Christmas Dinner 2012

Even though Thailand doesn’t officially recognize Christmas, we still had the opportunity to celebrate, gathering at the house of friends for a 16-person dinner. It was several days in the making and, of course, I was in the kitchen, too.

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This was the third or fourth meal that Nat and I have cooked together, supported by his staff. I’m definitely the sous chef in the operation, responsible this evening for only the soup and appetizers, although insert myself in plenty of other tasks. Left, looking a bit like the Soup Nazi in Seinfeld, I call people over with their bowls for a serving of cioppino. Right, Nat and I share a laugh while cooking. (Thanks to Nat’s cousin Kik for the pictures.)

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Simple canapes: white bean hummis with roasted red pepper and sundried tomato chutney, and shredded roasted beetroot with fresh mozzarella and a drop of balsamic and black truffle syrup.


My latest version of cioppino, the classic San Francisco Italian style seafood stew. This recipe is from chef Michael Mina and is even nicer than the previous recipe I used.

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A beautiful foccacia bread sprinkled with flaked sea salt – perfect for sopping up the broth from the cioppino. One of our two stuffings, this one made with mushrooms and the other with chestnuts.

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Potatoes dauphinoise, thinly sliced with a rich and creamy interior. Sous video turkey, super moist and perfectly cooked, dropped in a deep fryer at the end for a crispy exterior.

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Carrots roasted with maple syrup and sprinkled with corriander. Creamy Brussels sprouts with roasted pine nuts.

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Desserts are served! Angel food cake with whipped cream and strawberries – elegant – and a coconut cake with fresh coconut in both the cake and the buttercream frosting. Served with homemade peppermint and pineapple ice creams.


Bee, Doug, Oates (former Xangan), and Tawn pose mid-way through dinner, trying to pace themselves so there is room for the cake.


After our dinner, half the group stuggles to remain upright. From left, Linda, Doug, Bee, our hosts Nat and Cha, Tawn, and me. Hope you and yours had a happy celebration, too!


Serving a Second Lavish Small Plates Dinner

A year ago, my friend Nat and I cooked up a storm, preparing an 11-course “small plates” dinner for a dozen friends. While it was a success, we lost sight of the “small” part of small plates and halfway through the meal, everyone was thankful that one of our dessert courses had to be scrapped. It took twelve months, but we worked up the courage to try again and this time we stuck to the original intent, keeping portions very modest so that by meal’s end, everyone was satisfied but not stuffed.

I arrived at Nat’s house at 9:00 and we started planning our menu before heading shopping. Here are some pictures from the day-long cooking process:

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Left: preparing the bread pudding for dessert. Right: steeping pandan leaves in cream to infuse the flavor.

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Left: making homemade chili oil as a garnish. Right: the salmon head left over from making fish stock.

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Left: lotus root chips cooked in the air fryer. Right: sauteeing rhubarb for a sauce.

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Left: braising daikon radish coins in a Indonesian sweet soy sauce. Right: testing the bread pudding.

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Left: deep frying the pieces of pork belly. Right: testing different consistencies for the kaffir lime foam.

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Left: individual soba noodle nests. Right: sauces and plating notes for each course.

After 7:00 pm, guests started to arrive and an hour later, with the help of Nat’s kitchen staff, we started to serve dinner. Here are the twelve courses.


Spinach soup served with a garnish of creme fraiche. This soup had Indian spices and a bold, clean flavor. Made for a nice amuse bouche.


Seared tuna slice with lemongrass jelly and chili oil, both homemade. The initial batch of lemongrass jelly was too weak in flavor so I had to make a second, stronger batch about two hours before dinner. Thank goodness for Nat’s super-cooling refrigerator. I think a leaf or two of microgreens would have complemented the colors.


Third course was a very simple salmon stock risotto with salmon roe. Served as a single bite in order to keep servings small and allow our guests to enjoy a variety of flavors and textures throughout the evening.


The next seafood course was a seared scallop (which didn’t get crispy enough as the surface wasn’t properly dried before frying) with a braised daikon radish coin served with kecap manis, a homemade Indonesian sweet soy sauce. I liked the concept of this dish and wish I could have properly cooked the scallops and served the dish warm. Unfortunately, we had no way to effectively warm the plates, so the sauce started to thicken and get sticky. Flavors were good, though.


