A Smokin’ Hot birthday feast

What’s a party without a theme?  Little girls delight in princess-themed tea parties and Hello Kitty fetes.  Boys go crazy acting out pirates and cowboys.  Adolescents cast spells with a flick of their wand while pretending to battle the dark lord with Harry Potter.  College coeds rage at toga parties and Hawaiian luaus to spice up the social scene.  No matter what age, themed parties are always fun and set the backdrop for an entertaining and memorable time with friends and family.  For my birthday this year, a few of my very close friends threw a dinner party for me.  I knew that they had been planning, shopping, prepping and cooking for many days to pamper me with a spectacular feast, but I didn’t know until that evening that there was a surprise twist to it all-  a Smokin’ Hot theme.  Why?  Because at my age, I am still, supposedly, smokin’ hot.  (As Bernard Meltzer said, ‘A true friend is someone who thinks that you are a good egg even though he knows that you are slightly cracked.’)

The two chefs for the evening revealed that the entire menu was constructed around this smokin’ hot theme, incorporating smoked items and spicy hot condiments.  Every dish was well thought out to reflect the theme, taste amazing and still maintain a cohesive flow with the rest of the menu.  I was already touched that they took time out of their busy lives to create this themed dinner for me, and I wasn’t prepared for the delicious 7 course meal that was about to blow me away.  The evening officially commenced when somebody popped the cork of a bottle of Piper Heidsieck champagne, donned in a red hot label.

Octopus legs were boiled with a wine cork, in Mario Batali style, to tenderize the meat before charring it in the broiler.  (Of note, after much research, I have found no scientific evidence or studies out there to prove or disprove this method of tenderizing cork- only that Mario Batali swears by it, and when a jolly orange croc-wearing Iron Chef says so, who can argue?)  The resulting octopus was mixed with fingerling potatoes, sliced red onions, parsley and dill, and tossed together in a garlic infused olive oil sauce made with smoked paprika powder.

For the second course, Chef Emi made an ancho chile paste by rehydrating dried ancho chiles, carefully seeding and peeling them, and finally blending it all with butter.

Tossed together with boiled then pan seared brussels sprouts, this made for a delicious vegetable starter with a mild but very much present hot ancho chile kick.

A most delightful ceviche was made with tender morsels of bay scallops, tuna and shrimp, in a quick marinade of chopped tomatoes, red onions, garlic, fresh orange juice, lime juice and cilantro.  The secret ingredient in the seafood cocktail was Emi’s father’s homemade bombero chile sauce, a fiery hot liquid made with tender love and care from chiles in their backyard garden.

There’s a lot of work that goes into broiling eggplants over an open hot flame to a smokey char and peeling off the skin to make a savory homemade baba ghanoush with tahini, garlic, lemon juice and salt, and with that extra accent of smoked paprika powder, it was worth every bite.  Smokey, creamy, rich and simply delicious, the chefs created a perfect dish.

Thick cuts of applewood smoked bacon from the Curious Palate were wrapped around goat cheese and cashew stuffed dates, and baked in the oven for tantalizing bites of porcine delight.  Warm liquid pork fat mixed with melting cheese, encased in a rich pillowcase of sweetness and a finish of subtle crunchy texture- these perfectly packaged skewers from Chef Hana were the ultimate complement to her refreshing homemade red sangria.

Green, red and yellow bell peppers were charred over a hot open flame and carefully peeled in preparation for the main course, a paella.

An impressive seafood paella made with littleneck clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp and Santa Barbara spot prawns was served piping hot in a large wide paellera.  Saffron infused bomba rice was perfectly al dente, and with just a sprinkling of garlic and hot chile infused olive oil that the chef made, this final smokin’ hot savory dish was the catalyst that really brought everybody’s hearts together that evening.

The climax of the evening, as with any birthday feast, was the birthday cake presented with a birthday song.

Chef Emi made the most wonderful, beautiful and delicious caramel cake with vanilla bean crème fraîche frosting and poached quince.  Crème fraîche was made from scratch with buttermilk, and fresh farmers market quince was poached for hours and hours to render it sweet and tender.  With a sprinkling of fleur de sel to season, this caramel cake was one of the best desserts that I have ever tasted, not only for its genuinely professional execution, but also for the intense amount of love that I could taste in each mouthwatering bite.

The smokin’ hot-themed birthday feast was more than I could have asked for- surrounded by loved ones, eating to our heart’s content, toasting to our futures and laughing together.  Every part of the feast and every minute of that precious evening was memorable for me, and more valuable than any restaurant experience that I could ever imagine.  What was more smokin’ hot that night?  The crackling fireplace that set the mood, the hot spiciness of the food, or the warm fuzzy feeling that I got in my heart?  The answer was in my smile.

Random trivia:  Did you know that eggplants are called ‘aubergine’ in many countries outside of the US?  Aubergine derives from a Sanskrit word meaning ‘to cure wind-disorder’, since eggplants were once thought to alleviate flatulence.

