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.

Test Kitchen LA- Michael Voltaggio

Our world is filled with interesting oxymorons, from controlled chaos and organized mess, to virtual reality and positive let downs.  Such incongruities and contradictions make life awfully nice, don’t they?  Or does it make you feel almost exactly, absolutely unsure?  Hmm, this is clearly confusing…  We can agree to disagree, but we can surely all concede that there’s one oxymoron, a ‘permanent pop-up’, that’s been revolutionizing the Los Angeles restaurant scene.  Test Kitchen LA brings the best of all worlds under one roof by inviting renowned LA chefs to showcase new restaurant concepts for limited engagements while star mixologists pair the revolving menus with specialty cocktails.  Masterminded by Bill Chait and Brian Saltsburg and orchestrated by Chef Ricardo Zarate and GM Stephane Bombet, Test Kitchen LA has been the talk of the town by headlining chefs like Jordan Kahn, Ricardo Zarate, Walter Manzke and Neal Fraser in the kitchen.  When it came to Michael Voltaggio, who only cooked for 1 night, the Test Kitchen crew successfully teased Angelenos by keeping his appearance a secret until the day of the event.  Where every day is a pop-up, you can almost never be certain of who’s dropping in at Test Kitchen LA.

Michael Voltaggio needs little introduction-his face, style of cuisine and arm tattoos are easily recognizable, especially after he snagged the sixth season Top Chef title from his own brother.  He was working as Chef de Cuisine at The Bazaar when the series aired, and his adoring fans followed him and his food to The Dining Room at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena when he subsequently took the Chef de Cuisine position there.  Ever since he left the Langham a few months ago, we’ve been on our toes wondering where his next project will be.  Any talk of future restaurant projects have been kept under strict lock and key, which only makes us want to know more.

Voltaggio and his trusted crew of chefs spent 4 days prepping in the upstairs kitchen at Test Kitchen LA for this 1 night-only event.  It seems like a lot of work for just a few hours of service and 140 covers, but that is the beauty of this chef, whose level of thought and attention to detail really shows in his food.  When I heard that he was in the upstairs kitchen sous viding beef tongue on the night that I dined for the Walter Manzke dinner, I knew that I was in for quite a meal.   The 10 course tasting menu for $69, called ‘A Meal in 10 Tracks’, started with a ‘petit befores’ of porcini mushroom canelé topped with goat cheese cream and a very chewy tomato pâtes de fruits, a gumdrop on a stick made with tomatoes, basil, Arbequina olive oil and Maldon salt.  As always, resident mixologist Julian Cox was in-house that evening, along with mixologists Josh Goldman and Daniel Nelson, who prepared cocktails like the Basque Sangria, a white sangria made with Floc de Gascogne and freeze dried fruits.

Voltaggio, being the clever trickster that he is, took traditional straightforward dishes and gave them a whole new twist, playing off of classic flavors and concepts and reinventing them in a unique style.  Mole, for example, wasn’t a thick sauce drizzled over chicken, but a terracotta flower pot filled with crusted fried Padrón peppers.  Most of these are sweet and mild, but you may get the occasional one that packs a lot of heat, our server warned us with a wink, as we dug into these beautiful green peppers coated with powdered coffee, chocolate, cumin and coriander.  Thankfully I survived the pot without combusting and didn’t have to rely on the feta queso fresco ice cream as an extinguisher, as it was a little too musty for me.

Fish and chips wasn’t a basket full of deep fried artery cloggers, but an elegant dish of hamachi sashimi garnished with the classic flavors and components of the quintessential pub food.  Translucent crispy potato chips, round croquettes that burst with flavorful tartar sauce and most surprisingly little malt vinegar caviar balls made with calcium chloride and sodium alginate that looked like ikura, were a joy to dissect and eat.

Classic caprese salad seems boring now, after having Voltaggio’s take on it.  Skinned cherry tomatoes, smoked mozzarella and lemon basil kept the dish grounded in its traditional style, but the crispy fried calamari chips, bonito flakes, crunchy sea beans and delicious squid ink vinegar brought a whole new level of oceanic flair to this alluring dish.

Reinterpreting classic kitchen dishes is one thing, but Voltaggio dared to challenge an all-American delicacy that has served and pleased over 99 billion people worldwide.  Instead of the somewhat mashed up chicken meat that we all admittedly grew up on and loved, his McNuggets, served in a basket with rhubarb ketchup, were made with deep fried lamb sweetbreads that melted into savory liquid in my mouth.

The variety of ingredients and flavors seen in a hearty serving of Greek Mezze were given a classy and polished twist where octopus legs were served on Greek yogurt with olive oil, black olive dots, thyme leaves and the most pleasant fried liquid falafel balls that erupted into a river of bright green delight.  A dollop of what tasted like sweet apricot jam took away from the savory flavors of the dish, where I wished that he would have used something like a taramosalata instead.

I was excited to see the final product of the famous sous vide beef tongue that was being prepared all week, and it presented itself as succulent, slightly smokey and wondrously tender slices gently nestled under a blanket of shaved iced arugula, fresh arugula leaves and flowers, and smoked mayo.  Prosciutto and melon never tasted so good and so robust in Voltaggio’s daring interpretation that won my heart over as best savory dish of the evening.

The plump meaty soft shell crab deep fried to a satisfying crunch was amazing in the Maryland Crab Feast, augmented by the fiery hotness of Old Bay seasoning dots, but I wasn’t a fan of the corn scramble underneath, extremely sweet in flavor but puréed into a soft mush that reminded me of texturally absent baby food.

Another sensational savory dish was the Veal Picatta, buttery morsels of veal cheek prepared so perfectly that it melted right into my inner cheeks.  Dehydrated cauliflowers, a strip of slightly torched cauliflower purée, yuzu dots, chanterelles and caper dust rounded out the wonderful play of flavors and textures on this winning dish.

For those who know me, I am all about meat and offals, and rarely ever impressed with desserts, but dare I say that the most memorable, and the most delicious dish of the entire tasting menu, was the Carrot Cake dessert?  The dish looked like a bit of a mess at first, but combining the yogurt powder, bright orange carrot sorbet, the sponge cake that I heard was microwaved to get that airy consistency, rum raisin and yuzu drizzle all together inside my mouth revealed an explosion of flavors that were on point.  Sweet, light, cold, airy, delicate and soft with a hint of dazzling rum are the only way that I can begin to convey the sublimity of this dessert.

Finally, the Tiramisu, a heavenly cup of light chocolate crumbles, coffee crumbles and mascarpone pearls on thick and creamy soy pudding.

Michael Voltaggio’s cuisine hit it out of the park, scoring a home run with every dish that was bursting with flavor, touched with elegance, exploding with creativity and presented with so much thought and intention that one can only bow down to this talented chef with appreciation and respect.  This dinner has proved to be one of Test Kitchen’s best events so far, and one can only hope that he’ll make another surprise appearance before moving on to his next restaurant project.  Just like Test Kitchen LA, Voltaggio’s food proved that oxymorons can be a positive thing- sinfully good.

Test Kitchen LA

9575 W Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90035

(310) 277-0133

Random trivia:  Did you know that the tongue is not 1 big muscle, but consists of 16 different muscles?  No wonder we can do so many interesting things with it…how terribly nice!