The final seafood dish was a slice of salmon, poached and then oven roasted, served with a nest of soba and a kaffir lime foam. Yes, I know that foams are so ten years ago but the flavor was interesting. Unfortunately, we got too much gas in the cannister and the cream came out like whipped cream rather than a true foam. We struggled with portion size here as I had to really twist Nat’s arm to convince him to cut the salmon this small – about two bites. He wanted to make it about twice as large.


Mid-meal palate cleanser was a really pleasant cucumber gelato, the idea came from the dessert I had at Pollen in Singapore. We had to reduce the cucumber syrup by about two-thirds to sufficiently concentrate the flavor, but the results were worth it.  


Twice cooked pork belly with a duo of sauces. The pork was poached until tender, then sliced and deep fried. The sauces were green chili and cilantro on the left and a rhubarb chili on the right. The sauces turned out nicely, one with a bite of heat and the other with a bite of tanginess. The pork was cooked too early and we kept it warm in a low oven, which dried it out. Would probably sous vide the pork in the future and then slice just before serving.


For the chicken course, we prepared a Thai take on chicken Kiev. Chicken breast was pounded thin, sprinkled with curry power and wrapped around a green curry compound butter. It was then coated in panko crumbs and fried and then served on a shiso leaf.


When you cut open the chicken, the butter runs out, leaving a green curry sauce on the inside of the fried chicken breast. It was an interesting dish to eat and tasted good, although a bit buttery.


Recognizing a shortage of vegetables on our menu, we prepared a vegetarian course of two types of Thai vegetable blossoms stir fried simply and garnished with an air fried lotus root chip. Very clean and pleasing.


The final main course was a take on nam tok nuea – Thai waterfall beef salad. The beef was cooked sous vide and despite the pink color is completely cooked through. It was meltingly tender, very flavorful, and served with lemongrass, chili, shallots, mint, and a dressing of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and chili. Very strong finish to the meal.


For the cheese course, we served a small slice of halloumi cheese grilled in a panini press and served with royal Bhutanese orange marmalade.  Yes, the marmalade actually came from the Bhutanese king’s mother’s royal project. This was a nice combination of textures and flavors.


As it came time for dessert, I realized I hadn’t made the sabayon, a thick sauce of egg yolks, sugar, and liqueur. So I ran over to the stove and started to prepare it, absentmindedly putting in whole eggs instead of only yolks, so it took a lot longer to cook and never became as thick as I wanted. Instead of liqueur, I added the pandan flavored cream that I had prepared some ten hours earlier. It ended up tasting very nice. 


Uniformed staff pick up desserts for delivery to the dinner guests.


Our dessert, a coconut bread pudding served with pandan leaf sabayon and fresh berries. This was really nice, although I would have liked to toast the slices of bread pudding so they had a crisper exterior. All in all, it made for a pleasant conclusion to the meal.

As always, this was a lot of fun and a lot of work. It will probably be another year before we attempt it again. At least we have learned some lessons and it seemed a whole lot easier (and actually required less help from Nat’s staff) than our first dinner did.


Deep Fried Sous Vide Bacon Dinner

My friend Nat prepares the most fantastic dinners. A few weeks ago he bounced an idea off me: sous vide unsliced bacon and then deep fry it. Before I knew it, a date was set and a dozen guests invited.

The Preparation


Nat was at the market and they had a whole, uncut bacon – smoked pork belly. He bought it, certain that it would make an interesting sous vide main course. Sous vide cooking is a technique where the food is vacuum sealed in plastic bags which are then cooked in a water bath for long periods at a relatively low temperature.


Not certain how long would be ideal, he ran a test batch with three bags, pulling a bag out every 24 hours to check the texture. Seventy-two hours was perfect.


After pulling the bags from the water bath, they were plunged into an ice bath to halt the cooking. Once cooled, the slabs of bacon were removed from the bags and patted dry with towels.


The final step, to ensure a nice, crisp exterior, was to deep fry the pieces of bacon for a few minutes.


The end result, a soft, silk chunk of bacon with a crispy exterior. The day before dinner, Nat asked my suggestions for a sauce. I suggested a lychee sauce since it was lychee season and the astringency of lychee would cut through the richness of the bacon. What I received for my suggestion was the assignment to cook the sauce! 