Venison dinner at Terroni

One of the best dinner experiences that I recently had started at 9am on a Wednesday morning when my friends Chef Marcel Vigneron and Chef Haru Kishi picked me up in their car to go to the Santa Monica Farmers Market.  They were on their way to the market for a shopping spree to pick up ingredients for a special venison dinner event at Terroni restaurant.  Marcel, along with 3 other local chefs, were invited to prepare grass-fed and humanely raised Wagyu beef and venison for a private dinner where chefs, wine distributors, food suppliers, restaurateurs and cattle ranchers gathered to enjoy an evening of good food and wine.  The Wagyu beef and venison, grass fed outdoors on free range pastures and raised without any additives, hormones, antibiotics or steroids, were supplied by Firstlight Foods and sponsored by local distributors Pilot Brands and Rocker Brothers Meats.

It was interesting to watch these 2 chefs toss ideas around and talk about menu inspirations as they rummaged through crates of organic vegetables, sniffed bunches of herbs and sampled ripe summer fruits.  Little by little, as our shopping bags filled up with vibrant produce, their dishes began forming in my mind and I couldn’t wait to see and taste the final products. Earthy chanterelle mushrooms, bright cranberry and calypso beans, wild arugula, purple ruffles basil, golden raspberries, fraise des bois wild strawberries, purple lavender blossoms and golden beets were just some of the items that they picked up at the farmers market.  Everything was brought back to Marcel’s kitchen at Bar 210 and prepped with the venison.

I love venison, especially when paired with tart berries, but it’s rare to find it on restaurant menus in Los Angeles.  There may be a misconception that venison is gamey, but good quality venison is lean with a delicate grain and clean light flavor.  In fact, venison is lower in fat than a skinned breast of chicken, low in cholesterol and higher in iron than any other red meat.   The huge venison saddle that Marcel received was a beautiful piece of dark red meat, and hardly had any odor.  The venison was skillfully broken down by these two seasoned chefs who worked with speed and precision.

Within 15 minutes the entire venison was broken down into beautiful pieces of strip loin, saddle and tenderloin.

My profession involves healing broken bones and sewing wounds back together, so it was a little disturbing to watch them crack the venison ribs and vertebrae with sheer brute force and throw them into a pot for a jus.  I cook a lot, so it wasn’t the concept that was disturbing, but the loud cracking and snapping noises from the butchering.  I quickly got over it when I started smelling the amazing aromas of the venison stock reducing on the stove.

The cranberry and calypso beans were boiled in a dutch oven with a bouquet garni and celeriac shavings while radishes, turnips, beets and daikon were shaved on a mandoline and pickled in rice vinegar.  Haru made puffed wild rice and amarinth seeds by quickly deep frying them in oil, while Marcel made puffed quinoa and beet root fluid gel using agar.

Both chefs cooked at full force with no breaks from 11am until 2am when the Terroni dinner ended.  Marcel and his sous chef Robert Montano even had to do dinner service at Bar 210.  The non-stop fast paced operations of the kitchen were exciting for me to watch as an outsider, but I saw first hand that the work is physically demanding and incredibly intense.  Multi-tasking over the hot stoves, running back and forth between stations, shaving, dicing, frying, slicing, boiling and poaching all while remaining mentally focused on menu ideas and time management to produce beautiful food for others to enjoy- it’s amazing that more chefs don’t experience burn out.

At 11pm, guests gathered around the large communal table in the Wine Library, a secret back room accessed through Terroni restaurant.  Terroni managing partner Max Stefanelli greeted guests at the doorway to the beautiful dining room lined with shelves full of wine bottles while Ben Andersen from Rosenthal Wine Merchants NY showcased the various wines that were paired with each dish.   A group of chefs were in attendance- Josiah Citrin from Mélisse, Raphael Lunetta of Jiraffe, Michael Cimarusti of Providence, Alex Becker of Nobu West Hollywood and Nyesha Arrington of former Caché.  One of the Truffle Brothers was there for the dinner, as well as the beverage director for the SLS Hotel, a few New Zealand ranchers, and Sarah from Tastespotting.

The first course to start the evening was Marcel’s venison strip loin carpaccio, seared with garlic and thyme, sliced paper thin and gently draped over wooden serving boards.  An assortment of beautiful garnishes brought vibrant flavors, colors and textures to the delicious appetizer: cranberry beans and calypso beans added an earthiness that anchored all of the contrasting acidity imparted by the pickled radishes, beet root and cipollini onions.  Pearly little beads of puffed quinoa titillated with their delightful crunch while golden beet root fluid gel, red beet root fluid gel and wild arugula added bright color palettes to the canvas.  Marcel put the finishing touches on the carpaccio with dots of golden egg yolk sauce before sending it out to the dining room.  Everybody sighed and swooned over this elegant and tasty dish.

My favorite dish of the evening was Marcel’s venison tenderloin tartare, hand cut with macadamia nuts, capers, pickled cipollini onions, beet root brunoise and walnut oil.  The light flavors, tender meat and fine grains of venison make it an ideal medium for tartare, and Marcel used just the right amount of ingredients to bring a perfect level of acidity and richness to the dish.  A generous dollop of tartare scooped onto a crispy bright red beet chip, augmented by a smear of wasabi cream and garnished with slivers of microchives and aromatic lavender blossoms made for a little piece of heaven in one satisfying bite.

