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.

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?

Bistro Paul Bert- Paris

Bistro Paul Bert

Bistro Paul Bert

For the ultimate Parisian bistro experience with classic French cooking, Le Bistro Paul Bert in the 11th arrondissement, not far from Bastille, is the perfect location.  Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood, this bistro is small, quaint and unpretentious.  Bustling with locals and a few scant tourists (that’s us!), I could tell that this was a place of warmth and comfort from the soft yellow glow of lights and the sounds of laughter and clinking wine glasses emanating from the small storefront as I approached it on the dark street.

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Chalkboard menu

The menu is written on a medium-sized chalkboard that is passed around from table to table.  The formule menu for 34 Euros includes an appetizer, entrée and dessert.  Even though it was still only 8:30pm on a Wednesday night, the place was packed and they had already run out of many entrées.  My poor friends were crushed when our waitress initially told them that she would save the last langoustine plate for them, only to return a few minutes later crossing her arms in a big X with the dreaded “c’est fini!”

IMG_5482Asperges blanches au parmesan de vache rouge: White asparagus with parmesan cheese.  A very simple dish of steamed white asparagus with salt, pepper, olive oil and shaved parmesan cheese.  Mild and delicate in taste, the white asparagus was meaty and thick.  Since it was the tail end of asparagus season, I could sense a hint of bitter finish in the vegetable, in contrast to the succulent sweetness of those I had during the peak season.  Still, I was happy to be able to enjoy a plateful of these giant stalks- it’s hard to find them in the US.

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Assiette de jambon blanc iberico et sa salade: as simple as you can get.  Slices of delicious Iberico ham with a simple baby greens viniagrette salad.  At this bistro, it’s all about simplicity and good quality.

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Petit anchois frais en tempura: deep fried tempura-style anchovies.  That’s all there is to it, just plain simple battered and fried anchovies with lemon, but oh it was incredibly good.  The fish were so fresh, it made me wonder if they were still alive when they were dropped into the pot of bubbling oil.  Crisp and light, yet moist, tender and succulent on the inside, this was my favorite appetizer of the evening.

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They gave us these purée maison mashed potatoes to accompany our entrées, and I couldn’t get over how adorable the small cast iron pot was. Very functional too, as it kept the potatoes warm throughout our meal.

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Ris de veau, poêlée de rattes et carottes du jardin: Pan fried veal sweetbreads with garden fresh ratte potatoes and carrots.  These sweetbreads were large, moist, rich and luscious.  I’m used to having sweetbread dishes where there are several small segmented pieces of sweetbread that break apart easily, but this dish presented 1 large grand piece of succulent heaven that stood up to the earthy intensity of the morel mushrooms.

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Dos de cabillaud rôti à la crème de morilles: roasted cod loin fillet with morel mushroom cream sauce.  The cod was incredibly moist and flavorful, bold enough to complement the beautiful morel mushroom sauce.  Morels were in high season at this time, and it was such a joy to see it incorporated in so many dishes.  I love the intense woodsy aroma and soft juicy consistency of fresh morels; it’s nothing like the dried counterparts.  A wonderful pairing with the bottle of B. Couralt “Les Tabeneaux” red wine that we ordered.

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Tête de veau, sauce gribiche et sa cervelle: calf’s head with its brains, served with gribiche sauce which is a mayonnaise based sauce with hard boiled eggs, capers, cornichons, Dijon mustard, parsley and chives.  This is hearty classic French bistro cooking at its absolute best.  It’s the meat and skin around a calf’s head, carefully taken off the skull, wrapped around the tongue and prepared in a bouillon for hours until the gelatinous skin starts to melt and soften.  In the photo you can see the thick slice of tongue in the foreground, and sautéed brains to the right.  Every bite of which ever meat I ate, simply melted in my mouth.  The thick outer layer of the face meat was collagenous heaven that dissolved effortlessly on my tongue into a warm enveloping sensation of full-bodied finesse.  The tart and acidic gribiche sauce was the perfect complement to such an intensely robust and nourishing meal.  Because of the sauce, I was able to finish the plate- otherwise, it may have been too heavy even for an organ meat lover like myself.  This was one of my favorite dishes on this Europe trip.

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Ile flottante aux pralines roses: Floating island dessert with pink pralines.  Ile flottante is a light meringue on top of a crème anglaise custard sauce.  I wasn’t too crazy about this dessert, but then again I am not the fairest judge of this dish, as I don’t like nuts, meringue or pralines.  Also, I was still ‘floating’ in tête de veau heaven.  But I do remember the crème anglaise being quite flavorful.

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Soufflé au chocolat et au basilic: Chocolate and basil soufflé.  I enjoyed this dish, but my friends reported that the basil kick was a bit too much for them.  The consistency of the soufflé was perfect- warm, fresh out of the oven, airy and light.

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Baba au rhum façon savarin: Rum cake made in a Savarin mold.  The Savarin yeast cake is made in a ring mold with a rounded contour, making it look like a large donut.  It’s named after Brillat-Savarin, a famous 18th century gastronome and epicure. Since the dessert came with a bottle of white rum, it made us think that the cake had hardly any rum in it.  We were all expecting a nice moist cake with a hint of rum finish, and dove in with our large spoons.  Within seconds we were coughing, hacking and hyperventilating from the harsh alcohol.  This was not a cake with a hint of rum.  This was a plate of rum with a hint of cake.  Blech.  We watched in awe as a gentleman in his late 60′s sitting at the table next to us generously poured several ounces of extra rum from the bottle onto his baba, and finished the whole plate with not so much as an expression on his face.

Although the desserts flopped, everything else satisfied all of my senses.  If you have a bigger party or a bigger appetite, try the côte de boeuf for two (it looked like it was for four), a huge seared steak with frites which is their specialty.  I had a wonderful and happy experience at this neighborhood bistro, where the atmosphere, people and food were all loving and heartfelt.  I remember looking around and seeing everybody laughing and smiling, enjoying life and living in the moment.  This was classic, hearty bistro cooking done right with the best ingredients to nourish the stomach and soul.

Le Bistro Paul Bert-  18, rue Paul Bert, Paris  France

331-4372-2401

Random trivia: White asparagus is made by ‘etiolation’, which is the deprivation of light.  The stalks are kept away from the light by being buried in soil, so that chlorophyll (which gives the green pigment) cannot be produced.