Once I arrived, I started turning fresh, seeded lychees through a food mill in order to extract all the juice. This was cooked in a pot with chicken stock and chopped onions and allowed to cook for an hour before I seasoned and thickened the sauce.


A nice rocket and tomato salad was prepared to garnish the dish. Bitter greens in a vinaigrette would contrast with the rich bacon and sweet/tart lychee sauce.


One item was sitting on the counter, waiting to be turned into amuse bouche – appetizers. Do you recognize these?


Poaching on the stove is a dish of tiger prawn quenelles, made by taking a choux paste (same one you use for cream puffs) and mixing it with finely ground, raw prawn meat and seasonings.

The Dinner


As usual at Nat’s house, dinner brought together a wide variety of guests, people with different backgrounds, occupations, and interests – all of whom share an appreciation for good food.


Charming salt and pepper shakers.


Amuse bouche: escargot in garlic crust. Very tasty!


Soup course: chilled leek and lemongrass soup. The lemongrass was very subtle, just sneaking up into your nose when each sip of soup was already swallowed.


The tiger prawn quenelles served with a prawn roe sauce and steamed asparagus. Very light texture with rich flavor.


Palate cleanser: mojito sherbet.


Main course: Deep fried sous vide bacon with lychee sauce served with a rocket salad with soy vinaigrette. Alas, the plate was a little cool and my sauce thickened a bit too much by the time I took this picture. Nonetheless, the meat was very tender and the sauce’s flavors worked nicely with it. Of course, the serving could have been a third this size and we would have been fine!


Linda and I pose for a picture mid-dinner, only to discover a moment later that Cha had inserted himself into the shot!


For dessert, sticky toffee pudding with a toffee sauce and homemade yamazaki ice cream. Decadent!


Christmas Dinner


Yes, I am a few weeks late with this entry, but our friend Nat hosted such an extraordinary feast on Christmas day that it would be a shame not to share some photos with you.  Nat and his twenty-some guests supped on a dozen dishes and three desserts.  The meal was several days in the making, aided by his half-dozen staff members, some of whom formerly worked as hotel sous chefs.

Our menu:

Salmon Wellington

Sous-Vide Turkey

Garlic Honey Roast Turkey

Cornbread Chestnut Stuffing

Mushroom Garlic Stuffing

Carrot Puree

Brussels Sprouts

Grilled Broccoli Rabe

Steamed Corn

Potatoes Savoyarde

Yorkshire Pudding

Chinese Rice Wine Gravy

Cranberry Chutney

White Chocolate Bombe

Coconut Christmas Cake

Strawberry Caramel Angel Food Cake

Vanilla Poppy Seed Ice Cream

Pistachio Ice Cream

Dark Chocolate Ice Cream

Homemade dessert sauces


I arrived mid-afternoon to find the production already well under-way.  In fact, Nat and his staff were working from a five-page itinerary that had every step of the multi-day preparation scheduled!


First off, let’s talk about the Salmon Wellington.  You may be more familiar with the version served with a beef loin inside, called Beef Wellington.  In this version, two whole salmon fillets are topped with a ground mushroom mixture and then baked inside puff pastry dough.  Not only is it a tasty way to eat salmon, but it is quite the show-stopper!

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Left: Nat takes his frustration out on the puff pasty dough, which he made himself.  Puff pasty is one of those pain in the neck sort of things that most people are perfectly happy to just buy from the freezer section of their local grocery store.  Right: The salmon is covered with the mushrooms and additional dollops of butter before the top layer of the pastry dough is added and the edges are sealed.

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Left: I used some leftover pastry dough to cut out decorative shapes that seemed appropriate for a seafood dish: a squid, a shark, a starfish, and some goldfish.  Instead of slits to release the steam, I used a knife steel to make “bubbles”.  Clever, huh? 


Next item, the Garlic and Honey Roast Turkey.  This is Martha Stewart’s recipe and it produces a reliably moist and tender bird.  The trouble is that you have to remember to baste it every thirty minutes.  If you have a staff, you can assign someone that responsibility.  (Oh, if only I had a kitchen staff!  Ha ha!)

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The turkey, mid-carving.  The skin gets very dark and crispy but fear not!  Because you have remembered to baste it throughout the cooking, the meat remains moist and flavorful.

