“Pate a choux” kind of weekend

Photo courtesy Bethany Kohoutek

Photo courtesy Bethany Kohoutek

The forecast for the weekend wasn’t looking so great here in Iowa, so Bethany and I planned to spend our Saturday and Sunday in the kitchen. In preparation for her sister’s baby shower, the plan was to focus on some sweets. Myself, I’m not really into desserts or sugar indulgences. I can be swayed after a few drinks at the end of dinner into ordering creme brulee, though. And it is my affinity for just that dessert that set us sail on a stove.

Michael Ruhlman’s latest effort, Ratio, enticed me to try the versatile creme anglaise. It’s a sauce. Creme patissiere. Ice cream. And…it’s creme brulee. I chose option B, the creme patissiere. The flavor was great, but I think the amount of starch added at the end was a bit excessive at 6 Tbs. It thickened up a bit much, but a little more heavy cream and a spin with the whisk in the Kitchen Aid smoothed out the problem.

It ended up filling the pate a choux cream puffs that were made prior. I can’t begin to stress how fast and simple the pate a choux was to make. THESE are just as versatile as the creme anglaise; and cheap to make as well! Flour, egg, butter, water, sugar. Done. The pate a choux can easily be turned into profiteroles, gougeres, gnocchi, eclairs. Give it a try and you will be laiden with praise and adoration at your next family get-together…I promise.

Photo courtesy Bethany Kohoutek

Photo courtesy Bethany Kohoutek

Not content on just vanilla, chocolate mousse was on the docket for Sunday. The recipe was from The Professional Chef, 7th ed. I value this book like most others do in the kitchen; it’s my security blanket when I doubt myself. BUT, there are a few conflicts between visual instruction and recipe I have a problem with. “Chocolate Mousse” is one of them. Pages 976-977 give a detailed step-by-step process on the construction of said dessert. “Whites generally whip to a greater volume if they are at room temperature,” per the visual instruction. There is no mention of heating the whites (yolks, yes) over a water bath. However, page 978 instructs one to do just that; contradicting what was just explained a couple pages prior and “Whipping Egg Whites and Making Meringues” on page 867. I learned this first time I tried their mousse recipe last year. I received absolutely no volume out of my egg whites, despite my valiant efforts to inflate them. Is it just me? If so, I learned my lesson. I think the photos speak for themselves.

Photo courtesy Bethany Kohoutek

Photo courtesy Bethany Kohoutek

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Phish…still smells

phish

This show was at Hilton Coliseum in Ames in the winter if I remember correctly. I think this was a Bellybusters gig. I don’t remember a whole lot about this night other than I left early due to an ice storm…I think. This was also my first “jam band” run-in. I can respect bands like Phish for their technical proficiency and free-wheelin’ approach, but it’s just not for me. I think of Phish and all I can smell is weed and B.O. Ugh….This was a clever pass though.

On the Road: Salina, Utah

With the fantastic meal from Phat Chef’s under my belt, I left Iowa for the desert expanses of my home state. However, we had a few wonderful stops. We stopped in Denver, where I visited my cousin and had some fantastic Thai and stayed the night. The next day my Dad and I craved some roadfood. Jumping on my laptop, I found a place not too far off our path called Mom’s Cafe- aren’t we glad we stopped! They had some of the best food I have enjoyed yet on the road- an ethereally light and delicious patty melt, delectable frybread (“scone”) and some pretty fine pie.

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Mom’s was not a large establishment, but they had a very considerable parking lot; at least 10 places adjacent to the modest building in downtown Salina, Utah and an overflow lot across the street. I thought it was a tad much, but after I tasted the food I can see why it drew such rave reviews online.

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My Dad and I entered with big expectations, especially my Dad. In the course of my travels in Iowa I have enjoyed some really good road-food, most notably at the Suburban Cafe in Ames, Iowa, but this was damn good. Please note that, due to my Dad’s presence, this article will contain some rare photos of me. For your viewing pleasure, therefore, I present: the many faces of Ben Gordon:

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Above: Tired and trying to take a picture of himself.

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Above: Driving with big sunglasses on.

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Above: Surprised, with a little bit of patty melt dripping down chin.

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Above: I don’t know what the hell I was doing here. It was a great patty melt.

