Thursday, January 29, 2009

Worth The Wait

We live near a cute little theme park that you may have heard of: it's called Disney World. Living nearby is a good excuse to have an annual pass, which comes at a discounted rate for Florida residents and occasionally gets you a few perks, like previews of new rides and such. It also means that you have the option to just pop into the park to do your favorite ride and leave, without the feeling that you've just wasted a whole day's pass. Last, but not least, it also means that you have the opportunity to go in and eat at Disney restaurants, some of which you may want to pass up, (Morocco, anyone? BLECH.) but others that can be just perfect for a special occasion. We do this every now and again, and heartily enjoy having the option. Just recently we took advantage of our close proximity, and a not-so-well-known loophole to get a seat at Victoria & Albert's, the flagship restaurant at Disney's flagship resort, The Grand Floridian. A seat you might say? It's not THAT hard to get in. Ah, but we didn't want just any seat. We wanted the best table in the house: the Chef's Table. Typically one must call for a reservation first thing in the morning 6 months in advance. One seating per night, a 10-13 course meal depending on the whim of the chef, included menu upgrades that would make your bill skyrocket in the main dining room; if you can get it, it will make you never want to eat in the dining room again. Actually, I have never eaten in the main dining room; I've been to V & A twice, and both times I've eaten at the Chef's Table. Spoiled. I'm very, very spoiled. 
The table itself is is set into a cozy alcove inside the kitchen. A beautiful long wood table that can seat 8 people comfortably, with built-ins along the side walls filled with beautiful china. The service, of course, is impeccable: like the main dining room, your table is served by two people, a female and a male 'Victoria' & 'Albert'. You share a champagne toast with the chef, who comes back to visit with you whenever possible and explain each course. Questions and photos are encouraged, gentlemen can remove their jackets, and no one minds some loud laughter. And the food! Oh, the food. Here is our amuse bouche:

From top left, clockwise: Smoked trout custard, baked in shell, with crispy sweet potato. Deviled Quail egg with Iranian Osetra caviar. Lobster Bisque with vanilla foam, smoked salmon roulade. Butter-poached Maine lobster, lobster sausage. 

Ladies' first course: Dungeness and Blue crab cannelloni, with whole grain mustard, baby greens, radishes, and American Sturgeon caviar, accompanied by a toasty savory tuile. 

Gentlemen's first course: Big Eye Tuna, 3 ways, including marinated and sesame crusted. Tat Soi salad, honey-tamari foam.

Everyone's second course, from the left: Caramelized Nantucket scallop with corn ragout and purple potato. Monterey abalone with capers and Meyer lemon. Virginia black bass with melted fennel and leeks, artichoke, and Jamon Iberico. 

Ladies' third course, from left: Duck breast, spice-rubbed and slow-roasted, duck sausage with salsify and candied rind, and a roulade of duck confit, topped with blood orange. Accompanied by Sauce Bigarade and aged balsamic. 

That was just the beginning; we've got several more to go, but let's all digest for awhile, shall we? 

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Big Cheese

There's a great blog that you may have heard of, called 'Thursday Night Smackdown'. I will let you check it out and discover the reason behind the title, but in the meantime, let's talk about her 'First Thursday' event. Every month, she gives out a theme, and you are free to make it and enter. The catch? You must use a recipe from a cookbook or magazine you already have-no improvising. The goal is to make you utilize your recipe collection. You post about it and send her a link, and she posts the round-up of photos on her blog. A fun little event. I wanted to enter for the first time this month, with her theme of "Challenge yourself". I had Hubband go through my cookbooks to find something challenging that he would like to eat, and he picked ricotta gnocchi from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook. The recipe requires fresh ricotta, not so easy to find around here, so I decided part of the challenge would be to make my own. 
Milk + Buttermilk + Heat = Cheese!
The cheese-making itself was fun, but would have been considerably easier had I had a nice small-holed skimmer for getting all the tiny curds out. As it was, lacking the appropriate tool, I had to make do with other methods that didn't work so well and were rather time-consuming. Because of that, the cheese did not have enough time to drain, and wouldn't hold shape well enough to make the gnocchi. At this point, I had about a pound and a half of fresh homemade ricotta mixed with parmesan, salt, pepper, nutmeg, gently wilted chopped spinach, and a few eggs. I couldn't waste it! I wrapped up the cheese mixture to save for the next day, ordered some mediocre take-out chinese for supper, and busted out my totally-necessary backup plan
The next day I stopped at the store for a few supplies...
and turned my luscious ricotta into stuffed shells. I paired them with my favorite bolognese recipe, and we had one rich, flavorful dinner. Did I enter this in the First Thursday event? No. I realized that none of my cookbooks had a recipe or technique for the homemade ricotta, and the end result was mostly improvisation, so I didn't qualify. I did get to try something new, and got a great dinner out of it, but I hope to do better with February's theme. 

Homemade Ricotta

1 gallon whole milk
1 quart buttermilk

Pour the milk and buttermilk into a large non-reactive pot and clip a thermometer onto the side. Rinse the cheesecloth and fold it to line a colander in the sink. Turn the heat to high, and stir the milk with a spatula to keep it from burning on the bottom. Once the milk is warm, stop stirring and continue to heat to between 175 and 180 degrees F. Curds should begin forming. Remove from the heat and use a fine skimmer to gently lift the curds into the cheesecloth. Let the cheese drain and cool until it gets to your desired consistency. 