Our third main course was another type of turkey, this one prepared sous-vide.  Sous-vide is French for “under vacuum” and the style involves cooking the food inside vacuum-sealed plastic bags which are then placed in a water bath for a long, low-temperature spa session.  For example, the water bath for the turkey was something like 168 F.  This way, the meat cannot get dry and tough, although more delicate cuts can turn mealy if you overcook them.

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First step, turkey parts are sealed in bags with loads of butter and other seasonings.  Next, the bags are placed in the sous-vide machine, which regulates the water temperature.  It took about three hours to cook the whole turkey.  Afterwards, the bags are taken out and put in a bath of ice water to immediately stop the cooking.

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Once cool, you remove the turkey parts, pat them dry, and then immerse them in boiling oil for a minute or so.  This allows the exterior to quickly crisp, forming a wonderful skin and an appealing color.  On the right, you can hopefully see just how moist the turkey was after the combination of cooking methods.  While the roast turkey had been moist, you had to add the qualifier, “for a roast turkey” afterwards.  For the sous-vide turkey, the meat was very moist by any standard. 

Other selected side dishes:

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Left: Cornbread and chestnut stuffing.  Right: Brussels sprouts with pine nuts.

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Left: Yorkshire puddings (which are kind of like popovers).  Center: Grilled broccoli rabe.  Right: Cranberry chutney. 


Just after 8:00, the guests had all arrived and the food was ready to serve.  Dishes were lined up all along the edge of the kitchen counter, a buffet for which no plate had room enough!


I tried to get a little bit of everything on my plate but, alas, a dish or two may have been missed!  I did try all of the main dishes and was in agreement with the other guests, all of whom preferred the sous-vide turkey to the traditional roast turkey.  The Salmon Wellington was moist and perfectly cooked through but such a shame to have to cut the pastry in order to serve it!


Of course, the most memorable dinners are made not by the food – no matter how elaborate – but by the quality of the company.  Tawn and I had the opportunity to dine with wonderful companions, some of them familiar faces and others new acquaintances.  All of them, though, made our Christmas dinner an especially enjoyable one.

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You may find this hard to believe, but some of us had enough room for dessert.  Nat had prepared a trio of cakes.  From the left: Strawberry and caramel angel food cake; coconut Christmas cake; and milk chocolate bombe.  He also prepared homemade sauces – strawberry, coconut cream, and creamy caramel – to match the cakes.  Since no cake is complete without ice cream, he made three flavors: dark chocolate, vanilla poppy seed, and pistachio. 


I indulged in a slice of the strawberry caramel food cake but topped it with some coconut sauce, which had plenty of fresh coconut meat in it, and a scoop each of pistachio and vanilla poppy seed ice creams.  What a spectacular end to the meal.  Many thanks to our friend Nat for hosting this memorable Christmas dinner!


Serving the Lavish Dinner

After twelve hours preparing a multi-course small plates meal for a dozen guests, it was finally time to sit down and taste the fruits of our (and Nat’s staff’s) labors.

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Left – Tawn, Bee, and Cha pose for a picture.  Right – Bee takes a picture of the party.

The guests were a combination of my friends, Nat’s friends, and several people we know in common.  With a total of thirteen people, there was enough variety of experiences, perspectives, and opinions while having a small enough group to not be overwhelming.  I must compliment Nat’s job at arranging the seating as everyone was strategically placed to maximize the interesting conversations.

What follows is an overview of the menu that was finally served, as well as commentary on some of the last minute changes that had to happen!  I’ll also critique the dishes, as I think an important part of any culinary undertaking is, in addition to enjoying the food, to learn from the experience.


Amuse bouche: Thai-style poke – A mixture of sushi grade yellow fin tuna seasoned with lemongrass, kaffir lime zest, mint leaves, fish sauce, and tamarind paste.  While I think this turned out nicely, I have other ideas about how it should be made, based on a dish I had at lunch the next day at a Thai restaurant.  You’ll be seeing this “Thai-style poke” concept appearing again in this blog as I refine it.  We also managed to veer off the “small plates” course from the very first dish – this serving was about ten bites, when it should have been just two or three.


Alternate amuse bouche for one of our guests who does not eat raw meat: a slice of smoked salmon with sour cream, dill, and capers.  This was pulled together at the last minute as I didn’t realize we had a guest with dietary restrictions.  While not the most original thing to serve, I think it photographed very nicely.


