Foodbuzz 24×24: The Last Supper

This is the post where I bash vegetarianism. But only after a night full of meatless, fishless fare, loads of wine, and 6.5 people to consume it all.

I have a horrible habit of blurting out my opinions with reckless abandon. Not thinking before I speak. I’ve been accused of having no ‘mental filter’, whatever the hell that nonsense is. And this ‘no meat’ business, it happened in much that same way: a quality i generally admire in myself (although others may not) backfired. I was the victim of my uncensored words, this time.

You see, for those of you who’ve not been reading along this month, it’s been a long month of vegetarian-occasional-pescaterian-ism in these parts, and it’s all my fault. I thought it sounded like a good “project”, and I blurted it out, and so it was. I’d made an assertion, and I’ve stuck to it.

In that respect, I’m what you might call a “sure thing”: if I tell you I’m doing something, I will do it. If I RSVP “yes”, I will be there. And by golly (I’m lame too, you see) if I say I’m going vege(pesca)tarian for a month, I’m damn well going to make sure it happens, even if the Hubs sticks his pulled pork, brisket, AND his crisp pork belly from People right underneath my nose. Come to think of it, that guy is lucky to be alive, isn’t he?!


{adventures in semi-molecular gastronomy: the making of tomato gelee}

So – longish story a wee bit shorter, but still long, that’s what this post is about. The Last Supper as a wannebee (or not) vegetarian. And yeah, I ate a little fish, I even ate a little shrimp, and I may or may not have licked the juice from the stranger’s burger last week, but this meal you see here is 100% vegetarian. I even used agar agar instead of gelatin for my fancy gelee; I’m hardcore like that. And fancy, too.

Quite honestly, I don’t see how these ‘high-end’ restaurants do these tasting menus. Well, maybe I do: they have a brigade system, for one. And Foodbuzz may offer cash incentives for their monthly hoorahs, but they don’t staff these parties… So, friends, I was chef de cuisine for the night, but I was also my own sous chef, and for the most part, my own plongeur and certainly my own pâtissier. Prep started on Wednesday when I got the urge to make caramel powder. I almost ate it all that night, but I decided to share. And Thursday involved a quick trip to Crate and Barrel for a couple of missing pieces, a Whole Foods excursion (which, why don’t I always go on weeknights? it is so very quiet there after 7), and more prep – making the base for the ice cream, cubing some bread I made a month ago and froze (not for this party, I should say, but why buy brioche when you have frozen cardamom-spiced bread that you made from scratch?!), and getting my plan of attack put together for the rest of my time before Saturday, which included a lot of research about spherification, gelees, and preparing risotto restaurant-style.

With much of the work behind me, Saturday was actually manageable. Thanks to the 3-day weekend, I skirted outta work early on Friday and prepped a bit more, and then celebrated (yeah, I really made this month a big deal, didn’t I?) with a penultimate dinner at Green Zebra (go there, even if you love meat – read about our experience here). After a trip to Green City Market for my local ingredients (‘shrooms, rhubarb, asparagus, un baguette, etc), it was prep ’til service, but in a totally unchaotic way, which is far different than I’d imagined.

Before long, I’d managed to squeeze in some quality book-reading, and then it was “go-time” once everyone arrived. Fortunately, Katherine & Brook (newlyweds – say congrats everyone!) brought apps and wine, Ryan & Caroline (along with Hudson, who I promise didn’t drink any, or not much…) brought more apps and a drink I thought only my sister drank, and I, since I volunteered, got the short end of the stick, and finished it up with 4 courses of veggie fare.

Here’s the dishes:

First Course, Savory: Tomato, Basil, Mozzarella ‘Salad’. This was my insane attempt at molecular gastronomy, and I gotta give mad props to Grant Achatz, because this shit is a lot of work, and he has 10 components on his dishes – this was supposed to be two and a half: mozzarella spheres powder, tomato gelee, and basil oil. Lesson: don’t start molecular gastronomy spherification with mozzarella; start slowly with easy liquids, and not during a dinner party :).