Chef Andrea Cavaliere, Executive Chef of Cecconi’s in West Hollywood, offered his interpretation of venison carpaccio with pressed eggplant caponata, blueberries, shaved fennel and orange salad, chive blossoms, parsley blossoms and Thai basil blossoms.  The flavor combinations in this plate were outstanding- the sharpness of the fennel and the tartness of the berries complemented the mellow flavors of the tender venison very well.

There were 2 other featured chefs presenting dishes that evening, including Chef David Féau, Executive Chef of Patina Restaurant Group’s Cafe Pinot in Downtown LA, who made an amazing wagyu beef tartare with parmesan cheese, shaved summer black truffles and a quail egg shot.

Chef Micah Wexler, formerly of Craft and currently at Voyeur, presented a roasted venison tenderloin in cinnamon broth with rhubarb chutney, middle eastern kibbeh, fresh dill and parsley.

Marcel’s entrée was a venison saddle cooked sous vide at 56 degrees, perched on a bed of delightfully chewy farro cooked with dried blueberries in venison stock, and topped with wild arugula and puffed wild rice.  His inspiration for the dish was to present the venison with ingredients that reflected its natural habitat, which is why he used wild berries, grains and greens.  A crispy celeriac chip and crunchy puffed amaranth seeds added great textural contrast to the medley of delectable fruits that embellished the creamy celeriac purée- golden raspberries, blueberries, black berries, plumcot cooked a la plancha, and bright fraise de bois wild strawberries.

Andrea Cavaliere finished the savory meal with a plate of luscious Wagyu new york strip and rib eye with potato purée, carrots and jus.

Terroni completed the decadent experience with a sweet glass of zabaione and sugared cherries.

It was a treat to be able to spend the whole day with chefs Marcel and Haru and watch the extraordinary transformation of basic ingredients into edible art.  I didn’t expect those small berries that we sampled at the farmers market that morning or the massive chunk of raw venison laying on the kitchen counter to translate into such a beautiful feast for the eyes and a memorable dinner.  It’s a special moment when food becomes a meal at the hands of a masterful chef, and the instant that you take that very first bite, you also become a part of that delicious moment.

Terroni Restaurant and Wine Library

7605 Beverly Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 954-0300

Random trivia: Did you know that popular legend implies that steak tartare got its name from the nomadic Tatar people of Central Asia who ate raw meat?  They kept the meat under the horse’s saddles to tenderize it for as long as a day’s ride.  Western Europeans, who feared yet also wanted to be like the mighty Huns, started preparing raw meat and adding spices to it, forming the base for what would eventually morph into the modern version of tartare.

Soba making class in Los Angeles

まず、。。。

First, water

everything else will follow.

Soba is a type of buckwheat noodle that is popular in Japan, and enjoyed both on a daily basis and for special occasions.  On New Years Eve Japanese people eat toshikoshi soba, which translates to ‘passing or crossing the year’, and is a longstanding cultural tradition since the Edo period to bring in good fortune, luck and longevity.  When people move into a new residence, they serve hikkoshi soba to their new neighbors in a social and friendly gesture to introduce themselves.  Soba noodles are frequently consumed in warm dashi broths with toppings which range from deep fried tofu, nameko mushrooms and shrimp tempura to dried herring and duck meat.  Cold noodles may be topped with gooey grated tororo yam, grated daikon radish, natto fermented soybeans or deep fried tempura bits, but soba purists will generally opt for a simple zarusoba plate of chilled soba noodles with a tsuyu dipping sauce made of kaeshi and dashi to enjoy the noodles in its simplicity and purity.

Soba is an integral part of life in Japan, from fast food standing-only soba stalls on train platforms that are frequented by salarymen in transit and zaru soba bento boxes sold in 7-11 convenience stores for office ladies in a hurry, to store-bought dried soba that is present in every household pantry.  Soba at first glance may seem like cheap food of convenience from an outsider, but artisanal soba is a deep and complex art that few are able to understand and master.  It takes years of apprenticeship and many more of real life experience to become a soba master, and it’s easy to tell when you’re having good quality soba that is made by an artisan.  Fresh soba has a light and delicate flavor with just the right amount of koshi, which is a Japanese word for the elasticity and slightly chewy consistency that noodles are supposed to have, and a slippery yet refreshing nodogoshi, which is a word to describe the pleasant way that food passes down your throat.  Soba is made only from buckwheat flour and water (and wheat flour for a combination soba), and nothing else, so it’s all in the skill of experienced hands to mix, knead, roll and cut these simple ingredients into good delicious noodles.