Hot Soup: We followed the poke with small glasses of a lemongrass Vichyssoise, a pureed potato and leek soup that had a fragrant lemongrass flavor.  This was very nice and was fun to drink.  It worked well both in terms of concept and execution.


Dinner guests with their hot soup.  Several people were disappointed that the lemongrass garnish could not be used as a straw!


Cold Soup: Tomato and beetroot gazpacho, served icy with a dollop of sour cream and a sprig of dill.  In a moment of inspired improvisation (or, at least, what I think was improvisation), Nat explained that the guests were meant to stir this soup to mix in the sour cream, at which point it would have a drinkable consistency.  That worked pretty well.  The presentation was neat, the flavor was fine but nothing spectacular.  I think we should have started with raw beets and gone for something more borscht-like.


Pasta: Ravioli filled with pumpkin puree served on a bed of roasted red bell pepper sauce.  The staff ended up cooking the pasta some thirty minutes before we served the dish and then left it to cool in a strainer, which resulted in a pretty tough exterior.  The flavor of the filling, though, was very nice and the contrast with the pepper sauce was fantastic.  Next time, I think I need to make a dough that has some color in it, or maybe stipes, just for effect.  I’ll be making this at home sometime soon.


Fish: Smoked salmon served on top of a piece of shiso leaf focaccia, garnished with sour cream and capers.  Nat’s focaccia is fantastic and I have to get the recipe.  The shiso leaf added an interesting, and unexpected, flavor.  I think we could have doubled the number of shiso leaves, though, and cut the serving size in quarters.  This is another example of where we lost our focus on the idea of “small plates”.  Did I mention, though, that the bread was amazing?


Palette Cleanser: To clean the palette after the smoked salmon, Nat served a scoop of a special sorbet.  We asked the guests to guess what flavoring was used in addition to the lime juice.  This was actually something he and I had tried first thing after I got there in the morning, settling on lime juice and Frangelico, a hazlenut-based liqueur.  The combination was really nice and very surprising.  If only I had room in my kitchen for an ice cream maker, the idea of serving a palette cleanser midway through the meal is very sophisticated.


Fowl: The sous-vide chicken breast stuffed with a shrimp and ground pork mixture, served with mango-avocado salsa.  This dish underwhelmed me on a couple of levels.  The shrimp-pork stuffing tasted very good in the morning – we fried some up just to check the seasonings.  But after four hours cooking at a low temperature in the water bath, the flavor was more like pate.  The salsa was nice, but mixing it in advance led to the avocado breaking down, causing a creamy consistency.  I think it would have been nicer to have a salsa with very distinct ingredients.  All in all, this dish probably needs a rework before it is served again.


Salad: Simple mixed greens served with a light vinaigrette.  Nothing much to be said about this, although it could have used a cherry tomato, Parmessan crisp, or something to cheer up the plate.


Meat and Veg: Pork loin, cooked sous-vide then pan-fried, served on a carrot puree with curried cauliflower and creamed broccoli.  I have to take the blame for this dish that ended up not being more than the sum of its parts.  Having not cooked sous-vide before, I underseasoned the pork loin.  It was very tender, which was nice, but didn’t have much flavor.  Originally, we had discussed slicing the pork then flouring and briefly deep-frying each slice, to give it a nice outer crust.  We changed our mind late in the game because trying to deep-fry a dozen pieces of pork (even with a staff to help) seemed like a lot of work.  In retrospect, I think that would have been a more successful approach than the pan frying.

As for the vegetables, we had a lack of focus and this is one place where some advance planning would have helped.  I made the cauliflower in advance, because I like the recipe, but the flavors didn’t have anything to do with the rest of the plate.  The creamed broccoli was meant to contrast with the cauliflower while having a similar shape, but it also evoked a bit of an “meh…” response on the taste buds.  The carrot puree, which we wanted to leave as a neutral canvas for the pork, could have used something other than salt and pepper to season.  A stronger flavor – cumin, maybe? – would have been nice.

At this point, we had served too many too-large “small” plates and guests were getting full.  It was at that point that we decided to skip the cheese course – sad, because we bought some nice cheeses! – and then the individual cranberry souffles were knocked off the menu because one of the kitchen staff mistook the souffle base for a sauce.  While in the kitchen plating another course, I looked at the stove and asked Nat, “Is the cranberry mixture meant to be boiling?”  The answer, of course, was no.  Scratch the souffles.