Second Course, Savory: Carrot-Ginger Soup with Chili Butter, Roasted Peanuts, & Crostini. This is what we’d call the ‘easy course’. I think soup is best made in advance so the flavors develop, and making it Friday, rewarming Saturday, was perfect. Plus, who doesn’t like butter in the shape of a star? I knew those ice cube trays would be used one day!

Third Course, Savory: Truffled Mushroom & Spring Vegetable Risotto with Fried Egg. Hmm… I think this was the trickiest. Risotto is best served immediately, but clearly restaurants have to have another way, or they’d have a 30-minute wait just for risotto, which would be stupid. So, you cook it 2/3’s, chill it quickly, and finish it off before service. Add a fried egg on top and you certainly don’t miss the meat. You do, however, miss the full effect of the finished product, because I was intent on getting the hot egg to the table ASAP, and sacrificed the pic to do so. So just imagine that over-easy fried egg atop.

Fourth Course, Sweet: Rhubarb-Ginger Cardamom Bread Pudding, Cardamom-Vanilla Ice Cream, and Caramel Powder. You’re gonna have to hold your horses for this one, friends, because it’s very special and in need of the spotlight. Full post (with recipe) coming soon.

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I gotta be honest here: I am so freakin’ glad this month is almost over, at which point I’ll stop whining and thinking of all the food I’ve missed out on because of my silly ideas.

But….

I have eaten (and cooked) some really good vegetarian food these last 30 days. From Korean tacos to ramp pesto pizza to Green Zebra and now this big ol’ dinner. When you’re actually eating a vegetarian meal, you don’t know what you’re missing, quite honestly. But for me, only choosing to eat vegetarian to “see if I could”, I couldn’t help thinking about what I really was missing, because many times I would have rather eaten meat.

Is it healthier to eat vegetarian? It shouldn’t even be a question. But the answer is no, and if you’re surprised, I’ll tell you why it’s not. For a typical person eating vegetarian food (and when I say typical, I’m comparing that to a vegetarian who eats salads all the time – your stereotypical vegetarian), you are drawn to the heartier recipes – which are cheese-laden and overflowing with carbohydrate – both in a meagar effort to make up for the lacking protein. On the other hand, you do eat more fruits and vegetables, which is without a doubt healthier. And certainly, a balance is probably best, at the end of the day: some meats during the week, a bunch of whole grains, and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Maybe flexitarian is where it’s at.

And maybe one day I’ll consider it. But for the next few weeks, you best believe I’m loading up on pork, beef, lamb, and even chicken. Come to mama.

 The First Course:

Tomato, Basil, & Mozzarella Salad
Inspired by Alinea; makes at least 6 with extra tomatoes and oil

printable recipe

ingredients
tomato gelee (recipe below)
6 small mozzarella balls, sliced in half
basil oil (recipe below)
balsamic vinegar
Maldon sea salt

instructions
assemble each component on small plate. basil oil and balsamic vinegar first, then tomato, then mozzarella. sprinkle with a tiny bit of sea salt.

Tomato Gelee

ingredients
1 lb heirloom tomatoes
salt and pepper
1 T olive oil
drizzle of black truffle oil (optional)
agar agar (quantities below)

instructions
Blanch tomatoes (score bottom of tomatoes, boil for about 2-3 minutes, shock in ice water bath) and peel. Chop roughly and dump in food processor;  add salt, pepper, olive oil. Puree until smooth and strain. Measure liquid content, and dump in saucepan. For every 1 cup of juice, add 1 T agar agar to mixture and bring to boil; simmer for about 5 minutes. Pour into desired container (such as rubber ice cube trays). Cool until firm. Can be made 1-2 days in advance.

Basil Oil

ingredients
1 ½ c fresh basil
¾ c evoo

instructions
blanch basil for 20 seconds. rinse with cold water and pat dry. puree fresh basil and olive oil until smooth; strain. Can be made three days ahead.