I recently took a soba making class with Akila Inouye, Master Chef and Founder of the Tsukiji Soba Academy and Sonoko Sakai, Japanese cookbook author and food writer, through an opportunity that I found on their website called mazumizu.  Mazumizu in Japanese means ‘first, water (and everything else will follow)’, which is the Zen principle of simplicity and natural flow in soba making.  They offer many different soba classes like the Easy Handmade Soba for Beginners for $85 and the Gluten free Kikouchi handmade soba class for $95, but I opted for the Basic Handmade Soba class for $125 that included a soba lunch.  The class was held at Sonoko’s lovely house in Santa Monica, and all supplies and ingredients were provided. 

Akila Inouye, the Founder and Master Chef of Tsukiji Soba Academy in Tokyo, Japan, has been teaching soba making for more than 15 years, and has trained many soba artisans who have gone on to open their own restaurants.  He conducted soba classes in Los Angeles last fall when he did a US soba tour from New York to the west coast, but by the time that I found out about this, classes were all sold out.  I was ecstatic that he returned to LA for the whole month of June to hold all types of classes.  He even brought different kinds of Japanese knives ordered and made especially for him, of which I was able to purchase one very special one.

Sonoko Sakai is a Japanese writer and film producer who is bicultural and bilingual.  She enrolled at the Tsukiji Soba Academy in Tokyo under the tutelage of Akila, and became a certified soba maker.  Her passion for soba making drove her to convert her home into a soba teaching studio and to spread the culture of soba to Angelenos.  What used to be the dining room is now a bright sunlit studio with 2 large wooden tables whose surfaces are perfect for rolling the soba.  A cabinet holds an assortment of beautiful Japanese ceramics in which to enjoy the soba and side dishes, and a side table is stocked with rolling pins, lacquer bowls, measuring cups and flour brushes.  With our aprons on and bandannas tied around our heads, our enthusiastic class of 5 was ready to knead and roll.

Master artisan Akila demonstrated the entire process step by step as we all watched in awe.  He prepared a 10 serving size of soba using 80% organic stone-milled Japanese buckwheat flour and 20% all purpose wheat flour in an 8:2 ratio of Nihachi soba which is the classic Tokyo style.  After he sifted the flour using a special fine sieve from Saitama prefecture, he started to explain the importance of water in soba making.

Water is the only other ingredient in soba, and how much you add is the key element in the entire process.  The amount of water to be added is not a finite proportion or weight, but largely depends on the flour quality and the humidity and temperature of the day.  Too much water and the dough will never form; too little water and the dough will fall apart.  The adjustment of water, unfortunately, is something that can only come from years of experience and professional intuition.  Once water is added to the sifted flour, use your hands to gently yet swiftly mix it up in a rotating motion.

Once the mixture is moist yet crumbly, gather it all to one side and gently compress it into a solid oblong roll.  Then repeat the process of fold and knead using the heel of your palms as you lean forward into the bowl with feet shoulder width apart.

Gradually, the dough will come together and feel sticky.  After adding just a touch of water, use your thumbs to knead with determination until it becomes soft, smooth and bouncy like a baby’s bottom.  Shape and mold into a large Hershey’s kiss before flattening the top into a thick disc shape.

Sprinkle a bit of uchiko (like cornstarch) on the table and lay your flattened dough on top.  Use a rolling pin in smooth swift motions going in all directions to flatten the dough.  Flatten into a rectangular shape, sprinkling bits of uchiko as you go along to prevent sticking.  The goal is to roll the dough into an even 1.5mm thickness.  Master Akila made it seem so easy and effortless, and little did we know how difficult this was going to be when it was our turn.

Fold the dough in 4 layers using generous amounts of uchiko in between each layer to prevent the noodles from sticking to each other.

Using a special soba kiri cleaver that has a long and perfectly straight and even edge, cut the soba in even widths in a relaxed posture.

Needless to say, our jaws dropped and we all fell silent when we watched Akila cut the soba with ease and grace.  We were all petrified at having to do this ourselves.

After the demonstration, it was our turn to try it all out, and we started from the very first step of weighing the flour and figuring out how much water to use.  We sifted, poured, mixed, gathered, kneaded, massaged, shaped, flattened, rolled, sprinkled and folded, all under the watchful eye and gentle direction of Akila and Sonoko.  When it came time to cut, we all struggled, some more than others.  It was an awkward task that none of us have ever experienced, and we inevitably ended up with uneven strands of soba.  These are the times when every person’s personality comes through- one woman had thick linguini sized soba, but she laughed it off and said that more volume meant more flavor.  Another was visibly frustrated and asked Akila to do the cutting.  The male student finished early with soba of various shapes and thicknesses, but didn’t seem to care about the imperfections at all.  I took a deep breath and tried to channel the powers of my Japanese ancestors, taking my time to get each strand as perfect as possible with utmost intensity and concentration.  Akila had to remind me several times to loosen my shoulders and relax.  What can I say, doctors are perfectionists by trade.  Although my soba wasn’t perfect by any standards, for a first timer, I thought I did pretty good:

After an intense but fun soba making session, we sat down for a wonderful lunch in Sonoko’s kitchen.  While we were making soba, Sonoko was busy in the kitchen making dashi broth with bonito flakes and preparing the dipping sauce.  Rattatouille of zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant and onions were cooked by a simple process of steaming with only a pinch of salt for seasoning- it was rich in flavor and absolutely delicious.

