The news said there was a 65% chance of vampires, so I figured better safe than sorry.
Tonight: Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook (cue foreboding music)
I tried to keep the title clean, in case, you know, your frigging kids are reading over your shoulder (go to bed). I’m in a bit of a mood, you see, because Thomas Keller has roundly defeated us with his precise ways and time consuming techniques and bizarre use of hard-boiled egg yolks. How does the man get a single dish out of his kitchen – a phalanx of oompa loompas? Because we’ve been working for 3 days here; we’ve used every dish and pot in the house and I believe several workers may have died of cholera during construction.
Six of one, half a dozen of the other. No, really.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure as hell not turning down a trip to the French Laundry and I continue to be ragingly jealous of French Laundry at Home and cook eat FRET‘s trip to Per Se, which you should read about and then cry because it didn’t happen to you. But I’m EXHAUSTED over here.
The dish: Red Mullet with a Palette d’Ail Doux and Garlic Chip, or as Keller preciously calls it “Fish n’Chips.” Individual components include a parsley coulis, beurre monte, parsley salad, the aforementioned garlic chip, the garlic and egg cakes (palettes) and the fish. If you don’t know what some of those things are, you’re not alone.
I’m completely in awe of this cookbook and of Thomas Keller’s dedication to and love of making food the best it can be. It’s almost less cooking than purifying: clarifying and intensifying the flavor of the excellent ingredients being used; straining, reducing and tweaking until the essence of the food is sharpened and deepened. It’s quite the process, and not for the faint of heart or short of time.
Puree of brains with yellow hi-bounce balls: haute cuisine.
Since I don’t live the life of a bohemian expatriate writer in Paris, I started some of the components last night so we wouldn’t be eating dinner at 2am. The palettes are cakes made of softened garlic mashed into a paste, hard-boiled egg yolks, butter and a pinch of salt. You may think you know how to soften garlic, but I bet 10 palettes that you really don’t. How would you do it?
1. Wrap it in some foil and roast at low heat in the oven.
2. Gently toast unpeeled cloves in a hot skillet.
3. Smash it with a rubber mallet.
4. Talk to it all sweet-like.
5. Peel it and put it in a small saucepan with cold water. Bring the water to a boil. Drain the garlic and return it to the pan with more cold water. Bring it to a boil again. Drain it again and return it to the pan with more cold water. Bring it to a boil again and cook until soft.
If you picked anything other than (5), you are WRONG.
Would it be okay if I just skipped captioning this one? Thanks.
The mashed garlic, yolks and butter go for a joyride in the food processor before getting spread in a thin layer in a pan and banished to the freezer. Once frozen, it’s cut into circles that are coated in flour, cream and panko breadcrumbs and is re-frozen before ultimately being sauteed. When I explained the process to Brian, he asked, “But what’s in it?” So I explained again, and he asked, “No, but what’s the cake part?” Because the garlic and yolk is the cake part, and who the fuck comes up with this shit?
Thomas Keller is who.
Also, who the hell blanches parsley? It’s fricking PARSLEY.
I also worked on the parsley coulis ahead of time. Three enormous bunches of flat-leaf parsley are blanched (“the water should taste like the sea”), blended with a splash of water and strained to yield one half-cup of extremely concentrated parsley juice. I was supposed to have pressed the puree through a tamis, a drum-shaped extremely fine sieve. But I don’t have one of those because I need the space in my kitchen to store other things, like plates and food. So cheesecloth and my finest plain ol’ strainer saved the day (I think the mesh part is made of ALUMINUM. The horror!).
Not dog vomit. You know, because they eat grass and then puke, and it’s green and…never mind.
I knew last night that the texture of my coulis would not be up to Thomas Keller’s exacting standards. As he states again and again and again, “no liquid should move from one part of the kitchen to another unless it’s through a strainer.” In my kitchen, liquids move about all willy-nilly. And I’m fine with that.
Things that are deep-fried = things that are good.
The rest of the components come together relatively quickly, if not cleanly and easily. Oh, wait, I take that back; I’d momentarily blocked out the process of making the garlic chips. Which you’d think would involve little more than slicing up some garlic and frying it, but again you’d be WRONG. You slice it up (painstakingly by hand in my case, since I still haven’t gotten a damn mandoline) and do the whole boil-drain-boil-drain-boil-drain dance as with the first batch of garlic. Except you do it with milk. Fresh milk for every boil. And then you dry them, and then fry them.
Oh, Thomas Keller.
While the garlic was gently frying, I tossed together the salad of parsley and shallot and finished off the parsley coulis by heating it and whisking in the beurre monte. Beurre monte is melted butter that stays emulsified (so the milk solids won’t separate out) by virtue of being mixed with a very small amount of water. A few teaspoons of water are heated, and then butter is whisked in; as much butter as is needed can then be added, and the emulsion can be held over medium heat and used to enrich sauces, poach proteins or hold cooked meats at temperature. (Didn’t that sound like I know what’s what? Fucking A!)
I know you’re saying: that doesn’t look so bad! What are you complaining about?
But it is that bad. Because at the very end, things just didn’t come together. The devil is in the details, and if Thomas Keller is one thing it’s detailed. Not that I’m suggesting Thomas Keller is the devil or anything. But there are a lot of details, that’s all I’m saying. I’m not responsible for whatever conclusions you draw.
Problem #1: The fish. Red mullet is not a commonly found fish ’round these parts. So when Brian went to Whole Foods, he asked the friendly fishmonger to recommend a good substitute and was provided with flounder. Which had no skin. And fell apart into many little pieces when we tried to fry it up.
Problem #2: The palettes. Let me tell you, once those fuckers hit a hot pan they turn into a pile of mush really fucking fast.
Problem #3: The coulis. Which I hadn’t passed through the tamis that I don’t own, so the texture was uneven liquidy-grainy instead of perfectly smooth.
So, every major element had a problem. Since the fish fell apart and was not skinless, there was no contrast between crispy skin and moist flesh. The palettes ended up mushy piles of warm goo instead of crisp little well-formed cakes with melting insides, so there was no texture to speak of in the main components of the dish. The parsley coulis tasted intensely of parsley, but I discovered that I don’t actually like intense parsley as a major part of a dish.
It was all a damn shame, because the flavor of the palette mix was amazing. The triple-boil process leaches all the overly-pungent compounds out of the garlic leaving it’s melting sweetness behind, and since the garlic hasn’t been caramelized at all there’s nothing to interfere with the pure garlic flavor. The egg yolks add an impossible richness. We did make one mini-palette out of leftover mix that cooked up fairly correctly and crunchily, and it was outstanding.
Not so outstanding? My intense shame at this resounding defeat.
Final Score: Us 0, Food 1. Our first outright defeat, but I can’t be ashamed to have been defeated by Thomas Keller. Unlike last week’s risotto, for which I blame the French as a people, this week’s failures were 100% our fault. However, I will return to this cookbook after a suitable period of wound-licking .
My hat is off to Thomas Keller, the mad genius of Yountville.