepared individually, as there was no way that the 3 foot long beast would fit into my oven. The legs and belly were rolled and tied, and stuffed with a chopped mushroom and herb mixture that Haru made.  These were roasted in the oven until the skin was crispy and brown.

The riblets were also pan fried with rosemary twigs, then transferred to the oven for roasting.

My favorite part was the pig’s head, boiled for hours until the loose collagen in the skin became soft and wiggly, and the meat fell apart effortlessly.  The head was chopped into small bits and served on the plate with the other parts of the pig.  The gelatinous bits of the skin and ears, and the tender cuts of tongue had an amazing texture and flavor.  Fortunately there were left overs from the feast, and for a couple of days after the feast I simply piled it on top of some warm white rice for a comforting rice bowl dish.

The pee wee potatoes, nante carrots and baby spring onions were roasted in the dutch oven with garlic and rosemary.  These farmers’ market vegetables were amazingly sweet and delightful.

Each plate was also garnished with purslane that was tossed in a light vinaigrette, to temper the heartiness of the dish.  The different cuts of meat were all finished with an earthy flavorful sauce made from pork jus and white wine.

Passion fruit and Madagascar vanilla bean Crème Brûlée…

As predicted, by this stage of the meal, I was quite drunk.  My friends brought over an amazing selection of champagnes and wines, and we managed to go through all 14 of them. All were absolutely delicious and went perfectly with the entire meal.  I practically stumbled to the kitchen to start preparing the dessert.  After coating the crème brûlée ramekins with brown demerara sugar, I leaned against the countertop to try to keep myself from falling over as I burned these custards with my butane torch.  

I kept the passion fruit seeds to use them for garnishing the crème brûlée dish.  I was so proud that these babies came out perfectly.

French cheese plate with Quince paste, Jujubes, grapes and white truffle honey…

A few days before the dinner party, I went to Epicure Imports in North Hollywood to stock up on gourmet import items.  They offer a wonderful selection of French cheeses and numerous other delicacies.  I chose an Epoisse, Valencay goat cheese with ash, Camembert, and a Brillat-Savarin.  At Epicure, I also purchased quince paste and Sabatino Tartufi white truffle honey to pair with the cheeses.  The intensely aromatic white truffle honey went brilliantly with the goat cheese, and it was my favorite pairing.  Sliced fresh jujubes from the farmer’s market also went surprisingly well with all of the cheeses.

Chocolate tasting…

I bought a lot of interesting flavored chocolates from Bovetti and Vosges to try that evening.   Since we were all completely stuffed from the feast,we only tried 3 chocolates from my new collection for the chocolate tasting.  The dark chocolate with Szechuan peppers had a noticeable kick at the end that almost stung my tastebuds.  The dark chocolate with blue mint had a cooling effect on my tongue.  The Vosges chocolate called Black Pearl Bar, which had wasabi, ginger and black sesame seeds, was really interesting.  At first I could taste the ginger, but towards the end the wasabi undertones sneaked in to dominate the finale.  The chocolates were paired with an amazing dessert wine- Chateau Bernadou, Muscat de Frontignan from France.

It was a magical evening of good food, good wine and good company.  There was singing, dancing, guitar strumming and a lot of laughing.  Old friends reunited and new friendships were being made.  It was amazing to see all of these people from different walks of life come together on this one evening to gather around the table to share a special meal with me.  I can easily say that this was the best birthday that I have ever had, and it’ll be pretty tough to top this one.

Random trivia: Did you know that the passion fruit was given the name ‘passion’ by Catholic missionaries in South America who thought that certain parts of the fruit bore religious connections to the Crucifixion?  The corona threads of the flower symbolized the crown of thorns, the 5 stamens the 5 wounds, the 3 stigmas for the 3 nails on the cross, and the 5 petals and 5 sepals as the 10 apostles (excluding Judas and Peter).