The Second Course:

Carrot-Ginger Soup with Chile Butter, Roasted Peanuts, and Crostini
Adapted from Bon Appetit, May 2010 ; serves 6-8

printable version

ingredients
chile butter
1/4 c (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 T finely chopped green onions or ramps
1/2 t dried crushed red pepper

soup
2 T butter
¼ t curry powder
¼ t hot smoked paprika
¼ t cumin
1 1/2 lbs carrots, peeled, cut into 1/4-inch-thick rounds
1 1/4 c chopped onion
5 oz taro root (~2 small, or white-skinned potato), peeled, chopped
3 1/2 T minced peeled fresh ginger
4 c vegetable broth
1 c water + more for thinning soup, if needed
2 T heavy cream
splash of balsamic vinegar
6 T unsalted roasted peanuts, finely chopped
salt and pepper, to taste
fresh baguette, sliced and toasted

instructions
For chile butter
Mix all ingredients in small bowl. Cover and chill (or pour into shaped molds and chill). Bring to room temperature before using.  

for soup
Melt 2 T butter in large pot over medium-high heat. Add carrots, onion, taro root, and ginger; sprinkle with salt and sauté until vegetables are slightly softened but not brown, stirring often, about 10 minutes. Add 4 cups broth and 1 cup of water; bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer until vegetables are soft, about 20 minutes. Cool slightly, then puree in batches in blender until smooth or all at once using an immersion blender, without leaving the pot. Return soup to same pot; if desired, add more water by 1/4 cupfuls to thin soup (I added at least 1 cup). Bring to simmer. Season with salt and black pepper and add heavy cream and a splash of balsamic vinegar at end to freshen.

The Third Course:                                                                                  

Truffled Mushroom & Veggie Risotto with Fried Eggs
serves 6-8

printable version

ingredients
5 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, divided
1 lb chopped shitake mushrooms
1 T black truffle oil
salt and pepper
1/2 lb diced trimmed asparagus
1/2 lb fennelhead ferns, cleaned well (if unavailable, use asparagus)
3/4 c chopped onion
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 c carneroli (or arborio) rice
3/4 c dry white wine
4 c vegetable broth
3 c water
3/4 c 1/3-inch cubes carrots
1 c freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese plus additional for serving
1/4 c chopped fresh parsley
1 T evoo
6 large eggs (one for each person)

instructions
melt 3 T butter in medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms; sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Add truffle oil, simmer for about 1 minute. Season mushrooms with salt and pepper. Set aside.

meanwhile, blanch asparagus and fennelhead ferns (separately). boil asaparagus for about 2 minutes then shock in cold water; boil fennelhead for about 3. set aside.

In a saucepan, heat veggie broth and water. keep heat on low while making risotto.

melt 2 T butter in large, heavy pot over medium heat. Add onion; sauté until beginning to soften, 5 minutes. Add garlic; stir 1 minute. Add rice and stir for about 5 minutes. Add wine. Stir until liquid is absorbed, 1 minute. Add 1 cup broth. Simmer until broth is absorbed, stirring often, 3 to 4 minutes. Add carrots. Continue to add remaining broth/water, 1 cup at a time, until rice is just tender and mixture is creamy, stirring often and letting almost all liquid be absorbed after each addition, about 25 minutes total.

Stir 1 cup cheese, parsley, mushrooms, and blanched veggies into risotto. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook eggs, without turning, until whites are cooked through and yolks are cooked to desired doneness.

Mound 1 cup risotto on each plate. Top each with egg. Serve, passing additional cheese.

The real bacon-lover:

The Emerald City

Vegetarian pescaterian month is in full swing; in fact, I have officially made it halfway through a meatless month! I won’t go as far as to say it’s been easy, but I am alive. I’ve got a vegetarian feast planned for the end of the month as a celebration and a bon voyage to days without pork shoulder, veal chops, and steak. So no, I have not had some weird epiphany that cows should roam freely instead of being branded, slaughtered, and sold to the butcher at the store. Therefore, the week following, which just happens to be the weekend of our 4 year wedding anniversary (4!! years!!), I’m thinking meatfest is warranted, unless Hubs has other dinner plans in his bottomless bag of tricks.