Anyway, we pulled over in Salina, Utah to go to Mom’s Cafe, and I am so happy we did. From the menu to the pie, it was a slice of old time life. The interior was old-fashioned, in a natural way, and the walls were liberally adorned with newspaper articles which exclaimed its formidable road food status. However, the real proof was in the booths around us: happy patrons digging into delicious looking sandwiches and big slices of pie.

I had a delicious patty melt, which I wield above, and some pie. They also had fried bread, which you slather with honey butter.

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Blueberry sour cream pie.

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Apple pie.

On the road: B&B Ristorante, Las Vegas

You can see Las Vegas from 30 miles away, rising out of the otherwise barren Nevada landscape. Our purpose was not to gamble, or to see a show, but rather go to some great restaurants. After much research I decided to go to B&B Ristorante, the Las Vegas outpost of Mario Batali’s New York Flagship Babbo.

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The name stands for Batala and Bastianich- the latter partners providing an ample amount of wine and management expertise to Mario’s empire of restaurants. I had heard variable opinions on B&B- most notably that the service was poor, the food unexciting and the courses overpriced. However, I had also heard rave reviews, both from other Chowhounders and newspapers, so I was eager to try it. I apologize in advance for the very poor quality of the photos, but my only light was essentially a very small candle, which I used as directed lighting.

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Our complimentary antipasto of the night was a chickpea bruschetta, which was quite nice- the chickpea’s had excellent flavor and were not at all mushy. The entire meal actually had stunningly good awareness of texture- the pastas were all cooked to perfection, as were the accompaniments. By that I mean that beans and vegetables in the main courses had texture and body, as did the pasta.

We perused the menu while eating the chickpeas, but in fact had done our homework. We were looking to try as much as possible, so we gravitated towards the two tasting menu’s-the regional or the pasta.

This is where my criticism of the restaurant really comes in: our waiter was not very good. He was obviously overworked and rushed; when asked about the tasting menus he gave quite simplistic answers which really repeated what was on the menu while not explaining the italian portions, which was what I really wanted to know about. The entire experience really lacked ambiance; waiters were hurried and the restaurant just lacked an atmosphere and gravity that I felt it should have had. I understand Vegas is a vacation spot, but I would have enjoyed a more thought out dining experience, especially with B&B’s prices.

In the end we decided to do the 7 course pasta tasting menu- the other regional tasting menu had some items that neither my Dad nor I particularly craved, and we both love pasta. I am pretty happy we decided on this course of action, although I have a few problems with it.

Anyway, we started out with Tagliatelle with Burro Guffanti (butter) and Peas.

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A great start, which really showcased the simple deliciousness of the tagliatelle. It was lightly dressed with butter and fresh spring peas, which still had a good crispiness and incredible flavor.

Now that the kitchen had warmed up for our 7 courses, they started bringing out the big guns. For the second course, we had Black Spaghetti with Ricci di Mare (sea urchin).

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This was another excellent preparation. The spaghetti, colored black with squid ink, had been rossed with liberal amounts of garlic and chives. The sea urchin, which I had only before encoutered in sushi, was very…subtle. I don’t know if there was not enough of it (it was sparse in the dish) or if sea urchin is just not very flavorful, but I didn’t taste it much at all, especially with the strong flavors of garlic and chives in there. From my experience with sea urchin at sushi, I would venture to guess that it just doesn’t have much flavor. However, the dish was very strong in spite of that due to the excellent play of flavors between the garlic and chives.

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It was also gorgeous aesthetically, with the black spaghetti in stark contrast to the white porcelain, cream-colored garlic slices and green chive stems.

Now the meatier pastas came out. Anecdotally, I noticed that despite only having pastas, this menu seemed to follow traditional Italian menu progression (vegetables, seafood, land animals, etc). Our next course was a very delicious Cavatelli with Rabbit Ragu and Favas.


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It was a different ragu, in that it was a cream sauce as opposed to the normal tomato sauce I expect generally. In addition, the rabbit had not really been reduced down into microscopic pieces. However, despite these challenges to tradition the dish was amazing- the rabbit was succulently tender, the favas were perfectly cooked, and as always, the cavatelli pasta was perfectly al dente.