Dessert: Peppermint ice cream.  We were left with only the ice cream for dessert.  This was meant to be a rosemary ice cream but after an hour of the rosemary steeping in the cream mixture, the flavor was indistinguishable from vanilla.  Running out of time, we settled on peppermint, added the extract, and started freezing the ice cream.  The flavor was perfectly nice and made a nice conclusion to the evening, though.

All in all, the diners had a fun time, enjoying good company and good food.  Nat and I had a fun adventure preparing this elaborate, even lavish, meal.  There were some successes as well as some mistakes, and plenty of lessons to be learned.  Nat probably put it best when he wrote in a text message to me the next morning, “I’ll be ready to do it again in about a year.”


Preparing a Lavish Dinner


Saturday night, my friend Nat and I hosted a lavish dinner, some ten courses for a dozen or so guests, held at his house.  The preparations took twelve hours and we were assisted by six staff members.  In the end, despite “small” courses that filled diners so much that we skipped the cheese course, and despite having to scrap the cranberry souffles because a sous chef mistook the base for a sauce and boiled it to death, things turned out nicely and a good time was had by all.

On the grand scale of cooking styles, with “tedious planner” at one extreme and “wing-and-a-prayer” at the other, I’m more towards the later than the former.  In my kitchen, recipes are suggestions and usually are more of a starting point rather than scriptures to be followed.  However, it is safe to say that Nat is even further to the “free-form” end of the scale.  Our brief email exchanges in the days leading up to the dinner are the full extent to which we planned in advance.

Instead, I showed up at his house at shortly after 8:00 Saturday morning.  We discussed a menu and then headed to the market relying on nothing more than our collective minds in lieu of a shopping list.


While we were working from a wee bit of a plan, there was a lot of improvisation based on what we saw at the market.  “These look good, let’s use them as a sauce!”  We returned home and started preparations, talking through the schedule of what should happen over the next several hours before guests arrived.


We were working from this rough plan: an amuse bouche (appetizer) of a Thai-style tuna poke; a lemongrass flavored Vichysoisse (potato and leek soup), served hot; a tomato-beet soup, served cold; pumpkin tortelloni served on a roasted red bell pepper sauce; smoked salmon and shiso leaves on focaccia bread; a lime sorbet as a palette cleanser; chicken breast stuffed with pork and shrimp, cooked sous-vide and served with a mango and avocado salsa; a salad of plain greens; a pork loin simply seasoned and cooked sous-vide, served with pureed carrots, curried cauliflower, and creamed broccoli; a selection of four cheeses served with dried fruit; individual cranberry souffles served with rosemary ice cream; and tea/coffee/digestifs served with petit fours.


Thankfully, Nat has a household staff, three of whom have worked as sous chefs in professional kitchens.  Let me strongly recommend that if you are going to have a dinner party, you get yourself a kitchen staff.  It greatly reduces the workload!  (Yes, I realize that most of us, myself included, don’t have that luxury on a regular basis.)


All joking aside, having a competent staff really did make a huge difference.  While Nat and I were both hands-on, it was helpful to have people to wash, cut, pound, etc.  The meat dishes were the first ones we prepared, since they were going to be cooked “sous- vide” or in a vacuum.  I’ll explain that in a moment.  First step was to pound the chicken breasts and then arrange them so they made a rectangle.


The chicken breasts were topped with a blended mixture of pork and shrimp, seasoned with soy sauce.  This mixture is very similar to the filling used for wontons.  Nat then rolled the whole thing into a log so that, once served, a slice would have a pleasing spiral shape.


The stuffed chicken breasts were then cut into three sections, each of which was tightly wrapped in plastic wrap and then placed in a vacuum bag and sealed.


The pork loin, covered with a spice rub, is sealed in a plastic bag by a vacuum sealer.  Our cooking method for the chicken and pork was to use “sous-vide” – French for “under vacuum” – a technique in which food is cooked in a sealed bag that has the air removed from it, and then the bag is placed in a water bath and cooked at a low temperature for a very long time.  In this case, the pork was cooked for 8 hours in a 147 F water bath. 