Soba (made and cut by our teachers, of course) was served in a cold tsuyu sauce with duck tsukudani simmered in soy sauce and ginger, Tokyo negi scallions, deep fried eggplant suage, sliced myoga ginger and mitsuba leaves.  I thought that the soba at Otafuku in Gardena was the best soba that I could get in Los Angeles- I was wrong.  This handmade bowl of soba by artisan Akila Inouye was not only the best soba that I’ve had in LA, but by far one of the best that I’ve ever had in my life, rivaling my favorite joint in Tokyo called Souhonke Sarashina Horii in Azabu-Juban.

To be able to learn how to make real Japanese soba is one thing, but to learn from a true artisan in the comfort of the teacher’s beautiful home and kitchen is such a treat.  I will never forget how that special bowl of soba with eggplant and duck meat tasted, for it’s attached with an unforgettable memory of my first experience with creating this traditional Japanese comfort food with my very own hands.  The following day I boiled some of my handmade soba for a simple zarusoba lunch at home.  Due to the unevenness of the noodles, it wasn’t first class, but knowing that I made it completely from scratch, it tasted delicious and comforting.  I regret not having enough time to take more of Akila and Sonoko’s classes, such as the seafood dinner party and summer entertaining classes which include sake tastings, but I’ll always have fond memories of this one magical sunny morning when their passion for soba touched and changed my life.

Mazumizu

www.mazumizu.com

Soba making and cooking classes

Soba master Akila Inouye is back in Los Angeles for more soba making classes.  This time around they are offering a class where you can mill your own soba and literally make everything from scratch.  Log on to www.mazumizu.com to register for these classes at the end of August- for one week only, so register now before they sell out!

Soba master Akila Inouye and Sonoko Sakai will also be doing a pop-up soba event using Shin-soba from Japan at the Breadbar for 1 week only at the end of August!

Random trivia:  Soba noodles contain antioxidants like rutin and quercetin, and essential nutrients and amino acids like choline, thiamine and riboflavin.  A lot of these nutrients and vitamins are lost to the water when boiling the soba, so there’s a tradition in Japan of drinking the left over water, or sobayu, at the end of the meal.

Cooking with friends – Lyon, France

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View across the Saône river from the market

Continuing on with my food adventures in Lyon, France…

On Saturday morning we decided to go shopping at the farmers market along the Saône river in vieux Lyon.  My friend Guillaume offered to cook lunch for us, and we were so excited to get a homecooked meal full of fresh seasonal vegetables after our heavy meat-centric dinner at Café des Fédérations the night before.  It was a beautiful sunny hot day with clear blue skies, and the walk along the river was breathtaking.  The outdoor market was teeming with energy and the vibrant bright colors of vegetables and flowers were bursting with happiness.  Here are some photos from the vieux Lyon Saturday farmers market:

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We were lucky enough to get fresh morel mushrooms, just at the end of their season.  I’ve never had the opportunity to cook with fresh morel mushrooms, so this was a new experience for me.  I’m used to the dried store-bought version.  These fresh morels were soft and spongy, light and airy, earthy and pungent, and just simply delightful.  Guillaume also bought fresh ris d’agneau, or lamb sweetbreads which I was extremely excited about.

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Fresh morel mushrooms

Guillaume’s kitchen is tiny.  There’s really only enough room for 1 person.  It’s barely even tall enough for him to be able to stand fully erect.  I offered to help, but there was only 1 1/2 cutting boards (the 1/2 board was the size of a passport) and a few pairing knives.  How can this tiny kitchen with hardly any fancy gadgets whip out this fancy meal that Guillaume was describing to me?  Frankly, I was a little worried.  However, as soon as I saw him clean the sweetbreads, prepare the morels, sauté the fingerling potatoes in butter, cut the artichokes down to the heart, and throw the peas in boiling water all within a 10 minute period, I knew I could sit back and relax.  It’s not about the kitchen, or the equipment, or the fancy gadgets, or the space.  It’s about the chef, his creativity and his passion.

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Cleaned morels and lamb sweetbreads waiting to be cooked

The deep earthy aroma of morels filled the apartment as he sautéed them with butter.  At the same time, he individually and carefully cooked each vegetable before putting them all together in the pot.  He knew exactly how each vegetable had to be prepared to enhance their natural sweetness and character, and he was not cutting any corners.

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Chef Guillaume multi-tasking in his small kitchen

Before we knew it, a beautiful pot of asparagus, artichokes, peas, fingerling potatoes, haricot vert and garlic had been assembled on the tiny stovetop.  Meanwhile, he was finishing his morel sauce with cream and white wine from my cousin’s winery that I brought from Burgundy, and cooking it with the sweetbreads in the oven.

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Beautiful farmers market vegetable pot

The rest of the crew set the table and decanted a bottle of my cousin’s red wine, Simon Bize et Fils Aux Vergelesses.  We all proceeded to crowd around the small kitchen to watch the chef in action, all the while drooling and wagging our tails.