After this, we moved into Jose’s Pyramid with “Passato di Pomodoro” (a basic tomato sauce)

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Let’s break this dish down: first, “Jose’s Pyramids” refer to these beautifully and perfectly shaped ravioli, which had been stuffed with a balsamic short-rib preparation. The ravioli skin (say it with me) was gorgeously al dente, etc. However, what really stood out on this dish was the passato di pomodoro, which is a simple tomato puree which has been cooked with a little basil. In B&B’s case this simple puree was much more complicated, with an almost alcoholic aftertaste which betrayed its much more complex preparation: this is not your Nonna’s tomato puree.

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As you can see, they were incredibly delicately sauced- I felt like each of the five pyramids had been individually painted with the sauce, or perhaps even lightly simmered in it and then adjusted so as to be plated with the exact correct amount.

We finished on an amazingly strong note. The Goose Liver Ravioli with Balsamic Vinegar and Brown Sugar are among the most intensely flavorful and delicious pieces of food I have ever had the pleasure of putting in my mouth.

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As you an see, the ravioli (whcih had been stuffed with foie gras) are thickly coated in a reduction of brown sugar and really great balsamic vinegar. Normally, I would say this was too strong and that it would overpower the foie. In this case though it was just perfect; the sweetness of the vinegar and sugar was a great foil to the creaminess of the foie. An amazing dish, which made the entire menu worth it. I could have eaten these forever; plucking them up delicately and chewing slowly, to savor every bite.

After that we had the first of our desert courses: Frutta Fresca. Various types of fruits, incluidng apples, blueberries, dates and strawberries, swam in a cold orange suace (very light) with a little bit of biscotti.

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I really, really enjoyed this. I normally am not one for such light desert, but after 5 courses of relatively heavy pasta, this cool, “natural” dish really settled my tummy down and let me enjoy the meal. All the fruits were really good, and the biscotti was just great.

Finally we finished the 7 courses with Market Berry Blini with Marsala Zabaglione. But not before ordering a decaf americano.

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As you can see, they provided a crystallized sugar stirring stick.

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This was a kind of disappointing desert. Honestly, I wanted more berries; they were grossly under-represented in comparison to the slathers of zabaglione and blini. Otherwise it was good.

Overall, I enjoyed B&B, but I don’t know I would go there again. Despite some strong menu entries, notably the goose liver ravioli, it was not worth the relatively steep price tag. Maybe a more affordable dinner from their regular menu would be better, I do not know. Atmospherically the restaurant was severely disappointing, and the wait staff, while professional, did not go out of their way to take care of us, as I feel like they should at a restaurant of B&B’s price level.

Farewell Dinner- Phat Chefs

It was time to leave. My car was packed, my dad had flown in from LA to help me drive back home. It was that time. In suitable fashion I had to go out with a culinary bang, so I emailed Hal Jasa, the chef at Phat Chef’s Restaurant in Des Moines and asked him to come up with the freshest, most seasonal, most “Iowa” meal he could. I am so happy to say that he excelled in every way, shape and form. The meal was absolutely amazing, nearly 100% local and just as fresh as can be.

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I knew that we were in good hands when he greeted us upon entering and said that he was busy figuring out what to do with some Morel mushrooms which his friends had just brought in. With that, he left for the kitchen and we sat down, and awaited our appetizers.

Talk about seasonal! Hal did a delicious, simple and utterly stunning appetizer of grilled asparagus and ramps (baby green onions) which he paired with a delicious romesco sauce, which was made with almonds and red peppers.

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You can almost see the little bits of sea salt, which popped deliciously in your mouth. The asparagus was done perfectly; a little black on the outside (as it should be!) but not too much so.

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The romesco sauce was great as well. The roasted red peppers gave it a wonderful color. In addition the plating of all the dishes of the night was great. Stuck in the middle of the romesco you can see two chive blossoms, which gave it a wonderful “spring” appearance.

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Just look at that gorgeous ramp! The nice thing about having the entire ramp was that each part- from the white bulb to the wonderfully crisp green at the top-had a distinct flavor and texture.

For this culinary escapade I was joined by JIm Duncan, my dad and my uncle. We had a great time chatting over the appetizer and were salivating by the time the next course hit the table.