The benefits of this technique include that none of the moisture and flavor are lost in the process, since they remain sealed in the bag.  Additionally, the low and slow cooking ensures that the meat is cooked to the desired level of doneness without overcooking.  There are some other benefits that occur at a molecular level – cell walls do not burst, connective tissues gelatinize without the proteins tightening, etc.  More about that in the Wikipedia article here.  This was my first time cooking with this technique and I’d like to try more of it.


To accompany the chicken, we combined white onion, mango, and avocados to form a salsa that was seasoned with fish sauce.


The end result was very tasty, although upon retrospect I wish we had not mixed the avocados in until the last minute as the end result was creamier and less distinct than I had envisioned.


The souffle base was made from cranberries, a decision we arrived at based on what berries were in Nat’s freezer.  After thawing them, the berries were run through a food mill to extract all the pulp but leave behind the tough skins.


The resulting cranberry pulp was then cooked into a souffle base and allowed to cool.  Since souffles have to be made just before cooking and serving them, the whipped egg whites would be added during the dinner.


Carrots are cooked, to be pureed into the base for the pork loin.  Broccoli florets will be steamed and then tossed in a light cream sauce just before serving.


In the late afternoon, after the majority of the team cooking is done, Nat briefs the staff on the order of the meal, how things will be plated and served, etc.  The woman with the long hair, who seemed to be the de facto chief of the kitchen staff, took meticulous notes, longer than what Nat and I were working with.  The staff then had a few hours’ break before returning for final preparations.


Another dish that I worked on earlier in the day (we’re jumping around, time-wise) was the amuse bouche.  When Tawn and I were in Kauai in March, we enjoyed eating poke (pronounced “pok-eh”), a Hawaiian dish made of sushi-grade seafood (usually tuna), mixed with soy sauce, chili, sesame oil, and a variety of other ingredients to make a salad.  While there, we talked about the idea of making poke with a Thai flavor profile.  First step was to buy some yellow fin tuna and dice it.


One of the staff, an older lady who was very precise with her knife, chopped lemongrass, mint, and kaffir lime skin.


The mixture was pounded with a mortar and pestle to release the oils, then mixed into the tuna.  I added prodigious amounts of nam prik pao, a very thick chili paste.


The Thai poke after a few hours in the refrigerator.  Closer to serving, I doctored it with some lime juice and tamarind paste, which greatly improved the flavor.  Nonetheless, I have some thoughts about how this needs to be made differently, based on a dish I had for lunch Sunday afternoon at a Thai restaurant.

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For the pasta, we steamed Japanese pumpkins, scraped out the flesh, then pureed it with a few eggs and seasoned with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

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Making the pasta dough became a bit of an adventure because Nat’s pasta rolling attachment, in its debut use, was acting up.  One of the rollers kept freezing, which resulted in the dough being stretched and torn, rather than just rolled out.  I eventually resorted to the old-fashioned way of doing things: a rolling pin.  In this case, a very cool silicone rolling pin to which the dough did not stick, even when I didn’t use flour.


We were originally going to make tortelloni, which are large tortellini, serving a single one per guest.  But neither of us were sure how exactly to fold the the pasta.  We decided to instead make ravioli, something less complicated, and the results were good.  This reminds me that I really should make fresh pasta more often.  It is very easy – especially with the Thomas Keller recipe for pasta dough which includes just a little bit of milk – and tastes so much better than dried pasta.


The tomato and beet soup.  This was a recipe that kept evolving, trying to get the right flavor profile.  The big mistake we made was using canned beets, which turned out to be pickled.  The soup then had a very vinegary flavor.  More tomato puree corrected this and eventually we ended up with something with a nice flavor of herbs de Provence.


We wanted to serve a cold soup immediately following the hot one, an opportunity to have contrasting flavors as well as temperatures.  To do this, Nat actually placed the tomato-beet soup in the ice cream maker and started freezing it.  It was served icy.


The other soup, served hot, was a Vichysoisse, a classic potato-leek soup.  This was flavored with lemongrass for a few hours, which was then removed before the soup was pureed.  Interestingly, the lemongrass gave the soup a light brown color as it steeped.


A picture of the dining table with the kitchen in the background.  Notice all the glasses on the counter, which were used to serve various courses.