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Table is set, and wine is decanted

This ended up being one of the most memorable and delicious meals of my entire Europe trip.  There is just something so special about being invited into someone’s home and having a homecooked meal.  Shopping together at the market and seeing all of the fresh seasonal ingredients being transformed in front of my eyes in the kitchen also heightens the experience.   Everything was delicious, especially the lamb sweetbreads with morel mushrooms.

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Delicious market vegetable pot

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Succulent ris d'agneau with morel cream sauce

Of course we had the obligatory post-dinner cheese plate, again all selected by Guillaume at the cheese stand at the farmers market.  It included goat cheese with ashes and pepper, fresh goat cheese from goat’s milk that had just been milked the day before, and a Comté from the North Alps.

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After dinner farmers market cheese plate

Guillaume busted out his espuma gun for fresh whipped cream to complement the juicy strawberries.

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Succulent market strawberries

What a perfect weekend so far in Lyon, I thought, as I drifted away in a post-prandial snooze on the couch…

Random trivia:  Did you know that morel mushrooms, otherwise known as brain mushrooms, honeycomb mushrooms, or sponge mushrooms, are the official state mushrooms of Minnesota?

Summer baby shower

Summertime, outdoor BBQ, sunshine, cool breeze, champagne, friends, laughter, gifts, food, laying out on the grass…

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All of these wonderful elements came together for my friend Emi’s baby shower that I co-hosted this summer.  I was genuinely excited to throw this bash and make it a special day for her.  Emi, wife of the chef and owner of The Curious Palate, has been my good friend since the 6th grade.  I brainstormed for weeks about the food spread for the joyous occasion.  I wanted to keep things simple and fresh, and I wanted to use farmers market ingredients that were at their summer peak. I also needed to simplify the preparation, garnishing and plating, in order to minimize my time in the kitchen and maximize my time having fun at the party.

For starters, I made a watermelon gazpacho.  I used plump heirloom tomatoes to deepen the flavors, blanched almonds to add texture, Spanish Jerez Reserva sherry vinegar to add a subtle kick, and a nutty French extra virgin olive oil to bring it all together.  Garlic and red peppers were thrown in for some underlying zest.  Garnished with edible flower petals, chopped chives and drops of basil oil that I made the night before, it was the perfect cool concoction for a hot summer day.

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Roasted red and yellow beets were flavored with Jerez Reserva sherry vinegar, olive oil, ginger and slivers, zest and juice of Valencia oranges.  The snapping ginger and citrus flavors balanced out the deep sweetness of the beets, and the vibrant colors of the edible flower garnish really popped out against the crimson background.

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For the main course, we decided to do the obligatory BBQ.  What’s an outdoor summer party without slapping some meat on the hot grill?  I marinated kalbi short ribs in my own secret recipe, and let it absorb the flavors overnight.  Italian zucchini and eggplants cut lengthwise were brushed with olive oil and flavored with fleur de sel.  What a sight to see 3 chicks (the 3 hosts) running the hot smoking grill in heels and summer dresses!  Sorry, no photos of the meat, it went too quickly.  They were tender, succulent, juicy and delicious.

I wanted to do something special, original and cute for dessert.  A store ordered cake with a messy ‘Congratulations’ in chocolate inscription?  Boring.  Cupcakes from Sprinkles?  Been there, done that.  After numerous revisions, I decided to make a playful plate that featured ripe summer white peaches.

I found this interesting fruit called a honeyloupe at the farmers market in Santa Monica.  As you can guess by the name, it’s a cross between a honeydew melon and a cantaloupe.  I used cookie cutters to cut the flesh into star, leaf and flower shapes, and marinated it for a few hours in lemongrass syrup.  Lemongrass syrup is easy to make- boil equal parts water and sugar in a pot with bruised lemongrass stalks for a few minutes.  You can drizzle it over ice cream or yogurt, and it marinates fruits really well.  It also keeps in the fridge for a long time.

I made a chocolate fudge sauce that I painted onto the plate with a pastry brush, and sprinkled the honeyloupe pieces along with edible flower petals and mint leaves to create a shooting star effect.  Using a cardboard stencil that took me only a few minutes to cut out with an exacto knife, I sprinkled a Valrhona chocolate powder teddy bear onto each plate.

I poached the white peaches the evening before in water and sugar with: cinnamon, cloves, black peppercorns, vanilla beans, honey, star anise, ginger and lemon zest.  To make the peach foam, I puréed some of those peaches with the poaching syrup, then added bloomed silver gelatin sheets before pouring it into my Espuma gun.  For those of you who don’t own an Espuma gun, I highly recommend getting one.  You can turn anything into foam or cream, and it’s so fun to use.  Load it with a couple of CO2 cartridges, and you’re ready to foam away.

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It all came together nicely for a colorful and cute summer dessert plate.

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My friend Emi had a healthy and beautiful baby boy, and I’m already thinking of the desserts that Auntie Tomo can spoil him with.

Random trivia:  Did you know that lemongrass oil enhances milk production in breast-feeding mothers?  It’s also believed that babies who drink this milk will have a better immune system, making them less prone to infections.

