I’ve been on a Thomas Keller kick this week, after I somehow came across this NYTimes review of Per Se in New York. When I noticed that reviewer Frank Bruni described the restaurant with the gleeful awe that I usually reserve for my favorites that I mention on my blog, I knew I had to find out more about this chef. Since I didn’t know much about how he or his food evolved or got to Napa, I searched Google, and read some informative interviews and articles.
Then, I searched for his recipes. And studied each one carefully. And ran out to buy Bouchon. I now believe that a rather wonderful culinary education can be had by reading through and making his recipes (and I’m dying to get The French Laundry Cookbook). Thorough yet concise, they each display such a respect for and understanding of food, that I feel like once prepared, the food would want to say, “Thank you. Now, you understand me.”
Much of the beauty of these recipes for classic dishes has to do with clever technique and attention to detail, and they run the gamut from simple to advanced (with part of the challenge being to find some rare ingredients and at high quality). I’m excited about the Onion Soup, Chickpea and Carrot Salad, Roquefort and Leek Quiche (which he insists should be made in a 2″ high pan to get the correct consistency and flavor out of the custard; now I understand quiche), Gnocchi with Mushrooms and Butternut Squash, Pike Barigoule, Tartine of Lamb with Pickled Red Onions, Duck with Olives and Red Rice, Duck Confit with Brussel Sprouts and Mustard Sauce, Lamb Stew with Spring Vegetables, Provencal Vegetables, Chilled Leeks with Vinaigrette and Eggs Mimosa, Chocolate Mousse Tart with a Hazelnut Crust, Vanilla Macarons…
Oh, and the pictures are beautiful, as is the commentary.
Keller seemed to rhapsodize about the wonders of roast chicken in just about every article that I read. His trick is to not do anything to the chicken before roasting except to dry, truss, and salt/pepper it. It was the first time I actually trussed, so good thing I moved my unwrapped roll of kitchen string from LA to Davis to Napa. It’s very easy, and the instructions are clear. In the process of drying the chicken out with paper towels, I discovered ice crystals by the neck, so I let it sit out a little while and then went through drying again once thawed. Next, I rained down the 1 tablespoon of coarse salt onto it and sprinkled it with black pepper, so that it was bone dry and sparkling when it went into the oven in my 10″ skillet.
An hour later, it emerged sitting in its juices like a dull, matted imitation of a chicken, but once it was basted with the juices and thyme, it sprung to life in full shining gold.
It was fantastic. The best roast chicken I’ve ever had. Beyond moist and flavorful, I would rhapsodize about it in interviews, too, if given the chance. Many other recipes call for the skin to be salted, but maybe the quantity of salt here seals the moisture of the meat while keeping the skin crisp and dry until it is doused with its juices at the end. I don’t usually like skin, but I couldn’t get enough of this one. I think the large amount of coarse salt also spikes the flavors in the best way, just like the fresh thyme added at the end.
Keller recommends serving it with mustard on the side (or slathering it in fresh butter… or with a salad). I chose a salad with mustard in the dressing. I wanted to make the Bibb Salad from the link above, but I couldn’t get the ingredients, so I settled for a baby spring mix with chives and parsley. I’m not very much into dressing because I actually like the flavor of lettuce and vegetables and don’t like oily consistencies, so I usually just sprinkle in some vinegar, s&p, and maybe a little oil.
But this time, I did the dressing right: in the blender, with tons of oil. And it, too, was fantastic. It emulsifies into such a creamy consistency and smooth, piquant flavor, that I couldn’t believe that it was just Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, and canola oil. It’s a bit heavier than what I think of as a bistro house vinaigrette that lightly coats the lettuce, but it does manage to spread rather lightly on the leaves. Old habits die hard, though, so I didn’t thoroughly coat all the leaves.
Keller is also a huge believer in the importance of sources, so I kept in mind that organic, fresh ingredients were a large part of these preparations, and I think I was rewarded for it.
By the way, whenever I hear about a roast chicken recipe, there’s always a testament to how simple it is to make… which is true, but no one ever talks about the clean up — am the only one left with a kitchen full of chicken residue? First the roasting dish gets full of juices and stuck with skin and grizzle, and then this ever so juicy bird bomb (even after resting it) has to go on my small, flat cutting board, and it’s carved one way or another, and I have to find some way to store the remains of the unruly carcass. My tiny kitchen suddenly gets tinier, and full of adhere-able surfaces. I always start out with a plan for an easy down home dinner, until I find myself rushing through eating it so that chicken substances don’t glue themselves to my kitchen. My innovation this time, though, was laying my cutting board in a baking sheet when I carved so that the parts and juices would be easily contained… One more dish to wash, but also one less counter to scour.
Whatever, it was worth it.