Nat’s focaccia bread, which was divine, topped with shiso leaves.  These leaves, also known as perilla, are common in Japanese cooking but I’ve never really been properly introduced to them.  When you eat them on their own, they have a pleasant citrusy flavor.  I’m going to have to play around with these as an ingredient.


The staff helps prepare the salmon on focaccia bread while the mango and avocado salsa comes up to room temperature for serving.


The staff, now back from their break and attired in service uniforms, listen as I explain how we are going to plate the poke appetizer.  They were enormously patient with my Thai.


My instructions must have been clear enough, as they did a good job plating.  All I had to do was wipe the plates before they headed out.


Tawn and a few guests arrived early, so we opened a few bottles of sparkling wine and visited as Nat, his staff, and I put the final touches on the dinner.  One thing that was nice about having the staff was that we were able to be at the table most of the time and the staff finished plating and bringing things out at the right time.  That said, I think we could have modified the menu a bit so that even less time could have been spent in the kitchen during the dinner service.

Some twelve hours after the day started, our guests had arrived and we finally sat down for dinner.  The finished products will appear in the next entry.  Stay tuned!


Saturday Cooking Part 2

Whereas Saturday morning was spent at the Seagull Cooking Cafe helping break in their new cooking school, Saturday evening was spent at the house of Khun Nat, co-editor of the website where some of my entries are cross-posted.  After he started editing my pieces and discovered our common interest of food, he suggested we cook together.  Our first venture: Hearty Italian Sunday Gravy based on a recipe from Cooks Illustrated.

This over-the-top tomato sauce usually calls for six cuts of meat and half a day by the stove.  Thankfully, the CI recipe cuts that down to just three cuts (ribs, sausages, and meatballs) and just a few hours, most of which is in the oven.  In addition to preparing the sauce, spaghetti and a salad, Nat prepared an angel food cake.  Not wanting to waste the egg yolks, we also prepared two batches of ice cream: one banana and the other raspberry.

I did not go to the trouble of shooting everything, simply because I was being put to work.  But here is a video showing the highlights of the afternoon and evening.  If you cannot view the video embedded in this entry, the link for it is here.


Raised in New York City, Nat moved here in his mid-twenties and has been here ever since.  He is one of those fortunate souls who got to design his kitchen from scratch and it is perfectly laid out to have lots of people involved in the cooking.  Off to the left is a seating area where guests can relax and talk with the chef.  Very useful arrangement, if only I had another few dozen square meters in my condo!


Iron Chef New York prepares the tomato sauce after browning in the meats in a skillet.  The secret behind the rich flavor is that you sautee the onions until they start to brown and then add tomato paste and cook it until nearly burned.  While this may seem too far at first, it concentrates the flavors and nicely caramelizes the sugars in the paste, and it ends up adding an incredible richness to the sauce.

After adding crushed canned tomatoes and cooking for a while, you add the ribs and sausages to the sauce and let them bake, covered, in the oven for two hours.


Starting ingredients for the meatballs: Italian parsley, egg yolk, bread crumbs, buttermilk, chili flakes, salt, and spices.


Nicely shaped (golf ball sized) meatballs.


Nat has a half-dozen or more beagles, all of which are very cute.  They must have been tortured by the wonderful smells coming from the kitchen!


Fry the meatballs until browned.


Busy kitchen as Tawn and Cha handle the wine, Nat keeps an eye on the meatballs, and the angel food cake rests upside down on the concrete countertop.


The finished meatballs with nice browned bits on the outside, ready to add succulent flavor to the Sunday Gravy.


After the first round of cooking the ribs and sausages in the sauce, we agreed that it needed more liquid so added some water.  Then added the meatballs and let them finish cooking.


Beautiful angel food cake.  I really should make these more often.  They are fat-free and very showy and satisfying desserts, especially with some fresh berries spooned on top.  We went for homemade ice cream, but berries would have been nice, too.


Keeping with the Italian theme, a nice mixed salad with cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, salami, feta cheese, and olives.


The meat piled on a platter, ready to serve.  Too bad Xanga doesn’t have a smell-o-blog feature.


The final product: whole wheat spaghetti served with rich sauce and three types of meat.  Oh, this was good.  I hate to rub it in, but you really missed out!


A slice of heaven.  Didn’t photograph the two types of ice cream, but you can trust me that they were tasty, too.  Is there room in my kitchen for an ice cream machine?