That said, “market season” finally coming to fruition could not have come at a better time than this past weekend. Green City Market shed it’s cement floors and heat lamps and sashayed on down to the south end of Lincoln Park for it’s first Saturday outdoor market. Reusable bags in hand and smile on face, down the yellow brick road I went.

Expectedly so, GCM was jam-packed, literally. But in addition to all the jam and preserves (as well as the throngs of fresh produce seekers), tables were stocked with bails of asparagus, rhubarb, and potted herbs. Some were saddened by the lack of fruit and other vegetables, clearly ignorant of the true purpose of a farmers’ market; these same people likely consider farmers’ markets to be similar to dog parks, or great places to take those double strollers that take up a 4-lane highway. Me? I was perfectly satisfied, as I was finally able to pick up some asparagus from around these parts, and I am way behind on planting herbs, not to mention my grocery list required basil to be purchased anyway.

Fresh potted basil in hand, I finally decided it was time to bust out this phyllo pizza that’d been patiently waiting in my recipe stack since last summer. It is certainly one of those recipes that you kick yourself for holding out on; the light crunch of the phyllo makes this an extra-special perfect-for-spring/summer-pizza, and the ease of making it doesn’t hurt. Plus, this phyllo dough had been falling out of my freezer since earlier this year when the other half of the box was used for Moroccan pie. I was getting tired of picking it up from the floor every time it fell out of my stupidly narrow side-by-side, and making this pizza was far better than tossing the phyllo into the garbage, just to save myself from having my first panic attack.

Given the light nature of this “pizza”, a side dish was inevitable, and for that, asparagus fit the bill. Rather than cooking it, I tried out a raw salad version, as raw veggie salads seem to be the hype this month. By using one of the cheeses from the pizza in the vinaigrette of the salad, the two dishes worked nicely together and with that – dinner was done.

What’s your favorite asparagus preparation? I’ll take ’em grilled any day.

Phyllo Pizza w/ Feta, Basil, & Tomatoes
Adapted from Cooking Light, July 2009; serves 2-4

printable version

ingredients
1/2  c mozzarella cheese, finely chopped
1/2  c feta cheese, finely crumbled
1/4  c grated fresh Parmesan cheese
1  T chopped fresh thyme
1/4  t kosher salt
1/8  t freshly ground black pepper
10  (18 x 14–inch) sheets frozen phyllo dough, thawed
Cooking spray
2  plum (Roma) tomatoes, thinly sliced
1/3  c green onions, thinly sliced
1/4  c fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced

instructions
preheat oven to 375 F.

combine first 6 ingredients in a bowl.

cut phyllo sheets in half crosswise. working with 1 phyllo sheet half at a time (cover remaining dough to keep from drying), place phyllo sheet on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray. spray with cooking spray. repeat with 2 more layers of phyllo. sprinkle with 2 tablespoons cheese mixture. repeat layers 5 times and top with remaining 2 phyllo sheets. coat top phyllo sheet with cooking spray; sprinkle with 2 tablespoons cheese mixture. pat tomato slices with a paper towel, and arrange tomato on top of cheese, leaving a 1-inch border. sprinkle with onions and the remaining tablespoons cheese mixture. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden. sprinkle with basil leaves.

Shaved Raw Asparagus Salad w/ Parmesan Vinaigrette
Adapted from Food & Wine, April 2010; serves 4

printable version

ingredients
2 lbs large (fatty) asparagus
1 c grated Parmesan cheese
3 T fresh lemon juice
2 T warm water
1/4 c evoo
salt and pepper

instructions
using a vegetable peeler, shave the asparagus into long, thin strips and transfer to a large bowl.

in a small bowl, mix the Parmesan cheese, lemon juice, water and olive oil. add to the asparagus and toss to coat. season with salt and pepper and serve.