Sunday, January 11, 2009

An Apple A Day

About a week ago, while sitting on the couch after dinner, Hubband asked "You know what would be perfect right now?" Me: "What?" Him: "Apple cobbler." I had no apples, so it wasn't really a possibility, but it nestled into the back of my mind with all the other detritus, like movie trivia and the number of feet in a mile. 
When I decided to try something new this week, (I made my own cheese! More on that soon.) I remembered Hubband's comment about the cobbler, and decided to throw one together as a backup; even if the cheese and the dish I wanted to make with it didn't work, and we ended up with a mediocre dinner, dessert would save the day! I have made many variations on apple cobbler/crisp/crumble over the years (What's the difference, anyway?) but I think this one was my best. I played with aspects of my favorite apple pie recipe, changing proportions and adding oatmeal and nuts for the topping. The best change was the addition of tangerine zest and juice to the apples; it added complexity of flavor and a wonderful perfume that wasn't overtly citrus. 
The juices thickened perfectly during baking, making for a juicy and rich but not at all runny dessert. It took several minutes for the liquid to spread this much after we dug in:
Apple Cobbler

My topping began to brown a little more than I wanted when I had 10 or so minutes left on the timer, so I laid a piece of foil on top. This created a little steam, which softened the topping, but removing the foil with 2 minutes left made sure that the topping crisped up again. The number of apples you will need depends on their size and the depth and size of your pan; adjust appropriately-but they will cook down, so be generous. I prefer the sweetness of tangerine instead of the punch of orange.

7 apples ( I like to mix varieties. I used Braeburn, Granny Smith, and Fuji.)
1 tsp tangerine zest
2-3 Tb tangerine juice
For the apple coating: 
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 Tb butter, cold, cubed
1/4 C all-purpose flour
1/4 C light brown sugar
For the crumble topping:
2 tsp ground cinnamon
8 Tb butter, cold, cubed
1/2 C all-purpose flour
1/2 C old-fashioned oats
1 C brown sugar
1/3 C coarsely chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Peel and core apples, then cut into 1 1/2" pieces. Place into a 9 x 13 pan, and toss with tangerine zest and juice. In a separate bowl, combine the coating ingredients with a fork or pastry cutter until the mixture looks like rough cornmeal. Toss the coating mixture with the apples. Combine the cinnamon, butter, flour, oats, and sugar for the crumble topping. Work the butter in until it is pea-sized or a little smaller, and evenly distributed. Add the pecans and mix. Liberally spread topping on apples. Place into the preheated oven and immediately turn the oven down to 350 degrees. Bake for 35-45 minutes, or until apples give little to no resistance to a sharp knife. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes before digging in. 

Monday, January 5, 2009

Christmas Dinner

This year marked the very first time that Hubband and I got to stay home in Florida and have our very own little Christmas. For the past several years we've been flying to New England to spend the holiday with family, and while it is always wonderful, this year we realized it was time to try to start our own traditions. 
We decorated more than we have in the past, as this year we would actually be home to enjoy it, and I got to plan a Christmas dinner! I have cooked Christmas dinners before, but never have I had the absolute freedom that our tiny guest list (Hubband, Mom, myself) allowed me. No preconceived notions about what Christmas dinner should be. No finicky eaters, no one who is afraid to try something different, and the only traditions to respect were the ones we made up. Sound wonderful? It was! It was also rather difficult. When I'm presented with such freedom, my mind immediately goes into overdrive and takes off in multiple directions at once. Eventually we were able to narrow it down, and a five-course meal was the result. 

Course #1: Homemade smoky bacon, sweet seared bay scallops, and earthy sauteed Chanterelle mushrooms, on a blanched brussels sprout leaf. Served with Charles Heidsieck Champagne, 1995 Blanc de Millenaires
Course #2: A salad that I'm currently in love with, fancied up a bit. Greens, roasted butternut squash, diced dried black mission figs, minced shallot, and sherry vinaigrette, topped with duck confit. Served with a 2005 Ramey Chardonnay, Hyde Vineyard, Carneros. (Yes, a white with duck. It was so nice with both the acidity of the dressing and the fat of the duck, I stand by our choice!)
Between courses: A little Christmas visitor! I guess that's your guarantee that the chives are organic. The little fellow warmed right up and we put him in our backyard. 
Course #3: A crab and sweet corn bisque of my own invention. I was very pleased with the result. It was rich and full-flavored, topped with king crab meat briefly sauteed in butter. Served with homemade caramelized onion focaccia and a 2005 Ramey, Hudson Vineyard.
Course #4: Seared duck breast over basmati rice. I used a fragrant brown basmati, and studded it with dried currants, apricots, pistachios, and chopped parsley. The duck was topped with a cherry-orange-red wine reduction, and served with sauteed broccolini and a 2004 Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon, Pritchard Hill. 

Our last course was dessert: this ice cream, which has rapidly become a family favorite, and some simple and not-too-sweet almond financiers. 

It was a great night.