Life in Burgundy – Bourgogne, France

On my last trip to France, I spent a few days at my cousin’s house in Savigny-les-Beaune in Burgundy.  It’s always a joy for me to visit her, because I get to experience country living at its best, surrounded by the best foods and wines in the world.  Her husband Patrick Bize is the 4th generation winemaker of Simon Bize et Fils, which for me means a 15 second walk down to their wine cellar for unlimited access to their wines, 24 hours a day.  My cousin, who is an excellent cook, made simple but hearty and delicious meals for me every day to complement their beautiful wines.  Here are some photos of the good life in wine country…

Horse plowing the vineyards in Gevrey-Chambertin

Horse plowing the vineyards in Gevrey-Chambertin

Wine aging in the cellar

Wine aging in the cellar

Bottles aging in the cellar

Bottles aging in the cellar

Wine labels

Wine labels

Wine labels

Wine labels

One of the first lunches that my cousin cooked for me was Poulet de Bresse baked in the oven with house white wine.  All foods and desserts that require wine are cooked only with their Bize wine.  The last time I visited them, she cooked an outstanding coq au vin with 2 bottles of their pinot noir.  Although it seems like such a luxury from my point of view, this is ordinary daily life for winemakers.  What a life!

Poulet de Bresse in house white wine

Poulet de Bresse in house white wine

Poulet de Bresse, given an AOC status, is the most prized chicken in France.  Everything from rearing to quality of soil, from diet to slaughtering, is strictly regulated to maintain its famous gamey yet tender and delicate fatty flavor.

Poulet de Bresse

Poulet de Bresse

The Bresse chicken dish she made me was garnished with a simple cream and mustard grain sauce (using Dijon mustard, of course- Dijon is only about an hour drive away), accompanied with fava beans sautéed in butter and baguette from the boulangerie down the street.  I was lucky enough to score the tender chicken foie, while my cousin enjoyed the gizzard.

Poulet de Bresse with its foie, fava beans and baguette

Poulet de Bresse with its foie, fava beans and baguette

One afternoon my cousin dropped us off in the middle of the forest, telling us that we needed to forage for our dinner.  This forest was her secret place to pick wild asparagus, les asperges sauvages, which I had never even heard of until then.  In this dense, dark, cool and quiet forest, we diligently picked these long and thin wild asparagus stalks in silence.  They were quite abundant, and I was so excited to be able to forage for my own food.  It’s such a wonderful experience to be able to see where your food comes from, and to be able to enjoy the fruits of your own labor.

Wild asparagus

Wild asparagus

I blanched the asparagus in boiling salt water, then tossed them with spaghetti, sea salt and olive oil.  It was one of the best pasta dishes I’ve ever had.

Spaghetti avec les asperges sauvages

Spaghetti avec les asperges sauvages

One of their winemakers brought over a basket of freshly picked baby greens from his garden, which he dressed with a simple viniagrette.  We enjoyed these fresh vegetables with terrine de foie de lapin (rabbit liver terrine) and an award winning jambon persilles (ham with parsley) from Maison Raillard in Beaune.  Paired with never-ending supplies of their house wine, this al fresco family dinner was one of the most memorable meals in my life.

Fresh garden greens with Bize wine

Fresh garden greens with Bize wine

Jambo persilles aved terrine de foie de lapin

Jambon persilles avec terrine de foie de lapin

On another evening, we gathered on the terrace to watch the sunset with a bottle of 1999 Moët et Chandon rosé and grougere, which is a type of cheese bread.  The inside of the bread was soft and doughy with a subtle and elegant cheese flavor.

Champagne toast with grujere

Champagne toast with grougere

Grujere cheese bread

Grougere cheese bread

My cousin made a delicious tuna, onion and tomato quiche one day.  Everything is made from scratch here, with great love and care.  Her dried cherry tart was also fantastic- freshly picked cherries that were sun dried on the terrace.

Tuna, tomato and onion tart

Tuna, tomato and onion quiche

Dried cherry tart

Dried cherry tart

For my last dinner, she pulled out the good stuff.  Burgundy escargot with garlic and butter, and house made duck leg confit.  The escargot were succulent and juicy, and the duck confit had perfectly crispy skin covering tender meat that fell right off the bones.

Burgundy escargots ready to go into the oven

Burgundy escargots ready to go into the oven

House made duck leg confit

House made duck leg confit

Other dishes that she made include asparagus soup and strawberries marinated in house red wine.  Oh, and don’t forget the cheeses.  Every meal concluded with the obligatory assortment of French cheeses.  My favorite was the Epoisse, perfectly stinky and incredibly creamy. My time in Savigny-les-Beaune was magical, beautiful and happy.  Everything was prepared with great care and detail.  Every night we would gather around the table as the kids talked about how their school day went and Patrick about his predictions for this year’s harvest.  With laughter abound, delicious food filling our content bellies, and Patrick returning every half hour with yet another bottle of wine, mealtime was always a place of love and warmth.  Although I enjoyed my dining experience in Paris, from local bistros to high end restaurants, the food that I had at my cousin’s house was truly priceless.   Oh, I miss them so much…