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Once again, Hal dazzled with a delicious “new potato” vichyoissie with smoked trout. This dish was also very pure- it had a unity of effect- simply potato and trout. The potatoes natural flavor was not overly disguised by cream, as can sometimes be done in this dish. The fact that it was a vichyoissie and therefore cold really made the point that warmer weather and spring was on the way.

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In the middle a chive blossom held court. I chose to eat it, and relished the resulting oniony flavor which erupted.

For the main course, Hal really out did himself. After the first two AMAZING courses I had expected greatness, but not at this level.

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On the bottom left we have some pan seared coral mushrooms. Upper left were some fresh and FRESH morels, and at the right is a huge piece of pork.

Both mushrooms were just perfect, but very different. The coral mushrooms, as I said, had been pan seared so they had a great cispy side which mellowed in the stem, as they became more “done”. However, the natural flavor of the mushroom really came out in both preparations. They had not been dolled up.

The pork was straight up amazing. I had met Hal at Cochon 555, so I knew he would be throwing everything he had at the pork. If I remember correctly, he had made a applewood smoked pork confit- he had smoked the pork, and then rubbed it down and turned it into a confit. He then warmed it up and served it.

Well, it was amazing. What was truly stunning was that a very involved preparation did not mask the flavor of the pork shoulder; the same could be said for everything Hal created. Everything was very true to the ingredients; every cooking method only drew more attention to the wonderfully fresh ingredients, all of which had been foraged by friends (the mushrooms, ramps, asparagus and rhubarb) or was local (the pork).

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And you know, it was pretty good. And by that I mean amazing. But we still weren’t done! Coming off the main course, with two types of absolutely fresh and amazing mushrooms and the pork (which was probably the most amazing pork shoulder I have ever had) I didn’t know HOW desert could match.

Little did I know Hal had a rhubarb crisp with vanilla bean ice cream waiting in the wings,

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Hell yes that rhubarb crisp was as good as it looks. Hot-steaming hot- of of the oven, the ice cream soon melted all over the crust, oozing into the rhubarb filling, which was neither too sweet nor too tart.

This was an amazing meal, and I must give credit fully to Hal. He created a meal that was strikingly true to its ingredients. He utilized his not inconsiderable culinary prowess to enhance- not disguise- the simple delectability of the ingredients. Bravo!

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The Red Rocker

There's only one way to rock...

There's only one way to rock...

This was a memorable show…but not necessarily for the food. I worked with Larry Weinles (of Bellybusters fame) at this show in Des Moines at the Greater Des Moines Civic Center. I can’t remember any of the dishes we served, but I do remember ol’ Sammy showing the crowd, onstage mind you, how to make the perfect margarita. Of course, it had to have Cabo Wabo tequila – Sammy’s company. Definitely a Spinal Tap moment. Odd. What was ever odder was a promotion a local radio station ran: giving away an actual red recliner. The literal nickname finally came to fruition in Des Moines, Iowa. Over the years, “There’s only one way to rock!” became one of the many inside jokes Lar and I repeatedly shared.

Speaking of Larry, I’ll be heading down to St. Louis on Wednesday to help with production duties backstage at Rib America. If you’re around the area, come on out. There’s two other dates this summer including one in Iowa July 16-19. Music and purveyors of pork all summer long for me.

Pics from New Orleans will be up after Bethany ‘shops them up a bit. She got some amazing shots and we had a great time in the Quarter. Here’s a teaser…

Out of the swamp and into the pot...

Out of the swamp and into the pot...

I am home!

I pulled into the driveway of my house in LA yesterday, and spent an incredibly relaxing day by the pool, reading Michael Ruhlman’s excellent book Ratio and successfully smoking a chicken breast on my aluminum trashcan smoker. After that I helped my Mom make a birthday dinner for my dad, which consisted of a heirloom bean pasta. Essentially, you take these gorgeous (and delicious) heirloom beans and cook them up with a mirepoix (celery, carrot and onion) and mix them with pasta; the entire dish is then covered with a vinaigrette with garlic, thyme and sage. Very delicious. For desert my mom whipped up a strawberry pie; blind baked crust with a fresh strawberry interior. Delish.

The roadtrip was also very successful, pictures will be up on flikr soon, with a post to come. Some highlights were a roadfood stop in Salina, Utah; and excellent dinner in Des Moines, Iowa; and a stop in Vegas to try out Mario Batali’s restaurant B&B.

Ben out.