Cheese plate

Cheese plate

Bottarga / Karasumi

One of my all time favorite tasty delicacies is bottarga, or karasumi in Japanese.  It’s very popular and well known around the Mediterranean and in Japan, but few Americans know about it.  Bottarga is silver mullet roe, cured in its original sac form with sea salt, then dried, waxed and vacuum sealed for preservation.   The wax coating prevents further drying and exposure to light.  Although it’s been called the poor man’s caviar, it’s highly prized and just as expensive! Each package comes with 2 roe sacs, and in Japan a good quality bottarga can cost as much as $200-300.  Taiwanese versions are less expensive, so many Japanese tourists who visit Taiwan come back with a suitcase full of bottarga.

Here are 2 packages that I got from Japan:

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IMG_5235These are both high quality Japanese bottarga.  Notice how one is long and flat, and the other is short and plump.  They differ not only in shape and size, but also how dry/moist they are depending on how much they are salt cured.

Bottarga is very popular in Italy, where they usually grate the roe into a simple olive oil pasta dish.  Last month I took the long flat bottarga over to my trusted Italian chef friend Giuseppe’s house to have him cook up a feast.  In preparing the bottarga, the outer skin and wax layer need to be carefully removed first.

IMG_5248Giuseppe, as expected, made the most delicious bottarga pasta dish with spaghetti, olive oil, parsley and cherry tomatoes.  It paired nicely with a bottle of Louis Jadot Pouilly- Fuissé.   Bottarga has a deep salty ocean flavor with a nutty finish that is more delicate and refined than anchovies, and more mellow and rounded than caviar.

Giuseppe's fabulous bottarga pasta

Giuseppe's fabulous bottarga pasta

By the end of the evening, this white plate was completely clean.  The dish was so delicious, that we scraped up every last bit of roe possible with our fingers.  Bottarga has such a unique deep robust flavor that it is best enjoyed plain and simple without too many other interfering flavors.

Enoteca Drago in Beverly Hills offers a similar bottarga pasta dish, though it was not as delicious as Giuseppe’s.  Italian bottarga also tends to be overdried and rock hard, whereas Asian bottarga is more moist and flavorful.

Enoteca Drago's bottarga dish

Enoteca Drago's bottarga dish

Last year I had the unique opportunity to get my hands on freshly cured bottarga/karasumi from the renowned Kyubei sushi restaurant in Ginza, Tokyo.  The sushi chef at Kyubei told me that they prepared the bottarga through a 10 step salt curing process over 10 days.  It’s a painstakingly long and laborious process to prepare these roe sacs, but it’s very well worth it.  Wow….this was the best bottarga I had ever tasted in my life.  It was extremely moist and soft, almost juicy, and I could really taste the true essence of the mullet roe.  Deep and briny but with a sweet kumquat-like lingering flavor that sent an intense aroma through the back of my palate up to my nose.

I brought this prized piece of heaven back to Los Angeles with me, and took it to the one person who I knew could do it justice.  Sushi chef Ken at Kiriko.  When he took a bite of the bottarga, he too cried out in joy and couldn’t stop shouting “ume~!!”, which means ‘OMG delicious!’ in Japanese.

He first prepared it in the traditional Japanese way: simply sliced and eaten straight up, and also sandwiched between thinly sliced daikon radish.  The fresh crispy bitter daikon complements the salty intense bottarga flavor very well.  I love bottarga so much, I prefer eating it straight.

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Next he grated the bottarga over fresh seared squid.  A wonderful collaboration of ocean flavors!  Again, this dish worked because the bottarga was paired with food that has a lot of texture without a strong overpowering flavor.

IMG_5047Finally, Ken made a simple and delicious bottarga pasta dish.  He grated the bottarga into a chilled tomato sauce with capellini pasta, and garnished it with shiso leaf ribbons.  This was an amazingly refreshing dish!  I loved the concept of having a chilled pasta with only the sweetness and acidity of fresh tomatoes to accentuate the bottarga flavor.  I don’t think the Kyubei sushi chefs who made this bottarga only a week before, ever imagined their bottarga being used like this.  So innovative yet simple and delicious!  I loved it.

IMG_5048 If you’ve never tried bottarga/karasumi, you MUST!  It will open your eyes and taste buds to a whole new world.  Thought caviar was good?  Well, honestly, I think bottarga has more flavor and depth.  Eat it straight, grate it into pasta, shave it onto buttered toast, mix it into mashed potatoes, or slice it over scrambled eggs.  However you eat it, you will not be disappointed.

Random trivia:  Chinmi (珍味)literally translates to  ‘rare taste’, though it means ‘delicacy’, in Japanese.  The 3 famous chinmi/delicacies of Japan (日本の三大珍味)are uni (sea urchin), karasumi (bottarga), and konowata (sea cucumber guts).  The 3 famous chinmi/delicacies of the world(世界の三大珍味)are said to be caviar, foie gras and truffles. Yum to all 6!!